In Gwinnett County, Georgia, in 1978, Larry Flynt and his attorney were shot and injured on their way back to court during an obscenity trial.
This true account of the crime is told alternately from Det. J. Michael Cowart’s perspective and chronologically following the shooter’s life from childhood through his execution. The monster that was Joseph Paul Franklin was the result of a perfect storm of circumstances, which included poverty, cruel abuse as a child, the detestation and mistrust between blacks and whites, integration, and the hate groups that operated and recruited openly. Cowart tells the story of how his attempts to befriend Franklin gave him the information he needed to prosecute the case—and gave him astonishing insight into many of Franklin’s other cold-blooded killings and crimes, and his twisted justification for them.
Blood in the Soil details with stark honesty the terrible truths that characterized the South during the volatility of the sixties and seventies, and the ugly reality that lay just beneath its veneer of warm hospitality.
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Jesus Christ Takes Care of Business
THE PLAIN-LOOKING MAN in the green Ford Gran Torino popped on his left turn indicator, then checked the driver's side mirror and easily merged into the light Monday afternoon traffic headed south on Interstate 85. He kept pace with the other early afternoon commuters, driving not too fast, not too slow. Checking the rearview mirror, he didn't see anything out of the ordinary behind him. No cars fast approaching, no flashing blue lights. Everything was going according to plan.
Satisfied that he had made a successful escape and the cops were, as usual, a day late and a dollar short, he reached for the radio dial, clicked it on, and listened intently as he slowly turned the knob first right, then left. Probably won't be anything about it on the news, not yet anyway. He continued turning the dial through the few stations he could pick up, static crackling through the speakers in between mostly weak signals. He found Gloria Gaynor belting out "I Will Survive," then Grand Funk Railroad urging him to "Do the Locomotion." Further up the dial he passed a fire and brimstone preacher threatening eternal damnation unless listeners sent in a donation pronto, then Paul Harvey telling his listening audience "The Rest of the Story." No breaking news though. That would come soon enough. Satisfied that the events of the day had gone down almost exactly as he had planned, Joseph Paul Franklin decided to pull off the highway for a quick celebration of sorts, a little pat on the back that he believed he had earned. Flipping his signal light on again, he merged into the far right lane, then took the next exit ramp off the highway. At the end of the ramp were several gas stations; he chose the Phillips 66 station closest to the exit. Carefully accelerating, he again indicated a right turn. Always pays to abide by the law. The thought made him chuckle to himself. He made another right turn into the station's parking lot and cruised slowly past a few eighteen-wheelers, then past customers at the pumps. He was careful not to look directly at anyone. The pay phones were located at the other end of the lot, and that suited him just fine. He cruised coolly past the other customers and eyed the phone at the far end of Ma Bell's bank of battered and worn telephones. He'd use that one. Pulling into a faintly marked parking spot, he shifted the car into PARK and surveyed his surroundings. He had the area to himself, at least down here by the phone. Not bothering to turn the ignition off, he opened the door, swung his feet out onto the pavement, and dug into his shirt pocket for his smokes. Swiping a book of matches off the dash, he pulled one out and deftly struck it against the back of the matchbook. The hissing flame blossomed; he touched it to the tip of his Marlboro and puffed hard, the blue smoke that escaped curling lazily upward. Enjoying the familiar burn in his lungs a bit longer than he usually did, he exhaled lustily, and a faint smile curled the corners of his mouth. Letting the cigarette hang from his thin, dry lips and squinting his one good eye against the burn, he glanced skyward, following the smoke.
Joe could count on one hand the number of really good days he had enjoyed in his twenty-eight years on this God forsaken earth. Today would go down as one of Joseph Paul Franklin's Top 10 Best Ever Days. Everything had gone off without a hitch, save one small one. In the overall scheme of things, however, it didn't matter one damn bit. The dude was just unlucky, that's all. Maybe I'll send him a Get Well card. He laughed aloud at the prospect. Fucker was just unlucky. He took another lusty drag on his cigarette as he looked back over his shoulder at the gas pumps and the big trucks just beyond them.
