Giving a voice to the Delphi murders victims and families: “It never goes away, that pain”

Prior to February 13, 2017, what was known of the comings and goings in the small town of Delphi, Indiana was contained within the residents therein. Among them were two teenage girls Abigail “Abby” Williams and Liberty “Libby” German, and the man who would — five years later — be arrested for their murders, 50-year-old Richard Allen.

Now, the area with a population so minuscule that it doesn’t even have a hotel to accommodate the jury that will be selected for Allen’s trial in 2024, will forever be associated with the killings that took place there and the ominous phrase heard by the two young friends when they encountered him while exploring a nearby hiking trail on a day off from school, captured covertly by a brave and quick-thinking Libby, and later recovered from her cell phone as a key piece of evidence.  

Down the hill.”

“I wanted to write about this case because of how close I felt to the family members, and I wanted their voices to be heard.”

This is one of the last things Abby and Libby heard as they were led to their deaths in broad daylight. It’s also the title of a new book, written by veteran CNN and HLN journalist Susan Hendricks, who has reported on this case since the beginning, spending time with the victims’ families in Indiana and advocating for them amidst a sea of headlines that, more frequently than not, give a voice to the girls’ killer rather than the other way around. For Hendricks, the decision to focus her first book on this case was not to recount the grisly details of what’s been dubbed the Delphi murders, but to call to memory that Abby and Libby had lives in Delphi. Lives cut short in a way that law enforcement have yet to fully reveal, other than to call it “brutal.” And throughout her writing, which follows the case from 2017 to just after Allen’s arrest, she frequently mentions the girls’ families waking up, day in and day out, telling themselves, “Today’s the day.” Meaning, today’s the day justice will be had. After so many years, that day has come. 

In an interview with Hendricks conducted over Zoom, she details her coverage of the Delphi case, the relationships she formed with the victims’ families, gleaning insight from Golden State Killer investigator Paul Holes, and how her previous coverage of the Gabby Petito and BTK cases were at the back of her mind while covering this one. 

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This book, “Down the Hill: My Descent into the Double Murder in Delphi,” is written very well and, for me, calls to mind Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” in that the emotions of the case really come through. There are so many murder cases that don’t make the headlines in the way that this one did. What do you think stands out about it?

That is a question I get often, and it’s a good one because there are certain cases, as you mentioned, that the media pays more attention to than others. I really think this one struck a chord because of what Libby was able to do on her phone: capture this man’s voice, take an image of him, video of him walking. So I feel that that really grabbed the attention because we were, as the media and as the public, able to hear the voice of a killer. And I also think that once we got to know who Abby and Libby were, and their family members, that also drew people in to say, “How could this happen?” And then, “How could I help?”

The fact that there have been advancements made in the form of Richard Allen being arrested likely prompted you to write on this case instead of any of the other numerous cases you’ve reported on like Gabby Petito or BTK, but I’m curious to hear how the idea came to you to write a book about this case specifically.

I wanted to write about this case because of how close I felt to the family members, and I wanted their voices to be heard. Often times, as you know, in the news media the headline is usually about who did it or allegedly did it. Scott Peterson, Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias and the list goes on. You rarely hear specifically about the family members and the effect this has on them. Not only when this happens, but in the following weeks, years, decades. It never goes away, that pain. And I knew this, as a journalist, but I really understood it when I got to meet the family members. And I started writing this several years ago. And it had been several years, and there was a lot of frustration about there not being an arrest here. So by the time Richard Allen was charged with the murders —and, as you know, we have to say he’s innocent until proven guilty, or course — I was going to write this no matter what, because it was the journey that the family had been through and what they will continue to go through, even through the trial. 

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There’s been a difference in the way that murder cases are written about and discussed over the past few years. The emphasis used to be almost completely on the killers themselves, as you mentioned, but now the focus seems to be more on telling their victims’ stories. We know their names now. They’re people and not just bodies. When did you start to see that change?

