By Karen S. Schneider
Updated September 30, 1991 12:00 PM
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TEN-YEAR-OLD BEATRICE LOUISE ROUTH apparently had no doubts: The nice man with the black jeep was her friend. She’d met him early that August day as she, her sister, Melissa, 3, and their mother, Tami Gean Giles, 30, visited with friends on a beach in Gulfport, Miss. The neatly dressed stranger introduced himself as Joe Williams. He was a teacher from Texas, he told Tami, and a part-time scuba diver. He spoke fondly of his students, told tales of a recent diving expedition in Kuwait and offered to buy snacks for Beatrice and her friends.

Twice that afternoon the bubbly girl accompanied Williams on grocery runs, and twice she returned with goodies to share. Later in the afternoon, when the man suggested a beachside barbecue, Beatrice hopped into his Suzuki a third time. Without hesitating, Tami, a welfare-shelter resident, waved her daughter goodbye. “I thought he was a nice guy,” she said at one point. “[Beatrice] trusted him.”

“Joe Williams” did go shopping that evening, but instead of hamburgers and hot dogs, he bought duct tape. He trussed Beatrice, taping her mouth shut, and drove the jeep, which he’d stolen in Galveston six days before, across the state line to Saint Tammany Parish, La. There he raped, sodomized and strangled the child.

Giles reported her daughter missing, and four days later police stopped the 1987 Suzuki Samurai on a highway near Amite, La. Joe Williams—in reality. Donald Leroy Evans, 34—gave up without a struggle and was later taken to Gulfport. (Giles, too, was subsequently arrested and remains in custody in Gulfport. Police say she knew that Evans intended to molest Beatrice.) For three days federal investigators pleaded with Evans. Where was Beatrice? Evans remained silent. He lit cigarette after cigarette. He conferred with his girlfriend. Gail Stewart, whom investigators flew in from Galveston. Finally, Evans offered the cops a deal. He’d lead them to Beatrice, he said, but only if they would promise him the death penalty. Baffled, they agreed.

The bizarre request, the police soon learned, was the least of this man’s surprises. Sitting in the smoke-filled interrogation room, Evans called for a copy of his rap sheet. Running a finger down the record of his minor offenses—mostly drunk driving, theft and disorderly conduct arrests from all across the country—he murmured, “I murdered one here…one here…one here.”

By the time he had finished, the body count—spanning at least 14 years and 21 states—had topped 70, and Evans had unwittingly proclaimed himself the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. Though for now police have only Evans’s word to go on, they say in a number of cases he has supplied them with details only an insider could know. So far, aside from Beatrice Routh, they have confirmed just two of Evans’s claimed killings—the 1985 strangulation of a prostitute in Fort Lauderdale and the murder of a homeless woman in Daytona Beach, Fla., the same year. Earlier this month Evans was charged with the death of the prostitute, 38-year-old Ira Jean Smith, and he is the prime suspect in the killing of homeless Janet Movich, also 38. But the first field search—for the bodies of three women Evans says he killed and buried in the mid-’80s in the desert near Phoenix—turned up nothing. Until his supposed victims can be accounted for, police remain skeptical—and yet there is clearly something strange in Donald Evans’s past. Says brother Lany, 43, a former Army drill sergeant: “In my view, if you’re capable of raping and strangling a little girl, you’re capable of just about anything.”

Scattered throughout the country, other members of Evans’s family listen to news reports about their “Donnie”—horrified bill not altogether disbelieving. From early on, says his sister Sharon, 39, her brother Donald played rough. The seventh of nine children, Donnie was born on July 5, 1957, in Watervliet, Mich. (pop. 2,400). The family’s life seemed, as one former neighbor puts it, “all-American.” His father, Faye Lawrence Evans, was a hardworking meter reader for the local electric company and head of his union; his wife, Juanita, had been her high school class valedictorian. The couple married in 1947 and raised their children in a five-bedroom home on Paw Paw Lake, across the read from Lawrence’s parents.

But there was trouble in the Evans home. Juanita was a heavy drinker and abusive to her children. “There was always screaming and hollering,” says brother Lany, “but most of all there was hitting. Mother hit with an open hand or her fist or a broom handle, mop, golf club, you name it.”

Donald, however, escaped most of the abuse, says Sharon. As a boy, she says, he was hard to handle, and Juanita, battling her drinking problem, offered only irregular discipline. He did as he pleased, tying firecrackers to the tails of his grandmother’s cats and stealing money from his family. After his parents divorced in 1965 and Donald moved to Chicago with Juanita, his pranks took a darker turn including, says Sharon, involvement with drugs and gangs. But Sharon is wary about assigning blame. “Just because your parents get divorced,” she says, “doesn’t mean you become a serial killer.”

Whether Evans is the mass murderer he claims or a killer-con artist with a death wish, signs of his violent temper and troubled psyche abound. At 16, he attempted suicide by swallowing a mixture of drugs and roach poison. At 18, he joined the Marines, only to be discharged less than a year later for psychiatric illness, or, as Evans once boasted, “[for taking] on a whole barracks.” In the years that followed—the years in which he says he began his killing spree—Evans drifted across the country, picking up odd jobs and clashing with authorities everywhere he went. When he wasn’t in court, he was checking himself into—and, despite a doctor’s warning of his potential violence, out of—various Veterans Administration hospitals.

By 1984, Evans had made his way to Galveston, where he met Gail Stewart, a secretary at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He moved in with her and developed what remains today a strange bond. Though he hit her—Stewart twice had Evans arrested for physical abuse—she remained with him. In 1986 he attacked one of Stewart’s close friends, forcing her at knifepoint to strip and perform oral sex. For that crime he spent five years behind bars. Still, when he got out of prison, Stewart took him back.

When Evans was released last April, Stewart may have believed he was a changed man. He was charming, after a fashion, with her neighbors, handing out food and stopping by for long talks. To one resident of the Casa Caribé apartment complex, Evans seemed nothing worse than “a harmless bull——-er.” But Rev. Don Loudenback, a former pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Galveston who often visited Evans while he was in prison, is disturbed by Evans’s gregariousness. “He needs to have people paying attention to him,” he says.

It is just that need—evidenced, in part, by his insistence on the death penalty and on representing himself in court—that prompts many to doubt Evans’s claims. Sharon, for instance, is unconvinced. Donald has often threatened to harm her, she says, and she fears him. But she sees his extended “confession” as a ploy to remain in the relative comfort of federal custody, where he is provided with food, shelter, cigarettes, television privileges and visits with Stewart. “He’s no dummy,” says Sharon. “He’s giving [authorities] a scam.”

Donald’s father, Lawrence, now 70, who has not seen his son in a decade, is not so sure. From his Sebring, Fla., home, he is handing over old letters from Donald to the FBI and writing down recollections that might help the investigation. “My [second] wife and I keep remembering things,” he says. “Back 10 years ago we met one or two of [Donald’s] girlfriends. A couple of times, those girls called me for help, saying they were afraid [of Donald]. I’d tell them, ‘Well, call the police if you’re scared.’ Now,” he says, “I’m thinking maybe they never got the chance.”

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER

RON RIDENHOUR in New Orleans, JOSEPH HARMES in Galveston, BONNIE BELL in Watervliet, CINDY DAMPIER in Miami, GAIL WESCOTT in Atlanta