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NEW SOUTH JOURNALISM: Creative Nonfiction

Origins of a Murder

Investigating the crimes—and humanity—of a killer

southern literature southern literature

This work is not authorized or approved by those persons criminally charged or their attorneys, and the views expressed by the author do not reflect the views of anyone other than the author.

I.

The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake; later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on describing them as teal.* On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. With one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is of the Daisy brand, with a long brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real wood. The only child of a single mother, he is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends rent houses along the same tucked-away string of half-filled lots that the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it. The boy and his mother stay with whoever can pay the electricity bill one month, whoever can keep the gas on the next. Wherever the boy lands, he takes his BB gun with him. It is his most prized possession.

This month, they are staying with a woman who has a child of her own. The baby is two years old, which is old enough that he wants to play with the boy and screams when he doesn’t get his way. Today the baby is wailing. Six years old, just off the yellow school bus home from kindergarten, the boy eats his after-school snack in a hurry, dreaming of getting away from the noise, dreaming of the fun to be found out in the woods. Behind the weathered white house at the end of the road lies a thatch of woods of the dense, deciduous, swampy kind, the kind in which rotting leaves mingle with the earth and the land gives soft way beneath the boy’s feet. Though the thatch is very small, with only a single long ravine like a scar in the earth, a single place in which to prop up the BB gun and play war or dream of hiding away forever, these woods are the boy’s favorite place to play. He asks his mother for his BB gun. She takes it down from the shelf that keeps it safe from the baby and she hands it to him. The boy runs out the door. Two children near his own age, another boy and a girl, live in the white house, and while the boy likes exploring on his own, he has more fun when the other boy can join him. He goes to their door and he knocks.  

A man answers. The man wears thick glasses. He has sparse brown hair and big ears. At twenty-six, he is small for a grown-up, but he is still much taller than the boy. The man rents a room from the family of the boy’s friend. He babysat the boy and his friend a few days prior. He helped them take a bath. Now the boy asks the man if his friend is at home. No, the man says, but the boy can come inside and wait, if he likes.

Now, they’ve met before. The boy knows the man. And yet the boy pauses. Something in the man’s face just then makes him unsure. The man asks again: Why don’t you come in, he presses the boy. He opens the door wider. The boy walks into the house, props his BB gun up against a wall near the entryway, and climbs the stairs to his friend’s bedroom. He sits down cross-legged on the floor and begins to play.

The man climbs the stairs after the boy. He wants only to watch the boy play; he will say this later, later he will swear to it. But the watching does something to him, changes something in the man, and from then on it is like he is in a dream. He walks up behind the boy and he hooks his forearm around the boy’s throat. He squeezes. He lifts the boy into the air. The boy goes limp.

Maybe now the man touches the boy, maybe he can finally admit to himself what he’s wanted since seeing the boy in the bath. Maybe he doesn’t. In all that will come from this moment, the three different trials and the four different confessions and the DNA testing and the serology reports and the bodily fluid reports and the psychiatric testimony and all the sworn sworn sworn truths, no one but the man will ever know for certain.

Now the man picks up the boy, cradling the child as though he were simply asleep, and carries him into the man’s own bedroom. He lays him out on the bed. He covers the boy—no, it is a body now, he covers the body—in a blue blanket printed with the cartoon face of Dick Tracy, detective. Then he sits on the edge of the bed and pets the blond hair.

A knock comes on the door downstairs and the man goes to answer it. In the entryway stands a young woman. Her hair is the shade of light brown that is often a childhood blond. Has he seen her son, she asks. (When she asks this, another son rests inside her, just three months along, too early for the pregnancy to show. Inside her, another story has begun.) Who’s your son, the man asks. Jeremy, the woman answers, and the man realizes that he already knew. No, he says. I haven’t seen him. Oh, says the woman. Well, maybe the boy is at her brother’s. Maybe, the man agrees. Would she like to come in and use the phone? She could call her brother, he suggests. He opens the door wide for her.

