Posts filed under 'Florida'

2006: Danny Rolling, the Gainesville Ripper

11 comments October 25th, 2012 Headsman

During the first week of classes in August 1990 at the University of Florida’s city of Gainesville, five college students were brutally murdered during a terrifying burglary-rape-murder spree.

On this date in 2006, serial killer Danny Rolling finally paid for the murders.

The face of evil in our community” and Florida college towns’ most infamous serial killer since Ted Bundy made the FSU Chi Omega sorority his last port of call, Rolling was a 26-year-old with sociopathy born of an abusive home life. (Here’s a pdf profile of the guy.)

After shooting his hated father in the face — the Shreveport, La., policeman lost an eye but lived — Rolling headed east to Florida. He would later say that he aspired to become a “superstar” criminal — just like Bundy.*

Little did anyone know that Rolling was already a murderer. Only after his grisly turn in Gainesville was he linked back to a theretofore unsolved 1989 Shreveport triple homicide that saw a man, his daughter, and his son stabbed to death. Rolling had posed young Julie Grissom for investigators.

It was a signature behavior the Gainesville police were about to know all too well.

Out of nowhere, the horror murders leaped onto Florida front pages: 18-year-old Sonja Larson and 17-year-old Christina Powell, stabbed to death on August 24, 1990 (Larson was raped, too): both girls’ bodies theatrically posed.

The very next day, 18-year-old Christina Hoyt raped, stabbed to death, and decapitated — the severed head positioned as if scrutinizing its former torso.

Terrified students began taking what protective measures they could against the hunter in their midst, but just two days later 23-year-old Tracy Paules was raped, knifed, and posed … after Rolling also killed the boyfriend that she had staying over for safety.

Arrested soon thereafter on an unrelated burglary, Rolling’s campsite turned up the evidence linking him to the Gainesville Ripper’s predations. Superstardom was on the way: Rolling’s murders helped inspire the Wes Craven slasher classic Scream.**

When the much-delayed case finally came to trial in 1994, Rolling unexpectedly pleaded guilty without any deal to avoid the death penalty. Why dilute his infamy by denying it? “There are some things you just can’t run from, this being one of those,” Rolling told the judge in his singsong drawl.

Maybe had he come of age just a few years later, the Gainesville Ripper might have scratched that itch for notoriety holding forth on the coming age of new media channels instead of butchering humans.

Certainly Danny Rolling, arranger of mutilated corpses, had the character of a performer; recordings of his own renditions of folk songs were among the artifacts police recovered from the killer’s campsite. Later, in prison, Rolling became a prolific death row artist and his “murderabilia” art can be found for sale on the Internet.

He also personally illustrated The Making of a Serial Killer, a book about his crime spree that Rolling co-authored with Sondra London — a true crime author who fell in love with her subject.

A few books about (and by) Danny Rolling

Whatever charms people perceived in Danny Rolling have understandably been lost on those who survived the victims. And Rolling’s wicked “superstardom” remains yet a sensitive subject in Gainesville, where many residents still remember those days of panic the Gainesville Ripper sowed in 1990.


Memorial to Danny Rolling’s victims painted on Gainesville’s 34th Street Wall. Image (c) hecht 801 and used with permission.

* There was a more direct link between Bundy and Rolling as well: (non-death-row) murderer Bobby Lewis, who became Bundy’s friend while the latter was in prison, later also befriended Danny Rolling, even acting as a go-between for Rolling’s dealings with investigators.

** There’s also a 2007 (posthumous to Danny) horror film directly about the Gainesville murders.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Florida,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Serial Killers,Sex,USA

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1985: Marvin Francois, back to Africa

Add comment May 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1985, Florida electrocuted Marvin Francois (to the disappointment of this unknown anti-death penalty protester).

Francois’s last statement, via Last Words of the Executed:

“I am as a grain of sand on the beach of the black race. The black race has lost its pride and dignity and is slowly dying from within and without. My death ends my tears, and the fortune of watching my race slowly die. If there is such a thing as an Antichrist, it ain’t one man, but the whole white race.”

