The Devil and Aphrodite Jones
Photo by Micheal Powers
HER GIVEN NAME, WHICH SHE SHARES WITH HER maternal grandmother, has arguably brought her more grief than her gruesome subject matter. "When I first pitched Aphrodite Jones," says editor Paul Dinas, who bought her first book, The FBI Killer, "people thought it was a book about hookers." In his 1997 New Yorker essay on a triple murder in Falls City, Nebraska, John Gregory Dunne stopped just short of depicting her as the Angelyne of true crime: "From the day of her arrival . . . Aphrodite Jones was a high-profile presence. She was the most glamorous thing to hit Falls City in a long time, and she was not unaware of it." Jones' response is, characteristically, equally pungent: "That doesn't surprise me. [Dunne] sat next to me during the trial and tried to crib my notes." Aphie, as everybody who knows her calls her, is both loved and despised; respected not so much for her writing -- which sometimes has the bland, industrial feel of hospital food -- as for her iron-drawered moxie, lavish wardrobe and red-hot jones for self-promotion. She has been derided as "sensationalist," "unprofessional" and "a pain in the ass," and has been the subject of rumors accusing her of everything from stealing material, to procuring alcohol for underage kids in return for information, to sleeping with an entire football team. She is invariably described as "swooping in" to collect on the still-twitching debris of small-town crime: A Florida newspaper caricatured Jones as a carrion bird with money in her beak, which she was offering to the daughter of a murdered couple in exchange for her cooperation.
It was the tragedy in Nebraska -- where a 21-year-old Lincoln girl named Teena trying to pass herself off as a boy named Brandon was murdered along with two friends -- that Jones documented in her 1996 book All She Wanted. The case also inspired Kimberly Peirce's independent film Boys Don't Cry (and much Hollywood interest), as well as a couple of documentaries and a few lawsuits. Jones' suit, which was the last one settled, accused distributor Fox Searchlight of subverting plans to develop All She Wanted with producers Diane Keaton and Bill Robinson and star Drew Barrymore. (ThenFox Searchlight president Lindsay Law saw 20 minutes of Boys Don't Cry at 1999's Sundance Film Festival and paid $5 million for the unfinished film -- the same amount he had budgeted for the Jones/Keaton project.) Blue Relief, Keaton's production company, settled almost immediately with Fox without having to file a single document. But Fox, according to Jones' attorney Glen Kulik, "was not willing to deal with Aphrodite." Had studio execs boned up on their Greek mythology, they might have reconsidered: Her namesake, the Goddess of Love, was not only famous for her many love affairs but for her frequent outbursts of anger. It was Jones, says Bill Robinson, who first urged Keaton to take action. "Aphie is an amazing force of nature," he says. "She's relentless -- it's like having a great detective on your side. You can't stop her. She is not afraid, and she doesn't back down."
In person, the 40-year-old Jones looks like a cross between actress Catherine Keener and Shania Twain (i.e., she is stunningly beautiful). Although Fort Lauderdale is her nominal home, she knows that Hollywood is where the real money in true crime is, and where, she says, "I can make my stories larger than life." She's been in L.A. almost a year now, and says she's not going away anytime soon. (Cue evil laugh and organ music.) Her own life would, in fact, be choice fodder for a Scott AlexanderLarry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon) screenplay: Globetrotting daughter of a WASP Pentagon wonk and a Greek court interpreter profiles Hollywood celebrities before moving on to decapitators, rapists, serial killers, torturers, sadists, blood drinkers and pimps. ("When I first met her, I really didn't think she was a book writer," admits Heather Wendorf, whose parents' murder was profiled by Jones in her 1999 book The Embrace: A True Vampire Story.) Imagine what must cross the mind of a twice-divorced homicide detective, or a victim's friend weaned on the distant cathode glamour of Hollywood, or a convicted killer on death row upon seeing, for the first time, the Versace suits with Ally McBeallength skirts, the piercing brown eyes, and the Medusa-mass of dark-brown hair with which Jones constantly, coquettishly toys. Imagine the indignation, too, particularly among local reporters hungry to break out of the daily grind of small-time journalism: Who the hell does this metropolitan chickie think she is, with her book plans, film deals and miniskirts?
