Photo by Maggie Fearnow
Stories have a way of taking on lives of their own. Writer Dawson Fearnow has learned this time and again as a journalist specializing in historical crime writing. “That’s why I only write about dead criminals,” Fearnow says. “Especially after two DEA agents showed up at my front door holding a copy of a story I wrote about a local designer drug kingpin.”
PHOENIX has been fortunate to have Fearnow write a number of true-crime pieces for our history column, centered on everything from a womanizing “love pirate” to a mob hit at an Arcadia restaurant to the shady roots of the Arizona Cardinals. (He writes about non-criminal history, too – check out his piece on the Valley’s mall heyday.)
We’re not the only ones who’ve taken note of Fearnow’s keen historical lens. Kate Winkler Dawson, host of the popular true-crime podcast Tenfold More Wicked, was so taken by his story for us on “The Dead Fed” that she asked him to be a guest in her current season, Wicked Words.
We caught up with Fearnow to discuss being on the other side of the interview equation, “The Dead Fed” and Arizona’s colorful criminals.
As a writer, how does it feel to discuss your work in another medium?
I’m not used to being the interviewee, that’s for sure. But it turned out to be tons of fun. Talking about true crime is much easier than researching and writing it. The end result might be lurid, but the writing process involves lots of digging through dusty old newspapers – although most are digitized now vs. microfiche. Google it, kids.
You and Kate Winkler Dawson are both true-crime junkies. Did you immediately feel kinship with her when you met? Did you bond over shared obsessions with any specific crimes/criminals?
Kate reached out to me. She’d been researching true-crime authors for each stop on her book tour (this was pre-COVID) and enjoyed my “The Dead Fed” story in PHOENIX magazine. We met at the Hotel Valley Ho and immediately started chatting about Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood getting married there, and her tragic drowning that might have been Wagner getting away with murder, and we were off.
Can you tell us a bit about why she asked you to be a guest on this specific series in her podcast, Wicked Words? Talk a bit about the crime you discuss with her.
The podcast focuses on the stories behind the story, and how true-crime writers find and then research these oft-forgotten murders. We talked about “The Dead Fed,” of course, but we also talked about some of my other favorite murders (to quote another podcast), such as the only “unsolved” killing of an FBI agent here in Phoenix in 1929, and also the 1986 slaying of an elderly maître d’ that decades later helped bring down one of the Chicago Outfit’s top crime families.
Do you think Arizona crimes/criminals get their fair share of national coverage on podcasts, TV specials, etc.? Which stories do you think more people should know? Any that are over-hyped?
Well, at one point half of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted were tied to Arizona, so yes, we have our fair share of prominent crimes. To steal the old quote, “Phoenix has always been a sunny place for shady people,” with scammers and other East Coast and Midwest crooks coming here to start anew with unwitting victims. Besides the rum runners and real estate scammers, Phoenix was also the “backroom” for the mob’s Vegas skimming operations. Rumor has it there was a constant stream of vans packed with coins swiped from the casino counting rooms burning up the highways back and forth to Phoenix. All of which is infinitely more interesting than the tragic murder of the week.
If you had to be murdered, how would you want to go?
Oh boy, despite being a true-crime junkie, I’m way too much of a scaredy-cat to think about that. That’s why I only write about dead criminals, especially after two DEA agents showed up at my front door holding a copy of a story I wrote about a local designer drug kingpin. They said they found a copy on his desk when they arrested him and wanted me to help find victims to testify against him. They eventually convicted him (without my help), but my wife made me promise only dead mobster stories after that.