One of My Best Friends Is a Serial Killer by Stephen Whetzel
One of my best friends is a serial killer. Perhaps given his court-mandated and state-supported retirement plan, a 129-year prison sentence, I should refer to him as an ex-serial killer. Although he has not committed murder since his incarceration, the State of Indiana recently convicted him of 21 previously unsolved murder. His DNA matched a sample founcl on a corpse discovered thirteen years earlier. The media had touted the gruesome details of his crimes: stripped naked young, sexually assaulted, and finally killed with a single, precisely placed stab wound to the chest. In the newspapers, prosecutors labeled him a serial killer and vowed to have him executed. A 40-year plea bargain saved him from dying by lethal injection.
Jeff is a likeable person, soft-spoken, friendly, seemingly intelligent - the polar opposite of many in prison. An avid reader, he stays current in local and global affairs, science and technology, and politics. We share many of the same interest; we are the same age; we were in the military; we were married with children; and we like sci-fi. Equally important, he is not an ill-tempered, testosterone-driven, or menally inept bully, thief, or troublemaker. When I need help, I can count on Jeff. He has the qualities we value in a friend - minus, of course, whatever drives him to rape and kill.
How do we choose our friends and associates? By who they are or by who they are not? Since coming to prison, I've learned to select my associates by who they are not. For example, I like people who are not pathological liars. I could choose my associates based on their ability to tell the truth, but then I would exhaust myself examining their words for truth during each conversation. On the other hand, I find it easier to accept people without prejudice, in this case someone who is not a pathological liar, until I find a sign of something I find disagreeable. In prison, people of nearly all races, cultures, and ages are crammed into a human-sized concrete and steel sardine can. Once you arrive, expect to stay awhile and expect to be pushed up against the type of person your parents and teachers probably warned you about. There's no avoiding it. By nature, human beings are social creatures. Put us together with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and we, like strangers trapped in an elevator for any length of time, are bound to interact.
I often talk with total strangers while standing in the checkout line at a supermarket. I welcome conversation, and with new and friendly people, I am privileged to listen to interesting stories - an approaching birthday for a wonderful wife and mother, a car accident that cost the pizza delivery boy his job, a cocker spaniel puppy for an honor roll student at the local junior high. No matter the story, I had never looked at a person and thought "criminal" or "murderer." "Weird" or "goofy" would have been the worst, but certainly nothing like "serial killer." I suppose that person would not have spoken to me if they had seen me as a threat or a dangerous criminal. Back then, I would not have considered having a conversation with a serial killer - or would I? Without knowing Jeff, simply relying on the impression he makes through his speech and mannerisms, I doubt that you could single him out in a checkout line as a psychopathic murderer. Obviously, his victims had no concerns about him until it was too late.
Prison is like a checkout-line that stretches from horizon to horizon. I interact with strangers until it's time to check out. Sometimes, I am surrounded by seemingly decent and genuine people, who, with their interesting personalities, make doing time in prison more like spending time at a summer camp. Other times, I find myself surrounded by hypocrites, cynics, pessimists, and con artists, who, probably without any conscious intention, attempt to drain me of patience and compassion for my fellow man.
My previous roommate, or "cellie," was, at first, someone I thought was one of the good ones. He was a Christian, attended church every weekend, read daily devotionals, studied the Bible nightly, and watched religious programs on TV. I'm not a Christian, but I respect those who honestly try to practice Christianity or any other religion that promotes peace instead of violence. I cherish, especially within my own cell, a sense of stability, security, and peace. Wanting a cellie who would respect my space and maintain order and peace in our own cell, I thought that having Wayne move in would be a smart move. Unfortunately it wasn't long after moving in before his true nature began to shine through. He stole food from the kitchen, bought and sold stolen property and contraband, ogled pornography, gambled, and ceaselessly spoke lustfully of all the women he saw on TV. He was easily upset, was impatient with non-Christians, and simply put, was rude. I learned that not many people liked Wayne. Soon, it got to where I could barely tolerate him. Then one day, quite unexpectedly, he looked me in the eye and said, "I need to live with a Christian influence," as if I was the devil and he expected me to sign papers to transfer to another cell that same day.
