Eight Women Caught in Gary Gilmore's Tangled Web Await His Execution
Gary Mark Gilmore is scheduled to die by firing squad at sunrise on Jan. 17. If the sentence is carried out, the 36-year-old Utah murderer of two men will become the first convict to be executed in the U.S. in a decade. From the wreckage of his life, Gilmore will leave behind eight women who were captives of his bizarre drive toward self-destruction. In differing ways, each was his victim, and each must cope with Gilmore ‘s impact on her life—with sorrow, guilt, anger or greed. Here is a report on these women by PEOPLE reporter Cheryl McCall.
Gilmore’s Juliet never sees her roses
When Nicole Barrett met Gilmore last May, she was not yet 20 and already the survivor of three failed marriages, the first when she was only 14. She also was the mother of two children, Sunny Marie, 4, and Jeremy, 2. Gilmore soon moved into Nicole’s $115-a-month apartment in Spanish Fork, Utah. “He needed someone,” recalls Nicole’s mother, Kathryne Baker, “and she believed in him.”
Nicole is strong, independent and a loner. “She hated being on welfare,” says an aunt. “Once she held two jobs and was going to high school to get her diploma.” Nicole was interested in nursing—she picked up stray dogs and cats and crippled birds and she doted on children. “Nicole doesn’t hide from trouble,” adds the aunt. “She always handles everything herself.”
Yet she couldn’t handle Gilmore. Their affair lasted only eight weeks. Terrorized by his booze-and-drug rages, Nicole finally fled. Her desertion, Gilmore claimed, sent him into a murderous fury. On a seeming whim, he gunned down two unresisting victims.
In his panic to hide the gun, Gilmore shot himself in the hand. In search of Nicole and painkilling drugs, Gilmore headed his pickup toward the home of Nicole’s mother in Pleasant Grove, north of Provo. He was unaware of a police stakeout there. After Gilmore’s capture, a sobbing Nicole had to be restrained from rushing to him. “I just want to look into his eyes,” she cried. “That crazy man, that crazy man.”
Convinced that Gilmore had murdered his victims only “so he wouldn’t kill me,” Nicole’s passion found renewal. He sent her more than 100 love letters from prison; she hitchhiked 20 miles to see him almost every day. They talked marriage and agreed to a Romeo-and-Juliet suicide pact. In mid-November, both overdosed on barbiturates and went into temporary comas. “He talked her into it so that no other man could have her,” says her mother.
It was Nicole’s third suicide attempt, and a court ordered her committed. In the mental hospital, Nicole, who never finished high school, was voted acting president of the patients’ government. For days Gilmore sent yellow roses, but officials wouldn’t let them be delivered to Nicole’s room. “What we try to do,” explains a resident psychiatrist, “is to divert her attention away from him.”
For April, a death ride with Gilmore
“She’s even prettier than her sister, Nicole,” says a neighbor of April Baker. 18. But April, burdened by mental problems from an early age, spent only two months in 1976 outside institutions. Released from confinement in May, she turned to drugs—not for the first time. “She was on acid a lot,” reports her former psychiatrist. Her mother, convinced that April was possessed, summoned the local Mormon bishop. Though the church considers the Bakers lapsed Mormons, the bishop performed exorcism rites twice in late June.
In July, on the day before his capture, Gilmore came by the Baker home for Nicole but took her kid sister for a ride instead. They stopped at a gas station in nearby Orem, where Gilmore held up the attendant and then shot him as he knelt on the washroom floor. (April remained in Gilmore’s truck and claimed she saw and heard nothing.)
Next Gilmore took April to see the movie One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but they left after a few minutes. He rented a room at a motel, and what happened there is unclear. “All April would say was that he smacked her around,” a relative later reported.
Shaken and withdrawn, April was driven home by Gilmore the next morning. Four days later she was committed to the Timpanogos Community Mental Health Center, three blocks from the hospital where Nicole is now confined. “It was a bad, bad day for this family,” says the sisters’ grandmother, “when Nicole met Gilmore.”
Nicole’s mother drives a new car
Kathryne Baker, 40, mother of Nicole and April, is a shrill, nervous chain smoker who wears a variety of wigs to cover her bleached, thinning hair. She has lost 20 pounds since Gilmore’s arrest. A mother of five, she and her husband, Charles, a career soldier and sailor, separated in 1975. Her neighbors (and the police) in Pleasant Grove, Utah describe the Baker household as a “hood hangout.” “They’re a wild bunch who kept to themselves but partied all the time,” says a neighbor. Mrs. Baker had a Shetland pony in her backyard, which the Animal Control Office once took away to feed.
Kathryne, who once worked as a practical nurse, excoriates Gilmore as “a Charles Manson who took control of my daughter’s mind.” Still, she is ambivalent. “I feel pity for him,” she says. “One minute you hate him and the next minute you can’t.”
Because her family exists mostly on welfare, Mrs. Baker proved an easy mark for Los Angeles promoter Lawrence Schiller when he came to Utah to sew up all media rights to the Gilmore drama. One sign of her rising fortunes is a new white Chevrolet Monte Carlo which replaced the ramshackle Ford she used to drive.
A cousin struggles with her regrets
Brenda Nicol, 32, is a cocktail waitress, a mother of three and—to her regret—the prime mover in obtaining an early parole for her cousin, Gary Gilmore, last April. He was serving the 13th year of a 15-year sentence for armed robbery and assault. From prison he had written Brenda plaintive letters (“I can’t think I was really that bad,” Gilmore argued). So Brenda persuaded her father to give Gary a job in his shoe-repair shop and her mother to give him a room in their Provo home.