Sitting there in that parking lot, staring up into the brilliant blue sky of an early March afternoon, Joseph Franklin almost looked like a happy man, and if anyone had noticed him, that very thought might have even crossed their mind. But of course, no one did notice him. Not one person.
Time to have a little fun.
Abruptly he stood up, and walking toward the pay phone, he fished a dime out of the front pocket of his jeans. Inside the booth, he picked up the phone book that hung by a chain. Holding the cigarette in his thin lips and squinting to see through the smoke, he opened the book and ran his finger down the listings, looking for one in particular. Finding it, he slipped the dime into the slot, waited for the dial tone, and dialed the number. He gazed out at the traffic speeding by on the interstate. They have no idea. They will soon enough but right now, they have no idea what just happened.
"State Court, Gwinnett County. How may I direct your call?" Sara Hutchins was helping her friend Maxim Sims at the switchboard, which had all at once lit up like a Christmas tree with a wave of incoming calls. Maxim was Georgia state court solicitor Gary Davis's assistant.
"Is Gary Davis in?" Later, when she gave her statement to the police officer, Sara would say that the man's voice sounded calm and kind of authoritative, like a preacher's.
"No, I'm sorry, he isn't."
"Well you know that Larry Flynt case? Tell them not to bother sending it to the jury. Jesus Christ already took care of it."
"Wait just a minute, and I'll get his secretary," Sara quickly answered, but before she could finish her sentence, the man with the preacher's voice had hung up; the line was dead.
Joseph Franklin smiled as he gently placed the receiver back into its scuffed Southern Bell cradle. He opened the folding door of the phone booth and walked back to his car, which was still idling richly under the brilliant blue sky. In one smooth movement, he removed the cigarette from his mouth and flicked it onto the pavement, crushing it under his heel. He slipped behind the big steering wheel of the Gran Torino, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, letting it go slowly as he leaned back into the imitation leather comfort of the seat.
Yes. Jesus Christ had taken care of it, all right.
He backed carefully out of the parking spot and shifted into DRIVE. Time to boogie on down the road.CHAPTER 2
Opening the Box
Detective Michael Cowart
I'm retired now. Doubly retired, in fact, from both the United States Navy and the Gwinnett County Police Department. When I retired from active duty in the Navy, I was second in command of the largest Naval Investigative Service in the world, responsible for the entire northeast quadrant of the US. I was still a relatively young man at the time of my first retirement, so I decided that I wanted to become a cop, to play cops-and-robbers, so I did. I was hired first by the Lawrenceville, Georgia police department and later, by the Gwinnett County PD. As an officer of the law, I served as commander of the Special Investigation Section (narcotics, vice, intelligence, and such). I went on to serve as commander of Internal Affairs, then Precinct, then Division Commander.
All these responsibilities worked to make me, I suppose, distant and apart from many of the men with whom I worked. Too, the formality that had become a part of who I was upon leaving the Navy never left me, but to me, these were not problems. I was always kind of a straight arrow, and I was always very single-minded when it came to the question of why I did what I did for a living. Quite simply, I was a truth seeker.
Finding the truth in any case was all that mattered to me. The duplicity, the politics, the manipulations that reproduce like weeds in our line of work, always disappointed me. I never understood striving for anything but the absolute, honest truth. I am proud of that fact, and I am proud of the men who worked with me, of those who I believe sought the same thing. I suppose that set me apart from most, as well, but there were a few men with whom I worked who were wired the same way. Two of those were Detective Dan Bruno, and Captain Luther Frank McKelvey ("Captain Mac" or just "Mac" to those who knew him personally). In the early 1980s, Mac was Captain of the Detective Division. Eventually he would be promoted to Major, and there was never a finer man or one more deserving of the title. A graduate of the FBI Academy, he had valuable knowledge and skill with respect to profiling. He also had priceless connections to those in the FBI who did such work.
When Joseph Paul Franklin's name first came across the Chief's desk on that first tantalizing letter from his attorney in 1983 (I'll get to that shortly), it only made sense that Mac would be put in charge of the case; he would oversee Det. Bruno's efforts and my own, and as a team we started down the rabbit hole that became just one piece of the massive, national Joseph Paul Franklin investigation. Anyway, that is how I came to know Joe Franklin.
