“Once in a while, you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
From ‘Scarlet Begonias’ by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter of The Grateful Dead
Part 1 – The Past
It had been 38 years since my stories on the famous Gary Gilmore murder case were published in The Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah. Carried worldwide, they revealed Gilmore’s perspective on his life and his crimes through quotes from over 100 letters he had written to his girlfriend, Nicole Barrett, from Death Row, where he awaited his execution.
I was the least likely reporter, in the swarm of media people who had descended on Salt Lake, to cover the story of the first person to be executed in the United States in 10 years. Only 22, a new journalism graduate from Brigham Young University, I was working my first job in Provo for the newspaper. I covered tree plantings and brush fires until Gilmore shot Max Jensen, 25, and Bennie Bushnell, 24, in two separate robberies the nights of July 19, and 2O, 1976.
Because my boss was on vacation, I was assigned to cover Gilmore’s arraignment. It was there that I met Nicole. My young heart was swollen with sadness for the widows and children of Gilmore’s victims. But when I saw him shuffle into the courtroom, legs and hands manacled, and then lean down to kiss Nicole as he passed by (this was prior to the type of security that exists now) I felt empathy for this beautiful young woman, close to my age, and by the looks of it, in love with someone who had committed murder.
After the arraignment I approached her, introduced myself and asked her if I could take her to get a bite to eat. I made it clear it was a visit, not an interview. In a small restaurant in Provo, we discovered that despite coming from two very different walks in life, we had much in common. Unbeknownst to us at the time, a bond was forged between us that would last a lifetime. I gave her my card afterwards and told her to let me know if she needed anything.
A few months later Gilmore had been found guilty. The US Supreme Court had lifted a 10-year-ban on capital punishment just 17 days before Gilmore had murdered Jensen and Bushnell. With new sentencing guidelines, he was given the death penalty. A date was set for his execution by a firing squad. He was taken to death row at the Utah State Prison.
By this time I was working in the main newsroom of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. Dale Van Atta, one of the investigative reporters on our staff, along with every other news organization covering the case, from the NY Times to the major networks, was trying to get an interview with Nicole. She was visiting Gilmore in prison daily and was the only person who could shed light on his motives and state of mind. She also wasn’t talking.
Dale asked me to speak with her, called her at the prison, and handed the phone to me. She immediately remembered who I was, said we could talk, and asked me to pick her up at the prison in 45 minutes. During the next six hours she gave me access to 100 letters Gilmore had written to her from death row; a scrapbook full of his artwork (incredibly good for someone who had already been incarcerated for 18 years prior) and inferred to me that they were considering suicide. I drove home with a heavy heart, but also amazed by what had happened.
When I met with my editor Lou Bates the next morning and told him what I had, he removed all my other assignments and told me to be with Nicole as much as she would let me, so as not to lose the story! I spent over a week with Nicole, driving her to the prison; eating homemade whole wheat bread with her in her mother’s kitchen; hanging out at her apartment talking; dodging other reporters; and trying to convince her life was worth living even without this person she considered to be the love of her life. Our agreement was that I could write my story in two weeks on the day Gilmore was to be executed.
The execution was stayed after an appeal was filed, not by Gilmore, but by one of the groups opposed to capital punishment. Lou told me to get permission to run the story early, that it was never going to hold, that our paper had been getting calls from other media who knew we had a reporter following Nicole.
I called Nicole and to my surprise she agreed.
I stayed up all night reviewing the letters and writing the first of my stories.
The next morning my desk was surrounded by a swarm of editors literally editing the pages of copy as it came out of my typewriter. We were right on top of the paper’s deadline. The story, as they say in the industry, was put to bed and just as we were going to press, the news came via the Associated Press wire service, that Nicole and Gilmore were in separate hospitals after taking an overdose of Seconal. I was told to go back to my desk and start writing a story about the suicide pact. Now, 38 years later, as I write, tears still come to my eyes. I had come to care about Nicole very much.
They both survived. Nicole was taken to the Utah State Mental Hospital and Gilmore back to death row. I would not see Nicole again for nearly a year and then there would be a break of decades, other than a few letters we exchanged.
Gilmore was executed on Jan. 17, 1977. I spent the night at the prison Jan. 16, with the international press corp. I did not witness the execution the next morning at sunrise, but after it was carried out, we were shown the chair, Gilmore’s blood still fresh in its tattered vinyl cover.
Reading Gilmores letters was my formal initiation into adulthood. I had already lost my childhood innocence on life’s journey in the usual ways, but none of it compared to the content of the letters. They were a long narrative, whispering to me in the night in a voice I had never heard. They spoke of terrible, daily abuse at the hands of a father who hated him; the horrors of 18 years of prison life—cruelty, sodomy, torture—prior to his parole to Provo. There were incidents described in the letters that I have never told another human being. Childhood abuse and prison life had bred a cruel perpetrator by the time he was released . . . but also a broken victim.
Nicole had spoken to me about how good he was to her two young children when they lived together. She knew a man who was kind, funny, intelligent, and very caring toward her, in fact he was the best partner she had had in her own difficult, adversity-ridden life.
The contradictions were overwhelming for me. I felt such grief for the victims and their families. I knew what it was like to grow up without a father. Mine had died in a driver’s education car accident when I was 16. It had been the student’s first drive, and my second death. My mother had died from cancer, just a few years before my father.
What Gary Gilmore had done to the victims and their families was horrible, a nightmare of a magnitude that cannot be expressed or completely understood unless one has suffered profound loss. Its callousness disgusted me. And, honestly, I felt sympathy for him as well. I was conflicted about that. Was I betraying the victims and their families by that sympathy?
