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Joe Lehman

Satan the Godfather [by Joe Lehman]

6e9bea11-850d-4d1c-b87d-8e17264ca573-large1x1_GeraldDanielWalkerUsually my inspiration comes to me in my dreams. I’ve just awakened in the middle of the night from a fitful one -- one of those dreams that represent a lack of control, a feeling of powerlessness that comes with lost youth. I found myself back taking a college course in which I was tardy in preparing the work. I came across a file folder labeled “February 1973.” In my sleep I then exclaimed “Oh, that’s the month that G. Daniel Walker escaped and was on the loose again.” With that moment of lucidity, I regained consciousness, got out of bed and rushed to my desk and computer to begin jotting down my thoughts. This is happening in real time now.

            Gerald Daniel Walker (left), a career criminal and murderer, is now a ninety-one-year-old lifer in a California penitentiary somewhere, and yet I remain somewhat afraid to mention him for fear that he has a long reach even while incarcerated. (The next scheduled parole hearing is set for 2023). During his time in prison in the mid-1980s, he was alleged to have acquired a large shipment of brucine poison, which he intended to use against the judges and prosecutors who had previously tried and convicted him in the notorious 1973 William Ashlock killing in Tulare County, California. He was also convicted of the rape and brainwashing of Ashlock’s fiancée, Hope Masters. Perhaps it is for fear of his ‘long arm’ that the producers of the 1985 television miniseries A Death in California, based on Joan Barthel’s 1981 true crime best seller of the same name, decided to dub Walker’s character “D. Jordan Williams” and to cast veteran actor Sam Elliot in the role, despite the fact that he looks and sounds nothing like the real Walker. Those same producers made no changes in Hope Masters’ name. They cast Cheryl Ladd of Charlie’s Angels fame, who resembles the real Hope Masters quite well. They did, however, change Bill Ashlock’s name to “Richard Morgan.” So scary a figure is Walker that I find myself speculating that the producers wnet out of their way to avoid Walker’s vindictive wrath. He is now a nonagenarian and yet I fear I am taking a risk by writing about him now, for as long as he still lives and breathes, he breathes danger.

Cheryl Ladd           According to the Barthel book, Walker had told Masters, after raping and tormenting her, “If you want to know more about me, read The Day of the Jackal. I’m the Jackal. I have a code of ethics.” It’s very interesting to me that this rapacious man should have been inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s classic espionage novel, and the movie version that was theatrically released—in 1973, no less—and has been of particular fascination for me since I was about fifteen years old. My father and mentor, the acclaimed author and poet David Lehman, has recently published a retrospective review of the superb assassination-conspiracy movie in The American Scholar.

            In my own understanding, the Jackal epitomizes a specter of amorality. He is a contract killer who works for no one but himself, looks out for his own interests alone, and easily blends into the crowded masses, moving among them undetected. This character is  G. Daniel Walker’s idol, the embodiment of his ambition to criminal fame and glory. Like the Jackal, Walker compulsively steals the identities of people he comes across and then exploits. Both are targets of massive manhunts, something that surely must have stroked Walker’s already inflated ego. Walker carried a treasured copy of the Forsyth book along with him during his travels from Illinois to California.

A Death in California            The book and miniseries A Death in California focuses mainly on the one episode in G. Daniel Walker’s lengthy and ghastly trail of terror that led to his final lifetime incarceration. It is the strange saga of how, following his escape from penal custody in Illinois, where he was serving time for shooting and severely wounding a state trooper who had pulled him over while driving a stolen vehicle, Walker made his way out west. There, while masquerading as a newspaper reporter, he befriended William Ashlock and Hope Masters, under the pretense of interviewing Ashlock for a featurette on eligible bachelors in southern California. At their ranch house, Walker shot Bill in the back of the head, sexually assaulted Hope repeatedly and managed to convince her to help him cover up the crime for a period of time. How did he get her to play along?

The answer lies in another notable event that occurred in 1973:  the spectacular bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, where the hostages famously bonded with their captors, leading to the coinage of the term “Stockholm Syndrome.” A year later, in 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst and brainwashed her into joining their insurrectional activities. It would seem, though, that while the Swedish bank robbery and the S.L.A. kidnapping cases have entered the broader lexicon of infamous crimes, the strange triangle of Walker, Ashlock, and Masters has been relegated to the archives of true crime lore.

Daniel Walker’s life of crime has been so long and extensive that I imagine there are at least a thousand little stories that could be extracted from his record, some predating the events of A Death in California, others subsequent to the publication of the book and the airing of the miniseries. In 1991, the television show Unsolved Mysteries broadcast a jailhouse interview with Walker, conducted by the late F.B.I. profiler Robert Ressler, who is believed to have originated the term ‘serial killer.’ In the interview, Walker, a poised and articulate man, boasts of having committed many unsolved crimes, for most of which he was never suspected or charged. An author could potentially fill volumes to produce a full biography of the fiend and his exploits. A Death in California therefore represents a microcosm of Walker’s biography. We, as readers, must infer that the crimes in which he was convicted of committing are definitive of his savagery as a whole.