On the night of July 20, her mother called to tell her that Gary had just murdered “that nice man next door, Bennie Bushnell.” A few moments after that, Gilmore himself telephoned Brenda, said he was injured and pleaded for drugs and bandages. She coolly asked for his address, then phoned the police.
By Brenda’s account, Gilmore later thanked her for turning him in, saying she had saved other potential victims from his wrath. Brenda and her husband, John, a machinist, have visited Gilmore as often as four times a week. The Nicols’ daughter, Chris, 15, suffers from a malfunctioning pituitary and, as a result, is only 4’3″ and 65 pounds. Gilmore has offered to donate his pituitary to Chris—but at present it is an unfeasible operation. (Gilmore also has offered his bones, nerves, corneas and skin for transplant and his kidneys for research.) “I got so close to Gary there will always be a place in my heart for him,” Brenda says. “I see him and cry. Then I think about what he did—and I cry some more.”
‘I wish I had his brain,’ says Ida
At the urging of her daughter Brenda, Ida Damico, 53, worked hard to make nephew Gary feel comfortable in her Provo home. She painted the walls of his room jade green and hung gold velveteen drapes.
Gilmore lasted only 10 days in Vern Damico’s shop before moving on to a job in an insulation factory. He earned $3.50 an hour and spent it on beer, wine and barbiturates. The situation in the Damico home deteriorated, especially after Gilmore met Nicole. “Gary got mean when he drank, and it wasn’t pleasant to be around him,” recalls Ida, who began to have migraine headaches. “That’s why we had to ask him to leave.”
On the afternoon of July 20, Gilmore returned to the Damico home, took a shower and left. Eight hours later, he went to the City Center Inn next door, where he robbed and murdered the manager, Bennie Bushnell.
In the bizarre aftermath, Uncle Vern somehow wound up as Gilmore’s agent in the family’s dealings with Larry Schiller. Vern and Ida have a guarantee of 20 percent of the media take.
Ida, a gregarious woman who once enjoyed sketching and hunting deer with a bow and arrow, has become a near recluse. She says of Gary: “He could have been anything he wanted to be. I wish I had his brain. It was so inconsiderate of him to shoot our next-door neighbor. If I had been on that jury, I would have voted to convict. Definitely!”
Gary’s mother: no visitors allowed
Bessie Gilmore filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court that temporarily stayed her son’s execution, but she did so reluctantly. “What does he have to do with me?” she says of Gary.
Gilmore has portrayed Bessie as a doting mother. But Bessie’s sister, Ida Damico, paints a different picture. “Gary had a sad childhood,” Ida says. “Bessie was quite mean, always beating and slapping him. Gary’s father, Frank, was even meaner when he was drunk.” By various accounts the elder Gilmore was a circus acrobat, construction worker or publisher—possibly all three. Gary, their fourth-born, had been in jail for eight years when his father died in 1962.
Bessie, now in her 70s and crippled by arthritis, has retreated into self-imposed isolation in her cramped mobile home in Milwaukie, Oreg. “I’m sick and I’m old,” she says, turning away all visitors. “All I want to do is stay in bed.”
One widow asks: Is justice being done?
“We’d been married only 14 months when Gilmore killed my husband,” Colleen Jensen says quietly. Her husband, Max, had completed his first year of law at Brigham Young University. In June he took a job at the Sinclair station in Orem to help support his 25-year-old wife and infant daughter. Max Jensen had been on the job six weeks by the night of July 19.
Colleen and Max Jensen were devout Mormons—they did not smoke or drink alcohol, coffee or tea. He taught Sunday school and had served as a missionary in Brazil for two years. “Our dream was for Max to be a lawyer and have 10 acres with horses and cows.”
A talented painter, Colleen works as a high school art teacher in Clearfield, Utah and earns extra income selling her oils. She knits, crochets, sews and tries to remain physically active—she once played basketball on a church team and still jogs occasionally. “I’m trying to carry on the best I can,” the young widow says. She is grateful for the way family and friends have rallied around her and, especially, for her daughter, Monica, who will be 1 on Feb. 14. “She has the same eyes and hair as Max,” Colleen says. “She keeps his memory alive.”
Though she has tried to be forgiving, Colleen admits to bitterness. “I get upset when they glorify the man who killed my husband,” she says. “It hurts very much, and I have to wonder if justice is being done.”
Another demands $1 million in damages
Debra Jean Bushnell, 25, and her husband, Bennie, 26, both Mormons, managed the City Center Inn in Provo. On the night of July 20, Debbie heard a popping sound in the motel office—”like a balloon bursting,” she remembers. Thinking that some children were in the office, she opened the door and caught a glimpse of a man with longish hair and a beard running away. Sprawled on the floor, fatally shot, was Debbie’s husband of three years.
Since Bushnell’s murder, Debbie and her son, Benjamin, 15 months, have gone to live with her parents in Pasadena, Calif. Young Benjamin cried and refused to eat for a week after his father died. Debbie is due to give birth to a second child later this month. Recently a suit was filed in her name demanding at least $1 million in damages from Gilmore—or from any estate he leaves behind.
Friends say Debbie falls apart at the mention of Bennie’s name. “I can’t believe it’s happening,” she cries in her grief. “I still can’t believe it. It’s not fair.”
Gary’s sketchpad: a talent gone to waste
For someone with no training as an artist, Gary Gilmore has shown himself remarkably facile. He works primarily in pencil and his subjects—children, farmers, convicts—usually are caught in melancholy attitudes. Here are two samples of his prison art.