Francois had donned a mask and, with a couple of confederates, stuck up a drug house in 1977.

The mask slipped, exposing Francois’s face — and the home invaders decided to murder the eight prisoners to keep them from making the ID. All were shot in the head execution-style.

Somehow, two survived to identify Marvin Francois. It was an easy conviction. (A confederate, Beauford White, was executed for the same crime in 1987.)

Once the death sentence was on the books, appellate attorneys developed a genuinely sympathetic profile of Francois’s background, if not his crime. A federal appeals court on the day before Marvin Francois died could not help but agree that

[t]he proffered evidence shows that Francois was the product of a sordid and impoverished childhood environment. His parents were not married. His father was a habitual heroin addict who never worked, who brought other addicts into the home for the ingestion of heroin in front of Francois when a child, and who beat Francois because he would not fight with other children when he was a boy. Francois’ mother often worked as a prostitute and was of little benefit to Francois during his childhood. She married but Francois’ step-father abused him. Francois grew up as a child of the street. At the same time he was smart, and although not finishing school, he obtained his G.E.D.

The behavioral scientists in their affidavits posit that “… some offenders, like Marvin Francois, are themselves victims of circumstances that shape their lives in ways beyond their deliberate control.” They suggest that given Francois’ chaotic antisocial upbringing, “clear mitigation of punishment compellingly surfaces.”

Nevertheless, the panel concluded that, given the extent of the crime (and his existing history of violence), all this sob-story stuff “would not have affected the sentencing outcome in this case had it been submitted to the jury.”

That was that.

It was a touching parting for at least one good friend on death row with him. “We wanted to send him out on a high,” a fellow-prisoner later remembered of sharing a last cigarette with Francois while imagining it a joint. “It took a little out of me when they killed him. I’d grown real attached to him.”

According to David von Drehle’s Among the Lowest of the Dead, that disattachment was rather unusually distant: Marvin Francois’s final resting place is … the sea off Dakar, Senegal.

Francois had asked that his ashes be scattered in Africa. Susan Cary, the longtime activist … was determined that this last wish would be honored. But it was one thing to find bus fare for a condemned man’s family, and quite another to raise the money for a trip to Africa. Cary collected the cremated remains of Marvin Francois and put them in a shoebox in her closet, where they sat for two years while she tried to figure out how to get them across the ocean.

In 1987, Michael Radelet, Cary’s frend and fellow activist, announced that he was going to Senegal to visit a relative. Take Marvin, Cary suggested. Radelet was game, but there were rules — human remains can’t just be toted from country to country. Uncertain as to the relevant legalities, Radelet contacted John Conyers, a prominent black congressman from Detroit; Conyers strongly opposed the death penalty, he was well known in Africa, and he had offered more than once to help Florida’s anti-death penalty crusaders any way he could. The congressman pulled the right strings, and shortly before his trip Radelete received an official letter announcing that the Senegalese government would be happy to welcome “Brother Marvin” home.

… Radelet had a darkly comic view of the world. Traipsing around Senegal, shoebox in hand, he would place the box on the opposite chair at restauants and say things like “Marvin, would you like some water?” On sightseeing jaunts, he would take snapshots of the shoebox in front of important buildings and picturesque vistas. Finally, Radelet carried the box to a bluff outside Dakar, a lovely spot with the city in the distance and the Atlantic spread out below. He took one more snapshot – “Marvin at the seashore” — then opened the box and sprinkled the ashes on the sun glittered waves. As he gazed into the oceanic expanse, it occurred to him that this very water might have rocked and sloshed all the way from Florida; now, the waves lapped the shores of Africa, bearing the remains of Marvin Francois to his dreamland.

The aforementioned Michael Radelet — now at Colorado University, not Florida — holding forth on more up-to-date death penalty trends:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drugs,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1921: Jake Martin and Putnam Ponsell

Add comment September 23rd, 2011 Headsman

One needn’t look to far to find venom and cruelty around the institution of capital punishment.