Thank you, she says, and steps inside. To her left, propped up against the wall, is a Daisy-brand BB gun, its long brown barrel shiny and smooth. The woman steps to the right. She does not see the gun. The man offers her the phone and she dials, looking for her son. 

The year is 1992.

 


II.

The year is 1984 and the Louisiana mental-health clinic caseworker’s notes (notes that will later be entered into the court record) describe the nineteen-year-old, brown-haired man before him as depressed, submissive, “overly compliant.” The man is eager to please, the caseworker writes, but seems to sense he may not know how. Behind the thick glasses he wears, his brown eyes stay too steady, constant in a way that suggests a fundamental disconnect with life, a fundamental hopelessness. He doesn’t get excited and he doesn’t get mad, he just is. The caseworker gives him a mimeographed sheet listing problems the man could be experiencing and asks him to circle which ones he is, right now, experiencing. The man circles: nervousness, depression, guilt, unhappiness, worthlessness, restlessness, my thoughts. He does not circle: education, anger, friends, self-control, fears, children. He begins to circle stress but stops. The pen leaves an arc on the page. He begins to circle sexual problems, then stops and crosses that arc out—but then he is rebuked by his mind, by the better part of his knowing, and makes the acknowledging circle. The page becomes evidence of the struggle: What he has, what in his better moments he can admit to himself he has—does he consider it a sexual problem? The circle around want to hurt someone he draws so tightly it nearly touches all the letters, so tightly it strangles the idea even as it admits it, so tightly it wants to be its own undoing.

Between two clinic appointments the man runs away. He hitchhikes his way across the Louisiana swamplands, through the piney woods of Texas and into the dry Arizona desert where vistas of red rock burn more like the sun than any rock the man has ever seen. The man burns red himself but he does not care. The desert is beautiful. Here, the air fills his lungs with lightness, nothing like the choke of the Louisiana heat. Still, it’s funny that he should come here, that he should be drawn back to the place where history would tell him never to go. It is like he needs to find the beginning. He keeps going. When he reaches California, he will stop. California, where his parents lived before he was born. California is where the happy photographs come from, the photographs his mother kept hidden in a heavy trunk when he was a boy. The photographs of the son, long dead, who came before him. Will this trip be a homecoming, a homecoming to a righter life? He means to live with his uncle. He’ll find himself a job out there. He will make for himself a life.

But his uncle refuses him. He cannot stay in California. Instead the uncle buys him a bus ticket undoing the whole journey he’s just made, and when the man gets back to Louisiana, he suffers the indignity of having to call his parole officer. The officer says, next time you’re going to leave, tell me first.

The thoughts start again. When he sleeps he sees a child. The child is naked and he touches the young, unmarked skin and not until afterward, after the touching, does he wake, the sheets twisted, his panting guilty. Which means he’s done it again, if only in the dream. When he tells the caseworker about the thoughts, he describes them as nightmares—not wishes, not fantasies. But once a week he masturbates. He can only masturbate by thinking about young children, he says. The man has never been on a date. He is a virgin. His only friend is a sixteen-year-old girl and he says the friendship is platonic. Sometimes he’s made young children, boys and girls both, take off their clothing and perform fellatio on him, he says. Then he removes his own clothing. He performs it on them. Last time the boy refused and he told the boy he’d shoot him. “I don’t know what I wanted to do that for.” The boy was seven years old. His father reported the man to the police. That’s why he’s at the clinic now.

But all of that is in the past, the man says, all of that is over. He is done with that life. (He must be. He is only nineteen. If he is not done, what will his life hold?) He would have a job now if he’d stayed in California, he tells the caseworker, he tells his mother, he tells anyone who will listen. “Long as I got something to do, I’m all right.” But for all the times he says this, and for all the times the caseworker records it, the man never does say what that job would have been.

