Ann Rule’s Sloppy Storytelling

How Seattle's Queen of True Crime turned a battered woman into a killer sociopath.

Editor’s Note, July 28: For a list of corrections to this story, along with copies of the documents used in writing it, click here and scroll down to where it says “UPDATE.” 

Editor’s Note, July 22: The story below, written by Rick Swart, is about true-crime author Ann Rule, and the facts he claims she didn’t get right in her book Heart Full of Lies, an account of the 2000 shooting death of Oregon pilot Chris Northon. In Swart’s telling, Northon’s wife Liysa, who is currently serving a 12-year sentence for the murder, was failed by her original lawyer, an overzealous district attorney, and Rule, who claimed that Liysa was not the battered wife she’d portrayed herself to be, but rather a sociopath who’d concocted tales of abuse as a justification for shooting her husband.

What Swart failed to reveal to us is that he’s now engaged to Liysa. Here’s how we found out.

On July 21, at 2:36 PM, Rule wrote a note to her fans about the article. She described it as “deliberately mean” and “full of inaccuracies.” She also wrote this: “There is a back story concerning the article’s author that I cannot reveal at the moment-it will knock your socks off when my lawyer allows me to tell you about it.”

Seeing as how I had edited Swart’s piece, I wasn’t surprised by Rule’s response. But I did want to know what Swart thought Rule’s big reveal might be. So at 3:52 PM that same afternoon, I e-mailed him and asked if there was anything he hadn’t told us about the story.

It wasn’t until 1:21 AM on July 22 that Swart returned my e-mail and told me what he thought Rule might be hinting at: “What she’ll probably say is I’m in love with Liysa Northon (which is true).”

By 7 AM this morning, after I’d read Swart’s e-mail, Rule’s readers had already found out about Swart’s love affair. They pointed to a new post on Liysa’s web site, where a just-posted picture showed the inmate and Swart in an embrace with the caption “This is my fiance’ (sic) Rick Swart.”

Here’s where we need to backtrack for a second. Swart is a former third-generation publisher and editor of a small town newspaper in Oregon. He grew up in the business. He had 25 years of experience as a journalist. But he was still unknown to us when he first pitched Liysa’s story.

What we found out about Swart was that he was as controversial as you might expect the guy in charge of a small town newspaper to be. He’d once been sued for defamation by a U.S. Senate candidate for an unflattering editorial, a case that was dismissed and a ruling that was upheld on appeal by the Oregon Supreme Court. He’d also been pilloried for taking the side of loggers over environmentalists, and waging a one-man campaign to get a local high school to stop using a mascot that was offensive to Native Americans. He’d made friends. He’d made enemies. But he appeared to have a long history of telling the truth.

When Swart turned in his first revised draft it was 12,000 words long. He and I had hours of phone conversations and exchanged many e-mails in order to get the beast down to a manageable size. All along, he swore to the veracity of the facts his article contained–facts that were backed up by primary documents and interviews–and his true reason for writing Liysa’s story: he was just a curious journalist who’d found a great yarn.

Had we known, as we now know, that Swart and Liysa were engaged that disclosure would have been made explicit in the story. This morning I contacted Swart by phone to ask him why he didn’t tell me about the enormous conflict of interest. This is how he explained his decision to withhold that information from us:

“It’s a freelance piece first of all. I’m selling you a product. So it’s not like you’re my boss and you need to know my personal life. My background is in community newspapers where we write about people we know, people we have relationships with, all the time. We don’t have the luxury of big staffs. So we’re not as able to have those arms-lengths relationships I guess…I’m willing to have all this fall squarely on my shoulder.”

It should go without saying that this is not a satisfactory response. If you’re writing about your fiancee, or anyone with whom you have a relationship, you tell the reader. Community newspaper, national newspaper, alt-weekly. It doesn’t matter.

As for the salient facts of the story, Swart says those haven’t changed: “The story is true. I turned over every rock. I was as diligent as I could be to make sure it was factual, true, and even fair. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. And it’s not the first time I’ve had to write about someone I known or people I care about. I don’t get as hung up about that as a lot of people do. I understand why they do, but I don’t necessarily agree with that philosophy. It’s my personal life and I’d like to think I’m able to separate that from my craft.”

Needless to say, it’s now clear that our philosophy and Swart’s differ. As a result, we’ll be double and triple-checking the facts he first provided us, facts that were obtained, like we said, from court documents and interviews Swart says he conducted.

