Richard Kimble Was Guilty

September 17, 2013

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Richard Kimble exits the Stafford, Indiana courthouse, on August 29, 1967, moments after his murder conviction was reversed.  Kimble’s sister, Donna Taft (far left), now alleges that Kimble was guilty of that crime. (File Photo)

STAFFORD, IND. – Richard Kimble, the small-town pediatrician and death row fugitive whose first degree murder conviction was famously overturned in 1967, may not have been innocent after all, according to new claims made this week by members of his family.

Convicted for the brutal slaying of his wife Helen Kimble in September 1961, Kimble escaped custody during a freak train derailment two years later.  He spent four years as the subject of an intensive manhunt before the discovery of new evidence led him to turn himself in to Stafford police in August of 1967.

According to Kimble’s sister, however, her brother was guilty of the crime, and the new evidence that exonerated him was faked.

Donna Taft, 81, maintained her brother’s innocence for more than fifty years.  During his years as a fugitive, she was the Kimble family’s primary spokesperson and an outspoken critic of what she described as his “persecution” by prosecutors and police.  Now, however, Taft says that Richard Kimble really did kill his wife.

“Richard was a severe alcoholic,” Taft explained in an interview Thursday. “Helen was a heavy drinker, too. They argued all the time and the arguments escalated into brawls. Then Dick found out that Helen was having an affair, and that caused him to snap.”  According to Taft, her brother hired a man he met in a bar to kill his wife in exchange for a payment of $1,000.  The man, Fred Johnson, was a troubled veteran with a history of violent larceny and assault and battery arrests. Johnson lost his right arm while serving in the Pacific during World War II.

Upon his arrest, Kimble told police and reporters that he had seen a one-armed man, whom he did not recognize, running from the scene of the crime.  “Dick’s plan all along was that if the police did arrest him, he could just blame Johnson, and they would take his word over that of a known criminal,” Taft explained.  But Kimble hadn’t counted on Johnson’s ability to disappear so completely.  When the police were unable to locate Johnson, even after interrogating dozens of local amputees, Kimble was trapped.

According to Taft, Kimble did not confess to her his true role in the slaying until two or three years into his escape.  “He was a master manipulator,” she said.  “He fooled us all.”  During Kimble’s four years on the run, reports occasionally surfaced in the press of strangers who helped Kimble elude capture.  In particular, he had a knack for seducing lonely women who provided him with shelter and money.

“Yes, for a time, I believed he was innocent.  That’s true,” said Terry Waverly, 73, who is the younger sister of Helen Kimble.  “Only our mother was certain. She never trusted Dick, never.”

“I spoke to dozens of people who met Kimble, and nearly all of them described his empathy, his quiet warmth,” said Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured, a 1993 book that retraced Kimble’s path across the United States during his years of flight.  “If it is true that he conspired to kill his wife, then he had to have been a true sociopath.”

In the interview last week, Taft said that her brother confessed to her because he was looking for a way out of a life on the run.  “Dick was worn out. He’d suffered injuries and serious illnesses. Finally, he called my husband and I and asked us to help him find an exit strategy.”  Kimble had always thought he could eventually settle down quietly somewhere, or leave the country, after the initial media frenzy around the escape.  What Kimble had not counted on was the determination of Philip Gerard, the Stafford police lieutenant who initially arrested Kimble and in whose custody Kimble was on the night of the escape, to bring him to justice.

“Gerard was crazy,” Taft says. “He used his own money and vacation time to pursue Dick around the country. Dick was desperate. A few times he set up traps for Gerard — he lured him into the path of other criminals in the hopes that one of them would kill Gerard for him. But it never worked.”

Taft and her husband Leonard, discussed severing ties with Kimble. But in the end they agreed to help him.  (Leonard Taft, now 87, was to ill to be interviewed at length, but he confirmed that his wife’s statements are true.)  When a family friend, a court stenographer named Jean Carlisle, alerted Donna Taft that Johnson had been arrested on a different charge in Los Angeles, Kimble and the Tafts quickly devised a scheme to revive the original frame that Kimble had arranged for Johnson.

“Gerard interrogated Johnson and placed him in Stafford at the time of the murder, but he still didn’t buy it.  He knew Dick too well by that time, knew he was a killer,” said Taft.  “So we got Lloyd Chandler involved.”

Chandler, who died in 2005, was a neighbor who had never been publicly connected to the Kimble case.  But in 1967 Chandler declared that he had been in the Kimble home at the time of the murder and had watched as Johnson, not Kimble, bludgeoned Helen Kimble with a lamp.  That testimony led a judge to vacate the original verdict.

Chandler never offered an explanation for his six years of silence, and reporters at the time speculated that he had been having an affair with Helen Kimble.  Taft confirmed that those rumors were true, and says that after Johnson was apprehended she and Leonard Taft approached Chandler with a bribe.