He begins a correspondence course in small-engine repair. He wants to “acquire a trade,” he says. He wants to move out of his parents’ trailer and live alone. It’s not right that a grown man should live with his parents and baby brother, not right that a grown man can’t stand on his own feet. His brother is sixteen years old and his brother is normal. The man knows this the way he knows that he himself is not. Years from now, after the trials, when the state penitentiary prints a list of the nine names the man has requested be allowed to visit him, the man’s parents and sisters and even his sisters’ husbands will be on the list, but the brother’s name won’t. An odd number, nine, short of the round numbers the prison system tends to prefer. Likely the man could have asked for more. But his brother’s name won’t be on the list.

A month passes before the man’s next appointment at the clinic. He’s just turned twenty. He reports that he took a job at an auto dealership but then quit it two weeks later. He tells the caseworker he doesn’t know why he quit, he just felt like quitting. The caseworker asks again, why. This time he tells her: Each day he walked to the job, he passed schoolchildren playing, then passed them again on his way home. He’d see the children and he’d want. He’d want. The man wants to stop wanting. He quit the job just to never walk by those children. Long as he’s got something to do, he’s all right—but now the man does not have something to do. He is not all right. He’s been thinking about “dying or getting someone else to kill me,” he says. He’s drinking whole bottles of peppermint schnapps at a time. Last week he drank fifty dollars’ worth. “I warned him that drinking might impair his judgment,” the caseworker notes.

Of everything I must read to write about the man named Ricky Langley—the murderer, the pedophile, beloved son of Bessie Langley, killer of a six-year-old boy named Jeremy Guillory, and lifer, now in the Louisiana prison system—of every way in which I must get to know the man, these notes are the most difficult for me. The notes are in the court record, a record I initially obtained thinking that the murder, so plainly committed, must be simple. 

But at eight thousand pages, the record is not simple. The notes were handwritten by different caseworkers in 1984 and then 1985, one year before Jeremy Guillory was born. A caseworker writes that when Ricky says he’s taking a correspondence class, the caseworker tells Ricky that he should check the program out with the Better Business Bureau. BBB, the caseworker writes. And here is where my mind goes: to Jeremy Guillory’s Daisy-brand BB gun. Here is what the caseworker does not do: He does not say, Ricky, do you think a correspondence course is enough of a plan to keep you from molesting a child? Or, Ricky, BBB, it is only one letter off from BB, the child you kill, he will have a BB gun. The caseworker writes that he “decided to review with the patient” the effects of sexual molestation on children. Patient seemed, he writes, “genuinely concerned” to be told that molestation harms children. “He may now have greater motivation to eradicate this behavior,” the caseworker writes—and I read those words in the record of a murder.

What do we do with Ricky at this point in the story, while Jeremy, one year away from being born, seven years away from being killed, can still be saved? Now, as I write, Ricky sits in a cell in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, 68 miles from the hospital where he was born and 138 miles from the house where Jeremy Guillory died. Writ “denied,” wrote the Louisiana Supreme Court this past January, when after three trials over twenty years, a death sentence pronounced and then overturned, the court declined his lawyers’ efforts to ask again what should be done with him. But in 1985, none of this has happened yet. In 1985, twenty-year-old Ricky, five-foot-three, virginal, strange and he knows it, off and he knows it, bad or sick and he knows it, weighing just 120 pounds, is sitting on a chair in the Lake Charles Mental Health Center, explaining to a caseworker that ever since he was twelve or thirteen, he would just “go with” young children. He sounds tired, the caseworker writes. “He seems to be looking for help…. He seems to exaggerate his problems,” but “he seems to be looking for help.”

Scrawled in the corner of a completed form is a note: “Ricky had another close call.”

What do we do with him? Between the margins of this written page, he is the story, the story’s center. In the Lake Charles Mental Health Center in 1985, he is simply a folder, likely manila, and his is the folder amongst many identical manila folders that holds the name of a man who will soon be a killer. But not now, not yet. Now at twenty, he seems to be confused and sad and he claims to want to kill himself, says last year he tried but he couldn’t pull the trigger. Twenty years ago, the doctors wanted to abort him. In 1985, he says he’d like to do the job himself. In seven years he will kill a boy, and when they arrest him he will write a letter to his jailer and ask that he himself be killed. Ten years after that he will claim to a doctor that the jailer agreed to help him. Help him die. Help him. That is why he is here in this clinic office, talking to a caseworker who holds a pen and diligently scribbles notes: Because he is asking for help. He wants to be helped. 

