The remarkable thing about this case is that the author of Gary Gilmore’s biography is none other than his brother, Mikal Gilmore. Also the biography was written in hindsight, as Gilmore was dead by the time Gilmore began writing the account.”When I was a kid, I felt like we were the . . . Addams Family, I really did. I felt like we were monsters. . . . It wasn’t until later, much later, that I really began to see that this stuff happens all over and nobody talks about it.” The biography highlighted many hidden, horrible secrets in the Gilmore household. Out of four abused brothers, Gary Gilmore was the only one to turn to a life of crime. Mikal suggests that the abuse led directly to Gary’s criminal history but he doesn’t account for himself and his two other brothers.
Frank and Bessie Gilmore
Frank and Bessie Gilmore lived like transients. They moved around randomly through Texas, even though they had a son, Frank Jr. and Bessie was pregnant. Frank brought Bessie to a small oil-town where Bessie gave birth to their second son, Faye Robert Coffman. The name was an alias Frank Gilmore used to throw people off his trail. In fact he wore many aliases as he was a con man who faked having a magazine subscription business. Bessie refused to have a son named Faye so she changed the name to Gary. During the following three years, the family moved from town to town, Bessie giving birth to a third son named Gaylen. During early adulthood, the first girl Gaylen loved was Patty McCormack, the child actress who played the cold-blooded killer in the movie version of “The Bad Seed.” Having run off to Greenwich Village to read his poems at clubs, Gaylen drink himself into oblivion, spent time in jail and died from a stabbing as a very young man.
When Gary turned eight, Bessie forced Frank to settle down in Portland, Oregon where her husband actually established a legitimate publication called Building Code Digest. He traveled frequently on business which was fortunate for his sons. Frank saved his truly monstrous side for family crime. Mikal recounted a relentless onslaught of savage beatings from both his father and mother. There were ritual beatings meted out as punishment to the three older children, and other beatings that were more spur of the moment, often for no reason that the brutalized family members could discern. Sometimes Frank hid behind doors waiting to attack them. He used razor straps and his fists, and he abused Bessie in front of the family. Mikal recalled Frank stating, “he battered] her face until it was a mortified, blue knot” . Bessie would threaten to kill Frank, and she meant it. Frank often slept on the couch, surrounded by chairs and bells to guard against his wife sneaking up on him. When Frank was dying with cancer, Bessie refused to tell him about the doctor’s terminal diagnosis, out of spite.
Bessie was cruel to her sons, and in particular to Gary. She became bitter over the years and often beat and slapped Gary, and like Frank, without provocation. Bessie was known to use sticks to beat her sons. She called them names and assured them they would never amount to anything. If anything, her physical abuse was worse than that of her husband. From the beginning, these boys never had a chance.
Gary bore the brunt of Frank’s abuse. Frank, the oldest, told the author that it was young Gary who was most disturbed by the family violence. His dreams about his parents wove together with a dream of being executed while he was in jail, a close foreshadowing of his actual future. “He would often wet the bed at night and wake up screaming, sitting in his own sweat and urine.”The family dog was constantly beaten by Frank Sr. for “the same reason he beat anything,” The dog went on to attack some 15 people and killed two other dogs before someone shot her. In 1947, a fourth son named Mikal was born years after the previous three. This caused a disconnect in the family. Mikal felt he wasn’t a part of the same family. His three elder brothers were a troubled clan and he was often left out. After Mikal’s birth the family moved again to Salt Lake City, Utah. Gary became part of a local gang, drinking and shoplifting.
One year later the restless family moved back to Portland and 12-year-old Gary became known as a delinquent with a hatred of authority. He often sat alone by a riverbank and drank alcohol. Gary had become a volatile, angry boy He liked to impress friends with his bravado. By 14, in spite of an IQ of 133, he dropped out of ninth grade and traveled to Texas. Gary ran an illegal poker game and used his winnings to buy sex, drugs and alcohol, Eventually he tired of the lifestyle, moved back to Oregon and started a car theft ring. You might wonder why Gilmore returned to his abusive parents. Abuse becomes normal in a dysfunctional family. Since it’s all a child knows, it is familiar. It is home.
