The true story of Jane Alexander, who spent 13 years tracking down and putting away the man who murdered her 88-year old aunt, and then went on to help solve 20 murders, igniting a national victim's rights movement.
Jane Alexander had it all: A wonderful family, a beautiful home on three acres just north of San Francisco, and a deep romance with Tom O'Donnell. A family friend for 25 years prior to their romance, Tom helped Jane cope with the death of her husband, and captivated her with his charming, unflappable personality. But Jane's picturesque life came crashing down the morning that her beloved aunt was savagely murdered. Slowly, astonishingly, the evidence began to point to the last person Jane would ever believe capable of such an act: Tom O'Donnell. She soon discovered that he had fled with thousands of dollars of her money, forcing her to sell her possessions and move into a dilapidated old house. Jane would eventually learn that she was his next victim: he had secretly taken out a million dollar life insurance police on her. With and unresponsive criminal justice system and almost everyone telling her that her quest was futile, Jane devoted her entire life to tracking him down and forcing the system to do its job and get justice for her beloved aunt.
But the story does not stop there: along the way, Jane met dozens of people with similar horror stories: a savagely murdered loved one, a justice system that refused to function. She and Jan Miller, whose daughter was murdered during summer break at Chico State University in a case still unsolved, founded "Citizens Against Homicide" to fight back for the victim's families. At the time of Jane Alexander's death in 2008, they had helped solve 20 cold case murders, were working on 500 homicide investigations, and had seen their organization spread to all 50 states, with more than 5,000 members. People Magazine, 48 Hours, the ABC news and a dozen other media organizations have trumpeted their exploits.
Some people become victims, and it scars them forever. They don't move on with their lives, and they are haunted. Others stand up and fight back, finding ways to bring the fight back to criminals and bring them to justice. I watched a documentary based on this book – it's an inspiring story I thought worthy of sharing. – David Niall Wilson
"The amazing story of Citizen Jane."– Dan Rather, 48 Hours
"The most harrowing, inspiring true crime story I have ever read."– Melanie Morgan, KGO Radio, San Francisco
"An incredible story."– Cheryl Cotton, Amazon Reviewer
"I read a lot of true crime…without hesitation or doubt…one of the best books I have read. The writing is flawless: smooth and swift, the story carries you breathlessly forward."– Leigh Podgorwky, Good Reads Reviewer
"…engaging from the very first page. I couldn't put it down….By the end of the book I was Jane's most ardent fan. "– D. Brown, Amazon Reviewer
"Jane, will you give me a hand with the roast?"
October 23, 1983, seemed like a typical fall Sunday in Marin County. Jane Alexander was attending a 49ers football party, a weekly ritual in thousands of home throughout Northern California. Nancy Martell, the party's hostess that week, needed Jane's respected advice in the kitchen. It was the custom to eat just after the game, and the hostess had to estimate just when the game would finish, so that dinner could be served at the right time.
"Haven't you put the roast in yet?" asked Jane, mother of six grown children.
"No. Should I have?"
"We're at the end of the second quarter. You should have had it in twenty minutes ago. Nancy, if you only knew more about football," Jane said with a laugh, "you'd be a better cook!"
Jane Alexander was in good spirits that day. An athletic, articulate woman of sixty-one, known for her fiery conservative opinions and dedication to family and friends, Jane seemed happier than she had been in years. This was largely thanks to the company of Tom O'Donnell, a tall and charismatic family friend who had become her romantic partner three years after her husband's tragic death. He was fifty-seven, a ballroom dancer, a world traveler, and world-class raconteur. Tom was a welcome addition to the comfortable upper-middle-class social set that Jane had enjoyed for decades.
Thanks to her late husband's foresight and financial planning, Jane owned a large and beautiful home in Sleepy Hollow, a two-and-a-half acre slice of paradise just fifteen miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Her mortgage was a mere $40,000, less than a tenth of the property's value. Although Jane had not gone to work after his premature death, she was meeting the payments and living securely on Al's modest pension and Social Security benefits.
If Al's early death had caused any financial worry, her fortunes had improved when she and O'Donnell fell in love, since he had amassed a sizable Swiss trust fund that was just months from maturity. Between the two of them, there was more than enough to live comfortably on for the rest of their lives.
The phone rang, and the hostess answered it.
"It's for you, Jane," Nancy said.
"Who would be calling me here?"
She recognized the voice of Hugh Fine, a friend who was spending the weekend with Jan and Tom while studying for his final college examinations. The sixty-two-year-old father of nine was pursuing a lifelong dream of becoming a chiropractor, and Jane and Tom were happy to supply him with a place to stay in her roomy five-bedroom house.
Hugh sounded worried. "Cousin Irma called," he said. "She's very upset. She says she called your Aunt Gert's house about eight-thirty last night with no answer. She thinks something awful has happened."
Jane was immediately concerned. Gertrude McCabe was a surrogate mother to Jane, helping to raise her when her parents divorced. Aunt Gert lived alone in San Jose, seventy miles south of Jane's Marin County home. At age eighty-eight, Gert was active, healthy, and predictable as a Swiss watch. At 8:30, she should have been home watching television or reading.
Jane immediately called her cousin Irma Clark in San Francisco.
Irma was nearly hysterical. "I called just now and a stranger answered, so I hung up, thinking it was a wrong number. When I called back, he told me he was a police officer!"
Irma said the officer refused to answer any questions concerning Aunt Gert. Jane told Irma to stay by the phone and try not to worry.
Among the company was Jim Rohde, Jane's attorney and longtime friend, who advised her to call the San Jose Police Department. All the police dispatcher would offer was a curious statement: "An entry has been made for 165 Arroyo Way in San Jose.
Next, when she telephoned Gertrude's house, the man who answered identified himself as a San Jose police officer.
"This is Jane Alexander. I'm the niece of Gertrude McCabe."
"Where are you calling from? What is your phone number?"
Jane gave him the information he requested then asked, "Why are the police at the house? Is Gertrude sick? Is she in the hospital?"
"I really can't say, Miss Alexander. I'm not in a position to reveal any information at this time." He concluded by telling Jane that someone would call her back in a few minutes.
Jim Rohde waited with Jane until the phone rang a few minutes later, and then listened in on the extension. It was the San Jose coroner, Nat Gossett.
"Mrs. Alexander, are you the niece of Gertrude McCabe?"
"I'm sorry to tell you that your aunt Gertrude has been the victim of a homicide."
"Your aunt has been the victim of a homicide."
"Homicide? Was she shot?"
Jane pressed for more information, but the coroner was no more forthcoming than the police officers had been. Finally, Jane told him she was coming to San Jose.
"I'm sorry, the officers have not yet finished at the crime scene. There's nothing you can do. Please don't come down at this time."
The news quickly dampened the spirit of the football party, and everyone fell silent. What was there to say? A few made a halfhearted effort to watch the game again. Tom came into the kitchen with Jane.
"Should I phone cousin Irma?" she asked.
"Better if we tell her the news in person," said Tom. "I'll get our jackets. We'll drive to San Francisco."
Tom drove them across the Golden Gate Bridge to Irma's high-rise apartment on Lombard Street, atop picturesque Russian Hill. Jane talked the entire way, wondering aloud how someone could kill an old woman, why they would choose Gertrude's house, one of the more modest on a street of expensive dwellings. Gertrude McCabe was 88 years old, weighed barely over a hundred pounds, and would have surrendered anything to anyone who confronted her.
Tom and Jane arrived at the building. When they exited the elevator on the fourth floor, Irma's apartment door was open. They could hear her sobbing. "Why? Why? Why would someone do this? Who would do such a horrible thing to an old woman?"
Irma, 84, had been on the phone with Gert's next-door neighbor, Juanita Lennon, who had recounted the little she knew. That morning she had noticed two days' newspapers in front of Gert's door. Normally Gert read her newspaper early every morning then passed it over the back fence for Juanita.
Nervously Juanita had rung Gert's doorbell but gotten no response. Too frightened to investigate on her own, she summoned a neighbor, who noticed a sliding door on the side of the house was wide open. Through a living room window the neighbor also noticed drawers open and their contents scattered about the room. The police were quickly called and arrived just before ten o'clock. "They carried her body out on a gurney," cried Irma.
Irma spurned Jane and Tom's offers to accompany them back to their house in Marin. Before they left, Jane and Irma made several more calls to the San Jose police and to Gertrude's home. Each was met with a refusal to reveal any further information.
When Jane and Tom arrived back home in Sleepy Hollow, houseguest Hugh Fine was on the phone with a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News. He handed the receiver to Jane.
"Mrs. Alexander, was your aunt one of the San Jose McCabes?"
Jane replied that she was. The McCabes were one of the original pioneering families in San Jose. At the turn of the century Jane's grandfather had opened a First Street haberdashery in what later became the city's downtown. The McCabes had a long and distinguished history in Northern California. Gertrude McCabe was part of the second generation of McCabes to live in the Santa Clara Valley.
"When was your aunt born?"
"January 1, 1895."
"Any relation to Jay McCabe?"
"She was his sister," Jane said, "and the last of that generation."
James (Jay) Aloysius McCabe had been a towering figure in San Jose politics. He was a quintessential Irishman who led the St. Patrick's Day parade every year. An inveterate prankster, he was famous for playing elaborate practical jokes on visiting dignitaries – jokes that sometimes involved buckets of green paint. He had a fifty-year career promoting conventions and tourism in San Jose, and helped put the city on the map. Jay was personally credited with attracting more than fifty million dollars in convention revenues to the San Jose area. So important were his promotional contributions to the burgeoning city that the new convention center in downtown San Jose was named Jay McCabe Convention Hall upon his retirement in 1963. When he died in 1971, he left an estate worth more than a quarter million dollars at a time when that figure was still a significant sum. Gertrude McCabe, his younger sister, was the heir to his estate.
The reporter told Jane that her aunt "was bludgeoned several times on the head with a blunt instrument then stabbed in the chest and neck a dozen times. Then she was suffocated."
After the reporter hung up, Jane dropped the phone to her chest.
"Tom, I'll kill the animal that did this."
No one who had witnessed the bizarre turn of events that balmy day could ever have predicted the odyssey that the death of Gertrude McCabe would trigger.