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Book News

Not just your routine burglary gone bad

'The Embrace'
by Aphrodite Jones

Simon & Schuster, $23

Review by L.D. Meagher

September 6, 1999
Web posted at: 2:38 p.m. EDT (1838 GMT)

(CNN) -- True crime meets the Vampire Chronicles?

A 16-year-old boy, his head full of vampire stories and role-playing games, gathers a band of like-minded teen-agers and sets off on a cross-country voyage of bloody madness. We've all seen the stories in the newspapers and tabloids. It's the "vampire cult" case. It created a sensation and inspired a national crusade against "black rituals" among young people.

"The Embrace" is the story of those teen-agers and what led them to commit murder. Aphrodite Jones, the author of four other "true crime" books, uses diaries, letters, court documents and interviews with the participants to paint a picture of bizarre rituals and rampant blood lust. At least, that's what Jones apparently set out to do. Along the way, however, her purpose seems to change.

The facts of the crime are straightforward enough. On November 25, 1996, two teen-age boys stole into the home of Rick and Ruth Wendorf in Eustis, Florida. The Wendorfs were bludgeoned to death. The boys pocketed some valuables from the house, then stole the family Ford Explorer. It seemed like a fairly routine burglary gone bad. It wasn't.

The first complication was that the Wendorfs' 15-year-old daughter, Heather, was missing. It turned out she had run off that very night with the two boys and two other girls. They were all captured in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, three days later. The second complication was that the older boy, Rod Ferrell, professed to be a vampire and claimed his companions were members of his coven. Suspicion quickly arose that Heather Wendorf was involved in the death of her parents.

The first part of "The Embrace" examines the weird subculture surrounding Ferrell and his companions. Rod Ferrell was a troubled boy. He claims he was molested during a Black Mass that his grandfather made him attend. He was fascinated by role-playing games, graduating from "Dungeons and Dragons" to "Vampire: The Masquerade."

His often-divorced mother, Sondra Gibson, was flighty and rootless, unable to hold a job for more than a few weeks at a time. "When Rod was young," Jones explains, "Sondra refused to take care of her child. She threw all the responsibility of Rod on her parents while she ran around with her drug-dealer friends. When Harrell [her father] would fight with her about it, Harrell said, Sondra would threaten to have someone in her 'drug group' kill him." With that kind of home life, it may not be surprising the young Rod would retreat into a fantasy world.

His childhood shifted back and forth between Murray, Kentucky, and Eustis, Florida, as his family moved around. While in high school in Kentucky, he fell in with a band of game players who were adopting "Vampire: The Masquerade" as a lifestyle. Rod became convinced he was a vampire and that his friends were kindred spirits. They would hang around cemeteries and perform bloodletting rituals. But Rod saw himself as more -- as a true Prince of Darkness, Son of Satan, the Antichrist. He chafed at conforming to the rules of the group, so he decided to gather one of his own.

A couple of girls he had met on his last stint in Florida became, in his mind, the perfect nucleus of a new coven. One of them was Heather Wendorf. They spent hundreds of dollars on long-distance phone calls between Murray and Eustis during 1996. Over time, a half-baked plan was worked out. Rod would return to Florida, take Heather and one of her friends with him to New Orleans, and introduce them to what he claimed was a flourishing society of vampires there.

Throughout this part of the narrative, Jones seems at times to be accepting Ferrell's twisted fantasy about his vampirism. She reports his delusions as if they have some basis in reality. She chronicles his conflicts with the vampire clique in Kentucky in terms of a struggle for power in the netherworld. In a way, that approach allows the reader to see the strange dynamic that drew unhappy youngsters like Heather Wendorf into Rod's orbit.

Yet after the killings, Jones suddenly changes gears. "The Embrace" becomes "The Defense of Heather Wendorf." Once the police track down the five teens in Louisiana and suspicion falls upon Heather, Jones jettisons all attempts to couch what happens in terms that relate to Ferrell's vampire fantasies. It is an unexpected, and extremely jarring, transition.

Heather Wendorf was never charged with a crime. But her life was shattered, not only by the deaths of her parents, but by the widely held perception of her neighbors that she must have been involved. Jones is passionate as she defends the girl. Yet uncertainties linger that she cannot dispel.

"The Embrace" is often disjointed and seems a bit haphazard. The action shifts from past to present and back without warning or apparent reason. Jones tells us little about the victims, Rick and Ruth Wendorf, until after they're murdered. It is only then that she reveals this seemingly perfect couple living in the nice home on the suburban street had a less than ideal past. Indeed, we discover Rick and Ruth were never married. Moreover, Ruth was still married to another man, and the mother of two grown daughters. It's as if Jones doesn't want to mar the reader's impression of Heather by divulging the eccentricities of her life.

Despite its flaws, "The Embrace" keeps the reader engrossed, if for no other reason than to try to figure out what's really going on. It's not always easy, especially when Jones recounts the court action that stemmed from the killings. She takes gratuitous swipes at the police and prosecutors. But she reserves her most potent venom for the news media. "If it didn't involve blood or horror," she complains, "it didn't get coverage. It seemed, when it came to the subject of the Wendorf murders, people only cared about three things: blood, guts and revenge." Jones may see that as an indictment of local television stations and newspapers. But "The Embrace" is evidence that Jones is guilty of the same crime.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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