"You bastard!" the e-mail began. "Was killing another human being really worth you selling a few extra copies of your lousy book?"
Obviously, this was not a fan letter.
Having been a journalist for thirty-nine years, I've developed a pretty thick skin. But this complaint stung. It wasn't because of the "selling...books" accusation. Book sales hadn't motivated me. Rather it was because my book had played a key role in getting a Florida prisoner executed and I had always been opposed to the death penalty.
The Serial Killer Whisperer (Touchstone, $15) made residents of Vero Beach, Florida, so furious when it was published earlier this year that the owners of a local book store warned me against doing a signing there.
My book contains uncensored letters written by David Alan Gore, a serial killer who hunted, abducted, raped, tortured and murdered four teenagers and two women in the Vero Beach coastal area during the early 1980s. They were mailed to Tony Ciaglia, a Las Vegas man who'd gained Gore's trust. In his letters, Gore bragged about how he inflicted pain "to the max," fed one victim's corpse to alligators, and scalped others because of a hair fetish. With pornographic detail, he admitted sexually brutalizing two fourteen-year-old hitchhikers, callously referring to them as "freebies," and gleefully recounted their agonizing deaths.
Gore's writings were simply too much for Russ Lemmon, a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, who'd become friends with Carl Jr. and Jeanne Elliott in Vero Beach. The Elliott's seventeen-year-old daughter, Lynn, had been kidnapped, raped and then fatally shot by a naked Gore after she'd escaped and he'd chased her into the front yard of his parent's home.
Lemmon called Gore's letters "stomach churning" and "truly repulsive" in a front-page column and demanded to know why Gore was still sitting on death row twenty-eight years after being sentenced to die.
Entirely by chance, Florida Governor Rick Scott happened to be meeting with the newspaper's editorial board on the same day Lemmon's column ran. When Lemmon told the governor about Gore's letters, Scott admitted that he'd never heard of the serial killer. Local residents flooded the governor's office with emails, letters and telephone calls. Six weeks later, Governor Scott green-lighted Gore's execution.
"Gore's bragging and lack of remorse in the letters published in The Serial Killer Whisperer were simply too hard to ignore," Lemmon wrote in a column. "I believe the book is what put Gore's case over the goal line."
On execution day, Gore refused to speak to the media. Instead, he wrote an apology to the Elliott family, claiming that he had accepted Jesus Christ and was "not the same man today that [he] was 28 years ago."
After eating fried chicken, French fries and butter-pecan ice cream, he was strapped to a gurney and given three injections through intravenous tubes in his arms. The first sedated him, the second paralyzed him, and the third stopped his heart. The drugs were administered by a volunteer who was paid $150. The Elliotts were seated a few feet away behind a glass window, but Gore refused to look them in the eye.
I'd been encouraged to attend Gore's execution but didn't. In 1995, I'd written another nonfiction book, Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town, that chronicled how an innocent black man had been falsely accused of murdering a white teenager and sentenced to death in Alabama. That book helped free the death row inmate and exposed how fraught our legal system can be in highly-charged death penalty cases.
This was different. There was no question about Gore's guilt or his cruelty. And regardless of what the angry email writer had written to me, my book served an important purpose. It revealed the inner thoughts of serial killers stripping away the glamour that Hollywood often wraps them in.
Before Gore's execution, I'd spoken publicly against the death penalty. When reporters called me this time, I kept mum about my personal views. I'd discovered that it is easy to oppose the death penalty when the victim is faceless. The pain and suffering in the Elliott's faces and in the voices of family members whose loved ones had been brutalized by Gore made me mute. Would I have wanted this monster executed if he had murdered one of my daughters?
In Alabama, I'd seen how our legal system could victimize an innocent man. In Florida, I'd seen how much pain a callous killer had inflicted on innocents without any true remorse. Did my experience in Florida change my view about the death penalty? In the end, it didn't. But it certainly gave me a much better appreciation for those who support it.
The events leading to Gore's execution also proved to be a poignant reminder of how our own words can damn us. When it came to his execution, he had no one to blame but himself.