51Z0Cco7CmLI have written on the subject of psychopathy many times before. The question of what defines evil I find a daunting one. As I revisit the life and crimes of G. Daniel Walker, I turn to Paradise Lost, the seventeenth-century epic poem by John Milton, and I am struck by Walker’s resemblance to Satan, as Milton depicts him

Hope Masters, who became so enamored of Walker’s charismatic personality that he was able to break  her will and seduced her, corresponds to Eve, who is tempted by Satan in  the form of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Walker, in his heyday, was a distinguished-looking man. Joan Barthel recounts the effect on Hope when she first meets  him under his alias Taylor Wright (a name stolen from a jewelry salesman whom Walker had nearly beaten to death in Michigan):  

“He was tall and very handsome, with dark wavy hair and a deep tan. He was wearing dark slacks, turtleneck sweater with a white shirt over it, and a leather jacket. He was facing Bill [Ashlock], gesturing toward the mountain with a large carved pipe, the other hand thrust into his pocket, the very image of male ease and casual elegance.”

Hope—then a thirty-one-year-old Beverly Hills socialite three times’ divorced and left with three young children—had previously done modeling work and once had a bit role in a television series starring Robert Wagner. It makes perfect sense that she should make the association in her mind between “Taylor” and Robert Wagner, given Walker’s close resemblance to the popular actor and Hope’s early attraction to Wagner on the set of the show.  

Satan, in Paradise Lost, was once the most favored of God’s angels in heaven. In Book I of Paradise Lost Milton writes:

            “Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
            Nor the deep tract of Hell, say first what cause
            Moved our grand parents in that happy state,
            Favoured of Heav’n so highly, to fall off
            From their Creator and transgress his will
            For one restraint, lords of the world besides?
           Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
           Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
           Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
           The mother of mankind, what time his pride
           Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his host
           Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring
           To set himself in glory above his peers…”

Satan the Serpent fits G. Daniel Walker to a tee. Almost, that is. Satan was an angel, and Walker is all too human -- and supports the idea that evil exists as something in itself and is not necessarily to be explained away as a perversion of the good.

Walker could never have been revered by God the way Satan was at one time. But Walker had a way of manipulating people, especially women, including his one-time radical Legal-Aid attorney. The lawyer facilitated his escape from the prison ward of a hospital in Chicago, where he was faking an illness, and even accompanied him as he robbed a gas station at gunpoint. Prior to these events, Walker had served time for armed robbery in the state of Ohio, and he had seduced and married the prison warden’s private secretary. He won parole from that charge and had a child with her. He even started a successful advertising business, but he continued to compulsively commit theft and other felonies.

Long after Walker’s murder conviction in California and prolonged seduction of Hope Masters, Walker seduced a female prison worker named Olivia, married her and involved her in several escape plots, frivolous lawsuits, as well as his plot to  poison prison and state officials. These women and all the other individuals Walker has manipulated throughout his lifetime bring to mind Satan’s host of rebel angels. And by their aid Walker aspired to set himself in glory above his peers. Satan and Walker have both committed the sin of pride. Walker considered himself above the laws of man, as Satan had considered himself above the laws of God.

Illinois State Police detective Bob Swalwell, in his dogged pursuit of Walker, provides the consummate foil in this cat-and-mouse game, just as the fictional Inspector Claude Lebel of the French police relentlessly pursues the Jackal in the Forsyth bookAs Barthel writes in A Death in California, concerning a letter Walker mails to his lovesick, but conflicted attorney,

“From his own knowledge of Walker, and from his knowledge of the Chicago underworld, Swalwell discounted Walker’s Mafia jargon, ‘going-to-mattress’ and ‘The Man,’ as simply Walker’s braggadocio, his attempt to sound very big time. And he was also dubious about the ‘price tag’ ending, Walker’s unhappiness, although with a guy like Walker, who could say? Fortunately, Swalwell was not assigned to deal with Walker’s soul. But he didn’t doubt for a minute that some of Walker’s friends, both ex-cons and civilians, were helping him and, Swalwell admitted, doing a pretty good job of it so far.”

Luckily, I, a scholar, do have the time and the inclination to look into Walker’s soul. The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, was first released in 1972, the year preceding Walker’s escape. I suspect that, as with The Day of the Jackal, Walker was highly influenced by the films and the novel it was based on, and he was playing the role of a big shot hit man or crime boss for his own audience and that of his associates. He is not Sicilian, and therefore can never literally be ‘made’ as a mafioso.

In Paradise Lost:

“He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed; and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God
Raised impious war in Heav’n and battle proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.

Satan lusts to make war with God in heaven. Walker lusts to be viewed as the Godfather.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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