Murdering for a Story

Jan 28, 2013 - by Ben Johnson - 0 Comments

Krystian Bala

A reporter emerges from obscurity by writing exclusive articles about the serial-murder victims he killed; an aspiring crime writer murders for a good plot.

by Ben Johnson

Murder and the media have always gone hand in hand. Some of the greatest and most provocative journalism and greatest books ever written come from the dark and disturbing world of violent crime.

One of the greatest breaks a reporter can wish for in his or her career is stumbling upon an exclusive involving serial murder. It is the kind of topic that can propel a journalist into the limelight. An example of this phenomenon is the aspiring political cartoonist Robert Graysmith who was a member of the San Francisco Chronicle's junior staff before his tenacity in the still unsolved Zodiac murders propelled him to international fame, culminating in book deals and a major Hollywood movie.

The thirst for this kind of fame and recognition can, however, be dangerously addictive to some, resulting in risk-taking and ethically questionable behavior. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Phil Stanford, who corresponded with Keith Hunter Jesperson (the Happy Face Killer) and defied the wishes of local law enforcement by publishing a series of articles which proved that two innocent people were serving time for Jesperson's first murder. Although Stanford took huge risks and could be said to have acted unethically due to publishing his series of articles against the wishes of the police, nobody could argue that his actions were not in the public interest, and therefore in this case, the risk paid off.

We have all heard the theories as to the Jack the Ripper letters being written by a journalist desperate to sell his work, and we all know that often a newspaper will sell itself out by cowering to the demands of a psychopath in order to improve its readership figures, as the famous Zodiac murders showed.

The media, however, almost always seem to know where to draw the line. Sometimes the line is a little too far away for the liking of many people, and sometimes the line is too close to home. In many cases, the line is what separates a reporter from acting unethically, and acting illegally. Very few reporters will ever cross this line although some will approach it a little too closely. An example of the line being approached a little too closely is currently being widely discussed in UK media circles concerning the hacking of the voicemail of a missing girl by two highly respected journalists. This has formed the basis of the Leveson Enquiry, a top-level public enquiry that is currently probing deeply into the actions of the British press.

Unfortunately, there have been examples of media figures themselves crossing that line into the dark and shocking world of violent crime. Two prime examples are worth noting. One a journalist, the other a novelist. Both cases are surprisingly obscure to those outside their respective countries, but they prove that the unthinkable can happen: A respected writer can become a killer.


Reporter Vlado Taneski Scoops the Police

The first case took place in the tiny Baltic state of Macedonia between 2003 and 2008. A place where murder rates are low, and serial murder is virtually nonexistent. This is why the seemingly random murders of three elderly women hit the headlines in a big way, bringing with it fame and stardom for one particular journalist.

Vlado Taneski was, before the spate of murders, an unremarkable reporter for a local newspaper. A family man, the 56 year old would have turned very few heads in the street, and appears (from looking at his previous work) to have been scraping a living writing dull local news stories.

Taneski’s fortunes changed for the better in 2005 when his reporting honed in on the murders of the elderly women. He now seemed to have the knack of finding exclusive information, and even began selling his copy to national newspapers, such was the quality and detail of his work.

Each of the three bodies was discovered wrapped in plastic bags and dumped and discarded around Kicevo, a drab town southwest of Macedonia's capital, Skopje, with a population of fewer than 20,000.

The three women were aged between 56 and 65. Zivana Temelkoska, Ljubica Licoska, and Mitra Simjanoska were each beaten repeatedly and strangled with a phone cable. These violent deaths shocked the local community and the country itself, due to its low murder rate.

It wasn't long before the media furor began to take its toll on the local police, who linked the killing to the disappearance in 2003 of another elderly woman.

By 2008, the people were demanding answers, and as Taneski's articles became more and more informative, it became clear that the police must be incompetent, as the lowly local reporter could often find out information which had so far eluded the police.

Refusing to be drawn into the media storm, the police began to organize themselves into something of a task force, collating all the information they had, and comparing this with the lurid and detailed media reports written by Taneski.

This is when the facts began to speak for themselves. The police could readily see that nobody could have access to that much information without actually having visited the crime scenes, or having very good sources to rely on.

