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  • In murder's wake

    A family is destroyed, a killer gets a new day in court, and a book tells the story
  • First of two parts: A family is destroyed, a killer gets a new day in court, and a book tells the story.
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    • The Gilley Murders, a two-day series
      Today: A lifetime of abuse culminates in a horrific crime
      Tomorrow: A verdict for one Gilley, a new life for the other
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      The Gilley Murders, a two-day series
      Today: A lifetime of abuse culminates in a horrific crime

      Tomorrow: A verdict for one Gilley, a new life for the other
  • Jody Gilley awoke from a deep sleep. Her brother, 18-year-old Billy Frank Gilley Jr., was pushing their 11-year-old sister, Becky, into Jody's attic bedroom. It was the night of April 26, 1984.
    "Keep Becky up here," he said.
    The way Jody remembers it, Becky didn't want to stay. She went downstairs. Then Jody heard screams. There were frightening noises, pounding sounds.
    Billy came back up to Jody's room. His bare chest and arms were spattered with blood. He said their parents were dead.
    "We're free," he said.
    Jody's 16-year-old mind wanted to believe it wasn't real, that it was happening in one of the books in which she sought refuge from her dysfunctional family. She was afraid Billy might kill her, too. She put on some clothes and walked down the stairs. To get outside she had to walk by Becky, lying in the shadows. Becky moaned. Jody didn't say anything. She was afraid Billy might hit her again with his baseball bat.
    It was a cold night. Billy and Jody got in their father's blue Ranchero, and Billy drove from the family's home on Ross Lane in Medford to the nearby house of a friend of Jody's. It was about 1:30 a.m. The teens talked and played gin rummy. At about a quarter to three Billy left to buy cigarettes at a 7-Eleven. Jody called 9-1-1.
    "My brother beat my mom and dad and sister to death with a baseball bat," she said.
    The 9-1-1 operator asked why he would do that.
    Jody answered, "I don't know. I mean, there's been a lot ... we have had a lot of, um, family problems, but I never think anything bad enough to actually kill 'em."
    ***
    Billy Gilley, now heavyset and balding at 43, sits behind glass in the visiting room at the Jackson County Jail.
    "I don't like media coverage," he says into a jailhouse phone. "You're talking about stuff that happened 24 years ago. I'd be happy if I never heard of it again."
    After years of appealing his sentence — three consecutive life terms with a minimum of 30 years each — Gilley in May was granted the right to a resentencing hearing by the U.S. District Court in Portland, a decision the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld on grounds that Gilley did not have effective legal representation. Judge Ron Grensky set Gilley's next hearing for Aug. 21. Judge Ray White is slated to preside.
    "This winds the clock back," says Paul Beneke, the public defense lawyer who represents Gilley. "He's back where he was 24 years ago — awaiting sentencing."
    Beneke has asked for a jury hearing. District Attorney Mark Huddleston's office opposes that request.
    "We think it should be a decision by a judge," Huddleston says.
    Beneke will seek to convince a judge or jury that Gilley should not serve consecutive sentences, while Huddleston's office will argue in favor of them.
    Gilley was transferred from the Snake River Correctional Institution near Ontario to jail in Medford, where he remains, for the hearing.
    Meanwhile, Random House published a big, new book about Jody and Billy Gilley and the destruction of their family, Kathryn Harrison's "While They Slept." Gilley says he hasn't seen the book because the jail does not permit hardcover books.
    Gilley says it was brain damage caused by years of beatings by his father and post-traumatic stress disorder, and not a personality defect, that caused him to act with horrific violence in 1984.
    Two clinical psychologists testified after Gilley went to prison that he suffered from organic brain syndrome associated with multiple head traumas. The syndrome causes confusion, delirium, agitation and dementia. But no such evidence was introduced at the trial.
    Gilley learned to read and write in prison. He earned a high school equivalency certificate and a two-year college degree. He writes and illustrates graphic novels and children's stories. None has been published.
