texasmonthly.com: How long have you been interested in this story?
Skip Hollandsworth: I first headed to Nocona to try to interview Vickie in the spring of 2001—more than six years ago. I read a couple of articles in the newspapers about a sweet, well-respected nurse being fired in connection with the mysterious deaths of several patients at the hospital, and I knew this was going to be a huge story. Although it was true that there had been nurses over the years who had killed patients, it had never happened in such a small-town environment. Almost all of these patients were people who Vickie knew. And I kept wondering, “Why?” As I pointed out in the article, these were not mercy killings: None of her victims were suffering. Nor was there any evidence that she had tried to save the patients. (In the serial killing literature, there are several examples of nurses who create medical emergencies, putting patients into life threatening situations, so that they can then “save” those patients and win favor among their co-workers.) She wanted these people to die. And she wanted them to die in a very vicious way—slowly suffocating to death. I knew there had to be some reason she did it. But she turned me down for an interview—and she turned down everyone else in the news media, for that matter, who wanted to interview her. There were network television crews in Nocona from NBC’s Dateline and 48 Hours with CBS. One of Diane Sawyer’s producers showed up. But she refused to speak.
texasmonthly.com: The story initially got a lot of attention, but by the time she was sentenced, there was little media coverage. Why?
SH: I think what happened was that because no one could get to her, the story was dropped. It seemed to be nothing more than another predictable crazy nurse story. What’s more, the police and prosecutors were very tight-lipped about what evidence they had. They said all would be revealed at trial. But then, she plead no contest prior to the trial beginning, and she went off to prison for a life sentence—and that seemed to be that.
texasmonthly.com: Prosecutors considered Jackson one of the most prolific serial killers in Texas history. Any idea why they weren’t seeking the death penalty?
SH: I think they were worried that a jury would have trouble putting a death sentence on a woman who, for almost her entire life—in truth, up until the very moment she began killing—was a very devoted nurse who clearly cared about her patients. If it was a man who had done so many killings, there would be no question the prosecutors would go for the death penalty. But this being a woman, it was a far different situation.
texasmonthly.com: What was it like interviewing Jackson? What were the challenges she presented?
SH: It was extremely difficult—maybe the hardest series of interviews I have ever done. I really think I was dealing with a sort of female version of a Jekyll and Hyde. On one hand, she wanted me to write about the Jekyll side of her. She was determined to persuade me that she was not guilty. But then would come these little slips—like her stories about how townspeople had mistreated her. And this look would come across her face that was disturbing. I also had to walk a tightrope with her. I knew that if I told her that I believed she was guilty, she would stop talking to me. So I had to keep my opinions to myself. I had to make sure that I didn’t scoff or shake my head derisively when she tried to make me believe she hadn’t committed any murders. What’s more, I had to ask questions that didn’t seem judgmental. I had to put her in a frame of mind where she felt we were friends—where she felt she could confide in me. Obviously, she didn’t confide all that much in me, but she did tell me enough to give me a theory about her.
texasmonthly.com: Did you like her? Or were you repulsed by her?
SH: Well, this is the other strange thing. Although I knew all along I was interviewing a female Hannibal Lecter, I still grew sort of fond of her. She was not an unlikable person. And I do believe that prior to the murders, she was a good nurse. The fact that not one patient had complained about her for the entirety of the year 2000 is significant. I was so intrigued by her that I went and read the Stephen King novel Carrie, about the sweet wallflower of a teenager who decided to take revenge on classmates who had mistreated her.
texasmonthly.com: You interviewed a number of people for this story. How did you determine who you wanted to talk to and when?
SH: I decided early on to interview a close relative of every single person whom Vickie had killed or had attempted to kill. I kept thinking there had to be some connection between Vickie and the patients she went after. Many of them didn’t want to talk. It had been six years since they had dealt with this, and they didn’t want to return to such pain. But as gently as possible, I told them that this was important. What happened during those nine weeks in Nocona was an event that was arguably unique in the history of American crime. I told them my theory—that maybe Vickie was seeking vengeance for slights, either real or perceived, that she had endured over the years she had lived in Nocona. And just with that suggestion, they began to connect certain dots about Vickie that I don’t think they had connected before.
texasmonthly.com: What’s something you’d like to share about Vickie that you haven’t been asked?
SH: Even though the story is nine thousand words, there were so many anecdotes I had to leave out. Remember, I had been asking people about her, off and on, for six years. I guess one of the big questions I have about Vickie is what she was doing or thinking during the year and half from February 2001, when she was fired from her job, to July 2002, when she was finally arrested for the murders. During all that time, she stayed in Nocona, not only going to the Dairy Queen but also working at various jobs. One of the jobs she had was as a nurse—that’s right, a nurse—at a nursing home in Gainesville, which is east of Nocona. The job lasted only a few weeks: Vickie was fired because the nursing home administrators, who knew nothing about her firing from the Nocona hospital (they apparently did not check references) suspected her of trying to steal medications. Law enforcement officials investigating the case couldn’t help but wonder if Vickie was hoping to use those medications to try to kill someone else—someone she hadn’t gotten to.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think Vickie will react to the article?
SH: That’s a good question. She is going to be, at one level, devastated that I have portrayed her as one of Texas’s most infamous serial killers. But then there is this other side to her that could very well take some pleasure in the fact that she knows she will go down in history as the woman who tried to bring down the town of Nocona. One of my favorite stories about Vickie comes from a former cellmate, who said that prior to the trial, Vickie had tried to lose some weight because she wanted to look good for the television cameras that she knew would be there covering her every move.
texasmonthly.com: So why did Vickie plead no contest instead of fighting the charges?
SH: Sorry, to learn that answer, you’ve got to read the article.