Flying with Ike

–By Mary Furness

I woke up to news of the death of Ike Skelton today. I was startled at first — even shocked. After all, I had seen and talked with him only 10 days ago, under rather unlikely circumstances.

I had planned for a long time to travel to the Washington, DC area to visit family and friends, and leaving out of Kansas City on a non-stop flight was the cheapest and easiest way. An older, somewhat frail gentleman boarding early looked familiar, but in the context of a crowded airport, one can never be really sure. Bumping down the aisle with carry-on bags to a cramped seat in coach, I missed seeing him again, and the idea of catching up on sleep seemed a better use of my time.

Leaving the plane in Washington, I caught sight of the gentleman in First Class, sitting quietly in his seat, a blanket over his lap. A faint bell went off in my head, “Is that….?” But there were people crowding behind me, and I had to keep moving. Just inside the jetway, several wheelchairs waited, each with a hand-lettered sign, and a shiver went over me as that bell clanged louder; one had a sign that read, “Reserved for Ike Skelton”.

I broke ranks and stepped over to the gentleman holding the wheelchair, “Ike Skelton!” I nearly shouted. “Do you know who that is?”

He looked at me, and in heavily accented English said, “No, ma’am…he somebody famous?”

I smiled, realizing how I must have sounded, but pressed on, “He is a Missouri Representative. A Congressman. Retired now — an elder statesman.”

The gentleman’s face lit up, “Oh! I understand!”

I fixed him with a stern but kind eye, “Please! Take very, very good care of him, he is one of our finest people.”

I waited at the security exit, hoping to get a photo, or possibly a quick few words on my recorder, but I didn’t see him. Putting my gear away, I joined the crush of people headed toward the shuttles for rental cars and other ground transportation, and suddenly there he was. No time to grab the camera or recorder, I called out to him, went over, shook his hand, and thanked him for all he had done for Missouri.

When I introduced myself and said I work for Missourinet, he nodded, chuckled quietly, and asked for my name again, as if going through his mental file and to pull out anything we might have said to one another. I mentioned my esteemed News Director Bob Priddy, and he grinned. Then he, his wife, and I chatted for a few moments about Missouri, as well as my beloved hometown of Arlington, Va., where they now make their second home.

I stood for a moment, smiling, and waved as they went through the doors, down the sidewalk and disappeared into the crowd. I thought about that grand old man — a true “gentle man” — who served so long, touched so many people, and yet was so down-to-earth.

Rest in peace, good and faithful sir, and thank you.

The talking about, and the seeing

DISCLAIMER: This blog is going to be about me. It relates to subjects that undoubtedly impact specific other people in much deeper, more profound and often sadder ways, and I would not suggest that the effects on me are in any way comparable. This is just about my perspective, for anyone who might care to know.

As some readers will already know, my other job has been that of a tour guide at the historic Missouri State Penitentiary. Obviously some things have developed in recent days that impact that job … perhaps more on that in another blog, another time.

One of the stories that I have gained some familiarity with for that job is that of the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping. Sixty years ago that little boy was taken from the Catholic school he attended in Kansas City and was murdered by what some would call two “losers” who, it is argued, never showed remorse for killing him.

I walk guests by the cells his kidnappers and killer sat in on death row. I walk them to the small building in which those lives and 38 others were ended, invite them to sit in the chairs where 40 died, and tell them how the process was carried out.

I confess a certain pride in my work. I enjoy being able to inform and entertain people with the history that I have been told, researched, memorized and learned to relate. I like to think some of my guests are even impressed with my knowledge or my delivery.

I feel other things, too. I am a father. In the case of the Greenlease kidnapping, the story of a 6-year-old boy’s death and the knowledge of how terrifying and friendless his final moments were leaves me sobered, no matter how many times I retell it.

Friendless and terrifying they were. His killer, Carl Austin Hall, tried first to strangle Bobby with a piece of rope that proved too short. When Bobby struggled, he was struck in the face and head several times. Then Hall resorted to a gun and, holding Bobby down in the floorboard of the car, tried to shoot him in the head. A first shot missed and Bobby was paralyzed with fear. That allowed the second shot to hit. Hall later told investigators that he considered killing Bobby nothing more than disposing of evidence that could implicate him.

His accomplice, Bonnie Brown Heady, showed remorse only for the manner in which the pair was caught. She blamed Hall for not being able to lay low and costing them the $600,000 ransom their crime had earned from the Greenlease family to take her to their dream life together as they had planned. While being driven down the gas chamber, Heady told the warden, “At least I put flowers on Bobby’s grave,” a reference to his having been buried in the flower garden of her St. Joseph home.

