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Worse Than Death

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In 1984, a Moroccan national named Abdelkrim Belachheb walked into Iannis Restaurant, a trendy Dallas nightclub, and gunned down seven people. Six died. Despite the fact that the crimes occurred in a state that prides itself on being tough on criminals, the death penalty was not an option for the Belachheb jury. Even though he had committed six murders, and his guilt was never in question (despite his insanity defense), his crimes were not capital murders under 1984 statutes. As a direct result of this crime, during the 1985 regular session the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 8--the "multiple murder" statute--to make serial killing and mass murder capital crimes. Belachheb's case serves as an excellent example to explore capital punishment and the insanity defense. Furthermore, Belachheb's easy entry into the United States (despite his violent record in Europe) highlights our contemporary fear over lax immigration screening and subsequent terrorism. The case is unique in that debate usually arises from an execution. Belachheb was given life imprisonment and is currently under maximum security--a fate some would argue is "worse than death." He is scheduled to have his first parole hearing in 2004, the twentieth anniversary of his crime. "This is a superbly written book about an extraordinary case whose significance ranged from influencing death penalty legislation to directly foreshadowing the types of security lapses that led to September 11th. It is among the best I have read in its genre."--Bob Brown, ABC news correspondent for 20/20

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1 Disconcerting Stares

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chapter one

Disconcerting Stares

“I want to get to that killer while the blood is still wet and while the adrenalin is still flowing.”

—Bill Parker

Retired Dallas Police Department

I

B

ill Parker had just fallen asleep. He had been out to dinner that night and had even had a couple of drinks. The phone rang right after midnight. Many times he had gotten up in the middle of the night to rush off to a murder scene. But this time was different.

The dispatcher was excited and at times hard to understand.

He told Bill that as many as a dozen people could be dead in a restaurant on the corner of Midway and Interstate 635 in the north section of Dallas.

“I’ll call you right back,” Bill said, before hanging up. He thought the best thing to do was to splash water on his face, wake up, and give the caller time to pull himself together.

“I had never heard of Ianni’s,” Bill recalled years later. But he would learn much about Ianni’s Restaurant and Club. On the night of June 29, 1984, Bill would see the club for the first time—the site of the largest mass murder in the history of Dallas, Texas.

 

2 Morocco

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chapter two

Morocco

“He simply responds to women according to the script, the code, the prescription, the values that his culture has given him regarding women.”

—Dr. Harrell Gill-King

Anthropologist and Defense Expert Witness

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T

here is an area of northwest Africa, between the Atlas and the

Rif Ranges called the Maghreb, where at the height of its power and prestige, the mighty Roman Empire discovered it could go no farther. The Atlas Mountains form a diagonal range traversing

Morocco from the southwest to the northeast, separating Morocco’s

Atlantic coastal plains to the north and west from the expansive

Sahara Desert to the south. A smaller range, the Rif, runs parallel to the Mediterranean coast. Between the two ranges, which almost merge near the eastern urban center of Taza, a passage connects

Algeria and the rest of North Africa to the Moroccan interior and the Atlantic Ocean.

From Taza, the fan-shaped plain of the Maghreb opens westward toward the Moroccan political capital of Rabat and the business capital of Casablanca. Though geographically close to the Strait of Gibraltar, this area is surprisingly isolated. On a political map, it appears ideally situated to be a portal from the Middle East, through

 

3 “Pick on me”

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chapter three

“Pick on me”

“I can drive any woman in Belgium crazy.”

—Abdelkrim Belachheb quoted from notes cited in trial testimony

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A

ccording to Interpol Rabat documents, Abdelkrim Belachheb was in Morocco as late as June 21, 1963, when he assaulted and wounded a man in a knife fight. Months later, Interpol Washington has him in Europe at age nineteen. Where he went first and his movements for the next year and a half cannot be established with certainty. Various documents and conflicting testimony have him arriving in either France or Switzerland. There is no indication that his family had helped him to get to Europe or that they even knew where he was. The troubled son could merely have been a fugitive from justice who cared little for the concerns of his family.