I am retired, which means that all that I have seen and done in service to my country and my community are memories, all of them behind me. My beloved wife and I are comfortable, as are our little pack of wire-haired dachshunds. Our children are grown, and they have given us some wonderful grandchildren. This is my life now, and I do cherish it dearly.
There has never been cause until now to look back, to ponder, to relive any of the terrible things that I have seen first-hand in my law enforcement career. There has been no cause to resuscitate some of the terrible people whose paths I have intentionally crossed in an attempt to bring justice, to reveal truth, to shed light on a world that is darker than most people can fathom — darker than most would want to fathom. I have come to realize, however, in recent weeks and months, that some stories never truly come to an end. Some curtains never close all the way. Some people never really die. Some wrongs are never righted, because at the root of those wrongs is an evil so black and so malevolent that it simply cannot die. The darkness lives on because of its own black energy, its own putrid roots.
This is one such story, one I believed I had locked securely away in the basement, never to go down there again. I revisit it now purely because of a newspaper article that I read, just before Thanksgiving of 2013. It caught my eye, of course, because I knew the man about whom it was written. Some might say that I knew him better than most. The article reported that Joseph Paul Franklin had been executed on November 13, 2013, at the federal prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri. He was put to death by lethal injection. There had been some legal skirmish over that (I would have expected nothing less from Joe Franklin). It had slightly delayed the execution, but the delay hadn't lasted long. He was now as dead as dead can be.
Reading the article opened the door to that dark, dank basement to which I referred earlier, and I find myself now unpacking the contents of that dusty box, locked away long ago, knowing full well that if I were to reach far enough into the box, I could fall in. I could fall into it and come out on the other side. I could find a path, one that had its beginning three decades ago for me, in Gwinnett County, Georgia, and begin to walk it again. I must admit that I hesitated before opening this box, as I did not relish removing the contents and examining them up close, even one last time.
Ah, but reach into that box I did, and eventually I found myself walking back down that path, slowly and tentatively at first, feeling my way through specifics and details that were difficult to recall. But the farther I walked, the easier the details came and soon, they were rushing back in faster than I could sort them out. I do not know what to think about that last; does it mean that I will always be a detective, never truly letting down my guard even in my pleasant retirement with my dear wife and our dogs, children, and grandchildren? Or does it mean that this man about whom I will tell you took a rather sizeable bite out of me, Detective J. Michael Cowart, and the wound has never truly scarred over completely? I suppose that the answer to this and many other questions will best be found if I begin back at the beginning, where my path and Joe Franklin's first crossed.
My work on the case of Joseph Paul Franklin marked a definite turning point in my career and, I suppose, in my life. It was during those years of investigation that I came to understand that not everyone is in the business of seeking and telling the truth. My God, how naïve that must sound, but it is a fact. Until I set out with my colleagues to work the maze of the crimes of Franklin, I never realized the twisted and underhanded motives that drive many people. I learned that even some of the people whom I trusted and respected could be detoured from the straight path, for one of many motives. And I, a grown man who had spent my entire life asking questions and testing the answers, a man who had held heavy responsibility in both of my careers, was heartbroken by that discovery.
I must say, I also fondly and respectfully remember the men who served alongside me, most especially the men with whom I worked diligently to solve this case, to answer the questions, to bury it, once and for all.
In order to understand the mere existence of a man like Joseph Franklin, one must understand the time and place in which he was born and he grew up. Those factors and others, I believe, worked together to create the perfect storm that created him. He was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1950, and he was born into wretched poverty and cruel abuse. Those truths alone account for much of what Joseph Franklin was made of. Much, but not all.CHAPTER 3
Preparing for Judgment Day
THE MONTH OF March in Georgia is a coy, flirtatious tease, lifting her skirt to show a little glimpse of spring, then coldly dropping it again and storming out in a huff. She can be icy and blustery, or she can scream into town riding on the tails of warm and wet tornadoes, leaving death and destruction in her wake. That was one of the things Joe enjoyed about the South. If you didn't like the weather, you just had to stick around for about fifteen minutes, and it'd change.
