Talk­ing to hideous men

A jour­nal­ist re­flects on his in­ter­views with evil

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He shuf­fled into the room and stopped, plex­i­glass and cin­derblocks fram­ing his slight fig­ure. He looked much as I re­mem­bered him from nearly a decade ear­lier: big eyes in a boy­ish face, a thin build, long fin­gers, waist chains. But his eyes, once cold and flat, had mel­lowed into some­thing re­sem­bling thought­ful­ness.

For a moment, my re­flec­tion in the glass su­per­im­posed on his or­ange jump­suit, and I paused, look­ing at him and at me. Lee Boyd Malvo smiled. The D.C. sniper, in the visi­ta­tion room of one of the na­tion’s most re­stric­tive prisons, smiled at me.

I have cov­ered war, feel­ing the zip of bul­lets over­head, the gi­ant­foot­step boom of a mor­tar land­ing, the heat of an ex­plo­sion. I’ve been in­side drug dens and on po­lice stake­outs. I have watched two men die in Vir­ginia’s elec­tric chair, see­ing the death grip on oak, the smoke ris­ing.

Yet noth­ing com­pares to per­sonal en­coun­ters with peo­ple who have done some­thing so hor­ri­ble, so evil, that it de­fies un­der­stand­ing. Peo­ple who can look you in the eye and de­scribe what it was like to use a high-pow­ered ri­fle to shoot a stranger in the head, how des­per­a­tion can lead to an­i­mal­is­tic rape, how pe­dophilic ob­ses­sion can in­fect, fester, de­stroy.

Malvo, a se­rial killer. Aaron Thomas, a se­rial rapist. Kevin Ricks, a se­rial child mo­lester. Over the past three years, I’ve stud­ied and re­ported their crimes, reached out to them and en­gaged them in lengthy con­ver­sa­tions. Those depths are dark.

It’s easy to as­sume that th­ese men are fairly sim­i­lar: sin­is­ter, re­morse­less, the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of evil. Af­ter all, how else could they have done such things?

Yet, af­ter speak­ing with them, I know that be­hind the un­for­giv­able crimes of mur­der, rape and mo­lesta­tion are three very dif­fer­ent men, with dis­tinct mo­tives and ra­tio­nal­iza­tions for do­ing the un­think­able. They did have one thing in com­mon: They des­per­ately wanted to talk about how their lives had un­rav­eled. They wanted to ex­plain, face to face, how and why they be­came who they are.

‘I was a lost cause’

I tried sev­eral times to speak to John Allen Muham­mad, who or­ches­trated the 2002 sniper shoot­ings in Mary­land, Vir­ginia and the District, be­fore he was put to death in 2009. But he never wrote me back and never granted any­one a real in­ter­view.

Malvo, how­ever, re­sponded quickly to my let­ter last Au­gust as I was pre­par­ing to write about the 10th an­niver­sary of the killings. Be­fore sub­mit­ting to a lengthy tele­phone in­ter­view, he wrote to me and asked to meet in per­son.

Af­ter a flight to Ten­nessee and a drive north into the Vir­ginia moun­tains, I reached Red Onion State Prison, at the end of a road lined with strip-min­ing op­er­a­tions and nes­tled into a pic­turesque val­ley. It houses some of Vir­ginia’s worst crim­i­nals, but the set­ting is al­most serene.

I was not al­lowed to bring any­thing into the visi­ta­tion room other than the clothes I was wear­ing. No pens, no pen­cils, no pa­per. Upon meet­ing Malvo, I ex­plained this to him, and he agreed to al­low me to quote him from me­mory, some­thing I am never com­fort­able do­ing. I also in­ter­viewed him in four sep­a­rate, recorded tele­phone calls the fol­low­ing day.

What sur­prised me most about Malvo was his elo­quence. He was po­lite, re­fined, re­spect­ful. Ten years af­ter he and Muham­mad em­barked on a 23-day killing spree that took at least 10 lives, a boy had grown into a man; rage and blood­lust had mor­phed into con­tri­tion and, strangely, op­ti­mism. He was ex­pres­sive, even wise.

