Murderer's Row

Two years ago, a deadlocked jury saved Thomas luther from the death penalty. But the legacy of his crimes continues.

"People with personality disorders know the difference between right and wrong," he continues. "They just don't care, or they believe they're right and society is wrong. They can assist with their defense. In fact, they tend to be above average in intelligence, which is why they can appear 'normal' when they want to...why these guys always seem to have wives and girlfriends who don't have a clue who they're living with. Ted Bundy was like that."

The FBI defines a serial killer as someone who has killed three times in incidents separated by time and distance; a mass murderer simply goes on a spree. But Macdonald says it's not the number that matters but the fact that once started, the serial killer will murder over and over until he is stopped.

The diagnosis most often applied to Luther is sociopath--the most dangerous of the lot, because although the sociopath knows killing is wrong and doesn't care, it is also what makes him feel good or powerful. "And getting away with it only increases its pull," says Macdonald. "Most serial killers are sexually motivated and sadistic. They get sexual pleasure out of causing pain, humiliation and death."

Sociopaths mimic real people, Macdonald continues, and conform their behavior to get what they want. Serial killers often were sexually abused as children and witnessed violence in the home. That describes Luther's past, according to his own accounts. His Summit County victim reminded him of his abusive mother, "especially when she screamed," he told Macdonald.

"As abused children, they learned to disassociate themselves from their bodies," Macdonald says. "As adults, they disassociate themselves from their actions."

Debrah Snider lives in West Virginia, where she followed Luther after he left Colorado to get away from the pressure being applied by Scott Richardson. She wound up testifying against him at his rape trial there, saying Luther had admitted to her that he'd "done it again." She later testified against him at the Cher Elder and Heather Smith trials.

Debrah raises exotic animals, including wolves, in whose wild, predatory nature she found a parallel to her lover.

"Wolves are animals," she wrote Westword in December. "They have been studied for hundreds of years. The only time a wolf is dangerous is when one expects a wolf to not act like a wolf.

"If one understands a wolf and expects wolf behavior, there is little margin for error or accidents...I don't trust them to act like anything else; I treat them like wolves, and I maintain them in a controlled environment.

"I felt the same way about Tom. He was a wonderful man to me and for me precisely because I knew him. I knew what to expect of him, and I knew he was dangerous under some circumstances.

"Perhaps I was a bit naive regarding just how dangerous he could be, but it became clear to me in a very short time that he was someone who needed to be maintained in a controlled environment, just like wolves in captivity.

"But that's unethical and illegal with a human being until after he or she has hurt or killed someone. You don't trust wolves with small children, and you don't trust Tom Luther with women!"

A month later, Debrah wrote again, this time reflecting on the mixed feelings that always haunt her thoughts about Luther. In the summer of 1994, Debrah says she heard a voice telling her to take Luther to church. She had found strength and support in the Catholic church earlier, when she'd been imprisoned for theft; believing that Luther was on the prowl again, she asked him to attend with her. He agreed but later backed out. A short time later he raped the woman in West Virginia, which ultimately led to his downfall in Colorado as well.

"I feel if we had heeded God's warning that day and gone to church, everything would have been different," Debrah wrote. "There would be nothing that we could have done to have changed the things that had already happened, but I believe that God would have changed Tom, and Richardson would never have gotten his man.

"God would have helped the Elders and Heather Smith to heal in a different way, Bobby Jo would never have been assaulted here, and Tom and I would be happy in a relationship together.

"I know that's a fairy-tale ending, but something inspires people to believe in fairy-tales, and to write them, and there are a lot of people who live fairy-tale lives, who have done horrendous things that only they and God know about. But they asked for forgiveness and God forgave them and changed them.

"Many of us cannot understand God's forgiveness. We want it for ourselves, but we resent it sometimes when it happens to others...Sometimes I don't understand it myself, but I believe in it, and I try to practice it."

There are not many others willing to forgive Thomas Luther. Not on this side of life and death.

Cher's family and friends continue to mourn her death. "Christmas and birthdays are still the hardest," says Rhonda Edwards, Cher's mother. "That's when I cry. Or when I go through her things and think about all the plans she had for the future and realize there is no future."

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