Q&A with Ron Franscell

A 12-year-old boy cowers in his closet while a lunatic killer slaughters his family...a nursing student unwittingly opens her home to the serial killer on her front porch...a brave firefighter suddenly finds himself in the crosshairs of a racist sniper almost nine stories above the ground. Astonishingly, they all survived. In his latest book, Delivered from Evil: True Stories of Ordinary People Who Faced Monstrous Mass Killers and Survived, award-winning author Ron Franscell explores the wounded hearts and minds of the ordinary people these monsters couldn't kill. His mesmerizing accounts crackle with gritty details that put the reader in the midst of the carnage and offer a front-row seat on the complex, painful process of surviving the rest of their haunted lives. The book is published by Fair Winds Press.

What prompted you to write this type of book? What did you hope to accomplish?

I'm not especially fascinated by mass murders or serial killers, except as the catalysts that set great human stories in motion. I'm far more interested in the people who are splashed by this horror and who must deal with it. I was searching for survivors of horrifying mass killers who had refused to lie down and die, either literally or figuratively. Too often, survivors of these kinds of events simply stop dead in their tracks and spend the rest of their days waiting to die. But I wanted to explore the wounded hearts and minds that don't surrender and don't stop. I wanted to know what things deep down in the heart of our hearts begs us to keep going. When I started, I knew these 10 ordinary people had survived bloodcurdling moments and rebuilt something that looked like normal in their lives, but I had no idea how or at what price. By the time I'd finished my year with these people, I began to see just how extraordinary they really were.

How did you decide which incidents to include in the book?

The first element, of course, was having survivors who were still alive and willing to talk. They had to have some perspective on their experience, so I sought cases where some time had passed. I wanted a mix of infamous mass killings and some lesser-known ones, where the horror was no less, but readers were likely to be unfamiliar with the circumstances. Certainly for the victims and survivors, the size of the headline didn't matter much at the time.

The process of finding these 10 survivors took about 2 months. I started with a basic list of survivors in about 50 American and Canadian mass killings. Some had died, some didn't want to talk (sometimes because they didn't want to revisit it, and sometimes because they hoped to write their own books), and some had clearly not regained their equilibrium. Not all survivors' stories have happy endings, and I found many who had simply stopped dead in their tracks and were just waiting to die. After the recent Tucson shooting and many others, people talk about "healing" and "closure" as if "just give them a week or so and they'll be fine." But we're talking years, and painful years, and society doesn't want to wait around for that. We move on fairly quickly, and that's normal, but then the survivors find themselves on their own, and that's another sadness.

I understand you compiled the stories through newspaper articles and interviews with survivors and responders. How cooperative were the people you interviewed?

I used many source materials: newspaper clippings, original police files, court transcripts, eyewitness accounts, personal visits to each important site, and spent up to 10 days with each of the survivors. I interviewed their families, and even families of the killers themselves. With few exceptions, everyone was very helpful when they understood the book's intent to focus on the survivors' experiences, not on retrying the cases or rewriting history. One notable example is paramedic Robert Kelley, who was the first rescuer on the scene of the 1991 Luby's Cafeteria massacre in Killeen, Texas. He freely shared his archives, his heart and his nightmares, and added an important layer to my understanding of the event and to the survivors' experiences. (Ed's Note: Robert L. Kelley is a firefighter/first responder for the Gatesville (TX) Volunteer Fire Department. He worked as a firefighter/paramedic for the Killeen (TX) Fire Department from 1982-97. His article Killeen Diary, which detailed his experiences responding to the October 1991 Luby's shooting, appeared in the March 1992 issue of EMS Magazine. The mass shooting, in which gunman George Hennard killed 23 before shooting himself, was the deadliest in U.S. history before Virginia Tech. Click here to read an excerpts from his journal entries.)

One thing far more interesting than the killers, though, is their families, who carry around a certain victimization, too. They're as close to the event and just as shocked as anybody can be, but they have a couple of added burdens, one of which is a conflicted sense of loyalty to their kin. They know this is an awful thing, but at the same time they don't want to appear to have abandoned their family member. The other burden is the social stigma that stains them as if they were somehow responsible or contributed to the event. I was able to talk to some of the killers' relatives, and, to a person, they were defensive and believed their relative had been wronged or misunderstood.

Of the 10 mass killings I explore in the book, three of the killers were still alive at the time I was writing. I sought interviews with each of them on several occasions, but was refused.

How did the process affect you personally?

This is a book about the human spirit...its resilience and its capacity for triumph. All of us have our traumas and our grief...a death in the family...a divorce...missed opportunities that drag us down. But if these people could look a killer in the eye and somehow find their way back to something that feels like normal, then the rest of us can hope for something better, too.

