JARRATT, Va. — He gave a nod and a wink before he sat down in the electric chair, then he uttered two statements as contradictory as the man himself: a Gaelic expletive and “God bless.”
Robert Gleason Jr. was playful and vicious, a protector and a predator. He was likable and reprehensible. He sent Christmas cards and made me laugh on a bad day.
He was also a killer. And on Wednesday night, I watched him die.
I couldn’t help but smile as Gleason strung together his last words, a mix of movie and song references that baffled the men in dark suits that lined the death chamber and the citizens and reporters with me listening intently from our plastic chairs. He and I had talked several times in the past three years about what he’d say when he got there. It changed a few times. It got much shorter as the day drew closer, as he feared he’d trip over his own meticulously chosen words.
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In the end, he settled on lines from the Johnny Cash version of “Jackson,” which reminded him of the woman he regretted losing, and “Take it to the Limit” by the Eagles because it represented the final motorcycle ride he never got to take. I knew the expletive was coming; he’d repeated it often in his thick Boston accent. I was surprised by the “God bless,” though.
Gleason flashed a thumbs up as they put the metal helmet on his head and clamp on his calf, perfectly censoring a large pinup-girl tattoo. He went out on his own terms, choosing 1,800 volts of electricity over lethal injection, partly because he didn’t want to go lying down.
It’s easy to call Gleason a monster. I’m not even sure those who knew and loved him would disagree. He killed at least three men — strangling the last two while locked up in the state’s most secure prisons. He’d been imprisoned for killing a man whose son was cooperating with the probe of a drug ring he was involved in.
But there was something about him that made me want to know more. And he was more than willing to oblige.
I’ll never know why Gleason opened up to me. It wasn’t infatuation. He only crossed the line once, sending me a flirtatious letter. I told him to cut it out, and he never did it again.
Nor was it to convince me he was innocent or to ask for my help. Rather, he openly discussed the graphic details of each of his crimes, and he believed passionately that he deserved to die for them.
What he wanted from me, I believe, was someone to hear him out and to tell his story. I think he also liked that I didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear. We had disagreements ranging from how I wrote my stories about him to how he treated his lawyers. Several times he told me I was one of the only people in the world he trusted.
I’d first written to Gleason to request an interview after he killed his cellmate, Harvey Watson Jr., in 2009. To my surprise he wrote back within a week and was more than willing to talk. As I sat across from him at Red Onion State Prison months later, he vowed he would keep killing until the state put him to death, a threat he would repeat many times as he sought to speed his execution.
He was moved to a prison where inmates spend 23 hours each day in segregation, but months after he first made the threat, he managed to strangle another inmate, Aaron Cooper, through a separate recreation cage. I’ve kept in contact with Cooper’s mother, Kim Strickland. Although she had religious objections to capital punishment, Gleason persuaded her to testify that he deserved to die by sending her excerpts from the Bible preaching an eye for an eye.
We tell ourselves those sentenced to death are not like us. How could they be? What would that say about us?
But in Gleason I found someone who was, in many ways, like the rest of us.
This killer loved his family and was protective of them. He talked often of his mother, who died of cancer when he was young, and of his children and how he wished he’d been a better father.
He joked with my colleagues who answered when he phoned from death row and complained about the “lousy Red Sox.” He helped organize a motorcycle ride to raise money for a kid with cancer, and he took pride in the tattoos he spent years drawing on sailors, bikers and drunken coeds, and in those that covered his own body.
We laughed about our accents, and how his Boston inflection was as distinguishable as my Appalachian twang. He signed almost every letter “Bobby from Boston” and reminisced about growing up in nearby Lowell, Mass.
As his execution neared, Gleason returned to Lowell in his dreams. He said he wished he’d gone back there one last time before getting locked up.
He was self-deprecating, sarcastic and always ready with a joke at an inappropriate time. He once quipped during court proceedings, “Even Ray Charles can see that, your honor.”
After killing Cooper, he wrote to tell me about it and included a drawing of a man peeking over a prison wall saying, “Here we go again.” Inside, he signed it “The new and improved Boston Strangler.” He didn’t laugh, though, when I put that in my story. It was one of several times the killer and the reporter didn’t see eye to eye.
Still, it’s difficult to reconcile the guy who fretted over pictures of oil-drenched pelicans after the Gulf oil spill with the one who could kill so easily that he once likened it to grabbing a beer from the refrigerator.
Gleason was adamant that he had no remorse for the lives he’d taken. He believed that before you killed a person, you’d better be able to live with what it will do to their mothers, their kids and other loved ones. If you can’t live with that, you have no business killing, he said.
He once asked why I stuck with him and his story for so long, writing to him and taking his calls when most others had long tired of him. It was my job, I told him, adding that I’d stick around through his execution. Plus, I told him, he was fascinating.
So Wednesday I was there again, this time to tell the world his punishment had been carried out.
And I was there to say goodbye.
Can I call Bobby Gleason a friend? As a reporter I’m not sure I should. After all, we’re taught that you go into every story with an open mind, that you keep your feelings and beliefs from interfering. And this was a murderer, a man who not only took life but took it more than once — and was well aware of what he was doing.
This is real life, though. There’s no way to spend that much time with someone, anyone — to learn about them and their fears and their history — and not gradually begin to see them as more than just a cold killer identified by a number.
I do know one thing: I may eventually forget Prisoner No. 1059266. But I doubt I’ll ever forget Bobby Gleason.
Potter, AP’s news editor for Virginia and West Virginia, has covered law enforcement in Virginia since 2008.