Taneski, however, appeared to have had no sources whatsoever. No one in the police had ever spoken to him regarding the crimes, and none of the families of the victims had ever been approached by Taneski for an interview.

Taneski’s Downfall

His work was simply too good. There were no flaws, no minor errors and no guess work. It was 100 percent fact. This level of factual accuracy would be Taneski's downfall. One detail Taneski provided in his articles – that the women had been strangled with a telephone cord – had never been released by the police. To the police, this single detail meant that only one conclusion could be drawn: Taneski was the killer.

The mild-mannered local reporter was soon arrested at his unremarkable family home and taken to the local police station where he was held until he could be formally questioned.

Taneski obviously didn't want to wait. He drowned himself in the toilet of his cell. The suicide of Taneski has been questioned ever since due to the fact that the police took several years to reveal that there were two other men in his cell at the time of his alleged suicide. This delay formed the basis of several conspiracy theories in Macedonia, with many believing that Taneski was killed to prevent the leaking of more secrets which could be damning to an already widely criticised police department.

One thing, however, cannot be disputed. Taneski was a guilty as a man can be. His DNA was subsequently found all over the crime scenes.

Police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said upon Taneski's arrest and subsequent suicide, “All these women were raped, molested and murdered in the most terrible way and we have very strong evidence that Taneski was responsible for all three.”

“In the end there were many things that pointed to him as a suspect and led us to file charges against him for two of the murders,” he added. “We were close to charging him with a third murder, and hoped he would give us details of a fourth woman who disappeared in 2003 – because we believe he was involved in that case, too.”

The whole community was left in a state of shock. The man they looked to for information during those frightening years had been the cause of the panic all along.

The media community was also shocked to the core. A reporter for the national newspaper Nova Makedonija said, “On May 18, just after the gruesome murder of Zivana Temelkoska, he [Taneski] called and pitched the story to us. He was very quietly spoken but also very persuasive. As a contributor we published his story as the main article on the crime pages the next day – under the headline ‘A serial killer stalks Kicevo.’ To tell the truth, I didn’t believe the story – almost nothing happens in Macedonia.”

Maybe this is what tipped Taneski over the edge – a journalist without a story is worth very little, and a journalist without any chance of a story is worth even less. Perhaps he decided that it was time to write his own headlines.

No one will ever know what drove him to murder, but a chance of wealth and stardom can do strange things to even the most well adjusted people. All it takes is for the greed to overpower the conscience, and the very worst can be brought out in anyone.


The Novelist Krystian Bala

The next example highlights the lengths to which a novelist will go to find a storyline, and the lengths a killer will go to in terms of arrogance and self-celebration. Surprisingly, we find all of these traits in the same man. His name is Krystian Bala.

Bala was a popular writer of crime fiction in his native Poland, but his readers were unaware of one key fact. This was no fiction.

In November 2000, a corpse drifted along the River Oder, bound and bloated, the body was eventually discovered by local fishermen who informed the police of their macabre discovery.

The body showed signs of torture and was bound in a distinctive manner, with the hands tied behind the back and the rope looped around the neck into a makeshift noose.

The victim was Dariusz Janiszewski, the owner of a small business, and resident of the large Polish city of Wroclaw.

The case would remain unsolved for three years, until the killer unwittingly unmasked himself in a manner which would startle an entire nation.

In 2003, the young writer released his first novel, Amok, to critical acclaim. This crime thriller was flying from the shelves. Unfortunately, for Bala, it also eventually flew into the hands of one of the detectives who had worked on the unsolved murder of Dariusz Janiszewski.

The book had been on sale for over four years until it was realised by the police that the “fictional” murder on which the story revolves bore striking similarities to the forensic evidence that was gathered while investigating the Wroclaw man's murder seven years before.

The case had actually been closed for the last five years, as police were making no breakthroughs in discovering the identity of the killer, until one of them read the tale of a group of bored sadists, who commit a murder in the exact manner of the slaying of Dariusz Janiszewski.

The only difference was that, in the novel, the victim was a woman. Apart from this one variance, the hallmarks of the killing were all there. The victim was even described to have been bound in the same way as Janiszewski, with her hands bound behind her back and the rope looped around her neck.

The detective who had read the book was none other than the local police commissar, who had been tipped off by a member of the public that many of the factors within the storyline matched with the unsolved murder.

