I was fifteen years old when William de Soto escaped from USP Marion, a maximum security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. I remember watching a short segment about the escape on the evening news, but not paying any particular attention to it. The penitentiary was six hundred miles away and the escape posed no threat whatsoever to the people in the little town I was living in. At least that’s what I thought.
William de Soto was serving five consecutive life sentences when he assaulted and killed a doctor in the hospital wing of the prison in early November 1982. He then took the doctor’s clothes and security pass, and casually strolled out of the complex and back into the free world. Once on the outside, he stole the doctor’s car and drove it all the way to St Louis. By the time the police found it, located in a parking garage in the downtown area, five days had passed.
By that time, I had forgotten all about the mass murderer’s unorthodox departure. There were other more important things on my mind back then, such as playing ice hockey down on the frozen pond behind the town hall. Growing up in a small town in Minnesota that was pretty much the only thing young boys were interested in during the long, cold winter months back in those days.
I used to walk from our house, on the northern outskirts of town on the narrow gravel road that cut through the forest and eventually hooked onto the grid patterned network of paved roads in the centre of town. The battered hockey stick resting against my shoulder, the skates tied to the base of the blade a foot or so above my head, slicing through the frigid, winter air.
As soon as I got home from school, I would walk the two miles into town. Then late in the evening when it got too dark to see the puck, I would return home. I didn’t mind the walking, but I always found the last half a mile, surrounded by nothing but the forest and the dark unnerving. There were no street lights on that road, and although it never got completely dark due to the snow reflecting the ambient light, it always got my heart racing. And this particular evening was no different.
I paused when I reached the start of the road, something I always did. Then I took a few deep breaths and reminded myself that there was nothing to worry about. In six and a half minutes I’d be home, safe behind the walls of our two story, timber clad house. Then I began walking.
I kept to the middle of the road, where the snow had been cleared a few days earlier and compacted into a thin, hard white layer. There was very little traffic on that road, and especially during this time of the day, so there was no real danger of being run over. Besides cars were easily detected by their lights and the noise of their engines.
The first driveway I passed was the Jeffersons’ about a hundred yards up the road on the right. I turned my head and could see a faint light glow from between the trees. Most of the residences were set back a fair distance from the road to give the owners the desired privacy they had requested when the houses were built. And even though you couldn’t see them from the road, it was still nice to know they were there and that the area wasn’t entirely deserted.
A minute later, I passed the Schultzs’ property and as I looked down their driveway, I could see the same faint light drifting up toward me. And I remember feeling relieved to have reached the halfway point. Only two more houses to go now and I’d be back home. The road formed another bend up ahead, then there was a gentle incline and a hundred yards beyond that, on the left hand side set back a hundred yards from the road was our house. I started walking a little faster and half a minute later I had cleared the bend and could see the incline up ahead.
And that’s when I heard a noise coming from somewhere inside the forest. I stopped and turned, facing the area where I thought I’d heard the noise. It had got my heart racing and I was breathing heavily. It had been a quick, dry sound as if someone had stepped on a twig. I stood completely still, staring into the dark forest, my mind working in overdrive to try to find a rational explanation for it.
Ten second passed without anything happening, and I was about to continue on my way, convinced that it must have been an animal, when I heard another noise. And this time it was much closer. I subconsciously took a step backwards and grabbed the hockey stick with both hands and held it out in front of me like a giant sword. The skates slid down the stick and fell to the ground, but I paid no attention to them. All I could focus on were the sounds coming from behind the trees. I took another step backwards. The frost was coming out my mouth in rapid bursts and I was starting to get really scared. I tightened the grip on the stick, ready to lash out if anyone or anything was trying to attack me. I wanted to shout out and ask who was there, but I just couldn’t get the words out. Then I heard yet another noise and saw a shape step out of the forest, and I felt my heart rise up to my throat and my blood go cold.
It was a man, and he just walked out into the middle of the road and was standing there absolutely still facing me, less than thirty yards away. He was dressed in a red lumberjack jacket, and on his head was a brown sealskin hat with earflaps standing out at ninety degree angle. But what made my skin crawl was the axe he was holding in his hand.
