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  • A Matter of Survival

    A verdict is rendered in the Gilley murder trial, and one family member builds a new life
  • A verdict is rendered in the Gilley murder trial, and one family member builds a new life.
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    • The Gilley Story, a two-day series
      Sunday: A lifetime of abuse culminates in a horrific crime
      Today: A verdict for one Gilley, a new life for the other
      Web refer: For past stories on Billy Gilley and a timeline of the crimes a...
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      The Gilley Story, a two-day series
      Sunday: A lifetime of abuse culminates in a horrific crime

      Today: A verdict for one Gilley, a new life for the other

      Web refer: For past stories on Billy Gilley and a timeline of the crimes and his court appeals, see www.mailtribune.com/gilley
  • Billy Gilley's trial for the April 1984 aggravated murders of his parents and youngest sister at their Medford home began the following November and lasted two days. Three doctors hired by his lawyer, Steven Pickens, found Billy sane. Under Oregon law, extreme emotional disturbance cannot be a defense to aggravated murder.
    Billy was found guilty on all three counts. He had little to say at the sentencing, other than that he had had "great fear." He got three life sentences, to run consecutively. Judge Mitchell Karaman said at the sentencing he still had "a lack of information" as to why Billy did it.
    Though Billy had been punched, flogged and demeaned by his father for years, none of his history of abuse was introduced at the trial.
    "1984 was a different era in regard to abuse," says Paul Beneke, who is representing Billy Gilley now. A resentencing hearing has been set for Thursday after a court found Gilley did not have effective legal representation at his trial.
    "I'm sympathetic," Beneke says. "On the other hand, there was nothing said in detailing the abuse in regard to sentencing. ... I've seen misdemeanors where there was more defense."
    Pickens called no witnesses and cross-examined just one, Billy's 16-year-old sister, Jody, who was in the house when her parents and sister were killed.
    After the murders Jody lived with a girlfriend and her parents, but it didn't work out. In the meantime she met adults different from those she had known — successful, caring people. Connie Skillman, of Ashland, the director of the district attorney's Victims' Assistance Office, took Jody home for a time.
    "She had an enormous, invisible cloak of protection," Skillman says. "I found her at 16 to be amazing, and the most closely self-protected person I'd ever met. She needed somebody to be on her side."
    Jody decided Skillman's home was too rule-oriented for her. She wanted to live with Thad Guyer, the legal aid lawyer she'd consulted. Guyer had problems of his own. His marriage was coming apart. But he saw something in Jody. She was a survivor, and she was smart.
    "We all had the same reaction," he says. "Here's a little jewel."
    Guyer may have had a personal reason to be drawn to the orphaned Jody. His mother had abandoned his family when he was a little boy, and he was raised by a violent, abusive father. He left home at 16.
    It took Jody time to get into the rhythms of a new life under Guyer's wing. She skipped school and work. Guyer said she resented his girlfriend, Marianne, who was just 19 herself, and whom Guyer would marry in 1989.
    Jody, who changed her last name to Arlington, would later tell Kathryn Harrison, who has written a new book about the murders called "While They Slept," that she felt an unwanted sexual tension with Guyer. She felt it was coming from him. She confronted him about it.
    Guyer remembers the discussion. He says it came at a time when he had grounded Jody and insisted on improved attendance at school and work.
    "I very much appreciated Jody letting me know she felt 'sexual tension' from me, assured her I did not have such feelings for her, and that I would be quite careful to do what I could to make certain she never got that feeling from me again," he says. "I also told her that the grounding stood."
    Eventually Jody quit hanging with a dead-end crowd. Her grades improved. She got to fly in Guyer's plane. She went to rock concerts.
    One day Guyer found that Jody had diagrammed the social structure of her high school class with Post-it notes showing who was popular and how she could navigate a path to the top.
    Jody finished high school and got into Georgetown in Washington, D.C., where Guyer had gone to college. She designed an academic major in Interdisciplinary Studies that encompassed anything that might help her understand her past: history, psychology, art, literature, even orphanhood.
    "I wanted to make sure that I was 'on the right track' and 'normal,' " she says.
    She read Holocaust literature and devoured stories of people who survived the Nazis and forged successful lives.
    "She read voraciously," Harrison says, "she used Holocaust literature as an avenue toward understanding trauma, cruelty, survival, and she turned to other historical tragedies and myths for the same reasons."
    For her senior thesis at Georgetown, Jody wrote "Death Faces," an account of the family murders which began, "This is the story of my rebirth."
    She says she was surprised in college to find that she was often "among the most well-adjusted" of her peers.
    After college she supported herself for a time as a freelance writer in New York City. She cut her teeth as a public relations professional with Burson-Marsteller, a prominent firm. She played a key role in the U.S. Treasury's global campaign introducing newly designed currency in 1998. She considers the experience "a master's degree in public relations."
    Ultimately, she decided she could choose her response to life and hardship. Her choice was "not to let this experience define or limit me, and do everything humanly possible to experience and enjoy everything life has to offer — good and bad."
    ***
    In 2005 Arlington, then a high-profile media strategist in Washington, called Guyer and told him about the book Harrison wanted to write. Guyer did not like the idea a bit.
    Harrison and Guyer met to discuss the proposed book at a bar near the White House. Harrison saw Guyer as Pygmalion to Jody's Galatea, the mythical creator and the one created. It's an idea Arlington suggested in "Death Faces." Guyer saw Harrison as somebody who wanted to write the story Arlington should write. He thought she was probably a bleeding heart who could be conned by Gilley.
    The meeting was edgy. Harrison felt Guyer was trying to intimidate her. She describes him as gruff, abrasive, cynical and disingenuous.
    In a phone interview, Guyer laughs.
    "I'll go along with all the others, but not cynical," he says.
    "We just did not have a positive chemistry. She (Arlington) has made a decision to let this other survivor take a shot at telling the story. I just didn't like it ... so I went as more of Jody's lawyer than anything else. But Kathryn is right, I was testing her mettle."