The subtext, of course, is that her looks are her key to the kingdom of violent death and shattered lives. But to people like Leslie Tisdel, whose sister Lana was played by Chloe Sevigny in Boys Don't Cry and whose boyfriend, Phillip DeVine, died in the Nebraska farmhouse, Jones didn't rub her the wrong way, as did many of the reporters, book writers, filmmakers and deal makers who showed up on Tisdel's doorstep. "Aphie talked to me as an understanding, caring person," Tisdel says between cigarettes. "She didn't come across as 'Let's talk about Teena Brandon or Brandon Teena,' but 'Let's talk about how you guys feel.' That's why I opened up to her. Nobody else ever asked us that." By climbing into the minds of her subjects, says Louis Flores, Jones' research assistant on her last three books, "Aphie enables them to become the storyteller without them even knowing it. She's someone you confess to. I've been amazed at what I've heard people tell her."
BORN IN CHICAGO AND RAISED ON LONG ISLAND, Jones was fresh out of UCLA -- she shared acting classes with Alexander Gudonov and Marie Osmond -- when, at age 22, she was already being read by 80 million people as the celebrity beat reporter for United Features Syndicate. But she claims that, after a while, the emptiness -- not the least that of her gilded-cage life with a number of wealthy suitors ("houses in Manhattan and the Hamptons, scuba diving in the Bahamas, table at 21 . . .") -- got to her. She fled to Pikeville, Kentucky, of all places, where she taught English at a local college and served as news director for a local radio station. "I reached a point where I was so jaded that I couldn't tell the difference between fluff and non-fluff," Jones says. "I felt bored with it because as a member of the media you are a pariah: Celebrities need you, but they hate you. There's no honor in it. At least if you have a book, it's going to be there forever."
Her first book plumbed the depths of the vulture culture she had supposedly left behind. She wrote a dirt-filled, 300-page manuscript documenting her Lewinsky-ish affair with a New Establishment mogul who "had the whole celebrity world at his feet," and sent it out to more than 40 agents. Peter Miller, who also represented Helter Skelter author Vincent Bugliosi and mystery maven Nancy Taylor Rosenberg, convinced Jones that the tell-all would be too hot to handle and instead pushed her toward a murder in Appalachia that Jones had come across. (Miller also urged her to read In Cold Blood, which she hadn't.) "This mountain woman was used by the FBI as an informant, then killed and left for dead," Jones recalls. "CNN wasn't there, the networks weren't there -- it was like because she was a hillbilly, nobody cared." The FBI Killer, which told the tale of the first active FBI agent in history to go to jail for homicide, later became Betrayed by Love, a TV movie starring Patricia Arquette. Not surprisingly, the book threw the same FBI agents who had been tickled by the sight of an alluring 20-something poking around their paper shredders into an uproar. "They didn't take me seriously," Jones laughs. "'This little girl is doing this story! How cute! How sweet!' Then they saw the book and had a fit when it made the front pages of the local papers. They realized I was serious then."
Jones' next book, Cruel Sacrifice, about the horrific immolation murder of a 12-year-old cheerleader by four teenagers, catapulted her to a three-month stint at Number 5 on The New York Times best-seller list -- and to a new, improved self-image. Miller, the agent to whom Jones once referred publicly as a "small fish in a big pond," contends that "she pissed all over me after she got famous. Even Matt Biala [her new William Morris agent] came up to me at a Literary Guild function and told me, 'Pete, I never steal clients. Aphie aggressively pursued me.'" Biala wasn't exactly complaining: He also found that, where the average true-crime book sells around 60,000 copies, Jones' name and high-octane image moved four times that amount. "She has an incredible eye for stories -- certainly the best of any crime writer I've ever seen," he says. "That's why she's able to be in the right place even before the right time. That's why, when she brought me this little local story about some murders in Nebraska, I told her, 'Drop all the other stories you're doing and go get this one!'"
