June 30, 2003 12:00 PM

Only days after fashion writer Christa Worthington was found stabbed to death in her home in Truro, Mass., in January 2002, a book editor phoned Maria Flook to see if she would be interested in writing about the case. An accomplished novelist, Flook, 50, who also lived in Truro, was immediately intrigued by the project. If nothing else, there was undeniable drama, from the fact that Worthington, 46, had been found with her unharmed 2-year-old daughter Ava clinging to her body to reports that as investigators began to examine the victim’s life they discovered a complex tangle of romantic relationships and simmering jealousies. “It’s not the murder that interested me,” says Flook, “but the life of Christa Worthington and the people in it.”

Now Flook’s new book, Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod, out June 24, has a good many of those people connected to the case seething. The book doesn’t offer any solution to the still-unsolved crime. It does, however, provide a controversial portrait of Worthington that has the small town—which hadn’t seen a murder for 30 years—in an uproar. “It’s got people buzzing like bees,” says Truro harbormaster Warren Roderick Jr., who knew Worthington. Perhaps more significant, Flook, who has no real experience as a journalist, offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the investigation that raises ethical questions about the high-profile prosecutor, Michael O’Keefe. “I’m a writer, and when a story has wallop I don’t turn away from it,” says the author, who never met the victim.

Her account of Worthington’s upbringing and adulthood is indeed unflinching—and at times unflattering. In Flook’s telling, her father, Christopher, now 73, was a hard-drinking man who became a prominent lawyer and even served as the assistant attorney general of Massachusetts; her mother, Gloria, who died of colon cancer in 1999, was a self-absorbed painter. After graduating from Vassar, Worthington, an only child, launched a career as a fashion writer, working at Elle, W, Harper’s Bazaar, and at one point landing in Paris, where for a while she was the fashion editor for Women’s Wear Daily, the industry bible.

Her personal life, however, was tumultuous—and heart-breaking. She had numerous affairs, more than a few with married men, and even one with a wealthy European who owned a castle. What she really wanted, says the author, was to settle down and have a family. Flook tells a sad anecdote about Worthington, who was at the time in love with Stan Stokowski, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt and famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, coming across a small box. She opens it excitedly, hoping that it contains an engagement ring, and is devastated when she discovers it is only an alarm clock.

The problem, according to New York City journalist Steve Radlauer, who dated Worthington for two years, is that although Flook got the general outline of Worthington’s life right, she has gotten most of the details wrong. “No one who knew Christa—and I’ve talked to a bunch of people—none of them recognize this Christa,” says Radlauer. “It’s a made-up person with her name.” Radlauer maintains that there are scenes in the book that are essentially invented—an accusation that Flook does not entirely deny. “I recreate scenes with all the information that friends and lovers told me,” she says. “I succeed in giving the reader a felt life, not a dry, dusty biography.”

In 1998, with her mother ill, Worthington moved to Truro, where she became involved with Tony Jackett, a local fisherman and shellfish warden. Jackett, now 53, is married and has five children. Worthington became pregnant by him. “She was ecstatic,” says Radlauer. Shortly after giving birth to Ava in 1999, Worthington took up with Tim Arnold, a children’s-book author living nearby. But it was not long before she dumped him. Arnold, now 46, who Flook believes was still in love with Worthington, took the breakup hard. He acknowledges to Flook that he continued to spy on Worthington. “I might have looked in her windows,” he explained to the author, “but not like a Peeping Tom.”

It was Arnold who discovered Worthington’s body on Jan. 6, 2002. The door of the house had been kicked in and Worthington had been stabbed with such force that the knife blade had been driven through her chest and nicked the floorboard. Investigators recovered semen from her body, but the DNA did not match samples taken from Arnold or Jackett. (Worthington had not been sexually assaulted.)

Flook reports that police are not convinced that the semen came from the killer. One possible scenario is that someone else, either a boyfriend or the wife or girlfriend of one, saw Worthington with a lover and killed her in a jealous rage. “The fact that there’s no clear motive and that she lived alone is what makes it hard” to solve the case, says Truro Police Chief John Thomas. One difficulty: the backlog at the Massachusetts crime lab. According to D.A. O’Keefe, six DNA samples are still being analyzed—and won’t be fully processed till sometime in July.

In Flook’s telling, the townspeople constantly gossip about the case. More disturbing, Flook quotes D.A. O’Keefe trashing Worthington, at one point calling the victim a “slob” because of her poor housekeeping and taking a dim view of her active love life. Flook relates how the D.A., who is divorced, showed her confidential crime-scene photos and seemed to flirt with her repeatedly, for instance, arranging to meet her in bars at odd hours. In one bizarre episode, O’Keefe shows Flook a photograph taken by police of Worthington’s panties, laid out on the victim’s bed.

But those actions and comments have raised questions both about O’Keefe’s character and Flook’s credibility. Flook, who is married with two children, and O’Keefe deny any impropriety in their relationship. As for the remarks about Worthington, the prosecutor won’t confirm or deny their accuracy, though he does say that he called the Worthington family to express his regret for the language used in the book. In an interview with PEOPLE, O’Keefe denounced Flook’s work as a “blend of fact with fiction.” But none of that has mollified members of the Worthington family. “It upsets us tremendously—shocked us,” Christa’s cousin Jan Worthington told the Boston Herald in early June after galleys of the book began to circulate.

O’Keefe’s supporters point out that the D.A., who has won convictions in 18 of 19 murder cases he has handled in his 20-year career, is widely respected as a first-rate professional. Among his many honors, he was named Massachusetts Prosecutor of the Year. That hasn’t stopped outside critics from voicing their outrage and suggesting that he be removed from the case. Says Nancy Moore, a professor of legal ethics at Boston University: “For the prosecutor to make comments like that about the victim is absolutely reprehensible.”

There is also the issue of Ava. Tony Jackett last year withdrew his petition for custody of Christa’s daughter. A judge awarded permanent custody to Amyra and Clifford Chase, friends who had been designated by Worthington as Ava’s guardians. With any luck, the youngster can be shielded from the growing storm over the book and her mother’s reputation. “I’m angry,” says ex-boyfriend Radlauer. “My friend was murdered, and a year later her character is being assassinated.”

Bill Hewitt

Anne Driscoll in Truro

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