I think for me as a journalist, the interest was there. I remember Yeardley Love, the lacrosse player who was murdered by her boyfriend and the mother, Sharon, creating the One Love Foundation in her daughter’s name and running that with her other daughter, and that pain continues. That was 2010 when her daughter was murdered. So different cases stand out. Early on, when I was very young, too young, probably, to be watching “Fatal Vision” when it came on TV, my sister and I watched that special and then I read Joe McGinniss‘ book, and what stood out to me was the wife Colette and her stepfather reigniting the case, and I believe that was why Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of the murder of his wife and two little girls. So, it’s always been a perspective that I wanted to get across. And I do think that things have changed, hopefully. I remember, even back to Columbine, the faces of the shooters would be on the cover of a magazine. And working with Anderson Cooper years ago on his show, he would say that he didn’t want to name the names of the shooters. And obviously when covering a case like Delphi, we have to name the person in custody, Richard Allen — it’s a bit different here — but I don’t want all the focus to be on that.

What was your first thought when the news broke that a suspect had been apprehended? And how soon after were you in contact with the girls’ families?

“I do believe that they will address Richard Allen when the time comes.”

You always thought and hoped that one day that would happen. Becky Patty, the grandmother of Libby, always posted on her Facebook page, “Today’s the day,” knowing that one day, that would be the day. But as the days and weeks and months went on, and there was still no arrest close to six years, to hear that someone is in custody — because, as I mention in the book, there were names that were brought up. Not by law enforcement saying they’re connected in any way, but if someone was arrested in that vicinity of course they would look into that in some specific way — but for a name to just come out, and for an arrest, finally an arrest for the girls’ murders, it was jarring. Exciting at the same time, for me and for the families. I was hoping that’s what they felt. But I felt a mix. A feeling of nervousness. And it was simply jarring to see his face and know, wow, we’ve never heard this name and he did, in fact, live in Delphi. Everything that Superintendent Doug Carter said at that press conference was, in fact, true. If he is guilty, he was hiding in plain sight the whole time. So I spoke to Becky Patty when I heard that day about the arrest, and she was at a wedding and stepped out into the hall and said, “I can’t believe it.” She was in shock, I believe, at that time, until it set in, the reality of everything.

After so many years of hunting for this killer, now that an arrest has been made, I’d imagine that’s when the full extent of the families’ pain sinks in, with there being no hunt left to distract them. Will they be given the opportunity to address Allen during the trial?

You bring up a good point. I remember speaking to Mike [Libby German’s grandfather], it was right after the press conference where law enforcement and the prosecutor announced that there had been an arrest, and he said, “Now we have to shift gear. Shift our focus.” Because for so long it was finding this person. And Becky did, admittedly so, say, “I feel like I don’t have a purpose anymore.” Because someone is in custody. And Mike saying, “We just have to shift this and help the prosecutor in any way we can.” And still, to this day, they’re not saying if they believe that anyone else is involved. I remember during that press conference the prosecutor said there could be other actors and, therefore, they’re not releasing certain documents. So I think they just kind of shifted their focus and their purpose, but of course it was still so hard, and considering what will happen next. Because right now it’s unknown. There is a trial date set, that’s for January, but it will be interesting to see what will happen from now until that point. Will it go on as scheduled? Will it be delayed? And, of course, I believe if they have the opportunity — which I believe, in most court rooms, if found guilty the judge does allow that, the victim impact statements before the sentencing — I do believe that they will address Richard Allen when the time comes.

It’s chilling to know that Allen worked at an area CVS that was likely frequented by Libby, Abby and their families, and that he was a person who was spoken with early on. Was the hiding in plain sight aspect of this case a point of frustration throughout? Knowing now that the likely killer was so close and yet still just out of reach?