I know the book is hot off the press, but what reaction have you had so far?

I set out to write a different kind of true-crime account--one that focused on victims and survivors more than the demented killers. I wanted to tell their stories in all the painful, provocative colors of their memories. These were complex stories, so I didn't want to reduce them to shallow, lurid, blood-spattered, tabloid-y accounts that you see in true-crime paperbacks at the supermarket. So far, readers are embracing it as a fresh new approach to the genre, and I hope the word continues to spread.

Excerpt from Delivered From Evil, reprinted with permission of Fair Winds Press: "Nightmare at Noon"--1991 mass shooting at the Luby's Cafeteria, Killeen, TX

"Al Gratia outlived his killer.

When the shooting ended, paramedic Robert Kelley found Al alive but in shock, rolling from side to side, unable to speak or breathe. His pulse was weak, and he was turning deathly blue as he sloped toward unconsciousness. At a glance, Kelley knew Al was mortally wounded, likely drowning in his own blood. Because other lives might be saved in these precious minutes, Kelley made a harsh triage decision. He mentally labeled Al as a likely death.

"Let's get this guy out front, on oxygen," Kelley told an EMT with a stretcher as he continued the grim task of sorting the dead from the living. Muzak still played and a phone rang incessantly somewhere as the Vietnam combat vet circled the wrecked room. Gun smoke and the smell of death hung in the air as he covered each corpse's face with a green linen napkin, a sign to his fellow medics that this one was beyond help.

When he was almost finished, Kelley checked another lifeless man's pulse while a police officer stood over him with an assault rifle.

"Is he dead?" the cop asked.

"Yeah."

"It's a good thing," the cop said, and that's when Kelley knew the dead man was the killer himself.

As Kelley hurried to help with the wounded outside, (Gratia's daughter) Suzanna tried in vain to get back into the restaurant to find her mother and father. Refused re-entry at the broken window where she'd escaped, she looked for her lost shoe and limped around to the front of the building, where ambulances were shuttling the wounded to local hospitals, along with a steady stream of medevac dust-offs from Fort Hood. She pushed her way through a growing throng of reporters, frenzied survivors, overwhelmed first responders and curious onlookers.

There under the Luby's atrium, out of the direct sun, she found her father's body strapped to a backboard. He had just died. His open eyes were empty and flat, and blood pooled on the asphalt beneath his stretcher. She cursed herself for being slow getting there, for the cuts that slowed her, for worrying about a goddamned shoe. She might have been able to spend her father's dying seconds with him.

...And that night, sleep didn't come easy for Robert Kelley either. In a nightmare, he watched a giant hand materialize from an angry, black cloud, pointing down at him reproachfully. He bolted upright from a cold sweat, frightening his wife. He thought of the old man who reached out to him without words or breath, the man he decided would soon die. How could he have been sure? Was there more he could have done? Numbed by all the death around him, did he give up too quickly on Al Gratia?

Robert Kelley reviews Delivered from Evil

Ever since the McDonald's massacre in San Ysidro, CA, in 1984, mass murder has increased ten-fold. Sadly, it is an epidemic that will never be erased from our society.

From the beginning of this book to the end, Ron Franscell takes you on an emotional journey that, well, for the survivors, just doesn't end. The healing that the survivors face is a continual work in progress because each day brings new challenges.

Delivered from Evil is not a book that you can read in one or two sittings. It is an intense, heartrending read that exposes your emotions, drives you a little crazy and leaves you wanting to shout "Don't let the son-of-a-bitch win."

From Charles Cohen, who survived a mass shooting more than 60 years ago, to Suzy Gratia-Hupp, whose parents were killed in Luby's, to Terry Jo Duperrault, who was adrift in the ocean after her family was murdered, the reader is taken through the crimes that left the survivors fighting for their physical and mental health.

Delivered from Evil is an important read to let us know that there are truly evil people in our society who get immense pleasure out of the pain they cause to others, often taking the cowardly way out by committing suicide after the attack. The survivors are left in the aftermath, often on their own, to find answers and rebuild their shattered life trying to seek normalcy again.

Charles Cohen pushed his memories deep inside, hiding the truth from his family. After 31 years Charles discovered "that no matter how shitty things get in life and how depressed you may feel and how bad things may seem to you, sometimes it is better to talk about it and get it out."

All too often the survivors of a mass shooting are forgotten, left to combat the malevolent images forever etched in their minds alone, as the focus is placed on the perpetrator.

Delivered from Evil is an intimate look into the daily struggle for recovery of the survivors, a recovery that began with the single pull of a trigger.

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