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The Babysitter

My Summers with a Serial Killer

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This chilling true story and “harrowing account of the evil that can lurk around the edges of girlhood” (Carolyn Murnick, author of The Hot One)—reminiscent of Ann Rule’s classic The Stranger Beside Me—follows a little girl longing for love who finds friendship with her charismatic babysitter, unaware that he is a vicious serial killer.

Growing up on Cape Cod in the 1960s, Liza Rodman was a lonely little girl. During the summers, while her mother worked days in a local motel and danced most nights in the Provincetown bars, her babysitter—the kind, handsome handyman at the motel where her mother worked—took her and her sister on adventures in his truck. He bought them popsicles and together, they visited his “secret garden” in the Truro woods. To Liza, he was one of the few kind, understanding, and safe adults in her life.

But there was one thing she didn’t know; their babysitter was a serial killer.

Though Tony Costa’s gruesome case made screaming headlines in 1969 and beyond, Liza never made the connection between her friendly babysitter and the infamous killer of numerous women, including four in Massachusetts, until decades later.

Haunted by nightmares and horrified by what she learned, Liza became obsessed with the case. Now, she and cowriter Jennifer Jordan reveal “a suspenseful portrayal of murderous madness in tandem with a child’s growing loneliness, neglect, and despair, a narrative collision that will haunt” (Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita) you long after you finish it.

Prologue: Liza’s Nightmare Prologue LIZA’S NIGHTMARE
2005

“Close your eyes and count to four,” he whispered. I felt his breath on my cheek. The barrel of the gun was hard and cold against my forehead.

I counted, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

I sat up quickly in bed, gasping, my body soaked with sweat.

What the hell was that?

It was pitch-dark in the room—not even a sliver of the moon to offer some light.

Damn. Another nightmare.

I’d been having them for almost two years, during which they had become more and more violent and vivid, and in each I was hunted by an anonymous man with a knife or a gun. I would struggle to recognize him, but he kept his face turned away from me. Then, just as he’d find my hiding place, I’d wake with my heart pounding and adrenaline coursing through my legs until they ached.

But this nightmare was different. In this dream, I was a young girl again, probably about nine or ten and in my summer pajamas walking down a long hotel hallway. Suddenly the elusive man blocked my path, backed me up against the wall, and pointed a gun at my head. I looked up at him and I finally saw his face. It was a man I hadn’t seen since I was a child in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Tony Costa.

Tony had been hired as a handyman to fix torn screens and leaky faucets in the seaside motel where my mother worked summers as a housekeeper. Everybody thought Tony was great, especially me. He was part of the revolving door of so-called babysitters my mother corralled to look after me and my younger sister, Louisa. Mom was notorious for being able to find a babysitter faster than she could say the word. She’d stop people in the supermarket or the post office or at the gas pump and ask, “Do you babysit?” Mostly the person would just stare at her, wondering why a mother would hire a random stranger to look after her children with less care than she would a plumber or a car mechanic. But sometimes they said sure. Tony was one of those, and he turned out to be one of the good ones. In fact, he was one of the few kind and gentle adults in my life during those turbulent years. But then in 1969, when I was ten years old, Tony disappeared. I didn’t know why; I just knew he was gone.

So why was Tony Costa now in my dreams, holding a gun to my head and smiling with teeth better suited to a wolf? What I remembered about him was all good; in fact, Tony was a nice guy who never yelled, never hit, never made me feel small and ugly and unwanted. I had been afraid of my mother but never of Tony. So when he suddenly appeared, threatening and frightening in the dream, it confounded me.

With nowhere else to turn, I did something I learned long ago not to—I asked Mom for help. I invited her to dinner, and when she arrived at Tim’s and my house, she was already teetering as she climbed the front porch. She was seventy by then, and everywhere she went, she carried a plastic sixteen-ounce water bottle of gin in her purse.

“Those were some wild days,” she said, seated at my counter and swirling the ice around in her snifter. She was clearly enjoying the memory of those summers on Cape Cod when she was a pretty divorcée, barely thirty years old, spending most of her free time closing down the various bars and dance clubs with her own revolving door of suitors. She took a long pull on her gin and settled back into her chair while I put the last of the seasoning in the soup simmering on the stove.

“Did something happen to me back then that you’re not telling me?” I said, suddenly wondering if it had.

“What do you mean, happen to you?”

“With Tony Costa.”

“Tony Costa? Why are you still thinking about him?”

“I wasn’t until I had a nightmare about him.”

“Oh, Christ, you and your dreams,” she said, snort-laughing as she took a sip of her drink.

“Well, this one was pretty horrible. But I don’t get it. He was always so nice to me,” I said. “What do you remember about him?”

She was quiet for a moment too long, and I stopped stirring and waited. She was just staring into the bottom of her glass. Mom rarely paused to contemplate her words, so I watched, curious as to what was going to come out of her mouth.

