THE VICTIMS' PAGEANT
From In With The Devil
(St. Martin's Press, September 2010)
The Ford County jail was an unlikely place for Jimmy Keene to find deliverance. Located in Paxton, barely a smudge of a city in the great expanse of central-Illinois farmland, it sat practically hidden behind the squat courthouse. For Keene, any time he spent in the jail was a special kind of torture. “I’d rather be in a hard core prison and have to worry about getting stabbed,” he says, “than be confined in that little, nasty ancient history shit hole.”
Unfortunately for him, Ford County jail was somewhat centrally located on his road to ruin. An hour up the highway in one direction was his hometown of Kankakee, where he was busted for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Down the highway from Ford County in the other direction, was the U.S. Courthouse in Urbana, where he took a plea on the drug charge and was sentenced to ten years. Then he was held at the jail a few days longer until he was transferred to the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. He did not relish returning to Ford County yet again in 1998, even though he would be closer to family and friends, and he certainly didn’t look forward to seeing Lawrence Beaumont, the assistant U.S. Attorney who had summoned him from his federal prison in Michigan.
He blamed Beaumont most for his crushing sentence. The prosecutor had worn a full beard then − shot with gray − and Jimmy remembered how he stared down on him in the courtroom from a terrible height, like some Old Testament prophet, eyes blazing and voice booming. When Keene’s lawyer, Jeff Steinback, told him that Beaumont was ready to talk about a deal for an early release, Jimmy says, “I immediately thought it was some kind of trap.”
Keene had not been any small-time dealer. In the fifteen years before his arrest, he had built one of the biggest independent drug empires in the Chicago area. Along the way, he had dealt with a tempting array of targets for the Feds. His suppliers included a Mexican drug lord and Chicago-area Mafiosi. Among his customers were porn stars, yuppies, cops, doctors, lawyers, club owners and the adult children of prominent politicians. After his arrest, some narcotics detectives even asked him to give up damaging information about his father − also named James Keene and known as Big Jim − a popular former ranking officer in the Kankakee police and fire departments who had influential friends in the highest reaches of state and local government. “They wanted me to cooperate in the worst way,” Jimmy says, “but I always refused to testify against anyone in court, and I wasn’t going to start, no matter how many years they kept me locked up.”
For the meeting with the prosecutor, a sheriff’s deputy put Keene in handcuffs and shackles and then marched him into the jail’s tiny, windowless conference room, where his lawyer, Steinback, was waiting. Although Keene was cuffed, sheriff’s deputies still crammed in around the table to watch over him. Soon the prosecutor himself entered and stared down at him again. Only this time he was accompanied by Ken Temples, a benign, balding FBI agent Jimmy hadn’t seen before. Beaumont then sat opposite Keene and with a typical dramatic flourish, slid a fat legal file across the table.
Jimmy nonchalantly grabbed it with his cuffed hands and lifted up the flap, putting on his best poker face to mask a reaction to whatever he saw inside. Still, nothing could have prepared him for the first glossy photograph he pulled from the folder. This was not a picture of a drug dealer or local big shot. Instead, he saw the battered naked body of a young woman, sprawled between rows of standing corn. Her skin was torn and discolored. As best he could with the cuffs, Jim turned over photo after photo of the grisly scene, first thinking, “Are they trying to pin this on me, too?”
He looked up expecting to see a scowl from Beaumont. But the prosecutor’s gaze was no longer as hard or even accusing. Keene continued through the file. One photograph was of a second naked victim in a ditch, but there were other pictures of smiling, attractive young women. They could have come from high school yearbooks. The file also included terse police reports from Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin; even states as far away as Utah. Some of the teens had been found dead and, like the girl in the cornfield, with signs of strangulation. Others were still missing.
The pageant of beaming victims finally stopped with a man’s mug shot. Notations at the bottom of the photo indicated that he’d been booked in an Indiana county jail back in 1994, but his cherubic face – framed by slick strands of hair, a trimmed moustache and bushy mutton chop sideburns – could have been snapped a century earlier. His strangely placid eyes stared off into the distance as though stuck in an interminable pose.
His name was Larry DeWayne Hall. Beaumont had prosecuted him as well, and he explained to Keene that Hall was serving a life sentence for abducting the girl in the cornfield. Pointing to the thick folder, Beaumont added, “We think he’s responsible for more than twenty other killings.”
Hall’s bizarre grooming was a key element that tied him to many of his suspected victims. Their abductions coincided with “reenactments” at nearby historic battlefields. A dedicated Civil War buff, Hall traveled throughout the country to portray a Union foot soldier and even appeared as a period extra in two films. His muttonchops, emulating those of a Union general, were intended to make his face look as authentic as his uniform and rifle.
Although Beaumont and the FBI were convinced that Hall was a serial killer, he had been convicted for killing just one victim, Jessica Roach, the girl in the cornfield, and it took two trials to do it. The guilty verdict from the first was overturned on appeal and now an appeal was pending on the second conviction. A basis for both appeals was that Hall’s confession had been coerced by wily investigators. If the government lost the second appeal, Beaumont would have to try Hall yet again and he might go free.
