I ask Douglas Gretzler, “Do you have your last words written out?”
“I know what I’m going to say. It’s not a speech.”
I keep lobbing questions. “Are you scared?”
“No, Laura, just curious.”
Gretzler is about to be executed for a 1973 murder spree that left 17 men, women and children dead. A magazine writer, I’d been Gretzler’s confidante for 10 years and he became my friend and prison source.
As his execution time nears I am escorted to a battleship-gray building. The death house theater, complete with velvet ropes in front of the glass, bulges with cops, prosecutors, victims, prison personnel and reporters. It is standing room only. I am with Gretzler’s sister, standing in the middle row, and Jack Earl is just behind me. He stares straight ahead, clutching a photograph of his family.
Gretzler murdered Jack’s Uncle Richard, his Aunt Wanda, and his young cousins Debbie and Ricky along with 13 other people. Now we’re both here to watch a part of this story die on this sun-bleached day of June 3, 1998. Gretzler’s head is strapped down so he can’t look anyone in the eye. The sound system is halfways to broken. It echoes with reverb and feedback. You have to strain to hear his words: “I am so deeply sorry ...” Then the drugs come, and his chest ripples. He is pronounced dead some five minutes later.
Outside, it’s bright. Jack Earl gives a press conference, but an assistant warden escorts me off the prison grounds and to my car. Because Earl is one of the victims, and I was invited by Gretzler to attend the execution, they are nervous that we will end up in a violent confrontation. They have no idea that Jack and I are friends, obsessed at the hip with the Willie Steelman/Gretzler saga. He texted someone recently, “Yeah, Laura and I bonded over a serial killer.”
An inferno begins with a single flame. For Jack, it ignited in 1992 when his sister handed him a stack of Arizona police reports that detail the beginnings of the Steelman/Gretzler killing spree. It was like sticking a needle in his vein. He was 40 and wading through a midlife crisis, his marriage sinking. It was the perfect storm.
Throughout his obsessive hunt, Jack felt driven to solve something.
Just as he’d fanatically hunted Beatles memorabilia (records, magazines, dolls, mugs, lunchboxes, puzzles, board games, pictures), he started collecting anything on Steelman and Gretzler. No piece of information was too incidental (police reports, food receipts, crime scene photos, trial transcripts — all neatly categorized). In one interview, someone mentioned that Steelman grooved to the California funk band War. Jack refused to listen to the music in any common format other than vinyl. He not only was driven to know more than anyone else, but tried to replicate life in 1973.
I met Jack in the spring of 1992 and in early July arranged a visit with Gretzler so Jack could come face-to-face with the man who murdered his family. Jack didn’t show up armed with expectation. He was curious and thought Gretzler was the centerpiece to the story.
We sit on plastic chairs in the green visitation room of Arizona’s death row, talking across cheap plastic phones. At first it is just tip-toe talk as I notice beads of moisture pop like a rash across Gretzler’s forehead. I’ve spent hours in contact visits with him and I’ve never seen him break a sweat. We cross the easy terrain of Led Zeppelin (Gretzler’s favorite rock band), weather (fry-an-egg hot) and he sweats more.
Jack and Gretzler are comfortable talking music, but I interrupt. “Talk about the spree, Doug.” He skitters around the edges of those 17 days and 17 victims back in the fall of 1973. At one point, Gretzler apologizes to Jack: I’m so sorry for what I did to your family. That sorry ends up buried in a hail of cross talk and questions. For years Jack either won’t remember or doesn’t really think it was a true apology.
I don’t know if one can appropriately apologize for annihilating a family. The deed is done, the words empty. Regardless of any remorse or guilt, Gretzler has punched his ticket.
After the visit Jack and I grab some drinks on the way out of Florence. He talks about seeing Gretzler for the first time in 1973 on a small black and white TV after he’d had been captured. Jack thought they must’ve had the wrong guy — Gretzler sure didn’t look like a killer. Rail skinny with a deer in the headlights look. The face of a college kid. He looked a bit like Jack felt. Ordinary.
The next day Jack says to me, a bit surprised — “I know more about what happened than he does.”
Jack was 22 in 1973, the same age as Gretzler. He lived in Antioch, Calif., with his wife and young son. Before the funeral his family gathered at his Aunt Della’s. Then it was time to bury their dead. Jack stepped into the dark limo and sat next to his mother. As the bulky stretch drove through the small town of Lodi, Calif., and turned a corner, Jack noticed large signs: “You’re in Our Prayers,” and “Our Condolences.”
Peering through the tinted windows Jack saw low-hanging gray skies and the streets thick with bystanders, reporters with tripods, photographers with shoulder mounted cameras. “I don’t get any of this, I don’t understand,” Jack shivered. “Somebody is going to have to figure this all out and explain it to us.” His mom comforted: “Well, Jack, maybe you’ll do it.” His heart swelled and for a moment he felt important. He was eternally connected to a story that Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, was reporting on.
Sometimes Jack feels ashamed that his brush with recognition came at the cost of four murdered relatives. He would’ve preferred a pro athlete’s life in the major leagues.
When he returned to work a few days after the funeral, everyone kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’” Jack recently said, “It wasn’t my father or my son. I liked my Uncle Richard and he had a really cool car; but what did I really lose?” There are days Jack doesn’t believe he “suffered” enough. Sometimes he feels cheap and then guilt washes over him when he wonders if he’s sensationalized something in his book.
He worked at tying up every loose thread of that 17-day murderous spree that clung to him like a wet suit for near 20 years. And in the end it was simple. Blood trumped reason, a mixture of family and history all tangled up.
In March of 1998, Jack sat in my Tucson living room with a draft of his book. At that point it was a doorstopper; his legacy weighed in at more than 1,100 pages.
He read parts to me. Just shy of three months before Gretzler’s execution, Jack said, “I’m the historian and collector of Steelman/Gretzler memorabilia. I know more about this case than anyone else.” I agree with him. While I’ve always considered myself Gretzler’s archivist, Jack is a puzzle solver. Just like the old Mustangs he’d buy and reassemble, Jack was able to take the thousands of pieces, with so many different angles you’d need a spreadsheet, and break the puzzle down into not only something manageable, but infinitely readable.
The fire burned bright and carried him through.