When my good friend Steve Vogel announced the publication of a new book, I had mixed feelings.
I was confident the book would be compelling and expertly written, just as Steve’s earlier work, New York Times' bestseller “Reasonable Doubt,” was. Rather, it was the sorrowful topic that gave me pause.
“The Unforgiven” is co-authored by Steve and Edith Brady-Lunny, an award-winning journalist who recently retired from The Pantagraph. It is the true story of three children, ages 6, 3 and 23 months, who drowned in a car at Clinton Lake in 2003, a horrifying tragedy which resulted in murder charges against the children’s mother and her then-boyfriend. To this day, both adults say it was a terrible accident.
On a recent Saturday, I picked up the paperback intending to read a few chapters, but instead read the entire book, cover to cover. I couldn’t put it down.
As expected, there are elements of this story which are utterly heartbreaking to read. And, I doubt I will soon forget the police descriptions of the drowning scene. But in addition to the telling of the tragedy itself, the book provides intriguing insights beyond the headlines many of us remember.
“The Unforgiven: The Untold Story of One Woman’s Search for Love and Justice” reveals the challenges and mindset of Amanda Hamm, the deceased children’s mother. It continues her story with a painful second drama when she gives birth to three more children and in 2014 enters a custody battle against the state of Illinois to keep them.
Released in April, the book has been on Amazon's list of new true crime best-sellers. The narrative is rich in detail and perspective, which is not surprising as Edith is one of a handful of reporters covering this story from the very beginning to today. When she approached Steve about collaborating on a book, he couldn’t say no.
“At the time, I had research for a different book underway,” said Steve. “I respected Edith for the quality reporting she provided The Pantagraph as well as her first-hand knowledge of the case, so I wasn't about to pass up this opportunity to work with her.”
Pouring over documents, interviewing key people and writing the book was a four-year project. I recently posed a few questions to the two local authors about the experience, reactions to their work and thoughts on forgiveness.
“People hearing the story for the first time are numbed by the level of tragedy,” said Edith. “Then, they become intrigued by how authorities put together the murder cases and, finally, they question whether justice was served for all involved.”
Interviews with Amanda and her former boyfriend, Maurice LaGrone, with police, medical workers and others, supplemented details Edith witnessed first-hand.
“The interview Steve and I conducted with Amanda’s defense lawyer Steve Skelton stands out in my mind because of his ability to recall how he made his decisions during her case,” said Edith. “He has handled multiple trials since 2006, and still remembers how and why he called, or did not call, certain people to testify.”
The act of forgiveness in this case can be challenging. Do the two adults, who watched their car sink into Clinton Lake with three panicked children still inside, deserve forgiveness?
“I like to refer to the quote by Henry Ward Beecher at the front of the book,” said Steve. “‘I can forgive, but I cannot forget’ is only another way of saying ‘I cannot forgive.’ We don't tell people what to think in this book. We lay out the facts, the totality of which has never been presented in a single place before. We do write about accountability and forgiveness, a complicated conflict.”
Said Edith, “From conversations with Amanda and Maurice, I know they are unwavering in their claim that what happened at Clinton Lake was an accident, and they will blame themselves for their failures that fateful night for the rest of their lives.”
As for the families, they will always love and cherish the memories of three sweet children.
Edith added, “Amanda and Maurice understand they may never be forgiven.”
Contact Susan Hazlett at email@example.com or write to her in care of The Pantagraph, 205 N. Main St., Bloomington, IL 61702-2907.
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