On the Trail of a Murderous Sniper Suspect: the Tangled Life of Joseph Paul Franklin

updated 11/24/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/24/1980 01:00AM

The weather had been perfect for the children's Hula Hoop contest that warm October Sunday. As nurse's aide Marian Bresette, her black common-law husband, Jesse Taylor, and her three children piled into the family Ford afterward, their thoughts were on supper. They stopped at a supermarket on the way home, and as Jesse was returning with a bag of groceries the first shot was fired. Store employees heard him moaning "no, no, no" as he slumped against the door of the car. Then two more shots threw him dead to the pavement. His wife ran screaming to his side and, as she bent over him, she too was hit—by a single, fatally accurate shot to the chest. Casings from a high-caliber rifle were reportedly found in a grove of evergreens 75 yards away, but the killer escaped without being seen. There was no apparent reason for the killings.

That attack in Oklahoma City last year began what law enforcement officials believe to be one of the most chilling series of racially motivated sniper murders in recent U.S. history. The grotesque pattern—faceless, cold-blooded execution of blacks and interracial couples—struck next in Indianapolis, then Cincinnati, then Johnstown, Pa. and finally last August in Salt Lake City. Ten people have died in the attacks.

Late last month in Lakeland, Fla., a five-week FBI manhunt ended at a skid row blood bank with the capture of a 30-year-old drifter named Joseph Paul Franklin. A self-described racist with ties to the American Nazi party and the Ku Klux Klan, Franklin protests his innocence of the sniper murders, and in several cases the evidence against him is circumstantial at best. Still, his ex-wife, Anita Carden Cooper, disclosed to PEOPLE last week that Franklin had told her he was responsible for 12 killings and four bank robberies. Last Monday he was arraigned in Salt Lake City on federal charges stemming from the murder of two black teenagers as they jogged past a city park. Accused of three bank robberies, various weapons violations and flight to avoid prosecution, Franklin is also wanted for questioning about the shooting of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt in March 1978 and the nearly fatal sniper attack on National Urban League director Vernon Jordan last May. "This is a very bad dude," says a policeman in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. "I've seen a lot of life in my years on the force, but I'll never understand how a guy like this could happen."

At about 11 p.m. last January 8 a retarded black man, Larry Reese, 23, stood in the front window of Church's Fried Chicken Restaurant in Indianapolis. He was waiting for closing time to begin his cleanup chores. Outside, a car door slammed, and a rifle shot sliced the bitter-cold night air. Larry Reese died instantly. The door slammed again, and the car drove slowly away.

Six days later at the same hour in the same city, Leo Watkins, 19, and his father, Tom, were waiting to start an exterminating job in a food market when a single shot shattered the market's window. It came from a clump of trees 100 yards away—and from the same .30-caliber rifle that killed Reese. "I just stood there, "said Leo's father, "and watched my boy die."

Joseph Paul Franklin was born James Clayton Vaughan Jr., the son of an alcoholic butcher and a waitress. His birthright was poverty and a wretched home. James Vaughan Sr., who returned from World War II a battle-shattered epileptic, lost his job soon after his son was born, and he left the house when Jimmy was 8 years old. "Whenever Dad came to visit he'd beat us," Jimmy's older sister Carolyn recalls—and their mother had Vaughan jailed during two of his visits for public drunkenness. Later he disappeared for months and sometimes years at a time. Their mother, Helen Rau Vaughan, was nine years older than her husband—and, in the memory of one friend who lived with them for several months, "a full-blooded German, a real strict, perfectionist lady. I never saw her beat any of them, but they told me stories." As eldest son, Jimmy took the worst of the punishment.

His two sisters remember Jimmy as a quiet boy who stayed close to home and had few friends but showed a flair for drawing, an ear for music and a keen interest in religion. "When he was about 16," Carolyn recalls, "he went through the Mobile phone book making a list of every church in Mobile and visited every one of them. Imagine—going to every church in the city!" He became a health food faddist in his teens and, briefly, a member of Garner Ted Armstrong's Church of God.

In 1967, at the end of his junior year at Murphy High School, he dropped out. He was ineligible for the draft because he had lost most of the vision in his right eye in a childhood accident. Around Valentine's Day 1968 he met a new girl in the neighborhood, Bobbie Louise Dorman, then 16. Two weeks later they were married. "It was just one of them things," she says with a nervous laugh. "He was real kind and gentle at first. He said he was gonna take care of me—and for a few weeks it went okay. But then all of a sudden he changed, like night and day. Something was bothering him a lot, but he never told me what. He turned really cruel and violent. Several times he beat me so hard I was afraid he was going to kill me." Vaughan began to suffer severe headaches, and she remembers twice coming home to find him inexplicably distraught, "crying like a baby—I never dared to ask why."

It was the year of federal open housing legislation, and the subsidized project where the Vaughans lived, which had been a white enclave in a predominantly black area, was integrated for the first time. Like most civil rights reforms in Alabama, this one brought with it a notable upsurge in Klan and other segregationist sentiment. Soon an older friend began bringing racist literature for James to study, "trying to convert him, I thought," his sister Marilyn recalls. Once or twice Bobbie Louise came upon her husband practicing Nazi salutes in the mirror, a swastika crudely sewn to his work shirt. "He had a lot of fantasies," she remembers. "He used to fantasize that he was a Hell's Angel—you know, he had the jeans and the jacket and he carried a knife. But he never owned a bike. It was like James just wanted something to belong to, something different. I guess the Nazis were about as different as you could get."

