published Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Confessions of a Chattanooga serial killer

Too many deaths to count. Now one more looms. His own.

  • photo
    Barbara Vaughn, 59, looks through photos of her brother in her mother's Whitwell home. Serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin took his life in 1979.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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Joseph Paul Franklin

18 years later, phone call put end to unsolved Chattanooga killing

Detective Tim Carroll took a phone call on April 20, 1995, from a caseworker in the St. Louis County Jail. Kenneth Korpecki said he represented an inmate who wanted to confess to a murder, a very old murder.

"Tell him it was a Pizza Hut," Carroll heard another man on the line say to Korpecki.

The detective was familiar. Eighteen years earlier, someone had shot a black man dead and wounded his white girlfriend in the parking lot. It was the Chattanooga Police Department's only unsolved killing from 1978.

Officers still talked about the case, Carroll said, and one lieutenant even kept a posterboard depicting the crime scene behind his desk. Investigators believed the case would remain unsolved forever.

But now, in St. Louis, Joseph Paul Franklin took the phone from his caseworker and told Carroll that he was the one who did it. Franklin, already convicted of blowing up a Chattanooga synagogue and killing several interracial couples throughout the country, said he would confess to the crime if Carroll visited him in jail.

Why now, Carroll asked. Why 18 years later?

"I would like to have the most death penalty cases pending against anybody," Franklin told him.

Five days later, Carroll and Detective Mike Mathis arrived for the interview, and the jail guards groaned. This process would require the full staff.

Per the jail's guidelines, Franklin had to remain isolated from other inmates. When he moved throughout the jail, two guards escorted him, and the rest of the guards kept all other inmates under lockdown.

Finally, Franklin walked in the room. His head was shaved, and he wore black, horn-rimmed glasses.

"He looked like your typical Neo-Nazi," Carroll said earlier this month.

Franklin demanded that Mathis leave the room. They had never spoken before, and Franklin said he didn't trust him. So now it was just Carroll and the killer, one on one.

The interrogation was straightforward.

"When you first spotted this black male and this white female, what was your intentions?" Carroll asked about the night in question.

"Uh," Franklin said, "to kill 'em."

"That's why you followed them?"

"Yeah. As soon as I saw 'em, you know, I decided to kill them."

"Have you ever -- "

"I was on a search-and-destroy mission for race mixers."

After a 30-minute interview, Carroll and Mathis drove back to Chattanooga, but the case would not be closed for three more years. Finally, on March 4, 1998, Franklin appeared in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

In front of Carroll, he confessed to first-degree murder.

As a black man and white woman drove from the Martin Theater to a Pizza Hut on a July night in 1978, they thought they were alone.

Nancy Diane Hilton, 18, and William Bryant Tatum, 20, had been dating for about eight months. Hilton visited Tatum in Whitwell, Tenn., almost every weekend, often content just to watch the quiet University of Tennessee at Chattanooga junior varsity basketball player shoot hoops in the gym.

Come November, Tatum told his mother, he was going to marry Hilton.

But on this night, the couple didn't notice a green car following them, pulling up behind them in the restaurant's parking lot, watching them enter through the back door. They weren't there to eat, and they didn't stay long. Hilton, a Pizza Hut employee, chatted with co-workers while her boyfriend made a phone call.

Meanwhile, Joseph Paul Franklin stopped his car on a road behind the Pizza Hut, located at 4511 Highway 58. He propped his hood up 6 inches so other drivers would think it was broken down. Then he walked over to the restaurant's parking lot and found a patch of tall grass a couple of yards from the front of Hilton's 1974 Mustang.

Franklin crouched down with a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun and waited in the dark.

About 10 minutes later, Hilton and Tatum walked out of the restaurant. Before getting into the driver's seat, Tatum asked Hilton which road he should take. As he talked, Tatum turned and stared right at the tall grass, right at the man in the dark.

Franklin aimed, curled his finger around the trigger and squeezed, sparking a blast of .00 buckshot -- a load potent enough to stop a running deer in its tracks. Thirteen thick BBs erupted out of the muzzle in a tight circle, instantly slicing through the air separating Franklin from his target.

"Nancy!" Tatum yelled.


Franklin, convicted serial killer, death row inmate, self-described reformed racist, once traveled the country targeting Jewish people and interracial couples. Back then, he was convinced that the Bible advocated exterminating those whom Franklin felt were inferior. He was on a mission from God, he said.

Now, Franklin sits in the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Mo. Thirty-six years ago, Franklin hid in the bushes outside a suburban St. Louis synagogue and opened fire, killing 42-year-old Gerald Gordon. Sixteen years ago, Franklin confessed to the murder and went to trial.

