Ann Rule's Last Case

The death of the true-crime author leaves a Washington defamation suit in limbo.

FAMILY VALUES: In 2011, Rick Swart (right, in frame) wrote about Ann Rule writing about Liysa Northon (also in frame). Two months later, he married Northon.

Ann Rule was unwell.

The 83-year-old true-crime author was confined to a wheelchair, feeling dizzy, suffering from a bladder infection, and having heart problems.

But another thing also bothered her. An article published four years ago in Seattle Weekly claimed Rule had fabricated much of her 2003 book about a killing in an Oregon campground. Freelance journalist Rick Swart wrote the takedown on Rule without telling editors or readers he was engaged to marry the woman convicted of manslaughter in the killing.

In May, Rule had won a new chance to pursue a defamation case against Swart. She planned to testify in court.

"My ability to tell the truth is very, very important to me," Rule told WW on July 17. "And he destroyed that. My readers stuck by me, but I was very, very emotional about it. It was not fair. I haven't been able to write since it happened."

Rule died July 26. Her death from congestive heart and respiratory failure ushered a new wave of appreciation for the Pacific Northwest's premier author of macabre real-life detective stories.

It also threw into limbo the Washington state court case over whether Swart had defamed her.

According to Washington law, you cannot libel the dead. But since Swart's alleged defamation of Rule occurred before she died, her claim survives her death, and her family can pursue damages. Her daughters haven't told her lawyer what they plan to do.

Swart says he will defend himself if the case continues.

"If we see injustice or corruption," he tells WW now, "we need to stand up and be candid, even if it means you've got to tangle with an 800-pound gorilla. And there's no question, Ann Rule is an 800-pound gorilla."

Rule wrote more than 30 New York Times best-selling books investigating gruesome murders, covering high-profile trials and profiling manipulative serial killers from Ted Bundy to Diane Downs.

In 2003, she wrote about Liysa Northon.

A family camping trip in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in 2000 went terribly wrong when Liysa Northon shot and killed her then-husband, Chris Northon, an airline pilot.

Prosecutors accused her of trying to drown her husband, drugging him with a lethal dose of sleeping pills, and then fatally shooting him in the head while he was unconscious, zipped inside a sleeping bag.

Liysa Northon never denied shooting Chris. She claimed that she was a victim of spousal abuse and was defending herself and her children from a husband who beat her.

Northon pleaded guilty to manslaughter after the FBI recovered a computer that Northon had reported stolen, and found that she had been researching "poisons," "ballistics," "forensics" and "drugs," and had written an email saying she needed to acquire a silencer.

Heart Full of Lies, Rule's 2003 book, depicted Northon not as a victim but a cold-blooded killer, motivated by a $300,000 life insurance policy and properties in Hawaii and Bend, Ore.

"A lifetime of sociopathic manipulations and lies," Rule wrote, "had been expertly hidden behind her façade of perfection—as was her rage to destroy any obstacle to her ultimate happiness, even if it was the man she vowed to love forever."

Swart published a very different story in Seattle Weekly's July 20, 2011, issue. In "Murderer, She Wrote: How Seattle's Queen of True Crime Turned a Battered Woman Into a Killer Sociopath," Swart accused Rule of interviewing sources from only one side of the story and portraying Northon as a "storybook villain."

Swart did not mention that he was engaged to marry Northon, who was imprisoned in Oregon's Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

WW reported that information the following week. Seattle Weekly editors said they were unaware Swart was engaged to his subject.

Swart is unapologetic.

"I did not come out to all of them on bended knee and say, 'I am in love with this woman, and I think you should run the story because I am in love with her,'" Swart says. "Some people think that I should have done that. But I had an obligation to get her story out there."

Two months after the article was published, Swart and Northon married in the waiting room of the women's prison. (After the wedding, Northon took Swart's last name.)

She was released from prison in October 2012. The two are still married and live in Eagle Creek, Ore.

Rick Swart is now a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Liysa Swart has championed legislation to toughen Oregon's domestic violence laws.

She also runs a website, almost entirely dedicated to proving Rule a "fraud and predator."

In 2013, Rule sued Rick Swart for defamation in King County Superior Court. A judge threw out the case, saying Rick Swart's story was protected free speech.

But this May, the Washington Court of Appeals ruled that the state's free-speech laws allow Rule's lawsuit to go to a jury. (Full disclosure: This reporter's father, a lawyer, advised Swart's legal team on this case.)

Speaking to WW last month, Rule said Rick Swart acted as a mouthpiece for Liysa. "She was, in my opinion, a manipulator," Rule said. "She got people to do what she wanted, especially men. When I saw the article I thought, 'Oh boy.'"

Among the people filing in support of Rule's petition to reopen the case: Pat Birmingham, the lawyer who defended Liysa Swart in her manslaughter case.

"I have not found a single assertion in Ann Rule's book Heart Full of Lies to be anything other than true and accurate," Birmingham wrote. He added that Liysa Swart had written at least five explicit screenplays about killing her then-husband.

Rick Swart says his article was both true and protected speech.

“It’s factually accurate,” he says, “and my opinions are my opinions—not capable of being proven or disproven. I was kind of looking forward to meeting Ann Rule in a courtroom and debating this very thing.” 

WWeek 2015

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