FOR KILLING TWO MEN IN COLD BLOOD GARY GILMORE WAS FACING THE FIRING SQUAD: HIS CRIME HARDLY STOOD OUT AMONG THE CONVICTED MURDERERS OF HIS TIME, BUT HIS CASE WOULD BECOME A LANDMARK IN US CRIMINAL HISTORY
Double- murderer Gary Gilmore wanted to die rather than spend any more time in prison. The irony was – the people wouldn’t let him
IT’S HUMAN NATURE TO GASP FOR EVERY LAST BREATH, BARTER WITH EVERY TOOL AT YOUR DISPOSAL, YET GILMORE WAS PREPARED TO DIE
As crimson blood seeped through the shirt of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, it pooled at his feet inside a tiny, cold outhouse behind Utah State Penitentiary. While the world’s media waited impatiently outside, buzzing with anticipation, the air inside the execution chamber was still on the morning of 17 January 1977, as 30 witnesses watched medical staff take the prisoner’s pulse, before confirming he was finally dead.
Gilmore’s death signified the end of a battle not just for those who Gilmore’s murderous spree had affected, but also for the perpetrator himself. For months he had begged judicial superiors to let him die. Despite multiple stays of execution put forward by family and campaigners, Gilmore was adamant he should pay for the crimes he had committed.
Gilmore’s tragic life and shocking death inspired a Pulitzer Prize- winning novel by Norman Mailer in 1979 entitled The Executioner’s Song. A film by the same name followed only three years later. While it seems unethical that a murderer should be immortalised and his victims lost in the shadows, Gilmore’s case has fascinated the masses for decades. It’s human nature to gasp for every last breath, barter with every last tool at your disposal, yet Gilmore was prepared to die from the minute his life was signed away. It appears that Gilmore’s reasons behind his apathy towards his own death were part of his complex nature.
Gil- more or less
Although in death Gilmore’s name became iconic, in life he lacked a true sense of identity thanks to his early years. He was born on 4 December 1940 to his parents Bessie and Frank, who were at the time on the run under the pseudonym Coffman, thanks to Frank’s scheming ways. The second of four children, Frank named his newborn son Faye Robert Coffman, after his mother. Bessie, a Mormon outcast, was not keen on the name, and once the couple left Texas she changed it to Gary Mark Gilmore. She kept her son’s original birth certificate, a decision that would prove to be the undoing of her son later in life.
Throughout much of Gilmore’s childhood, his family frequently relocated across the western USA. At home, an alcoholic Frank subjected Gary Gilmore to horrific beatings, more so than anyone else, although Bessie and her other sons were also frequently attacked for no good reason. Gilmore’s youngest brother Mikal, when later researching for his 1994 book Shot In The Heart, made the connection that Gary Gilmore reminded his father of his own failings and therefore received more abuse. The relationship between father and son was a confusing paradox of emotions – while Frank was abusive, he also demanded that his sons love him and hug him even though they feared him deeply. Meanwhile, Bessie was reportedly devoid of affection towards her children, who were left craving for the tender motherly touch they would normally receive in a traditional household. In 1952, Bessie forced Frank to go straight, and the family settled in Portland, Oregon, where Frank set up his own legitimate business.
However, trouble was never far behind for the family. In Oregon their father fell in with a bad crowd and was introduced to shoplifting, booze and narcotics. The children grew up constantly hearing their parents argue. Frank’s violence, combined with Bessie’s threats to kill her husband in his sleep, created an unstable environment. Mikal would go on to claim that his father’s violence mellowed as he aged. A troubled child, Gary Gilmore frequently played truant from school and was a troublemaker, playing ‘ chicken’ with oncoming trains and sticking his wet finger into live sockets to showcase his bravado.
Frank’s contempt for the law was soon instilled in his second- born, who began taking part in petty crime from an early age. When he wound up before a judge, his father would step in and defend his son, teaching him to manipulate the system in his favour. Gary Gilmore avoided punishment for a number of years, but when he was only 14 he was arrested for his first crime – grand theft auto – and sent to MacLaren Reform School for Boys for a year. From here, his criminal activity showed no signs of slowing down. Instead Gilmore was spiralling out of control. Until the age of 18 he was perpetually in and out of trouble.