But the human potential is wonderfully plastic, and without unduly romanticizing the act of strangling on a hemp rope a fellow who has committed homicide, even this extremity carries the potential for catalyzing reconciliation across the threshold of death itself.

This date’s public hanging in Crestview, Florida of Jake Martin and Putnam Ponsell was marked by a remarkable display of contrition and forgiveness that symbolically brought the hanged men back into the community they had wronged even as they were dropped to their deaths.

Martin and Ponsell had hitched a ride with a local and then beaten him to death and rifled the body — that was on July 4, less than 12 weeks before execution.

We will venture to impute to these fellows genuine repentance. At court, Ponsell confessed to the crime without any guarantee from the state. He then testified against Martin, who denied the charge and then “broke down and made a full confession.” (Macon Telegraph, Sep. 8, 1921)

(Martin, granted, broke down only after conviction. Ponsell’s firm and open-hearted embrace of responsibility was openly admired by observers.)

This human sentiment would be reciprocated. Here’s the remarkable newspaper report from execution date (a wire story run in a number of papers, this version from the Augusta Chronicle, Sep. 24, 1921).

Murderers Pay Death Penalty While Crowd Boosts Collection.

Crestvew, Fla., Sept. 23 — A double execution took place here today when Putman[sic] Ponsell and Jake Martin, paid the death penalty for the murder of John Tuggle on July 4th, near this place. The trap was sprung at 19 minutes past 12 and the men were pronounced dead in 18 minutes.

A crowd estimated at 10,000 persons had gathered to witness the hanging which was a public one.

Both Ponsell and Martin admited their guilt just before the execution and a letter from the mother of John Tuggle was read to the men in which she said that she had forgiven them.

A collection was taken up in the rod for the benefit of the wife and two children of Ponsell and he wife and one child of Martin who are destitute and more than a thousand dollars was contributed.

(No doubt this touching reconciliation with the gallows crowd was greatly aided by the circumstance of Martin and Ponsell’s whiteness.)

According to this recent news story, our quiescent bludgeoner Ponsell left behind a letter addressed “To Young Mankind.” The actual contents of this straighten-up-and-fly-right manifesto do not appear to be available online, unfortunately.

Martin and Ponsell didn’t save their lives. But maybe a Dostoyevsky might have hoped that they saved their souls.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Florida,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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1924: Frank Johnson, the first electrocuted in Florida

1 comment October 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1924, “colored male” Frank Johnson was electrocuted in Florida.

He was, in fact, the very first to die in the Sunshine State’s electric chair.


The original Florida electric chair.

“Old Sparky” (numerous electric chairs shared this nickname) was brand new here in the Roaring Twenties, a jerry-built contraption outfitted with “homemade accessories” to replace the icky old gallows with a brave new world’s brave new mankiller.


Top: a scantily-detailed penitentiary “personnel card” for Frank Johnson. Middle: details of the execution. Bottom: Florida’s official typed list of its early executions.

All images are from this Florida Department of Corrections page.

This same furniture that killed Johnson would ultimately take the lives of 265 men and one woman — notables from Giuseppe Zangara to Ted Bundy, milestones like John Spenkelink, and scores of strange and forgotten perps among them.

Notoriously error-prone by the end of its run, the device was finally replaced in 1999.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1951: Charlie Gifford, politician-killer

3 comments February 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Charlie Gifford was electrocuted in Florida’s Raiford Prison for murder.

The murder victim was popular young Florida legislator/war hero Charles Schuh, whose promising political career ended abruptly on April 24, 1950, when the 71-year-old Gifford strode into his St. Petersburg offices and shot him dead over some head-scratching private grievance relating to Schuh’s legal practice. (Schuh represented Gifford’s ex-wife in a divorce proceeding.)

An insanity defense didn’t fly, though Gifford’s purchase on reality seems to have been … hit and miss. The septuagenarian perp didn’t seem to mind the death sentence.