    Gilley says he taught inmates cognitive and communication skills at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, where he was a longtime inmate before being transferred to Snake River. He says he was a violence prevention counselor.
    "The people that make the best counselors are those that have reached the bottom," he says.
    Michelle Dodson, a spokeswoman for the penitentiary, says Gilley worked in 1995 as a teacher's aide in a program called "Breaking Barriers and Cognitive Self-Change." In 1996 he volunteered as a co-facilitator for a violence-prevention class for violent juvenile offenders.
    "But he failed out of the program," Dodson says, "because of his behavior."
    ***
    Three thousand miles east of the Medford jail, Jody Gilley, now Jody Arlington, 40, is a public affairs strategist in Washington, D.C.
    "In the middle of preparations for the Impact Film Festival, so things are a little busy," she e-mails a reporter. She declines to be interviewed on the phone but repeatedly answers questions for this story via e-mail.
    Impact is a four-day slate of documentary films scheduled to be screened for lawmakers, candidates and delegates at both the Democratic and Republican conventions. Arlington, the festival's director and a co-founder, says she hopes to stimulate policy discussions at a high level.
    Arlington was a vice president at Fleishman-Hillard, one of the world's premier public relations firms. She is the director of the Georgetown Entertainment and Media Alliance in Washington and has managed public relations for the prestigious SILVERDOCS AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival for the past five years.
    She recently helped launch Snagfilms, media mogul Ted Leonsis' new online distribution company where people can open virtual movie theaters. Her clients have included the Kennedy Center, the Sundance Institute and President Bill Clinton's campaign to prevent youth violence after the Columbine shootings.
    Arlington's writing has been published in Washington Life, International Documentary Magazine, Georgetown and other magazines. She has been featured on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross.
    In a 2005 Washington Post essay called "After the Horror," she wrote about the challenges she said would be faced by the 15-year-old survivor of the murder of an Ohio family by the girl's 18-year-old brother.
    "I'm not curing cancer, but I'm helping the cause indirectly," she says in one of her e-mails.
    With a network of friends Arlington describes as "almost like tribe," she and her husband, Franck, hike, sail, cycle, kayak, travel and collect art.
    Coming from a hardscrabble life in Medford, Ore., you're not supposed to wind up in Arlington's shoes. It's not just that she grew up in poverty with abusive parents. Her family ceased to exist, her brother went to prison, and she became an orphan.
    How do you go from being Jody Gilley to being Jody Arlington?
    ***
    Kathryn Harrison was fascinated by the question. A Brooklyn-based, best-selling author of nearly a dozen books of both fiction and non-fiction, she heard about the Gilley murders a decade after the fact. A friend said Billy had loved Jody and hoped the two would run away. That hint of a narrative — teenagers, murders, a fantasy of flight — felt vaguely sexual to Harrison, and it worked on her imagination like sand in an oyster.
    Harrison was fascinated also by what she saw as the story of a survivor. Another decade would pass before she would get Arlington to cooperate on a book. Harrison worked on "While They Slept" from March 2005 until Sept. 2007.
    She spent maybe 100 hours with Arlington, including three days in Medford, where the two drove out to the now-renovated home where the Gilleys had lived. She spent 18 hours interviewing Billy Gilley in Snake River and three years corresponding with him. She beat the dirt under her maple tree with her 14-year-old son's baseball bat, trying to imagine what it felt like to bash somebody's head in.
    Harrison accumulated crates full of research. It seemed important to assemble the events in the most precise detail, as if meaning would fall into place with facts, times, places. She created timelines from the voluminous files she called "Gilleyalia." Each was bisected by a red line, and each line ran through the night of April 26, 1984. The final version was 24 feet long by 36 inches wide.
    Harrison had a reason for her obsession. When she was 20, her father initiated an incestuous relationship with her, and she fell in love with him. It was four years before the damaged young woman broke free and began the path to healing. She wrote her story in "The Kiss" (Random House, 1997), perhaps her best-known book. Now she wanted to write a story about a girl who got away. And Arlington was the ultimate getaway girl. She had created a new life and invented a new self.
    "There must be many of us whose lives have been divided into a before and after, with an accident, a death, a crime, a crisis, some moment or year or relationship that came between and changed everything," Harrison wrote in her first e-mail to Arlington.
    Harrison began the book as straight reporting. But she was soon persuaded by her editor and others to write herself into Arlington's story. She wrote in a literary style, not only delving into Arlington's life but using it as a prism to illuminate her own.
    Harrison is no fly on the wall. When there are discrepancies in Billy's and Jody's accounts — for example, in the crucial question of how much Jody knew of Billy's intentions before the murders — Harrison marshals the known facts, teases out plausibility and feels free to speculate for her readers.
    "It's an odd amalgam," she says in a phone interview. "I didn't want to pretend I wasn't invested in a way that was personal. When I went back to it, having me in it talking to Billy and Jody and Thad (Guyer, the former Medford lawyer who became Jody's guardian) made it more immediate and pulled it into the present."
    Harrison and Arlington were guests on "Good Morning America." There's been talk with Oprah Winfrey's people about a possible appearance on her TV show. Random House is comparing "While They Slept" to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song."
    "The connection between us," Harrison writes in an e-mail, speaking of Arlington, —" a parallel I assume and she confirms — is that both she and I had a previous self who no longer exists."
    ***
    Much of this section is based on Kathryn Harrison's reconstruction of the Gilley tragedy. Sources include Jody Arlington, Billy Gilley, the records of social workers and what was then the Jackson County Children's Services Division, Billy's 10 psychiatric and other evaluations, the trial transcript, appellant briefs and more.
    Bill Gilley Sr. and his wife, Linda, were high school dropouts and itinerant farm workers. They fought, sometimes violently, over Gilley's drinking and infidelities. They moved around to work different harvests. They wound up in Medford and lived in a rented house on Dyer Road and shopped at the Salvation Army and at swap meets. Bill eventually started a business as a tree trimmer and bought an old house on Ross Lane.
    Bill punched, beat and demeaned Billy for years. He threatened to kill him. He made inappropriate sexual comments to Jody. Neighbors said Linda sometimes had bruises from Bill's fists. One said Bill would hit the children so hard they would "fly across the room."
    "Bill was a violent, angry man who'd been raised by a battering father," Harrison says.
    Linda was a strict religious fundamentalist obsessed with sexuality, guilt and shame. She limited her children to two hot showers per week. She used to slap Jody and sit on her and blow cigarette smoke in her face. She would ground her for months for strange reasons. She destroyed books in which Jody sought escape. She belittled her husband and threw things at him.
    Jody created imaginary families of ghosts that lived in trees outside the house. Later she devoured the Harlequin romances her mother had bought her when she was 12 without even knowing what was in them. Jody used the books as learning tools that portrayed how "normal" people acted.
    Billy had learning problems. He could not get along with other children. He could not stay out of trouble. He lied, stole, cut school, got busted for petty thefts and arson, tried to pass himself off as a dope dealer, dropped out of school after ninth grade, spent time in juvenile detention. Caseworkers — there were many — described him as disturbed and angry and possibly paranoid. Arlington says he tried to sexually abuse her, sometimes creeping into her room at night.
    Harrison writes that at age 13, Billy told a psychologist at what was then the county's Children's Services Division that his family was violent and "crazy." But that his infuriated parents intimidated him into recanting. They threatened to sue CSD. The agency, Harrison says, fired the psychologist and placed a note in the file that said the report contained errors and should be "disregarded in its entirety." Then it destroyed the record.
    Doug Mares, Department of Human Services manager for Jackson and Josephine counties, who's been with the department since 1980, says as far as he knows, the department never employed a psychologist. He says it would not condone destroying an evaluation.
