Years ago, when I was a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, I visited the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility to interview a Death Row inmate named Johnny Spirko, who had been sentenced to die for the 1982 murder of Elgin, Ohio, postmistress Betty Jane Mottinger.
I was interviewing Spirko because I had serious doubts about his guilt. He had spent most of his life in prisons or institutions, and he had killed before. However, I believed – and continue to believe – that he did not kill Mottinger.
After interviewing Spirko, I was given a brief tour of the Death House, which at the time was home to Old Sparky, the electric chair whose presence dominated the room. But what struck me was a small room off the side that contained a counter and three buttons – red, green and white, as I recall. On execution days, three prison guards who had volunteered for the duty, and for which they received extra pay, would be in the room, each assigned to a button. On the superintendent’s command, each would push his button. Only one of the buttons delivered the fatal charge, and the volunteers never knew which it was.
That stuck with me over the years and, after authoring two true crime-related books, I decided to write a novel inspired by the buttons. The working title of the book was The Button Man, and I set about planning a story that involved a wrongfully convicted man on Death Row and his friendship with a prison guard who regularly volunteered to push one of the buttons. While I had yet to put a single word to paper, I thought it would be interesting to have the prison guard, aka The Button Man, begin questioning the guilt of the Death Row inmate, much the way I questioned Spirko’s guilt.
That was as far as I had gotten with the plot when I started writing. First, I began creating the crime for which the Death Row inmate was wrongfully convicted. My first line was:
Petey Sanchez was a troubled human being, a stewpot of mental, emotional, and psychological problems manifested in the body of a wild-eyed seventeen-year-old, who cursed and made screeching bird noises as he rode around town on a lime green spider bike with fluorescent pink streamers flying out from the handlebars.
Two chapters later, Petey was dead on Chestnut Ridge and four teenage boys were scrambling to cover their misdeed.
The plot that I had been planning for years died with Petey Sanchez.
I liked the four characters I had created and the story seemed to flow easily from the mouth of narrator Hutch Van Buren, who was one of the four boys. I wanted to see how life would treat these four boys after they stifled such a terrible secret, remaining quiet even when another man went to prison for the murder.