An Unfathomable Evil

updated 12/23/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/23/1991 01:00AM

THE HEAT WAVE THAT HAD CHOKED Chicago for nearly a week finally broke on the night of July 13, 1966, and inside the yellow-brick town house at 2319 East 100th Street, the residents were turning in for the night. Corazon Atienza, then a 23-year-old exchange nurse from the Philippines, still remembers locking the front door at 10:30, going upstairs to her small bedroom, then drifting off to sleep as her bunkmate said her prayers. And she recalls answering the four knocks on the bedroom door a half hour later, when the lanky young man with the pockmarked face and greasy, slicked-back hair pushed his way in. It was Richard Speck. "The first thing I noticed about him was the strong smell of alcohol," says Atienza, who was then known by her maiden name, Amurao. She also saw the small gun he had pulled from his black jacket.

As hard as she has tried, Atienza can never forget the horror of the next five hours as the killer who had come out of the darkness bound and then systematically stabbed, strangled and mutilated eight of her nursing school colleagues. Hiding under one bed after another, Atienza managed to survive—and to bear witness to a crime that ushered in the age of the mass murderer. Calculated and seemingly unmotivated, Speck's savagery evoked worldwide horror and headlines—and left a terrifying legacy: the gnawing fear that Americans weren't safe anymore, even in their own homes.

On Dec. 5 a part of that terror ended when Speck, 49, died of a heart attack in a hospital near the Joliet, Ill., prison where he had been held for 24 years. "I feel relieved," says Atienza. "I prayed a lot. I've tried to live a normal life, but it's not been easy." Still, for her and the families of the dead, Speck's death cannot put to rest the anguished question—why did it happen? "He was the banality of evil," says William Martin, the attorney who prosecuted the case. "His whole life was a rehearsal for what he did the night of July 13,1966."

Speck was one of eight children born in Monmouth, Ill., to Mary Margaret Speck and her husband, Benjamin, a religious, hardworking potter who died when Richard was 6. After his mother married Texan Carl Lindberg in 1950, Richard and his younger sister, Carolyn, moved with the couple to Dallas. Even then he was troubled, a loner and a poor student who dropped out of school in ninth grade. His first arrest came at age 13, when he started a fire in a used-car lot. Over the next 11 years he was arrested 40 more times as he drifted from one odd job to another.

At 19, Speck married Shirley Ma-lone, a 15-year-old he met at a county fair and with whom he had a daughter, Robbie Lynn, before he was sent to the state penitentiary at Huntsville, Texas, in 1963 for forgery and burglary. Released in 1965, he was divorced the following year and in March 1966 returned to Monmouth. By then the ex-con had a reputation as a knife-wielding, woman-abusing drinker and pill-popper who frequently got into barroom fights. The following month he went to Chicago, where he worked on and off as a seaman. After learning a job had fallen through on July 12, he spent most of the next day drinking at a bar before leaving around 10:30 P.M. and walking into the night.

No one knows what Speck had in mind when he slipped in through the kitchen door of the town house and went to the second floor. At gunpoint he led Atienza and her bunkmate, 23-year-old Merlita Gargullo, to the large bedroom where four of their housemates—Valentina Pasion, 23, Nina Jo Schmale, 24, and Pamela Wilkening and Patricia Matusek, both 20—were sleeping. He ordered all six women to sit on the floor, telling them he only wanted money to go to New Orleans. After another student nurse, Gloria Jean Davy, 22, came into the room, Speck used his knife to slice a bedsheet into strips and began binding his victims' ankles and wrists. "Don't be afraid," he said, moving from woman to woman. "I'm not going to hurt you."

For a while he just sat there, smiling, smoking cigarettes and bantering. Then the killing orgy began. Speck untied Wilkening's ankles and marched her into another bedroom. Atienza heard a sigh, then silence; Wilkening was later found on the floor, gagged, strangled and stabbed in the left breast. When housemate Suzanne Farris, 21, and friend Mary Ann Jordan, 20, came into the bedroom, Speck appeared behind them and herded them into the room where he had taken Wilkening. There was a yell and brief sounds of a struggle. Some 20 minutes later came the sound of running water as Speck washed his hands after stabbing the two women 22 times.

The killings continued as Speck hauled his victims—some of them hiding under the bunk beds—from the floor and slaughtered them outside the room. His last victim was Davy, whom he raped on the bed while Atienza lay underneath a nearby bunk, silently praying. Then Speck took Davy to the living room and strangled her. Meantime, Atienza crawled under another bed where a blanket hanging to the floor concealed her. Speck returned to the room, shook Davy's purse to retrieve some change, and left. "I waited until I could hear nothing else in the house," Atienza recalls, "and I don't know how but I was able to untie myself." At 5:30 A.M. she walked to her bedroom and climbed out the window onto the ledge. "They are all dead! My friends are all dead!" she screamed. "Oh, God, I'm the only one alive!"

Within an hour, Atienza had described the murderer, and police fanned out in one of Chicago's largest dragnets. By the next day, detectives had matched up Speck's fingerprints from the town house with his arrest record and traced him to a North Side hotel. Speck had already left and checked into a skid-row flophouse, where the next night, apparently after learning he had left a survivor, Speck attempted suicide by slashing his wrists with a broken wine bottle. He was taken to Cook County Hospital, where an alert resident, Dr. Leroy Smith, recognized Speck from newspaper photos. Then, cleaning Speck's blood-caked arm, Smith uncovered the eerie tattoo saying BORN TO RAISE HELL that had been included in descriptions of Speck.

Nine months later a jury deliberated for only 49 minutes before convicting him of eight counts of murder. Speck stared coldly at them; he never flinched, even when he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. But in 1972, after the U.S. Supreme Court had reversed the death penalty in 41 cases—including Speck's—he was resentenced to eight consecutive terms of 50 to 150 years. It was a devastating blow to Atienza and to the victims' families, especially when Speck became eligible for parole in 1976. Whenever hearings were scheduled, relatives and friends of the slain nurses would make the pilgrimage to Statesville prison, and argue against his release. "It was heart-wrenching," says Marilyn McNulty, 47, Suzanne Farris's sister. "But we needed to keep the event alive, to say 'Don't forget' while there was still a breath in him. We couldn't forget. We can't ever forget."

Speck never did confess to his crimes, even after a quarter century in prison, where he collected stamps, painted in oils and made moonshine. When he died on Dec. 5, there was no mourning—just relief, bitterness and regret. "It seemed like he died so easy," said Atienza, now a 48-year-old nurse at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the married mother of two children, ages 20 and 22. "He should have died a long time ago." Cremated by the state, Speck took with him the horror of his crime. "The tragedy is we didn't learn a goddamn thing from Richard Speck, and his death seals his lips forever," says William Martin. "We'll never know why he did what he did."

PAULA CHIN
CIVIA TAMARKIN, BONNIE BELL and BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago

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