We will, of course, let you know what we find out as soon as we find it out. Thanks for your patience. CALEB HANNAN 

The day after Liysa Northon shot and killed her husband Chris, I remember thinking it was an open-and-shut case. It was Tuesday, October 9, 2000, when word came that the local sheriff was investigating a homicide in a national forest near my hometown of Enterprise, in the far northeastern corner of Oregon.

Murders were not unheard of in Enterprise (pop. 2,000). But they were unusual enough that they always made the front page of the newspaper, and it was my job to put them there.

News of the killing arrived while I was laying out the Wallowa County Chieftain, just as I had for the past 20 years, and just as the men in my family had for the 40 before that. I knew the campground where the murder took place because it was a few miles from the hunting cabin where my grandfather hobnobbed with local bigwigs like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

Word was that Liysa had been found in a hospital emergency room being treated for her own injuries when she was arrested. After two decades of dealing with the police, I knew that domestic-violence calls were the ones cops feared the most because of their unpredictable nature. It sounded at first like the simple act of a woman who’d had enough finally fighting back.

It was a surprise, then, to see what happened in the years that followed. First, despite what looked like ample evidence that she’d been abused, Liysa agreed to a plea deal that put her in jail for a dozen years. Then came Ann Rule.

When the former Seattle police officer turned famous true-crime writer visited tiny Enterprise, it was an event. Rule arrived looking for a story. She left with the raw material for a book that would go on to join 30 of her other titles as New York Times best-sellers.

As the boss, I was normally our paper’s go-to guy when it came to covering big trials. But I assigned a cub reporter to cover Liysa’s trial instead. Which is why I was so shocked, years after I’d left Enterprise, when I finally got around to reading Rule’s book. The crime I thought had been so simple was, in fact, not. In Rule’s telling, Liysa Northon wasn’t a battered wife; she was a sociopath who’d spent years lying about abuse to provide an alibi for cold-blooded murder, and, afterward, to cash an insurance check.

Equally surprising was Rule’s written lament that she wished she could have interviewed Liysa. “Why didn’t she?” I thought. The woman was locked up in prison. It wasn’t as if she was going anywhere.

Last December my curiosity got the better of me, and I mailed a letter to Liysa. A few weeks later she replied and granted me the first interview she’d given to any journalist since being locked up at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility almost exactly 10 years ago. I entered that conversation with a healthy dose of skepticism. But after several months spent reviewing more than a thousand pages of court documents and interviewing Liysa and two dozen others with ties to the case, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the title of Rule’s book, Heart Full of Lies, better describes the author than her subject.


Chris and Liysa Northon looked like the perfect couple. Forty years old and a successful Hawaiian Airlines pilot when they met and married in 1996, Chris was tall, dashing, and, according to Liysa, had a body like Adonis. He also defied her expectations of what a hunky athlete should like, preferring Masterpiece Theater to Monday Night Football on account of his background playing piano.

Liysa was his match in every way—a petite, sun-bleached brunette six years his junior who was also a world-class bodysurfer, accomplished sports photographer, and former Baywatch stuntwoman. Healthy, wealthy, and attractive, the couple split their time between a beach home in an exclusive neighborhood on the island of Oahu and a mountain retreat in Bend, Ore., where they hiked, swam, and camped, all while raising one son from Liysa’s previous marriage and one son from their own.

It seemed as if they were made for each other. “In my eyes, we were like this ideal match,” Liysa says in a phone call from the minimum-security cellblock at Coffee Creek. Ideal, that is, until a new side of Chris began to emerge.

The first red flag appeared on their honeymoon while they drove from Lake Tahoe to Yellowstone. Chris made Liysa get out of the car after she said a convicted child killer should hang for his crimes. She later found out why her new husband had been set off by the conversation—he’d been molested as a boy, she says, once by a relative and another time by a coach.

A few months later, Chris put his hands on Liysa for the first time. He’d been drinking, and they’d been arguing, when he grabbed her neck and began choking her. They were both startled by the sudden violent act. “I was shocked and so was he,” says Liysa. “I said, ‘That’s spouse abuse.’ And he acted horrified and appalled and said, ‘I know.’ “

At the time, Liysa thought the strangulation was just a one-time loss of control. Even though it was clear Chris was drinking too much—it wasn’t uncommon for him to finish the better part of a bottle of vodka on any given night—and he had trouble controlling his anger, she says his profuse apologies convinced her such a thing would never happen again.

“Everybody deserves forgiveness,” she says. “In a way it increased our intimacy, because it was something traumatic that we had gotten past together.”

Yet despite his claims to the contrary, Liysa says, the abuse had only just begun.

For the beatings that followed—which, according to Liysa, occurred as often as two or three times a week, right up to the time of the shooting—she says Chris liked to remind his wife what he really thought of her. “You fucking bitch,” he would say during some of the assaults.

The boys got so used to the abuse that they were trained to retreat to the next room whenever it began. According to Liysa, Chris hit her in the face with his fist, smashed her head against the wall, dragged her by the hair, and kicked her in the ribs while she was shielding one of the boys. Several times he’d choke her until she almost passed out. Once he threw her out of a moving car.

Most of the time, Liysa didn’t involve the police for fear it would only anger Chris. But on a few occasions, the abuse was documented.

In July 1997, Liysa called Bend police after Chris choked her. According to Liysa, the officers who arrived acted as if they were old friends of her husband’s (Chris went to high school in Bend; she grew up in Walla Walla) while they admired his model-plane collection. They then went into a room alone with Chris, where Liysa says she could hear them laughing. Once they came out, the police said, “You guys just need to get some counseling.” It was that first consequence-free brush with authority, says Liysa today, that gave Chris the confidence that he could always get away with hitting her.

Months after first calling the cops, Chris hit and strangled Liysa again, this time after their oldest son’s 6th birthday party. The boy had received a camera as a present and used it to take pictures of his mother, her black eyes matching the bruises on her neck.

In February 1999, during a doctor’s visit, Liysa’s physician became suspicious after seeing a number of wounds, including cuts, scrapes, and a massive bruise on her leg. After she got Liysa to concede that the welts had been put there by her husband, the doctor called police.

Chris was charged with assault and admitted to the arresting officer that he had an anger problem. Liysa got a restraining order against him, but says Chris came back home almost immediately and began threatening her.

“He told me if I pressed charges he’d kill me,” she says.

What was worse, says Liysa, was that when police called their home and Chris answered, they did nothing, even though his presence was a violation of the restraining order. To Liysa, it felt as if there were no way out.

Then, on the night of October 8, 2000, a year after she’d first filed a restraining order, Liysa, Chris, and their youngest son went camping in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Being in the woods always seemed to put Chris in a good mood, so Liysa calculated that if she would ever be able to convince him to go to rehab—both for alcohol and drug abuse; Liysa says Chris used pot, cocaine, Vicodin, and the sleeping pill Restoril to excess—now was the time.

Liysa screwed up her nerve. “You go to treatment or else,” she says she told Chris. It was a remark she would immediately regret.

Enraged by his wife’s ultimatum, Chris hit, choked, and nearly drowned Liysa in the freezing waters of the nearby Lostine River. When the couple’s 3-year-old cried “Don’t kill Mommy!” Chris momentarily backed off. But the abuse wasn’t over.

Later in the night, an even more inebriated Chris told Liysa that he wasn’t going to lose his job nor his family because of her complaints to the police. He told her that if anything happened, he was going to cut up her and the kids so that no one would ever be able to find their bodies.

It was at that point, says Liysa, after Chris threatened her and her boys with dismemberment, that she finally decided to leave him for good. In her words, she “wasn’t going to let the morning come” when someone else would find her dead.

After the sun went down, a terrified Liysa snuck to the couple’s Ford Explorer, reached into her camera bag, and pulled out a .38 revolver, given to her by a concerned relative. Her hands still numb from the icy river, she fumbled the weapon while trying to load it, causing it to misfire. Afraid the discharge had alerted Chris, she hurried back to the campsite to grab her son.

Running in darkness toward the child, she heard Chris moving around. It sounded, she says, as if he was coming after her. So she fired once, turned, and ran away holding her son.

She didn’t stop. She didn’t check to see if the shot she had fired had hit Chris. “I just ran,” she says.


When Liysa was booked into Union County Jail three days later, she still looked like a woman who’d been in the fight of her life.

After firing at Chris, she drove two and a half hours to her brother’s home in Walla Walla and told him about the blind shot she had just taken. While Liysa took a bath and went to the ER, her brother called a friend who worked for a local police department and had formerly served as a Wallowa County sheriff’s deputy.

Shortly after Liysa went to see the former deputy, he received a call from his old boss, the Wallowa County Sheriff. Chris was dead. The shot she had fired had hit him in the temple. The deputy had no choice but to arrest Liysa for her husband’s murder.

