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Gary Gilmore

Crime Files
Gary Gilmore

In crime terms, the number of confirmed killings credited to Gary Gilmore (two) is relatively small, but his status as the first man to be executed in the United States on 17th January 1977, after a 4-year moratorium in which the death penalty was outlawed, will ensure that he maintains a significant place in crime history. He was also fairly unique, in that he refused all avenues of legal appeal to stay his execution, in contrast to most criminals on death row, who seek all legal means to delay their sentence as long as possible. Gary Mark Gilmore was born on 4th December 1940 in a rural Texas town, the second of four sons, to Frank and Bessie Gilmore. His early life was nomadic, a matter of expediency as his alcoholic father was a small-time conman, selling bogus subscriptions that kept the Gilmore family constantly on the move. His mother Bessie was a repressive figure, an outcast from her Mormon family, and she disliked any overt signs of affection. She had a fascination with the occult, and claimed to have witnessed a hanging in her youth (although this was later proven false), which caused her young sons to have nightmares and live in fear, reinforcing obsessive personality traits in Gary Gilmore that would consume him in later life. By the time Gilmore was ten, the family had settled in Portland, Oregon, and he seemed determined to take his father’s criminal lifestyle choices as his own. Clearly recognising his own failings in his son, Frank focused his rage on the boy, and he endured a violence-prone, abusive childhood. Numerous crimes, including petty thefts and shoplifting, as well as assault charges, soon brought him to the attention of local law enforcement, and he had dropped out of school by the time he was 15. He spent a year as a juvenile in Oregon's MacLaren Reform School for Boys, followed by a stay at the Oregon State Correctional Institution, on a car theft charge, which was extended due to bad behaviour whilst there. His father died whilst he was in prison, and his behaviour became increasingly violent, until he was placed on anti-psychotic drugs, which practically paralysed him. He was released in 1962, aged 21, and immediately re-offended, placed in Oregon State Penitentiary and classified as a recidivist. While incarcerated, his younger brother was murdered, and this time he was allowed out to attend the funeral. His continued bad behaviour meant that he spent considerable time in solitary confinement, and here he developed artistic skills that won him prizes, and resulted in his early release in 1972. He was supposed to attend a local art college as a condition of early release but, having spent more than half his life in prison, he coped poorly with freedom, and within a month he was again in court, facing charges of armed robbery. His appeal, in court, for leniency went largely unanswered, and he was sentenced to a further 9 years in jail. Again, his behaviour made the authorities threaten to place him on anti-psychotic drugs, but Gilmore persuaded them to transfer him instead to a maximum-security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, although the greater distance meant that his family could no longer maintain regular contact with him. This, however, was preferable to the zombie-like state that the drugs would have induced. During this time he started regular correspondence with Brenda Nicol, a Mormon cousin based in Utah, who became determined to see him gain early parole, convinced that he just needed moral support to ensure his survival outside of prison. He was released into her care in May 1976, and went to live in Provo, Utah. Despite the best efforts of cousin Brenda, Gilmore found life in conservative Utah difficult from the start, and the few job opportunities available were quickly exhausted, before he returned to a life of drinking and crime.


Born 4th December 1940The Victims 19th July 1976 - Max Jensen 20th July 1976 - Ben Bushnell, 25Arrested 20th July 1976Trial 5th October 1976Convicted 7th October 1976Died 17th January 1977

The Crimes

In the weeks leading up to the murders, Gilmore’s life seemed to be moving beyond his control: his girlfriend, Nicole, became frightened by his violent, erratic behaviour and drinking, and left him after only a few months together. In addition, his financial situation was worsened by the purchase of an expensive truck that proved well beyond his means, which could then only be paid for through crime.On the evening of 19th July 1976, Gilmore approached Max Jensen, an employee at a self-service petrol station in Orem, Utah, threatening him with a gun and demanding that he empty his pockets. Jensen complied and yet, despite this, Gilmore shot him twice in the head. He then left, without bothering to empty the cash register. Witnesses who saw him later claim he was agitated, but did not seem overly concerned.The next day, Gilmore took his new truck in for a minor repair, and left the garage while the repair was carried out, entering the City Center Motel in Provo. Once there he threatened the manager, Ben Bushnell, with a gun, and demanded that he hand over the motel cash box. Again, despite complying with the demands, he shot Bushnell, and left the building when Bushnell’s wife came to investigate the noise. Gilmore emptied the cash box, then discarded it outside the motel, and made to discard the gun as well, but it accidentally discharged and he injured his hand.When he went to collect his truck the garage owner noticed his bloodied hand, and made a note of Gilmore’s licence plate. When he heard about the local robbery he notified the police.

