Published on February 8th, 2016 | by Ivy Sweet0
‘Gitchie Girl’ follows horrific Iowa murder, one survivor’s story
A Sioux City author and teacher recently topped Amazon’s true crime list for a story about a gruesome northwest Iowa murder.
Phil Hamman, an English teacher at East High School, co-authored “Gitchie Girl” with his wife, Sandy. The book is an account of a quadruple murder that took place in Gitchie Manitou State Preserve in 1973. The park is about 80 miles north of Sioux City, just minutes southeast of Sioux Falls.
“Gitchie Girl” is not just a usual recounting of facts; Hamman has a personal connection to the survivor and the victims in this story, one of whom was his childhood best friend, Michael Hadrath.
“Mike and I did everything together,” Hamman recalled in a recent interview. “We played sports together. He was my best friend.”
Hamman first heard the news of his friend’s death on the radio.
“A rumor flew around that there had been a murder. Then I heard their names over the radio and it made me physically sick to my stomach.” Visits to the funeral home and the teenage boys’ funerals followed the grisly announcement. “It was just a terrible thing.”
Life in the Sioux Falls area changed after that night, Hamman said. Even those who did not know any of the victims personally were affected by the shock of the crimes. “It struck fear in you,” Hamman said. “It made you think twice about hanging out at night in a secluded area or a lake.”
For years, rumors about the case, the victims, and the lone survivor abounded. Now, at long last, the rest of the story has been revealed by the Hammans. The two worked closely with Sandra Cheskey, who was 13 at the time, and is the sole survivor of the nighttime campground shooting.
“I presented the idea to the publishing company about a year and a half ago,” Hamman said. “I knew it would make an intriguing story. This was human drama at its highest.”
Hamman already had a publishing contract under which he had released two memoirs, “Under the Influence” (2013) and “disORDER” (2014), about his rough teenage years and dealing with the death of his best friend. “Needless to say, I didn’t have a cushy life,” he said, summing up his memoirs.
Cheskey, who knew Hamman as a child and had read his memoirs, approached him about telling her story, one which was never fully revealed. After all, who could do it better than someone who had an emotional connection to the victims?
Compiling historical details about the crime and turning it into a novel was no easy task. Hamman and his wife Sandy spent many hours cross-referencing Internet sources with old court records, looking at autopsy records, interviewing people involved, and interviewing the victims’ families.
Next came the arduous task of condensing it all into a book.
“We wanted to filter through and try to make a story that would be affordable and could be read in two or three sittings,” Hamman said. “People don’t want to read a book that’s 900 pages, and it would be too expensive.”
Hamman said the co-authoring with his wife was divided pretty evenly – one would write one section and have the other edit, and vice versa. “She would write some and I would write some,” Hamman said. “We’d give each other suggestions on what might sound better or what would be more intriguing.”
Having read the book myself, I can attest that the writing does a great job of making the reader feel as if they are right there watching the story unfold.
Written mostly from survivor Sandra Cheskey’s third-person point of view, the reader is dropped into a first-hand recollection of the sights, sounds, and feelings of the night that the murders occurred and the experiences Cheskey endured in the days, weeks and years to follow.
“Only the lone survivor could recall exactly what was said and what happened,” said Hamman. “You’re getting the vivid inside story.” And it’s one that Cheskey said little about for most of four decades.
This book could not exist without Cheskey’s account of that awful night and her life afterward. Hamman says it was Cheskey’s family who pushed her to finally break her silence.
“She has grandchildren now that are about that age [that she was when it happened],” he said. “There were a lot of rumors out there about what happened and she wanted to set the record straight. That’s really what this book was about for her: Set the record straight, give hope to some people, and have something for her family to have handed down.”
Contrary to what someone might expect from a true crime novel, the book is very hopeful. One unique aspect to “Gitchie Girl,” in addition to being a firsthand account, is that it does more than provide the horrific details of the deaths of four teenagers and the trials that followed.
It reveals Cheskey’s life story in the wake of the murders and shows the suffering she endured both psychologically and socially for years after the crimes were committed.
In the book, we learn how three brothers, Allen, James, and David Fryer, who were out poaching deer, came upon a group of five teenagers around a campfire at the state park.
According to a history on Wikipedia: David Fryer was sent to spy on the group and reported back to his brothers that the teenagers had marijuana. The brothers conferred and decided to take the victims’ marijuana by impersonating narcotics officers. Testimony at the trial indicated that the Fryers apparently thought narcotics agents were allowed to indiscriminately kill drug users.
After killing the four men, the brothers drove Sandra Cheskey to a farm, where she was raped. The next morning she was taken home after one of the brothers said she was “too young to get busted.” Her testimony was instrumental in bringing the perpetrators to justice. All three of the Fryer brothers were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. They are all currently serving their sentences at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa.
But as things settled down, Cheskey was ostracized at school and labeled the “Gitchie Girl” by former friends and their parents who did not want their children to associate with her. “They treated her like she was tainted,” Hamman said. “She was branded with leper status.”
Through it all, though, she eventually married, started a family, and moved on with her life. And that light at the end of Sandra’s tunnel – and her journey toward it – are what make her story so extraordinary.
“She’s a very upbeat person who lived through so much,” Hamman said. “She’s very optimistic. That’s the amazing thing about this book.”
“Gitchie Girl” has seen great success both online and off since its release Jan. 11. It quickly hit the No. 1 spot on Amazon.com’s true crime new releases and has been gathering plenty of newfound interest since.
“[The publishing company] sent 1,000 copies up to Sioux Falls and they were gone within a week,” Hamman said excitedly.
Interestingly, Hamman says he never had any intention of becoming a writer.
“I had no intention of writing books. They came about as a fluke,” he said. “I just wrote those two memoirs and got a publishing deal, but then they became so successful that I decided to write this book.”
And he’s not putting the pen down anytime soon. A fourth novel is halfway finished he said. “It’s about the life of a person that I know. I think it will be a really intriguing story.”
As our interview concluded, Hamman recalled the friends he lost that cruel night so long ago.
“I just think about all the lives that were affected that night,” he said. “All the life that they didn’t get to experience… they never got to grow up and start a family. It just teaches you that you should enjoy every age that you can.”
He shook his head. “Just such a senseless waste of life.”
“Gitchie Girl” can be purchased in paperback for $11.27 or e-book format for $4.99 on Amazon.com.
Photo: Phil Hamman Twitter page