By D. Reed Eckhardt
Editor, Cheyenne (Wyo.) Tribune-Eagle
December 6, 2006
I'm not a big fan of true-crime stories.
More often than not, they simply repeat the details of a crime, cover the ensuing trial of those arrested and provide the current status of everyone involved. That doesn't do it for me; I like a little more suspense in my reading.
But let me recommend one of these books to you anyway: "Fall: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town."
"Fall" is the story of crimes that occurred in Casper in 1973, when 12- and 18-year-old half-sisters were tossed from the Fremont Canyon Bridge by a couple of good-for-nothings.
Amy Burridge, 12, died immediately. Becky Thomson, 18, who was raped by both men, survived and dragged her broken body 300 feet up the canyon wall. She eventually saw both men sentenced to death. Their punishment was changed to life, thanks to legal technicalities. One of the men, Ronald Kennedy, still resides in the state prison.
Ms. Thomson never fully recovered emotionally from the incident, and she returned to the same bridge 18 years later and threw herself over the side.
What sets this true-crime story apart is that it is told by a Casper native who knew the two victims. As a 16-year-old, Ron Franscell lived next door to them, and he and his younger brother played baseball with Miss Burridge. The crimes brought him face to face with evil for the first time in his life and changed him forever.
Mr. Franscell now edits the newspaper in Beaumont, Texas, and has served stints at the Denver Post and at the Gillette News Record. He set out to understand this 30-year-old crime, which remains prominent in the minds of many Casper and Cowboy State residents. In the end, he discovered more about himself than anything else.
In terms of the crime, he uncovered few answers because the two criminals - Mr. Kennedy and Jerry Jenkins - were sociopaths, empty shells of human beings without compassion and incapable of remorse. Unfortunately, the crimes happened because the two girls were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But Mr. Franscell did discover something else: that he was changed by the experience as he used his skills to dig deep into this crime that haunted him for three decades.
It is this personal journey that makes "Fall" work. Its lessons are universal. There is much you and I can learn here - as can all of Wyoming - if we are willing to listen.
In a telephone call this week, Mr. Franscell and I talked about "Fall." We agreed that, as with any work of art, readers will take their own lessons from the 271-page book. But the author also sees several, more universal, themes:
n The pervasiveness of evil. Evil didn't come to Casper, Mr. Franscell writes; it always was there. Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Jenkins were born and raised in the shadow of Casper Mountain; they didn't come there to do their evil deeds like the killers in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."
"No one expected (these crimes)," he said. "They were so random; the victims so innocent; the setting so unique."
The author said it is important to acknowledge the existence of evil, not ignore it or pretend it is not there. He said those latter attitudes are still far too pervasive in Wyoming.
"It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security," he said.
The key, he added, is how one deals with evil. At the extremes, people can disregard it and engage in risky behavior or they can over-regard it and hide themselves away. Neither is right, Mr. Franscell said. Rather, the answer is to strike a balance.
"You need to accept the risk, that you're going to bump into evil," he added. "Be guided by your emotions and your senses, not by your fears."
n Individuals, states and even nations all are part of a greater community. Mr. Franscell explains in "Fall" that Ms. Thomson was lost when she refused to reach out for the help. She walled herself away with her fears and pains, and they overwhelmed her.
He points out, though, that the wider community was not much help. There were no programs for victims, no counseling, no medical aid. She had to pay her own way - and set her own course - while the killers had their medical care paid in prison and were fed and clothed on the state tab. That has changed since, but too late for Ms. Thomson.
"All of us are clearly dependent on each other," Mr. Franscell said. "The world has grown too small for us to be otherwise."
n It is important to strive for justice. Mr. Franscell writes in "Fall" that justice was not served, that society promised that both men would be put to death; neither one of them was (Mr. Jenkins died in prison).
But instead of being made cynical about the lack of justice, Mr. Franscell says the experience of writing the book actually honed his belief that justice can/should/must be served - even if not in every instance.
"I had been lamenting for 30 years that justice had not been served," Mr. Franscell said. "It had made me cynical, given me a jaded view about the whole thing.
"But I was not giving as much energy to justice now as I was giving to the injustice of then. Yes, justice is often illusive and occasionally impossible, but that shouldn't stop one from believing in (it)."
Indeed, Mr. Franscell has chosen a profession - journalism - that often strives for justice. And the writing of "Fall," he added, re-emphasized the value of that.
"The point is to move on to the next thing, to get justice done the next time," he said. "Yes, stuff happens. But you need to get over it and move on, give justice a chance in the future."
Thoughts on the pervasiveness of evil, on need for community, on the positive power of justice - in a true-crime book? That, and more. This is why "Fall" is worth your time and money.
Mr. Franscell argues that these are the worst crimes in Wyoming's history. But that would mean little if all he did was tell of the incidents, the perpetrators and the victims without helping readers come to terms with it all.
"Fall" may not provide healing for those hurt by these crimes, for Casper, for Wyoming. But it certainly won't be because one of the victims, author Ron Franscell, didn't try.
D. Reed Eckhardt is the managing editor of the Cheyenne (Wyo.) Tribune-Eagle.