PLACITAS — It can’t happen here.
How many times have you said that, or heard someone else say that, after reading an account of something horrific that happened?
That’s what people once thought in tiny Manhattan, Mont., until June 25, 1973, when a 7-year-old girl went missing from a campground, where her family was vacationing.
Somebody slit open the back of the tent and snatched the little girl before sunup. Nobody in the campground, including her sister — sleeping in the same tent — saw or heard anything.
Susie Jaeger vanished into thin air.
Ron Franscell, 65 and a resident of Placitas since 2020, has a new book on the kidnapping being published in March: “ShadowMan.” It took him a year and a half of research and six months of writing to get it where it is.
“ShadowMan” is “an account of the first time in history that the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit created a psychological profile to catch a serial killer — and when a suspect was finally arrested, the profile fit him to a T.”
Hundreds of leads produced zippo; a handful of psychics had gotten the same results.
“Everybody saw something, but nobody really saw anything,” Franscell wrote.
The disappearance precipitated the largest manhunt in Montana history, led by the FBI, and resulted in the establishment of its Behavioral Science Unit to explore “criminal profiling.”
Not wanting to spoil the outcome, suffice it to reveal this: The FBI’s first profile of an unknown subject – this UnSub who had snatched Susie Jaeger and, a few months later, a 19-year-old waitress – was correct.
By book’s end, the reader knows the killer had wreaked more havoc than with two families. There were more murders he’d committed, but authorities will never know how many.
As for Franscell, he grew up in Casper, Wyo., fixated on being a journalist at an early age. He and a buddy wrote and published the junior high’s newsletter.
He later worked in several newsrooms, including a stint at the Santa Fe New Mexican, before hitting the road in one of American journalism’s best beats — covering the evolution of the American West as a senior writer for the Denver Post. He explored, in his words, “where the past, the present and the future intersected – it forecasted where we’re going.”
Four days after 9/11, he was sent by the Post to cover the Middle East during the first few months of the Afghan war, and later spent time in the Sahara and Pakistan.
“I enjoyed that. It changed my life,” he said.
“I read Hemingway when I was a kid,” Franscell said, “and there were two things that I (decided I) should do: cover a war and write a book.”
He didn’t cover 18 wars, but he’s written 18 books.
His debut novel, “Angel Fire” came out in 1998; in 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle listed it 74th among the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century West.
Franscell doesn’t profess that writing is mainly a “labor of love.” He makes a substantial living from it.
“That’s what they told me (in journalism school): that you don’t make money,” he said.
Franscell has penned book reviews and essays that were published in many of America’s biggest newspapers and has been a guest on major broadcast outlets all over America.
In Placitas, Franscell and his wife, Mary, a former educator in Albuquerque Public Schools, have a comfy, Southwestern home with breathtaking views.
He writes only nonfiction, although he confessed to writing a fictional crime story during the pandemic, when travel to meet people or do research in libraries and at newspaper morgues was all but impossible.
He also has strayed from the true crime genre with “The Sourtoe Cocktail Club,” basically an intimate account of a road trip to the Yukon with his son, where they drank a cocktail containing a mummified human toe and spent the longest day of the year under an Arctic sun that never set.
He enjoyed the experience of being with his son, likening it to experiences with his stepfather. Although it was probably his favorite book to write, it’s also made the smallest impact on sales.
For more on Franscell and his roster of books, visit his website, ronfranscell.com.
Meet the author
You’re invited to partake in the launch of “ShadowMan” from 6-9 p.m. March 12 at Placitas Winery. It’s less than two-tenths of a mile past Mile Marker 6 on Camino de los Pueblitos, and Franscell noted that the location will “probably appear on your GPS as Las Huertas Winery.” He also cautions, “Parking will test your creativity.”