Absolutely. Family members of mine — when they found that out — were thinking, “Why wasn’t he arrested sooner?” And, “How could this slip through the cracks?” We still don’t have the absolute details on how that happened. But apparently, because it says this in the court documents, he approached an officer in a parking lot and said, “I was there. I didn’t see Abby and Libby. This is what I was doing.” Apparently he was on his phone or looking at fish or looking at a stock ticker. So I think that he put himself there. And if he is, in fact, guilty, we can only speculate that he was doing so to maybe get ahead of it, thinking other girls down near the bridge had maybe seen him. And we don’t want to put all the blame on this one officer — I believe the small town was overwhelmed at that particular point. And the video from Libby was not released yet. And the audio was not released. Maybe that officer looked at this person as a witness who didn’t see much, therefore filed it away, so to speak. And Superintendent Doug Carter always did say, “If nothing happens, if we find nothing, we’re gonna go back to the beginning.” And that’s exactly what they did. And maybe they came upon that file years later and said, “What about this guy?” But we still don’t know what connected them to Richard Allen. From that particular point of, “Let’s start from the beginning,” to seeing that file . . . was it a tip that was called in? We don’t know. As we did see, there was an unspent bullet near the bodies. They searched his home, apparently found the gun, connected that bullet to the gun, therefore, under arrest. But it’s been redacted a bit, so there are a lot of elements we still don’t know that we would see, if this does go to trial. There are a lot of holes, by design, the authorities would always say, that they’re willing to tell, and why they can’t say it, but they will when the time comes. 

It’s interesting, you bringing up the things that Allen said, “I didn’t see the girls. I was watching fish.” Which seems so random. That brings to mind your conversations with Paul Holes, which you mention in your book, where he says they’ll always kind of show their “tell.” That they’ll say something a little too specific, or something that feels like a story that they kind of had at the ready. 

“It never goes away for that family. Never.”

Paul. What a brilliant mind, and a mind unlike any that I’ve spoken to in terms of what he sees and how he would go to a crime scene and see things very differently. What he said would stand out to him is, what was there that the killer didn’t have to leave? What made this particular crime special to that person? What does that tell you? His eye is so sharp and so keen. So able to look at a crime scene and see it much differently than you or I would. He did say that when he went to the bridge and saw how high it was — 63 feet. I’m scared of heights, and Paul shared with me that he is too. I couldn’t even walk a step. Not a step — Paul always has questions about why this killer would do it. Did he drag the bodies? Did he kill the girls there? And he said once he went down the hill, he understood. Because of how isolated it was. And that maybe no one could hear you or see you because of how dense the brush is. Because you think, how could someone kill two girls in the middle of the day and get away with it? Well, he [Allen] knew that bridge, and he knew that area. And Paul believes that he may have fantasized about this. For years even. He only lived a couple of miles from the bridge. He fantasized about this and decided, maybe, that that day was the day to do it. That that was his chance.  

Have you spoken to Allen’s wife and daughter at all? And what’s your take on this phone call he made to her in which he reportedly confessed to the crimes? His attorneys are arguing that his admission isn’t reliable because he’s under duress. 

The wife’s Facebook page, I mean, as you would imagine, it was flooded with media and people wanting to see who this person is. And that’s the resource we have today, social media. She took it down soon after and she had to move from her home because of the attention she was getting. I went through her Facebook early on and, to me, it showed that she was in love with her husband. She posted something about a restaurant they went to during an anniversary. Her daughter married, and there was a picture of her father walking her down the aisle, which brought me back to Kerri Rawson, BTK’s daughter, who spoke to me saying, “I had no idea. He walked me down the aisle. He told me to make sure there was air in my tires. He made me scrambled eggs.” So everything “normal” that you or I would perceive as that. The family didn’t know. And there are people to this day who are mad at Kerri Rawson, and she didn’t know. So I do feel for the wife and daughter. She was in court, Richard Allen’s wife, during a few of the hearings, along with his mother, and that was shocking to hear that there was a confession, of sorts, several times. To me, of course, that’s very telling. And apparently his wife hung up abruptly after that, and we heard in the hearing that happened after that that they haven’t spoken since. We’ll see how much that plays in. 

I’ve read a few reports that seem to indicate that Allen is pleading feebleness and perhaps playing up his mental health issues in a play for leniency. And it seems like his representatives are saying he’s not being treated fairly in prison. That must call for superhuman levels of patience after everything that you and the prosecutors know about this case. 

