An engrossing examination of an Ozarks triple murder and its strangely sympathetic perpetrator, who avoided execution via the pope’s intervention.
As in his American Exorcism (2001), Cuneo (Sociology/Fordham) methodically examines a tangled American subculture, rife with extremism and religious fervor. Here, he addresses the outlaw archetype that’s endured within southwestern Missouri culture, at odds with the milieu presented to the state’s Branson-bound tourists. Darrell Mease was the most charming boy in Reeds Spring, Missouri, and his idyllic childhood bred within him the region’s strict Pentecostalism; yet Vietnam, failed marriages, and involvement in the Ozarks methamphetamine scene left him a fractured and paranoid man. Following disputes with feared local drug kingpin Lloyd Lawrence (whose ordinary lifestyle belied a brutal history, including the rape of his own daughters), Mease fled Missouri with stolen meth and with Mary Epps, whom he considered his true love; Lloyd then put out murder contracts upon both. Cuneo argues that an unspoken code of Ozarks vengeance, developed in response to historically corrupt law enforcement, influenced Mease’s decision to return and settle accounts with Lloyd; in a shocking ambush, he shotgunned Lloyd, his wife, and handicapped grandson. After several months on the lam, Mease was captured and confessed in an attempt to protect Mary; following his 1989 conviction and death sentence, he experienced a jailhouse conversion, claiming that God would not allow his execution. Incredibly, the 1999 papal visit to St. Louis forced postponement of Mease’s execution date; after noting this, the Vatican indeed prevailed upon then-governor Mel Carnahan to commute Mease’s sentence to life. (Yet, Cuneo concludes that Missouri’s pro-execution politics have since continued unabated.) Despite a slightly dry prose style, Cuneo is skillful at nailing down the elusive stories of warts-and-all heartland America; he does a fine job of untangling this complex affair’s ambiguities, in which idealized rural lifestyles collide tragically with the concentrated violence of both the drug war and state-sanctioned capital punishment.
A strong regional true-crime tale with disturbing noirish undertones and undeniable spiritual flair.