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Worse than Death
The Dallas Nightclub Murders and the Texas Multiple Murder Law
By Gary M. Lavergne
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2003 Gary M. Lavergne
All rights reserved.
"I want to get to that killer while the blood is still wet and while the adrenalin is still flowing." —Bill Parker Retired Dallas Police Department
Bill Parker had just fallen asleep. He had been out to dinner that night and had even had a couple of drinks. The phone rang right after midnight. Many times he had gotten up in the middle of the night to rush off to a murder scene. But this time was different.
The dispatcher was excited and at times hard to understand. He told Bill that as many as a dozen people could be dead in a restaurant on the corner of Midway and Interstate 635 in the north section of Dallas.
"I'll call you right back," Bill said, before hanging up. He thought the best thing to do was to splash water on his face, wake up, and give the caller time to pull himself together.
"I had never heard of Ianni's," Bill recalled years later. But he would learn much about Ianni's Restaurant and Club. On the night of June 29, 1984, Bill would see the club for the first time—the site of the largest mass murder in the history of Dallas, Texas.
He drove directly to the scene from his home. A fairly large crowd had assembled outside of Cappuccino's, another nightclub nearby. There were plenty of policemen to hold them back, and the news of what had happened inside Ianni's was more than enough to subdue the crowd.
It could have happened to them just as easily—the two clubs, separated only by a common parking lot in a small outdoor strip mall, were very close to one another. By the time Bill arrived, some of the onlookers may have known that the killer had been in Cappuccino's and another north Dallas nightspot earlier that evening.
Ianni's front doors were on either side of a glass foyer covered by a burgundy canopy embroidered with an "I." Bill walked in and turned left to a reception area where, earlier that evening, the headwaiter had greeted customers and kept track of what tables were occupied. Next to the headwaiter's stand hung an oil portrait of Joe Ianni, the restaurant's founder.
Other police officers and medics were already there and busily at work. Two victims had been taken away in ambulances in desperate attempts to save their lives. One lived. The others were still on the floor in the bar, which was located down a hallway near the back of the building.
"When you are investigating a crime like this, you don't have the luxury of taking the time to look at the horror of it all," Bill later recalled. Intensely disciplined, Bill Parker wanted badly to arrest the man responsible for the grisly scene.
As he entered the bar, to the left was a man, a mechanic, in blue work clothes lying on his back. His shirt had the word "Mercedes" embroidered on the pocket, and he had one of those retractable key chains that janitors wear, clipped to his wide, shiny black leather belt. The pool of blood surrounding his head was so thick that the dark blue carpet could not absorb any more. When the medics turned him over to be sure he could not be saved, they saw his eyes, now dull and set in a disconcerting stare.
A gruesome path of blood told the story of what had happened to the mechanic after he was shot. A large pool had formed on the bar in front of where he had been sitting, encircling the mixed drink he had been enjoying and two ashtrays positioned neatly within the pool. The blood soaked coaster was barely visible beneath the glass. Spatters and streaks ran down the beige barstool toward the floor where he had landed. Even the rich, oak panels of the bar near the floor had blood and tissue on them.
Next to the mechanic was a well-dressed blonde businesswoman in a white skirt and a purple sweater. Her skirt had a large bloodstain over her upper right leg, but that wound did not look to be fatal. She had landed, or crawled, a few feet from where she was sitting.
When the medics came to her, it was clear that she had died from a gunshot wound to her head that had shattered her skull. Her eyes were open as well, and she had that same disconcerting stare as the mechanic next to her.
Lying across her feet was another victim. She, too, was wearing a white skirt and was well-dressed though her attire was not as businesslike. Her tan blouse had been turned red by her blood.
The medics had placed EKG electrodes on her chest to make sure she was beyond saving, but it had to have been as a precaution only. She had been shot twice in the head and was a bloody mess. One of the wounds entered her right cheek and had blown chunks of her dentures out of her mouth. Her bright blue eyes were now dull and lifeless as she lay on her back in death. They were fixed upon the ceiling—set in a disconcerting stare. Her badly damaged head rested on the right hand of yet another victim, a woman dressed for the evening in a white crocheted dress.
