During a multi-decade career as an investigative reporter, Mark Seal has been front and center to the scandals of the rich and famous, including Bernie Madoff, Tiger Woods and Rupert Murdoch.
Seal’s work with Hunter S. Thompson on the Lisl Auman case that dominated the Gonzo author’s final years resulted in a 2005 plea bargain on lesser charges for Auman, a Denver woman who previously had been convicted in 1998 of first-degree murder in connection with the slaying of police officer Bruce VanderJagt. Auman was sitting in the back seat of a police car, in handcuffs, when VanderJagt was shot in November 1997.
Now Seal, who has been a full-time Aspenite for the better part of a decade, can look with pride on another long-term project that he recently completed and which is available through a subscription-based application that can be downloaded for one’s reading or listening pleasure.
True crime story “The Devil and Harper Lee,” written by Seal and narrated by Charlie Kevin, was released late last month and is available on Scribd Originals, an original content program for new and experimental works from authors including Roxane Gay, Hilton Als and Peter Heller. Seal said it’s applicable to his piece, which ran longer than an investigative magazine story but shorter than book length.
Seal recalled in an interview that the story was spawned by another work he penned in 2013 for Vanity Fair on Harper Lee, who did initial research into the odd murders by Rev. Willie J. Maxwell, before inexplicably stopping.
“I was fascinated with it from the beginning,” Seal said, as he shared the eye-opening tale that was “big news in the 70s” and with which he remained interested over the coming decades.
Who wouldn’t find intriguing the story of a charismatic minister connected to the unexplained accidents of five women? The murder of Maxwell, who in 1977 was shot in a church after delivering his stepdaughter’s eulogy, was covered by the New York Times and Newsweek. The talk surrounding his lifestyle was laced with allegations of voodoo and black magic and while titilating, eventually slipped from the public’s consciousness.
Seal never forgot the story though, but there were other things to write about in the meantime while reporting for the Dallas Morning News and later as a freelance writer.
That’s how he first came to Aspen in 2002 to co-write a piece with Hunter S. Thompson that ultimately gave Auman — who had faced life in prison on the initial murder conviction — justice in the form of a new plea bargain and lighter sentence. “Prisoner of Denver” was published in Vanity Fair in June 2004.
Researching “The Devil and Harper Lee” brought Seal back to his home state of Alabama to begin six years of research and reporting.
“I don’t know if it gave me special insight, because I was from there and I love the state,” he said. Born in Birmingham, Seal lived part of his childhood in Lawrence, in the Muscle Shoals area where singers and bands such as Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd would record. “I always thought, ‘there was all this talent from this same small town,’” he said.
Farther south, Monroeville and Alexander City were the focus of Harper Lee’s path while researching, in 1978, Rev. Maxwell’s story.
“Preaching on Sunday, killing on Monday” was a then-echoed phrase, Seal said. Maxwell was able to escape capture, some whispered, because of the black magic he practiced.
Why did Harper Lee stop working on a story of obvious injustice? Did she fear for her safety or was the pressure to write a follow-up to “To Kill A Mockingbird” too difficult for any writer to endure? Published in 1960, the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and quickly became a standard of American literature.
“There are varying reasons and nobody knows 100 percent for sure,” Seal said. “There are all these different theories.”
“Nobody could prove [Maxwell] had mystical powers. There were a lot of rumors about him,” Seal said.
Harper Lee was still alive in 2013 and living in Monroeville when Seal started his on-the-ground research. But she but would not speak for an interview.
“She stopped talking to reporters in the ’60s. She only gave one interview” after the success of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he said. Lee died in 2016.