The contradictions within him created confusion in me. I struggled over the trauma of his life, how it seemed he was bred for his moments of depravity that changed two family’s lives for generations. I was desperate for answers that would help me make sense of it. It became a moral dilemma and exploration for me for the next 38 years as I searched for insight and resolution.
At first I ran from it, hid in the safety of my own religious culture. I went to therapy. I wrote about it in graduate school in a paper called—‘Gary Gilmore and the Nature of Evil in the Human Experience.’ Later, after I became a counselor, I presented a paper on it at a social work conference, exploring the case through the lens of Narrative Therapy, a type of counseling that focuses on expanding our stories by bringing new perspectives to old ideas and scripts. All of that had helped some, but my attachment to the need for more concrete answers still lingered for years. I just couldn’t completely shake my attachment to reaching an understanding.
Part 2 – 38 Years Later
And then one sunny day this past March, to my utter shock, I received a call from Lawrence Schiller. Larry is known internationally for his work as a producer, director, and photographer. He bought the rights to Gilmore’s story. He and Norman Mailer collaborated on the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Executioner’s Song, and he had directed the movie based on the book. He and I had become good friends during the coverage of the story, but we hadn’t talked for 36 years. What could he possibly be calling about?
He told me that he was now the president of The Norman Mailer Center in New York. The center was created to preserve and archive Mailer’s manuscripts, the home where he wrote, and to encourage promising young writers through a yearly writers’ colony. This year it would be held in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a focus on Mailer and The Executioner’s Song. The setting, the University of Utah, at the base of the Wasatch Front, lent atmosphere to the sense of place captured in the book.
Interesting, but what did that have to do with me?
Larry invited me to come to Utah for a journalists’ panel held in conjunction with the writer’s colony. The timing was curious to me since I am currently writing a book about my experience covering the story.
I also knew my emotional work around the case was unfinished, and the opportunity intuitively beckoned to a somewhat fragile part of myself that was finally ready to see what needed to be seen.
I told him I was interested. And, by the way, I asked, “Do you know where Nicole is?”
I had been looking for her for over 10 years unsuccessfully. Larry said he had a couple of uncertain e-mail addresses for her and would try to make contact with her to see if she wanted to talk to me again.
A week later, I received an email from him with Nicole’s contact information and a note saying she was very interested in reconnecting. I hung my head and wept.
Not long after, we were embracing each other, both of our eyes flooded with tears. I had forgotten and was stunned how powerful our connection still was. We have spent hours together and have a deep friendship. She loves to plant flowers and has been a landscape gardener for 15 years. She is in a relationship with a responsible and caring man. We each have six children, almost the same ages, and two of them have the same middle names. We both are grandmothers and love it! She went to Utah with me, though most people at the events we attended didn’t know that it was her. And at each event there was a question about what had happened to her. It was known that in some ways she had been a victim too.
It was a fantastic trip with hiking, sightseeing, and visiting family. We had dinner together with Larry, who had become a type of surrogate father to Nicole. We each did the emotional work revisiting what had happened all those years ago, sorting it out, and in some ways putting it to rest. There were deeply emotional moments, with tears, anger, and reflection to each other. And in the last days there, we had an incredible eight hours of happiness and laughter as we ran around a popular amusement park in the area like a couple of teenagers—eating carnival food, and riding rides while screaming and laughing.
While I was in Utah I had time to write every day and reconnect with old colleagues from my journalism days.
Vern Anderson, who just retired as the editorial page editor for The Salt Lake Tribune, was the moderator of the panel. He had been my first editor at our student newspaper, The Daily Universe, at Brigham Young University and we covered the police beat in Provo together. We had also worked together a bit after college, but I had not seen him in 18 years. Now we were working together again. Larry would also be on the panel and Bob Moody, one of Gilmore’s attorneys. Bill Beecham who covered the entire story for the associated press, fell ill the day of.
Vern had assigned each of the panelists to give a five-minute statement about the case. Despite how much I have written about it over the years I was stumped. There was so much to be said. What was my statement? He encouraged me to just sit with it. “You’ll know,” he said.
One morning during my early morning writing time, it came to me. Much had been made of Gary and Nicole’s prison romance and suicide pact, maybe too much. But what had been important in my reporting experience was the letters—1,000 lined pages, folded into 100 envelopes that gave us Gilmore’s perspective on his life and his crimes. It was the closest I would ever come to some understanding of him.
The answers had been there all along, they just weren’t the answers I wanted. Now sitting in the shadows of the vast mountain range towering majestically above, the place where the rage of this man had poured out onto the heads of the innocent, my understanding of the complexity of life came into clearer focus.
By the day of the panel, I knew what I would say.
The Gary Gilmore story calls us to be able to simultaneously hold conflicting emotions—confusion and clarity, disgust and compassion, a desire for concrete answers that is met with only speculation. I had wanted to understand a criminal mind without feeling I was betraying the victims and their families (bless their hearts!) But it is only that understanding that offers insight for how we can do better as parents and in our criminal justice system.
And each of us has this task of holding ambiguity in an uncertain world. Each of us longs for certainty in areas in which there is none to be found. We each have shadow and light. We all are complex in some spoken or unseen way. To hold the dueling realities and dual truths of life and self, with compassion and curiosity, is a call to our own wholeness and is the nature of life.
In the end I had to let go of my desire for any explanation that would ever completely make sense, there just wasn’t one. And my work, like so many others,’ was to grieve the losses I could not change.
When I entered the theater where the panel discussion was held, it was filled to capacity with 244 people. I was confident and resolved. And I was thankful for the last question from the audience: “If you had to cover that difficult story again, would you?”
Now I could say, and did: “Absolutely. The Gary Gilmore story was one of the great teachers of my life.”