'Stunned at the sheer brutality': Author Casey Sherman's 'Helltown' explores Costa serial murders on Cape Cod
While growing up in Hyannis, best-selling author Casey Sherman had heard about Antone “Tony” Costa, the serial killer from Provincetown in the late 1960s, but Sherman focused any attention related to gruesome murders on the darkness in his own family.
His aunt had been the final victim of the Boston Strangler from about the same era, and that case in 2003 inspired the first of Sherman’s 15 books and an investigation into a type of horror he said he was not eager to revisit.
Yet he changed his mind to write his new book “Helltown.”
A car ride to Provincetown with his brother Todd during COVID-19 lockdown led to a conversation about Costa’s time there and the young women Costa had killed, dismembered and buried in a Truro cemetery near where he grew marijuana.
Sherman has written about criminals, including mob boss “Whitey” Bulger, and deals with true crime on his two-season “Saints, Sinners & Serial Killers” podcast with co-author Dave Wedge that they recently turned into a Boston stage show. So that sibling talk about Costa piqued his curiosity enough for him to seek out more details on the convicted murderer once described — because of false details leaked by politicians — as “the Cape Cod Vampire” and “the Cape Cod Cannibal.”
“I'd heard whispers about Tony Costa and what he may have done in the woods of Truro but I never really landed on it or gave it much thought,” Sherman said in a recent phone interview. “(When) I started to explore that story a little bit, I was absolutely stunned at the sheer brutality of what happened in Provincetown and Truro in 1969.”
And he found what he considered new ways to tell the 50-year-old story — by tying it into the context of the “time of reckoning” that was 1969, and by focusing on two literary titans who were on Cape Cod then and whom Sherman said were obsessed with the murders: Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut.
Considering the horrific details, Sherman was surprised to discover how many people in more recent years — including on the Cape — had never heard of Costa and his four (and possibly more) victims. And how many treated the 50-year-old killings as something of a joke, with some locals referring to “Tony Chop-Chop.”
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“I think they don't really address the murders very seriously,” he said. “Some people kind of scoff and laugh about the serial killer that was living in their midst, but they don't realize how brutal he was, and I wanted to present that in a very unvarnished way.”
Attention to crime and victims
The early July release of his “Helltown: The Untold Story of A Serial Killer on Cape Cod,” and a potential related miniseries in development with actor Robert Downey Jr.’s production company will likely bring more attention to the grisly local crime. And to the author — whose books on an historic Coast Guard rescue off Chatham and the Boston Marathon bombings have been made into the feature films “The Finest Hours” and “Patriots Day.”
Sherman said he hopes the book will also get more people here and around the country to recognize the names of the young female victims linked to Costa’s crimes, too: Patricia Walsh and Mary Ann Wysocki of Providence, Sydney Lee Monzon of Eastham and Susan E. Perry of Provincetown.
The killings attributed to charismatic hippie drug dealer Costa — who was found dead hanging in his jail cell a few years after his conviction — were already explored in investigative reporter Leo Damore’s 1981 book “In His Garden: The Anatomy of a Murderer.” The case was mentioned again, from a different perspective, in last year’s memoir “The Babysitter: My Summers With a Serial Killer,” by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan.
But Sherman puts the story into a wider context.
“Helltown” connects Costa’s story to the tumultuous late ‘60s, in a time of cults and drug experimentation. Sherman writes about how Costa’s crimes are likely less notorious because they ended up being overshadowed in the news by the moon landing, the Vietnam War, the killings by Charles Manson’s followers in California, and the scandal following the death of Mary Jo Kopechne after getting trapped in a submerged car with Edward “Ted” Kennedy on Chappaquiddick.
And Sherman adds the different perspective of connecting Costa’s killings to how involved Vonnegut and Mailer were with his story.
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“I wanted to tell a kind of bigger, macro story of not only Tony Costa, but two writers that became obsessed with this very dark, dark story,” he said. “I didn't want to rewrite Damore’s book, he’d already done that. I was looking for a different point of view into the story, and I've always been a big fan of Mailer and Vonnegut and I knew that each of them had written about the case. And I started to research it that way to see how obsessed both of these writers became and looking at their own careers in 1969.”
Vonnegut and Mailer
At the time, Vonnegut was a failing dealer of Saab cars living in Barnstable and had not yet found fame with “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the book says, and Mailer, Sherman said, “was walking the razor's edge and exploring darkness on his own terms. What I wanted to do in this book was examine the culture of toxic masculinity and systemic misogyny that dominated the time, and it continues to shape our attitudes, and our attitudes toward violence, especially against women, today.”
Vonnegut had covered Costa’s trial and wrote about it for Life magazine (one July 1969 article was titled “There’s a Maniac Loose Out There”), giving what Sherman said was the false impression that daughter Edie, an artist who still lives in Barnstable, knew and was perhaps in danger from Costa. Mailer followed the story and trial, Sherman’s book shows, and later used some details in his unsuccessful 1984 novel and 1987 movie (set and filmed in Provincetown) of “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.”