The murdered legislator’s son, Charles E. Schuh, grew up into a political career of his own, eventually becoming mayor of St. Petersburg. Charles E. Schuh’s recent passing brought out this fascinating story by a former reporter who witnessed Gifford’s execution.

The electric chair was in the center, but the controls were behind a glass-enclosed area. I was repelled by the sight of “Old Sparky,” the electric chair. I was even more horrified to see that the executioner, a local electrician, wore a black hood reminiscent of the Inquisition. …

Today I am a decade older than Gifford was then, but to a 22-year-old reporter he seemed to be just a frail old man with a shaved head.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,USA

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2002: Aileen Wuornos, Monster

7 comments October 9th, 2009 Headsman

“Thanks a lot, society, for railroading my ass!”
-Aileen Wuornos

On this date in 2002, the tragically, horrifically iconic serial killer Aileen Wuornos checked out at Florida’s Starke Prison (and into an afterlife as an Academy Award-winning role) with the appropriately bizarre last words,

“I’d just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back like Independence Day, with Jesus June 6. Like the movie, big mother ship and all, I’ll be back.”

Her sensational FBI-bestowed reputation as America’s “first” female serial killer rests on exaggeration,* but there’s something of the larger-than-life about prostitute/manslayer Aileen Carol Wuornos.

Heck, Aileen herself sold rights to her story within weeks of her arrest. So did investigators who worked the case. A year before our day’s perp faced lethal injection, her surname titled “the world’s first opera about a lesbian prostitute serial killer survivor of child abuse who is now on death row.” (Here’s the opera’s home page.)

That’s not the sort of legacy usual for a seven-time murderer. But there wasn’t much usual about Aileen Wuornos.

Wuornos — “Lee,” to her friends — projects for all her trail of bodies an irrepressibly humanity; Charlize Theron played her in Monster as the most sympathetic serial killer ever put to celluloid, her crime spree a desperate and impossible cry after human love that her life’s many travails had warped but never drained.

Still professing love for the lover who had sold her out and thereby ducked prosecution, Wuornos resigned her appeals and went her own way out this date in 2002.

Books and Films about Aileen Wuornos

* Or, if you like, a precision of definition not likely shared by the majority of her headline-reading public. What made Wuornos distinctive was killing strangers in a pattern over time; the stereotypical female multiple-murderer kills in a single spree, and/or for distinct pecuniary motives, and/or kills family members or other intimates.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,21st Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Florida,Hanged,Infamous,Lethal Injection,Murder,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Serial Killers,Sex,USA,Women

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1984: Ernest Dobbert, child abuser

Add comment September 7th, 2009 Headsman

At 10:09 a.m. this morning in Starke Prison, 46-year-old Ernest Dobbert threw a wink to his minister and was electrocuted for torturing his nine-year-old daughter to death.

The gist of the offense is described by the Gainesville Sun:

He was a child abuser, dating back to 1969. With his wife in prison for kiting paper, his four children obviously got on his nerves. His daughter, age 9, he tortured by beating with boards and belts, by kicking, by poking in her eyes, and by holding her head underwater in the toilet. He celebrated New Year’s Eve of 1971 by dressing her poor abused body in the finest garb on hand, placing it in a garbage bag and concealing it in the attic.

No chauvinist, he. Within weeks, he had done much the same with his son, aged 7. With the help of another terrorized son, age 12, he buried them both out in the scrub somewhere, with their bodies not yet found.

An unsympathetic character deservedly forgotten a quarter-century later, Dobbert interestingly illustrates some of the wide legal and ethical gray area in the real-life application of the death penalty for the many prisoners who are guilty yet not the like of Ted Bundy.

The Sun editorial cited urges Dobbert’s commitment to a mental institution on the nicely circular grounds that “no person is truly sane who tortures — much less kills — the fruit of his own loins.” This might bespeak an impoverished appreciation of human psychology’s potential.

More legally serious is the matter of intent and premeditation, ambiguous here as it so frequently is in life. Dobbert was convicted of only second-degree murder for killing his son; for slaying his daughter, the jury convicted him of capital murder but recommended only a life sentence, unsure of his degree of calculation.