Paul Holes did mention that. He said to me, “Susan, this is just the beginning of the process.” There are so many tactics that can be taken to delay the trial and put it off. That being beneficial, I believe, to defense attorneys. Meaning, the longer the time goes on, the less it’s on people’s minds, is what I assume. But then I think back to Lori Vallow, and the judge ruling that she wasn’t competent at one point, but then she finally was competent. Meaning, I wonder if the ruling is that he’s not competent at this particular point because of where he is, but I believe there could be an analysis, wait a few months, and then he’s analyzed again. So I don’t believe this is a forever delay, if, in fact, it even is delayed because of what the defense attorneys are claiming. 

A number of new details, even details alluding to the manner in which the girls were killed, were released in court documents this summer. What do you think about the judge’s decision to unseal those documents? And I would hope that the families got that information first? I know there was a petition fighting to keep them sealed.

Yes. Becky posted, “Why?” on Facebook. She had this petition and her thoughts on it. And she had confidence in law enforcement and the prosecution, believing that if they want this sealed, there has to be a reason. Her fear was, what if the witnesses’ names got out? Or what if there was harassment because of it? And considering everything both families have gone through, I don’t blame her for wanting that sealed. And I think the judge, in my opinion thus far, is fair on what she is releasing and, by law, what she has to release due to the public’s right to know. So I think that it was necessary but there were, of course, redacted documents as well. But a lot were released, you’re right. About 120 pages. 

Your book makes mention of there being more audio and video captured by Libby than what’s been released. Have you heard it/seen it? And do you have any idea as to when it will be made public?

I personally haven’t listened to it. And I do believe it has been released since I first met the families. Of course it is longer than, “Guys, down the hill.” But I asked Sheriff Tobe Leazenby and he sat there and was quiet for a moment and said, “Susan, right now as you’re sitting here, it’s going through my mind and I’m hearing it over and over and over again.” And I was thinking, “What is he thinking about right now? What did he hear?” And I think that no matter what was on that audio, it would be for me, having a 13-year-old now, just heart-wrenching to hear. Hearing their voices must just be excruciating for the families. 

Covering so many cases of this nature, is there even such a thing as feeling a sense of completion, knowing that sooner rather than later, you’ll likely be covering another one?

I think that’s really the heart of the book, that there never really is completion. It never really is over. I know that Kelsi [Libby’s sister] recently had a baby. A little girl. And I just feel like, forever, there will be that loss. I was in Libby’s home. I saw her kitchen. I saw a video of her laughing in that kitchen. What I have found is that it’s helpful for the families to feel like there’s a purpose after the media goes away. And that purpose is often helping others. It’s not about that day, February 13, 2017, and how the girls died. It’s about the future. Sadly, there will be another case. There will be more families that suffer. It will happen again. But it never goes away for that family. Never. 

After reading this book, your detailing of the initial search for the girls stands out to me. Local police really hopped to, roping in FBI, K9 units and everything they could. And the girls’ bodies were discovered very quickly. It makes me wonder how this would have all played out if Abby and Libby had not been white. 

That is a good question. In Gabby Petito’s case, her father, Joe Petito, even said to me, “I don’t know why it got as much attention as it did.” I think, in her case, it came down to social media and the body cam footage and just how much we saw of her. But the Petitos’ foundation is making a point of this in trying to make sure that everyone gets the same amount of attention, no matter what. But, absolutely, there is unfairness in the media in terms of what is chosen. And if I’m a family member in a case that no one talks about, I would be so hurt, beyond belief. I would be screaming from the rooftops, wanting the coverage to be equal. And Joe Petito is saying, “I’m trying to make this happen.” There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be an equal playing field and everyone’s son and everyone’s daughter gets equal coverage. And I think it is possible now, with all the outlets we have, and social media where people are talking about a case and bringing attention to it. It’s not just the mainstream media anymore. 

With the trial coming up, do you have plans for a follow-up book?

I haven’t thought too far in advance about a next book. I know I will be covering the trial, and it will be interesting to see exactly how it plays out because, at this point, anything is possible in this case, from what I’ve seen. I would be interested in maybe writing a book from the families’ point of view.

Hendricks will moderate a panel at CrimeCon on Sept. 24 called A World Turned Upside Down: Tragedy, Triumph, and the Power of Healing, joined by Becky Patty, Tara German, Sharon Love, Kerri Rawson and Stacy Chapin. 

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