Still stunned, Jimmy stared at the photos of the girls and listened to Beaumont talk about Hall, barely absorbing the details. Finally, he blurted out, “What does this have to do with me?”
Beaumont was prepared to make Keene a deal. He would transfer Jimmy undercover to the maximum security penitentiary and psychiatric hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where the federal Bureau of Prisons kept its most mentally ill inmates. There Hall had been serving a life sentence as a model prisoner, attending to the building’s boiler room and carving finely crafted falcons in the arts and crafts shop. Only the warden and chief psychiatrist would know Jimmy’s objective ― to befriend the serial killer. If Jimmy could get him to confess to his crimes and disclose details that had not been publicized previously, then the prosecutor would have Keene testify the next time he tried Hall. In return, Beaumont would ask the judge to give Keene an early release.
Jimmy was still confused. Why did the prosecutor want him to go undercover? “Why don’t you take some FBI guy and send him in?” he asked.
“Hall would smell him a mile away,” Beaumont replied. “He’d be too polished and Hall would sense that and clam right up. But you’re perfect. You can mix with anyone–from the street level to the board level.” As the prosecutor described Jimmy’s qualifications for the job, Keene realized that during all the years that they had tried to put him away, Beaumont and the narcotics squads had observed Keene’s social skills with grudging admiration. He says, “It seemed like a dream. One minute, I’m sitting in Michigan on the hot dime of a ten-year sentence with a long way to go. Then Beaumont pops up out of nowhere with this serial killer thing and like tomorrow I could be out.”
Keene desperately wanted to get out of prison, but to the surprise of everyone in the conference room, he closed the folder and pushed it back at Beaumont. “I can’t do this,” he said. “I don’t have any experience with serial killers or anything like that.”
“No, no, no,” Beaumont pleaded. “That doesn’t matter.” Suddenly, the man who had argued so loudly to put him away was begging for Jimmy’s consideration and added, “I’m willing to make it worth your while.” Although Keene could appreciate that irony, he couldn’t help but be suspicious of the Feds, especially Beaumont. But then Steinback, who was shoved in next to Jimmy at the table, elbowed him in the side and held up his hand. “Mr. Beaumont, I’d like to talk to my client out in the hallway.”
Steinback was not the original lawyer in Keene’s case. A balding man with a powerful stature but a soft voice, Steinback is not just known for his work as a trial lawyer. His specialty is in the court of last resort ― the various proceedings that come after a guilty verdict or plea. His clients have ranged from mobster hit men to media mogul Conrad Black. But never had he seen a deal like the one Beaumont offered to Keene. Once he had Jimmy in the hall outside the conference room, he hissed, “You have to do this. If you succeed it will be a total wash on everything: your sentence, your fine, even your parole.”
“And what if I fail?” Keene asked. “I’ll be stuck in a penitentiary with lunatics.”
“Jim, please, just for me,” Steinback begged. “No matter what happens, this will give me a reason to go back to the judge, and we’ll get something extra for your effort. I promise.”
Keene and Steinback then returned to the conference room and Jimmy broke the news. “I’ll go ahead and give it a try.”
Beaumont, he remembers, was ecstatic, practically reaching across the table to hug him: “That’s great. Great.”
Once again, Beaumont and the FBI agent deluged Jimmy with background information on Hall. He listened, still in a daze. However, as they kept talking, he realized that Hall’s story was more complicated than it had first sounded. Beaumont most wanted Hall to confess to another killing ― one of the most famous missing-person cases of the nineties. They suspected that Hall had abducted this young woman right from her college campus, but the local police disputed who was responsible for her disappearance. If Hall told Keene where he buried her and they found the body, then there would be no doubt about Hall’s guilt. This was to be Keene’s objective in addition to obtaining a confession. “If you don’t get us the location of that body,” Beaumont told him, “you don’t get released. No body, no release.”
Any confidence Keene felt about accomplishing Beaumont’s crazy mission suddenly melted away. No body, no release? It was one thing to hear Hall confess. It was quite another to get inside his head and get him to reveal a burial place that he may have repressed or even forgotten. It all seemed so impossible ― like capturing the witch’s broomstick in The Wizard of Oz.
Still in handcuffs and leg shackles, Keene was pulled to his feet and then, with a few claps on the back, he was returned to his putrid jail cell with Larry Hall’s fat legal folder tucked under his arm. Again and again over the next few weeks, Jimmy would have second thoughts about Beaumont’s mission. At one point, he even told his lawyer that he was ready to back out. It would take a harrowing personal tragedy two weeks later before he would fully commit to the bizarre criminal investigation, not just for himself but for his family. In the process, he would learn as much about his own inner demons as Hall’s—an experience that would sear his soul far more than a lengthy sentence—and help him emerge from prison a truly changed man.