“I see op­por­tu­nity ev­ery­where,” Malvo said. All he sees for 23 hours a day — and will see ev­ery day for the rest of his life — are the walls of a tiny cell. He in­ter­acts with al­most no one. Op­por­tu­nity?

He beamed, his hands do­ing a lot of the talk­ing. He has stud­ied psychology, his­tory, phi­los­o­phy and real es­tate, at one point work­ing with a pen pal to help the man set up real es­tate deals in the Mid­west. He is into yoga and prac­tices East­ern med­i­ta­tion. He writes po­etry, cre­ates art. Malvo makes the most of a sit­u­a­tion that he cre­ated.

Maybe more than 85,000 hours — and count­ing — to think about it helps. He dark­ened as he talked about the killings. There was no joy there, no boast­ing. It was hor­ri­ble in the telling.

He and Muham­mad scouted shoot­ing lo­ca­tions, planned es­capes, hid the gun near some of the out­door sites so that, if ques­tioned af­ter a shoot­ing, they would not have it with them. Malvo dis­sected for me what went well and what didn’t; his rec­ol­lec­tions were ex­cru­ci­at­ingly de­tailed.

One me­mory he said both­ers him most: the death of Linda Franklin at the Home De­pot in Seven Cor­ners. Malvo told me he paced out the dis­tance across Route 50 many times, walking across the high­way to where he and Muham­mad would take the shot. Af­ter the older man pulled the trig­ger, Malvo said, he fo­cused on the look in the eyes of Linda Franklin’s hus­band.

“They are pen­e­trat­ing,” Malvo said. “It is the worst sort of pain I have ever seen in my life. His eyes. . . . Words do not pos­sess the depth in which to fully con­vey that emo­tion and what I felt when I saw it.”

In de­scrib­ing an­other shoot­ing, Malvo seemed shaken by the no­tion of him­self, then 17, shoot­ing an­other teenager. “Think about it, a kid shoot­ing a kid,” he said, re­call­ing the long-dis­tance shot he took with a Bush­mas­ter ri­fle at Tasker Mid­dle School in Bowie. That bul­let hit Iran Brown, then 13, but he mirac­u­lously sur­vived. Malvo slapped his fore­head with his right hand, held it there, shak­ing his head.

Re­flect­ing on his state of mind at the time, he said, “If there was a soul there, it was be­hind lay­ers and lay­ers and lay­ers of dark­ness.”

He told the tale I’d heard be­fore, crafted for his le­gal de­fense: He was a way­ward boy in An­tigua who was taken in by Muham­mad, brain­washed and trans­formed, like a child sol­dier, into a killing ma­chine. “He told me to do some­thing, and I did it,” Malvo said. “Af­ter a cer­tain point, he didn’t have to say any­thing. He would just look at me, and I un­der­stood.”

I could tell that talk­ing about the killings brought Malvo to a dif­fer­ent place. His de­meanor shifted. His faint Caribbean ac­cent, largely hid­den, started to creep in, as did his re­grets. He re­called that as a child, he be­lieved he could do any­thing. He once made a list of things he wanted to ac­com­plish by the time he was 25, he told me. Yet, on his 25th birth­day, he was in a room with a de­tec­tive, an­swer­ing ques­tions about some­one he had robbed and tried to kill.

Deep down, he ad­mit­ted, there must have been some­thing very wrong with him, some­thing that al­lowed the most ter­ri­ble of evils to emerge. Some­thing sus­cep­ti­ble, eas­ily cor­rupted. “I be­came a changeling,” he said. “Who­ever the author­ity is, I change to him.”

Once Muham­mad had se­cured his trust, Malvo said, “I was a lost cause.”

He re­peat­edly noted that Muham­mad gave him his at­ten­tion and time, a gift the boy trea­sured. I pointed to what looked like a new Timex watch on Malvo’s left wrist. Malvo, con­victed of cap­i­tal mur­der in Vir­ginia, is serv­ing mul­ti­ple life sen­tences with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role. Imag­ine that, I said, a guy for whom time means noth­ing want­ing to keep track of time.

