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Adrian Havill isn’t a con, or even an ex-con, but he boasts of being able to spot former felons with ease. “My wife and I can go into a diner now and look at someone—say, a 40- or 50-year-old white guy—and be sure that he served time,” Havill says. “They have a look: sort of beat-up, world-weary. Some get pudgy; white guys in prison are afraid to exercise in the yards.” His research has also taught him the elements of making a prison tattoo: boot leather, guitar strings, and a lot of elbow grease.

Havill, who lives in Northern Virginia, has written biographies of Jack Kent Cooke, Woodward and Bernstein, and Christopher Reeve (and has been a contributor to the Washington City Paper). But, for the past couple of years, he’s been a full-time author of true-crime books. In 1999, he published The Mother, the Son, and the Socialite, a retelling of the events leading up to the murder of wealthy 82-year-old New Yorker Irene Silverman. In January, he published While Innocents Slept: A Story of Revenge, Murder, and SIDS, the story of Garrett Wilson, who was convicted in 1999 in Montgomery County, Md., for the 1987 murder of his infant son—a death initially attributed to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). By the end of this year, he will publish a book about Hadden Clark, who pleaded guilty in 1993 to murdering Laura Houghteling, 23, and was convicted in 1999 of murdering Michele Dorr, 6, more than a decade earlier. Havill has also just begun a book about recently accused spy Robert Philip Hanssen.

The crimes in his books are often gruesome, but Havill—who, at 60, has the youthful look and cheery manner of Regis Philbin—doesn’t rush to judgment. Though the first half of While Innocents Slept is a frank catalog of Wilson’s roguish, irresponsible, and even cruel behavior, Havill insists that such behavior alone does not prove Wilson’s guilt, adding that Wilson’s prime accuser—his ex-wife Mary “Missy” Anastasi—was motivated by revenge and that the prosecution fell short of mounting an airtight case.

“To this day, he will sit there and, very convincingly, say he couldn’t ever kill a child named after him,” Havill says. “What he was accused of was the most unthinkable thing anybody can do. If he committed this, he would have had to premeditate it for months in advance. That’s the most sociopathic thing anyone can do.” But is it possible?

“It’s something that as a journalist I try to block out,” Havill says. “I do not allow myself to think about it because, if I did, I think it would color my conversations. Though it’s difficult to do, I would do it with anybody who’s either accused or convicted of a crime. I think I win their confidence better if I don’t come across as either their prosecutor or their defender. I always tell them that I do a fair and balanced job.”

But Havill finds it hard to maintain indifference toward his subjects. He complied when Clark asked him for a J. Crew catalog—so that the prisoner could order gifts for his relatives—and was equally solicitous when Wilson mentioned that his daughter was starting to have slumber parties. “I got her a Barbie nightgown and mailed it to her,” Havill says. “It’s a way of keeping him talking to me. I would do it for anybody. I’m a softie like that.” —Louis Jacobson