Louise Similey, the clerk of Pershing County, Nev., sliced open another of the morning’s stack of letters. Out dropped a $5 check and a note printed neatly by a woman in Sacramento, Calif.: “I would have sent you a rope but thought some money would do more good, so here’s a check to help the cause.”
In fact Similey already has a rope, fashioned into a noose and sent by an earlier correspondent. In the last three months the 58-year-old clerk has been inundated with 1,500 such intemperate missives (see box, page 127) along with checks totaling nearly $23,000. This week the money will begin to be applied to the purpose for which it was sent—the prosecution of Gerald Gallego. He is charged with the 1980 fatal bludgeonings of two 17-year-old girls, Karen Twiggs and Stacy Redican, who were abducted from a shopping mall in Sacramento and buried at a picnic site in Pershing County.
Heinous as they are, those crimes alone do not explain the show of public vindictiveness pouring into Similey’s office in Lovelock, Nev. Gallego, 37, has made a career of mayhem.
When his father was put to death in the Mississippi gas chamber for killing a policeman, Gallego was 8 years old. He grew up a misfit, bouncing in and out of juvenile-correction homes. Later he served three and a half years in California prisons for armed robbery. Last May Gallego was found guilty in California of the 1980 murders of Craig Miller and Mary Beth Sowers, 22-year-old college students and sweethearts. With the help of his wife, Charlene, who later testified against him, Gallego abducted the pair, shot Miller before Sowers’ eyes and then took Sowers to his apartment, where, Charlene said, he raped her and shot her three times through the head.
Much of the public’s revulsion has stemmed from Charlene’s lurid testimony. She claimed that she and Gallego were responsible for eight additional sex-related murders in which she helped procure teenage girls for Gallego to abuse as “sexual slaves,” usually in the back of their van as she drove.
In the Miller-Sowers case, the jury in California recommended the death penalty, and the deputy district attorney, James Morris, concurred: “If anybody deserves to be put to death, he does.” But because of the state supreme court’s stand against capital punishment, California has not executed a prisoner since 1967. So when Nevada issued an extradition request in July to try Gallego for the murders of Twiggs and Redican (the only other cases on Charlene’s list in which there was ample supporting evidence), California law enforcement officials went to great lengths to cooperate. “Basically,” admits Lieut. Ray Biondi of the Sacramento County sheriff’s office, “we had no confidence California was going to carry out the death penalty. There’s a greater potential that Nevada will do so.” Nevada’s last execution took place in 1979, and the Nevada high court has a recent record of upholding death sentences.
In January, after Gallego was sent under cover of night to the Lovelock jail, columnist Stan Gilliam suggested in the Sacramento Bee that since Pershing County (pop. 3,408) was so small, people should chip in a dollar so that the trial would not “wipe out a third of the county’s annual budget.” Actually the $60,000 appropriated specifically for Gallego’s prosecution does represent a third of the county court’s budget. But since the usual felony prosecution in Pershing County costs at most $5,000, the donations have been welcomed. “Opening these letters has been just like opening Christmas presents,” Similey says.
The mail-in has not won instant approval among the residents of Lovelock, a quiet town with 11 churches, 11 bars, no cinemas and one brothel. Says librarian Dorotha Itza: “It’s a pity that Lovelock, which is such a lovely little town, is being made to look so bloodthirsty.” For his part, District Attorney Richard Wagner says he is determined to maintain an objective climate. “Some of these letters go right into a file I call ‘fruits and nuts,’ ” he says. “The last thing I want to do is send an innocent man to his death.”
Gallego has given no interviews. His public defender, Thomas Perkins, won’t discuss the postal deluge except to say he might apply for a change of venue if he can’t find an unbiased jury. But if there are citizens in Lovelock who presume Gallego to be innocent, they have yet to be heard from. “Unless we do something,” says Pat Trezise, the assistant librarian, “there’ll just be more [murdered] little girls.” Observes Pershing County Sheriff James Kay McIntosh, who keeps a toy electric chair on his desk: “He doesn’t sleep well at night from what they tell me. With some of the things he’s done, I wouldn’t either.”