The March of 1978 though, was mostly warm and sweet, like a young girl who hasn't yet been jaded by hardship and disappointment. On one day in particular that year, March 6, the sun shone brightly, and cheerful birds chattered back and forth among the pink and white blossoms on the cherry and pear trees, as if gossiping about some delicious secret to which only they were privy. And on the town square in Lawrenceville, Georgia, the first flowers of the spring season — pink tulips and yellow daffodils — swayed in an uncharacteristically gentle March breeze, waving to passersby as if bidding them a good day.
The scene from his point of view looked just like one of those picture postcards you could buy at interstate truck stops or one of the many gas station gift shops along I-85, the ones that always had something hollow and stupid written on them, like "Wish you were here," or "Greetings from the Sunny South!" When he reached his destination and went about his business, the view would be very different but right now, the scene was cheerful and welcoming, like something the city's chamber of commerce had ordered up to entice visitors to come here and spend a chunk of their hard-earned money.
Taking one more glance at the bustling town square, he shifted the Gran Torino into DRIVE, and turned right onto a side street, leaving the county courthouse in his rearview mirror. A sharp left down a narrow alleyway, then another left into the gravel parking lot, and he had arrived at his destination. He knew this little town like the back of his hand by now; he had staked out the area weeks before and had even made a couple of trial runs from his hotel to the Lawrenceville square. He had done his homework to make sure both the timing and the location were perfect. Now, it was show time.
Turning and reaching into the back floorboard of the car, he grabbed the day's tool of choice, which he had wrapped carefully in a white pillowcase. The .44 Marlin rifle felt heavy and solid in his hands, the weight of it both calming and exciting. A thin film of sweat now glistened on his brow, and small but growing wet stains dotted the fabric under his arms; in just a few minutes, the flannel would be damp and clinging to his body despite the day's near-perfect weather. That familiar quickening of his pulse, the rush of blood and adrenaline, were spiraling up now. It was always the same, and it was damn near better than sex for him. He'd never tire of the rush of stalking, then ultimately eliminating, his prey. Today, he planned to bag a big one.
An onlooker who might have happened upon the scene in the parking lot that day would probably not have remembered seeing a man there at all. There was certainly nothing unusual to see, nothing in particular that might later spark a memory. He was very good at becoming invisible; he had perfected the art of moving behind the scenery on the stage of reality a long time ago. He was alive today because he was a ghost when he chose to be. Though not even thirty years old, he was very good at what he did.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blood in the Soil"
Copyright © 2016 Carole Townsend.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
Chapter 1 Jesus Christ Takes Care of Business (1978) 1
Chapter 2 Opening the Box (2014) 5
Chapter 3 Preparing for Judgment Day (1978) 9
Chapter 4 The Letter (1983) 18
Chapter 5 The Alabama Soil (1950s and 1960s) 24
Chapter 6 Inside the Belly of the Beast (1983) 35
Chapter 7 The Disappearing Boy, the Emerging Man (mid 1960s-1970s) 45
Chapter 8 A Friend in Need (early 1980s) 62
Chapter 9 Peaches, Vengeance and the Head of the Snake (1978) 67
Chapter 10 The Trial 76
Chapter 11 Fertile Soil 86
Chapter 12 Blood and Justice 91
Chapter 13 Dancing with the Devil (1983) 101
Chapter 14 Smoke, Mirrors, and Conspiracies 110
Chapter 15 Up is Down, and Down is Up (1984) 123
Chapter 16 The Stumble (1980) 129
Chapter 17 Making Good on a Promise (1983-1984) 146
Chapter 18 A Second Visit (1984) 160
Chapter 19 The Fall (1980) 165
Chapter 20 A Tangled Web (1983) 174
Chapter 21 Our Sins Come Home to Roost 180
Chapter 22 Put to Rest (2013) 185
Chapter 23 Back to the Basement (2014) 198
Research Sources 208