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White supremacist serial killer, convicted in Missouri, is subject of former FBI agent's book
Nonfiction

White supremacist serial killer, convicted in Missouri, is subject of former FBI agent's book

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SYNAGOGUE SNIPER

Avowed racist and convicted murderer Joseph Paul Franklin gestures while seated in the courtroom in Clayton on Feb. 27, 1997. Franklin, who threatened to kill again if allowed to live, was sentenced to death for killing a man in a sniper shooting at a synagogue in 1977. 

The names Ted Bundy, Zodiac Killer, Jack the Ripper and Jeffrey Dahmer resonate across America, while the names of other men who committed horrific crimes do not. Such is the case with Joseph Paul Franklin.

Franklin hated Black people and Jewish people. A damaged man with a childhood of abuse, he appointed himself judge and executioner of his hated groups and went on a four-year murder spree starting in 1977. In that year, he shot and killed an interracial couple in Madison, Wisconsin; firebombed a Chattanooga, Tennessee, synagogue; and fired on worshippers leaving a suburban St. Louis synagogue, Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel in Richmond Heights.

In the Tennessee incident, Franklin thought people were in the synagogue, but none were, so his bomb didn’t kill anyone although it destroyed the building. In the St. Louis attack, one man died and two others were wounded (full disclosure: My family attended services at that synagogue but not on that particular Saturday).

The trademarks of Franklin’s attacks had already emerged in these crimes: anonymous attacks in cities that were far apart. The 1970s was a good time for serial killers in part because law enforcement departments rarely shared information, and what information they did share usually had to be mailed. Computers were in their infancy.

"The Killer's Shadow"

"The Killer's Shadow: The FBI's Hunt for a White Supremacist Killer"

By John Douglas and Mark Olshaker

Published by Dey Street, 304 pages, $16.99

So a killer who moved between law enforcement jurisdictions, especially between states, could expect to remain unidentified, at least for a long time. Franklin exploited not only that weakness but also his lack of involvement in his victims’ lives — they didn’t know him and never saw him.

In 1978, Franklin shot an interracial couple in Chattanooga; the woman lived. He also shot and seriously wounded Larry Flynt, publisher of the hardcore pornography magazine Hustler, and wounded Flynt’s lawyer. Franklin had been offended by Hustler’s inclusion of interracial sex.

In 1979, Franklin shot and killed a Black Taco Bell manager — the killer was upset that the man worked closely with white women. His deadliest year was 1980. He shot and seriously wounded Urban League president Vernon Jordan in Fort Wayne, Indiana; shot and killed two Cincinnati cousins in their early teens who were Black merely because he had the chance; shot and killed an interracial couple in Johnstown, Pennsylvania; shot and killed two white hitchhikers in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, whom he believed had dated Black men; and shot and killed two Black men in Salt Lake City.

Joseph Paul Franklin

Joseph Franklin in August 2012

“The Killer’s Shadow” is by the man whose professional work was fictionalized in the Netflix series “Mindhunter.” John Douglas helped launch the FBI’s unit on criminal profiling. As a tale, this one lacks memorability, mostly because Franklin’s crimes are so similar.

Douglas’ narrative also suffers from a couple of stumbles — the rabbi at the synagogue in St. Louis was Rabbi Skoff, not Skeff. The FBI building is light yellow, not gray. And he uses the phrase “ass-pucker” one or two too many times. He dredges up a couple of chestnuts from his past interviews, like Charles Manson insisting on sitting on the back of a chair so he would be higher than the FBI agents and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz admitting with a laugh that his tale of being motivated by a demon inside his neighbor’s dog was a lie.

Douglas wants to link Franklin to today’s social justice climate, and to an extent, that’s valid. Franklin, after all, selected most of his victims because they were Black or had good interracial relationships. But Franklin was also viciously anti-Jewish, a type of hatred not part of today’s activism. (Franklin was put to death in Potosi, Missouri, in 2013 for killing Gerald Gordon at the St. Louis synagogue.)

Because of Franklin’s poisonous ideas, Douglas views him as more dangerous than the usual serial killer, who murders for power or pleasure. Luckily, Franklin failed to draw anyone to his cause and failed to make a lasting name for himself.

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Notorious for shooting and paralyzing Larry Flynt, Joseph Paul Franklin was a racist who was convicted of a 1977 sniper killing at a Richmond …

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