Author Susan Mustafa gets nightmares.
That may not seem unusual for a woman who says she can’t watch the TV series “NCIS.” She says it’s “Too bloody.”
The minds and crimes of Louisiana’s two most famous serial killers, Derrick Todd Lee and Sean Gillis, is another story for the New York Times best-selling author.
“I meet the victims’ families and see the crime photos, and at that point I start having nightmares. It doesn’t end until the last paragraph is written,” Mustafa told an audience at the Denham Springs-Walker Branch Library on March 27.
“I never dreamed I would be writing books about serial killers. It’s a dark world I live in,” she said. “I have nightmares.”
Mustafa, a Baton Rouge resident, discussed her books about serial killers, but her appearance was to promote her latest book, “Rock Bottom and Back: From Desperation to Inspiration.”
The book tells the stories of 22 people and the struggles that led them to hit “rock bottom,” the process of taking control of their lives and what they have done since then.
“Writing about this stuff is nice after writing about serial killers,” Mustafa said. “I write stories that tell the good in people. It’s cathartic.”
“We were looking for the thing that happened, that told them they weren’t going anywhere,” she said. “They were at rock bottom. Many reached out to God.
“We looked for people who did incredible things for other people, no matter their circumstances,” she said.
On Aug. 18, a documentary based on “Rock Bottom and Back” debuted in New Orleans and is being shopped as a possible TV series with actor Danny Trejo as host.
A graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University, Mustafa worked with BIC Alliance in Baton Rouge, writing stories on the petroleum industry. She did freelance work for City Social magazine, then was hired full-time.
She profiled Baton Rouge prosecutor Tony Clayton for City Social. She later ran into Clayton while he was prosecuting Lee, and he told her he was inundated with pleas from writers to let them do a book.
“I raised my hand and it changed my life,” she said.
Mustafa, with Clayton and Sue Israel, wrote “Blood Bath” and “I’ve Been Watching You: The South Louisiana Serial Killer,” both about Lee.
With Israel, she penned “Dismembered” on Gillis.
In 2014, she wrote “The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father and Finding the Zodiac Killer,” with Gary Stewart, who was searching for his biological father and found a serial killer.
“Rock Bottom and Back” was written with Earl B. Heard, founder and CEO of BIC Alliance.
“I can vouch for the people in this book,” she said. “We tried to get everybody who has suffered some trauma, drugs, prostitution, gambling, alcohol, sex, family loss.”
The key message is simple, Mustafa said, “Somebody has got it worse than you, and you can turn your life around.”
Among the 22 people whose stories make up “Rock Bottom” are father and son Jerry and Whitney Strickland, who both overcame problems with alcohol.
Of Jerry Strickland’s four children, Mustafa said, three had drug and alcohol problems.
“Jerry went to a meeting for his kids and realized he had to fix himself, then his kids,” she said.
Now Whitney Strickland works with Wheelhouse, a children’s camp in Deer Park, Texas.
Jerry Strickland “did good works for other people,” Mustafa said. He founded Camp Hooray for children with developmental disabilities and Nora’s House for the families of transplant patients.
Jerry Strickland died Feb. 1. Mustafa said she never met him face-to-face, only talking by phone.
“You could tell what kind of person he was,” by talking to him, she said.
Another story is State Trooper Bobby Smith, who chased a DWI suspect in Franklin Parish in 1986, only to have the man open fire on Smith with a shotgun, leaving him blind.
Smith’s then-wife left him and in the next few years both his son and daughter died. He became suicidal, according to Mustafa, but his police friends saved him.
Smith went to college, eventually got a doctorate in counseling and worked at the State Police Training Academy, counseling police and first-responders.
And then there is Danny Trejo, the “Machete” actor.
“He’s had quite a little life,” Mustafa said.
Trejo was involved with drugs at age 11. At 17, he was in prison, Later, at Soledad State Prison, a riot broke out and he threw a rock at a guard.
Trejo spent five months in isolation, Mustafa said, not knowing if the guard was alive, thinking he could get the gas chamber. He made a promise if he got out of prison, he would dedicate his life to helping juveniles, she said.
Other stories include former LSU and NBA player Stanley Roberts, boxer Maurice “Termite” Watkins, stripper Mindy “Pocahontas” Crane, a psychologist who was a sex addict, before a patient turned him in, and a motorcycle gang member who saw two children die when the DEA and FBI opened fire on the Mexicans he was smuggling into the U.S.
Mustafa also is doing research for her next three books. They include:
• D.C. snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, whose first murder was a store owner in Baton Rouge. Their multi-state killing spree, which ended in Washington, D.C., left 17 dead and 10 wounded.
• Nathaniel Code Jr., of Shreveport, who killed eight people, including two children, from 1984-87.
• Ernest “Randy” Comeaux, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office detective who pleaded guilty to six rapes from 1980-95 as the “Southside Rapist.” Mustafa said his true total may be 60.
Asked what conclusion can be drawn from her books of serial killers, Mustafa offers a simple observation.
“Every one is different,” she said.
“I’m fascinated about the human psyche. Why? Why do they do it? How can you love your family – and Derrick Todd Lee did love his family – and go out and kill someone else’s family member?
“Todd was filled with rage. He would be well-dressed in a suit and gold chains and could pick up women,” she said.
“He never killed the women who went out with him. The women he killed were the women who rejected him. The ambitious, successful women who wouldn’t give him the time of day.”
Mustafa believes two things contribute to the creation of a serial killer: “The gene of psychosis and the lack of empathy.”
Gillis gave a 40-hour confession that was “bone chilling,” Mustafa said. She read it but could not finish it.
“It was like he was talking about the weather,” instead of murder, she said.
Lee, who died in prison when his pacemaker failed, was linked to seven murders by DNA. In her book, Mustafa said she tied him to 17 and there probably are more.
“He never confessed,” Mustafa said, another trait of serial killers. “They hold out (some murders) to avoid a lethal injection,” and try to use that information to barter.
Mustafa also offers simple advice to women.
“Women should take gun classes. At the very least, carry pepper spray,” she said. “Lock your doors. Lock your windows.
“I know we live in the South, I grew up in the South. We’re a friendly society. We open our doors, but we can’t do that anymore.”
Kevin Fambrough is a reporter at the Livingston Parish News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @fambroughkevin.