While being processed in a Texas prison in 1984, Belachheb indicated that he went first to “Pepignons” in France. In this instance, he may have been telling the truth. During that same interview he admitted that he had lived in Fes from 1958 through 1962, which was consistent with what his father told ABC News in 1985.

 

4 America

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chapter four

America

“He believes that there is something extremely special about him.”

—Dr. Sheldon Zigelbaum

Psychiatrist for the Defense

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T

he tragedy of September 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks upon

New York City and Washington, D.C., focused attention on how visitors of other nations come to the United States. Some of the resulting debate included observations that it was too easy for dangerous people to penetrate American borders. Since that tragedy, pundits and many citizens voiced concern over the failings of intelligence services like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to preemptively identify visitors, legal and illegal, capable of such a monstrous crime. Included in the discussion were hard, pointed questions about the inability of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to keep track of those already within our borders.

Yet the United States clings to its heritage of openness. To close our borders is to close off ourselves to international ideas and influences. To close our borders is to reject our heritage. To close our borders is itself anti-American.

 

5 The North Dallas Nightclub Scene

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chapter five

The North Dallas

Nightclub Scene

“He is violent even when he is not drinking. But when he does, it’s all over. I used to say, ‘It’s a good thing you can’t get a gun here [in Brussels].’ How did he get one in Texas?”

—Jenny, Belachheb’s first wife quoted in the Dallas Morning News

I

T

o one of the waitresses he encountered, Abdelkrim Belachheb was merely a five-foot six-inch man with a wig and crooked teeth.1 To some others, he apparently represented romance from the Mediterranean and mystery from Africa. The frequency of his sexual conquests is as much attributable to his tenacity as to his charm.

His compulsion for sexual conquests, especially of rich women, took him to the nightclubs that sprang up along the LBJ Freeway; the center of the Dallas construction boom. The wilder action was further north in Addison, where the clubs were louder and more raucous. But those establishments attracted a younger crowd— people emerging from high school and college, with good jobs and plenty of money to spend.

 

6 A Position for Tragedy

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chapter six

A Position for Tragedy

“I don’t like him. He stares at me.”

—Linda Lowe

I

L

inda Lowe was not one to sit home alone with her two cats.

She very much enjoyed patrolling the Dallas nightclub scene to listen to musicians. On different occasions she had been a member of several “all-girl” musical groups. On Tuesday, June 26, 1984, she called her brother Wade and told him that later in the week she was going to a place called Ianni’s to listen to a band. Wade later related that she was looking for talented musicians to form a new group.1 She was an outgoing person who clearly liked being around others, so she may have grown tired of playing the piano by herself.

Linda was planning to surprise Wade for his upcoming birthday by picking him up in a limo and taking him out for a nice dinner. Those who knew Linda would not have been surprised by her “very generous” and considerate nature, her mother later said.

Linda even sent her brother a Father’s Day card. The bartenders at the nightclubs, who came to know her as a person and a performer, all gushed about how “sweet and nice” she was.2 No one, it seems, had anything negative to say about her—except Abdelkrim

 

7 “Take that . . . ”

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chapter seven

“Take that . . . ”

“The movies don’t even come close.”

—Norman* piano player for the Mike Harris Quartet

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T

he Mike Harris Quartet had been playing soft music since

9 P.M., and by the time midnight came along, they were getting no requests or tips. “Hey, it was a Thursday night,” said Norman, the piano player. They played Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues before taking a break just after midnight. Sherlyn, the featured singer, turned on taped music and went to the end of the bar where Mary and Dick were talking and laughing.

From the time Belachheb arrived to just after midnight, he had three or four Johnny Walker and 7Up. He roamed around the entire barroom and spoke to nearly all of the women. He even danced with a few, but he always came back to Marcell.

“Marcell was the kind of person if she was annoyed with somebody you could tell quite immediately,” Dick observed. He noticed, as did almost everyone else, that Marcell wanted less and less to do with Belachheb as the night wore on. Some of the other regulars, less than enchanted by her brusque ways, recall that she could, at times, be cruel. “I had seen her before come on to a man sitting next to her and then belittle him in front of people,” remembered a Ianni’s bartender.