But Ernest Dobbert is on this blog because Florida law allowed a judge to overrule the jury’s recommendation, opining,

this murder of a helpless, defenseless and innocent child is the most cruel, atrocious and heinous crime I have ever personally known of — and it is deserving of no sentence but death.

Maybe so … maybe no. In a 2000 paper* that undoubtedly plays better for an academic audience than a popular one, death penalty expert (and opponent) Michael Radelet points out that if one does suppose Dobbert’s intent to be less than fully formed, a case like his could be held to constitute a species of “wrongful execution” notwithstanding his guilt for the crime.**

The cases of those wrongly sentenced to death and who were totally uninvolved in the crime constitute only one type of miscarriage of justice. Another (and more frequent) blunder arises in the cases of the condemned who, with a more perfect justice system, would have been convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter, making them innocent of first degree murder. For example, consider the case of Ernest Dobbert, executed in Florida in 1984 for killing his daughter. The key witness at trial was Dobbert’s 13-year-old son, who testified that he saw his father kick the victim (this testimony was later recanted). In a dissent from the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari written just hours before Dobbert’s execution, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that while there was no question that Dobbert abused his children, there was substantial doubt about the existence of sufficient premeditation to sustain the conviction for first-degree murder. “That may well make Dobbert guilty of second-degree murder in Florida, but it cannot make him guilty of first-degree murder there. Nor can it subject him to the death penalty in that State” (Dobbert v. Wainwright, 468 U.S. 1231, 1246 (1984)). If Justice Marshall’s assessment was correct, then Dobbert was not guilty of a capital offense, and—in this qualified sense—Florida executed an innocent man.

For Justice Marshall, of course, all executions are wrongful.

For those otherwise inclined, like Joshua Marquis, an Oregon district attorney with a dim view of overhyped innocence claims, Marshall’s interpretation figures to look downright “startling”.

Florida Governor Bob Graham agreed.

Ernest Dobbert has been executed because of his brutal actions toward his own children. I hope that this indication of the seriousness of child abuse will be an example of the value which the people of Florida place upon the lives of infants and young people in our state, and a measure of the lengths the people of Florida are prepared to go to prevent and punish such crimes.

* “The Changing Nature of Death Penalty Debates,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 26, August 2000.

** Fellow anti-death penalty academic Hugo Bedau on people whose murders are “arguably not … capital murder”:

We rarely think about this category when discussing innocence and the death penalty, but it is relevant and extremely important. The problem has been with us for at least two centuries, ever since the invention of the distinction between first-degree (capital) murder and second-degree (noncapital) murder.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,Murder,USA

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1997: Pedro Medina, en flambe

5 comments March 25th, 2009 Sarah Owocki

The electric chair has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 1997 Florida execution of Cuban refugee Pedro Medina.

The improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge caused a “crown of foot-high flames” to shoot from Medina’s head, in a botched execution that caused Florida to reexamine its use of the electric chair and accelerated the trend towards lethal injection as the preferred method of execution — modern, sanitary and humane. But electrocution was once preferred for just those very reasons — well, that, and politics.

The thought of designing an apparatus to stimulate death by electrocution first came to dentist Dr. Albert Southwick in 1881, who watched an drunk man touch the terminal of an electricity generator in Buffalo, New York. Impressed at how quickly and painlessly the man died, he mentioned the incident to his friend, a state senator, who promptly brought the matter to the attention of the governor. The state legislature was then asked to consider how modern day electricity might emerge as an alternative to the often grisly process of hanging, in which incompetent executioners often inadvertently subjected prisoners to slow deaths by strangulation or decapitation.

Several years later, an inventor by the name of Harold Brown, an employee of the famous Thomas Edison, designed the first electric chair, deliberately adopting the Alternating Current (AC) form of electricity because Edison did not want his Direct Current (DC) form associated with the gruesome business of death — a sordid chapter in the history of public relations. The first execution was carried out in New York State in 1890, but the novel method was far from foolproof: it took two attempts, and the inmate was reported to have gone down in the same sort of smoke, flames, and smell of Medina’s over a hundred years later.

Still, the method caught on, and over the course of the 20th century, the electric chair became an indelible symbol of the death penalty in the nation’s consciousness.

“The chair” didn’t begin to decline until the mid-1980s, when newspaper accounts about botched executions, together with the emerging technology of lethal injection, again prompted some states to reexamine their death penalty statues.

It was around this time that Pedro Medina first came to the US from Cuba, part of the Mariel boat lift of 1980, in which Fidel Castro “permitted” some 125,000 Cuban prisoners and mentally ill to depart from the Mariel harbor for the fertile shores of America. (Medina himself had been released from a psychiatric hospital in Cuba and diagnosed with illnesses including paranoid schizophrenia and major depressive disorder with psychosis.) The boatlift polarized public sentiment in the United States.

These factors combined to lend Medina, a black man, a low status indeed in the eyes of prosecutors and jurors when, two years after his arrival on American shores, he was convicted of murdering his neighbor, Dorothy James.

Medina was executed in Albert Southwick’s brainchild 15 years later, despite pleas from James’ daughter, Lindi James, who said that she did not believe Medina had killed her mother and that her mother would not have wanted him executed regardless, and from Pope John Paul II, who also made a public call for mercy on Medina’s behalf. Medina’s lawyers also filed a petition claiming he was insane and thus incompetent to be executed, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, while he had mental problems, he could still be executed.

Early in the morning on March 25, 1997, Medina went out in flames.

A crown of foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution, filling the execution chamber with a stench of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina’s chest continued to heave until the flames stopped and death came. (From the Death Penalty Information Center’s botched executions page.)

The source of the malfunction was not immediately apparent; prison officials claimed the fire had been caused by a corroded copper screen in the electric chair’s headpiece, but later investigation revealed that it was due to improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge to Medina’s head. Attorney General Bob Butterworth hailed the deterrent value of malfunctions: “People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair.”

Others, including the warden conducting the execution, were not as sanguine.

The debacle of Medina’s execution caused a media sensation and led to a case by another Florida death row inmate, Thomas Provenzano, claiming that lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.

Provenzano lost his case, but with the release of bloody photographs of the 1999 execution of Allen Lee Davis, more states began moving against the use of the electric chair. Of the six states that today retain it (Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and, yes, Florida), none currently use it as their only method of execution.

Rather, lethal injection has become the norm.

But for how long? There may be no AC/DC marketing gambit in the new, modern business of death, and no crown of flames. But maybe all we’ve really done by moving to the needle is render invisible ongoing Medina-like botches.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1989: Ted Bundy, psycho killer

8,544 comments January 24th, 2009 Headsman

Qu’est-ce que c’est?

It was 20 years today that Ted Bundy, the signature sexual psychopath in a golden age of serial killers,* rode the lightning in Florida’s Starke Prison.

Executed Today is pleased to mark the occasion with a conversation with Louisville crime writer Kevin M. Sullivan, author of a forthcoming2009 book on Ted Bundy … and a man who knows how the world looks from inside Bundy’s ski mask.


Ted Bundy is obviously one of the most iconic, written-about serial killers in history. Why a book about Ted Bundy? What’s the untold story that you set out to uncover?

The desire, or drive, if you will, to write an article about Ted Bundy and then create a 120,000 plus word book about the murders, was born out of my crossing paths with his infamous murder kit. Had Jerry Thompson [a key detective on the Bundy case -ed.] left Bundy’s stuff in Utah that May of 2005, well, it would have been an enjoyable meeting with the former detective, but I’m certain it would have all ended quietly there. Indeed, I doubt if I’d even considered writing an article for Snitch [a now-defunct crime magazine -ed.], much less a book about the killings. But it was having all that stuff in my hands, and in my home, and then being given one of the Glad bags from Ted’s VW that made it very real (or surreal) to me, and from this, a hunger to find out more about the crimes led me forward.