I was too perplexed to do anything, and we ended up just standing there staring at each other. Then after what must have been half a minute, he started to walk toward me. I took another step backwards and tripped. I flapped my arms to try to regain my balance, but to no avail. The hockey stick flew out of my hands and hit the road at the same time that I landed on my side. I tossed my head around and could see the person was still coming toward me, walking in a slow, steady pace. The axe was hanging down his side and swinging in tandem with the movements of his arm.
I let out a whimper and jumped back up, and started running back toward town like I had just seen a ghost. My heart was pounding against my ribcage and my mouth felt bone dry. The only thing I could think about was to get away as quickly as possible. I made it around the bend and saw the Schultzs’ driveway on the right hand side about fifty yards away. If I could just make it over to their house I’d be safe. I slowed down and turned right, and as I did so I cast a quick sideways glance and felt like someone had just thrown a bucket of ice cold water in my face. Because the man with the axe was running too, and he was closing the gap fast. I increased my speed and noticed I had difficulties breathing. I drew in several big lungfuls of air, but found it almost impossible to exhale. I could remember falling on my back when I was six years old and having all the air knocked out of my lungs. And that was how I felt right then, like a little kid lying helplessly on the ground, convinced he was about to die any second.
I cleared the bend in the driveway and could see the house up ahead. Ten more seconds tops and I would be there. The thought must have given me some extra strength, because I was able to kick it up a notch and not long after I was barrelling up the staircase, hammering madly on the door. At the same time I twisted the doorknob and felt an enormous relief wash over me when the door began to swing inwards. Thank fucking god for small favours! I ran inside and as I slammed the door shut, I could see the man with the axe through the little diamond shaped window on the top of the door. He was less than fifteen yards away, axe held high. I lowered my gaze, found the deadbolt knob and twisted it, but it didn’t budge. I felt the blood rush down from my brain and I let out an unintelligible sound. I put both hands on the knob and twisted it as hard as I could but still it didn’t move. A horrible thought entered my mind at that exact moment; I wasn’t going to be able to lock the fucking door. The axeman would come bolting through it in a couple of seconds and do god knows what to me. In a last desperate attempt, I threw my body against the door and heard the sweet clicking sound that told me I had finally managed to manipulate it. I stood back and let out a hysterical laugh, then I turned around, sprinted away from the door and shouted at the top of my lungs that there was a madman after me.
I ran down the hallway and into the living room, but there was no one there. Upstairs, was all I could think. The Schultzs’ had to be upstairs. I turned around and ran back again. Out toward the entrance area and up the staircase on the left. And as I passed it, I could see the guy was twisting the knob and throwing his weight against the door.
The only thing going through my mind at that moment was how far away the police station was, and how long it would take the cops to get here. I ran up the stairs, taking two steps at the time, while shouting for someone to call 911. When I arrived on the landing, I saw the door at the far end was open and I rushed toward it. I was able to breathe properly again, and I no longer felt like I was about to faint. At least not until I arrived at the room and saw the dead bodies of the Schultzs’ lying in pools of blood on top of the white wall to wall carpet.
I stopped and my eyes locked onto the gruesome scene before me. Their bodies were lying face down on the floor, their arms tied behind their backs with white electrical cord. But what I remember most clearly was their heads, or rather the area where their heads were supposed to be. I stood there completely dumbfounded, sweat running down my face, absolutely terrified. Then I slowly raised my head and looked over at the bed. And there on top of the pillows were two heads staring at me with blank expressions. I screamed and ran out of the room and back toward the staircase, where I once again stopped dead in my tracks. Because there at the bottom of the stairs, I saw the man with the axe looking up at me. His face hard and expressionless, and for a fraction of a second I thought I’d seen that face somewhere before. But that was as far as it went, because at that very instant he started running up toward me, axe held out in front of him, ready to strike. Just like he had struck the deadly weapon against the necks of the Schultzs’.