Malvo smiled.

‘But I loved them’

As with Malvo, my con­tact with Kevin Ricks be­gan with a let­ter. Ricks, a high school English teacher, had been ar­rested in Fe­bru­ary 2010 on a charge of tak­ing “in­de­cent lib­er­ties” with a mi­nor in Manas­sas. Based on our ini­tial re­port­ing, I soon sus­pected that this case was just one of many.

Ricks had moved of­ten dur­ing the past 30 years, tak­ing jobs at numer­ous schools in sev­eral states. Ev­ery­where I called, peo­ple told me that he had sud­denly left town with­out much ex­pla­na­tion. Usu­ally, the de­par­tures co­in­cided with ru­mors of in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­la­tion­ships or ap­par­ent stalk­ing of stu­dents.

Ricks wrote back al­most im­me­di­ately, and we started talk­ing by phone, some­times for hours a day. Then 50 years old, Ricks was adamant that he had done noth­ing wrong. Yet ev­ery per­son he sug­gested I speak to said oth­er­wise.

They de­scribed a preda­tor, some­one who devel­oped re­la­tion­ships with boys, cul­ti­vated their friends and fam­i­lies, then got them drunk and mo­lested them in their sleep.

Af­ter in­ter­view­ing sev­eral of Ricks’s vic­tims, I spoke with him, via video­con­fer­ence, at the Prince Wil­liam County jail, where he was serv­ing a one-year sen­tence on the in­de­cent lib­er­ties charge. He would later plead guilty to fed­eral charges and be sen­tenced to 25 years in prison.

He was ea­ger to talk. I had just re- turned from Den­mark, where I in­ter­viewed a man who had lived with Ricks in Danville, Va., for six months in 1999 as a for­eign-ex­change stu­dent. I told him I had met the former stu­dent on the banks of a canal in Copen­hagen.

Ricks leaned for­ward in his chair, his eyes wide. “What did he look like?”

I re­lated a story the man had told me, about find­ing naked pho­to­graphs of him­self in Ricks’s bed­side ta­ble drawer and then con­fronting Ricks.

“And then . . .” I started, but Ricks fin­ished the sen­tence: “. . . we went out back and burned them in the bar­be­cue.”

Ricks even­tu­ally ad­mit­ted pretty much any­thing I could con­firm through my re­port­ing. Abuse of boys in Ja­pan. Abuse of boys in North Carolina. Abuse of boys in Vir­ginia and Mary­land and Ge­or­gia.

I sat down with Ricks in per­son on Dec. 4, 2010, locked in a jail cell with him for six hours. He seemed in­tel­li­gent, worldly, kind. He is a sto­ry­teller, en­dear­ing and witty — the kind of teacher you want in­volved in your kid’s ed­u­ca­tion.

When con­fronted with his crimes, he ad­mit­ted “mis­be­hav­ior” with half a dozen boys but re­fused to be­lieve he had done any­thing to hurt any­one. He in­sisted that his mid­night pho­tog­ra­phy was artis­tic, a way for him to so­lid­ify re­la­tion­ships with teenagers with­out caus­ing any last­ing dam­age — be­cause they were all passed out. He viewed what he did as “the least in­tru­sive thing to do.”

Ricks said his big­gest fail­ure was al­low­ing his quest for love and in­ti­macy to lead his “emo­tions to over­rule logic.” He main­tained that his abuse of teenage boys, although morally and legally wrong, was spir­i­tu­ally jus­ti­fied be­cause he loved the boys and did not mean to hurt them.

“I don’t think it can be at­trib­uted to a crim­i­nal mind,” Ricks said. “My be­hav­iors in this case and in sev­eral cases are il­le­gal, and I don’t dis­agree with the law. But my set of be­liefs and my per­cep­tion are mis­guided at worst. The road to hell is paved with good in­ten­tions, and I’m cer­tainly on it.”

The con­ver­sa­tion was frus­trat­ing, in large part be­cause Ricks wa­vered be­tween un­der­stand­ing and de­nial. “I don’t be­lieve that I’m a dan­ger or threat to any­one,” he said at one point. But later he con­tra­dicted him­self: “I have no con­trol with mi­nors. I should not be around mi­nors.”

