Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Gaffney Serial Killer

The Gaffney Serial Killer

Mystery writers deal in death. Some of us write “cozies” which means we leave out the more gruesome details of how our victims died. No graphic sex, no graphic gore. Some of us write thrillers and then its no holds bared. You can strew the landscape with body parts as well as bodies, crank up the tension as high as you can get it, and deliberately create a climate of fear. But its all make believe. Even when we write about sorrow and loss, about horror and fear, there is always that very real distance from actual horror and fear.

Well, Gaffney, South Carolina, came face to face with real horror and real fear a couple of weeks ago. I live in Gaffney, have for a little over two years.

This is a town where you don’t worry about locking your doors. Where you sit out on your front porch and talk to whoever passes by, whether you know them or not. And if you don’t know them, you will by the time they walk on. A town where the people in the bank know you by name and where the people in the library welcome you as if you were a guest in their home, where the people in the grocery will tell you that the kind of ice cream you like is on sale and would you like some.

It’s not the kind of town where people get murdered by strangers for no immediately obvious reason. But that’s what happened.

A murderer came to town and before he was finished, five people were dead. Innocent people. Good people. And the rest of us were scared to death.

People were frantically going through their junk drawers, looking for the house key. Front porches were empty. So were the parks. Guns came down off the shelf in the bedroom closet and out of the gun racks in the cabs of the pick ups. The gun store and Walmart sold out of ammunition.

I don’t own a gun, preferring the protection afforded by my German Shepard. But I seem to be in the minority. And, frankly, for the first time in my life, I thought about it. Not for long, but the thought was there. Instead, I moved chairs and boxes up against the doors at night and piled noisy things on them. Lots of my friends admitted to the same thing.

The relief when we found out that the killer was dead was palpable in this town. Storeowners no longer looked at each new person who walked into their store with open suspicion. Children appeared on their bikes again. Women no longer looked at each man they passed in the grocery aisle or on the street with trepidation. I put the chairs back where they belonged.

Things are back to normal. Only, they’re not. The grief the victims families carry will never go away. We can only imagine what they are going through, and will continue to go through, and our hearts grieve with them. But we have all lost someone at sometime, a mother or father whose life came to its natural end, a sibling or other relative or close friend to accident or illness, and as tragic as that has been, we have learned to cope.

There was nothing natural about any of this, and I wonder if these families will ever be able to, how they will go about putting their lives back together again. I wonder how this town will cope with the jolt of fear we have all shared this awful month. How soon will it be before the house keys go back in the kitchen drawer, the guns back up on the bedroom shelf? How long will it be before we let our kid’s bike to the park without following them in the car? People in cities have lived like that for years. We have been spared. But no longer, and I wonder if that carefree time will come back. I hope so, but fear it may not. The Gaffney serial killer destroyed five lives. He may have also destroyed a way of life.

As for me, I am locking my doors. The house keys were indeed in the kitchen drawer but they are now on my key ring. I resent it each time I click the dead bolt, but I don’t forget to do it. I am more conscious of who walks down the street and not so willing to engage any stranger in conversation, even though my dog never leaves my side.

And, when I write about fear, it will be with a ring of experience it never had before.

Kathleen Delaney
And Murder For Dessert
Poisoned Pen Press

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