I threw myself around and ran back toward the open door and the room I had just exited. The thumping sound coming from the treads in the staircase, and the knowledge that the person causing them was out to kill me, eliminated any qualms I had about returning to the murder scene. I flung myself forward, slammed the door shut and locked it. I could hear the thumping get closer, then I could hear the weight of a body slamming against the door. I felt completely helpless and feared my legs would give up on me at any second. I jerked my head around, and tried desperately to think of a way out.
The window! It was my only option. I ran toward it, not looking down at the bodies and for the second time that evening I tripped and fell. My hands and my upper body crashing into the pools of blood that had started to coagulate on the floor. I swore and jumped back up, and managed to get over to the window where I tore the curtains aside. Then without giving it a second thought I undid the lock, pushed the sash upwards and felt the frigid air rush into the room.
I didn’t even bother to look down; I just threw my legs over the lower frame of the window, wiggled my upper body through the opening and took a few deep breaths. From the other side of the room, I could see the axe smashing through the flimsy door panels. Then it stopped and I could see a hand appearing through the newly created hole, reaching for the lock. And that’s when I pushed my legs out from the wall and felt my body free falling toward the white blanket twelve feet below.
I hit the ground and was thrown forward, but luckily the snow dampened the impact and I did not hurt myself. I flipped myself over and looked back up and could see the person with the axe looking down at me, his head and the scary looking hat poking out of the window. And for a second or two we locked eyes. Then he quickly pulled his head back and I could once again hear the thumping noise his feet made when they hit the floorboards. And that’s when I remembered where I had seen his face before. I had seen it on the evening news last week. It belonged to the mass murderer who had escaped from that maximum security prison in Illinois. It only took a fraction of a second for my brain to reach that conclusion, and I didn’t dwell on it. Instead I jumped up on my feet and started running.
I was aiming for the timber fence, which was about fifty yards away or so. On the other side of it was the Anderson’s house. I could no longer hear the mass murderer’s footsteps from inside the house, and I wondered what side he was going to appear from. If he decided to turn left when he exited the house, he would be able to cut me off. But if he turned right, I still had a fighting chance of getting away. I hoped with all my heart he would choose the latter.
Making my way across the garden was hard, and even though I was running for dear life it felt like I was standing still. The snow reached up to my knees and it was a real struggle to lift my legs and make any headway. When I passed the corner of the house I turned my head and saw there was no one there. The realisation filled me with hope. Had he decided to turn right when he exited the house? I kept on running, kicking the fine, powdery top layers of the snow each time I lifted my legs. The fence got closer and could be no more than twenty yards away now. All I had to do was to scramble over the top and alert the Andersons’, who I knew had firearms in their house. If I could just manage to run another hundred yards, I’d be safe. I cast a quick glance behind me and felt the hope turn into pure, cold fear. The axeman had just rounded the corner on the far side of the house and he was running just like me. I flexed every muscle in my body and willed myself to run faster. And oh so slowly the fence got closer and closer, and then I was finally there.
I didn’t waste any time, I just grabbed hold of the top of it and threw myself upward and managed to get both arms over the top of the vertical timber palings. Then I swung my right leg toward the top so I could push my lower body up and throw myself over onto the other side. But I didn’t swing it hard enough and it ended up back where I started. I let out a desperate gasp and tried again, but with the same result. I pinched my eyes shut and swung my leg for the third time, and this time I finally managed to get hold of the top of the paling with my heel. Then I pushed as hard as I could and felt my body start to slide upwards. A few seconds later I was free falling yet again and landed in the snow on the other side. As I got up on my feet, I could see the axeman less than ten yards away. He had raised the axe above his head and he had a disturbing look on his face. I turned around, my heart hammering in my chest and began running toward the house. I could see its contours quite clearly through the pine trees. Then I heard loud swearing from behind me, and what I assumed was the axe smashing into the fence.
I kept on running and before I knew it I had made it out from behind the trees. And that’s when it hit me. The house looked deserted. There were no lights coming from any of the windows. I felt the exhilaration of having made it over the fence, turn into desperation. What the fuck was I going to do if there was no one home? I ran over to the front yard and stopped, not knowing what to do next. There was no point in knocking on their door. If the Andersons’ were out, I’d be a sitting duck up on that porch. I turned my head and looked over at the driveway and thought about running up to the main road. Would I be able to outrun the guy? I didn’t know, but I had a feeling that I wouldn’t.