He ad­mit­ted an “in­fat­u­a­tion” with young boys. He was so im­mersed in teenage cul­ture — the mu­sic, the movies, the tech­nol­ogy — that he al­most con­sid­ered him­self a teenager. He be­came the teacher they all wanted, some­one who was easy­go­ing, had few rules and tried to re­late to stu­dents. He played the part of men­tor, leader, friend.

Yet at home, Ricks col­lected NAMBLA mag­a­zines and cre­ated a poster­board with porno­graphic cutouts. There were also tro­phies — pu­bic hair, tis­sues, sex toys — linked to his vic­tims and shrines where he kept them.

I knew he had a teenage rel­a­tive, so I asked him what he would think if that rel­a­tive came to him and de­scribed a re­la­tion­ship with a 50-year-old English teacher, if he learned that the teen and the teacher had been drink­ing to­gether and if he saw in­crim­i­nat­ing pho­to­graphs of what the teacher had done to the un­con­scious rel­a­tive.

Ricks sat back in his chair and leaned his head against the wall. He paused, ad­justed his or­ange jump­suit, set down his glasses and wiped his eyes. Tears.

“It’s rep­re­hen­si­ble,” he said. “Rep­re­hen­si­ble.”

A moment of si­lence, and in that moment I thought I’d found re­morse.

Ricks picked up his glasses and straight­ened up. “But I loved them,” he said.

He spent three decades jus­ti­fy­ing his ac­tions, hid­ing his of­fenses, run­ning from author­ity, run­ning from ev­ery­one he knew, in­clud­ing him­self. Now he’ll spend decades try­ing to build a life in prison, a place where, he told a court re­cently, he is in­volved in men­tor­ing other in­mates and wants to get into the prison min­istry.

He has writ­ten apol­ogy let­ters to some of his vic­tims. They are sim­i­lar in tone, al­most al­ways jus­ti­fy­ing him­self, seek­ing re­demp­tion.

“I did some­thing ter­ri­bly wrong, and even re­peated it, and de­stroyed even the chance that our brief, needy time could end well,” Ricks wrote in a 1993 let­ter to a boy he had mo­lested in the early 1980s. “I’d like to tell you how sorry I am that I hurt you. I hope you’ve grown to un­der­stand that I was not a random child mo­lester, and that I really did love you.”

“I be­lieve in for­give­ness,” Ricks told me.

‘They were ob­jects’

When Aaron Thomas was ar­rested in New Haven, Conn., in March 2011, po­lice were cer­tain that he was the in­fa­mous East Coast Rapist, re­spon­si­ble for at least a dozen at­tacks on women in Mary­land, Vir­ginia, Con­necti­cut and Rhode Is­land dat­ing back to the 1990s. His DNA matched ev­i­dence re­cov­ered at numer­ous crime scenes, and he im­me­di­ately con­fessed to the at­tacks, ac­cord­ing to po­lice. My Washington Post col­league Maria Glod and I had cat­a­logued the crimes in an in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished about a year ear­lier as po­lice searched for the un­known rapist.

Af­ter in­ter­view­ing sev­eral of his vic­tims, I wrote Thomas let­ters, in Con­necti­cut and later in Vir­ginia, where he was moved to face trial for at­tack­ing three teenage girls on Hal­loween in 2009 in Prince Wil­liam County.

I con­nected with Thomas by tele­phone in April 2012. He be­gan the con­ver­sa­tions with a plea for help, say­ing he was liv­ing with a de­mon in­side him, a sec­ond per­son­al­ity he called “Er­win.” He wanted to learn how to con­trol Er­win, how to stop the bad­ness.

Er­win, he said, was the rapist. Aaron, he said, was a good per­son, a fam­ily man, some­one who helped the el­derly and had love for ev­ery­one.

“Er­win would show up, and things would hap­pen in the mid­dle of the night,” Thomas said. “He only comes around when I’m lonely.”

