It could take five or six stores before Charlie Hess would find the right birthday card. He didn't want fuzzy sentiments or a cute picture on front.
Birds of prey were a safer bet, he says. He found a good example a few months ago: The card showed a bald eagle, swooping with talons extended.
The problem was knowing what to write to the recipient, Robert Browne, who's serving a life sentence in prison for the 1991 killing of Black Forest 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church.
Browne pleaded guilty to Church's murder in 1995, and he was locked up in Cañon City when he started corresponding with Hess in 2002. Through letters and conversations in the years that followed, he described or hinted at dozens more killings across the country. He finally pleaded guilty in 2006 to one of them, the 1987 slaying in Colorado Springs of a young mother named Rocio Sperry.
Browne was told before he pleaded in the Sperry case that he would be transferred to a prison out of state, but that agreement fell apart in the media storm following his admission.
Hess started writing his card last year with a sort of apology "I'm sorry you didn't get your transfer" but he thought to check with prison administrators to see if Browne was still at the same place.
There was no record of Browne in any of Colorado's prisons, so he called a prison official and explained the situation. He said Browne's birthday was Oct. 31 (yes, Hess notes with a smile, Halloween), and he wanted to send a card.
"What the hell you want to send him a birthday card for?" the official asked.
"Because I always do," Hess replied.
Hess sent the card, but at this point, doesn't expect a response. He believes Browne felt betrayed when the transfer fell through. And even leading up to his 2006 plea, Browne had become increasingly reluctant to discuss new details and fresh cases.
The discussions, regardless, had already gone further than many would have predicted. It all started with a volunteer project: Hess, a former FBI and CIA agent, joined retired detective Lou Smit and former newspaper publisher Scott Fischer to form what became known as the "Apple Dumpling Gang," examining El Paso County's unsolved cases and organizing evidence in each.
A note from Browne hinting at "seven golden opportunities" for investigators, along with Smit's recollections from working on the case, helped motivate Hess to begin writing to him. The discussions went slowly at first. Hess says he's an interviewer, not an interrogator, and he recognized Browne could refuse at any point to say more.
The trick was leading Browne to the point where he wanted to talk.
"If I want to be able to look in your heart, you've got to be able to look in mine," Hess says.
Hess invited Browne to write to him at his home address. He sent a picture of himself on a fishing trip and shared talk of his own troubles and challenges.
Eventually, they ended up meeting face to face, with Hess forcing himself not to react as Browne described how he dismembered one of his victims or stabbed another with an ice pick, speaking "just like he was ordering a cup of coffee."
Not for Hollywood
The jacket on the new book Hess co-authored, Hello Charlie, makes an obvious reference to The Silence of the Lambs to describe Hess' correspondence with Browne. In the 1988 novel and 1991 movie, a young FBI agent visits with imprisoned killer Hannibal Lecter to eke out clues in a new case, trying all the while to keep the psychiatrist from getting in her head.
Lecter, of course, later escapes and eats people.
The analogy might get some mileage, but Hess' account has details that wouldn't fit very well in a Hollywood script. For one thing, it's hard to imagine Lecter and agent Clarice Starling talking about medical problems. But that's what happened for Hess. After writing about his wife's upcoming surgery, he says, Browne responded that he hoped it went well.
In the movie you have Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster; in real life, you have Hess, now 80 and retired, grieving his wife's death in October.
Hess is proud of the book. He provided the facts. His co-author, California writer Davin Seay, put in what Hess calls the "fluff."
"If there's a positive element to the book that has to do with the way it reads, he gets credit for that," Hess says.
Hess' honesty might help explain his success getting Browne to talk. He has an easygoing nature, and he comes across as a likable guy. (When a waitress brings him a fresh iced tea about two hours into our conversation, he turns, smiles, and tells her, "You're a sweetheart.")
Part of the fascination with Hess' story and with Starling's fictional dealings with Hannibal Lecter is that both invite questions about how far such friendliness extends. Is there danger in rubbing shoulders with a killer, in understanding what makes him tick?
Hess doesn't dwell on such questions. Quite simply, he says, "That's what I do."