For me, there are certain things that have always helped me curate my identity as a writer. A warm cup of coffee, maybe a muffin with little dab of butter or a bagel, more coffee in the afternoon (if I really need a pick-me-up, Starbucks), etc., etc. Part of my writing life is visiting great restaurants and coffee shops and snapping photos of indulgent foods and drinks to share on social media. But then my clothes started getting tighter and the photos that had my face in them disappointed me. Why did my face look so swollen? Why did my tops look so tight on me? Why were there so many pairs of pants in my closet that I was having to set aside in favor of stretchy leggings?
My relationship with food had gotten out of hand. Although I make it a point to get my “butt out of the chair” as often as possible and exercise 4-5 days a week, I still wasn’t happy with the person I was seeing in the mirror. I tried to figure out what I wanted to do about it as the holidays rolled to an end.
I’ve tried MyFitnessPal in the past, and had success with it. The app is easy to use but tracking each and every single calorie I put in my mouth (as well as exercise minutes) grew tedious and I fell off the wagon after a few years. I considered the Whole 30 program. I know so many people who have done it and had great results, so I stocked my pantry with a few Whole 30-approved items like coconut oil and ghee and ordered a cookbook full of recipes that looked tempting. But then I thought longer and harder. I wasn’t really having any health issues like food allergies, inflammation (besides persistent reflux) to prompt me to take a bunch of foods out of my diet. I didn’t want to lose 15 pounds in a month and then gain it all back after I reintroduced foods.
I explored my options, and then saw an ad for the new Weight Watchers Freestyle program (yes, the one Oprah has been raving about). I liked the idea of all the Zero points foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, eggs, Greek yogurt, skinless chicken breasts, shrimp, beans, etc. I also liked that I didn’t have to track every single calorie. If you eat a Zero point food you can track it but it isn’t mandatory like it would be on MyFitnessPal. Plus, I didn’t have to radically cut things out of my diet like alcohol, sugar, flour, dairy, etc. Plus, you can eat out if you want, since Weight Watches has a great database of restaurant foods and how many points they equal.
Without giving it too much thought, I dove in, signing up for the online version. The bonus is that I can get two-months worth of membership back if I lose 10 pounds. That’s an incentive!
At first I was crabby, I’ll admit it. I was sad about giving up so much sugar and carbs. Then as the days went on, I realized how addicted I had been to sugar and carbs. The amount of cream and sugar I was dumping into my coffee daily (not to mention those loaded Starbucks drinks) had probably put 10 pounds on me alone. I started allowing myself one teaspoon of sugar in my coffee per day and using stevia for the rest. I began eating way more fruits and vegetables (and eggs) because they were zero points. In my first week alone, I lost 3.7 pounds. And I was eating great food–just much smaller portions and more lean protein and vegetables. It’s not rocket science, I know. You just have to be motivated and I finally am. The app is super easy to use and I can easily scan barcodes to see how many points that item is worth. The other day I was in the grocery store and got to the check-out line starving. I quickly scanned a LaraBar to see how many points it had–couldn’t be that bad, right? 11 points! Out of my daily 23? No thanks. I went home and ate some grapes for zero points and was just fine.
I have done so much more cooking at home and meal prep and my family keeps telling me that although they didn’t think I needed to lose weight, I look great and seem to have more energy. The weight watchers app has so many simple and tasty recipes I really don’t feel deprived at all.
In the past 11 days, I’ve had pizza, wine here and there, small amounts of dessert, and am still losing the weight. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me. It would be nice to reach my goal of 10-15 pounds by swimsuit season!
This case caught my eye in a recent round-up article of mysterious disappearances, mainly because it involves my home state of North Carolina, and the numerous theories that swirl around it.
Mary Shotwell Little was a young 25-year-old newlywed and secretary at a bank in Atlanta, GA. On Oct. 14, 1965, the night of her disappearance, her husband Roy Little was out of town for work training but planning to return the next day. Mary had plans to throw him a welcome-back party, and after work, she shopped for groceries and arranged to meet a co-worker for dinner at the Piccadilly Cafeteria at the Lenox Square Shopping Center. The next day, Mary didn’t show up for work and never called in, which was unusual for her. Her boss spoke with the colleague she had dinner with the night before and found out Mary left the cafeteria around 8 p.m. in good spirits. Security guards couldn’t find Mary’s car, a 1965 Mercury Comet, at first but then located it in the parking lot of the shopping center.
