BERLIN – Attorney Anne K. Howard is really interested in the moment where a human being becomes a monster.
For a three-year period, her search took her to a place most people wouldn’t go for any reason – the mind of Connecticut’s most prolific serial killer.
"If I knew what I was getting into, I don't know if I would have written the book,” said Howard.
Howard gave a talk to a small but rapt crowd at the Berlin-Peck Memorial Library Saturday afternoon about her 2018 book “His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer.” The true crime book, published by Wild Blue Press, chronicled her investigation into seven murders committed by William Devin Howell over a 10 month period in 2003. She has also recently appeared on several true crime television shows discussing the case.
“When you are writing true crime, it is controversial, but you can’t deny that there is a big audience for this, including me,” she said.
The particulars of Howell’s crimes are monstrous. Howell would rape and murder his victims in his van, and then deposit the bodies down a ravine behind a Hartford Road strip mall in New Britain. He would then return the next day, park in a McDonald’s next to the mall, and bury the bodies in the woods.
“He would never be sighted by anyone,” Howard said.
Three bodies were discovered in 2007. The same year Howell pled under the Alford Doctrine to the murder of Nilsa Arizmendi and received a 15-year sentence. Pleading under the Alford Doctrine means that Howell did not admit to the crime but conceded that the prosecution had enough evidence to secure a conviction. After four more bodies were discovered in the same location in 2015, Howell was sentenced to 360 years in prison in 2017.
While Howard runs a blog called Serial Murders in Connecticut, Howell’s story was her first time working on a true crime book.
“I found myself learning as I went along,” she said.
Howard got to know Howell, immersing herself in his court records. She visited Howell in prison monthly and received over 300 pages of letters from him. They talked about his childhood and adolescence. Occasionally they chatted about mundane things, like television sitcoms. He could be personable and warm. She admitted that occasionally she felt sorry for him and then quickly remembered his grotesque misdeeds. Howard met with the families of the victims. Howell’s rage, which did get directed at Howard by the end of their association, was never far away.
“I wanted to find out what on Earth motivated this man,” she said.
She spoke to him on the phone, with the calls increasing the further along she got in her research. By the end of their correspondence, Howell told Howard the particulars about the other six murders he committed. Howard began to have violent nightmares.
“That is what it did to me. It was a high price tag,” she said. “The next (book) will be a vintage case where everyone is gone. I will never let it invade my personal life and my psyche.”
A New Britain woman attending the talk, who didn’t wish to be identified, said she knew Howell quite well. Devin – he went by his middle name with her – regularly did work in her yard and others around her neighborhood back in 2002. She said he was “lovely” and a polite and honest worker.
“He always said ‘yes ma’am,’ ‘no ma’am,” she said.
He charged her less for cutting her back lawn than he initially quoted because it was smaller than expected. The neighborhood kids were drawn to Howell, who became known as a bit of a Pied Piper, she said.
“I couldn’t believe this guy was roaming among us,” she said.
That’s just the thing. You don’t always know where monsters live or what they look like. Sometimes they happen to be the polite guy with the Southern accent cutting your grass.