In 2003, college student Katie Autry was brutally raped, stabbed and set on fire in her dorm room at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. Returning to his hometown, journalist Van Meter explores Autry's murder, and the subsequent investigation and trial. But his scattershot approach leaves the account as full of holes as the suspects' alibis. Authorities tracked down several people who'd been at a fraternity party Autry had attended before focusing on Stephen Soules, a high school dropout who at first said he'd had consensual sex with the drunken girl in her dorm. But Soules blamed the murder on Luke Goodrum, a 21-year-old with a history of domestic violence. Despite mounting evidence implicating Soules, Goodrum was tried for the crime, while Soules-who now claimed Goodrum forced him to rape Autry-agreed to testify in exchange for life in prison, thus avoiding a capital trial. Instead of exploring the glaring legal errors that ran rampant during the investigation and Goodrum's trial, Van Meter instead cobbles together a melodramatic narrative that doesn't do Autry's tragic death justice. (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Bluegrass: A True Story of Murder in Kentuckyby William Van Meter
By the lights of absolutely everyone who ever knew her, Katie Autry never harmed a hair on a dog's head.
She came from a tiny village in Kentucky. The State moved her as a child into a foster home in a town so small it had one stoplight. New to her own beauty and a little awkward, Katie had the biggest smile on her high school cheerleading squad. In/b>… See more details below
By the lights of absolutely everyone who ever knew her, Katie Autry never harmed a hair on a dog's head.
She came from a tiny village in Kentucky. The State moved her as a child into a foster home in a town so small it had one stoplight. New to her own beauty and a little awkward, Katie had the biggest smile on her high school cheerleading squad. In September 2002, she matriculated as a freshman at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. She majored in the dental program, but as it was for many college students her age, partying was of equal priority. She worked days at the smoothie shop, nights at the local strip club, and fell in love with a football player who wouldn't date her.
Five feet two in heels and without a bad word to say about anyone, Katie Autry was sweet, kind, and utterly naïve. She was making the clumsy strides of a newborn colt, discovering what the world was like and learning to be her own person. And on the morning of May 4, 2003, Katie Autry was raped, stabbed, sprayed with hairspray, and set on fire in her own dormitory room.
In telling the true story of this shocking crime, Bluegrass describes the devastation of not one but three families. Two young men, whose lives seem preordained to intertwine, are jailed for the crime: DNA evidence places Stephen Soules, an unemployed, mixed-race high school dropout, atthe scene, and Lucas Goodrum, a twenty-one-year-old pot dealer with an ex-wife, a girlfriend still in high school, and an inauspicious history of domestic abuse, is held by an ever-changing confession. The friends of the suspects and the foster and birth families of the victim form complex and warring social nets that are cast across town. And a small southern community, populated by eccentrics of every socioeconomic class, from dirt-poor to millionaire, responds to the horror. Like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this tale is redolent with atmosphere, dark tension, and lush landscapes.
With the keen eye of a talented young journalist returning to his southern roots, Van Meter paints a vivid portrait of the town, the characters who fill it, and the simmering class conflicts that made an injustice like this not only possible, but inevitable.
"William Van Meter's Bluegrass is not just a story of "murder" but of race, class, gender, region, etc...there are many layers of moral universality in this small-town murder case that far outreach the suburbs of Southern Kentucky in their magnitude. Van Meter resists all the easy traps of the exposé-chronicler with his elegantly interwoven investigation of Bowling Green's harrowing homicide triangle, involving an unforgettably winsome young college co-ed and the two young meneconomically and culturally worlds apart and yet historically and socially boundwho are implicated in her baffling murder....This is narrative non-fiction packed with the overpowering magnetism of a sensationalist page-turner, yet Van Meter infuses it with a literary astuteness in the vein of the best of our New Journalism forefathers. Plus, he picks a story to tell that too many of us missed; the Katie Autry case is so mind-blowingly chilling it's evidence once again that real life hands-down surpasses fiction in enormity. It took me to a universe I had never been, and yet one I know I won't be able to shake off soon." Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects: A Novel
- Free Press
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Read an Excerpt
May 3, 2003
Although the sun was bright, the unrelenting summer heat had not yet arrived. It was nearing 2 pm in Scottsville, Kentucky, and Luke Goodrum was just getting up. Luke's routine was to wake up late, hang out with his girlfriend, Brittany, until she went on cashier duty at Food Lion, and then play video games until she was free. It was Derby Day, but Scottsville is about 100 miles and a world away from the Triple Crown race in Louisville.