There was something unusual about the car, though. It was covered in a layer of red dust, as if it had been driven on a dirt road. Police found bags of groceries were found in the backseat. A pile of folded undergarments, speckled with blood, lay between the bucket seats, and a single nylon with one cut in it and a bra were on the floor. Mary’s coat, purse, keys, jewelry and dress were never found.
On the day following her disappearance, Mary’s credit card was used at a gas station in Charlotte, NC, which also happened to be her hometown, and then 12 hours later in Raleigh, NC. Investigators thought that was odd because the two cities were only about 3- 3 1/2 hours apart–so why would anyone wait so long in between credit card purchases? They were both signed “Mrs. Roy H. Little Jr.” Attendants at both gas stations told investigators they had seen a woman who appeared to have a head injury with blood on her head and legs with two unidentified men, but she kept her face hidden.
There are many theories about what happened to Mary, although none have ever been proven. Of course suspicion fell first on her husband, Roy, as it often does when a woman vanishes. He reportedly came across as cold and unconcerned when she went missing and refused to take a lie detector test on many occasions. But although many of her friends didn’t care for him, she seemed to be happy in the marriage and he had no motive to bring her harm.
There is also speculation that Mary staged her own disappearance, due to the carefully staged items (and small amount of blood smears) in her car, but that hasn’t been proven, either. A woman did report that a man tried to accost her in the Lenox Square Shopping Center just a few hours before Mary would have been heading to her own car after dinner.
Co-workers told investigators Mary had taken several calls at work that seemed to be from an old suitor, whom she told she was married and no longer available. She also received a bouquet of flowers from a secret admirer that so that was also a little unsettling. Had someone been stalking her?
There were also reports of a sex scandal at Mary’s office that she knew about, and an F.B.I. agent had been sent in to investigate it. But although Mary had knowledge of it, investigators couldn’t tie those claims to her disappearance. It is a strange coincidence though that 18 months after Mary went missing, a female co-worker named Dianne Shields was found murdered, sexually assaulted and left in the trunk of her car. No link could ever be found between the two cases, though.
According to this recent article in The Charlotte Observer, a retired area detective has been spending time trying chase down a story that an inmate told two F.B.I. agents in 1966. He claimed he had been acquainted with two men who told him they had abducted a woman and killed her at a house in Mount Holly, NC. And . . . they were each paid $5,000 to do so.
And the mystery deepens, indeed.
Sometime last year I came across a video on the case of Tara Calico, who vanished from her hometown in Belen, New Mexico after heading out on her daily 34-mile bike ride on her mother’s Huffy (Tara’s bike had a flat tire and needed to be repaired). The year was 1988 and Tara was 19 years old. Her mother knew she wouldn’t be gone too long because she had an afternoon tennis date with her boyfriend.
Witnesses saw a white pick-up truck following closely behind her as she took off, and although she had only planned on taking a short ride, she never came home. After the initial 24-hour waiting period, police traced her route and found her Boston cassette tape lying by the side of the road about three miles from her home. Tara was described as outgoing, studious, and hard-working. She was attending a local college and working part-time when she vanished, so her family believed immediately that she wouldn’t have left on her own.
Some time later a Walkman believed to have belonged to Tara was discovered about 19 miles away at a local campground, along with what looked to be bike tracks or scuffle marks.
About nine months after Tara vanished, a woman came across a Polaroid photo in the parking lot of a grocery store in Port St. Joe, Fla. A white cargo van had been previously parked in the spot where the photo was found. The photo showed a young woman and an even younger boy both bound and gagged on a bed with some striped sheets.
The picture appeared to have been taken in the back of a white Toyota cargo van with no windows. When Tara’s mother saw the picture, she insisted the girl, who had a V.C. Andrews novel placed beside her, was Tara. Andrews was Tara’s favorite author. Other people speculated the boy with Tara was Michael Henley, a nine-year-old boy who had gone missing in the New Mexico Zuni mountains in 1988, but his remains were later found near the area where he went missing two years later.
The case has never been solved, but with the renewed interest of the former sheriff, Rene Rivera, and an old classmate of Tara’s, Melinda Esquibel, closure could be on the horizon. There are rumors in the town of Belen that two teenage boys were possibly involved in the abduction and subsequent murder of Tara, and that parents of the boys helped cover it up. When Esquibel began working on documentary of the case, the sheriff’s office in Valencia County gave her access to what little files existed on the case. What she found was in shambles and it was evident files had gone missing over the years. She began her own investigation that has been turned into a podcast, Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation. I just started listening to the podcast and am curious to see what unfolds.
A lot of the fiction I write is inspired by true crime stories, and the Tara Calico case is no different. After hearing the initial story, I envisioned a young woman and boy held in captivity together for several years, and what would happen when they finally got the courage to escape. I wrote a short story called “The Polaroid,” and recently found out it placed first in the Suspense/Thriller Category of the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards.
The story of the McStay family intrigued me from the time I first heard about their sudden disappearance from their California home to the discovery of their bodies in the desert in the fall of 2013.
By all accounts, Joseph McStay, age 40, and his wife Summer, age 43, were happy and living the American dream. They had recently moved to a home in the suburbs of Fallbrook with their sons Gianni, age 4 and Joseph Jr., age 3, with plans to renovate it. Joseph ran a successful decorative water fountain business and he and Summer doted on their two young children.
In February 2010 Joseph’s father Patrick received an e-mail from one of Joseph’s business partners who was concerned because he hadn’t heard from Joseph. After Joseph’s brother visited the house and saw no signs of the family, Patrick called the local sheriff’s department and asked for them to do a welfare check. The detective who visited the home noticed two dogs in the backyard with a large bag of dog food, and signs that the family may have left the home abruptly. There was evidence of paint cans where Joseph and Summer had been painting along with food on the counter and bowls of popcorn on the couch. Family members were concerned–as Summer loved her dogs and would have never left them unattended in the backyard for days. The last time anyone had heard from the family had been on Feb. 4.
After several days, the sheriff’s department learned that the family’s Isuzu Trooper had been towed from a strip mall in San Diego, not far from the border of Mexico. Video surveillance on Feb. 8 during that time period showed a shadowy family of four making their way across the border checkpoint, but no one could ever confirm if it was the McStays or not. Authorities believed for the first few years that the McStays had traveled to Mexico during that time period and never returned. But the McStays had more than $100,000 in their bank accounts when they disappeared and it was never touched.
In November of 2013, a motorcyclist in the desert found a set of human remains buried in Victorville, Calif. The bodies were later determined to be those of the McStay family, and it was clear they had died violent deaths, including blunt force trauma. Not long after, police arrested Chase Merritt, Joseph’s business associate in the fountain business who had also been the one to notify Patrick McStay of the missing family. Merritt was also the last person known to be in contact with Joseph–they met for lunch the afternoon of the family’s disappearance. He also had borrowed $30,000 from Joseph to cover a gambling debt. Merritt is still awaiting trial, as he keeps firing his counsel and has attempted to represent himself a few different times. He has a criminal background and apparently wrote thousands of dollars worth of check’s from Joseph’s business accounts in the days after the disappearance.
While this all seems shady, I have to wonder what exactly went down. Had Joseph discovered Merritt was embezzling money and confronted him? Or was he about to make the discovery and Merritt tried to head him off? Why kill the whole family? The police didn’t see any signs of violence when they examined the home, although there were fresh coats of paint on the walls where they assumed Joseph and Summer had been painting. But by the time they arrested Merritt in 2014 another family was living in the house and they couldn’t do the usual testing for blood spatter, etc. Too much time had passed. There also wasn’t any blood in the Isuzu Trooper, which Merritt must have driven to the border checkpoint in an attempt to throw a wrench in the investigation. His DNA was found in the car, possibly from a skin or sweat transfer, but that could easily be explained away by a criminal defense attorney. Investigators are looking into the idea that Merritt may have had help in committing the crime.
So where did the murder take place? A sledgehammer, most likely the murder weapon, was found in the shallow graves of the bodies. That would cause cast-off that was never found. The bottom line is–the story is heartbreaking. A loving mother and father and two very young children lost their lives over what–money? I’m just hopeful that if Merritt is the one responsible that he is convicted and given the harshest punishment possible for the senseless deaths of the McStay family.