Eventually juvenile delinquency turned a boy into a hardened criminal, and he was instead held at the Oregon State Correctional Institution as an adult in 1960 for another car theft charge. He was released later that year. In 1962 Gilmore was arrested and sent back to the penitentiary for robbery and assault, racking up additional prison time for a series of misdemeanours. While behind bars, his father developed terminal lung cancer and died in June that same year. Gilmore was delivered the news while in his cell by a correctional officer at the prison.
Enraged, Gilmore smashed up his cell and slashed his arms with a broken light bulb in anguish. He became a prolifically violent inmate, was not permitted to leave the prison to attend his father’s funeral, and was drugged up on anti- psychotic medication that had severely debilitating
effects. After his release he discovered his original birth certificate naming him as Faye Robert Coffman. The distinct differences in his name caused a lot of questions from Gilmore, who formed the opinion that Frank wasn’t his biological father, answering his life- long question as to why his father had taken his anger out on him so much growing up – as the bastard child of another man. Before his mother could explain he stormed out of the house. It would be the last time his mother would see her son a free man.
Illegitimacy in the Gilmore family was a recurring theme. Frank’s mother had once revealed to Bessie that she had fallen pregnant with Frank following a brief fling with a famous magician who had passed through Sacramento.
After researching this claim at the library, Bessie concluded that her husband was the illegitimate son of the illusionist Harry Houdini. Mikal Gilmore, the third son born to Bessie and Frank, later revealed that while his mother and father believed in their connection to the great Houdini, few others in or out of the family did.
Now in his 20s, Gilmore’s belief in his illegitimacy following the discovery of his birth certificate had a lasting effect. He became more worried about where he had come from and much less about where he was going. After a quick taste of freedom, Gilmore was quickly back behind bars for a robbery worth $ 11. A serial offender with no signs of conformity and rehabilitation, he was given a 15- year jail sentence. While behind bars his younger brother Gaylen was stabbed and died of his injuries. Delivered the news that another family member had died while he was behind bars, Gilmore resorted to his old ways and was frequently sent to solitary confinement.
Behind bars Gilmore developed his artistic skills and became an artist and poet. He was granted the opportunity to leave the prison to attend an art college program, but much like every other opportunity he had been given in life, Gilmore wasted it. Rather than attend his course, he instead skulked off to drink and was picked up for yet another armed robbery. Furious that their attempts to help Gilmore had ended in bitter embarrassment, the court sentenced him to a further nine years behind bars despite Gilmore’s plea for leniency. Addressing the court, he said he had “stagnated” in prison and was desperate to have his freedom back, and that if they sentenced him further he would become more troublesome then ever.
The courts did not respond to his threats and, as promised, Gilmore continued to be a troublesome and problematic prisoner, getting into fights and attempting to commit suicide on multiple occasions. He was transferred to a maximumsecurity prison in Marion, Illinois, in 1975 where no one, not even his family, could reach him for visitation. He began writing to his cousin Brenda Nicol and convinced her that he was ready to be released. She dutifully worked on freeing her cousin, who she had not seen since he was a boy, and helped prepare him for release by giving Gilmore somewhere to stay in Utah and offering employment opportunities.
After serving only 13 years of his 15- year sentence,
Gilmore was a free man, but he soon found on the outside that, with his lack of employable skills, he was equipped to do very little. His uncle Vern Damico employed him in a bid to give him a purpose and a sense of accomplishment in the world. Working in his shoe repair shop, Gilmore was easily distracted by the female customers who walked through the doors. Although his uncle cautioned him about his wandering attention, he wasn’t easily dissuaded – especially when a young woman named Nicole Barrett Baker walked in on a May afternoon in 1976.
A 19- year- old mother of two, she had recently gotten divorced for the second time. The attraction between her and Gilmore was instantaneous, and within a week of dating, Gilmore moved in with Nicole in Spanish Fork, Utah. His passion for her was matched by his drunken aggression and violent temperament, and with two children to consider, she left him after only a few months. She later recalled how she knew that in doing so Gilmore would kill someone, but she admitted she thought it would be her. After an argument with her on 19 July, Gilmore stormed out that evening and drove to Orem with Nicole’s younger sister April in the passenger seat of his truck. Leaving the truck parked around the corner, Gilmore headed to a gas station while April sat in the car, blissfully unaware of what Gilmore was up to. Inside the building Gilmore marched up to the attendant, 20- year- old Mormon Max Jensen, armed with a .22- calibre Browning automatic pistol, and aimed it at the attendant’s head.