A jury found Franklin guilty, and he received a death sentence. He has been waiting to die ever since. After today, the waiting may end. Barring a reprieve from the Missouri Supreme Court or Gov. Jay Nixon, Franklin will be put to death by lethal injection one minute after midnight on Wednesday.

He says he doesn't want to die.

He wants forgiveness, from everyone.

In addition to Gordon, Franklin has been convicted of killing seven other people, but he is better known for those he wounded. In 1978, Franklin camped outside a Lawrenceville, Ga., courthouse with a sniper rifle. Franklin was angry at Hustler publisher Larry Flynt for publishing photos of a naked interracial couple.

When Flynt and his lawyer left the court in the midst of an obscenity case, Franklin opened fire, striking the lawyer and paralyzing Flynt.

Two years later, Franklin also hunted civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, putting a bullet through his back outside a hotel in Fort Wayne, Ind. Jordan survived.

Usually, though, Franklin's targets were selected at random. That, he says, is how he twice happened upon Chattanooga.

The first time, on July 29, 1977, he slid 50 pounds of water gel explosives and five sticks of dynamite through the crawl space of the Beth Sholom Synagogue, located at 20 Pisgah Ave. Though no one was inside, Franklin's bomb reduced the building to splinters, crumbling almost everything except the Torah, which somehow remained intact.

Exactly one year later, Franklin returned. This time he shot Tatum in the chest and Hilton on the right side of her body.

In the years that followed both crimes, Franklin's identity remained a mystery.

"It was a frightening time," said Phil Lutin, 72, an engineer who helped rebuild Beth Sholom and one of the only active members of the congregation who was alive back then. "It was also a time that made you angry."

Though Franklin has been imprisoned for three decades, Lutin says it's important to remember the terror he once caused in this city. He says younger generations -- Jewish or not -- need to remember what can come from intolerance.

"I also think it's important to look back and see how far we've grown," he said.

Eventually, while already incarcerated for other crimes, Franklin confessed to the Chattanooga bombing and shooting. In addition to the killings he has been convicted for, law enforcement officials believe he has done more damage.

Though he doesn't know the exact total, Franklin estimates his death count sits somewhere between 20 and 25. And he can still recount all the details of his killings, launching minutes-long monologues in a Southern accent when prompted. If asked about his living conditions, he is quick to laugh.

"I would like to get out of here, to tell you the truth," he said last week through a prison phone.

Jack Levin, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University who specializes in hate crimes and serial killers, cannot think of a serial killer other than Franklin who was motivated by racism. In 1984, during a confession to Chattanooga Detective Charlie Love, Franklin said he bombed the local synagogue because, "God wanted me to do it."

But Franklin has had a lot of time to think about all those bodies, about Tatum and Hilton and the families of his victims. He has spent 33 years in prison, much of that time in solitary confinement. Today, he spends his days working out alone, or walking alone, or reading and studying and meditating alone. And, with all these moments to himself, he thinks about why he killed so many people.

He says he was driven to evil by schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. He says that, given the chance, he would walk out of prison and help the families of his victims.

"I apologize for the harm that I have caused them and ask for their forgiveness, first of all," he said. "That's most important. I wish there was something more I could do."

Franklin's attorney, Jennifer Herndon, filed a motion last week with the Missouri Supreme Court for a stay of the execution. Franklin is set to be killed Wednesday through the injection of a drug called pentobarbital. The Missouri Department of Corrections has not released much information about the compounding pharmacy making the drug, and Herndon has expressed concern about how it gets made.

She also wants more information about what happens if the drug somehow fails to kill Franklin. It could leave him in severe pain, Herndon argued, or maybe even brain damaged.

For his part, Flynt also has argued against the death penalty for Franklin, the man who put him in a wheelchair. And, on Nov. 9, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion on Flynt's behalf to learn the identity of the anesthesiologist scheduled to inject Franklin on Wednesday.

Jeanetta Williams, the president of the NAACP's branch in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Franklin killed two black men in 1980, wrote Gov. Nixon last week, asking him to commute Franklin's death sentence. He should live longer behind bars, Williams argued.

Those in Chattanooga who survived Franklin's wave of destruction, however, don't feel the same way. Lutin says the death penalty is necessary, not just for convicted criminals like Franklin but for others. Killing Franklin might stop someone else from launching a similar campaign, Lutin said earlier this month, sitting inside the rebuilt Beth Sholom Synagogue.