When Liysa was booked, her jailers detailed the marks visible on her body. Even though it had been 72 hours since Chris had laid hands on her, their report listed two pages of abuse, including one black eye, 17 bruises, seven abrasions, one cut on her right hand, and choke marks on her neck. When an aunt came to visit nearly a week after the shooting, she could still see the outward signs of violence. To her, it looked as if her niece “had taken one hell of a beating.”

In the days after her arrest, Liysa’s oldest son was interviewed four times by police detectives and private investigators. In each of those interviews, the boy, 9 at the time, maintained that he’d seen his stepfather physically abuse his mother many times. The day after Chris was shot, the boy told Oregon State Police detective Jim Van Atta that he’d seen Chris hit his mom with a chair, throw bottles and books at her, ram her head against the table, drag her around by the hair, and choke her “until she quit fighting.” He told the state police detective he’d heard Chris threaten to kill the whole family and burn down their house. He said he’d also seen him throw his mom from a moving car.

“Every time they argued, Mom got hurt,” the boy told Van Atta.

When Liysa hired Portland defense attorney Pat Birmingham to represent her, she says he asked for a $100,000 retainer and $150,000 in expenses, money she managed to scrounge together after selling her home in Hawaii. Over the next five months, Liysa says she only saw Birmingham a half-dozen times. Facing a charge of first-degree murder in a state with mandatory sentencing laws, Liysa was afraid that her lawyer’s absence meant she ran the risk of being found guilty and spending the rest of her life behind bars. Yet despite his infrequent visits, Birmingham was making progress on his client’s case.

A private investigator hired by Birmingham found out that, a year before she used it to fire the fatal round, Liysa’s father, Wayne DeWitt, a Harvard-educated college administrator, had given her the .38 revolver she’d used to shoot Chris. “Take this gun,” he told his daughter, “or he’s going to kill you and the kids.”

George Gaines, a former U.S. ambassador to Belgium whom Liysa had befriended, reported that she often showed up at his secluded California ranch, distraught and afraid, looking for a place to hide from her husband. “Liysa showed me bruises on her neck, shoulder, and side of her face,” Gaines said in his affidavit.

Terri Hampson, one of Liysa’s best friends, said that Chris was “verbally abusive” and had a “big alcohol and marijuana problem.” Ali Wilson, a friend of the Northons in Bend, said she told detectives she’d personally seen Chris abuse drugs, but they refused to include her details in their reports. Lori Baker, a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant, told Liysa’s investigator that her co-workers “blackballed” Chris and refused to date him because he had abused a former girlfriend and fellow flight attendant. In all, Birmingham’s investigator found 16 people willing to describe how Chris had abused both Liysa and himself—evidence backed up by what police found at the crime scene: a mostly-empty bottle of whiskey, a bottle of Kahlua two-thirds full, and a “quart-sized” bag of marijuana.

To the prosecution’s claim that Liysa had executed her husband from only a few feet away, Birmingham hired a ballistics expert who determined that she actually had been eight to 10 feet from Chris, a distance consistent with her story. The prosecution also claimed it had two “smoking guns” that showed Liysa had planned the murder: one, an e-mail she had written but never sent to her father, saying she wanted to kill Chris; the other a screenplay Liysa had written about the wife of a dive-shop owner who shoots and kills her husband with a spear gun and watches as sharks devour his body.

Birmingham and Liysa planned to counter the e-mail by saying it was one of nearly 400 she’d written that mentioned Chris’ abuse. They were also determined to call an expert on battered-woman syndrome who could testify that such behavior, along with an inability to simply leave her husband, wasn’t out of the ordinary. As for the screenplay, which she’d co-written with Jeff Arch (who himself had co-written Sleepless in Seattle), Liysa didn’t pretend that it wasn’t some form of wish fulfillment. But she also says that when she and Arch sent it to Disney, Paramount, and Warner Brothers, she had a motive besides Hollywood fame and fortune: The screenplay was evidence.

“If he’d killed me and all those studios had copies,” she says, “he would have definitely come under some scrutiny.”

With witnesses, expert and otherwise, lined up to testify on her behalf, Liysa thought she stood a chance of being found not guilty. So she was shocked when, after only two days of prosecution testimony, Birmingham told her he wanted her to plead to first-degree manslaughter, a charge that carried a sentence of 12 years.