Gilmore ordered his victim to empty his pockets and, with a wife and children at home, Max did not want to do anything to anger the gunman, so agreed and followed Gilmore’s instructions. Then, Gilmore ushered him into the back room, where he ordered Max to lay on the floor with
let’s do it
his arms under his body. Placing the barrel against Max’s skull, Gilmore told his victim, “This one’s for me” and pulled the trigger. Not satisfied with his kill, he kept his weapon at point- blank range to his innocent victim and fired a second bullet into his brain, this time declaring, “for Nicole”. He and April then spent that evening going to see a movie and hanging out in a motel.
The following evening, Gilmore walked to the City
Centre Motel in Provo, where he set his murderous sights on overnight clerk Bennie Bushnell. Gilmore ordered that the motel clerk give him the cash registry box and lay down on the floor. In almost exactly the same way as he killed
Max the previous night, Gilmore shot him in the head. As he executed Bennie, his wife, who lived on the property with her husband, entered the room. Gilmore picked up the cash box and fled.
As he attempted to rid himself of the murder weapon in a bush close to his most recent crime scene, Gilmore shot himself through his right hand. Bleeding and in agonising pain, he phoned his aunt’s home, who rang her daughter Brenda. After listening to her mother detail Gilmore’s confession of killing the motel clerk, she received a call from Gilmore himself, who asked for drugs and bandages. Coolly, Brenda asked for his address, before hanging up and dialling 911 to report him to the local authorities. A manhunt for Gilmore ensued, and when authorities finally caught up with him a few hours later at a roadblock, Gilmore surrendered. At first he denied killing the two men, but after a few hours of questioning he admitted everything.
On 5 October 1976 Gilmore appeared before a jury at the Provo courthouse. His trial lasted only two days. Charges for Bennie’s murder were the only ones brought against Gilmore because there had been no eyewitnesses to the first murder. A man who had been staying at the downtown motel the night Bennie was murdered had seen the killing unfold and testified against Gilmore. An FBI ballistics expert matched the bullet lodged in the victim’s brain to the gun found thrown in a hedge close to the motel. They also matched Gilmore’s gunshot wound in his hand to the ammunition in the gun, and even more damning was a trail of Gilmore’s blood that went from the motel right to the bush where the murder weapon was found.
The defence had barely anything to go on and did not call any witnesses. Gilmore’s chief counsel, Michael Esplin, rested his case almost immediately. Gilmore insisted that he was allowed to take the stand in his own defence. Judge J. Robert Bullock ensured that Gilmore understood that, by taking the stand, he would be subjected to cross- examination by the state. Gilmore replied in the affirmative. He felt he had a good case to plead insanity, but his attorneys told him that four psychologists had evaluated him, and although they had diagnosed him with an antisocial personality disorder ( worsened with drugs and alcohol), he did not meet the criteria for an insanity plea. Gilmore subsequently withdrew his request, much to the astonishment of the trial judge. It took the jury only 80 minutes to find Gilmore guilty of firstdegree murder.
Later that day the jury discussed Gilmore’s punishment. While an execution hadn’t been carried out in the state of Utah in almost a decade thanks to a nine- year moratorium, prosecutors argued that Gilmore, a violent and dangerous criminal, showed no promise for rehabilitation and argued for the death penalty, which had only that year been reinstated. At the end of the hearing Gilmore was asked if he had anything to say before the sentencing was passed. The courtroom had expected to hear some contrition or remorse from Gilmore, but instead he simply replied, “I am finally glad to see that the jury is looking at me.”
The 12- person panel unanimously decided to sentence Gilmore to death, with the execution scheduled for 15 November. Gilmore was asked if his preferred method of execution was by hanging or by firing squad. Gilmore felt there was less to go wrong in being shot and so opted for the latter option. What followed was a bizarre battle between prisoner and the outside world: he wanted to die, while some following the case wanted him to contest and fight the system. Gilmore’s mother did sue for a stay of execution on her son’s behalf, but the Supreme Court refused to hear her claims. Gilmore was adamant that he would not appeal his sentence and dismissed both of his attorneys when they tried to intervene on his behalf.