This wasn't an open and shut case though; it would take two years and three investigations into Bala before justice was eventually served to this literary maniac.

Krystian Bala
Krystian Bala

Much of the evidence against Bala was deemed to be circumstantial. The fact that Bala often used the moniker “Chris” when travelling incognito, and the narrating killer in the novel using the same name was a fascinating discovery, but was nowhere near conclusive enough to lead to the arrest of a man for murder.

Commissar Jacek Wroblewski was forced to release Bala after three days of interrogation, but made it no secret that he knew he had his man, it was just a matter of outsmarting the bespectacled, bookish psychopath.

Interestingly, while most killers would have taken this as a sign to flee the country and seek anonymity elsewhere, Bala's arrogance would not allow him to take evasive action. He believed that he had committed the perfect murder.

But, as all crime aficionados are aware, there is no such thing as the perfect murder. In these days of CCTV, DNA and online technology, it is unlikely for a killer to remain at large for long.

In today's technologically advanced society, it is improbable that such notorious killers as Jack the  Ripper or Zodiac would have remained at large, so the arrogant efforts of a young novelist to escape justice were always going to fail. It was just a matter of time.


The Breakthrough

A crucial breakthrough was made when police found concrete evidence that the victim and Bala knew each other. Telephone records showed that Bala had called Janiszewski at around the time of his disappearance. This piece of evidence also proved vital in uncovering another. The telephone that had been called by Bala had been sold on the Internet soon after, by someone using Bala's computer and bank account.

Despite this growing case against him, Bala denied all charges, claiming that he had known the deceased, and had been given the phone as a gift from him.

The final piece of the jigsaw fell into place when it was discovered that taunting messages made to a television programme which had aired an episode dedicated to the murder, had been made from places in the Far East, where Bala just happened to be staying at the time while on a scuba diving holiday. This final morsel of evidence proved to be enough for the police to arrest Bala for the murder.

The case gripped the nation as millions of people followed the latest developments. Many were jubilant that such an arrogant killer had been caught and brought to justice, while others looked upon Bala as some kind of anti-hero. The case divided public opinion until it was revealed that Bala had another project in mind.

While searching his home, police found grizzly plans to commit a second murder. This was to tie in with his planned second novel.

Bala was still adamant that he was innocent, claiming that police had just uncovered the plot for his next novel, and that the details of the Janiszewski murder in his first book had been derived from studying media reports of the death.

However, also found in his home were scrawled notes which would finally shine some light onto the motive of the murder: Bala believed that Janiszewski had been having an affair with his ex-wife.

When the case was eventually heard in court, the judge wasn't to be fooled by the slippery and intelligent killer. The evidence was enough to ensure that the next novel written by Bala would be written behind bars.

Although acknowledging that there was no direct evidence linking Bala to the actual killing, there was a huge amount linking him to the planning and orchestrating of the crime. This was decided to be enough to put Bala in prison for the next 25 years.

Judge Lidia Hojenska said, “The evidence gathered gives sufficient basis to say that Krystian Bala committed the crime of leading the killing of Dariusz Janiszewski.”

Described during proceeding as “pathologically jealous” and “inclined to sadism,” Bala immediately instructed his lawyers to appeal the sentence. The appeals have been unsuccessful.

It is apt to consider that even though Bala's novel was based on a murder he committed, there is one thing which differs: In the book, the killer gets away with murder.

Although the Taneski and Bala cases are fascinating examples of writers going over to the dark side, they are also extremely rare. Perhaps what makes them so fascinating is that they show the lengths to which a human being will go to seek fame and recognition.

One of the most striking details of the two cases is that both took place in the last few years. This shows that it is possible to remain at large while publicly flaunting a criminal act, but it is only a matter of time before the puzzle is solved.

Taneski was aided in his exploits by an underfunded and, at times, incompetent police investigation. It is probable that a more technologically advanced and organized police force would have brought him to justice much sooner.

Bala was so arrogant that he almost got away with it. After all, who would commit a murder then write a novel about it?

Unfortunately for this incarcerated author, his success was his downfall. Ironically, had his first novel sold fewer copies, maybe in later life he would have had many more books on the shelves, and the River Oder would have had many more corpses drifting along until their eventual discovery.

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