JONES ARRIVED IN FALLS CITY IN APRIL 1994, FOUR months after the murders of Teena Renae Brandon, Lisa Ann Lambert and Phillip DeVine. "She did not suffer competitors gladly," wrote John Gregory Dunne, "and to make her position clear, she had the foresight to sign the [principals] in the case to [exclusive] contracts, effectively freezing out other reporters." Predictably, this offended the other journalists covering the trials, which began in February 1995. They dubbed Jones "Daffy" and were appalled by her tactics, such as when she almost caused a mistrial by approaching jurors to solicit post-trial interviews. The enraged judge hauled her onto the stand and grilled her before handing down a reprimand. (She kept her seat in court, but her business cards were confiscated by the marshals.) Also in Falls City were New York documentary filmmakers Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir, who contacted Jones to share information and maybe even an apartment. "I phoned her and she said, 'Oh, I've received some threats, and I can't let a lot of people know where I am, because I work in a dangerous field!'" Muska laughs. "It seemed strange, melodramatic -- like why would she be receiving death threats? It was a little bit over the top."
Jones herself appeared in one cut of The Brandon Teena Story, Muska and Olafsdóttir's spare, haunting 1998 documentary, but in the end was edited out. The scene was a Kansas City memorial for Teena Brandon attended by transgender activists such as Riki Anne Wilchens of Transsexual Menace and GenderPAC. "I got up there to speak, and I said, 'Teena Brandon, Brandon Teena, what's the difference?'" Jones remembers. "They went crazy. They wanted to throw me out. People booed and yelled, stomped off the stage, walked out of the room. It was terrible." She never got to say it, but in all her research she did not find one instance of Teena Brandon using the name "Brandon Teena" -- a claim recently given credence by postOscar comments from Teena's mother, Joann, who also said that Teena never thought of herself as male. "I think it's strange that people in the transgender community -- and also in the acting community -- want to blow this up into a myth," Jones says. "There's some kind of accolade that comes along with making this person into a male in death, and it's like, 'This is what this person wanted, and now we've done it.' I mean, these are people who say that there should be no 'male' or 'female' dictates on our licenses or passports!" After Kansas City, transgender activists all but declared war on Jones and her book, storming the stage at two of her signings in Lincoln, and Wilchens publicly describing All She Wanted as inaccurate, distorted and, ultimately, "trans-phobic."
Among the friends and supporters of Wilchens who had come to Falls City in July 1994 was a diminutive young graduate student from Columbia University named Kimberly Peirce. Kim Peirce and Aphrodite Jones are as diametrically opposed as one could imagine: Peirce is an intense, proudly queer artiste whose fashion statements are limited to dark clothing and a streak of blue in her hair; Jones is a drama queen in blood-red dresses and floor-length fur coats, who brags openly about her "number of wealthy boyfriends." What bonds them is that their respective takes on what happened in the Nebraska farmhouse reflect a genuine, invigorating outrage and a desire to expose the roots of a brutal, pointless crime. In fact, despite her detractors' grumblings, Jones' compassion for American outsiders has informed her work from the beginning.
To her credit, the word transgender and its accompanying issues were not widely known when she was researching All She Wanted in 1994. Her 1998 book Della's Web, about a black-widow murderess who dispatched five of her husbands, addressed the underreported issue of reverse domestic violence -- against men. More haltingly, Cruel Sacrifice addressed the roots of adolescent atrocities years before words like "Columbine" held such sickening resonance. And the killers in 1999's The Embrace, about a coven of young "vampires" who murdered the parents of one of their own, bore an eerie similarity to the Colorado tragedy: They too wore black trench coats and drowned themselves in a pop-culture-fed fantasy world. Heather Wendorf, who became a pariah in her Florida community when many of the locals, including members of her own family, decided she had had a hand in her parents' murders, saw a kindred spirit in the flamboyant woman with the blaxploitation name. According to Wendorf, Aphie Jones was the first person who offered to tell the story from her perspective.
