In October 1980, as the FBI’s Behavior Science Unit—and the art and science of profiling—was just starting to get its footing, before the concept of serial killers was part of the public consciousness, a racist and anti-Semite named Joseph Paul Franklin was stalking, shooting, and killing Black men and mixed-race people in a wide path across the United States. Sniper attacks from Pennsylvania into the South and crossing into the Midwest were considered as possibly part of a killing spree that would span three years. Franklin had already escaped the police once by the time special agent and pioneering profiler John Douglas was called in by FBI Headquarters to provide a fugitive assessment. Franklin was mobile, fueled by hate, no doubt feeling the pressure of being the subject of the hunt for once, and clearly very dangerous. With victims apparently selected at random, anyone, nearly anywhere in the country, could be his next target. Upping the stakes even higher, Franklin had sent hate mail to President Jimmy Carter, who was campaigning for reelection in the South. Could Franklin be hunting him, too? For Douglas, putting the pieces together to help investigators find Franklin—and quickly—would call upon everything he’d learned about such offenders, as well as creative analysis, to strategize where to look and how to catch him.
It also felt personal. Some of Franklin’s victims were so young that, as a father, Douglas couldn’t help but identify with their family members, feeling anguish and rage over the senseless losses. And, practically speaking, the nascent profiling program was on the line. This was as high profile as cases come. With the eyes of FBI brass and investigators all over the country on him, John couldn’t afford to fail.
In Cincinnati, the deadly June 8 shooting of two African American male teens had obsessed city homicide detective Thomas Gardner for months. When Franklin was identified as a sniper suspect across the river in Florence, Kentucky, Gardner thought he might have the break he’d been looking for.
Cincinnati cousins Darrell Lane, 14, and Dante Evans Brown, 13, were shot with a high-powered hunting rifle from the Bond Hill railroad trestle as they walked along Reading Road below on a hot Sunday evening.
“The weapon has been identified as a .44-caliber Magnum carbine,” the FBI file Douglas had been given stated. This seemed in keeping with Franklin’s perceived modus operandi (M.O.) The M.O. can evolve as the criminal becomes more experienced and learns what works best. Along with M.O., we consider what we call the offender’s “signature,” which describes the elements of the crime that satisfy or emotionally fulfill the offender. These could include taking souvenirs, torturing the victim in a particular way, even coming up with a script for the victim to perform during a sexual assault. Unlike M.O., signature doesn’t change much, although it can become more elaborate over time. In Franklin’s case, shooting victims from far away with a high-powered rifle would be classified as M.O., while selecting African American victims would be signature.
Darrell and Dante had just left their grandmother’s house to go buy candy. Darrell’s sister heard the shots and raced out of the house. By the time she reached them, first responders were ministering to the two boys. Darrell’s father, a paramedic, was in the first rescue squad unit that arrived on the scene.
But his son had died instantly. Dante was brought to the hospital clinging to life. His mother, Abbie Evans, was attending Darrell’s funeral a few days later when she was given the message to get back to the hospital right away to be able to see her beloved middle child alive for the last time.
“It’s devastating. It’s a void. You never get over it,” she told a USA Today reporter more than thirty years later.
At the time the two boys were killed, my wife, Pam, and I had two little girls: Erika was five and Lauren was six months. Pam had recently returned from maternity leave to her job as a reading specialist teacher in the Spotsylvania County, Virginia, public school system. I have always tried to put myself mentally and emotionally in the victim’s head, as well as that of the killer. But this was just staggering to me, the idea that two innocent children could be taken away from life for no reason on their way to buy candy. It was sickening, and I’d be less than candid if I denied that a lot of people in law enforcement like me have a very hard time giving their kids the freedom and independence they need to grow, seeing all that we’ve seen.
Likewise, Cincinnati Detective Gardner couldn’t fathom why someone would lie in wait to kill two adolescent boys he most likely had never even met. Maybe it was simply a sick thrill killing, but he wouldn’t discount the possibility that this was a racial hate crime. After seeing teletypes from the FBI director and the field office in Salt Lake City, where a similar shooting had occurred, Detective Gardner got in touch with Salt Lake City PD sergeant Robert Nievaard, and the two men agreed there were similar elements in their two cases that were worth looking into.
As it turned out, this was just the first of several connections that came about because of the Salt Lake teletype. The two cases certainly seemed to fit in with the M.O. of a sniper-style shooting of a mixed-race couple in Oklahoma City the previous October, a 19-year-old African American at an Indianapolis shopping mall in January, and another mixed-race couple in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in June. If they all did turn out to be linked, then we were dealing with a particularly efficient and deadly serial killer, one who traveled with ease from state to state and never got up close and personal enough with his victims to leave much behavioral or physical evidence, other than the rifle ballistics.
Taken together, all of these incidents described a killing spree that, at a minimum, had been going on for at least a year and probably longer.