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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Getting to know a serial killer suspect is a headtrip of the highest degree

I recently read Ann Rule's bestseller, Stranger Beside Me, about the crimes of serial killer Ted Bundy. In it, the author describes her personal relationship with Bundy as it evolved over the years. Rule experienced conflicting emotions towards her subject; a man who eventually confessed to the savage killings of 30 women (although the true number of Bundy's victims is said to be more than triple that number). In an odd way, the story reassured me that I am on the right track concerning my efforts to understand and write about serial killer suspect, William Devin Howell, with the end goal being the publication of a true crime novel about him when the trial is over and the verdicts are in.
Bundy: the well-dressed, college-boy Rule first met. 

Rule struggled with the fact that she truly liked Ted on many levels- especially in the early stages of their friendship, before he was even charged with the crimes. Similarly, I am perplexed and confused about feelings of genuine concern that I have felt for Howell in the past 18 months, not unlike the concern that I feel for a disability client suffering in extreme mental anguish. It is not uncommon for me to drive away from prison visits with a heavy heart; my thoughts immersed in a cloud of profound depression.

On the most basic of levels, I just cannot believe that I live in a world where human beings can be accused of such atrocities and need to be locked up like mad dogs for the protection of society. Whether it was Bill Howell who killed those seven victims and buried their dismembered bodies behind the strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, or whether it was someone other than Bill, the fact remains that that kind of evil exists.  

If Howell is guilty of the charges against him, and that is for a jury to decide, then the friendly man that I meet with at Walker Correctional Institute is a monster. There is no saying what he would do to me in a non-supervised setting without plexiglass separating the two of us. I am petite, and he is a stocky, strong man. He could turn on a dime: jovial and kind-spirited one minute, then frothing at the mouth with pure hatred in his eyes the next. For me, there would be nowhere to run.

And so, I experience a certain dual-mindedness during our visits. On the one hand, I feel relaxed and I actually enjoy our exchanges. It is fair to say that I like the man. On the other hand, I am wondering, always wondering, about what is not being said. We may be discussing Trump's victory, for example, how the events unfolded on election night (Bill went to bed before the final results and awoke for his Insulin injection at 5 AM to hear Sarah Palin talking on the television about a Trump administration. Like me and many other Americans, he was shocked) and as I look into his bulging hazel eyes, I cannot help but think: WTF? Images of events described in the prosecution's court filings trip through my mind. They are all just allegations at this point. The evidence has yet to be presented in a court of law. Still, those mental images exist and they are horrific.

Readers of this blog have asked some recurring questions and I would like to answer them now:

1. Has Howell confessed to you?

God, no. He maintains complete innocence, even with respect to the crime that he is currently serving time for- the murder of Nilsa Arizmendi. Our letters, phone calls, and visits are permeated with the mutual and keen awareness that members of the Prosecution and the Department of Corrections likely read and/or listen to every word exchanged. Bill has every intention of going through the trial process and fighting the charges.

2. Does he come across as a psychopath, a narcissist, or a sociopath?

I am not a mental health professional, so I will let the experts opine on that at trial. For now, I am willing to say two things that strike me about Bill's overall personality. On the surface, he is a sociable person both in and out of prison, but there is a strong antisocial component to his character. For example, he thoroughly enjoyed the transient lifestyle that he had while living in Connecticut. Most of that time he lived out of his van. He often worked two jobs and would shower at the YMCA between shifts. It was a relief to him to not have to pay rent or deal with roommates in low income housing who often had drug addictions. He is, at core, a self-sufficient loner who does not play by society's rules. Put him in a World War Z setting and he would survive. He has told me that he could build a house from ground up. He probably could.

Secondly, he is intensely loyal to the people that he loves. The circle is small: two or three childhood friends; two former girlfriends, one of which is deceased; and even the memory of his father, who he calls "Pops." In reference to the two girlfriends, he admits to making mistakes and having regrets. He frequently weeps when he discusses these two women, especially his first love. However dysfunctional the relationships may have been, he loved her then and he obviously loves her now. I don't think that is an act.

3. Other prisoners call him "Hillbilly." Would you agree with that label?

Not really. Bill speaks with a mild Southern drawl, a product of growing up in Hampton, Virginia (not exactly the Hills of Appalachia.) His accent must strike inmates in the Connecticut prison system as funny and so he is given the name Hillbilly. He did frequent establishments with country line dancing and mechanical bulls, such as Cadillac Ranch, while living in Connecticut, and he met two future girlfriends at those places. He likes heavy metal music, including the work of Ronnie James Dio. He listens to station 99.1 PLR, on his radio. He watches the nightly news, and has a decent knowledge of current events. He also likes watching Family Guy, and American Greed. He is not into sports. While his letters contain spelling errors and he did drop out of high school, his writing is neat and he has sound reasoning skills. If I could rate his intelligence on a scale of 1-10, I would assign a 3 or 4 for verbal and writing capacity, and an 8 for reasoning and logic. There are times when he has out-argued me, a lawyer. He is also shrewd. He usually knows when to speak, and when to shut up, in his own best interests.      

4. Does he have nightmares?

Yes.
So do I.

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