Nixon struggles with question of where ‘buck’ stops in policing Ferguson protests (AUDIO)

In a conference call with reporters from around the globe Monday, Governor Jay Nixon explained an executive order he issued Monday, saying, “the St. Louis County Police Department will have command and operational control over security in the City of Ferguson in areas of protest and acts of civil disobedience should such activities occur instead of the Ferguson Police Department in that jurisdiction.”

Governor Jay Nixon

Governor Jay Nixon

The County Police along with the Highway Patrol and the St. Louis City Police make up a unified command in charge of Nixon’s stated goals of protecting the public and allowing protesters to be heard, with the National Guard having been activated to support those agencies.

But to the issue of policing any protests that do arise, Nixon struggled when asked if, because he had put the Highway Patrol in the unified command and declared a state of emergency, the “buck stops” with him.

“Well I mean we’re um … it uh … it uh … you know … our goal here is, is to, is to, you know, keep the peace and allow folks voices to be heard, and in that balance I’m attempting … I am using the resources we have to marshal to be predictable for both those pillars,” Nixon said.

He continued, “I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time personalizing this vis-a-vis me. I’m trying to make sure that we move forward in a predictable, peaceful manner that plans for all contingencies that might occur so that people of a disparate group of opinions and actions can be heard while at the same time the property and persons of people in the St. Louis region are protected … I prefer not to be a commentator on it.”

Asked whether one agency is ultimately in charge, Nixon said, “I feel good about the … we’ve, we’ve worked hard to establish a unified command, to outline the responsibilities, and now with the additional assets provided by my order today of the Missouri National Guard, you know, we have, we’ve worked through a number of operational issues the folks have and I’ll only say that our efforts today are on top of a lot of things that have been known in the last 100 days to make sure that we’re prepared for any contingency.

Next question,” Nixon prompted.

Nixon’s apparent difficulty answering that question comes at a bad time and on an international stage as he works to stay ahead of unrest in Ferguson, after critics have accused him of being disengaged from the unrest there; a charge he has strongly refuted.

AUDIO:  Listen to Governor Nixon’s answer regarding the policing of protests, 2:34



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.

If these walls could talk

The weather has turned colder, and it is once again quiet inside “The Walls.” No keys jingling, no cell doors slamming shut, no shouting between the cells. Nights are still inside the Missouri State Penitentiary, which sits along the Missouri River east of the Capital in Jefferson City.

Still, that is, except for the things that go bump in the night, for those of us who believe in that sort of thing … but that’s another blog. This is more about the, shall we say, “readily accessible” aspects of the prison.

The wall of "The Walls," the Missouri State Penitentiary

I came to work for Missourinet in late June. As it happened, I knew one of the people presenting tours of MSP, as we call her. I soon found myself privileged enough to become one of those guides. (Point of fact: I was guiding the “ghost tours,” but again, that’s another blog.)

I don’t say “privileged” casually, either. I consider it a great honor to be one of the people who gets to spend so much time inside such immensely historic old buildings. The stories I’ve heard are only a fraction of those that can be told. I hope to learn many more in the coming years.

Tours continued through much of November this year until it just started getting too cold inside those old walls. It’s somewhat ironic to consider that we quit going there when it’s “too cold,” but for 168 years that didn’t prevent the prison from being used. Many of the its cells were never heated.

In recent times, its prisoners used portable heaters, heated blankets and anything else they could acquire (one assumes by any means necessary) to stay warm. The opposite was true in summer. Inmates had to find ways to stay cool. Some of the former guards tell me Death Row was almost unbearable in the summer. I can say from firsthand experience, it was no pleasant place to be during this year’s heat wave.

That has been another one of my great privileges this year: to meet and talk to some of the former guards, wardens and other staff of MSP who offer the historic tours. As I learn more of the site’s history, I hope to start giving those tours as well.

While I might one day be able to recite the stories, I’ll never be able to call them my experiences as those gentlemen and ladies can. Ask Michael Groose sometime about the salad bar, or Mark Schrieber about why one cheeseburger could be so danged important to the entire prison. Though, I think both stories are better told on-site. So being a shameless promoter for a moment, I say you’re better off taking their tours.

Chalk all that up under one of the many reasons those buildings have drawn thousands of people each of the last three years. There are the ghost stories (that’s right … another blog), there is the architecture, there is the history in a broader sense, but perhaps most of all, there are the human stories.

I can’t tell you how many thousands of people were held at that prison in its 168 years of operation. I can tell you some of the individual stories, more of the unpleasant than the not. I think the word “brutal” tends to be overused in some circumstances today, but without doubt it applies to what people did to others in that prison.

That is what I have carried with me after getting to spend so much time there. It’s one thing to read in a book or to hear from an orator about punishments like water torture, the cat-of-nine-tails and years of solitary confinement. It would be quite another to see such things in progress, which still happens in some parts of the world.

Somewhere in the middle is to stand in the places where you know it happened. It was impossible for me not to wonder who did it happen to, how did he or she come to be there, who administered it, how did that affect those parties, and how often did it happen? I found the sensation to be something of a cross between reverence and a strange, if morbid, fascination.

I haven’t even mentioned the gas chamber yet.

If you think about it, people lost their lives in many parts that prison in countless ways. What is it that makes the gas chamber different then? If you haven’t been in it yourself, I offer you two impressions that I find have stayed with me during this off season.

One is that it is so evident what happened there. If I tell you about an inmate whose life ended at location X elsewhere in the complex, there might not be much to look at; just a spot on the floor or an empty room. It’s not the same as going to an entire building created for the express purpose of ending the life of one or two people, or as seeing the chamber carefully built so as to contain the process and protect those conducting it.

It’s certainly not the same once you sit in those chairs and take a moment to consider some things. That is the second impression that lingers for me: to think what it was like to have the inside of that chamber that be your last view in this life, or to have the last sounds you hear be those knocks letting you know the process had begun, accompanied by the hiss and bubbling of the gas forming.

I still wonder what thoughts go through the mind of a person in that situation, but then one would also have to know how to think like someone such as, say, Carl Austin Hall or Bonnie Heady. I’d like to think, anyway, that someone who could participate in the cold-blooded murder of a 6-year-old boy would have a different perspective from my own. In our final moments, however, who knows?

One thing is certain, however. No matter how many times I walked Death Row this year, or in the 143-year-old dungeon cells, or into that gas chamber, it never quite felt like old hat to me. I came to feel fairly comfortable in those places after spending so much time in them, yes. But the feeling of the weight of what happened in those locations never goes away.

I rather hope it never does. I certainly hope I never stop wondering about the stories of each of the thousands and thousands of people who were held or worked behind The Walls.

None of my ramblings are meant to offer opinion on whether anyone who found themselves confined in this prison during its operation did or didn’t deserve to be there (though during its 168 years of operation, there were those that did not). My point, if I have one, is just to share some of what I think about as I look to next March, when tours are anticipated to resume.

I also spend a lot of time thinking about what the fate of those buildings will be. Some are likely to be torn down at some point, if it hasn’t already started. (One hears a lot of rumors about such things but nothing had started when last I was there.) Those buildings with the longest history or the greatest significance, however, are not rumored to be targets for demolition … at least not yet.

This reporter tends to be a pessimist — all things have a price tag. I imagine the one that would come with saving The Walls will be hefty. I certainly hope it will be picked up somehow.

There are still so many stories to tell.