Ted Bundy’s gear, right where you want it — image courtesy of Kevin M. Sullivan. (Check the 1975 police photo for confirmation.)

Believe me, in a thousand years, I never would have expected such a thing to ever come my way. I can’t think of anything more odd or surreal.

ET: You mentioned that you think you’ve been able to answer some longstanding questions about Bundy’s career. Can you give us some hints? What don’t people know about Ted Bundy that they ought to know?

I must admit, when I first decided to write a book about the crimes, I wasn’t sure what I’d find, so the first thing I had to do was read every book ever written about Bundy, which took the better portion of three or four months.

From this I took a trip to Utah to again meet with Thompson and check out the sites pertaining to Bundy and the murders in that state. Next came the acquisition of case files from the various states and the tracking down of those detectives who participated in the hunt for the elusive killer.

Now, no one could have been more surprised than me to begin discovering what I was discovering about some of these murders. But as I kept hunting down the right people and the right documents, I was able to confirm these “finds” at every turn. And while I cannot reveal everything here, It’s all in the book in great detail. Indeed, you could say that my book is not a biography in the truest sense, but rather an in-depth look at Bundy and the murders from a vantage point that is quite unique. I wish I could delve further into these things now , but I must wait until it’s published.

The Bundy story has a magnetic villain and a host of victims … was there a hero? Was there a lesson?

The real heroes in this story are the detectives who worked day and night for years to bring Ted Bundy to justice. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it is this: It doesn’t matter how handsome or articulate a person might be, or how nicely they smile at you, for behind it all, there could reside the most diabolical person you’ll ever meet! We need to remember this.

But how can you act on that lesson without living in a continual state of terror? Bundy strikes me as so far outside our normal experience, even the normal experience of criminality, that I’m inclined to wonder how much can be generalized from him.

Actually, (and I might say, thank God here!) people as “successful” as Ted Bundy don’t come our way very often. I mean, the guy was a rising star in the Republican Party in Washington, had influential friends, a law student, and certainly appeared to be going places in life. Some were even quite envious of his ascension in life. However, it was all a well-placed mask that he wore to cover his true feelings and intentions. On the outside he was perfect, but on the inside a monster. He just didn’t fit the mold we’re used to when we think of a terrible killer, does he?

Now, there are those among us — sociopaths — who can kill or do all manner of terrible things in life and maintain the nicest smile upon their faces, but again, just beneath the surface ticks the heart of a monster, or predator, or what ever you might want to call them. Having said that, I’m not a suspicious person by nature, and so I personally judge people by their outward appearance until shown otherwise. Still, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to see the “real” individual behind the person they present to us on a daily basis.

You worked with case detectives in researching your book. How did the Ted Bundy case affect the way law enforcement has subsequently investigated serial killers? If they had it to do over again, what’s the thing you think they’d have done differently?

They all agree that today, DNA would play a part of the investigation that wasn’t available then. However, in the early portion of the murders, Bundy made few if any mistakes, as he had done his homework so as to avoid detection. As such, even this wouldn’t be a panacea when it came to a very mobile killer like Bundy who understood the very real limitations sometimes surrounding homicide investigations.

I can’t help but ask about these detectives as human beings, too. Clearly they’re in a position to deal with the heart of darkness in the human soul day in and day out and still lead normal lives … is a Ted Bundy the kind of killer that haunts or scars investigators years later, or is this something most can set aside as all in a day’s work?

They are, first of all, very nice people. And you can’t be around them (either in person, or through numerous phone calls or emails) for very long before you understand how dedicated they are (or were) in their careers as police officers. They are honorable people, with a clear sense of duty, and without such people, we, as a society, would be in dire circumstances indeed.

Even before Bundy came along, these men were veteran investigators who had seen many bad things in life, so they carried a toughness which allowed them to deal with the situations they came up against in a professional manner. That said, I remember Jerry Thompson telling me how he looked at Ted one day and thought how much he reminded him of a monster, or a vampire of sorts. And my book contains a number of exchanges between the two men (including a chilling telephone call) which demonstrate why he felt this way

How about for you, as a writer — was there a frightening, creepy, traumatic moment in your research that really shook you? Was there an emotional toll for you?

