The Killer Beside Me

As an author, they say you should write what you know. Oddly enough, for Joanna Schaffhausen, that just happens to be killers...

Have you ever met a murderer? I’ve brushed up against three infamous murder cases—each lurid enough to be fictionalized on programs like Law and Order and Cold Case. In the first one, I lived in the same dorm with Gina Grant, a young woman convicted at age fourteen of murdering her mother.

In Gina’s telling, her mother was an abusive alcoholic. In the prosecution’s version, Gina resented her mother’s interference in her relationship with her boyfriend. The boyfriend was also convicted in the murder of Gina’s mother, although he didn’t arrive on the scene until the woman was already dead. Gina was originally accepted at Harvard, but they rescinded their invitation when they discovered her crime. Gina ended up instead in my dorm and my biology class at Tufts University, where she behaved like any other student. We’d had meetings prior to her arrival where university staff explained that we should treat her no differently and that we should not talk to the press about her. Notably, however, they did not assign her a roommate…

Despite Harvard’s best efforts to keep its campus free from homicide, they did have a murder that year, when Sinedu Tadesse stabbed her roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, to death and then committed suicide. When Ho decided to stop living with Tadesse, Tadesse fell into rage and despair. She mailed a photograph of herself with an anonymous note to the Harvard paper with a note saying, “Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman.” She then stabbed Ho forty-five times and hanged herself in the bathroom. In a bizarre postscript, Trang Ho’s sister Tram ended up in Gina Grant’s class at Tufts.

When I moved to Yale, I met Tonica Jenkins. Unlike most graduate students, Tonica presented as standoffish, almost paranoid, and didn’t seem prepared for class. When a fellow student’s car got scraped up by a key, there were whispers that Tonica did it.

The university investigated and discovered Tonica’s transcripts were fake. Yale sued for the $15,000 in stipend money they had paid her. During the hearings, Tonica sent pictures of herself to Yale in which she appeared bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. She said the dean had done it to her. No one believed her story about the kidnapping, and she was ordered to repay the money she had defrauded from the school. Amazingly, though, this proved only the beginning of Tonica’s life of crime.

Tonica was later arrested for attempting to purchase cocaine. To avoid these charges, she hatched a plan to fake her death by murdering another young woman. With the help of a male cousin, Tonica kidnapped Melissa Latham, a woman who resembled her. For two days, they drugged Latham with crack and marijuana. They also took her to the dentist under Tonica’s name to establish a dental record so that Latham’s body would be identified as Tonica. Tonica’s plan was to murder Latham, burn her body, and dump it in an abandoned building. She would then assume Latham’s identity.

The plan went awry when Tonica and her cousin tried to kill Latham. They beat her with a brick until she pretended to be dead, at which point she escaped. Tonica was eventually convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Finally, I have no idea if I’ve crossed paths with murderer #3 or not because the culprit has never been caught. While I was living at Yale, an undergraduate named Suzanne Jovin was stabbed to death a couple of blocks from my apartment. Just prior to this, witnesses had seen Suzanne in downtown New Haven. Her boyfriend was out of town at the time, and police could find no one with a motive to kill Suzanne. They zeroed in on her thesis advisor, James Van de Velde, who lived in the area, but an intense investigation revealed no apparent link between the two outside of class. The suspicion alone cost Van de Velde his job.

Someone must have picked up Suzanne and brought her across town, probably someone she knew. Whoever it was murdered her out in the open on a city street, in an area crammed with students. The odds that someone would witness the crime were high, and yet no eyewitness has ever come forward. The case remains open and unsolved.

The lesson I’ve learned is that murderers pass as normal most of the time. They could be your teacher or the kid living down the hall in your dorm, and they look perfectly ordinary…the same as you or me.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of No Mercy by Joanna Schaffhausen!

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  1. cowalker

    Hmm. It could be tbat Yale is Murder Central. But I’ve thought about it, and maybe we’ve all got more connections than we think. The grandsons of the woman who used to babysit me and my sistets were convicted of murdering a random stranger for money. work colleague of my father’s was murdered by someone he picked up at bar. The son of the next door neighbors of my best friend in grade school strangled hiz girlfriend to death. Now we’ve had a mysterious disappearance of a wife and mother-Cheryl Coker–from a house on the same street. I for one, don’t think she ran away.

  2. Marybeth

    Can’t wait for the next book to be ready!

    The closest I’ve come to a killer is being in the same quilt club with the mother of Jeffrey Dahmer’s first victim in Ohio (before the well-known serial killing began). Most of us knew that her son had lost contact with the family decades previously, but it wasn’t until Dahmer was caught that anyone knew what really happened to him. I don’t think she ever got over finding out the truth.

  3. Clarice Warren

    Excited for the new book!

  4. Daniel M

    looks like an interesting one

  5. Emma Cazabonne

    sounds like a good one! thanks for the chance to win it

  6. Raze

    Very helpful advice in this particular post! It’s the little changes that make the largest changes. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Mary Smith

    Would love to win this!

  8. Kate Vocke

    Wow.. sign me up for this one! Sounds riveting!

  9. MM

    Thank you for the opportunity to win!

  10. Tiffany

    Great article!

  11. Susan Meek

    Wow! This sounds fascinating; but maybe we should avoid hanging out with the author, maybe she attracts murderers 😉

  12. Liz

    Definitely sounds like my type of read!

