Portrait of the Artist as a Killer

The Art of Murder or How to Take a Friend's Life Without Really Trying. Acclaimed artist Carl Wesley, a.k.a. Inmate 198369, wrote the book.

A year's worth of dust covers two sturdy, handcrafted work tables--lit by a bare, 100-watt bulb--in a corner of Carl Wesley's basement in South Minneapolis. Unopened letters, faded sales receipts, and reams of multicolored scratch paper share space with a dozen rolls of 3M adhesive tape, a trio of rusty shears, and an empty tin of Hershey's Cocoa Mix filled with razor-sharp X-acto blades. News and art magazines are sealed up and preserved in transparent plastic bags: The Washington Post Magazine, 1988; The Secretary, 1993; Business Ethics, 1991. The photo-driven, often abstract collages on their covers all feature Wesley's byline.

The bookshelves, too, are coated in dust. A couple of them house well-worn favorites: The Films of Charlie Chaplin, folios on Van Gogh and Monet, The Art of Sexual Ecstasy, Tolstoy's War and Peace. Some of them are crammed with yellowing memorabilia that smell of mothballs: a pair of Everlast boxing gloves, a New York Yankees hard hat, antique Coke bottles, coffee cans, toy trucks.

The walls are an artist's canvas. Blown-up shots of Little Richard, Madonna, Malcolm X, and Marilyn Monroe double as wallpaper. Scrawled words--"hip hop," "whack," "nitro," "juice," and "peace"--dress the concrete blocks like graffiti, and the ceiling beams read like a New York City subway map--"SoHo," "East Side," "TriBeCa." All that's missing is a rumbling train.

On the bare floors, fine art clutters the place, some of it finished, most of it broken or torn. A trumpet, its rust speckled with paint, sticks out of the handmade wooden frame it has been glued into. The glamour shot of a platinum blonde--legs spread, in only high heels--is tinted gold, her silicone breasts accented by squiggles of color. A broken boom box, circa 1985, juts from a giant piece of scrap wood; the black lettering above it reads, "Relic of a Bronx Killer." A few inches away, "Me" has been carved--clumsily, as if in afterthought--into the grain.

Above it all, high on a shelf, the red digits of a cheap digital clock blink 12:09. 12:09. 12:09. In Carl Wesley's imaginary world, time stands still.

Upstairs, at a few minutes past seven, the Wesley family is getting ready to turn in early. Barbara is busy in the kids' room, humming a lullaby to her year-old daughter Ruby. In the living room, '50s jazz swings softly from the radio as Hector, dressed in fuzzy blue pajamas and worn slippers, sits cross-legged on the wood floor, hugging a deflated "Happy Birthday" balloon. He has just turned 3.

Barbara says today's round-trip to the St. Cloud Correctional Facility, though exhausting, was worth it. Hector let loose with a delighted yelp when he first saw his "dada" waiting in the visiting room, dressed in those bargain-basement dungarees and that worn denim shirt. The guards allowed Carl to cuddle Ruby, a privilege that helps him navigate the silent nights alone in Cell Block D and quickens the days spent folding laundry for 25 cents an hour. And Barbara got a 60-minute dose of conversation to keep her going for another week. "The funny thing is, since he's been in prison, Carl's been much more his true self," she says. "He's relaxed and calmed down. That's the real Carl. I always saw it. I always knew it was there."

Few of Barbara's friends are surprised she's clinging to her weekly visits like a life preserver. Denial comes before grief works itself out, and it has been only two months since her 40-year-old, African-American husband got handed a three-decade sentence in Hennepin County District Court. What her friends, and nearly everyone else who knows Carl Wesley, don't understand, though, is exactly how or why it came to pass that he ended up behind bars in the first place.

That he and an accomplice, Kenneth Schendel, robbed the Brooklyn Park Check Cashers store on October 13, 1997, in broad daylight, with the purpose of splitting $12,000 in cash, is mind-boggling in itself. Wesley had no criminal record at the time. His wife earns a respectable living at the University of Minnesota. He is, by all accounts, a loving father. He's also an award-winning commercial artist with a graduate degree from Harvard. That during the robbery he mutilated and murdered the store's clerk, a 41-year-old man named Gregg Gallup, with a serrated switchblade seems to defy logic. That Carl Wesley had deliberately set out, once the idea of murder was hatched, to socialize with the victim--hanging out together for months, listening to music, taking in the local art scene--is almost too macabre for many of his acquaintances (not to mention Gallup's family) to fathom.

"I've tried to understand it, because the guy's my neighbor and a friend," Hamline law professor Joe Daly says. "But I guess what it boils down to is a guy can do one thing in one second and pay for it for the rest of his life. It's one of the most incredible cases I've ever been involved in."

Initially, Wesley believed his reputation as an educated artist and the disbelief among his professional associates might counter the mounting evidence. Arrested 10 days after the killing, Wesley maintained he was at the wrong place at the wrong time; that he was little more than a patsy. The deep cuts in his hand, he said, were explicable: When, to his surprise, Schendel started the stabbing, he had tried to stop it. He said that he'd stayed silent because he was scared--Schendel, a crook and now a killer, might turn on him if he intervened. He said it so often he started to believe it.

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