Absolutely. But the degree of “shock”, if you will, depends (at least for me) on what I know as I first delve into each murder. In the Bundy cases I had a general knowledge of how Bundy killed, so there wasn’t a great deal that caught me by surprise, as it were. Even so, as a writer, you tend to get to know the victims very well through the case files, their family members or friends, and so on. Hence, I’ll continue to carry with me many of the details of their lives and deaths for the remainder of my life. And so, lasting changes are a part of what we do.

However, I did a story a few years back about a 16 year old girl who was horribly murdered here in Kentucky, and this case did cause me to wake up in the night in a cold sweat. Perhaps it was because I have a daughter that was, at the time, only a few years younger than this girl, and that some of what transpired did catch me off guard, so to speak, as I began uncovering just what had happened to this very nice kid.

Watch for Kevin M. Sullivan’s forthcoming The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History from McFarland in summer or fall of 2009.

* In fact, the term “serial killer” was coined in the 1970’s by FBI profiler Robert Ressler, as an improvement on the sometimes inaccurate category of “stranger killer”.


Additional Bundy resources from the enormous comment thread:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Infamous,Murder,Popular Culture,Serial Killers,Sex,USA

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2003: Paul Hill, anti-abortion martyr

22 comments September 3rd, 2008 Headsman

Five years ago today, minister Paul Hill was put to death by lethal injection for murdering an abortion provider and a clinic escort nine years before.

Hill rose to prominence in the early 1990’s as a fire-eating abortion foe, who openly preached the righteousness of defending unborn life by force — a divisive position among anti-abortion activists that got him excommunicated from the Presbyterian church.

On July 29, 1994, in the abortion conflict’s ground-zero of Pensacola, Fla., Hill put his theology into action by gunning down Dr. John Britton and his septuagenarian escort, along with Britton’s wife (who survived the shooting).

Creepy. It sure looks like the song and image pairings were done in earnest, not in irony.

He never betrayed the least scruple about his act, hoping only to use his trial to present a “justifiable homicide” defense; the judge’s suppression of this line was and remains a grievance of Hill’s fellow-travelers against the judiciary.

Nor did Hill betray the least concern to die for his beliefs; if anything, in dropping appeals that would at the least have prolonged his life, he cut a figure thirsty for the martyrdom he attained this day.

To what end?

Hill left a plentiful documentary record — like this manifesto, among the pro-Hill documents collected on the Army of God website:

I knew that [killing an abortion provider] would uphold the truths of the gospel at the precise point of Satan’s current attack (the abortionist’s knife). While most Christians firmly profess the duty to defend born children with force (which is not yet being disputed by the government) most of these professors have neglected the duty to similarly defend the unborn. They are steady all along the battleline except at the point where the enemy has broken through. I was certain that if I took my stand at this point, others would join with me, and the Lord would eventually bring about a great victory.

One can question whether this proved to be the case or not. The infamy (in most circles) of the killing arguably dampened enthusiasm for the cause, at least as measured by the sulfur level on clinic sidewalks. At the same time, Hill’s was only the most spectacular instance of a campaign to terrorize abortion providers that drove many out of business and made some areas of the country virtual abortion-free zones.

Whatever may have surprised him about the way the issue played out over the 1990’s, he was serene about his choices when interviewed the day before his execution.

To some in the movement, he’s a holy martyr, the John Brown of slavery’s modern-day parallel.

And even if Paul Hill’s name is taboo in the respectable public discourse of abortion today, with four relatively young rock-ribbed anti-Roe v. Wade votes now entrenched at the Supreme Court, it’s far from obvious that Hill won’t get what he was after all along … even if he didn’t live to see it.

Part of the Themed Set: Judging Abortion.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Activists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Florida,God,History,Infamous,Lethal Injection,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Terrorists,USA

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