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Original Essays

The Axeman

by Terri Jentz
  1. Strange Piece of Paradise
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

Last summer I was invited to speak on a panel of mystery writers at the Swedish consulate in Los Angeles. They seated me — the woman who had investigated her own attempted axe murder that took place in Central Oregon's Cline Falls State Park in 1977 — next to acclaimed Swedish mystery writer Hakan Nesser, whose latest book, Borkmann's Point, tells the story of a serial axe-murderer who terrorizes a small Swedish town. In Borkmann's Point, the murderer is known only as the "Axeman" with a capital A and his extreme rarity as an axe-murderer is a point of seemingly monumental importance in the story. Nesser's detective character can hardly believe he has been assigned to solve such a thing as an axe murder: "No matter how hard he searched his brain, he couldn't dig out a single axe murderer from the murky depths of his memory." This serial killer's mastery of the art of terror was unmatched by killers who favored other weapons; Nesser writes, "He was the Axeman. The town down below was in his grip of iron. Down below people where now going out in the evenings in groups, or locking themselves in. His shadow weighed heavy and dark. If the town was on the lips of people all over the country, it was no doubt thanks to him."

I, too, believed that an axe murderer was a rarity, and in an early draft of my book I probed the depths of the use of axe as weapon in a whole chapter devoted to "Axes." I quote from that draft:

Did the cowboy simply seize on the most readily available weapon? As one who always looked for the deeper meaning of things, I thought not.

It wasn't a gun he used. Not even a knife. Not his bare hands. A pillow over the mouth. Not a wire slicing through the neck like the Mafia likes to use. Not a Black Widow's vial of arsenic.

But, precisely, an axe.

Seemed to me, the axe had the whiff of the ancient about it. To use an axe to murder had much in common with other primeval ways of killing. Axing to death, like stoning, wielding wooden clubs or sabers or iron bars — was an ancient form of weaponry. Fire and water too. Murder by burning and drowning. All ancient. All involve a profound participation in the death process.

I spent a number of pages innumerating the remarkably frequent use of the axe as murder weapon in Russia. I wrote, "In the days of the czars, rebels against the government were dispatched with a giant axe in staged, public executions in Red Square. Single strokes severed each arm and leg. A final stroke for the head....One prophet behind the revolution, Leon Trotsky, edged out of power by Stalin, met his demise in Mexico in 1940, appropriately, with an ice axe in his brain. Another prophet, a voice of conscience during the Brezhnev and Gorbachev years, a spiritual leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and a Jew by birth, Alexander Men, was murdered in 1990 by a shadow that jumped him en route to his parish. He struggled home and collapsed at his gate, having lost nearly all his blood from a deep gash in the back of his head caused by an axe. The murder was never solved. But the neo-fascist, anti-Semitic group Pamyat was suspected by those who dared wonder. Their symbol was an axe. Axes had been used in pogroms against Russian Jews for hundreds of years."

I went on to point out that the Nazis also enjoyed their use: "I have a clipping in my hand, from the New York Times, dated Sept 1, 1944, Flomion, France. 'In the little schoolhouse of this village fourteen French male civilians murdered by the Germans lie tonight in a single terrible line. I have just seen them today and they have been severely mutilated. From each the arms and legs had been severed and each head bears axe wounds. Relatives of those slain stand before the school and weep.'"

I went on, "To maim or kill with an axe doubtless grants an aura of dark charisma to the bearer. I've seen lots of pictures of people wielding axes — mostly in movie posters where the one swinging (generally with a bloody blade) always has bulging eyes. But movies are fiction. What surprised me more was the photo I saw in my local Santa Monica newspaper in the '90s, of an axeman who attacked a woman near my own neighborhood — this blond young man with otherwise wholesome looks had popping eyes. Wild eyes and axeman always seem to go together. There is a 1940s vintage publicity still of Joan Crawford, in a simple dress, heaving a massive axe, with those loony Joan Crawford eyes, lots of white around the irises, giving the impression that something real is going on behind the eyes. Why does anyone wield an axe to maim and murder? For the pure mythic drama of it. Like that imaginative serial killer, anonymous to this day, the Axeman of New Orleans, who was creative enough to threaten to strike on a particular night, March 19, 1919, but promised to grant mercy to any home where a live jazz band played in full swing. Let's face it, if she'd used a hammer, we'd never have heard of Lizzie Borden."