“We knew he had serious financial problems, and also we figured that if his story was questioned, the affair would make it seem plausible,” Taft explained. “Lloyd was desperate enough to perjure himself, and we all got away with it.”

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Lloyd Chandler (File Photo)

But the conspiracy between Kimble, Chandler, and the Tafts went further than perjury.  In order to prevent Johnson from implicating Kimble in the killing, Kimble and Chandler lured Johnson into a meeting where, claims Donna Taft, Kimble planned to kill Johnson.  Although a clear account of that encounter never emerged, Johnson was slain – but by Gerard’s bullet.  Gerard stated publicly that he was convinced of Kimble’s innocence by that point, and the press treated him as a hero. “POLICE PURSUER SLAYS ACTUAL KIMBLE KILLER,” read the headline in the Stafford News.

But, according to Taft, Gerard was actually aiming for Kimble and missed. “Gerard hated my brother so much he never put it together that Dick hired Johnson.  He was sure that Chandler was lying, but he couldn’t prove it.  If he had tried, he would have been implicating himself in the death of a man he thought was innocent,” said Taft.  “So he kept his mouth shut.”

At the time, perhaps, but in the decades that followed, Gerard gave many interviews proclaiming his continued belief in Kimble’s guilt.  Reporters at the Stafford News grew accustomed to ducking calls from Gerard, who suffered personal and professional setbacks as a result of Kimble’s exoneration.  He took an early retirement from the Stafford police force in early 1968, a move that was not of his own volition, according to a former Stafford police official who insisted upon anonymity.  Afterwards, Gerard briefly operated a private detective firm, and later worked as a uniformed security guard.  He died in 2008.

“I don’t care about Richard Kimble,” said Philip Gerard, Jr., the only son of Lt. Philip Gerard, when reached on Monday.  “Dad cared more about him than about his family.  My mother left him and I grew up without a father because of Richard Kimble.”

Gerard, Jr., who retired from a thirty-year career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2007, initially declined to comment further, but abruptly added: “When I started at the Bureau, I went to work for an old-time, by-the-book guy named Lew Erskine. He recognized my name and all he said was, ‘Chip off the old block?’ My dad alienated the Bureau guys all the time and I could tell just from Inspector Erskine’s expression that Dad had stepped on his toes, too.

“So if Kimble is guilty and that rehabilitates Dad’s reputation to any extent, I guess that’s a good thing,” Gerard said.

As for Kimble, he lived a quiet but restless life after winning his freedom.  Although his license was restored by the Indiana Medical Board, Kimble never practiced medicine again. Instead, he moved to Los Angeles with Jean Carlisle, the typist who helped set his exoneration in motion.  Their marriage ended in divorce after less than a year.  According to Donna Taft, Kimble was living in San Pedro, California, with Karen Christian, a woman he first met during his time as a fugitive, when he died of complications of alcoholism in 1980 at the age of 48.  “But he looked twenty years older,” said Taft. “He never recovered from the ordeal of being on the run.  He was never happy again.  And he couldn’t stop drinking.”

Kimble re-entered the headlines only once, in 1971, when he was questioned as a suspect in the Zodiac killings by San Francisco homicide detective Dave Toschi.  Kimble was quickly cleared at the time.

“But if we know now that Kimble really was a killer, that’s a whole new ballgame,” said Robert Graysmith, author of several books on the Zodiac case.  “I always thought Kimble was a strong suspect as the Zodiac.  I tried to interview him, but he wouldn’t talk to me.  He was a squirrelly guy.  He never made eye contact, not once.  That definitely needs to be looked at again.”

Asked whether prosecutors were considering reopening the Kimble case, a spokesperson for the Stafford County District Attorney’s office had no comment.

At the risk of letting this blog become just an honor roll of the dead (never my intention), I have to chime in with a few words about the inimitable Barry Morse, who passed away this past Saturday, February 2.

Morse remains beloved by TV fans because of his role on The Fugitive, one of the finest dramas on the tube during the ’60s.  (Less discriminating TV viewers may remember him from his regular role on Space: 1999.)  Morse played the primary pursuer and tormentor to David Janssen’s innocent death-row escapee Dr. Richard Kimble.  Every episode of The Fugitive saw Kimble ducking around corners or thumbing for the freeway to elude the local fuzz in whatever backwater burg he found himself hiding in.  But the really tense episodes, the ones where the producers (Alan Armer and later Wilton Schiller) wanted to up the stakes a notch, put Morse’s Lt. Philip Gerard on the case. 

Gerard was the hometown police detective who busted Kimble in the first place, and who was handcuffed to the alleged wife-killer during the train wreck that set him free.  Though he had no special jurisdiction over recapturing Kimble, Gerard would drop everything and hop on a plane anytime word of a Kimble sighting came in over the teletype.  When Dr. Kimble saw Gerard sniffing around on his trail, he knew he was in really deep shit that week. 

The Fugitive was a show I gorged myself on during my teens, and it was my first real exposure to Morse.  Since then I’ve seen a lot more of his early television work, and what I’ll bet a lot of people don’t realize is how much of a departure the character of Gerard was for Morse, at least at that time. 

Catch one of Morse’s pre-Fugitive TV roles, and more than likely you’re in for a heavy meal of ham.  Most of the time, Morse went big.  Maybe because Morse was British by birth and Canadian by inclination – he resettled in Toronto in 1951 and did so much live TV they called him “the CBC test pattern” – American television didn’t know quite what to do with him.  For much of the early sixties, he was typed within a pretty narrow specialty: bohemian artists and snooty critics. 

Morse is pretty hard to take as Fitzgerald Fortune, a theatre critic who tortures people with a haunted player piano, in “A Piano in the House,” one of those generic Twilight Zones in which some mean little man yaps for the whole half-hour about how he’s going to avenge the gigantic chip on his shoulder.  He’s even more insufferable in “Who’ll Dig the Graves,” a Defenders in which he chomps the scenery as an alcoholic, junkie beatnik poet.  Classically trained (at RADA), Morse was a natural choice whenever some showoffy writer had dressed up a thesaurus as a character, as in the Nurses episode “A Private Room.”  Somehow, in the execution of Morse’s performance as Oliver Norton Bell, a misanthropic failed scholar dying of leukemia, the actor and his director, Don Richardson, came to the ill-advised conclusion that Bell’s each and every line should be barked at full volume.

Morse’s other early specialty was accents: English, German (as a defector scientist in another Nurses, “Escape Route”), or simply nondescript Euro-generic.  I think it’s supposed to be French in the maladroit Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “A Tangled Web,” in which a toupeed Morse attempts a flamboyant hairdresser whose, er, business partner is Robert Redford.  One element of the say-what? twist ending is that Morse’s character isn’t as gay as he’s coded to be; in any case, it’s the nadir of Morse’s over-the-top eccentric period.

If you know Morse only as Philip Gerard, it’s hard to imagine him in these roles.  But Stirling Silliphant’s earnestly Freudian Naked City, which used Morse thrice between 1961-62, began to see him in the same way The Fugitive would.  In “Portrait of a Painter,” about William Shatner’s homicidal non-representational artist, Morse whirls through in a cameo as an art dealer called in by the cops (with a straight face) to scrutinize Shatner’s canvases and advise as to whether he’s crackers or not.  Later Morse starred in Abram S. Ginnes’ complex “Memory of a Red Trolley Car,” as a chemistry professor whose exposure to a deadly poison sends him on a journey of self-exploration, confronting mother, mistress, and estranged wife.  It was a difficult role, requiring Morse to verbalize a lot of emotions that would logically have remained subtextual, and he executed it with simplicity and integrity.  (It helped that the script incorporated Morse’s own background as an Americanized Englishman.)  In both segments Morse got a lot of mileage out of the same thick-rimmed glasses that would become an essential prop for Lt. Gerard.

Gerard: As I write this, I’m watching “Never Wave Goodbye” again.  It’s a two-parter, the first Fugitive to give Gerard a personal story parallel to Kimble’s.  Look at Gerard’s opening scene, where he gets a lead on a one-armed ex-con (not the right one, it turns out) in L.A. and soft-soaps his boss (Paul Birch as Captain Carpenter) into letting him go have a look.  Morse plays it down to practically nothing, all soft-spoken and reasonable-sounding.  He had no way of knowing the series would last for four years, but he leaves himself room to build to the fever pitch Gerard would hit before the end.  “Never Wave” gives him the character’s first crescendo, the first time he squares his jaw and bails on a fishing trip with his son to go chase Kimble; the first time he barges into some out-of-town police station and starts barking orders at slack-jawed local cops.  The first glimpse of Supercop.  Or, no: more.  Worse.

Because, here’s the point I wanted to make about Barry Morse.  I think he may deserve more credit than anybody else for the element of The Fugitive that’s truly subversive: the anti-police subtext that made it a counterculture totem.  Morse’s Gerard represented American television’s first sustained presentation of the police as essentially maleficent.  A lot has been made of how the network oafs all turned down Roy Huggins’ pitch for the show because (no matter how slowly Huggins talked as he explained that Kimble was innocent) they didn’t get how a criminal could be a hero and a cop could be the bad guy.  Fine, but that idea was coming anyhow, with the Watts riots and Kent State only a few years away from the evening news.  It was Morse who made the ugliness of the police visceral, with his clamp-jawed sneer and his thousand-yard stare.  Morse underlined the fact that it was personal for Gerard.  He wasn’t a dutiful flatfoot.  He was an authority figure whose omnipotence had been flouted, and he wanted payback

To put Morse’s contribution in perspective, just consider how much tamer The Fugitive would have been with a stolid, conventional cop actor – like, say Tige Andrews, The Mod Squad‘s Captain Greer – in the Gerard role, someone who would’ve played it like he was the hero.  Gerard actually had lines like that all the time – modest-sounding dialogue about how he was just a tool of the law, and it wasn’t his problem whether Kimble was guilty or innocent – but the way Morse said them, you knew he was full of it.  The sixties were when we first realized that some cops beat people up just because they got off on it; and that often the police function, not to punish the guilty or protect the innocent, but to suppress those who challenge the status quo.  (Gerard’s catechism was “The law said Kimble is guilty.  I enforce the law.”)  On its face The Fugitive was never this topical – not even close – but Morse’s performance smuggled the idea in.

“Never Wave Goodbye” was also the first episode in which Gerard went rogue (he jumped ship in a little rubber raft after a coast guard skipper wouldn’t continue pursuing Kimble in a thick fog), and from then on you can pick any episode and find Morse personifying some new wrinkle in martial arrogance.  A few weeks later, in the great “Nightmare at Northoak,” the one where Gerard is even haunting Kimble in his dreams, Gerard crashes town to pick up the fugitive after he saves some kids from a burning bus.  Kimble is the local hero and the small town folk all loathe the condescending Lt. Gerard.  Morse plays it totally oblivious.  “Now, look, son, you have nothing to be ashamed of,” he says to the little boy who got Kimble captured, just oozing smugness. 

As the show went on, Morse built on this notion, turning the character more tight-lipped and tightly-wound, more short-tempered and monomaniacal.  Stephen King wrote about it in his intro to Ed Robertson’s Fugitive companion book, how Morse made it possible to track Gerard’s progression, in King’s words, “further and further into freako land.”  The idea was always there in the premise – The Fugitive was what TV writers used to call a “haircut” of Les Miserables – but I’m convinced that without an actor as intelligent as Morse in the role, someone to recognize and emphasize the connection to Hugo’s Javert, the show’s anti-authoritarian strain would have evaporated.  No one else could have built it in as subtly, and who would have fought to jam it in at the surface?  Not Quinn Martin, and not ABC.

Even Morse’s physicality was a kind of innovation.  He didn’t look like any movie or TV cop that came before him.  With his small frame and slighly outsized head, his receding hairline (with the odd, birdlike tufts in the back), Morse seemed more like an accountant or an academic than a tough guy.  And the actor cultivated that look.  Morse told Ed Robertson that, during the shooting of the Fugitive pilot, he chucked the cliche wardrobe (trenchcoat and fedora) that the costumers dug up for Gerard behind a bush and stuck to off-the-rack suits for the rest of the series.  Gerard was an unprepossessing figure, a quotidian cop, and that tied into the show’s concept of law enforcement as a malevolent force cloaked in a bland guise.  The Fugitive took care to identify Gerard as a quintessentially American character, a suburban dad and wife, and that mythology became part of the nightmare.  Gerard takes his son hunting, and the kid runs into Kimble and ends up bonding with him instead (in “Nemesis”); later Gerard’s wife, explicitly cracking up because of his obsession, leaves him and almost falls into Kimble’s arms too (in “Landscape With Running Figures”).  And Morse plays this baroque material with a stiff upper lip: his Gerard, his übercop, doesn’t have the imagination to do anything but nurse his wounded pride and wait for his day of vengeance.

Which never comes.  It’s a tribute to Morse that he hovered over The Fugitive as an ominous presence even though he only appeared in about a third of the 120 episodes (plus the weekly opening title sequence).  He was sufficiently formidable to personify the relentless presence of law enforcement even as the producers kept him off-screen enough so that Gerard didn’t become a joke, always tripping over Kimble just as Gilligan was always almost getting off the island.  The big payoff in the final episode was not Kimble’s exoneration, which didn’t even happen on-screen, but the final encounter between Janssen and Morse.  An anti-climax?  You be the judge.

In the late nineties I knew a video entrepreneur who recorded Morse introducing some Fugitive episodes for a VHS release.  He told me that Morse (by all accounts a thoroughly nice man) was not well and despondent over the loss of his beloved wife, so I was surprised that he lived as long as he did.  He used his final years well, completing an autobiography that I hear is worthwhile and a cute video promo for it. 

If there’s an afterlife for TV characters, then Richard Kimble’s just got a lot more complicated.  He’ll be looking over his shoulder again after a long breather . . . but then again, he’s got some company for the long, lonely journey now.

That thousand yard stare (from “Nightmare at Northoak”).

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