The Trial

It was decided that Gilmore would be tried for the murder of motel manager Bushnell, rather than Jensen, as the evidence for the former was far stronger. The prosecutor, Noall Wootton, sought the death penalty, on the grounds that Gilmore was a habitual criminal unlikely to benefit from any attempts at rehabilitation.Gilmore's trial started on 5th October 1976 and lasted only two days. After the prosecution presented their witnesses, and his confession, Gilmore made an attempt to plead his own case to the judge, but when his defence team pointed out that he had no chance of making an insanity plea, he withdrew his request and resigned himself to his fate. The jury took less than 80 minutes to return a verdict of First Degree Murder.He was offered a choice of delivery of the death penalty: firing squad or hanging. He chose the firing squad, and the sentence was due to be carried out on 15th November 1976.

The Aftermath

When his defence team prepared to appeal the sentence on his behalf, Gilmore fired them: he wanted to die. There was huge media interest in what was to be the first U.S. execution in 10 years. Although only outlawed for 4 years, there were no executions for a considerable period before the 1972 ruling, when all US states were ordered to commute death sentences to life imprisonment.Despite Gilmore resigning himself to his fate, and accepting his punishment, protestors were determined to prevent the return of capital punishment, and a stay of execution was granted despite Gilmore’s protests; the civil liberties lobbies in the United States simply had too much political power to be ignored.The media interest enabled Gilmore to sell the rights to his story for $50,000, which was distributed amongst his relatives. He also tried to commit suicide on 16th November, in collusion with his girlfriend, Nicole, but was unsuccessful.His execution date was rescheduled for 6th December 1976, but was again delayed, this time by the intervention of his mother, who insisted that he was incapable of acting in his own best interests: he had been on hunger strike since the foiled suicide attempt had separated him from Nicole.Gilmore wrote his mother a letter, which was published widely in the press, urging her to allow the law to takes its course, and he ended his hunger strike when the stay of execution was overturned. When he found out that it would be at least another month before the sentence could be carried out, he again tried to commit suicide, failing again.Finally, his execution was scheduled for 17th January 1977, and the media interest was heightened even further. The night before his execution, Gilmore was even contacted by Johnny Cash, who sang to him over the phone, while friends and family, who had been allowed special access, surrounded him.The likelihood of the execution proceeding seemed uncertain right up until the morning of the 17th January, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally decided that it would proceed as planned.At 8:00 a.m. Gilmore was strapped into a chair in front of a wall of sand bags, with a black hood over his head. A paper target was placed over his heart to help the volunteer firing squad hit their target. Gilmore’s last words were “Let’s do it”, and the shots marked the instant when capital punishment was reinstated in the United States.At Gilmore’s request his corneas were harvested for organ donation, and his remains were then cremated, and distributed in three designated areas of Utah.

The Arrest

Whilst escaping, Gilmore continued to lose blood, and called his aunt for assistance. He admitted that he had been shot and told her his whereabouts, asking her to come and help him. She called the police instead, and told the police where to find him. Gilmore was arrested outside his girlfriend, Nicole’s, mother’s house, and he put up almost no resistance. Nicole was also at the house at the time of his arrest. Gilmore was taken to hospital for treatment, where his hand was tested for gun shot residue, then placed in a cast.Under interrogation Gilmore initially denied any involvement in either killing, but eventually admitted guilt, claiming he had no reason for the crimes, and admitting that he might well have continued to kill indiscriminately had he not been caught.