    Guyer thought Billy was a sociopath who was sexually attracted to Jody. He thought Billy planned the murders and carried them out in cold blood. He did not believe that Billy suffered from any syndrome. He did not like the idea of a he-said-she-said book in which Gilley's words might appear to have equal weight to Arlington's.
    Harrison and Arlington had their first meeting at a Japanese restaurant in Washington. Harrison thought Arlington was pretty, with her auburn hair and hazel eyes. Her diction was perfect, and her conversation was sprinkled with references to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Camus and Bruno Bettelheim. Harrison thought she carried a lot of guilt.
    In October 2005 the women visited the Gilleys' former home in Medford, and Arlington pointed out the place where Billy would practice softball by whacking a cardboard box with his bat. She pointed out the barn where she used to sunbathe and Bill used to beat Billy.
    Arlington read drafts of the book for accuracy but had no editorial control. Harrison kept pressing her to remember disturbing details, to dig deeper.
    "I know it was very difficult," Harrison says. "It required her to immerse herself, which is not something she does. ... She's not somebody who betrays her feelings readily. I don't like having to extract from other people, but she never wavered."
    Arlington felt she was the custodian of the family story. She'd thought of writing her own book, but it was too traumatic.
    "It was residing in that painful place to crank the story out that prevented me from tackling the book in a serious and sustained way," Arlington says.
    She says she felt the burden of the never-written book lift when she agreed to Harrison's book. On the book tour for "While They Slept," Harrison did a signing in Portland, but not Medford.
    "I think she (Harrison) has done a phenomenal job in describing how Billy got to where he got, without in any way excusing him," says Skillman, the victim's advocate who has remained in touch with Arlington. "It's very dark reading."
    Acting in 1984 as Jody's advocate, Skillman had felt enormous relief at Billy's consecutive lifetime sentences because she figured he'd spend the rest of his life in prison and Jody would be safe.
    Over time, Skillman has come to view Billy differently.
    "Because of what's come to light about parricide," she says. "And because of the incredible damage the abusive situation did to Billy."
    Skillman says the book should be a resource for kids going through family violence and a wake-up call for social service agencies.
    "The system so badly let these children down," she says.
    Guyer completely revised his opinions of Harrison and her project when he read the book.
    "I don't know who else could tell the story the way she told it," he says of Harrison. "I thought it was brilliant."
    He expects the book to be among the definitive pieces for understanding parricide. He says it portrays Arlington's strength without sentimentality.
    He denies that Jody was ever a "project" to him, or an Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl Henry Higgins tries to make into a lady in George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion."
    Although Harrison treated Billy with skepticism, the book even changed Guyer's take on him. He now calls him "a person deserving of understanding."
    Harrison thinks the young Billy was beaten into a state of chronic confusion.
    "I want people to understand Billy as a human being," Harrison says, "not a monster, not somebody you can turn your back on and say real people don't kill their parents. ... How many people do we turn our back on as a society? It's very sobering to think there are thousands and thousands.
    "What chance was there for a kid like Billy to turn out OK?"
    Gilley has written many letters to Arlington. She says many were manipulative or asked for money. She says she may have sent him a Christmas card in the early 1990s "in a fit of magnanimity" but has had no contact with him since then.
    "She's a pretty busy person," he says in jail. "I don't have anything negative to say about my sister."
    In the children's stories Gilley writes, kids are often in trouble. Adults do not help them, and the children must look to kind animals for help.
    Gilley does not believe he's a danger to others.
    "Absolutely not," he says. "All studies have shown that they (parricides) don't recidivate. It was such a unique set of circumstances."
    ***
    Thomas Mann wrote that "there is no past one is allowed to long for, only the eternally new, derived from enlarged elements of the past." Arlington cites that quote from "The Magic Mountain," an elusive coming-of-age book in which the great writer examined human destructiveness and suggested that one must go through sickness and death to get to a higher state.
    "Jody Gilley no longer exists," she says, "but parts of her do."
    She credits mentors such as Guyer and Skillman with opening doors for her. But, she adds, she still had to walk through them. She says even without help she would have found a path to success.
    "Jody always wanted to be something like in the books she read," Guyer says, "a successful person."
    Arlington says her new life is tinged by guilt. Guilt for not realizing that Billy was truly going to kill her parents and sister, guilt for not stopping Becky from going downstairs to her death that April night in 1984.
    "I will never stop mourning these things, but I also know that I was a teenager who could not read minds or predict the future or could ever conceive of what Billy did," she says.
    There are unknowables in life, she says, and it does no good to fixate on what can't be changed.
    "And so I don't," she says.
    She believes people are hardwired to survive, especially with help, and that it's how "humans have survived horrors for centuries and will continue to do so."
    These days she throws herself into her work. She supports organizations such as Fight Crime Invest in Kids (fightcrime.org) and the Sasha Bruce Youthwork for runaways and abused kids in Washington. She and her husband go to operas at the Kennedy Center and to book parties and dinner parties.
    It's a life not unlike one of the heroines in the books Jody used to read in Medford all those years ago.
    "It sounds really cheesy," she says, "but I do really feel like I have to live as much as I can of this life, cram every possible experience into it that I can, because it's a gift, and because Becky can't, and it's what I would have wanted her to do if the roles had been reversed."
    Gilley's resentencing hearing is scheduled for Thursday. Arlington's Impact festival is scheduled to be shown to Democrats beginning Aug. 25 in Denver and Republicans starting Sept. 1 in Minneapolis.
    Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.
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