"If you ask me, 'Should we take someone's life?' I would think my faith says, 'No.' But deep down in my heart," Lutin said, "I'm not sorry that he will no longer be in the population."


Marion County, Tenn., resident Barbara Vaughn, 59, reflects on the time when her brother's life was cut short by serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin in 1979.
Marion County, Tenn., resident Barbara Vaughn, 59, reflects on the time when her brother's life was cut short by serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin in 1979.
Photo by Tim Barber.
Franklin undercut his own defense in trial for synagogue bombing

When Hugh Moore and Jerry Summers walked into the courtroom on July 10, 1984, the two lawyers admitted their strategy would be bizarre.

Criminal Court Judge Douglas Meyer had appointed Moore and Summers to represent Joseph Paul Franklin, the man accused of blowing up Beth Shalom Synagogue seven years earlier. But Franklin had already provided a taped, detailed confession to the Chattanooga Police Department.

Now, in court, prosecutors attempted to convince a jury that Franklin's confession was true, not just a ploy for attention. Moore and Summers, on the other hand, took another approach.

They attacked their client.

"We were trying to say he was a no-good, rotten liar," Summers said earlier this month.

When Franklin met with Detective Charlie Love in February 1984 inside a Marion, Ill., prison, he was already serving four consecutive life sentences for a pair of murders and civil rights violations.

Franklin told Love that he ducked into the Beth Shalom Synagogue's crawl space, scooted toward the middle of the building, and set down 50 pounds of water gel explosives and five sticks of dynamite.

Later, after calling the synagogue to learn when the congregation would meet, Franklin returned and detonated the bomb.

"I was trying to kill as many Jews as I could," he told Love.

Police charged Franklin with unlawful possession of explosives and unlawful destruction of a building.

During the trial five months later, Moore and Summers declined to call their client to the stand. Moore and Summers argued that Franklin fabricated his whole account, that he knew all the details of the attack because he had read about it in the newspapers.

The lawyers argued that Franklin took credit for the crime because he wanted to get out of federal prison. In 1982, about a month after arriving in Marion, according to Times Free Press archives, 15 black inmates stabbed Franklin. He barely survived.

During the trial, Summers called forth a former inmate in a Georgia jail who said he was incarcerated along with Franklin. The inmate said he watched Franklin get raped.

From his seat in the courtroom, Franklin interrupted the testimony.

"That's sick!" he yelled at Summers.

"From that point on," the lawyer said 29 years later, "me and him were not bosom buddies."

Moore and Summers said they caught plenty of flak for defending Franklin, even though they had been appointed. Moore even lost a client because of the case.

Still, both lawyers vow that they did their best, and they believe they could have won the case. They believe they established a reasonable doubt for the jury.

But then came the closing arguments. Moore spoke first. He reiterated that all of the information Franklin provided came from other sources, and the prosecutors could not prove that Franklin knew all the information firsthand.

Summers was set to go next, but Franklin hopped up instead and asked if he could defend himself. The judge allowed it.

"I admit to you I bombed the synagogue," he told the jury. "You know I did it. You know, and I'll tell it to anybody around. It was a synagogue of Satan."

The jury found him guilty.

Joseph Paul Franklin was born James Clayton Vaughn Jr. in Mobile, Ala., in 1950. His dad left when he was 5, according to his biography "Dark Soul of the South," by Mel Ayton. Franklin's mother, meanwhile, used to beat him, often slapping him from behind while he ate.

"She didn't want to give anybody a moment's peace," Franklin said last week. "She didn't want anyone to relax at all around her. She always wanted a fight."

He says he was quiet in school. An outcast. A loner.

Growing up, he found old pictures of his mother's relatives from Germany. They were dressed in Hitler Youth uniforms. Then, when he was 18, he read in the newspaper about the death of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party.

He didn't know many black or Jewish children at the time, he says. But he began reading about Rockwell's group, and he stole a copy of "Mein Kampf" from the library, and he became fascinated. He joined the American Nazi Party.

Soon after, he got married twice, had a daughter and changed his name to honor Nazi Propaganda Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels, as well as founding father Benjamin Franklin.

In August 1977, he drove to Madison, Wis., to find Judge Archie Simonson, whom Franklin had read about, and whom he believed was too lenient on black defendants. Franklin decided this would be his first murder.

But while in town, he got into an argument with someone in another car. He walked over to the car and killed the driver, a black man, and the passenger, a white woman. From then on, he decided, he would target interracial couples.

His actions would garner headlines across the country, he thought, and other white supremacists would read about it, and they would follow in his footsteps.