And thirty years into the future, with Ricky still alive having taken a life, alive and serving a sentence of life, I keep reading these notes as though in them I will find the answer to whether we could have helped him. When did this story begin? When could it still have been rewritten? 

 


III.

Outside the town of Red Rock, Arizona, a man steers a station wagon under the high midday sun. In the distance rises the eponymous rock, red and orange and closer to fire than anything the man, born a child of the wet swamp, has seen. Before him stretches the desert, and to the man it must seem not vibrant like the hopeful greens and blues he left behind in California, but lifeless. He is twenty-four years old, he is the sole support for his wife and their five children, and one month ago he lost his job at an auto plant outside of Los Angeles. He cannot find another job. The year is 1964, and this morning his wife, once his high-school sweetheart and now a woman of twenty-three, rose early and packed the children and everything the family owns into the station wagon. Now he is driving them back to southwestern Louisiana, to the small cluster of rural towns their families are from. He is driving her away from the new life he promised her and into a life that the man knows contains as little hope for surprises as the unrelenting desert. For seven hours he has driven toward this leaden future; for twenty hours still, he will. Beside him, his wife rests, and if she has a lap belt in her seat (for the year is 1964, and seat belts have only begun to come standard in the front, and are rarely in the back) she has left it undone. In the rear-view mirror he can see his eldest, a boy, five years old and dark-haired like both the man and his wife. The boy is his parents’ darling, nameless his whole first month of life because only the perfect name would do. Then the three middle girls, close in age and just plain close. And the baby girl, only a few months old, smushed in with the others, the girls helping to give their mama a break. The baby has only a few more minutes left to live, but the year is still 1964, and the man cannot know that yet.

It is winter, but this part of the desert is hot at midday and the man sweats in the sun. There is no air-conditioning, not in the car in 1964, and the air outside the rolled-down windows blows as hot as a heater. The windshield and the press of the man’s worry intensify the heat. The children need food, the children need clothing, the children need. He cannot give the children what they need. Maybe now the sweat stings his eyes and he reaches one hand up to wipe the sweat away, and this—just this instant, when his hand cups his eyes, when his eyes are not on the road and his hand is not on the wheel—maybe this is how it happens. Almost thirty years from now, when the lawyers talk about this moment at the murder trial of his unborn son, they will question whether the father was drunk. Does he now have a flask hidden under his seat, a flask that holds liquor he must balance the wheel to gulp down, but that makes all the long hours of giving up—of steering his family right toward giving up—possible? For some acts the heart must be steeled. But the year is still 1964, and as the man is about to lose so much, I must find a kinder way to tell this story: The man sweats in the heat. 

He does not see the bridge. What happens next a lawyer will move to the pitch-black middle of the night when she tells the story, as though it is unthinkable by daylight. But in 1964, the two-o’clock sun beats brightly down on this last moment. 

The station wagon hits the bridge, throwing the family from the car. The boy, the only boy—beloved boy, named for his father’s dead brother, lost in a car crash years ago—his head is severed clear off. The baby girl dies. The middle sisters live. And the man lives; the sisters will have a father. And his wife, who now lies unconscious in the concrete ditch at the bottom of the bridge embankment, right now she is sliding into a coma that will keep her in dark sleep for days to come—she, too, will live. They will have a mother.