Luke had stayed up late the night before playing video games and drinking beer with one of his high school buddies. He knew that he would have to go to Bowling Green, a much larger town twenty minutes northwest, with Brittany in part to appease her for the night before when she had stopped by in the middle of a game. Luke had been extremely drunk and ignored her for the pixilated football players on the screen.
Luke showered and got ready, admiring himself in the mirror. He was twenty-one years old, six feet two inches tall, with dark blond hair and brown eyes. His 180-pound frame was cut from lifting weights. If he wasn't playing sports he was watching them. The amount of food he consumed was akin to a professional football player he drank a gallon of milk each day by himself. Luke was garrulous, often smiling, and spoke in a heavily accented, rapid-fire drawl littered with double negatives and tenses out of whack. When Luke spoke, words burst out of his mouth with no spaces between them, a natural auctioneer. He had the air of a good ol' boy with a touch of hip-hop. A thin patch of a goatee sprouted below his lower lip; sideburns extended halfway past his earlobes. Luke was handsome and he knew it, and never had a problem with girls. In fact, Brittany had picked him up in the first place.
About eight months before, seventeen-year-old Brittany Stinson was cruising "the strip" in nearby Glasgow with a carload of girlfriends when she noticed Luke in the passenger seat of his friend's truck. Like many roads in so many small towns, "the strip" was a street gilded with fast-food franchises and telephone poles where the teenagers went on weekends. Brittany followed them into the McDonald's parking lot, leaned on the truck, and introduced herself. The following Monday, after school, Brittany went to Luke's apartment. They had been together ever since.
Luke liked being with someone as outgoing as he was, but he was admittedly more struck by her body. Brittany was about fivefeet, five inches tall and petite. "Except for her butt," Luke pointed out to his buddies.
Luke folded a white bandanna with blue print and wrapped it around his forehead it reminded him of both Axl Rose and Tupac Shakur. He phoned in a delivery order to Domino's and watched TV while eating the pepperoni pizza. Some of the garlic dipping sauce dribbled onto his T-shirt.
Although rather oblivious to it, Luke embodied a curious amalgam of each tier of Scottsville society. Currently out of work, Luke had held a litany of blue-collar jobs, such as house painter and truck stop attendant. None of his posts lasted long. Luke would either get fired, or more commonly, abruptly quit. He supplemented his wages by moonlighting, selling marijuana and, on occasion, cocaine.
Through his mother's second marriage, Luke was also connected to the richest and most well-known family in Scottsville, the Turners. Donna Dugas's second husband, Bruce Dugas, was a grandson of Cal Turner, the founder of the Dollar General store chain (essentially a less-discerning Kmart). The no-frills emporiums have shelves haphazardly stocked with a variety of discounted everyday items loofahs, toothpaste, nails, clothing just about anything imaginable. One of the first stores occupies a cornerstone of Scottsville's modest downtown square. Semitrucks emblazoned with the stark black on yellow dollar general emblem on their trailers careen down the roads as they are dispatched from the giant warehouse on the outskirts of town. Despite the carefully cultivated small town image of the stores themselves, Dollar General is a Fortune 500 company with more than 7,600 outlets spread throughout the Southeast and $7.6 billion in annual sales. The latest in Luke's string of jobs had been loading trucks at the Dollar General warehouse. It wasn't a mystery how he got the job, nor was it surprising when he walked off and never came back.
In a tiny town like Scottsville, where everyone at least knows of one another even if they aren't direct acquaintances, the Turners' wealth became just another idiosyncrasy accepted by the community. Scottsville is a farm and factory town. Although the Turners' wealth wasn't a secret, it was not broadcast loudly. As a whole, the Turners weren't an ostentatious clan, and even resided in simple homes far from the opulence possible. Scottsville was a unified community, so small that no one had a choice but to frequent the same shops and restaurants, no matter one's financial standing or race.
Bruce and Donna Dugas now lived on a sprawling horse ranch outside of Dallas, Texas.
