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.

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