Point in fact: Carl planted the flowers, not Bonnie.

So when does this blog become about me? Right about now.

You see, for the many things that horrible crime’s anniversary might mean to other people, I find myself thinking about what I see as a bit of a personal paradox.

I spend so much time matter-of-factly walking around a gas chamber, relating stories like that of Heady and Hall, talking about what it was like to die of cyanide gas, what final hours were like, even discussing with people what it might have been like to watch Heady and Hall die.

In less than I month I will be a witness to an execution.

Allen Nicklasson is scheduled to be executed October 23. Nicklasson has been called a “Good Samaritan” killer.

In August 1994, Nicklasson, Dennis Skillicorn and Tim DeGraffenreid were stranded on the side of the road in a stalled car when Richard Drummond, a supervisor from AT&T stopped and offered to let them use his phone. Nicklasson held a .22-caliber pistol to Drummond’s head and ordered him to drive to Lafayette county where he walked Drummond into the woods and killed him. Nicklasson and Skillicorn later got stuck in Arizona in Drummond’s vehicle. Nicklasson killed a man who tried to help dig them out, Joe Babcock, then went to Babcock’s home and killed his wife.

Skillicorn has already been executed for his role in the Drummond murder. DeGraffenreid served time for second degree murder.

So how, then, will I feel watching his execution?

I don’t think I’m the only member of the media who would tell you that we develop something of a sense of detachment. We cover death, brutality, cruelty, tragedy and loss on a regular basis. Often we find ourselves presented with gruesome or somber details that might or might not be “on the record.” We write the story, we move on.

I don’t think I’m revealing any great industry secret that most of us have dark senses of humor. Coping mechanism? Maybe.

None of this means we are immune. My weakness, if nothing else, is when a story involves children. I have had days when I’ve taken an early lunch break just to go home and hug my girls so I can get back to work more easily.

So back to the question. How will I feel seeing a man lying on a table knowing that other people are taking his life? I’ve thought about this many times since taking my job at Missourinet, knowing that I would likely one day be a witness to an execution.

Perhaps the best word to describe the modern execution process is “sanitary.” There is no exposition, no fanfare, nothing that one might call “ceremony.” There is just a carefully written protocol with its timeline and instructions to be carried out. As some who have been or are with the Corrections Department have told me, it is their job to carry out the state’s sentence, nothing more, nothing less. If the offender is cold, he is not denied a blanket out of some sense of being undeserving as a consequence of his crime.

It is exactly what lawmakers in the 1930s hoped for when several efforts were mounted to end the old execution method; hangings conducted in the county in which the crime was committed. Those events were public spectacles in which sometimes thousands of men, women and children … yes, entire families … turned out to watch the event or view the body.

Those lawmakers wanted the process to be more controlled, more contained and more private. A man lying on a gurney in what amounts to a hospital room is a far cry from throngs of spectators, on some occasions shouting and jeering.

What I cannot anticipate is the release of emotion from those tied to the event; the family of the victim, the family of the accused.

For the former, this is a situation that has continued since I had just started to drive. I’ve held three jobs, welcomed five children and gone on paying my bills while they’ve dealt with an investigation, trial, appeals and already one execution.

For the latter, one wonders how long they’ve been dealing with issues related to their loved one and whether there were problems pre-dating the crime for which he has been convicted. There is also the worry that comes with having a loved one locked up in a prison surrounded by people convicted of violent offenses.

I think about all these and other things and in the end, the answer is that I don’t know how I will feel. Will my disconnect as a reporter allow me to remain as stoic as the walls of that execution chamber, only there to do the job to be done while whatever plays out, plays out? Will I find myself moved by the emotions of those I talk to who are emotionally invested? What will the way I handle it tell me about myself as a person?

I wonder how long it will take after the event to know the answers.

The clown

After a day of covering and watching others cover the State Fair Rodeo debacle, we are left pondering whether we have witnessed an internet cautionary tale.  If it is not that, then it is close.  A story that originated with an internet report has exploded, repeated, with various shades of differences in the telling.  As the day draws to a close, we are left with what seems to be one of the hazards of the use of the internet to relay information.  There is no doubt it can spread information.  But there is danger in accepting that information out-of-hand as true.  

We are reminded of the insurance company television commercial.

“Where’d you hear that”

“Internet.”

“And you believed it?”

“Yeah.  They can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“The internet.”   

