Icons of the 1980s

Joseph Paul Franklin
'80s Claim to Fame:
Racist Murderer


Born James Clayton Vaughn, Jr., in Mobile Alablama, Franklin was the eldest son of an alcoholic drifter who often abandoned his family for months or years at a stretch. Siblings remember that James Vaughn, Sr., would celebrate infrequent homecomings by beating his children, with James, Jr., absorbing the worst punishment. As a youth, Franklin went in for food fads and fringe religions, dropping out of high school after an accident left him with severely impaired eyesight.

The injury was a two-edged sword, exempting Franklin from military conscription, and he married in 1968, at an age when many young men were sweating out the draft lottery, fearful of the war in Vietnam. Soon after their wedding, Franklin's bride noted a change in his personality "like night and day." He began to beat her, emulating the father he hated, and on other occasions she would find him inexplicably weeping. Around the same time, their all-white neighborhood was racially integrated, and Franklin began to veer hard right, into the realm of pathological bigotry.

The next few years were marked by ugly racial incidents and sporadic arrests for carrying concealed weapons. Franklin was increasingly drawn to the American Nazi Party, lapsing into the segregationist movement full-time after mother'shis death, in 1972. Moving to Atlanta, he joined the neo-fascist National States Rights Party, simultaneously holding membership in the local Ku Klux Klan. Franklin began insulting interracial couples in public, and on Labor Day 1976, he trailed one such couple to a dead-end street in Atlanta, spraying them with chemical Mace.

Around this time, Franklin legally changed his name, shedding the last links with his "normal" life. Federal prosecutors allege -- and jurors have agreed -- that he spent the years 1977 to 1980 wandering across the South and Midwest, employing 18 pseudonyms, changing cars and weapons frequently, dying his hair so often that it came close to falling out. Along the way, he killed some thirteen persons in a frenzied, one-man war against minorities.

According to the FBI, Franklin launched his campaign in the summer of 1977, bombing a Chattanooga synagogue on July 29. Nine days later, investigators say, he shot and killed Alphonse Manning and Toni Schwenn, an interracial couple, in Madison, Wisconsin. On October 8, Gerald Gordon was killed by sniper fire as he left a bar mitzvah in the St. Louis suburb of Richmond Heights.

Harold McIver, the black manager of a fast-food restaurant in Doraville, Georgia, was working the night shift when a sniper took his life on July 22, 1979. Three months later, in Oklahoma City, another interracial couple came under attack from the itinerant gunman. Jesse Taylor was hit three times with a high-powered rifle before he expired; a single round through the chest killed Marian Bresette as she ran to the aide of her common-law husband. Franklin struck twice in Indianapolis during January 1980, killing black men with long-distance rifle fire in two separate attacks. On May 3, he allegedly killed a young white woman, Rebecca Bergstrom, dumping her body near Tomah, in central Wisconsin. On June 8 he surfaced in Cincinnati, bagging cousins Darrell Lane and Dante Brown from his sniper's perch on a nearby railroad trestle. A week later, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Franklin shotgunned a black couple -- Arthur Smothers and Kathleen Mikula -- as they crossed a downtown bridge. On August 20, joggers Ted Fields and David Martin were cut down by rifle fire in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Arrested in September 1980 (and recaptured a month later, after escaping to Florida), Franklin faced a marathon series of state and federal trials, with mixed results. He was acquitted of the shooting which left civil rights leader Vernon Jordan critically injured in May 1980, but Utah juries found him guilty of murder and civil rights violations, handing down a sentence of life imprisonment. He also stands convicted of the Chattanooga bombing and the double murder in Wisconsin, described by prosecutors as "the closest thing to killing for sport."

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