Former CIA officer tackles crime in fiction
By Jody Ewing
January 13, 2005
CIA officer Carter Elliott sat in the US Attorney’s office with the secret service and state police, the postal inspection service bureau, and other task force members discussing what had gone awry in a child pornography case. There’d been some recent legislation passed to combat child porn and whenever anything like that happened all the special agents in all the branches strived to be the first to get a conviction under the new statute.
They also had a good case because the female victim was classified as a minor. By the time it got to court, however, the victim had turned 18 and become a full-blown prostitute. By the time they got the trial scheduled, she was killed by one of her johns.
As they pondered what went wrong, Elliott turned to the postal inspector.
“You’ve done a lot of these,” he said. “What happens to these people? The ones that are very young, when there isn’t a market for child prostitutes after they’re no longer children?”
The postal inspector responded with a frank, but honest, answer. “Well, unfortunately, it happens very much like the one we just lost,” he said. “There’s a smooth, seamless transition that goes from child pornography to drug and alcohol addiction, then prostitution, and ultimately, early death.”
As an officer in the Marine Corps, and later as a special agent, Elliott discovered some hard truths about human nature and the genesis of crime, many of which he’d later apply to his debut novel “Riding a Blue Horse.”
No victimless crime
“Riding a Blue Horse” tells the story of 14-year-old Molly Small, who’s made her way to a remote West Virginia mountain county that headquarters a ring of kiddie-porn operators. Molly’s unexpected appearance in Shawnee turns out to be the first in a series of unusual events facing God-fearing state trooper Roscoe Bragg and a young postal inspector.
The day after Molly’s arrival, a private plane crashes into Dumb John’s Mountain, leaving the pilot dead, and huddled in the snowy wreckage, a terrified illegally adopted 6-year-old boy. There are more surprises in store when “Stupe” – a lumbering, simpleminded teenager – discovers the heavy leaf bag doesn’t contain the dead fawn his daddy said he’d hit and wanted Stupe to bury.
Elliott not only succeeds in tackling difficult subject matter, he brings to life the dialect and folkways of a West Virginia community in a page-turning thriller that snakes up snow-covered Sad Mother Mountain and skids down Dumb John’s Mountain faster than a car hitting ice on a hairpin curve.
“I spent an awful lot of time talking to victims and working joint cases with the postal inspection service, who handled much of the child pornography cases,” Elliott said in a telephone interview from his home in southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. “Pedophiles are probably the poorest subjects for rehabilitation of any, so I got to thinking less and less about the pedophiles — who probably would not be rehabilitated — and more about the victims.”
Elliott initially had reservations concerning writing about a topic some find uncomfortable, but soon discovered the crime had a far-reaching effect.
“In pornography, where do you draw the line between the child [and adult]? You take a picture of a little girl that’s 11 years old and say, ‘that’s child pornography,'” he says. “Well, what about 12 years old? Yes? Well, what about 14? What about 19? Oh, well, if that’s all right, what about 18? You get to the point where this is not a victimless crime, and that made it easier to write about.”
Elliott says victims constantly accept abuse as the norm and it is something one must understand if they’re going to work in the field. In Molly’s case, she had long accepted abuse in her own life but abhorred the idea that others may be headed for the same fate.
“Everyone has a line that can’t be crossed,” he says. “And some of them are way off our map, that of the so-called ‘normal’ people.”
Drawing on inner resources
Over the course of his careers in law enforcement and counseling, Elliott has witnessed the human condition at its best and worst. The Indiana native began college at age 16 — excelling in physics and math — and had plans to become a druggist like his father. World War II set the young Tyrone Power film idol fan on a far different course, beginning as a Japanese interpreter for the U.S. Marine Corps. Then he got a phone call.
“The Korean War had started, and they said ‘we need you,'” Elliott recalls. “They had this organization they wanted me to work for that nobody had ever heard of. It was the CIA.”
“Father Flanagan used to say he had never met a bad boy. Well, I have,” he says. “I think we err when we try to attribute crime to poverty or child abuse or discrimination or racism or whatever. There are only two reasons people commit crimes, and it’s not just a question of opportunity. One is a lack of moral restraint, and two is no fear of punishment.”
If a person has no moral restraint and no fear of punishment, Elliott says they will commit a crime if an opportunity presents itself. Through his novel’s unlikely heroes, Molly and Stupe, Elliott draws on his psychological background and training to show how even the demoralized can summon inner resources — humor, courage, ingenuity and sheer will — they don’t even know they possess.
“You have to have an anchor. If you don’t believe in something, you will fall for anything,” says Elliott, whose unique and successful approach to counseling has won commendations from the Disabled American Veterans to the U.S. Department of Labor as well as a national award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
This article first appeared in the Weekender on January 13, 2005.
Copyright © Jody Ewing, 2010