Years of abuse may have driven two teen girls to commit one of the most random and horrific crimes local auhtorities had ever seen.
In her book, "Little Girl Lost: A True Story of Shattered Innocence and Murder," Nevada City author Joan Merriam takes her readers back to 1983 and the brutal murder of Anna Brackett, an 85-year-old Auburn woman who lived alone in an apartment complex.
The killers were 15-year-old Cindy Collier and 14-year-old Shirley Wolf, who Merriman suggests shared a common ability for brutality based on their own nightmarish childhoods.
Merriman's story of three lives shattered will be featured on a segment of an Investigation Discovery channel television show called "Deadly Women."
The program, titled "Baby-Faced Killers," will air on the Investigation Discovery channel (Dish Network channel 192, Direct TV channel 285, Comcast channel 271) at 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 1. Check your local cable provider to verify broadcast times.
The murder caught Merriman's attention, not just because of the age of the killers.
"I simply knew that people don't do things like this for no reason at all," Merriam explained. "There had to be something that we weren't seeing, something that might provide an answer for how we end up creating kids who are capable of this kind of savagery."
Merriam was earning a master's degree at California State University, Sacramento, and working as a summer intern at Sacramento's KXTV Channel 10 when the news broke that two teenage girls had killed an elderly woman.
She spent the summer covering the trial as a reporter for the television station and later embarked on an in-depth exploration of the two girls' respective lives, uncovering childhoods full of physical and sexual abuse.
The result was "Little Girl Lost," first published in April, 1992, and reprinted in 1992 and 1997.
"It's the book that just won't die," Merriam said. "I suppose everybody is curious to a degree about kids who kill. In this case, because they were female - it's so outside the norm."
It was a sweltering summer day in the foothills of Northern California, school was out and Collier and Wolf met for the first time on that fateful day, just eight hours before committing a crime that would shake an entire nation.
"It was almost like a chemical reaction," Merriam said. "Each element alone may not be dangerous, but when you mix them together, you get an explosion."
Both girls were wounded and angry in a way that is unique to the young and ostracized, Merriam said.
After becoming acquainted, they decided to run away, far away, and that the best way to do so was to steal a car. The two girls quickly decided that stealing a car from an elderly person would be easiest, and to prevent that person from telling anyone, they would need to kill him or her.
"Shirley would do anything to have a friend," Merriam said. "She was a typical follower, and Cindy was a typical leader."
The two girls walked to the Auburn Green Complex, where Collier had lived and knew was home to many elderly residents. After idling next to the swimming pool, they began knocking on doors; after a few unsuccessful attempts, they found the home of Brackett.
They complained of thirst, and Brackett invited the young women into her home and sat chatting with them for more than an hour. Then, Collier went to the kitchen and grabbed a butcher knife, according to multiple published reports.
Collier returned to the dining room table, handed the knife to Wolf and said, "Now."
Wolf immediately stabbed Brackett about 28 times, while Brackett screamed and begged for her life. The two girls then grabbed Brackett's car keys and fled to the garage, but because the car was standard transmission, they were unable to operate it.
Instead they hitchhiked to Roseville, then idled about before returning to Auburn and Collier's home.
On the way to Roseville, riding in the back of a car, Wolf wrote the following sentence in her diary:
"Today, Cindy and I ran away and killed an old lady. It was lots of fun."
Meanwhile, the police investigated the crime scene, and due to their previous experience with Collier (she had been in trouble for various petty juvenile crimes), they went to her house the following morning.
Detective George Coelho separated the two girls and began questioning them, Merriam said. Early on in the interview, Wolf admitted to killing Brackett.
"Detective Coelho told me when he heard the admission, he could have been knocked over by a feather," Merriam said.
The two girls were arrested, tried and sentenced to imprisonment into different California Youth Authority facilities.
While incarcerated, Collier passed the General Educational Development test, earning a GED; she went on to earn an associate degree, Merriam said. She was released early from the Youth Authority on good behavior.
Wolf, on the other hand, was sentenced to additional time in prison after attempting to stab a guard in the face with a sharpened pencil, Merriam said. She was transferred to the California Institution for Women in San Bernardino County.
The last Merriam heard, Wolf was a free woman, but had been in trouble for drug-related crimes and prostitution.
Wolf was sexually abused from the time she was 2 years old. Her father, Louis Wolf, subjected all his children (Shirley had three brothers) to brutal and sadistic physical and sexual abuse throughout the course of their childhoods, Merriam said.
"He built a stockade in his backyard and used to put his own children in it," Merriam said.
Merriam interviewed Louis Wolf at his 120-acre property, and many of the stories he shared with her about his own children are not fit to print in a newspaper.
In 1982, Louis Wolf was convicted of misdemeanor child molestation and served 100 days in the El Dorado County jail.
"100 lousy days," Merriam said.
He has since relocated to the Pacific Northwest, Merriam said.
Collier also had a difficult upbringing. Her mother had four children with four different fathers, none of whom she married.
Collier was subjected to molestation from her mother's boyfriends and one of her brothers.
"She developed a hardness," Merriam said. "There was just a rock hardness in her."
While it may be convenient to label the two murderers as sick or evil, Merriam said their difficult upbringing and their exposure to violent sexual abuse created the capacity to murder.
"All of the experts and teachers I talked to, the bottom line is if these girls had had a better life or childhood, things wouldn't have ended up that way," she said.
Merriam said this is not an attempt to provide a convenient excuse or dismiss the brutal murder of a peaceable elderly female.
Many young women who have suffered similarly shocking experiences do not turn into murderers.
"Not everybody turns into Shirley Wolf," Merriam said.
Still, child abuse is a significant factor in criminal adults, studies show, and for that reason Merriam has dedicated her adult life to supporting services for abused children.
"Those two girls never encountered a decent support system," Merriam said.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4239.