Written by acclaimed crime writer Anthony Flacco, with Jerry Clark, Sanford Clark's son, providing a primary resource, The Road Out of Hell reveals the untold story of the Wineville murders that are featured in the Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie film, Changeling.
During the two years that Sanford was held captive at the murder ranch in the late 1920's, he endured psychological and sexual torture and terrible beatings. Kept in a battered and dazed condition, Sanford was forced to participate in the murders of three young boys and to dispose of the other victims' bodies according to Northcott's instructions.
Finally rescued by the LAPD, Sanford revealed the details of his hellish ordeal. After a highly publicized trial, where Sanford Clark was the chief witness for the prosecution, Gordon Stewart Northcott was found guilty and hanged.
Ultimately, this is a story of redemption. Sanford Clark was exonerated of responsibility for his forced role in the crimes due to what is now known as Stockholm syndrome. He went on to become an upstanding and well-respected citizen of Saskatoon, Canada, served honorably in World War II and was a longtime employee of the Canadian Postal Service. With his wife of fifty-five years, Sanford adopted two boys—the oldest is Jerry Clark.
Interview with Anthony Flacco by Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What drew you to this story?
Flacco: At first I wasn't drawn to this story at all; I was repelled by it. All I knew about the Wineville murders was the general outline of the case itself. But Sanford Clark's story only begins with the criminal case. The thing that captured my utter fascination was the question of how young Sanford was able to live with the horrors in his memory for the next sixty-three years. And then there is the fact that in spite of his inner life, he won over everyone who got to know him, including people who knew him intimately over many years. I am humbled by this man's conduct, and yet I find nothing in his life to indicate that he was internally different from you or me—or any one of us.
What I mean is that this was just a regular young boy who had the misfortune of being captured by an evil being. That evil rained down upon him day and night for two years, in what was for him nothing less than a personal holocaust. When I began to learn about his recovery from his family and friends, I felt compelled to find out how he did that. The eventual answer is implied in the book's title.
Some may find the idea that there is such a thing as a pathway out of Hell to be blasphemous, while agnostics will merely see it as a ridiculous notion, and the thought will be considered about as relevant as wearing your boots on your head as far as atheists are concerned. To each one, I would respectfully urge the view that the title is only a poetic notion, a trifle. Of course, neither would I slight anyone who might consider the existence of a pathway back from damnation to be the final proof of the love of a merciful God.
What's the connection between your book and the movie "Changeling?"
Flacco: Although the movie is brilliant, there's simply too much material to the story of the Wineville murders for anyone to cover in a single film.
For example, the boy featured in Changeling was Walter Collins, the first boy Sanford was forced to help kill.
The film quite accurately centered on Walter's mother [played by Angelina Jolie], including her enormous stress over trying to recover her son—especially how she was duped by the L.A. police.
The movie also revealed that Walter's mother spent the rest of her life waiting in vain to hear from him.
Well, my book tells what happened to him, and explains why his mother's vigil was so tragic.
Sanford Clark knew that Walter was dead. He was forced to help kill him with an axe and to bury Walter's remains.
How was Gordon Stewart Northcott's cover blown?
Flacco: Throughout Sanford's two years on the ranch, his uncle Stewart Northcott forced him to write letters home, but Northcott dictated every word and made it all up himself, all about how fine Sanford's life was at Uncle Stewart's place. Sanford's parents effectively enabled the ruse by accepting the idea that these letters were actually from their son. But Sanford's older sister Jessie grew suspicious. Finally, enough of these odd-sounding letters arrived that Jessie became frustrated over her parents' lack of concern.
She raised the money to make the long journey from Saskatchewan down to Los Angeles by herself. When she arrived and confronted Stewart Northcott with her concerns and suspicions about what was happening with her brother, he attacked her and drove her to the floor. He had his hands around her neck in a strangle hold when Northcott's mother ran in and pulled him off of her. Jessie fled the farm and contacted authorities. Sanford's rescue, the end of Northcott's murder ranch--it all came from his sister Jessie Clark. What a young woman!
Picture a small-boned nineteen year-old female, back in 1928, who makes that journey from Canada down to southern California by herself, then tops it off by facing down a serial killer about what he is doing. After she fled, she alerted authorities—who initially didn't even believe her. She contacted the Canadian Immigration authorities and got them to cable the Riverside County Sheriff's Office, who then sent that first police car out to the murder ranch.
I would love to have known her.
Given what Sanford Clark lived through as a teenager, what made his rehabilitation possible?
Flacco: The process was a combination of the deep impression that the compassion shown by Assistant Prosecutor Loyal C. Kelly made upon Sanford—along with the particular way that Sanford's sister Jessie and his wife June worked together to manage his state of mind over a period of many years. These two women were phenomenally strong, and developed a specific method for keeping Sanford away from his own despair.
I am convinced that their powerful interventions kept him alive and balanced. The book explains how they did it, and the unspoken wisdom of their actions strikes me as a particularly beautiful form of womanly witchcraft.
What do you find most compelling about Sanford Clark's adult life?
Flacco: I am a fervent student of the duality that he was able to sustain: the recurring bouts of extreme survivor's guilt on one hand, and his general kindness and decency on the other. I love what it demonstrates about human nature in general. Sanford was an ordinary person involuntarily thrust into an extraordinarily brutal situation, and he could have been any one of us.
But I also have come to believe that he was touched by grace as deeply as he was wounded by evil. That grace was made manifest by his sister and his wife and their vital role in keeping his demons under control. The simple beauty of their methods and the stunning power of the result are compelling to me. I love both of those women.
What parallels can be drawn between Sanford Clark's story and the contemporary child abduction cases of Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard?
Flacco: In my opinion, the failure or the success of each of those young women is going to begin with their internal dialogue, meaning that private radio station which we all have constantly playing in our heads.
The test comes when the brain is idle, not distracted by work or entertainment.
What happens to the internal dialogue, then?
- Do memory associations torment them with feelings of personal responsibility, invisibly needling them all day long, or do they accept that they were truly victims and not culpable?
- Do they feel genuinely safe among the close circle of people around them, in that they are not judged or regarded in a negative way because of the experience?
- Have they been counseled about the general nature of the victimizer versus a normal person, so that they don't generalize the experience of evil onto innocent people?
If these things are taken care of, then I would have great hopes for their recovery into a satisfying experience of life. The difference, in Sanford's case, was that because of the extreme sexual violence and repeated physical brutality inflicted on him, his inner dialogue was particularly grim. It could not have sustained him without the additional buoyancy provided by Jessie and June.
BONUS QUESTION: What question should Crimesider have asked you that we didn't... and what's the answer?
What do you tell people who claim that this story is too dark?
Flacco: I love this story because of its players. But as for the darkness of it—which is certainly there—it takes place in the early chapters of the book, where we are talking about virtual Hell for one isolated boy. I told a full version of his story because it is about a genuine personal holocaust, the truth of which would be dishonored if softened.
The big "however" here is that the truth of his experiences makes his recovery a stellar phenomenon.
The book is titled "The Road Out Of Hell" because its central feature reveals how Sanford Clark managed to successfully live a loving, honorable life. This story of fundamental human decency highlights a salient aspect of the human character. The fact that ordinary people managed to accomplish this illustrates why I am truly not ready to give up on humanity, even on days when I feel as though I could.
Anthony Flacco is an acclaimed author, ghost writer, screenwriter, and public speaker. His previous books include two historical crime novels—The Last Nightingale and The Hidden Man—as well as the nonfiction book Tiny Dancer, the true-crime book A Checklist for Murder, and Publish Your Nonfiction Book, with literary representative Sharlene Martin.