As he sat behind bars awaiting his death, letters between Gilmore and Nicole professed their undying love for one another. Every day she had hitchhiked 30 kilometres to the prison to see him. After his 15 November deadline was temporarily suspended for another month thanks to the prolife campaigners fighting Gilmore’s case against his wishes, the lovers hatched a suicide plot that would ensure that the
I would like them all… to butt out. This is my life and this is my death. It’s been sanctioned by the courts that I die
and I accept that
boundaries of prison wouldn’t keep them apart. Delivering 36 pills to him in person via a discreetly stashed package, Nicole and Gilmore planned to take the pills at exactly the same time that night. At the stroke of 8pm on 16 November, both parties began their suicide mission, swallowing the toxic dose. The suicide attempts were interrupted: Gilmore was rushed to the infirmary while Nicole was taken to hospital. Both were saved, and further communication between the pair was cut off by prison officials.
Before the end of 1976 there would be another stay of execution against Gilmore’s wishes. Again he tried to commit suicide but failed. Each time his execution was halted he grew increasingly frustrated with those who were intervening. During a Board of Pardons hearing in November 1976, Gilmore spoke of the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU) and other activist groups to prevent his execution. He told the panel, “They always want to get in on the act. I don’t think they have ever really done anything effective in their lives. I would like them all, including that group of reverends and rabbis from Salt Lake City, to butt out. This is my life and this is my death. It’s been sanctioned by the courts that I die and I accept that.”
No one expected Gilmore to be the first Utah execution, but he was counting on it. Meanwhile, the press, who had been following Gilmore’s tumultuous battle since his arrest, were watching his story carefully, waiting to see if Gilmore would relieve himself of life before the state did. After his last postponement, he was scheduled to die on 17 January 1977, making him the first to be put to death in almost a decade in the USA. Gilmore’s execution would pave the way for death row inmates across Utah. On the morning of 17 January, after Gilmore’s latest stay of execution was overturned – much to the dismay of the ACLU, who believed they had succeeded in postponing it further – Gilmore was led to the outhouse. His family gathered around him, and he spent a final few minutes with each one before they were ushered behind a screen. Marksmen readied themselves for the signal.
When asked by warden Samuel W. Smith if he had any last words, Gilmore simply replied, “Let’s do it”. A black corduroy hood was placed over his head. At 8.07am the marksmen’s bullets pierced his heart within a few centimetres of one another. It took two minutes for his vital signs to cease. Lying in a hospital bed recovering from her recent suicide bid, Nicole recalled how that same morning she had been woken by a vision of Gilmore’s face contorted in pain. Moments later, she claimed, the news had reached her that Gilmore had been put to death that morning. Gilmore had finally been granted his wish to die, and his turmoil, as well as that of his victims, could finally rest in peace.
When they met in Ma love y 1976, theof Gilmore’ s lif e, NicoleBaker, w as Barretta single mother of tw children who had orecentl y div orced for the second time
above The first of Gilmore’s victims, Max Jensen, was a father, husband and devout Mormon who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Gilmore’s anger bubbled overopposite Gilmore pleaded with the Board of Pardons during a hearing in November 1976 to be allowed to die. To his left are his attorneys, Bob Moody and Robert Stanger
While in pr ison Gilmore ta pped into his artistic talents and even earned himself a place at a community colle ge art course, but Gilmore used his release from pr ison to dr ink and commit cr ime
above Gilmore’s uncle claimed that during his final hours, he smuggled in three miniature bottles of whiskey, which his soon- to- be executed nephew downed one by one
Right Gilmore had wanted to be executed standing, but his appeal was denied and he was instead ordered to be seated in the execution chamber when he was put to death
above- left After his death Gilmore’s body was removed from the chamber and his organs harvested for medicine. He was cremated, his ashes sprinkled across Spanish Fork, Utah, where he’d lived with Nicoleabove- Right Only Gilmore’s family and the families of his victims were permitted inside the execution chamber at the time of his death, but after he was removed the media were quick to swoop in on the scene
Numerous groups and individuals attempted to sta y Gilmore’ s execution, but Gilmore firmlya t expressed his dissa tisfaction their interf erence
above- Right Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize- winning novelThe Executioner’s Song was a narrative, nonfiction account of Gilmore’s life, written using letters and interviews Gilmore gave to the press