As a seasoned defense attorney, Birmingham had some right to fear letting the trial play out. In a crucial pretrial ruling, the judge had ordered that battered-woman syndrome could not be used as a defense. It didn’t mean witnesses to the abuse could no longer be called to testify, nor that Birmingham couldn’t refer to a psychologist who had been ordered to see if Liysa was fit to stand trial, and found that she was most likely the victim of spousal abuse; it just meant a self-defense argument would be even harder to make.

Either way, Liysa wasn’t prepared for what Birmingham did next. In a conversation overheard by a bystander who would later confirm it in an affidavit, Birmingham told Liysa that if she didn’t accept the plea, he’d walk. Birmingham had already spent all the money she’d given him, which left her nothing for a new attorney. He’d also mysteriously refused to include on their witness list any of the experts he’d supposedly hired. (Birmingham refused to comment for this article.)

Terrified of spending the rest of her life in jail, Liysa says she felt as if she had no other choice. Still thinking she was innocent, she nonetheless did what Birmingham told her to do.


At 75, Ann Rule is one of Seattle’s best-known and most prolific authors. A former police officer who once worked side by side with serial killer Ted Bundy at a local suicide hotline, and who touts herself as “the foremost true-crime writer in America,” Rule has put out 33 books since 1969, following a formula she once outlined in an annual newsletter to her fans. “I am drawn to cases where the suspect is NOT the classic murderer,” Rule wrote. “If a person has all those things that most of us long for—physical beauty, wealth, charm intelligence, talent, love—and still wants more and more . . . these people make the best book subjects for me.”

In the preface to Heart Full of Lies, Rule’s description of Liysa—”attractive, charismatic, seductive, an acclaimed surf photographer, with a tanned, perfect body”—makes it clear that she fit the author’s profile of what constitutes a perfect subject. Also important: Liysa was a woman. After more than three decades of writing about murderers, the vast majority of whom were men, Rule wrote that the central question she wanted to explore in Heart Full of Lies was “Can the female really be deadlier than the male?”

A hip operation kept Rule from attending Liysa’s short trial. So to gather evidence, Rule says, she spent nine months on the road, driving to Oregon and flying to Hawaii to interview Chris’ surviving family.

As for the question at the heart of Rule’s book, the author found what she considered strong evidence to suggest it was not only possible but true. In Heart Full of Lies, Liysa is portrayed as a charismatic sociopath. According to Rule, after conducting dozens of interviews and sifting through a mountain of court documents, she never “found a person who had a bad thing to say about [Chris].” Liysa, meanwhile, wasn’t actually a battered wife. In reality, wrote Rule, she’d spent “two years creating a monstrous persona for Chris, one cunningly designed to make her actions appear justifiable when she lured him to a lonely place, far from help, and shot him in the head.”

Her reason: money.

In her book, Rule floats the theory that Liysa was motivated by a potential insurance payoff. “With Chris dead,” Rule wrote, “Liysa would be first in line to collect his insurance, his pilot’s benefits—including free flights on Hawaiian as a pilot’s widow—and his property in Bend.”

Rule lamented her inability to interview Liysa. To her readers, she confided that “It is difficult to place your trust in people who hide in the shadows of anonymity.”

Rule also wrote that on top of being a cold-blooded murderer, Liysa was a compulsive liar. According to her, Liysa hadn’t actually graduated from the University of Hawaii—”She had only two years of college, mostly elective courses,” wrote Rule—and was also lying when she said she was the only woman who had passed the test to become a Navy SEAL.

These lies were part of the reason Rule dismissed Liysa’s claims of abuse. After all, if she couldn’t be trusted to speak honestly about something as simple as whether or not she graduated from college, how could anyone take her other, far more serious accusations to be true?

There was another reason Rule didn’t think Chris was the monster Liysa portyrayed him to be: In the author’s mind, no one credible had ever seen the husband abuse his wife. “Other than Liysa herself,” wrote Rule, “there are no witnesses who saw him physically attack her.” Of “Papako,” the pseudonym Rule gave Liysa’s 9-year-old son, she said it looked as if he had been coached by his mother to tell police that Chris had done all those horrible things to her. In Rule’s mind, and in her book, the boy was simply trying to please his one remaining parent.


It took roughly three weeks from the time I first called Rule to hear back from her. When I finally did, she was apologetic, saying she’d been really busy lately.

After more than four decades spent writing, Rule shows no signs of slowing down. Even though the Puget Sound home where she penned many of her bestsellers is on the market—the water-fronting “writer’s getaway” is listed on her website for just shy of $1 million—Rule continues to be a prolific talent: She released her 32nd book last year and is already at work on the next.

