Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Gary Gilmore

Destined for Death

How does someone with talent and intelligence fall into such a life? Why would Gary Mark Gilmore develop into a habitual criminal who so thoughtlessly took the lives of two young men who'd done nothing to him?

In his case, the answer seems to lie with the turbulent family in which he'd grown up; it had been full of fantasy and denial, coupled with rampant and random abuse. Years later, Gary's youngest brother, Mikal, researched their family's history for his book, Shot in the Heart, to see where things went wrong. His feeling was that Gary reminded their father of his own failings in life and therefore got the brunt of the man's anger. Gary's conduct disorders as a juvenile, coupled with his compulsive personality, took the path of least resistance —straight into the narcissistic and remorseless depths of psychopathy. He never knew when he'd get beaten, nor why, so he formed a notion of a harsh and punitive reality that made no sense. In many ways, the prison system itself was a metaphor of his father. No matter how he resisted and reacted, he'd always get beat up.

Frank Gilmore Sr. was a con man and an alcoholic. He'd married Bessie on a whim, and he'd had many wives and families before her, none of whom he cared about or supported. They had a son, Frank Jr., and then Gary came along while they were wandering aimlessly through Texas under the pseudonym of Coffman to avoid the law. Frank christened him Faye Robert Coffman, which Bessie quickly changed to Gary, but this birth certificate proved to be a sore spot years later. Gary thought he'd been illegitimate, deciding that this was the reason that his father had never loved him.

Frank had many dark secrets and Bessie was a Mormon outcast. They seemed to cling to each other to escape the realities of their pathetic lives. Frank craved independence and would disappear for long stretches of time. Bessie, for her part, did not allow the children to touch or hug her, so there was emotional deprivation from both parents. Yet Bessie did want security, so she persuaded Frank to settle in Portland, Oregon, and open a legitimate business. He actually succeeded at it and for a while they were happier.

Yet Frank drank heavily, which sent him into terrible rages. He'd whip his sons severely. The boys soon learned that no matter what they said or did, their father simply wanted to brutalize them, all the while insisting that they love him. One time, Gary was abandoned on a park bench while his father went to scam someone and he ended up in an orphanage for several days.

As he grew older, Gary reacted. He began to despise people in authority, and they in turn, treated him in a way that reminded him of his father. Both parents turned a blind eye to his problems, pretending they would just go away somehow. Neither respected the law, and they would rather get their children off than let them learn the consequences of their actions. The point at which psychological intervention might have made a difference for Gary, Frank refused to pay for it.

On top of all of this, Bessie had a deep-rooted superstition about Gary that went back to her own childhood. She believed that as a girl playing with a Ouija board, she had conjured up a demonic ghost that had attached itself to her family. When one of her sisters was killed and another paralyzed in an accident, she felt certain it was the ghost. Then she married Frank and found out that his mother, Fay, was a medium who could get spirits to materialize. One night while at Fay's house with three of her sons, including Gary, she learned that there was to be a "special" séance to contact a spirit who had died under the shameful suspicion of murder. Bessie stayed away.

After the ceremony, she found Fay in a state of exhaustion with an expression on her face of great fear and helplessness. She helped the older woman to bed, but later that night Bessie woke up to the feel of being touched, and when she turned over, she was looking into the face of a leering inhuman creature. She jumped out of bed and saw Fay, an invalid, staggering toward her, insisting that she get out now. "It knows who you are!" Fay shouted. Bessie ran to Gary's room and saw the same figure leaning over her son, staring into his eyes. She grabbed the kids and ran. Fay died shortly thereafter and Gary began to have terrible, shuddering nightmares that he was being beheaded. He was certain something was trying to get him and the nightmares haunted him the rest of his life.

Bessie saw the entity again in their house, and that's when Gary began to get into trouble. He continued having dreams, swearing that something was in the room with him. Bessie concluded that the thing had taken over her son's soul. His life thereafter was filled with angry, malevolent energy that seemed bent on self-destruction.

Whether influenced by a demon or by familial abuse, Gary developed a death wish that guided his actions. He seemed destined to die in some violent manner, though he'd often heard his mother's horror stories of an execution that she claimed to have witnessed as a girl. She'd been enraged that her father had taken her, a mere child, to witness a hanging. She told this story over and over. All of the boys believed that she'd really witnessed this incident and it had left a deep impression on them.

Yet when Mikal researched it in Utah records, he realized that it was impossible for her to have witnessed such an event. She had made it up, possibly deriving this metaphor from her helplessness and anger. Yet it was a fatal vision that may have marked her second son with a sense of inevitability. Mikal concludes that the lies she told revealed terrible psychological truths that became an unspoken emotional legacy for her sons. They wanted to erase themselves from existence, and in fact, one was murdered, one was executed, one dropped into a psychological coma...and one (Mikal) became a writer.



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