Then I looked behind me and saw the door leading into the garage, and I didn’t even think twice about it. I just went for it. I pulled the door toward me and to my relief I noticed that it was unlocked. I let out another whimper, ran inside and locked it. Then I took a few steps to the side, so I was positioned between the door and the small rectangular window on top of the wall. Then I turned my head quickly and snuck a peek outside, but there was no one there. The guy was still making his way across the lawn. I placed my head back against the exposed timber frame and closed my eyes. My breathing was hard and laboured, and I was afraid it could be heard from outside the garage. I filled my lungs and exhaled slowly, noticing that my teeth were chattering.
Then I could hear the footsteps. They were getting closer, and then they were right next to the door, accompanied by breaths coming out in quick short bursts. I clenched my fists and closed my eyes again, wishing I could sink through the floor and just disappear. That I could just get away from this nightmare I had run into. I was convinced the guy would start smashing the door with his axe and make mincemeat out of me. But he kept on running and I felt an enormous relief, which lasted for a whole two seconds until he stopped. I opened my eyes and very, very carefully moved my head so I could look out the window, and felt like I had just been kicked in the stomach. Because there he was standing completely still, less than twenty yards away, back turned toward the garage. He was studying his new surroundings, obviously trying to ascertain which direction I had taken off in.
I stared at his back with terror stricken eyes, and saw he was alternating his gaze between the house and the driveway. He was moving the axe from one hand to the other, and in the light shining down from the pole at the end of the front yard, I could see it was covered in blood. Run up the driveway you fucking monster, I thought. Run toward town and leave me the fuck alone.
Then what I feared most of all happened. He slowly turned around and faced the garage. I threw my head aside, closed my eyes and pressed the back of my head up against the wall. I could hear the footsteps approaching the door. Then there was a moment of silence, before he began twisting the doorknob. Then he began rattling the door. A few seconds later the noise stopped, and I could see the shadow on the floor as he stepped in front of the window and looked inside. By this stage I didn’t breathe at all. I just stood there, like I was frozen in time, terrified about what he would do next. Then I heard a light tapping on the glass, and my heart skipped a beat. He was tapping the axe against the window. Did he realise I was in here? Was he doing it just to tease me?
Then came the words that sent me into a state of panic.
“Hey little boy, are you in there? Why don’t you come outside so we can have a chat?”
This was followed by a brief silence, before he continued.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.”
My entire body was shaking now and I realised that this garage would be the place where my life would come to an end. I also realised it would be a very violent and painful end. I began scanning the garage, frantically trying to find a way out, or see if I could find something I could use to defend myself with.
There was a workbench pushed up against the back wall, and a pegboard with various tools hanging from it. But there was nothing I could use to incapacitate the guy with, such as a gun. Then the axe struck against the door, and I jumped. Then I ran over to the bench. I don’t know why I did it, it would have made a whole lot more sense to open up one of the big garage doors at the front and just take off and try to get away.
Then the second blow came, and I could see some of the light from the front yard spill inside. By now I was manically throwing things off the bench, tearing tools off the pegboard and throwing them at the door, as if that would somehow change the guy’s mind and make him leave. But the axe kept striking, and now there was a sizeable gap in the door panel.
I kept rummaging around the bench like a madman and that’s when I saw the green plastic can. I stopped as if someone had just pressed pause on a DVD player. A thought entered my mind and I knew what I had to do. I grabbed the can, opened the lid and felt the sweet odour of gasoline hit my nostrils. Then I ran over to the door. I registered the splinters of wood flying into the room, but paid no attention to it. It was like someone else had taken control of my body, and I was observing the incident from afar. Then I started emptying the gasoline on the floor next to the door and began making my way back toward the front of the garage. The noise from the axe hitting the door was deafening and I knew it would fly open any second now.