Because I had to continually make personal compromises in order to live peaceably with Wayne, he had elevated my level of patience to an all-new high. This man lacked the common courtesy, maturity, and ethics of most murderers I know, and he had the gall to talk down to me from his Holy-Ghost podium. Looking back, I believe that he honestly thought that because I had been so non-confrontational, I would give in to him and say something like, "Sure Wayne, whatever you want." Instead, I put aside that reformed part of me and did the exact opposite. I walked up within arms reach of him, gave him a stem look, and said, "I don't care who you have to talk to or what you have to do, but you need to get the hell out of my room as soon as possible or we're going to have serious problems." I could tell two things by the look in eyes: 1) he knew I was severely upset with him, and 2) he didn't want to have any problems with me.
Wayne was convicted of molesting one of his daughters. In the hierarchy of prison social order, child molesters and rapists are at the bottom. For many of these people, Jesus really does save - he saves them from the brutal beatings many prisoners believe are owed to them. For some reason, most prisoners avoid conflict with quiet and reserved Christians. Christians form tight social circles with other Christians. They are quick to come to the aid of other Christians, brandishing the power of the Holy Ghost and preaching scripture, logic, and morality to avoid violence. Many prisoners grew up with an understanding of Christian doctrine and have a subconscious respect for religion and church. I believe that many people are supportive of prisoners, molesters or not, who genuinely work towards bettering themselves, reinventing themselves as smarter, kinder, healthier, or more honorable people. Not everyone follows the teachings of Jesus, but many respect him. Wayne and many other sex offenders have capitalized on this social loophole and have yet to experience such violence. I have nothing against anyone, but hypocrites in prison usually end up getting what's coming to them. I suspect that it will only be a matter of time for Wayne.
Within a couple of weeks of coming to prison, I witnessed a fight that led to a brutal bearing for the loser. One man ended up on top and punched the guy in the face until he quit moving. I wanted the fight to stop, but I was so shocked, so stunned by the vivid cruelty, that l could not move. Afterward, the loser remained on his back coughing and snorting blood from his mouth and nose, looking as if someone had tried to drown him in strawberry puree, while the victor celebrated with his associates. Sickened by the nonchalance of the other witnesses, I nevertheless realized that to survive in prison, I would have to be cautious, vigilant, and as uncaring as the people around me are.
Not long ago, I watched as an old man was beaten half to death no more than ten feet from where I was standing. Blow after blow struck Orville in the head and face, knocking him backwards. "Why are you doing this," he asked in a loud shriek, as if he expected the assailant to stop the attack and explain himself rationally. Orville fell backwards onto a short set of steps, and the attack that followed was relentless. All the old man could do was tightly hug the steps, keeping his head and belly down while the blows rained down upon him.
I clearly remember Orville yelling repeatedly, "Somebody help me! Please help me!" His scream drew others out of their cells to investigate the commotion. I was the closest of any of the bystanders, close enough to see the tears and blood percolate from the old man's face, close enough to hear the contact of each punch and kick, close enough to tell that Orville had soiled himself I expected him to die that day.
At the time, nothing about the incident bothered me. That's an appalling thing to confess, but it was like watching a fight scene that I had seen in a movie 20 or 30 times, except it was in 3-D and real surround sound. Sadly, I will see it play out again before long. What bothers me is that I've grown indifferent, numb even, to blood, tears, pain, and the screams of a tortured human being. We should feel disgusted or offended when a human being is savagely victimized. We should care about life enough to defend life, not just sit back in the shadows like scared sheep and pray that we go unnoticed by the wolves of society. Shouldn't we?
Outside the 40-foot high, concrete and steel wall surrounding Pendleton, many subscribe to the peculiar ideology that the well-known, demented and savage nature of prison will turn prisoners into desirable citizens. They believe that a person can spend years trapped in a warped subculture surrounded by schizophrenics, manic-depressives, sociopaths, the drug-disordered, and the depressed, and suffer no ill effects. They buy into it because they know no better and foolishly doubt they will ever be that person. It's an imprudent and probably dangerous ignorance.
Sometime in the near future, at the exact minute of my release, I will transform from a dangerous incorrigible menace to society into a decent, moral citizen. Miraculously, the sickening stigma of the Indiana State Reformatory will vanish, as if none of it had ever happened. Then, I will be standing behind you at the checkout line at the local grocery store or eating lunch across from you at some fast food restaurant. We may exchange polite courtesies and make small talk, and you will have no idea that one of my best friends is a serial killer.
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