    "Allegations of abuse, if we deemed it to be true, we would ask a court for temporary custody," he says. "You can't just destroy a report."
    A photocopy of the report seems to confirm Harrison's account, including the name of the CSD staffer who wrote the original evaluation, and a note that the new record, entered June 23, 1980, replaced one dated Oct. 9, 1979. The note says the original report contained "errors of fact and interpretation ... "
    Harrison believes the lesson Billy took from the episode was that he was alone, and there was nobody he could look to for help.
    Billy's punishments at home became more severe and more ritualized. Linda would decree punishment, and Billy would be sent to the barn to wait. Then Bill would go out and whip him. Bill started with 15 to 30 lashes of a leather belt on bare skin. After a time he took to floggings with a rubber hose. When Billy rolled around to avoid the blows raining down, Bill began tying him to a tractor wheel for his beatings.
    "You can imagine my problem," Gilley says in the visiting area at the jail. "It was a desperate situation. I felt something had to be done."
    ***
    On April 26, 1984, there was heightened tension in the Gilley home. Jody was in trouble for skipping school. There would be punishment. Billy's parents warned him not to get involved.
    At around 1 a.m. on the morning of the 27th, Billy took his aluminum baseball bat and beat his mother and father to death as they slept. She was in bed, he was on a couch. When Becky walked into the scene, he hit her with the bat, too. She would die two days later. Harrison believes Billy panicked.
    "Clearly, he didn't intend to kill Becky," she says.
    Jody heard the sounds of repeated "pounding." Billy explained later that in rage and frustration, he was beating the wooden arm of the couch where his father, whom he blamed for Becky's death, lay dying.
    On Nov. 14, 1984, Billy's trial began on three counts of aggravated murder in Judge Mitchell Karaman's court. Most criminal defense in the county was farmed out to private lawyers. The attorney who drew the case, Steven Pickens, called no witnesses and cross-examined only one, the prosecution's star witness, Jody Gilley. He did not introduce Billy's history of abuse.
    Pickens told a reporter at the time that Billy did not want to testify. Billy now claims from jail that he did want to testify.
    Although the concept of the victim-offender was not well-established in 1984, evidence of Billy's abuse could have been introduced as mitigation for sentencing purposes. It was not.
    Two years earlier, in Wyoming, 16-year-old Richard Jahnke had killed his violent, abusive father. The boy's long history of battery led to a conviction for voluntary manslaughter, not murder, and a sentence of five to 15 years. The case was reported on "60 Minutes" and became the TV movie "Right To Kill?" Jahnke spent a year at the Wyoming Boys School. His sentence was commuted to confinement and treatment until age 21. He was released at 19.
    In Medford, people called the district attorney's office to say that Jody must have been in on the killings. Otherwise, they said, why did she survive?
    The fact was that when the murders occurred, Billy and Jody were the only other people in the house. Billy claimed Jody knew and tacitly approved of his intention to kill their parents. Jody denied this. She told a detective that Billy talked about how he'd like to "get rid of" their parents, but she thought it was just talk and didn't pay much attention.
    "I don't believe she knew his intentions on the night he killed their family," Harrison says.
    There was talk, when Jody went to live with Thad Guyer, the legal aid lawyer she had consulted, of the propriety — or lack of it — of a man in his 30s, whose marriage was breaking up, taking in a teenage girl.
    There were jokes: Did you hear the one about Billy Gilley? He went to bat for his sister.
    "I heard that in the Justice Building," Guyer says in a phone interview from France, where he is trying a case.
    Guyer did all he could to position Jody as a witness and not a suspect. As her attorney, he allowed the prosecution access to her, but he denied it to Billy's attorney, Pickens.
    Pickens did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story.
    "He's a good criminal defense lawyer," says Guyer, who was then an up-and-coming defense lawyer himself. "He would have done what we call 'hazing the jury,' twisting the facts. There was no way I was gonna let it happen."
    Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.
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