Featured Historian  

 

An Historian’s Perspective on
Two Texas Killers:
Whitman and McDuff

 An Interview with Author Gary M Lavergne

 by Robert L. Hall

 

Gary M. Lavergne was born in the small Southwestern Louisiana Cajun community of Church Point. He graduated from Church Point High School with the Class of 1973. Gary later earned his B.A. in Social Studies Education (1976) and a Masters of Education (1981) in Secondary School Teaching from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and in 1988, he earned an Education Specialist degree (Ed.S.) in Educational Administration and Supervision from McNeese University in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Today, Gary is the Director of Research in the Office of Admissions of the University of Texas at Austin. Gary has been published in regional, national, and international scholarly journals. His book, A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, has received rave reviews from many of the nation's largest and most respected dailies and trade magazines. In October, 1998 A Sniper in the Tower became available in mass-market paperback from Bantam, Doubleday, and Dell Books.

In January, 1999, Gary signed a contract with UNT Press for the publication of his second book, The Bad Boy from Rosebud. In sneak previews, Dan Rather of CBS News has called it "classic crime reporting." It was released in July of 1999. He does research and writes in his spare time. Today, he is working on his third book; it will be a narrative history of the Cajun people.

Gary, after working so long in the field of education, what made you want to do a story about Charles Whitman, the mass murderer?

At the time I decided to write the Charles Whitman story I had a job that required a lot of travel. I used to spend about 90 nights a year in hotel rooms and I got tired of watching HBO and Spectravision. My first love has always been history and so I decided to look for something non-fiction to research and write.  Since I live in Austin the Whitman story was a natural-especially since nothing had ever been written on that before.


 

Austin Police Officer Billy Paul Speed gazed at the deck through decorative balusters which separate the upper and lower terraces of the South Mall of the UT campus. From the deck, Charles Whitman's best shot – a 6mm round through the opening between the balusters -- killed Speed.

 

Give a brief synopsis of the day (and the day before) that Whitman went on his famous rampage in the University of Texas tower.

One of the biggest misconceptions of the UT Tower shooting incident was that Whitman "snapped" and went to the Tower to kill people. The truth is that he spent at least two days preparing meticulously for what he did. On Sunday, July 31st he started to pack a
footlocker with enough supplies to last a couple of days. Later that night he killed his wife and mother, and early the next morning he went to several stores to get additional guns and supplies to do his deed. He reached the UT Tower's deck at about 11:45 am and began shooting and would not stop until two Austin Policemen killed him at about 1:25 p.m. By that time he had killed 16 people and wounded about 31.

What was the secret of Whitman's fatal flaw in character that led to the killings, if not the tumor that was found in his brain?

Whitman neatly fits the profile of many simultaneous mass murders. He was a loser who blamed his problems on other people. He wanted to die but he wanted to die in a big way. That meant making criminal history-which he did. The tumor in his brain will be debated
forever-mostly because it cannot be proven that it did not make him do what he did. But no neuro-surgeon who has ever made himself familiar with the case, at least that I know of, believes that the tumor could have made him do what he did over a period of a couple of days.

Is it possible that the authorities or the campus security police could have done anything that day to minimize the killings? How about today-what is in place now that was not then to prevent such a tragic event?

Remembering that nothing like this had ever happened during or before 1966, I think the Austin Police Department responded about as well as any other comparably sized department. At the time there was no University Police Department at UT, and possibly anywhere else at that time. Security men at the time were unarmed and it would have been insane to go after Whitman without being armed.

Having produced one book about a Texas killer, you went on to discuss Kenneth Allen McDuff, in your book, BAD BOY FROM ROSEBUD, published by the University of North Texas. How is this man's rage different from the story of the Whitman case?

Kenneth Allen McDuff is more recent, and he was a serial killer rather than a mass murderer. He had the distinction of being the only person, probably in American History, to have had two different death row numbers.

Why and how was McDuff let out of jail, and briefly tell us what crimes he committed later? How could they have been prevented?

The story is kind of complicated and that is what the book is about. But in short, it involved the overcrowding of the Texas Prison System, an activist federal judge, a persistent family, good behavior in prison, and possible influence peddling. Once he was let out, he started murdering all over again, maybe as soon as only three days later. Texas prevented such things from happening again by constructing over $2 billion of new prisons.

In an excerpt on your website, you say that McDuff is largely the reason that the Texas justice system was revamped.  Explain that very briefly, and what further improvement do you foresee for the future with the Texas penal and justice systems?

When the people and political leaders of Texas found out that this serial killer had been paroled, and had at one time been on death row, there were huge cries to build prisons - a lot of them. The legislature also passed laws called the McDuff Laws which pretty much
makes parole for murders impossible in Texas.

How do you see the issue of privatization of jails fitting into the future of this country's penal system? Reimbursement to victims of crimes? The death penalty? Plea-bargaining?

I think that it may be a matter of time before some scandal befalls privately run prisons that will become a push to bring them back into the public sector-but who knows? McDuff's influence relative to the death penalty in Texas could be debated endlessly, but I think he helped to bring about the atmosphere of intolerance we have in Texas now; a convicted capital murder will not get mercy in Texas. There is little doubt about that.

As an American History teacher, do you think history will judge us as too lax or too hard on our criminals today and why?

It would probably vary according to state. Texas will probably be judged to be too harsh and other states too lax. Most western countries have abolished the death penalty.

As immediately successful as your first book was, can you tell us what pitfalls we (as Southern authors) should avoid when doing research and writing non-fiction projects? How do you personally approach writing on such large projects as these?

I spoke to a writing class at the University of Texas just yesterday about that. Non-fiction writers should make attempts to quantify everything they write. By that I mean that, in the end, the purest science and most objective, is mathematics. If you believe the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, then try to prove it with statistics. You don't have to write
boring, statistics-ridden prose, but be able to "prove" what you say with data and you will stay honest and more objective than most other writers will.

Tell our readers about LIVES OF QUIET DESPERATION and your Cajun background just a bit. What other projects or engagements are you presently embarking on?

Lives of Quiet Desperation was the first book I ever wrote. I privately publish it and it is very amateurish, but I am proud of it nonetheless. It uses my family tree to illustrate the differences between Cajun, Creole, and other French cultures in Louisiana.  Right now, I am working on a much more elaborate narrative history of the Cajun people. It is very
difficult to do because Cajuns never established institutions that historians use to document their stories. Writing about Cajuns is like writing about the American Indians-there is a great deal of dependence on archaeology and excavations.

What is the most important thing to you about writing a history of criminals, crime and presenting a non-fiction book to your readers?

I look for stories about crimes that changed our behaviors, like Charles Whitman, or our laws, like Kenneth McDuff. I tried not to get into the grisly, but in the case of McDuff it was not possible to stay away from it. I like looking into what these crimes did to us. That fascinates me.


Visit Gary Lavergne's website at: www.eden.infohwy.com/~lavergne

  

Bibliography:

A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders – Now available in paperback, 1998 - University of North Texas Press.  (Sold out of earlier editions)

Bad Boy from Rosebud: The Murderous Life of Kenneth Allen McDuff – hardback, September, 1999 – University of North Texas Press.

Lives of Quiet Desperation – See website to order from author.


© 2001, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved