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The Tragic True Story of Lois Duncan, the Queen of Teen Suspense 

An iconic teen suspense author experiences a living nightmare.

lois duncan feature

“It was as if these things I’d written about as fiction became hideous reality.”

That’s what Lois Duncan told an interviewer after the 1989 murder of her own 18-year-old daughter Kaitlyn Arquette. Duncan had already become legendary as one of the pioneers of young adult fiction, and more-or-less the inventor of the YA suspense subgenre. Yet, she found herself unable to continue writing such dark stories after her daughter’s death.

“I went weak after Kait’s murder,” the author said. “How could I even think about creating a novel with a young woman in a life-threatening situation?” From then until her own death in 2016, Duncan devoted herself to writing picture books for children, sequels to her 1971 hit Hotel for Dogs, and nonfiction, including two books about her daughter’s murder.

Prior to the death of Kaitlyn Arquette, however, Lois Duncan was pretty much the first word in teen suspense novels, having kickstarted the cottage industry with the 1973 publication of I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was heavily altered and adapted into the hit movie of the same name in 1997.

Duncan had already worked in suspense before the release of I Know What You Did Last Summer, earning a handful of nominations for the Edgar Allan Poe Award.

Lois Duncan's early success as a teen suspense author

Lois Duncan Author

Following the success of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Duncan began a prominent career focused heavily on the new teen suspense subgenre that she had helped create. Books like Killing Mr. Griffin, Down a Dark Hall, Summer of Fear, Stranger with My Face, and Don’t Look Behind You, among others, helped to give the burgeoning genre its form, while also pushing its boundaries into different territories including witchcraft, ghost stories, the supernatural, and more.

Don’t Look Behind You was very nearly the last of these. Duncan would publish one more supernatural YA novel, Gallow’s Hill, some eight years later, though she was already working on it at the time of her daughter’s death.


I Know What You Did Last Summer

By Lois Duncan

Duncan's daughter Kaitlyn Arquette is murdered

Lois Duncan and her daughter kaitlyn Arquette
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  • Photo Credit: ABQ Journal

Arquette was driving home from a friend’s house in Albuquerque after watching Valley Girl on that July night in 1989. Lois Duncan’s youngest daughter, she had recently moved into her first apartment on her own and was enrolled in classes at the University of New Mexico.

Shortly after 11 o’clock, she was shot twice in the head as she drove down the street. The two bullets pierced her car door, shattering the window glass, and she swerved across oncoming traffic (there wasn’t much of it, at that time of night) and struck a telephone pole as the car came to a stop. She was taken to the hospital but pronounced brain dead within 24 hours of her shooting.

Who killed Kaitlyn Arquette?

The question of who pulled the trigger became an obsession that would haunt Arquette’s mother for the rest of her life. Was it Kaitlyn Arquette’s boyfriend Dung Nguyen, who was involved with some potentially dangerous people in a multi-level insurance scam staging phony traffic accidents? Was it Miguel Garcia and Juve Escobedo, two young men out joyriding who alleged gunned her down at random in a drive-by shooting? 

While police eventually brought charges against the latter, they were soon dropped, as witnesses turned unreliable, and evidence was in short supply. As the years dragged on with no apparent progress being made in her daughter’s case, Lois Duncan became increasingly convinced that the police were either incompetent or corrupt – and she began to put her own resources to work on the case.

Duncan's desperate search for her daughter's killer

Duncan made the rounds of the talk show circuit, consulted private investigators, and even reached out to psychics across the country, even though she had, prior to her daughter’s murder, been convinced that most psychics were con artists.

In 1992, she published the first of two books chronicling the case and her experiences as a grieving mother. Who Killed My Daughter? helped to generate new interest in the case, but Duncan’s criticism of the official investigation didn’t always bring her fans in the police force. 

“I don’t read fiction,” one officer quipped, when asked about the book by a reporter.

Despite all her efforts, however, Lois Duncan’s sleuthing seemingly got her no closer to the killer of her daughter than the bungled police investigation had. At least, that’s how it appeared when Duncan passed away herself in 2016, nearly thirty years after Kaitlyn Arquette’s murder. 

Who Killed My Daughter?

Who Killed My Daughter?

By Lois Duncan

A break in the case

Paul Apodaca
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  • Photo Credit: KOB 4

It was not until 2021 that a major break finally appeared in the case.

In July of that year, Paul Apodaca was arrested by police officers from the University of New Mexico. Apodaca had been in and out of jail for decades, but this time, he said something shocking to the police that arrested him, confessing to not one but three murders committed more than 30 years before—one of them, the shooting of Kaitlyn Arquette.

This was not the first time that Apodaca’s name had been associated with the case, however. When a plainclothes detective first discovered Kaitlyn Arquette’s body slumped in the seat of her car where it had struck a telephone pole, he also found a man standing next to the vehicle, someone who, according to a statement from the detective, “happened to be passing by.”

That man was Paul Apodaca.

Pat Caristo, a private investigator, was the first to bring Apodaca’s name to the attention of Lois Duncan. At the time of the killing, Apodaca had already amassed an impressive criminal record, yet when he was found standing alongside Arquette’s body, his name was taken, and he was released. Caristo immediately saw this as suspicious, and went to visit Apodaca in prison, where he was serving a sentence for raping his 14-year-old stepsister.

Despite his unsavory reputation and his presence at the scene of the crime, however, Caristo’s investigation into Apodaca led nowhere, save to confirm Lois Duncan’s suspicions that the initial legwork surrounding her daughter’s murder had been badly botched, whether through incompetence or coverup. Apodaca would spend the next thirty years in and out of prison for various crimes, including violent assaults and even a different drive-by shooting. However, if he was ever officially considered as a suspect in the death of Kaitlyn Arquette, the police never mentioned it.

Paul Apodaca confesses to killing Kaitlyn Arquette

When Apodaca confessed to the three murders in 2021, he said that he wanted to finally come clean. “After years and years of searching and contemplating, I understand all the pain that I’ve caused and I feel it,” he told the detectives who arrested him. At the time of this writing, Apodaca has been charged only in the first of the three murders that he confessed to, the 1988 stabbing of 21-year-old Althea Oakeley. 

His trial is still ongoing, while authorities investigate his other confessions. Even if the now-55-year-old Apodaca is ever charged and convicted in the murder of Kaitlyn Arquette, however, her grieving mother will not be around to see it. For Lois Duncan, the most personal and tragic suspense story of her life remained unsolved, its final chapter unwritten.