Longform

The Killer Inside Him

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"I'm revealing things that I have kept closed up all my life," he wrote in one of his first letters from death row. "Being I'll never come face to face with you I find it easy to talk. I know some of it may seem like trash, but I've lived in that trash for years...I've always hated myself for what I've done."

I want to write you in my own words about my feelings of needing a woman without her consent. It'll be like a cleansing for me...For the first time in my life I'm going to let someone inside my mind. I've tried talking to doctors but can't really say anything to them. (10/7/87)

At a very young age I thought it was okay to take pussy if you wanted to. Most girls or women won't turn you in as long as they don't get hurt. (10/18/87)

A good man will take your thoughts first and treat you as if you were a baby...I will tell you a few do's and don'ts to a happier sex life if you like. (10/23/87)

Rapists often consider themselves experts on the topic of sex. Gary Davis was no exception. He boasted that he'd lost his virginity at age twelve, in the bed of a school chum's lusty mother.

The truth was probably much meaner, the kind of thing you don't want circulating around a prison. In a 1987 letter that he asked to be read and destroyed, as well as in conversations with psychologists during the appeals process, Davis claimed that his earliest sexual experiences came at the hands of two older stepbrothers, who used him like an inflatable doll.

Born in 1944 in Wichita, Kansas, Gary Lee Gehrer was the middle son of three; his mother remarried when Gary was eight years old. His attorneys and supporters have made passing references to his absent biological father, his "aloof" stepfather, his "strict" grandfather, but the alleged sexual abuse is rarely discussed. Possibly because of his recent reconciliation with various family members, the subject received scant mention in his appeals and was scrupulously avoided in his clemency petition.

Whether the abuse ever took place or was as severe as Davis described it remains an open question. But Davis was adamant about it. "I was molested dozens of times as a child," he wrote, and proceeded to give a graphic account of how two of his teenaged stepbrothers would return from dates with girls, make him sniff their crotches and then force him into oral and anal sex. The alleged abuse continued from the age of nine to twelve, but he insisted it had little to do with his later behavior: "I think people use that as a crutch. Everyone wants to blame what they do on other people or things."

One of his brothers has described the young Gary as a follower, a kid who "couldn't be aggressive" and "wouldn't fight nobody." Davis never told his parents about the abuse; apparently, he never confronted his stepbrothers, either. "I don't feel any anger towards them," he wrote in 1987. "A little hurt, but what can I say."

In another letter, Davis detailed his encounters with "Mary," the insatiable older woman who supposedly was his first female sexual partner. Mary ravished him, he wrote, then insisted that he bring girls to her house and take them by force while she supervised. The account smacks of sheer fantasy; Davis admitted as much in a later letter, apologizing for his "sex stories." But it's a revealing lie, a window into Davis's misogyny--instead of venting his pain at what his stepbrothers did to him, he invented an evil, sex-hungry bitch goddess who taught him how to rape.

Davis dropped out of school after the ninth grade. In 1961, at the age of seventeen, he joined the Marines. After boot camp he married his childhood sweetheart, Tonya Ann Tatem. The marriage lasted five years and produced two sons, but it began to fall apart shortly after Davis was shipped to Okinawa. He became wildly jealous of his wife, whom he suspected of cheating on him, and began to drink heavily.

His paranoia and alcoholism didn't go unnoticed in the Marines; the government wanted lean, mean killing machines, but not with his kinks. Following some loose talk about bayoneting an officer, he was diagnosed as having "homicidal tendencies" and an "emotional and unstable personality with schizoid trends" and given a medical discharge.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast