September 17, 2013
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.”
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.