“Well,” she said, watching the gin swirl around the glass. “I remember he turned out to be a serial killer.” She said it calmly, as if she were reading the weather report.

I felt sick. I had always had several disjointed memories about murders that occurred in Provincetown during the years we lived there, but no one ever told me who had committed them. The bits and pieces I remembered involved hideous crimes—shallow graves and hearts being carved out of bodies and teeth marks on corpses.

I suddenly had an image, as clear as the pot of soup on the stove in front of me, of my two little tan feet up on the dashboard of the Royal Coachman Motel’s utility truck. Sand was stuck between my toes, and there were flecks of old red polish on my big toenails. I loved how tan my feet would get during the long, shoeless summer, and with them poised on the dash in front of me, I would turn them this way and that, admiring their smooth brown skin. I was never pretty like my mother, but, I thought, at least I had her pretty feet. Driving the motel’s truck, always, was Tony Costa.

I shook my head to clear the image and turned back to Mom.

“A serial killer? Tony, the babysitter?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” she said, “don’t be so dramatic. He wasn’t your babysitter.” Her eyes narrowed in emphasis. “He was the handyman.”

I felt as if someone had sucker punched me in the gut.

“Handyman at the motel…,” I said, my words trailing off as I envisioned its long hallway and recognized it from the nightmare.

“But Louisa and I went all over the Cape with him,” I sputtered. “He took us on his errands and out to the dump and out to the Truro woods. Tony was the Cape Cod Vampire? Our Tony? A serial killer?” My words were tumbling out of me.

“Yeah, so what?” she said, again reaching for her gin. “He didn’t kill you, did he?”
Photograph by Joel Benjamin

Liza Rodman attended the University of Massachusetts/Amherst in the late 1970s and received her Bachelor of Arts with a concentration in creative writing from Vermont College in 2005.  She has balanced life as a mother, stepmother, writer, and tax accountant for more than thirty-five years. Liza and her husband have three children, five grandchildren, and live outside Boston. The Babysitter is her first book.

© Nicole Morgenthau

Jennifer Jordan is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and screenwriter with decades of experience as a news anchor and investigative journalist. She has worked for NPR and PBS, and her work has also appeared in a variety of national and international newspapers and magazines. She has directed and produced several documentaries, including 3000 Cups of Tea, which revealed the flawed 60 Minutes report on renowned philanthropist Greg Mortenson. In addition to her own books Savage Summit and Last Man on the Mountain, she has ghostwritten two others. The Babysitter is her fifth book.

"An emotional tour-de-force...heart-pounding, gut-wrenching...will thrill True Crime and memoir fams alike."

– Shondaland

"Fascinating...captivating...gripping, tense, harrowing, and balanced....The authors move it beyond mere entertainment and toward a challenging exploration of family and dysfunction. In the end, this is a story of Liza Rodman’s survival and strength."

– The Bookreporter

"Haunting...chilling...This enthralling memoir deftly intertwines the stormy childhood of one of the authors and the life and brutal acts of the serial killer who often watched over her."

– Shelf Awareness

"Continues a tradition started by Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me...and is a compelling, sensitive hybrid of memoir and true crime...straightforward, unwavering in its clarity."

– The Independent

"I was utterly captivated by The Babysitter, a hybrid memoir & true crime investigation of the heinous crimes of a Cape Cod serial killer who also happened to be the only adult young Liza Rodman felt safe with. Rodman and Jordan's book skillfully weaves a suspenseful portrayal of murderous madness in tandem with a child's growing loneliness, neglect, and despair, a narrative collision that will haunt me, and readers, for years." 

– Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita and editor of Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit and Obsession

"The Babysitter is a gripping read that’s impossible to put down: a string of gristly murders, a cast of charismatic, often abusive, and occasionally pathological characters, a comically incompetent police force, and an astute child’s perspective on the adults in her life. More profoundly, it raises questions about how children manage to adapt and survive in a world in which love, attention, and violence are inextricably intertwined."

– Helen Fremont, bestselling author of The Escape Artist and After Long Silence

"Like a real-life horror movie, The Babysitter is a harrowing account of the evil that can lurk around the edges of girlhood."

– Carolyn Murnick, author of The Hot One

"Brilliantly researched and hauntingly rendered, The Babysitter is a deeply inquisitive examination of what it means to live and grow on the outside of violence, of danger. As generous as it is chilling, this impressive and startling narrative orbits the realms of meditation, fact, and memory." 

– Amy Butcher, author of Visiting Hours

"Eerily compelling."

– The Provincetown Independent

"Engrossing...a page-turner."

– Publishers Weekly

"The intimate details and easy-to-read style will keep readers glued to the page."

– Booklist

"The Babysitter vividly describes how brokenness begets brokenness, how the lives of girls and women are inherently perilous, and how dangerous it can be to presume that children’s capacity for resilience is limitless."

– Winnipeg Free Press