 

8 “I came to kill you.”

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chapter eight

“I came to kill you.”

“I did what I did and now I have jobs to finish; I still have people I want to kill.”

—Abdelkrim Belachheb quoted by his friend Mohamed

I

A

s the red taillights of Belachheb’s white station wagon faded and disappeared to the north, seven of his victims lay on Ianni’s floor bleeding to death—or already dead. Terry Rippa was the first to return to the barroom. “And nobody was in the bar at all, and I went down and checked with John and he was conscious, and then

I walked up to the front and I did not check pulses or anything. It was quite a mess—the tables, broken glass, and the victims—and I checked on all five the best I could by observing, and they all appeared to be dead except for a few minutes later Marcell was moving.”1

With his military medical training on his mind, John McNeill thought he was going to bleed to death in a matter of minutes. But he was surprisingly alert. “That son-of-a-bitch was in Farfallo’s an hour or two before,” he told Terry.

“Just hold on,” Terry replied.

 

9 “A miracle from God”

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chapter nine

“A miracle from God”

“You gotta have some passion or you wouldn’t be worth a shit over here.”

—Jeff Shaw, Dallas County

District Attorney Investigator

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A

s he lay in a hospital bed in stable condition in the intensive care unit at the Dedman Medical Center in Farmer’s Branch,

Texas, John McNeill admitted that he “wouldn’t have given ten cents for [his] life even when the ambulance people finally came in. [He] was in incredible pain.” During the ambulance ride he tried to relax, believing that it might help him avoid bleeding to death. The attendants kept talking to him in an attempt to keep him conscious, but John wished they would just shut up and let him try to relax on his own. At the hospital he was able to talk to the physician. He told him that he had an uncle who was a doctor.

“Would you like to wait for him?” asked the surgeon.

“No. I don’t think I have that much time,” answered John.

So the Dedman staff immediately prepped him for emergency surgery. The diagonal path of the bullet, from lower back to upper chest, meant that he faced major exploratory surgery to determine exactly what the missile had done. The doctors would also have to repair the damage and stop any bleeding to assure his survival.

 

10 For the State

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chapter ten

For the State

“It was not accidental; it’s not self defense.

What else can he say but ‘I was crazy.’”

—Norman Kinne

Assistant District Attorney

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T

he genius of the American Constitution is that it was written to protect unpopular people and ideas. Freedom of the press protects unpopular print; freedom of speech protects unpopular speech. Popular ideas seldom need protection. So it is with individuals. Due process, search and seizure limitations, access to legal representation, the right to remain silent, and other rights are designed to assure that even the most reprehensible of American society, even those deemed unfit to live among us, have an opportunity to, at least nominally, defend themselves against the state.

Like democracy, civil liberty, for only the few and the popular, is an oxymoron.

Defending Abdelkrim Belachheb was a defense of Constitutional rights all Americans enjoy. Forcing the state to answer an insanity plea, and thus prove guilt, assures caution and thoughtfulness by the state whenever it brings a defendant, even those clearly guilty of committing a heinous act, to trial.

 

11 For the Defense

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chapter eleven

For the Defense

“What I believe of what he tells me is irrelevant. From a pure legal standpoint, if he tells me he did something for some reason, I am legally obligated to take that story and try to prove it to the best of my ability.”

—Frank Jackson

Abdelkrim Belachheb’s Defense Attorney

I

Y

ou now know what happened at Ianni’s on June 29, 1984, and now the defense is going to tell you why it happened.” So began the defense of Abdelkrim Belachheb.1

Belachheb’s wife, Joanie, was Jackson’s first witness. She began by describing how she and Belachheb first met and how they came to fall in love and marry. She described her husband as a Moroccan of the Berber Tribe and a Shiite Muslim. As she responded to

Jackson’s questions, she revealed the details of their unusual relationship—one where love and violence coexisted. She described her husband as “sick enough to kill.” She said that she had told many of her friends that he was a time bomb waiting to explode.

But she also said that he could be warm, loving, and sharing.