At first, Rule was cooperative. She even sounded happy to hear from me—when I told her that I had edited the Chieftain, we very briefly reminisced about how some of my old reporter friends had helped her do research for Heart Full of Lies. She was also cheerful when she told me, as she had told her readers in the book, that she thought Liysa was a sociopath.

It was only when I began asking questions about how Rule went about writing the book that her demeanor changed. When I asked whether or not she had ever tried to get in touch with Liysa, I got one of many conflicting answers. At first she said, “If she’d chosen to talk to me that would be fine,” as if it had been Liysa’s decision not to meet.

Later, that answer changed to: “I think I tried. When you’re talking to a sociopath, you don’t get much out of them. They will perceive what you want and that’s what they’ll tell you.”

Confused by her response—did she actually try to contact Liysa, or is she just giving herself an out?—I asked once more. That’s when Rule made what sounded to me like an admission that she’d never attempted to contact Liysa: “I would have loved to talk to her, but she was pretty difficult to get a hold of.”

When I asked Rule if she still kept in touch with Chris’ family, she said she did. When I asked why she was so comfortable talking to them when she’d never reached out to anyone related to Liysa, she told me it was a matter of giving voice to the victims. “The people who commit the crimes,” said Rule, “have plenty of people to tell their side.”

At this point, there was still a lot more I wanted to know. But if Rule had been happy to hear from me at the start of our conversation, that wasn’t how she felt now. “I’m sorry I called you back,” she said in one of her last statements. “I’ve been through a lot with Liysa, and I don’t want to have to think about her anymore.”

And then, finally: “I hope I don’t get sued.”

I tried to reach out to Rule once more. There were still a lot of follow-up questions I wanted answered. Among them: In the custody trial over Liysa’s younger child, the guardian ad litem had said it was obvious that Chris had used drugs, had an anger problem, and abused his wife. Why didn’t Rule include those findings in the book? She wrote in the afterword that she didn’t understand why Liysa didn’t “just leave” Chris if she was really being abused. Did she not understand the complicated dynamics that might keep a woman from leaving an abusive husband, especially if she has children?

Rule also listed Liysa’s aunt, Bobbi Chitwood, in the acknowledgments as one of the people who had helped her write the book. But “I’ve never seen [Rule],” Chitwood told me. “I’ve never talked to her on the phone. And I sure as hell never helped her with her goddamned book.”

Why, I wanted to know, did Rule thank someone who so clearly didn’t want to be thanked—who, in fact, thought Rule’s book had further victimized her already-victimized niece?

I wanted answers to all these questions then, and I still do. But unfortunately, Rule never called me back.


When Liysa first read Rule’s book, she was furious. She watched, helpless, as Rule promoted it on Good Morning America, upset that corrections officials had denied her a chance to confront the author on camera. For every one of Rule’s accusations, there was a rebuttal. Only Liysa had never been asked for her side. She says “[Rule] didn’t write me a letter; she didn’t come see me; nothing.”

As a result, Liysa never got to prove to Rule that many of the lies she’d accused Liysa of telling weren’t lies at all. Transcripts back up the fact that Liysa did graduate from the University of Hawaii. And her boasts about the Navy SEALs were much more mundane than Rule claimed—she’d only said that she’d taken a class from a SEAL, not been the only woman ever to pass the test—and had the benefit of being true.

Even Rule’s theory about Liysa’s money motivation seems laughable to her. In reality, Chris’ life-insurance policy was relatively modest—$300,000, less than half the one Liysa had taken out on herself. And while she’d initially bought a policy for $700,000, because she had two children and he only had one, Liysa had purchased an extra $100,000 policy on herself months before the shooting because Chris’ behavior was becoming increasingly violent. If either one in the marriage stood to make a lot of money from the other’s death, it was Chris.

Most galling to Liysa, however, was Rule’s claim that the abuse she had suffered was a figment of her imagination—a story she’d concocted to manipulate the sympathies of those around her, not a traumatizing years-long nightmare that had left lasting marks on both her mind and her body.

A prison psychologist who interviewed Liysa wrote that “She is about as far from [a sociopath] as one can be.” And the consensus of multiple mental-health professionals who evaluated her is that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by domestic abuse.

