ST. LOUIS (AP) — No one knows exactly how many atrocities Joseph Paul Franklin committed as he crossed the country more than three decades ago, fueled by hatred of blacks and Jews. Along the way he bombed a synagogue, robbed banks, shot and wounded a porn icon — and killed, by his own account, nearly two dozen people.
Even among the hard-core criminals on Missouri’s death row, Franklin is perhaps the most notorious, a cunning killer who picked out victims at random, using marksman skills to murder and maim from a hidden spot in a vacant building, a grassy field and a highway overpass.
“All of his acts were kind of cowardly,” said St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch, whose prosecution sent Franklin to death row. “He just hid in the weeds and shot people.”
Franklin, 63, is scheduled to be put to death at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the first execution in nearly three years in Missouri and the first in the state to use a single drug, pentobarbital. His attorney, Jennifer Herndon, said he is a paranoid schizophrenic who was badly abused as a child. She has asked federal and state courts and Gov. Jay Nixon to intervene. So far, all have declined.
Franklin did not respond to interview requests from the AP, but has told media outlets that he now regrets his crimes after getting to know black inmates in prison.
“He’s done a complete 180 as far as his views,” Herndon said. “He believes he should be kept alive so he could help other people overcome their racist views.”
Franklin, born in Mobile, Ala., in 1950, was influenced after reading a stolen copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as a child. By his 20s he was an avowed white supremacist and a small-time criminal drifting across America.
It wasn’t long before the crimes took a deadly turn.
He bombed a synagogue in Chattanooga, Tenn., in July 1977. A Sabbath service let out just before the bomb exploded, and no one was hurt.
The first of Franklin’s known victims were Alphonse Manning, a black high school janitor, and Toni Schwenn, Manning’s white girlfriend, killed in Madison, Wis., during a 1977 road rage encounter with Franklin.
Months later, Franklin staked out a synagogue in suburban St. Louis. On Oct. 8, 1977, he carried his hunting rifle in a guitar case to a grassy field nearby, where he hammered 10-inch nails into the side of telephone poll to steady the gun.
As guests gathered in the parking lot to say goodbye after a bar mitzvah at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel synagogue, Franklin fired five shots. One struck and killed Gerald Gordon, 42.
“It was a frightening crime because it was random,” McCulloch said.
Franklin hopped on a bike, rode to his waiting car and sped away. The case was unsolved until Franklin confessed while in federal prison nearly 20 years later. Of all his crimes, it’s the only one that led to a death sentence.
Franklin’s cross-country crime spree continued for three years after the synagogue killing. He robbed banks — authorities suspect as many as 16 — to fund his travels.
He has been convicted of seven murders, but has taken responsibility for at least 13 others.
Franklin had a particular dislike for interracial couples. In addition to the killings in Wisconsin, he was convicted of shooting a black man and a white woman in Chattanooga in 1978. The man died and the woman was paralyzed. He reportedly killed a couple in Oklahoma City in 1979, and another couple in Johnstown, Pa., in 1980. He confessed to killing a 15-year-old prostitute because the girl had black customers.
Other victims were more random. He was convicted of killing two black cousins, ages 13 and 14, in 1980 in Cincinnati, shooting from a highway overpass as the boys walked to a convenience store. He reportedly killed three female hitchhikers — one in Wisconsin, two in West Virginia.
In Salt Lake City in August 1980, Franklin hid in a field and shot and killed two young men about to go jogging with two teenage white girls.
Franklin was caught for good about two months later in Florida.
Herndon said no one really knows how many crimes Franklin has committed.
“A lot of times he claims responsibility for stuff that there’s no evidence or proof of,” Herndon said. “I suspect he didn’t kill as many people as he’s confessed to killing, but there’s no way to know for sure.”
Franklin also confessed to shooting Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.
In March 1978, Flynt was in Lawrenceville, Ga., on trial on an obscenity charge. Franklin, enraged by a Hustler photo of an interracial couple, staked out a spot in an abandoned building near the Gwinnett County Courthouse, fired a shot that left Flynt paralyzed from the waist down. Amid the chaos of the shooting, Franklin got away.
Franklin was in federal prison in Marion, Ill., in 1994 when he confessed. Gwinnett County, Ga., District Attorney Danny Porter is convinced Franklin was the shooter.
“He’s very specific about the weapon. He describes the caliber and manufacturer of the gun,” Porter said. “He talks about certain structural details of the building that are consistent with where the shots came from. There’s no reason not to believe he did it.”
But by then, with Franklin imprisoned on multiple murder counts, Porter decided not to file charges.
Ironically, Flynt has become one of the most vocal opponents of executing Franklin. Flynt, 71, told The Associated Press that while he hasn’t forgiven Franklin, he doesn’t think capital punishment is the answer.
“I’ve got to think about this guy every day, every day that I get in this wheelchair. It would be easy for me to say, ‘Yeah, kill him, he shouldn’t be on the Earth.’ “ Flynt said. “But if you analyze that decision, it’ll always come up short.”