We’ve spent a lot of time in the Missourinet newsroom looking at the videos of the Saturday night incident at the Missouri State Fair Rodeo. And listening.  As we have examined the video and listened to the audio, we have become more questioning of what has been relayed to the public, even in our own early accounts.

Early accounts from the internet said, “A clown came into the arena dressed as President Obama.”  An appraisal of a still picture of the “clown” leaves doubt in our mind that that happened, as we will explain later. 

We also said some things in our stories similar to statements in several other stories we have seen today—that a rodeo announcer said “tonight’s the night we’re going to smoke Obama.”  An internet source that we cited said that “a bull got close enough, and the clown jumped up and ran away with the crowd cheering in delight.”   We, like many of our colleagues,were operating on the best information we had at the time.  However, a day of interviews, statements, and examinations of posted videos seems to shed a different light on how we reported an ugly situation.   There is no doubt it was an ugly situation.  

But as lawyers have noted, you can’t un-ring a bell.  You cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.  

The longest video we have seen runs 2:06.  Two bulls are seen throwing their riders in short order. Neither comes close to a figure with the Obama mask.  Bull riding contests at rodeos are seldom limited to two bulls so there’s a lot we have not seen, particularly the Obama figure running away. But we have our doubts about that.  More on that point later. 

At various times, rodeo announcer Mark Ficken has been described as the clown or has been identified directly or indirectly as the person who was spouting the language that pumped up the crowd and also angered a lot of people.  Even lawyer Albert Watkins, who contacted media earlier today as Ficken’s representative, seemed confused by the circumstances. “The clown, donning an Obama mask, was wearing a microphone while at the time of his unscripted appearance,” he said in his notice. The video and audio clearly indicate the figure in the Obama mask was not wearing a microphone.  But the real clown appears to be, as we note below.

First, let’s consider the figure in the Obama mask.   When we talked with Ficken a little after 7 o’clock this morning, before a lawyer started speaking for him, he referred to the figure with the Obama mask as a “dummy.”  (Our conversation with him offered a different perspective on the limited but widely-circulated information up to that time.)

A look at the closeup pictures shows a figure that appears to be propped up by a broom (if it’s not, that broom is in a very uncomfortable place).  There is no logical reason for a broom in a rodeo arena.  If the figure were, indeed, human, then the figure is carrying the broom in an odd way.   

Next:  The figure in the mask never moves during the event, not even when a real clown goes over and adjusts the clothing.  When a horse and rider go by, it does not turn its head. 

The sleeves of the shirt are stuffed into pants pockets.  The legs appear to have little or no flesh on them.  The entire figure, in fact, appears in the not-very-clear pictures to lack human proportions.   

Although we get only fleeting glimpses of the figure during the videos we have seen, the figure has not moved.   It seems to us that the dummy is not likely to have run from the arena with a bull in close pursuit.

Dummies are often used in rodeo rings, particularly during the bull riding events.  

Early in one of the videos, Ficken introduces the people in the ring.  He introduces only one person as a clown, (“the funny man, the jokester”) the person who is heard a short time later calling Ficken’s attention to a “famous” guest in the ring, “Obama.”  It is at that point, before the real clown is seen manipulating the lips on the mask (during which time the figure does not move), or making all of the comments about how the bull is going to “get” Obama, that Ficken makes his remark that Obama better watch out for the bull.  He is not heard participating in the clown’s routine after that.

Three entities are involved in this incident.  An announcer.  A clown.  A figure that appears to be a dummy in an Obama mask.  The announcer is not the clown. The clown is not the dummy.  The dummy does not have a wireless microphone.  The clown does have one.  The clown is the one making the controversial comments.

This event happened away from the eyes of regular television or newspaper coverage and was first published on a Facebook page, then picked up through  and passed around through more social media,  ultimately making its way into the conventional media, including the Missourinet.

Throughout the day we have seen references in regular media and social media to Ficken being the clown or Ficken making the statements that angered many people and rallied others. It appears to our eyes and ears that neither is the case. Watkins refers to it as “internet piling on.” 

So after a day of reporting, reiterating, and reacting, we wonder if the internet might have distributed a lot of information that too many people have taken as truth and too many people keep repeating–on the internet.   

This story is likely to take some time to play out.  But what the internet continues to circulate and that some of us in the mainstream media pass along raises some questions about some of the interpretations of the material we have seen and heard and taken a closer look at.  .

“The Truth is Out There,” was a motto of a television show years ago.  The search for that truth sometimes involves stumbling down a brambled path with uncertain and sometimes misleading markings. 

And that seems to be a pretty good summation as the sun goes down on this day.