In the moments after the killing, though, he was scared of getting caught. He said he felt traumatized. He said he could no longer stand the smell of gunpowder.

"But eventually," he said, "I got over it."

For four years, he traveled the country in what he described as a one-man race war. Finally, police captured Franklin in Lakeland, Fla., when a nurse recognized him as a wanted killer while he sold his blood at a plasma center.

Soon after, Franklin arrived at Marion Prison in Illinois, where 15 black prisoners jumped and stabbed him. He survived the attack, but he said he has spent much of his life ever since in solitary confinement.

He said his attitude toward his crimes began to change in 1985, when he borrowed "How You Can Keep Your Mind Well" by Roy Masters from the prison library. As he read the book, he realized he exhibited the traits of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder.

He wrote Masters' organization, asked for more books and meditation tapes. But as he studied more, he realized that Masters was Jewish. He threw away the material. But, Franklin said, he still wanted to learn from Masters. He needed the books.

"A person who was a Jew, unbeknown to him, saved my life," Franklin said. "I would not be standing here today talking to you if it had not been for Roy Masters."

Later, during a 1997 pretrial hearing to determine whether Franklin was fit to stand trial in the St. Louis case, his defense attorneys called to the stand Dorothy Lewis, a psychiatrist who has studied hundreds of murderers, including Ted Bundy. After meeting with Franklin twice, Lewis testified, she determined that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a mental disorder that makes it difficult to think clearly, and to understand what is real and what isn't.

Today, Franklin argues that this diagnosis helped him understand who he was, and how to control his rage.

"I had the ability to commit the crimes and do that stuff," Franklin said of his past. "But I could not tell right from wrong. I actually thought I was keeping the commandments of the Lord."


In Chattanooga in 1978, back when Franklin says he was evil, the shot from his gun cut through the upper right part of a black man's chest, through his heart and a lung. There, in the Pizza Hut parking lot, Bryant Tatum cried out.

"Nancy!"

Immediately, Franklin aimed at Tatum's girlfriend. But Nancy Hilton, standing behind the open passenger-side door of her Mustang, responded to Tatum's voice. She ducked to look through the car's front seats, to the other side, where Tatum stood.

She didn't see him.

But in that moment, as she ducked, she later told an investigator, the man with the gun fired another shot. He hit Hilton on the right side of her body, but he didn't strike a vital organ.

"If you'd been standing up," the investigator said, "more than likely it would have hit you."

"Yeah," Hilton responded.

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    In this file photo taken Monday, Oct. 19, 1998, Joseph Paul Franklin sits in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

After taking his second shot, as Tatum lay dying on the pavement, Franklin ran away. He would not confess to the crime for 18 more years, when he called the Chattanooga Police Department from prison in 1995. Until then, Tatum's family was left to wonder who his killer was.

His sister, Barbara Vaughn, always knew the motive: Tatum died because he was black.

"Why wouldn't you think that?" she said. "He hadn't done anything to anybody."

Vaughn has never spoken publicly about her brother's death, but she decided this month to share her story because she thinks it's important younger generations try to comprehend the pains of prejudice, though she says you won't ever really understand such pain unless you experience it yourself.

Vaughn also wants younger family members to know about her brother. He was quiet, she said. But if you knew him, he loved to tease.

And he loved basketball -- boy, did he love basketball. If he wasn't home, he was at the gym. He taught other children in Whitwell how to play. Though he was on the junior varsity team at UTC at the time of his death, Vaughn said, he hoped to one day join the varsity squad.

Once, in high school, Tatum gave up his starting position and jersey when the team was one short so that a senior could play his final game. If he were alive today, he would be 55 years old. Vaughn thinks he would have been a coach, but she can't be sure.

"Twenty years old," she said. "He was just starting to be the man he was going to be."

Vaughn doesn't know much about Franklin, other than the fact he killed her brother. She said she doesn't need to. She found out he was going to die from her daughter. To Vaughn, the death penalty makes sense. It's what the killer gave her brother.

"He's had 35 years to live," she said of Franklin. "He had options. I don't know that they were good ones, but he had options. He took Bryant's away."

For his part, Franklin says he shouldn't die.

"You really do generate bad karma by committing violence, murdering people like that," he said. "It was the wrong thing to do. I just didn't realize it at the time. I thought it was a great thing. I would like to have a chance, though, to make amends."

Still, this day may be his last. If he dies, he says, that will have been the Lord's will. He says he has repented, and he says God has forgiven him.

And once he does die, whenever that is, Franklin believes he will go to heaven.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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