In May 1955 he was caught stealing a car and Frank came to his aid, hiring a lawyer and Gary got off with a mere warning from the judge. Several times Frank kept Gary out of jail. Mikal stated “part of me wondered if my father felt sorry for his children, what he had done to them.” No matter what Gary was arrested for, Frank insisted “my boy didn’t do it.”
Finally Gary stole a 1948 Chevy and this time Frank couldn’t help him. Gary was committed for 15 months to MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, most of it in maximum security. Gary was sadistically beaten and raped in reform school and then was beaten and abused by the guards he taunted during his many years in prison. He was the kind of man who attacked others with hammers-from behind (a la Frank)-and who eventually was able to make the fathers of young children lie down so he could fire a bullet into the backs of their heads.
“My father was the first person I ever wanted to murder,” Gary told an uncle. And because he didn’t kill Frank Sr., he had spent his whole terrible life looking for the bad father in others to kill. Gary spent the next two years in and out of jail. In later years Gary decided he wasn’t determined enough to be a successful thief and that he simply cared about nothing. In 1958 Gary was charged with statutory rape. Frank helped to get the charges dropped. In mid-1960 the girl he had raped gave birth to his child. Frank and Bessie lied to Gary, telling him the child had died. Gary never learned the truth.
While in prison, officials discovered Gary’s name had originally been Faye Robert Coffman. Bessie had kept the original copy of his birth certificate. His parents didn’t bother explaining the matter to him and Gary began to doubt that Frank was his real father. It was tortuous to not know where his life began. The theme of illegitimacy, real or imagined, was common in the Gilmore family. As with so many troubled families that breed destruction, the Gilmore clan was riddled with myths, overt lies and dark secrets. There is conjecture that Frank Sr.’s particular violence towards Gary derived from his belief that Gary was the illegitimate son of his wife and one of his own abandoned sons. That certainly would do well as a reality show.
Fay Gilmore, Frank’s mother, once told Bessie that Frank’s father was a famous magician who had passed through Sacramento, where she was living at the time. Bessie researched this at the library and concluded that Frank was the illegitimate son of Harry Houdini. Houdini was only sixteen years old in 1890, the year of Frank Gilmore’s birth, and did not begin his career as a magician until the following year. Mikal believes the story to be false, but has stated that both his father and mother believed it. Eventually Bessie found out that Frank has had five or six other wives and innumerable children abandoned along the way. If Bessie was distraught, she didn’t leave him.
In 1961 Gary was released from prison and went to live with his parents again but within months he was back in prison, this time for driving without a licence and having an open bottle of liquor in his car. While serving his time in jail, Frank died of cancer. Gary was devastated. He tore his cell apart and slashed his wrist with a broken light bulb. For this behaviour, Gary was sent to solitary confinement and wasn’t released to go to his father’s funeral. The suicide attempt was one of many that would occur when Gary was behind bars. I doubt Gilmore grieved over his father. My guess is that he wanted the opportunity to kill his father himself and now it had been taken away from him.
When Nicole Barrett met Gilmore she was not yet 20 and already the survivor of three failed marriages, the first when she was only 14. She also was the mother of two children, Sunny Marie, 4, and Jeremy, 2. Gilmore soon moved into Nicole’s $115-a-month apartment in Spanish Fork, Utah. “He needed someone,” recalled Nicole’s mother, Kathryne Baker, “and she believed in him.”
Nicole Barrett was strong, independent and a loner. “She hated being on welfare,” said an aunt. “Once she held two jobs and was going to high school to get her diploma.” Nicole was interested in nursing. She picked up stray dogs and cats and crippled birds and she doted on children. “Nicole didn’t hide from trouble,” added the aunt. “She always handled everything herself.” Yet she couldn’t handle Gilmore. Their affair lasted only eight weeks. Terrorized by his booze-and-drug rages, Barrett finally fled. Naturally Gilmore blamed Barrett for his violent reaction to her abandonment. Her desertion, Gilmore claimed, sent him into a murderous fury. On a seeming whim, he gunned down two unresisting victims.
