POTSDAM — Katherine Mary “Katy” Hawelka — she was the peacemaker.
From his father’s recollections of the Korean War and the life of a Panama Canal Pilot, to collectible Simpsons merchandise, William D. LaRue has first-class writing range.
His latest publication, about what happened to Katherine M. “Katy” Hawelka in 1986, is strangely personal.
A St. Lawrence County native and retired Syracuse Post-Standard journalist, Mr. LaRue has penned his fourth book, “A Stranger Killed Katy: The True Story of Katherine Hawelka, Her Murder on a New York Campus, and How Her Family Fought Back.”
Mr. LaRue’s initial curiosity — he and Katy’s convicted killer Brian M. McCarthy share a hometown of Parishville — led him to approach Katy’s siblings and mom, Terry Ryan Taber, about telling their ongoing story.
“I didn’t really want to write anything that was going to make their pain any worse than what they had already gone through,” Mr. LaRue said.
With their blessing, he set out in 2018 on what would become a two-year paper chase — pulling him to Clarkson University, the Potsdam Police Department, St. Lawrence County Court, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and the state Board of Parole. He pored over court documents and police records, and reviewed “dozens of, if not a few hundred” newspaper clippings.
“It took a while to make sense of all of it,” Mr. LaRue said.
Katy’s story had been told in countless pieces, on news racks and television screens in the Potsdam and Syracuse communities. But the story hadn’t been completely chronicled in one place.
Through 31 chapters and 294 pages, Mr. LaRue details Katy’s 19 years. She was the second oldest of four children in a close-knit Central New York family. He spent hours with Katy’s mom and siblings, Joseph Hawelka Jr., Carey Hawelka Patton and Betsy Hawelka McInerney, and interviewed Katy’s Henninger High School friends and worked with the family’s attorney Joseph E. Fahey, a retired Onondaga County Court judge.
The attack happened at about 3:30 a.m. Aug. 29, the day after Katy moved in to her Clarkson apartment in Potsdam for her sophomore year. She was walking back to campus with a friend after the village bars closed, and when the pair parted, Katy cut through a parking area behind Walker Arena, now Walker Center.
McCarthy attacked, beat, raped and strangled Katy outside Walker that morning. She died three days later on Sept. 1, Watertown doctors declaring her brain dead and the Hawelka family agreeing to discontinue life support.
After McCarthy pleaded guilty to second-degree murder the following summer, he was sentenced to 23 years to life in prison. A 47-year-old McCarthy was eligible for parole 23 years later. At that juncture, Mr. LaRue’s account really takes off.
The state Board of Parole comprises 16 commissioners appointed to six-year terms by the governor. Victims have the option of delivering impact statements to the board roughly a month before an inmate is scheduled for their hearing.
In his reading of transcripts from McCarthy’s six parole hearings, held every two years since 2009, Mr. LaRue found an accumulation of inconsistencies, between initial police interviews, his guilty plea and his responses to questions from parole commissioners. Over some 30 years, he has claimed he knew Katy, he didn’t know Katy, he smashed her face against Walker Arena and he didn’t see or do anything.
“Not only was he trying to defend himself and what he did, but he was sullying the name of Katy in order to do so,” Mr. LaRue said. “And that just seemed particularly cruel.”
Growing up, Mr. LaRue lived a mile from McCarthy on Route 72 in the town of Parishville. Though five years apart, they went to the same school, the same church, the same grocery store. McCarthy’s grandmother was Mr. LaRue’s sixth-grade teacher.
At the time of Katy’s attack, Mr. LaRue said he was working at the Post-Standard, troubled that someone he knew to be from a kind family would do something so horrific.
An online petition to deny parole for McCarthy, launched in 2008, has garnered 8,741 signatures, and Katy’s family continues to advocate for her every two years before the parole board.
McCarthy’s seventh parole hearing is scheduled for this week. Once the board renders a decision, typically within a week or two in the Hawelkas’ experience, Mr. LaRue said he plans to update his work and continue Katy’s story.
When “A Stranger Killed Katy” was released by Chestnut Heights Publishing in January, Joe said one of Katy’s friends stopped by his office to pick up a copy. Jim Damiano, who spoke to Mr. LaRue for the book, was a young love, his relationship with Katy evolving by high school “into a lasting platonic friendship,” Mr. LaRue wrote.
Joe said the old friend told him he regretted not sharing his most important abiding memory of Katy: “I never heard her say a bad thing about anybody.”
“And I never expected to experience anything to that point after somebody writes a book about my sister’s murder,” Joe said. “That lifted me. It was an early morning conversation, and I spent the rest of the day thinking about it.”