The woman’s hip is smashed. Her pelvis, smashed. She will require thirty operations on her right leg before the doctors give up and amputate it—but that does not happen yet, not for a long time. When she wakes from the coma the man takes her the rest of the way back to Louisiana and it is there, in the place she tried to leave, that the doctors construct a cast to hold her body. They lay thick, white strips of plaster in rows from her ankles to the top of her chest, until all of her is imprisoned in stiff white. A hole over her genitals allows waste to exit. Her legs they fix splayed open, with a metal bar running between her ankles that the hospital orderlies will yank on to move her. Only her arms are free, and when her daughter comes to see her in the hospital (this daughter is three years old in 1964, but someday she will be the one who rises and walks to the front of the courtroom to tell the story of her family), the woman lifts her arms and pulls the daughter’s warm, alive body to her. The daughter will remember that hug forever: the familiar pull of the familiar arms, the familiar mother’s familiar love, and instead of the soft familiar lap, the cast. 

Inside the hospital, months pass. One month, then two months, then three. The woman lies in the cast and waits. The hospital is overcrowded; wards meant for twenty hold forty. At most a thin curtain separates the cots, but it cannot hold back infection. Writing in a book decades from now, a doctor will remember back across the years to the night eight women died on just one ward and give thanks that those times are over. But now in 1964 they are not over, and the woman lies on her back in her ward and listens to the moans from other cots. What she cannot see, she can hear. Sometimes orderlies come and wheel her to be X-rayed. Sometimes the orderlies bring her new drugs, which she swallows still lying on her back on the cot. Drugs for the pain, drugs for the infections, drugs to help her sleep. Mostly, drugs for the pain. The drugs do not take away the pain. Her husband brings her liquor. That helps.

When Christmas comes, the doctors let her leave the hospital for a few days. Her husband is back on the road, having found work as a truck driver, and while he is away her brother and his wife have taken in the children. Now the couple moves out of their bed for her and sleeps on the sofa in the living room. The woman’s husband comes home. She is still in the cast, but for the first time since before, husband and wife can share a bed. She can see her children. For the first time since before, they are all together again—all of them, that is, who will always now be all who were left. When the year turns 1965, they celebrate, then the woman goes back into the hospital.

Five more months she spends on her back encased in plaster, five more months of the X-rays and the drugs for the infections and the drugs for the pain that do not work and five more months of the drinking. For five more months the woman’s body withers inside the cast, until she is less than seventy pounds. She is the size of a child.

But while the woman gets smaller, the cast gets tighter. Not everywhere. Only around her midsection.

The woman is pregnant.

How happy the woman is when the doctors tell her! Her baby is dead and her boy is dead and the year has brought grief and pain unimaginable and somehow out of all this pain, on one Christmas bed, new life has begun. This is a miracle. 

But no, the doctors correct the woman, no it is not a miracle. Somberly they stand by the bed and explain to her and her husband what the woman already knows: the drugs, the hard plaster of the cast, the X-rays. This baby, they say, cannot be born. Perhaps the woman and her husband hold hands as they listen, and perhaps between their pressed, complicit palms passes the knowledge of what the doctors may not know: the drinking. The year is 1965, eight years must pass before Roe v. Wade, and still the doctors insist: This baby cannot be born.

(Inside the woman, the fetus’s heart beats. It has legs now, it has ears, ears that will always look large against its too-small head. Its fingerprints have refined themselves so that someday they will leave marks behind that can belong to no one else. And the fetus has arms now, arms that will strangle a boy named Jeremy—but the year, remember, is still 1965.)

This mother is not going to let her child go.

And so the doctors do what they must, and take a saw to the cast, cutting a wide moon into it to halo the mother’s stomach. The mother does what the mother must: Inside her cast, she waits. And the baby does what babies do: He grows.

He is born on September 11, 1965, weighing seven pounds, two ounces. Ricky Joseph Langley, his mother names him, the boy who will live in place of the boy dead. The father comes to the hospital to bring him home where his sisters wait, giddy. 

I will keep reading, I will keep searching for the beginning of this story, but in 1965 a proud older sister lifts the corner of a blanket and peeks at the brother who is now hers. “Two arms, two legs, five fingers, five toes,” she will say years later, remembering this moment. That baby was perfect. She checked. 

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