It's not that his ambitions were great that got him into trouble, but that he hadn't the patience to earn what he desired. From a young age, Gary Mark Gilmore just went out and took whatever he wanted—beer, cigarettes, cars, money. More times than not (according to him) he was successful, but when he wasn't, he landed in the slammer. He'd just get an idea into his head and do it. He said he couldn't help himself.
Gilmore's story is documented in a book written by his younger brother, Mikal Gilmore, called Shot in the Heart, and by Norman Mailer, who wrote a narrative nonfiction account, The Executioner's Song, in which he utilized letters that Gilmore wrote, interviews with many of his intimates, trial transcripts, and interviews or statements that Gilmore gave to the press. Mailer did not himself interview Gilmore, but his account relies on actual documents, with an emphasis on how those around Gilmore perceived him. There are also a few film clips available of Gilmore as he spoke to the press or to the courts, and an A&E documentary collected these into an overview of his fight to die rather then face years in prison. Gilmore is a historical case, in that he was the first man to be executed after the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, and because he refused all appeals to which he was legally entitled.
Born on December 4, 1940, he'd aspired as a boy to become a man of God. By the time he was thirty-five, he'd spent more than half of his life in prison, from juvenile detention to a federal penitentiary. At age 14, he dropped out of school. By fifteen, he was running a car theft ring. That's when he was first arrested, although he'd been drinking for three years, harassing teachers, playing hooky, and stealing petty items. According to his own statements to court-ordered psychologists, he developed a need for bravado, which meant staring down approaching trains until near-impact or sticking a wet finger into an outlet.
Upon his first arrest, his father Frank got a lawyer and got him off, teaching him to manipulate the legal system and skirt responsibility for criminal acts. After all, Frank had made a living at it for many years. He was a professional con man, but could not abide the taint of criminality in his son.
However, Gilmore then stole something that got him into Oregon's MacLaren Reform School for Boys. He spent a year there, and then went in and out of jail until he was eighteen. At that point, he ended up in the Oregon State Correctional Institution on a car theft charge. His father couldn't do much for him, especially after he piled up an array of disciplinary charges while in prison. Then he was out and then in again, and this time while he was behind bars, Frank Gilmore died. According to statements made by one of the wardens in the documentary, "A Fight to Die," Gary went wild, tearing up his cell and attempting suicide. This was a blow he could not bear.
Yet there was no release for him, no respite to mourn. He became violent to guards and inmates alike. Because he was so difficult to handle, he was heavily drugged with an anti-psychotic called Prolixin, and only with his mother's horrified intervention was he removed from this dehumanizing regimen. He never forgot its paralyzing effects.
He got out when he was 21 and promptly committed robbery and assault for $11. At this point, the State of Oregon decided that he was a repeat offender with a poor prognosis. He went to Oregon State Penitentiary. While incarcerated, his brother Gaylen, the third of Bessie and Frank's four boys, was stabbed in the stomach. Mikal Gilmore documents this tragic incident. Having no money for medical care, Gaylen died. This time, Gary was allowed to attend the funeral, but losing Gaylen had its effect. Gary often ended up in solitary confinement over his inability to conform to the prison routines.
Yet spending so much time alone in solitary proved beneficial. With an IQ of 130, he educated himself in literature and began to write poetry. More notably, he developed an artistic talent that won contests. For that, he was granted an early release in 1972 to live in a halfway house in Eugene and attend art school at the local community college. While he welcomed this opportunity, it apparently intimidated him. Rather than show up to register, he stayed away and drank. He visited his brother Mikal, who reported that he was afraid of Gary. Within a month, Gilmore had committed armed robbery and was arrested. When he went to trial again, he asked permission to address the court, which was granted, and his actual words are recorded in several places, including court transcripts.
With great articulation, Gilmore made an appeal for leniency. He said that he had been locked up for the past nine and a half years, with only two years of freedom since he was fourteen. Justice had been harsh and he'd never asked for a break until now. He argued that "you can keep a person locked up too long" and that "there is an appropriate time to release somebody or to give them a break. ...I stagnated in prison a long time and I have wasted most of my life. I want freedom and I realize that the only way to get it is to quit breaking the law. ...I've got problems and if you sentence me to additional time, I'm going to compound them."
The judge told him that he had already been convicted once for armed robbery, a serious charge, so there was no option but to sentence him to another nine years. Gilmore was hurt and angry. As promised, he became more violent while in prison and on a number of occasions tried unsuccessfully to kill himself. They wanted to try Prolixin again, but Gilmore begged for an alternative. He was transferred to a maximum-security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. That meant that no one in his family could visit him. He started writing to a cousin in Utah, Brenda Nicol, and only three years into his sentence, a parole plan was worked out. Brenda gave several interviews about her involvement with Gary, and Mailer offers a complete description of her account.
Brenda orchestrated Gilmore's release. She hadn't seen Gary since he was a boy, but she remembered how distinctive he was. She believed that if she and her family could help him out with a loving community and a job, he'd get along okay. She didn't know that he'd been diagnosed (according the reports that Mailer documents) with a psychopathic personality disorder. She had no idea how compulsive he was, or demanding. It was in her mind to do a good deed, so she worked on bringing Gary home. Finally in 1977, he was released to go live in Provo. He arrived with everything he owned packed in a small gym bag. He was ready for freedom, he firmly believed.
Yet life in Utah proved to be hard. He'd hated prison, but the skills he'd developed there to survive just didn't work in a conservative Mormon community. He was briefly employed in his Uncle Vern Damico's shoe shop and then did insulation for a man named Spencer McGrath, but he had a hard time concentrating. The first chance he got, according to interviews that Vern Damico gave to Mailer, he went out drinking. When he couldn't afford beer, he stole it. Then he found himself a beautiful girlfriend, Nicole Baker Barrett, thrice divorced by age 19, and soon returned to a life of compulsive theft because he wanted what he wanted...right now.
It was the sight of a white Ford pickup truck priced well beyond his means that appeared to those who knew him to have sparked a spree that could only have ended badly.