He spoke in hushed tones, some­times so low that it was hard to hear him over the jail­house noise. He sounded af­flicted, dam­aged, a mess. Au­thor­i­ties had re­ported that Thomas, then 40, was sui­ci­dal and had tried to kill him­self; Thomas told me that it was Er­win.

At one point, he told me he had cut his gen­i­tals in an at­tempt to get rid of the evil, a wound that jail of­fi­cials had not dis­cov­ered. With his per­mis­sion, I re­ported the in­jury to jail au­thor­i­ties, and they re­sponded and treated him.

We traced his life in some­times daily con­ver­sa­tions, from his child­hood in Prince Ge­orge’s County as the son of a D.C. po­lice of­fi­cer and a ca­reer Geico em­ployee to his years af­ter high school as a va­grant who some­times lived in aban­doned cars, buses and a va­cant pet store; his rowdy youth, abuse at the hands of his fa­ther, hints of se­vere be­hav­ioral prob­lems and a pos­si­ble men­tal dis­or­der.

But it was his ex­pe­ri­ences on the street — get­ting shot in D.C., liv­ing home­less in Prince Ge­orge’s — that he said led to Er­win’s ex­is­tence. He stopped car­ing, got sex­ual urges and struck out in the night af­ter women.

I was skep­ti­cal of the Er­win story from the be­gin­ning. Af­ter speak­ing to ex­perts, it seemed un­usual that some­one with mul­ti­ple per­son­al­i­ties would ex­pe­ri­ence in­ter­ac­tion be­tween them. Yet Er­win was an open book to Thomas. He saw, ex­pe­ri­enced and re­gret­ted ev­ery­thing that he claimed Er­win had done.

But ev­ery­thing he told me about his per­sonal his­tory checked out. He was, in fact, shot in D.C., ver­i­fied by a col­umn that ran in The Washington Post shortly af­ter­ward. The aban­doned pet store — which later burned down, ac­cord­ing to its owner — was in­deed where Thomas said it was at the time he squat­ted there. Fam­ily mem­bers con­firmed dates, places he lived, sto­ries he told.

But as I pressed, the Er­win story fell apart. In early June, af­ter a court hear­ing in which a judge or­dered him to co­op­er­ate with men­tal health ex­perts, Thomas called me, clar­ity in his voice, and ad­mit­ted that he had made Er­win up. He was ready to talk, for real.

The real Thomas was, in many ways, scarier than the devil per­son­al­ity he had cre­ated. He had lit­tle ex­pla­na­tion for what had hap­pened and had foggy mem­o­ries, at best, of the at­tacks. He said that he ba­si­cally saw women as prey, not as peo­ple, and that there are many preda­tors out there just like him.

“They were ob­jects,” Thomas said. “Who­ever came down the street, an ob­ject. . . . It’s aw­ful. It’s scary. . . . I don’t know why I couldn’t just stop.”

I asked him if he un­der­stood how dan­ger­ous he had been, if he un­der­stood that his vic­tims were daugh­ters, sis­ters, moth­ers, real peo­ple — if he would want re­venge against a per­son who did th­ese things to some­one he knew.

He said he un­der­stood, but he min­i­mized what he had done.

“I never hurt any­one,” he said, not­ing that he never beat, shot or stabbed any of his vic­tims. The weapons he used to sub­due were of­ten sur­prise and threat. He didn’t seem to see rape as vi­o­lence. Sev­eral of his vic­tims, un­sur­pris­ingly, told me it was an ex­tremely vi­o­lent ex­pe­ri­ence.

In late sum­mer, Thomas called me to sign off, say­ing he shouldn’t con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tions be­cause of his court cases.

“I ap­pre­ci­ate you lis­ten­ing to me,” I re­call him say­ing. “You’ve helped me un- der­stand my­self. But I still need help un­der­stand­ing why this hap­pened.”

Thomas pleaded guilty to mul­ti­ple rape and ab­duc­tion charges in Prince Wil­liam and Loudoun coun­ties and is sched­uled to be sen­tenced in March. He faces the pos­si­bil­ity of sev­eral life sen­tences.