 

12 “An altered state of consciousness”

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chapter twelve

“An altered state of consciousness”

“Brain damage is fairly common.”

—Dr. John Mullen an Assistant Professor of

Neurological Surgery and Neurology

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A

fter the defense rested, Norman Kinne lined up witnesses who had dealings with Belachheb and were ready to testify that he was perfectly sane. Oh, he was odd, and in their minds maybe a little crazy, but he was certainly someone who had enough mental capacity to know the difference between right and wrong.

The first of the witnesses was Beth.1 She was a secretary for a law firm and the person who had introduced Abdelkrim

Belachheb to Joanie. She described Belachheb as a selfish schemer who readily admitted that he needed to marry a woman who had money—an American who could help him secure permanent residency in the United States. According to Beth, he seemed to have found what he wanted in Joanie, who spent large sums of her limited income on his expensive tastes. He had nice clothes, memberships in clubs, and drank to excess in plush bars and restaurants (not to mention his custom wig). Beth even testified that

 

13 For the Jury

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chapter thirteen

For the Jury

“You are the exclusive judges of the facts proved, of the credibility of the witnesses, and of the weight to be given their testimony, but you are bound to receive the law from the Court, which is herein given to you, and be governed thereby.”

—Judge Gerry Meier in her charge to the jury

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F

rom his arrest on June 29, 1984, to the end of the trial, his wife

Joanie visited Abdelkrim Belachheb about once a week. During that time, he lost approximately thirty pounds and, since he no longer wore a black wig, his real, graying hair grew out on the sides of his bald head.1

In 1984, the 291st Criminal District Court was located in what was then called the Government Center. At the time of the trial,

Judge Meier’s courtroom was located on the “Civil Side” of the 5th floor, which meant it did not have direct access to the jail. Each day of his trial, Belachheb was escorted across the hall and through a stairwell. (Which was why Judge Meier prohibited cameras on the entire floor.) Because of death threats against Belachheb, Judge

 

14 “Dying by littles”

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chapter fourteen

“Dying by littles”

“The [capital murder] statute fairly well covered the field, but it doesn’t cover this.

. . . As far as I am concerned it ought to be.”

—Norman Kinne

Assistant District Attorney, Dallas County

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N

ot long after Abdelkrim Belachheb shot and nearly killed

John McNeill, McNeill met with Norman Kinne as the latter prepared for trial. McNeill fully expected that one day he was going to be able to witness Belachheb’s execution. Kinne had the task of telling McNeill that the crime Belachheb had committed amounted to six counts of murder—not capital murder, meaning no death penalty and certainly no execution. John became angry and the best Kinne could do was assure him that the law was going to be changed.1

“Charlie [Belachheb] got the maximum penalty under the law, which is not enough,” Kinne told the press immediately after trial.

“He should have gotten the death penalty.”2

There was even some question as to whether Judge Meier had the right to “stack” Belachheb’s life sentences. In 1984, any sentence could be stacked, except for some instances of theft. Shortly after she sentenced Belachheb, Frank Jackson called Judge Meier at home and said he didn’t think she could make the sentences

 

15 Ad Seg

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chapter fifteen1

Ad Seg

“It is a place that robs a person of humanity. The depression of the place hits you in the face. It is the most miserable place that you can imagine. If you want to punish someone, put them in there and forget about them.”

—Dr. Keith Price

Warden, William Clements Unit,

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

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T

he final “victim” of Abdelkrim Belachheb’s murders was Ianni’s

Restaurant and Club. In some ways the establishment once typified the American Dream. Joe Ianni came to the United States from Italy as a toddler, was processed through Ellis Island, and by the age of eight was in Dallas. He and his wife Totsy worked hard all their lives to build a business, earn an honest living, and leave the results of that hard work to their daughter. In less than three or four minutes, Belachheb took two generations of hard work away from a family of good and decent people.

Like many other infamous crime scenes, Ianni’s Restaurant and

Club attracted a wide range of gawkers, from the merely curious to the disturbingly weird. The task of asking some of the stranger patrons to leave fell to the bartenders, like Richard Jones, or even

 

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