Even now, it was obvious that the woman in the crocheted dress had been stunningly beautiful. She had landed on the floor at the base of her barstool. Her head was turned to the right, her shoulders were flat against the floor, but her knees pointed to the right and her legs were crossed, almost as if delicately posed. The spike of one of her off-white high heels was hooked around the leg of another of those beige barstools. Her silver butane cigarette lighter was on the floor next to her lifeless body. Her eyes were closed.
To the right was a large pool of blood where another victim, the first to be shot, had fallen. The medics found her alive, but moaning and dying. When Bill reached that spot, he found evidence of how others had tried desperately to save her life, or at least make her comfortable. Her black silk belt and her tan shoes had been removed; they were left behind and were resting against the bar where she was sitting when her assailant shot her. She died en route to Dallas' infamous Parkland Hospital, where John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald died in 1963.
Bill Parker didn't take time to "look at the horror of it all." He examined the bodies as he would pieces of evidence, clues to identify who might be responsible for this senseless slaughter. In an investigation like this, a slug or a shell, or even a strand of hair might make or break a case. Bill was looking everywhere for everything. He searched the floors to find spent ammunition. He talked to witnesses and the first cops to arrive and compared what they said to what he saw. He took the time to look at chairs, tables, and the bar.
When Bill came upon the final victim, still on the floor by a potted plant near where the band played, he stopped in his tracks. He recognized the obese, gray- haired man wearing a tan leisure suit as someone he had arrested before. Years earlier Bill had worked vice. The dead man near the dance floor was a pimp. "What was he doing here?" Bill thought. He wondered if there could be a gang or organized crime connection to this mass murder, but that didn't fit with everything else he had seen and heard from the eyewitnesses. It was more likely that this poor fellow was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like all the others.
Sadly, there have been other mass slayings with even greater body counts. Along the Interstate 35 central Texas corridor alone there have been much larger tragedies. Eighteen years earlier on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed the University of Texas Tower and gunned down nearly fifty people in about an hour and a half. Fifteen died as a result of his sniping. Two more victims, his wife and mother, killed at their homes earlier the same morning, brought the total to seventeen murders.
On October 16, 1991, George Hennard drove his pickup through the window of a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. He pulled out a gun similar to the one used in Ianni's and shot fifty-six people, killing twenty-three, which is still the largest simultaneous mass murder in American history.
Episodic mass murders always make headlines, if for no other reason than because they surprise, shock, and sicken us. But for non-victims, they seldom bring about more than just momentary fear, anger, and grief. We read the newspapers, shake our heads, occasionally pray for people we do not know, and go about our lives.
Most mass murderers, like Whitman and Hennard, commit "suicide by cop" or do the job themselves, never to face a trial by jury. When that happens, the incidents are merely remembered on anniversaries divisible by five and ten. But the man who killed in Ianni's lived to face a jury.
Occasionally, an incident, like the Ianni's murders, transcends the act itself. Sometimes it is the descent of criminal proceedings into a memorable circus atmosphere of perverse entertainment, like the trials of O. J. Simpson and the Menendez Brothers. In spite of their high profiles, neither of those crimes brought about a significant change in how we deal with crime. Neither did the ultimate true crime story—the Charles Manson Family murders.
Murder becomes epiphanic when it causes us to change our institutions, perceptions, or behavior. Charles Whitman was the first to take his guns and go to school. He proved a boast he had made to several acquaintances that from his perch he could "hold off an army" of policemen for as long as he wanted. After Whitman, law enforcement agencies throughout the United States rushed to form Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams to handle similar "domestic terrorist" events.
Serial killers sometimes bring about change as well. In Texas, after serving twenty-three years in prison, including six years on death row, for the brutal and heartless murder of three high school students, Kenneth Allen McDuff was paroled. He walked out of prison. During the next three years he raped, tortured, and murdered at least five more women. His serial killing spree brought about radical changes in parole, called the McDuff Laws, and provided the catalyst for the construction of new prisons at the cost of billions of dollars.
Outside of Texas, the "Tylenol poisonings" brought about the expenditure of many billions of dollars to repackage virtually every consumable product on store shelves throughout the world. Today, nearly everything we buy is grossly over-packaged and tamper-proof.
In 1994, the parents and neighbors of seven-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey did not know their neighbor was a twice-convicted sex offender until after Megan had been brutally raped and murdered. Today, in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, laws requiring the registration of sex offenders and the disclosure of their location are collectively called "Megan's Laws."