I must have poured a gallon and a half on the epoxy treated surface, and what was left I poured into a plastic tray I had found on the bench. Then I flipped the lid on my Zippo lighter and squeezed it in my free hand. This was my only chance. Then I just stood there shaking. Would I be able to go through with it, or would the fear completely paralyse me? The axe kept hitting the door, and then all of a sudden the horrible noise stopped and the door was kicked inward. And a terror that I have never experience before or since washed over me. Then I saw him, the axe hanging down, swinging gently in his hand.
“Oh, hello there little boy,” he said in a mocking tone. “I knew I’d find you in here.”
He turned his head to the left and saw me standing against the big garage door. Then he began walking toward me.
“It’s time for you to go to sleep now little boy.” He lifted the axe, placed his other hand on the shaft and began swinging it back and forth through the air like it was a sword.
The sweat was running down my face and I had problems breathing. The hand holding the plastic tray was shaking so badly that some of the gasoline spilled over the sides and fell down to the floor. Just let him get a little bit closer I thought, just a few more feet. Then all of a sudden he stopped and looked down. He must have finally realised that the floor was wet. And that was the cue I had been waiting for. I lit the Zippo lighter, threw it down on the floor and then I ran toward him and threw the rest of the gasoline on him.
It all happened very quickly, but I could see his perplexed face staring at me, the gasoline hitting him and hear the explosive sound it created when it caught fire. And then the fire swallowed him up. The flames shot up from the floor and covered every inch of his body in a fraction of a second. I quickly ran back to the garage door, pressed my back up against it and listened to the horrible screams coming out of his mouth. His arms were desperately trying to extinguish the flames, but to no avail and he looked like a dancer, spinning around, moving from one side to the other. I looked at him transfixed and felt the heat from the fire burn my skin. I had to get out of there, if not I would burn too.
I looked up and saw the red rope hanging down from the engine attached to the ceiling and pulled it, and heard the two garage doors come to life. When they were a quarter of the way open, I leaned down and squeezed through. Then I began running up the driveway without looking back, and the only thing that followed me were the god-awful screams coming from the human torch performing its death dance inside that garage.
When I got back home, I was hysterical and it took my dad a good ten minutes to calm me down enough to get a clear picture of what had happened. When he did he called the cops and the fire brigade, and I spent the next four hours recounting what I had gone through to two very stern looking local police investigators.
The fire brigade were not able to save the garage, but they managed to contain the blaze and prevent it from spreading to the house. William de Soto, the escaped mass murderer who tried to kill me that evening was found dead in the front yard, face down in the snow. It had eventually occurred to him that the best way to extinguish the flames was to roll around in the snow. Unfortunately for him, by the time he realised this it was too late. The fact that he had died actually came as a relief to me. It meant I never had to worry about him breaking out of prison again and come looking for revenge.
Why he had decided to come to our town, and why he had decided to kill the Schultzs’ remains a mystery to this day. As far as the police was able to establish, he had never visited the area, nor did he have any acquaintances here. It was just one of those unexplainable events that occur every now and then.
It took me a long time to come to terms with what happened, and for the next two years my dad would always come and pick me up in the evenings after I finished playing ice hockey in town. I guess he felt guilty, even though it wasn’t his fault that I had to go through what I did that evening. I don’t really blame him. He almost lost his only son that day. That is something that is very hard to come to terms with for a parent.
William de Soto was also a father. He had two sons, and they lost their dad that day. I watched a clip where they were being interviewed on one of the late night news shows. And even though they claimed they held no grudges toward me for killing their dad, I was left with a bad feeling after watching it. In their faces I saw the same expression I had seen on their dad’s face when he walked through that door with his axe held high, ready to kill me. There was something about it that I quite couldn’t put my finger on, but which filled me with a sense of dread. I just hope they don’t decide to pay me a visit sometime in the future to try to settle a score. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but you never know.
If you kill someone, no matter how justifiable it is, you always have to live with the threat of retaliation. It’s just a cross that those of us that have taken a life have to bear until the day we die. But don’t get me wrong, the alternative; being killed by an axe wielding maniac was obviously a whole lot worse. I am truly grateful to be alive. But still, that niggling, worrying feeling is always there in the back of my mind and sometimes it makes me incredibly paranoid.