In the fall of 1962, the murder trial of Iva and Ralph Kroeger captivated Northern California. The Kroeger case was at first a mystery -- the story of the disappearance of two Santa Rosa motel owners -- added to by the succeeding motel owner Iva "Long's" vanishing as well. Soon, pieces of information about what happened to these people came to light and, once two bodies were exhumed from Ralph and Iva Kroeger's basement in San Francisco and the manhunt for Iva drew in the FBI, the public became enthralled by the sordid details of the events.
Because it was a capital murder case with a woman at its center who was both defiant towards the prosecution and engaging with the media, the story was featured on the front pages of Bay Area newspapers for months, buzzed about in homes over the dinner table, and used as a admonishment by parents to their recalcitrant children: "We'll call Iva Kroeger to babysit if you don't behave!"
I was just 10 years old and living in Sonoma County when Iva and Ralph's case went to trial. I remember reading about the case in the newspapers, but I thought the woman's name was "Eva Krueger" and she'd buried bodies in the basement of her apartment building in San Francisco. I also remembered her banging a shoe on the table during the trial, like Nikita Khrushchev at the UN. For 50 years years, Kroeger's story remained in the back of my mind.
This week, Fantagraphics Books published Naughty, my novel based in large part on the case of Iva and Ralph Kroeger. After decades of being fascinated by this story, I wanted to write about Iva and get to the heart of her story. Who was this woman to commit these murders and imagine she would get away with them? Was she a sociopath? How did her hapless husband get roped into the situation? If she hadn't been caught, how many other people would she have killed? Why was she so "naughty?"
In doing my research about her, there were portions of her life that couldn't be accounted for, including the fifteen years between Iva's release from jail and her time in Boston where she died in 2000. Without knowing in detail what she did or where she was during those missing years, and even some of the details of her early life that led up to the crimes, her true story simply could not be told. Yet, although I have fictionalized part of it, I did, in fact, include a great number of facts and situations from the actual case, including the original courtroom transcript and tape recorded police interviews.
So why did I write the book? Well, two things about the Kroegers seemed incredibly interesting to me for a book. First, the idea of setting the story at a motel in what was then a small country town. The rundown atmosphere of these motels sitting on a low-rent avenue about to be bypassed by the freeway appealed to me as the setting for these two murders-for-gain. Secondly, Iva Kroeger's outrageous behavior during the trial really fascinated me, how she ranted and raved for two months, interrupting and disturbing the court proceedings. It made really terrific drama for a novel.
Three people really guided me in researching the original case and writing this book. At the beginning was my old journalism teacher, Geets Vincent, who told me Iva's real name and pointed me toward a mutual friend of ours, a reporter from Santa Rosa who covered the story in 1962. Not only did Bony Saludes recount his experiences with the investigation into the missing motel owners and the crazy atmosphere of the trial, he also xeroxed all of his newspaper clippings from the case and gave them to me. Those clarified the narrative and gave me chronologies I never had before, and led me to securing a copy of the entire court trial transcript, the "holy grail" of the Kroeger case for me. Then I hired a fabulous private investigator from Santa Rosa, Lynn Duggan (former Secret Service), who really did the massive research for my book. Lynn interviewed the, now late, prosecutor Francis Mayer, dug up Iva's personal records out in Kentucky, traveled to the Boston and found out how she lived at the end of her life. He also managed to secure a huge album of newspaper clippings from the Bay Area during the months leading up to and through the trial of Ralph and Iva Kroger from a policeman in Santa Rosa who had worked the case back in 1962. Sorting through everything Lynn and Bony gave me, collating and reading, reading, reading hundreds of pages, created the non-fiction structure for the last two-thirds of the book.
Naughty is a period piece, a noir novel rendering of a strange murder case and a bizarre individual in Iva Kroeger who captivated the Bay Area for months in 1962. How could I have known, when I was 10 years old and hearing about "Eva Krueger," that fifty years later I would become the foremost expert on Iva and her trial? In this book, I wanted to share how unique Iva Kroeger was, her peculiar actions and wicked motivations, and those of everyone around her. And she's not the only one guilty of naughty behavior in this book, yet how she seduces and manipulates those in her orbit is fascinating. She's both sincere and diabolical. People who knew her said she was not only duplicitous and cruel, but also engaging and fun to be around. Maybe she meant well and maybe she was psychopathic. Probably both. Either way, her story is unusual and entertaining. That much I'm sure of.