To Liysa, it seemed as though Rule had not only avoided talking to her or anyone else who might not have had a favorable opinion of Chris, she’d also willfully ignored evidence that was right in front of her face. Rule reported on the custody trial over Liysa’s youngest son—referred to in the book by the pseudonym “Bjorn”—that took place after Liysa’s trial. Clad in shackles and belly chains, and representing herself against three attorneys, Liysa fought for and won an order barring Chris’ family and friends from claiming there was no abuse. (She also won the right for “Bjorn” to be placed in the custody of Don King, her previous husband and the father of her older son, rather than with Chris’ friend.)

Rule gives an account of the custody trial in her book, but fails to point out that the court-appointed guardian in the case, Billie Bell, testified that there had been significant domestic abuse in the marriage. She also never reported that a court-administered lie detector test found Liysa had been telling the truth about the night of the shooting.

Liysa first tried to sue Rule for defamation of character. But a judge ruled that as a prison inmate, she had no reputation left to lose, and dismissed the case. So she took to the Internet, spending more than a year researching and writing a page-by-page rebuttal to Rule’s book, then in 2008, with the help of friends, posting it online at

Beyond her accusations against Rule, Liysa’s website also lays into Birmingham, her former defense attorney. After being sentenced, Liysa appealed, arguing in part that it was Birmingham’s inadequate representation that had helped put her in jail.

On his own website, Birmingham lists Ann Rule and her book as an example of “the savvy needed to cope with the bright, unrelenting eye of the news media.” But Liysa says Birmingham only used that savvy to hurt her and burnish his own reputation.

Laurie Bender, Liysa’s attorney in her appeal, says that Birmingham fought the appeal by filing an affidavit that was full of privileged information, false statements, and fabrications. It was a sealed document that would later appear nearly verbatim in Rule’s book.

Birmingham denied giving the affidavit to Rule. In her response to the defamation-of-character lawsuit, Rule initially filed her own sworn affidavit that said Birmingham was the source, contradicting his claim. Yet she later backtracked, saying her earlier statement was a “miscommunication” and that she’d actually received the document “anonymously” from “somewhere in Oregon.” (Later still, when I interviewed her, Rule said the document came “from Portland,” but refused to provide more specifics.)

Liysa also took shots at Dan Ousley, the former Wallowa County prosecutor. Despite four years of beatings, photos of injuries, witnesses who saw bruises, and police reports, Ousley claimed he never saw any evidence that Chris beat his wife.

“At the time of the trial, there was no evidence of significant domestic violence,” Ousley wrote to Gov. Ted Kulongoski opposing her clemency application. It was a claim refuted not only by the bruises listed in Liysa’s booking report, but also by someone on Ousley’s prosecutorial team: Deputy Attorney General Steve Briggs, brought in to help Ousley argue the case, said in a court hearing that Liysa looked like she had been strangled (though Briggs did qualify that statement with: “but just a little”).

Ousley also claimed that he had no evidence that Chris Northon abused drugs or alcohol, despite the bottles of booze and marijuana found on the scene—evidence that the Wallowa County Sheriff’s office later used to train drug-sniffing dogs before it was destroyed.

Judge Stephen Tiktin, who presided at the custody trial over Liysa’s younger son, wasn’t so quick to dismiss the charges that Chris had abused drugs and beaten his wife. At the conclusion of that proceeding, Tiktin wrote an order saying it was more likely than not that Chris had used illegal drugs and alcohol to excess, and that Liysa “was a victim of domestic abuse.” Judge Tiktin also said that the claim that Chris had never used drugs was so preposterous that he deemed others holding that view as not credible, a group that would include Ousley.

Reached today, Ousley, now the district attorney for Wheeler County, the least populous in Oregon, says he doesn’t know how the judge could have arrived at conclusions about Chris and Liysa Northon so different from his own. “I don’t know what Judge Tiktin knew or didn’t know or what he had to say,” he says.

Liysa has also accused Ousley of eavesdropping on a jailhouse phone call between her and Bender, her appeals lawyer. Two guards, Tim Cotton and Deven Baremore, testified under oath that they were ordered to intercept mail between Liysa and her attorney and listen in on their conversations. And Liysa believes these ill-gotten communications likely prompted the “anonymous tip” to Ousley’s office that led investigators to her computer, where they found the supposed “smoking gun” screenplay—which was not only not a “smoking gun,” but deemed so irrelevant to her case that a judge ruled it inadmissible at trial.

That alleged eavesdropping pointed to an ongoing pattern of misconduct on the prosecution’s part, according to Bender, who subpoenaed the jailhouse phone logs to discover the extent of the breach. Union County Sheriff Steve Oliver twice received Bender’s subpoenas and twice promised he would produce the log, but then shredded the documents, according to sworn affidavits filed by Bender and a private investigator she hired.