"She came to me and asked me if she could write the story," says Wendorf. "Actually, she came to me and told me she was going to write the story anyway, and asked if I would have some input." Their collaboration touched off what Wendorf describes as a "Frankenstein and the villagers" mentality in Lake County, Florida: The cartoon in the Daily Commercial insinuated that Jones was practicing "checkbook journalism." Both Jones and Wendorf maintain that their deal was similar to those signed by certain principals in the Brandon Teena case: Wendorf, who would receive no money from book sales, was paid a "good faith" stipend of $1,000 for story rights, plus a percentage of what Jones got if The Embrace became a film. Jones backed off the film deal when, according to Helen Lukatis, who covered the trial for Court TV, Jones received stinging criticism for making her deal with Wendorf while Heather's criminal culpability in the murders was still being investigated. (Two grand juries found there was not enough evidence for an indictment.) Yet Lukatis acknowledges that Jones "was able to do something that none of the other journalists [on the case] were able to do: have access to Heather Wendorf and gain her trust." Even defense attorney Michael Graves, who says he had many "knock-down, drag-outs" with Jones over Wendorf's moral culpability, admits that "she knew the case better than a lot of the lawyers -- which made arguing with her very frustrating. A couple of times, I just got up and walked away from her."
Despite reviews castigating Jones for her purplish prose, clunky time lines and "psychological naiveté" -- namely, a perceived bias in favor of a "victim" who stood to inherit half a million dollars after her parents' deaths -- Wendorf, who now attends art school in North Carolina, says The Embrace "didn't open old wounds, but actually helped me gain scar tissue." It even informed her of the deeper life lessons inherent in human tragedy. "After the murders, I thought it was 'the devil' or 'vampirism' that had gone wrong," Wendorf says. "After the book, I realized that what had caused it was people, and how they treated other people."
ANOTHER VICTIM CHANGED BY JONES' TAKE ON things is Lana Tisdel's sister Leslie. "All She Wanted helped me get perspective on what had happened," she says. "It brought me a sort of closure, I guess. There was stuff in there about Phillip [DeVine] that I didn't even know, like he used to climb mountains with his one leg and that he was a premature child. Aphie basically caught me off guard there." Tisdel still keeps in touch with Jones. "I'm Lana's big sister, the protector, but Aphie's been like my big sister. She told me I have to deal with my fears and feelings and talk to somebody. Which I have been." All She Wanted, Tisdel says, is "100 percent positively true." As for Boys Don't Cry, which she has not seen, she is less forgiving, pointing the finger at Peirce's film for keeping alive an acrid air of media attention and social recrimination in Falls City. "Aphie never looked down on us in All She Wanted," she says. "That's why I tell people, 'If you're gonna watch the movie, then read the book first. After that, you're gonna have umpteen million questions.'"
Despite Jones' own kvetching about Boys Don't Cry -- placing Lana Tisdel at the murder farmhouse; the filmmakers' underlying hostility toward the locals ("Falls City?" a fictional gay character tells the fictional Brandon. "They hang faggots down there"); and omitting the murder of DeVine, who arguably hurdled more obstacles in his short life than Teena Brandon -- she seems genuine when she praises it, the more so after her suit against Fox was settled six days before the Oscars. While relieved at finally settling, Jones maintains that the undisclosed amount she will receive doesn't even begin to recoup the money she lost in book sales. (As of Oscar week, Boys Don't Cry had grossed over $8 million on a not-quite $2 million budget, and that was before Hilary Swank's Best Actress win.) A provision Jones is negotiating with Fox will offer a cover sticker on new printings of All She Wanted that will read, "Events as depicted in the motion picture Boys Don't Cry." Nevertheless, Jones still wonders how, in spite of doing everything right with All She Wanted -- big star, big producer, big studio -- she was shut out for the first time in her career. Peter Miller, for one, remembers "how excited she was after she found out Diane Keaton was interested in her book. She told me, 'I'm going to be famous!'"
Meanwhile, Jones marches on. In addition to reporting on L.A. crime for KCOP-TV news, she's developing -- with former America's Most Wanted producer Margaret Roberts -- a cinéma vérité TV series about tracking crime stories. And she's writing a screenplay based on The Embrace, which, she claims, Oliver Stone has already expressed interest in. And then, of course, there's the next big story, which may or may not focus on Yosemite handyman Cary Stayner, alleged killer of three female tourists. Dennis McDougal, author of a book on Stayner, reports that "Cary thinks Aphrodite's a knockout, and not in terms of her writing." For her part, Jones believes Stayner, with whom she has been in touch, represents a new evolutionary development in true crime: the publicity-driven, media-savvy serial killer. She makes no connection, at least not publicly, between his development and hers.
Aphrodite Jones will read from All She Wanted at A Different Light on Saturday, April 8, at 8 p.m.