And yet, here's what I learned during my investigation in Oregon in 1995! Again, from my earlier draft:

"...The Oregon State Police invited us to hear about their Homicide Investigation Tracking System, better known by the acronym HITS, a marriage of police investigation with computer technology. In a monster country like America, restless perps on the prowl can move over highway arteries, dipping in and out of police jurisdictions invisibly in a matter of hours. Because little or no law enforcement communication has existed across county and state lines, committing crimes on the move is a good way to not get caught.

A national crime-tracking system known as VICAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, finally started collecting information on the modi operandi of killers-on-the-move in the mid 1980's. HITS is its Northwest cousin, tracking murders, attempted murders and predatory sex offenses from county to county.

'It's a very searchable database,' Sharon, a HITS expert told us, explaining that crime data, police reports, even newspaper clippings are fed into it. 'For example, you can search for "blue truck" and it will bring out all the blue trucks involved, say, in a rape in '94.'

'Put the word "duct tape" in there. Thousands of entries,' Sergeant Mike Ramsby added.

Duct tape had been a favored tool of criminals since the '80s. Now, Ramsby explained, this essential item of a handyman's toolbox had been joined by electricians' ties, those plastic binders for wires.

'They look totally innocent. You could have a pocketful of the things. Nobody would think you're doing anything but electrical work. They're easy. Cheap. Untraceable. You can buy the things everywhere.'

'You could put "hatchet" in there and you pull up every crime entry where a hatchet is used,' Sharon continued.

I perked up. 'I'd sure like to see that.'

'It's huge,' Ramsby said. 'It's a common tool in Western and Central Oregon. People carry them in their trunks.'

I looked searchingly at Sharon.

'It's huge,' she concurred.

Huge? But I'd clipped every newspaper article since the early '80s where I noted an axe or hatchet used as a weapon, and my file was small. 'I'd always thought of it as being a relatively rare weapon.'

'Well, no.' Sharon laughed a little nervously. 'It's like with the duct tape. Criminals seem to use the same type of things. There is a lot under "hatchet." I ran some things through the system. There was a stack this high.'

Her fingers made a measurement of an inch or so."

Was it true that in the Northwest at least, axes or hatchets are nothing special in the criminal's kit bag of murder implements? I used to collect news clips about axe attacks. Now people send them to me. One I got recently tells of a Good Samaritan in Klamath County who pulled to the side of the highway to help a driver with car trouble. When he pulled up, he recognized the distressed driver as someone he'd gotten in a fight with. Instead of helping him fix his car, the Good Samaritan turned axe murderer. He pulled out his handy axe and swiped at the guy's face.

This story would go to Sharon's point.

But I still believe my original thesis, as quoted in the actual book, Strange Piece of Paradise: "The axe had elevated the bearer to the world of mythologizing imagination....To smite with an axe planted precise imagery of mutilation in the imagination: its distinctive cuts, capacity to dismember in a single stroke, the uncontemporary spilling of blood in a modern world where clean, efficient death-dealing from a distance with a single bullet is the order of the day."

Yes, to wield an axe was my perpetrator's conscious choice to evoke terror with magnum force. And it worked. From feedback I got after publication I was learning that the Cline Falls axe attack in Oregon had remained in the consciousness of an entire nation. A feeling of persistent danger remained in the collective psyche from coast to coast, as though a Phantom Axeman stalked all of America's beautiful outdoor places.

Back to the Swedish consulate. When the panel was over, Hakan Nesser flattered me by purchasing a copy of Strange Piece of Paradise. He told me he was about to take a vacation, a trip across America in an RV. I signed his copy, handed the book back to him and said, "Read this around the campfire at night." spacer

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