The next several years of his life were marked mainly by arrests—several for carrying concealed weapons—and notable only for his deepening racial hatred. "Jimmy was gone we didn't know where when our mother died in 1972," Carolyn recalls. "A year later he went back to our house and asked where the lady was who had lived there, and a little boy told him she was dead." Shocked, he looked up Carolyn, who was then raising a family of her own in Mobile. "He was really changed," she recalls. "He was wearing a white karate suit, and he got real upset when he saw I had a black maid. We fought about it, and I told him he could leave if that was how he felt." She never saw him again.

Moving to Atlanta, Vaughan left the Nazis for the equally fascist National States Rights Party, and sold its hate sheet, The Thunderbolt, on street corners. Moving again to the Washington area, he earned a blue belt in karate and lived alone in an abandoned office building that he was hired to maintain. Marilyn moved in for a while—long enough to see his racism in full flower. "If he ever saw a white and a black together," she remembers, "he'd go right up and say, 'That's disgusting,' or something like that. Lots of people don't like the colored, but he was one to let you know it." On Labor Day 1976 he tailed a black man and his white date for 10 miles by car to a dead end, then sprayed them with Mace.

Sometime before that Vaughan had applied to change his name legally, citing his plan "to emigrate and join the armed forces of Rhodesia," then embroiled in that country's war of independence. "He told me he had found out who his real father was and he was going to change his name to his father's," recalls the manager of the property where James worked. His petition was approved two weeks after the Mace incident—but Joseph Paul Franklin did not go to Rhodesia.

At 11:30 last June 8 two black cousins—Darrell Lane, 14, and Dante Evans Brown, 13—were walking to an all-night convenience store in the Bond Hill area of Cincinnati. Both were cut down by a sniper perched on a railroad trestle with a .44-caliber rifle.

At midday one week later in Johnstown, Pa., a black 22-year-old and his white 16-year-old girlfriend were crossing a downtown bridge when they were killed by two shotgun blasts from a heavily wooded slope about 100 yards away. The victims, Arthur Dale Smothers and Kathleen Mikula, were to have been married next year.

As officials reconstruct the past two years, Franklin has followed a frantic itinerary throughout the South and Midwest under at least 18 different aliases, changing guns and cars frequently and dyeing his hair so often it is close to falling out. In early 1979 he married 16-year-old Anita Carden, whom he had met in an Alabama ice-cream parlor and by whom he has a daughter, now 15 months old. When times were good, after unexplained and obviously profitable absences—her brother Don told the Birmingham Post-Herald—Franklin was generous. He bought a stereo for his wife, a motorcycle for his brother-in-law. But after seven months he was gone permanently, leaving behind a few granola bars in the cupboard. The alfalfa sprouts he was growing went to seed. During this period he robbed banks, the FBI believes, less to live well than to finance his obsessive agenda: collecting manuals on police procedures and storing them in the trunk of his car, and attempting at every stop to add another snapshot to the album he kept of the women he seduced. He changed addresses and identities continually. Anita Carden thought until last month she was married to a plumber named James A. Cooper. "He acted like he was a secret agent," as one detective in Salt Lake City put it. "Always moving, always having to avoid capture by enemy agents. He was like a soldier on a mission, but for whom? Or was it all in his head?"

The single constant was a burning hatred of blacks—a feeling he confessed to everyone he met, from the salesclerk who sold him a woman's Afro wig in Johnstown to the prostitute in Salt Lake City whom he posed nude with his rifles and pistols displayed around her. He asked her for a list of all the black pimps in town so he could kill them, she told police later, and when a black bellhop went by the room, she said, he tossed a gun into her lap and invited her to shoot the man and "watch him squirm."

Three days later Franklin was allegedly seen pulling a rifle out of the trunk of his car and walking into a vacant lot toward Liberty Park in Salt Lake City. David L. Martin, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout, and his friend Ted Fields, 20, a preacher's son, were jogging after choir practice with two friends, white teenage girls. They made it halfway across a well-lighted intersection before the first shot hit David. Ted tried to help his friend into the darkness on the other side of the street, but then he was hit, and then both boys were shot from ambush repeatedly as they lay on the asphalt. Marily Wilson, a medical assistant, ran to give first aid, but there was little she could do. "It was so still, "she recalled later. "It was as if the whole world stopped while these two boys died." Captured by Kentucky police one night in late September, Franklin escaped out a city hall window for one last month of freedom—but with neither his cars nor his guns to help him elude his pursuers for long. One rumor is that he called Anita with the news that he was down to selling his blood in Florida. When FBI agents seized him in Lakeland, he denied he was Franklin. He had even tried to scrape the tattoos off his forearms—an American eagle on the left, a blood-drenched Grim Reaper on the right. The ink was too deep to erase. At his last known address, a $2.50-a-night gospel mission flophouse in Tampa, Franklin had signed in as James C. Vaughan Jr.—recklessly, perhaps, or boastfully, but, for the record, in the end his father's son.

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