Deb Waters, Liysa’s advocate at Shelter From the Storm, a support program for victims of domestic abuse based in La Grande, Ore., where she was locked up for 10 months while awaiting her trial, says Ousley and the sheriff’s behavior was all part of a pattern unique to the region. “All of this took place in a really red-necked, good-old-boy area,” says Waters. “They viewed [Liysa] as a woman who was maybe slapped around a bit, when in fact she was severely brutalized and traumatized for years.”

Waters says Ousley acted like a man starstruck by the Court TV cameras that covered Liysa’s case. (A viewer poll conducted prior to her plea bargain showed Liysa winning the trial by a comfortable margin.) “This was his day in the sun, and he didn’t want to look like a country bumpkin by losing his first big case on national TV,” says Waters. “With that kind of mind-set, you can see why he had a win-at-all-costs attitude.”

Ousley denies the eavesdropping accusation, and says he was unaware of Court TV’s interest in the case until the day before the trial. Yet three weeks prior to the trial there was a hearing on whether to allow Court TV’s cameras into the courtroom. Birmingham argued against it, Ousley in favor.

But for all her anger at her former attorney and the man who tried to put her away for life, Liysa, now 49, is still most upset at Rule: “[She] deliberately chose to profit from doing the one thing the court said would cause harm to my children—deny there was abuse. In my opinion, that makes her evil.”

“Papako” is now 19 and a recent graduate with honors from Punahou School, the same prestigious college-prep school that President Barack Obama attended while growing up in Hawaii. “Papako” considers Rule’s book “straight-out slander.” Of the author’s claim that he had been coached to tell police that his stepfather had habitually abused his mother, the boy—now a man—says that’s a lie too. “Even before Liysa killed Chris, I told a few other people about the abuse,” he says. “Rule presented a very skewed picture of what happened.”

“Papako” believes the damage to his mother’s reputation caused by Heart Full of Lies may be harder on her than the perceived miscarriage of justice perpetrated by the cops and courts, because the stigma will stay with her long after she is released from prison. He says he was also sickened to find that Rule had dedicated the book to his little brother, “Bjorn.”

Liysa says her portrayal by Rule has been the most difficult part of her whole ordeal because it hurt not only her but also her children. After Chris’ parents gave “Bjorn” a copy of the book, he told his mother that he hadn’t been able to finish it; reading it had made him so upset it gave him a stomachache.


After spending a decade behind bars, Liysa has adapted to prison life. She says she tries to stay focused on being grateful for the things she still has—a cup of instant coffee, a hot shower when she can get one, and talking to friends and family on the phone. “People who believe in me have made the difference between just feeling like lying down and dying and having the grit to keep going,” she says.

While imprisoned, Liysa has earned her paralegal certification and become a yoga instructor, and says she’s received so much mail from domestic-violence victims that she sometimes feels like a “jailhouse Dear Abby.” Other inmates have nicknamed her “Surfer.” Sometimes a guard will ask for her autograph.

On Halloween the year after the book came out, Liysa did her best imitation of Rule. She stuffed her prison-issue sweatshirt and jeans with pillows and towels, put on too much orange lipstick, pinned her hair in a bob, and tattooed her hand with the image of a heart and the words “Ted 4-eva.” The other inmates, and even the guards, howled and gave her an ovation.

“It was my way of confronting it,” says Liysa. “I wasn’t just going to cower. It was like, ‘Fuck her.’ “

With a parole date of October 2012, Liysa is working now to restore her reputation, rebuild her career, and spend quality time with loved ones, especially her two boys. And she sees hopeful signs on the horizon. She’s talking with an executive at a major sportswear company about taking pictures and working at the company’s retail store in Honolulu. A woman producing a documentary about domestic abuse is including her life story in the movie, and women’s shelters have already started to contact her about speaking engagements, where she hopes to address Oregon’s dismal record of protecting abused and battered women.

But beyond all that, what Liysa especially wants to do when she gets out is have a conversation with one person in particular. Maybe not just a conversation, but a debate. She’s daydreamed about something public, where she and Rule could talk about the merits of the case and of the book that came from it. The book that Liysa says made her a victim all over again.

But she says she doesn’t imagine Rule would want any part of that. And she may be right.

Toward the end of our first and only conversation, I asked Rule if she’d ever consider debating Liysa. Her response: “Everything I have to say I said in my book.”