  13. Burma Turner

    Wow, most people never meet one murderer, let along two or three!

  14. Susan T.

    That is a crazy amount of murder to happen nearby. I live in a smallish town so murder is not common at all, there’s only been one in my lifetime. That we know of…

  15. ravensfan

    I’d love to win this book.

  16. Trisha McCullough

    Omg, so need this book!!!

  17. Elena

    This book looks exciting and I am ready to dive into. Thanks for the chance!

  18. Margie Hunter

    I’m not sure they seem perfectly ordinary. I find people let a lot of odd behavior pass. Later when someone becomes a problem all the weirdness is remembered. Thanks for the chance to win a copy of the book.

  19. Jackie Wisherd

    My college years seem rather blah after reading about this author at her college. Bet the book would be interesting.

  20. Becky Shemeley

    Wow~ whole new meaning to 3 strikes. I believe you have had your fair share of brushes w/ murders!

  21. Mary Woods

    Wow! I don’t know if I would consider the author lucky or not by “running into,” so to speak, these killers.. Hopefully they did help her write her book.

  22. kathy

    I love murder mysteries

  23. Jean Feingold

    My ex-sister-in-law’s college roommate was murdered. The killer was never found.

  24. Karen Parisot

    Wow, the author has lived a fascinating life! How many people can say they’ve been in close contact with even one murderer, and she’s known three!

  25. Lana Maskus

    I’m an ID tv show addict so would love to win this.

  26. Sandra Richard

    The info collected in her mind must be mind blowing. I’d love to sit and talk with her for hrs.

  27. carloshmarlo

    Wow, that’s way too close to real-life murders for me. I think I’ll just stick to the literary kind. Thanks for the chance to win this book.

  28. Tiffany

    This sounds great!

  29. April

    Compelling and enthralling.

  30. Pearl

    Sounds intriguing.

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  32. Stephanie L Nelson

    This sounds like a great book!


    I’ve had 2 similar situations, one a young man working a few oofices down was murdered by a very friendly fellow in the mailroom of the company we all worked for. In the other, I was newly divorced with a 6 month old when the man living next door robbed and killed two teenagers from our fairly small town. I would definitely like to read this book.

  34. Barbara Raeuber

    I’ve never met a murderer, but I’d love to read the book!

  35. John Smith

    Clearly the Ivy League and assorted well-regarded schools are a hotbed of crime!

  36. Kaye L Killgore

    I would love to read this book

  37. Suzanne McMannis

    Sounds good

  38. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  39. Esther Whatley

    Those are chilling connections to murder – creepy. I’ve had two exposures – both were family members but the incidents were totally unrelated.

  40. Earl

    I think what makes murder, real or fictional, so fascinating is that there are very few murderers who present immediately as criminals. Most present as just another person. We all have our quirks so just because someone has one it doesn’t necessarily stand out, unless it is really bizarre. We have all likely brushed up against murderers or the family of murderers or victims. I know I have.

  41. Susanne Troop

    Love a good book!

  42. Nicole seabolt

    So glad my life has been boring ; )

  43. Rebecca Swanson

    Sounds like you’ve had plenty of unusual experiences to mine for your books!

  44. nancy burgess

    Sounds like a great read.

  45. Lisa Murray

    Yes I’ve known a murderer. As it turns out a multiple murderer. He was a childhood friend of my husband and we ended up being witnesses in his trial. It was so terrifying

  46. Kimberlie L.

    Your story is fascinating, can’t wait for the new book!

  47. Ashley Baker

    Looking forward to reading the new book!

  48. Terry Pearson

    Predators in every corner.

    Whilevout of town on a business trip, my friend was raped and strangled. The perp was never caught.

    I live in a college town, pop. approximately 160,000, not large at all. Lately it’s as if we have a murder on campus a year.

    Anyway, this book sounds intriguing.

  49. Carole Knoles

    👩🏻‍🎓👨🏻‍🎓🔪Murder Most Foul!

  50. mitzisslave

    Forty years ago the guy in the apartment one door from mine had just gotten out of jail for murdering his wife. And freely admitted that he did it & wanted to give you all the details! Then he asked me out!

  51. Cathy Mullican

    Sounds good!

  52. Susan Morris

    Scary! Who knows if a killer is near you?

  53. Carol

    Explains why most neighbors can’t believe that neighbor was a murderer.

  54. techeditor

    My gosh! You’ve gone to some great schools. But the coincidences of your being so close to murderers there is even more impressive (if “impressive” is the right word).

  55. Jodi Scott

    Wow. That’s exciting

  56. Marjorie Manharth

    sounds fascinating

  57. Lori Lowery

    It is scary how normal a killer can act!

  58. Jane Schwarz

    Thanks for the opportunity to win. Sounds like a riveting read.

  59. susan beamon

    So far as I know, I have not met a killer or a murder victim. I’d like to keep it that way.

  60. Rebecca Mensinga

    This book sounds amazing!

  61. Lori P

    We should all consider ourselves lucky who haven’t crossed the path of the wrong person. Scary.

  62. Robert Grieco

    I just love the title. Destined to be a great read.

  63. Lesley

    This sounds amazing!

  64. Diane Seitz

    Sounds amazing! Thanks for the giveaway opportunity.

  65. Karen Terry

    Sounds like a book to keep you up at night.

  66. Rhonda Stefani

    Sounds absolutely fascinating! I’d love to read it.

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