As isolated incidents, these crimes were tragically common. They are different because they were cases that forced us to look closely at our criminal justice system, what we do, and why we do it. Some crimes force us to look at our heritage, culture, and ourselves as a people—and they bring about change. They are few, but the Ianni's massacre was just such a crime for Texas.
Even before the dead could be buried, the bullet holes patched up, the shattered smoked mirrors replaced, and the carpet in Ianni's changed, prosecutors knew that it would not be possible for this killer to be prosecuted for capital murder. What he had done was not a capital crime in Texas!
Lawmakers supporting the death penalty, preparing for a legislative session that was to begin in a few months, raced to draft bills to rectify a gross "loophole" in the Penal Code the Ianni's murders had revealed. Current law favored property over a second human life. If the Ianni's murderer had killed one person and stolen a dime from her purse, he could have been sentenced to death. If he had dragged one of the dying victims to his car and taken her to a store next door, he could have been sentenced to death. If he had walked off with an ashtray or stolen a fork off a table, he could have been sentenced to death. He did none of those things. All he did was kill six people and wound a seventh. Thus, under Texas law at the time, the death penalty was not an option.
Charles Whitman, for example, had he been taken alive, would have been eligible for the death penalty only because one of his victims was a policeman. So, the observation went, if he had missed the shot he fired at the policeman, and killed only sixteen instead of seventeen people, he could not have gotten the death penalty.
Following the murders in Ianni's, opponents of the death penalty had little hope of containing the emotion resulting from six dead bodies. Coupled with imagined scenarios of terrorists poisoning entire cities and all sorts of other multiple murderers who could not be put to death, the six bodies proved to be more than death penalty opponents could successfully combat.
Some death penalty opponents pointed out the obvious; surely the Ianni's killer, and the multiple murderers who strike fear into our hearts, could care less about whether or not what they do leads them to the death chamber. What does capital punishment mean to a man who would wipe out an entire community if he could? People who do these things are not considering the law while loading their semi-automatic pistols—quite the opposite. And most of them, like Whitman and Hennard, do not intend to live anyway. A new capital murder statute for multiple murderers, they argued, was merely an expansion of a policy we should not have in the first place. It exacerbated inequity and injustice by covering another group under its umbrella. It did nothing more than add to the body count of already tragic events.
But some believe that deterrence is not the issue; some believe death is justice, an appropriate response to a monstrous crime. Maybe, as old-time Texas Rangers say, "Some people just need killing."
But what if the murderer was crazy at the time? Surely someone who guns down seven people in full view of a bar half full of patrons has to be crazy? Almost all other people handle anger, even when provoked, without resorting to murder, much less mass murder. Does this mean he was insane? Some say, "yes." Others, using the same argument and looking at the same case, say, "no." Cases like the Ianni's murders, and that of Andrea Yates, convicted in 2002 of the drowning deaths of her five children in her suburban Houston home, bring forth a debate we should have over what we, as a state and nation, are willing to accept as an excuse for killing.
But debate without facts becomes a meaningless, emotional, and irrational exercise. The relevant facts come from the murder cases, like Ianni's, after a period sufficient to allow for a dispassionate historical review. History is the source of wisdom; to believe otherwise is to believe the wise are psychic.
The man responsible for the carnage of June 29, 1984, was a Moroccan national named Abdelkrim Belachheb. He never denied the fact that he gunned down those innocent people. During his trial his defense did not challenge a significant statement of fact or piece of evidence. Accepting in toto the prosecution's version of events, the first sentence of the defense attorney's opening statement was, "You know now what happened at Ianni's on June 29, 1984, and now the defense is going to tell you why it happened." (Italics added)
Should why matter? The Belachheb plea was "not guilty by reason of insanity." In most states, Texas included, insanity essentially meansthat at the time of the crime, the perpetrator did not know the difference between right and wrong. It is always a controversial defense. It is also a misconception that the insanity defense is used often and successfully by the guilty to "cheat" prison, or the death chamber.
The Belachheb insanity defense was unique in that it included the notion that he suffered from "culture shock," or the inability to adjust to life from where he had been raised to where he was at the time of the killings. His trial was largely a parade of doctors, each with impressive credentials, all examining the same person and looking at the same data and coming to opposite conclusions.
Excerpted from Worse than Death by Gary M. Lavergne. Copyright © 2003 Gary M. Lavergne. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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