One morning twenty years ago this month, I opened the front section of the Washington Post and read that my friend Stephen Peter Morin had been executed by the state of Texas for capital murder.
There are two reasons that that sentence, while accurate, felt awkward to write.
First reason: it has been a long time since I thought of Morin as a friend. He was a twisted, manipulative and malevolent person, and if I hate anyone in the world or out of it I hate him.
Second reason: I knew him as Ray Constantine.
But Morin was his real name, and for a number of months in 1981 I spent just about every day with him, generally enjoying his company.
“Ray Constantine” rode up to the front porch of my mother’s house on his bicycle one day to ask whether she knew of apartments he could rent. Her current partner is one of my favorite people in the world, but my mother had phenomenally, staggeringly bad judgment in men in those days: by that evening or the next, it seemed, he had moved in with her.
“Ray” was a smooth talker, and closer to my age than to my mother’s. My mother had had a string of failed relationships with a string of increasingly sleazy men, the previous one ending just a week or two before. Full of the self-righteousness only a twenty-one-year-old boy with a disintegrating mother truly knows, I exploded at her in mortified fury, telling her that she was being incredibly stupid and allowing herself to be set up for another romantic disaster.
She said he’d be moving in and that I’d better get used to the idea. So I did. “Ray” decided to work his way into my good graces by getting me a job — always in short supply in 1981 Buffalo. He lied his way onto a union painting crew and then vouched for me. I joined the union and worked with him all summer.
Three things about that summer stand out in my mind, aside from the monotony of paint, hauling kegs of tar to roofs, and a story about a ladder that will come a bit later.
The first was heading to DC to the giant march in support of the striking air traffic controllers.
The second was finding out that my mother had ordered a copy of my birth certificate to give to Ray so that he could get ID with a different name on it. I intercepted it in what was likely the luckiest moment of my life.
The third was just before Ray and my mother left for their trip across country in her van. I wandered by her house one humid night — I’d moved out to my own place, what with my union paycheck — and found Ray sweating, attaching carpet to the walls and ceiling of the van. He was struggling to hold the carpet up as he put rivets into metal; I stepped up and helped him.
My mother and Ray went from town to town, San Francisco, Denver, Las Vegas, and into Texas. In each town Ray would disappear for a day or two and then show up again, a worried look in his eyes, insisting they leave town right away. The third or fourth time it happened, she realized she’d heard news in each town of a local woman disappearing and then found murdered.
There was an uncomfortable period in Texas in December after he found out she’d turned him in to the police, and before they caught him. And then they did catch him, and he went to trial and pled guilty to capital murder and asked for the death penalty. On March 13 1985, after the executioner probed veins for 45 minutes looking for one that wasn’t collapsed — raising the ire of the ACLU for a time after — Stephen Peter Morin was put to death by the state of Texas for the murder of Carrie Marie Scott, whom he was attempting to rob.
There’s a way in which Scott was lucky: he did not rape and torture her the way he did some of his other victims, some of them in the van I helped him soundproof.
In the van I helped him soundproof.
Morin’s last words, as reported by the state of Texas, are a marvel of manipulative sociopathy:
Heavenly Father, I give thanks for this time, for the time that we have been together, the fellowship in your world, the Christian family presented to me [He called the names of the personal witnesses]. Allow your holy spirit to flow as I know your love as been showered upon me. Forgive them for they know not what they do, as I know that you have forgiven me, as I have forgiven them. Lord Jesus, I commit my soul to you, I praise you, and I thank you.
Covering up amoral, murderous violence with a coat of Jesus? Too bad for poor Ray. A little later, with better PR, he could have risen rather high in the Texas GOP.
I find myself unwilling to grant the possibility that the sick fuck said a single truthful thing in his miserable life. He sent me a letter from death row, calling me the closest thing he’d had to a brother. I destroyed it after one reading. Who tries to get ID with his “brother’s” name on it to use on his murder spree? He told his attorney he didn’t remember killing anyone. Why the fake IDs, the soundproofing of vans, the sudden desires to leave town? He wanted to manipulate the cloying, puling conservative Christians in the Texas penal system: what better method than ostentatiously coming to Jesus?
If ever there was a person who deserved the death penalty — and still I do not believe there ever was — Stephen Peter Morin was that person. The world is far better off without him, and I find some consolation in the fact that his putative hopes of forgiveness in the hereafter dissolved into the permanent blackness of non-existence. I only wish he had died before he could have killed Janna Bruce, Sheila Whalen, Carrie Scott, and as many as thirty or more other young women. Twenty years later, and his memory still brings me to a shaking rage.
A wooden forty-foot ladder is a heavy thing. Set it against a house on ground saturated by a week of summer rain, and it will tend to slide. Climb that ladder with a two-gallon bucket of paint, and if the ladder is leaning against freshly-primed clapboard three stories up, it will tend to slide quickly. A quarter-century of exploring the precipitous landscapes of the West has thoroughly blunted my acrophobia, but that morning, thirty-five feet up a heavy ladder that was sliding rightward at about half an inch a second, I froze. And watched myself slide.
And “Ray” saw, and got from the yard to the third-floor window in about five seconds. Speaking calmly while he hung out the window, he persuaded me that I was unafraid. His words filled me with an odd strength. He persuaded me that I could take the ends of the ladder I was on — which I could barely lift in the best of conditions — and jump it back to the left and verticality.
And I did it: I pulled back violently on the ladder and slammed it back into place. In reach of the window now, I helped Ray tie the ladder securely to the window frame as I sobbed in relief, then descended on increasingly shaky legs. Ray met me as I reached the bottom, grabbed me in a bear hug, kept me from slumping to the ground.