On the other side of the financial spectrum was Luke's father, Mike Goodrum. Mike worked at the same engine parts factory as his third wife, Judy. They lived in a modest one-story home not far from Luke's apartment in Scottsville. Mike strove to instill a good work ethic in Luke but feared he was losing the battle.
As Luke was devouring his last slice of pizza, Brittany arrived at the apartment and joined him on the black futon. Her deeply bronzed skin made her bright green eyes stand out even more. She wore form-fitting jeans, a tight top that showed off her flat midriff, and sneakers.
The couple got into Brittany's car and headed off to Bowling Green. Brittany was driving her gray '93 Maxima with the seat as far back as it could go, her arm draped over the steering wheel like they do in rap videos. They took Brittany's car because Luke didn't want to take his treasured silver '96 Mustang.
He spent hours tinkering under the hood of that car. The Mustang's windows were impenetrably dark and the body was lowered so far it almost scraped the ground. The headlights were tinted blue and the hubcaps were mirrorlike chrome. The engine's roar sounded like a fighter jet because Luke had installed an H-pipe Flowmaster to the manifold. The bass booming from the speakers rattled windows when it drove past.
Luke had just gotten the clutch fixed and planned to sell the car. He hoped to get five thousand dollars for it to fund a move to Miami. Luke envisioned himself bartending in South Beach. He also thought about joining the air force. But all of Luke's future plans were vague, and moving to Miami was more a daydream than an actual goal. Luke had yet to pursue anything seriously. College was out of the question; academics were never a strong suit, and he had dropped out after a semester of community college. In fact, Luke had never read a book. He was equally uninterested in working.
Luke's ex-wife, LaDonna, was acutely aware of this especially when she was expecting the monthly child support payment. LaDonna lived in nearby Franklin, Kentucky, with her and Luke's two-year-old son, Tyler. Luke and LaDonna dated during his senior year of high school and he got her pregnant just before graduating. Their relationship had been fiery and intense before it finally burnt out the year before. Their romance pulled all those around them into its strife and troubled passion, and LaDonna had filed multiple domestic violence petitions. A restraining order currently barred Luke from LaDonna, and he wasn't allowed to see Tyler without supervision. LaDonna was, in fact, engaged to marry the very next afternoon. This deeply bothered Luke and he couldn't get it out of his mind.
When not in Franklin with LaDonna or his maternal grandparents, Tyler often stayed with Luke's father. But lately, Luke avoided his dad's house. Mike Goodrum was angry with him (as was usually the case) for quitting his job at the warehouse, where he had health benefits, and for ducking the child support. Child support was one of the many constant issues they argued about.
The route to Bowling Green (population 50,000 and growing rapidly) is a direct trek up U.S. Highway 231, which was in the midst of a major construction project to widen it to four lanes. The highway is called Bowling Green Road in Scottsville and Scottsville Road in Bowling Green. As Luke and Brittany drove, the view of green meadows and scattered farmhouses gradually gave way to a gray sea of asphalt, car dealerships, motels, and hamburger restaurants. The towering neon fast-food signs reached up like antennas to the sky.
Farther into town, in the downtown district, was Western Kentucky University, or simply Western as most locals called it. Luke was unfamiliar with the campus, though. He only knew how to get to one of the town's only nightclubs, Good Tymes Too, which was in a refurbished pizza parlor nearby, and to the mall. When Luke would go out after Brittany had gone home for her curfew, he would venture over to Nashville, Tennessee, a half hour away, instead of to Bowling Green. There were clubs, raves, and nicer strip bars down there. It was also where most of his drug connections lived.
Luke and Brittany followed Scottsville Road to the mall and circled the parking lot before finding a space. The Greenwood Mall was orbited by megastores. The biggest, a Wal-Mart Supercenter, encompassed, among other things, a supermarket, a McDonald's, and an optometrist's office. The area drew in shoppers from the surrounding smaller towns and was usually gridlocked.
Luke and Brittany combed the large halls of the shopping complex and stopped inside Lids, a baseball cap store. Luke bought a white Yankees cap with a blue "NY" on the front. Then they lazily browsed some more, walking hand in hand, killing time until it was late enough to dine at one of the many nearby steak houses.
They made their final lap, unaware of an eighteen-year-old Western freshman named Katie Autry, who was circling those same halls with her roommate. Katie was a complete stranger, but within a week, her name would be linked to Luke's forever.
Copyright © 2009 by William Van Meter
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