Sherman said both men’s style of writing about real events in acclaimed books were among his inspirations to, for the first time, marry journalism with narrative to create what he describes in the book as “a work of fact told with elements of fictional storytelling.” The book includes recreated dialogue, reimagined scenarios, some shifts in chronology and composite figures, but, he says in an authors’ note, “the majority of what you read here really happened, sadly. … The murders depicted in this book are all too real.”
Sherman said he believes a TV miniseries, if it goes forward, could be told from the perspective of Vonnegut (who once actually responded to a letter Sherman’s father wrote to the author).
'Get below the reality'
But with his background in investigative journalism, Sherman has included in “Helltown” four pages of references for the information in the book, and 18 pages of notes citing where he got information and quotes in each chapter. Listed are dozens of interviews, correspondence, transcripts and other books, including Costa’s own unpublished book about his life. Sherman said he used that and audiotapes of interviews with Costa to create the killer’s conversations and inner monologues in “Helltown.”
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“I pored over 1,000 documents related to the case and studied the crime scene photos, which are the most disturbing images that I've ever seen in my life. I've covered 50 homicides in my career as a journalist, and I'd never seen anything this destructive,” Sherman said.
Using inspiration from Mailer, he added, “I wanted to get below the reality, beneath the reality and within the reality of this story so I put all the facts of the case into the story, but I also baked in some fictional storytelling that I thought could provide the connective tissue for the readers and really get them interested in the journeys of these three men and the chaotic wake that they left behind.”
Mentioned in his references is correspondence with Costa’s ex-wife, Avis Johnson, who still lives in Provincetown, as do other family members. When asked to comment about the attention Sherman’s book and potential TV series might bring again to the murders, Johnson responded by email: “I couldn’t be more disgusted. End of story.”
Family member Peter Cook expressed concern via email about the book’s effect on Johnson and other relatives still in the Provincetown area: “After all these years, it's a sad thing to dredge up the name and story of Tony Costa when his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all still live in this area. So many things, especially sins of this sort, should be tossed in God's great sea of forgetfulness.”
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For a 2002 story comparing the Christa Worthington murder in Truro then under investigation with the Costa murders, Johnson, who had three children with Costa, told the Cape Cod Times, "Sadly, the more the story of a murder or murderer is told. the greater the risk of forgetting about the victims and the unrelenting grief of the families who lost them."
Johnson said she was concerned about killers getting more attention than the people murdered. "It's important to know that a person died, a real person died. For the families it never ends."
In the phone interview, Sherman said Costa’s victims, including Johnson, were an important consideration in his push to revisit the murders.
Costa’s ex-wife “was a victim of incredible abuse at his hands, so she's a victim in this case, as are his children,” he said. “This is a story that I think fascinates readers and Tony Costa has to still answer for his crimes. It has nothing to do with his family quite frankly, and they have to make some peace with the murders that he committed."
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“I really wanted to elevate and talk about the women that he killed,” Sherman added. “They weren't just statistics, they weren't just images in the Boston Globe or the Cape Cod Standard-Times. They had hopes and dreams and they were all snuffed out by a sadistic serial killer.”
'A really powerful impact'
Sherman said that he wants to be sure to emphasize the victims if the miniseries goes forward, too. “We don’t want the women who lost their lives to ever be lost in the story. I was adamant about making sure they were fully developed characters in the story because their losses are tragic for their families. … I never wanted to glorify what Costa did. I wanted to explain or try to explain what he did through the eyes of not only him, but the writers, and tell the stories of these beautiful young women who were tragically cut down at very young ages.”
Just how sadistic and brutal their killings were haunts Sherman.
“I've never seen anything like it before, and I hope I never see anything like it again because those images continue to disturb me,” he said. “I think every book that I write affects me in a certain way and I think back to the lives lost, I think back to the brutality — I can’t get (those images) out of my head. So it has a really powerful impact. If it doesn’t have an impact on you, you’re not doing a job well.”
While Sherman plans multiple personal appearances on a summer “Helltown” book tour, including around the Cape, he plans to turn to crime on the opposite coast for his next book. He said he’s looking into the 1958 stabbing death of Hollywood actress Lana Turner’s boyfriend, reputedly tied to organized crime, at the hands of her 14-year-old daughter.
Casey Sherman's 'Helltown' book tour
Author Casey Sherman plans several local appearances this summer in connection with his book, due out in July, about Provincetown's Tony Costa: "Helltown: The Untold Story of A Serial Killer on Cape Cod”:
In July: July 2 at Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham; July 12 at Willowbend Country Club in Mashpee; July 18 at Titcomb’s Bookshop in Sandwich; July 23 at Barnes & Noble in Hyannis; July 28 at Brewster Book Store; July 29 at Highfield Hall & Gardens with Eight Cousins bookstore in Falmouth; and July 30 at Edgartown Books.
In August: Aug. 6 at East End Books in Provincetown; Aug. 8 as part of the Tales of Cape Cod season in Barnstable.
Contact Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @KathiSDCCT.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Tony Costa's Cape Cod serial murders in Casey Sherman's new 'Helltown'