Next Gilmore took Barrett’s sister April to see the movie One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but they left after a few minutes. He rented a room at a motel, and what happened there was unclear. April claimed he slapped her around a bit. Shaken and withdrawn, April was driven home by Gilmore the next morning. Four days later she was committed to the Timpanogos Community Mental Health Center, three blocks from the hospital where Barrett is now confined. “It was a bad, bad day for this family,” stated the girls’ grandmother, “when Nicole met Gilmore.”
In his panic to hide the gun, Gilmore shot himself in the hand. In search of Barrett and painkilling drugs, Gilmore headed his pickup toward Baker’s home in Pleasant Grove, north of Provo. He was unaware of a police stakeout there. After Gilmore’s capture, a sobbing Barrett had to be restrained from rushing to him. “I just want to look into his eyes. That crazy man, that crazy man.”
While in prison Bessie visited her doomed son. For the first time in her life, Bessie made an effort on Gilmore’s behalf but her efforts came far too late. She sued for a stay of execution on her son’s behalf. In a five-to-four decision, the US Supreme Court refused to hear his mother’s claim.
It was Gilmore himself who wanted to die and begged the court to sentence him to death. I suspect he couldn’t handle his suffering anymore. He’d been raised in a secretive house of abuse and hatred, he’d killed two innocent people and he’d brutalized others. Had he gotten life in prison he would have had decades to think about these things. Although I don’t sympathize with Gilmore the Killer I sympathize with Gilmore the child, who was brutalized for most of his life by the people who should have loved him.
Mikal talked to Gary just before he died. Gary had been arrested for the last time on his way to the airport, and Mikal asked him where he would have gone if he had been able to catch a flight. Gary turned the question on his brother, though. “`And what would you have done if I had come to you?’ he asked.” Mikal couldn’t answer. Then Gary said: “I think I was coming to kill you. I think that’s what would have happened. There simply may have been no choice for you, and no choice for me…. Do you understand why?”
“Of course I understood why. I had escaped the family, or at least thought I had. Gary had not.” In spite of this, Mikal recalled an instant when “I went up to my mother. I hugged her, kissed her cheek–things we were all forbidden to do, and had always been forbidden to do. Next thing I knew, I was shoved across the room. ‘Keep away from me, you little bastard,’ she yelled.” In fact after the execution several years of Mikal’s life would be devoted to uncovering his family’s secrets and abuses.
Twice while he was incarcerated, Gilmore attempted suicide. Two methods of execution were hanging and firing squad. Concerned that the hanging might be botched, Gilmore chose execution by firing squad. Gilmore got his wish on Jan. 17, 1977, at the age of 36. A hood was placed over his head, a target attached to his t-shirt, and the five-man firing squad took aim and shot from behind a screen. So that none of his executioners could be sure they had fired a mortal round, one of the rifles was loaded with a blank. Laverne Damico, Gilmore’s uncle and witness at the scene, said his nephew “died like he wanted to die, with dignity. He got his wish.” Gilmore’s body was taken to the University of Utah Medical Center where his organs will be used for medical research. His final words were “let’s do it.” Watch the execution
Illegitimacy, incest, physical and emotional abuse, alcoholism, drug use, gangs, delinquency, incarceration and domestic violence all comprised the life of Gary Gilmore. It’s hardly a surprise that he did become a killer. It was only a matter of when.
Frank Jr. became a quiet and gently soul, kind to everyone. He condemned no one in the family for his unhappiness. However eventually Frank Jr. simply wandered away with his hands jammed into his pockets, a pained look on his face, not contacting the family again. By that time his father and two of his three brothers were dead. While conducting research, Mikal found Frank, who had effectively erased himself from the terrain. He found him living in a rooming house in Portland, Ore., “doing day labor to get by. ”
Nike’s slogan Just Do It was inspired by Gilmore’s last words, let’s do it. A PR executive working for Nike said that in 1988 just before he had a crunch marketing campaign meeting with Nike bosses, and decided to suggest a slightly altered version as a slogan. He described how he was worried that an upcoming series of five TV advertisements lacked cohesion, because they all had a different feel to them and that they needed a tagline to tie them all together.
I wonder what Gilmore would have made of these developments. I can picture him shrugging his shoulders as if to say, “whatever.”