‘You al­most hit me’

Peo­ple of­ten ask me how I can sit in a room with a killer or a rapist or a mo­lester, and whether I’m giv­ing them a chance to ex­plain away their crimes.

Of course I know go­ing in that some of what they say could be self-serv­ing, maybe out­right lies. But I chal­lenge them, I ver­ify what they say to the ex­tent pos­si­ble, and I give them a voice — some­thing I be­lieve to be a core mis­sion of jour­nal­ism. I feel it’s im­por­tant to al­low read­ers a glimpse of that world, and ev­ery­thing we learn from crim­i­nals may help pre­vent fu­ture crimes.

Ricks was far more lik­able than most peo­ple might imag­ine. I came to un­der­stand that his per­son­al­ity, his ap­par­ent trust­wor­thi­ness, was his most ef­fec­tive weapon.

Thomas, when speak­ing as him­self, said he barely un­der­stood why the rapes hap­pened — he said he had urges he could not con­trol — but even more shock­ing to me was his abil­ity to see those acts as non­vi­o­lent.

Malvo, un­like Thomas and Ricks, owns his crimes. They are a part of him — though one that he is try­ing to for­get and that he hopes ev­ery­one else will, too. “I did mon­strous things,” he said.

To­ward the end of my in­ter­view with Malvo, I had to know the an­swer to a ques­tion that had lin­gered in my mind for a decade.

On Oct. 19, 2002, in the midst of the sniper saga, I re­ceived a call from a source who urged me to get in my car and drive south. For what? Just go.

I was soon headed to Ash­land, Va., where the lat­est sniper vic­tim had been shot out­side a Pon­derosa steak­house just off I-95. As I pulled into a nearby ho­tel park­ing lot, I had to slam on the brakes when a young man darted in front of my car. He moved past, and I parked. As I got out, I asked him where the shoot­ing had taken place. He pointed at the Pon­derosa across the road. He was wear­ing a brightly col­ored sweater.

When Malvo and Muham­mad were ar­rested days later and I saw the first mug shots, I couldn’t breathe. The photo of Malvo re­vealed the per­son I had seen in the Ash­land park­ing lot.

With­out giv­ing him any de­tails, I asked Malvo if he re­mem­bered any­thing about that park­ing lot in Ash­land. He said he did, that he al­most got hit by a car. He said he re­mem­bered it as a small sports car with an un­usual green color (my Toy­ota Cel­ica was “Caribbean green”). I asked him what he was wear­ing that night, and he said it was a “crazy sweater with all sorts of bright col­ors.”

When I told him that it was my car, he said: “You al­most hit me.” What if I had? There he was, one of two men on a killing spree, hours af­ter he shot a stranger, about to go re­cover the gun from the woods. Know­ing ev­ery­thing.

There I was, part of an enor­mous cadre of peo­ple look­ing for the killers, hop­ing to learn what was go­ing on. Know­ing noth­ing.

Ten years later, he sat on one side of the plex­i­glass, dream­ing about what he could have be­come. Hop­ing to un­der­stand his evil.

Ten years later, I sat on the other side of the plex­i­glass, dream­ing about how to ex­plain what he had be­come. Hop­ing to un­der­stand his evil.

I shook my head and smiled. Malvo smiled back.

Josh White is The Washington Post’s ed­u­ca­tion ed­i­tor. He cov­ered the D.C. sniper shoot­ings in 2002 and was a lo­cal in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter from 2008 to 2012.

STOCK PHOTO BY CLIN­TON HUSSEY/COR­BIS

PRINCE WIL­LIAM COUNTY PO­LICE DE­PART­MENT VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Aaron Thomas, the East Coast Rapist, who con­fessed to mul­ti­ple as­saults from Vir­ginia to Rhode Is­land, doesn’t seem to see his crimes as vi­o­lent.

SU­SAN WALSH/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the two snipers who ter­ror­ized the D.C. area in 2002, says he re­grets his crimes and is try­ing to make a new life in prison.

TRACY A. WOOD­WARD/THE WASHINGTON POST

Former teacher Kevin Ricks has tried to jus­tify his mo­lesta­tion of boys.

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