A libel lawsuit that will have “Dateline” producers swooning is underway in Washington State. The case involves a troubled marriage, a gun-wielding wife, her pilot husband, a prison romance and a prolific crime novelist.
Liysa Northon – A mother of two sons, surf photographer and aspiring screenwriter married to a Hawaiian Air pilot.
Rick Swart – Editor of the Wallowa County Chieftain – a local Oregon paper – which he owned with his wife.
Ann Rule – Veteran crime novelist who has penned over 30 books in 40 years – most notably a best seller on serial killer Ted Bundy, to whom she was acquainted before he was arrested.
Caleb Hannan –Editor of the Seattle Weekly magazine.
In 1996, Liysa King married her third husband, Chris Northon, a pilot for Hawaiian Air. In 2000, Liysa Northon pumped a .38 caliber bullet between her third husband’s eyes during a family camping trip in the remote Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Mrs. Northon swore it was a matter of self-defense, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and spent 12 years at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Northwest Oregon.
Unconvinced by Northon’s account of life-threatening abuse at the hands of her pot smoking husband, veteran crime novelist, Ann Rule, turned her attentions to the 108-pound photographer-turned-prisoner whom fellow inmates called “surfer.” After months of research and writing, Rule published “Heart Full of Lies,” a novel detailing an alternative theory of Chris Northon’s death. By Rule’s reckoning, Liysa meticulously planned a murder and manufactured evidence of domestic abuse, all in service of insurance money and a lifetime of free flights normally bequeathed to widows of pilots.
The First Defamation Lawsuit
Outraged by the account, while behind bars, Liysa Northon sued Ann Rule for defamation when “Heart Full of Lies” hit bookshelves. Unfortunately for the inmate, a federal judge tossed the case in 2007 and Northon had to fork over $60,000 in attorneys’ fees.
The Article & Prison Love
Enter Rick Swart – a local Oregonian newspaperman who, along with his wife, owned the Wallowa County Chieftain – a small centenarian newspaper. The Northon slaying happened in the Swart’s part of Oregon, making it a top story in the Chieftain.
Fast forward a few years. Liysa was in prison and Ann Rule’s book was published. A freelance writer by that point, Swart penned a piece for Seattle Weekly magazine. In a 10,000-word screed, Swart tendentiously told the story of a strong-but-suffering domestic abuse survivor (Liysa) who was viciously besmirched by a hack crime writer with questionable research ethics (Rule).
When Rule caught wind of Swart’s work, she took to her blog insinuating that Swart left out a major disclosure in his Seattle Weekly piece, the revelation of which would disabuse presumptions of Swart’s integrity.
Caleb Hannan, then editor of the Seattle Weekly, took note of Rule’s quip, dug around and discovered that Rick Swart was inmate Liysa Northon’s fiancé. The two had fallen in love while he was researching the Seattle Weekly piece. Presumably not wanting to sully the Seattle Weekly’s reputation with a journalistic bias scandal, Hannan wrote and published an editor’s note disclosing Rick’s relationship with Liysa. He also highlighted a few minor mistakes in Swart’s article.
The Second Defamation Lawsuit
Unimpressed with Swart’s Seattle Weekly account, it was Ann Rule’s turn to cry defamation. “The article contained innumerable inaccuracies and untruths concerning the testimony and evidence in the trial of Liysa Northon and also included various unfounded personal attacks on Rule,” explained Ann’s lawyer. “At the time … Swart and Northon were engaged, and any meaningful inquiry by Seattle Weekly or Hannan should have discovered this significant source of bias.” The claim goes on to argue that Rule’s ability to make a living is dependent on her “reputation of accuracy to detail” thus rendering Swart’s statements defamatory.
Rule is seeking “reasonable damages.”
Many moons will pass before we learn the outcome of this tragic tale of defamation woe. So if you want to find out what happens next, subscribe to our defamation law newsletter (in the footer) and keep up-to-date on the latest slander and libel law news.