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.

While both of them waited behind bars this past winter and into spring, the Hennepin County assistant attorney weighed his options. Ultimately, he decided to go after Wesley, all the while knowing that it would take some work to convince a jury that he was a man capable of such violence. But all the physical evidence--the blood, the DNA, the fingerprints--pointed to Wesley as the lone killer. So the prosecutor made a deal with Schendel: Testify against Wesley, serve 15 years as an accomplice, and see daylight before retirement age. Jury selection for Wesley's first-degree murder trial was slated to begin on July 6, 1998.

In the meantime, Joe Daly, along with Minneapolis-based defense attorney Keith Ellison, took Wesley's case pro bono. Their strategy began with the admission that indeed Wesley was flawed. True, he'd racked up thousands in debt, abused drugs, and was consistently unfaithful to Barbara. But that's where it stopped--he wasn't a killer. He had no history of violence, premeditation couldn't be proved, and there was no reason to believe Wesley could so coldly dispose of a friend. Schendel, on the other hand, was, according to at least one homicide detective, a snitch with slippery fingers.

But during jury selection, Wesley got the jitters. At the same time, the prosecutor got nervous about Schendel's credibility, and worried that Wesley's young kids might mist up a juror or two; he started to figure that the inarguably stupid nature of the crime would get in the way of convicting a Harvard-educated man. So, in the eleventh hour, the two sides brokered an agreement. Wesley would plead guilty to second-degree intentional murder, be eligible for parole in 20 years, in time to see Hector graduate from college. "What I did to Gregg Gallup is an abomination to humanity," he told the judge in an emotional confession recorded on July 10. "I'm not a bad person. But I did a terrible thing."

After the confession, when the county prosecutor was asked whether he had planned to parade Wesley's art in front of the jury--to afford them a gaze into the killer's imagination--he said no. Looking back, dismissing such a tactic may have been hasty: To understand Wesley, to comprehend his crime, a jury would have to be invited below the man's well-spoken, rehearsed surface. They would have to see past the studious spectacles, the shy shrugs and boyish dimples to catch a glimpse--however fleeting--of his squandered talent, consuming selfishness, and fascination with crime and punishment. In order to convict, without a doubt they would have to be shown a place like Carl Wesley's basement.

While Wesley awaited trial in the Carver County jail, a friend of his phoned Mavis Karn, a licensed social worker who has counseled gang kids incarcerated at Stillwater. She agreed to meet with Wesley, then encouraged an aggressive stint of self-analysis over several months. Karn told Wesley to pick apart his thinking patterns--disassemble the network, pull loose the wires. In her opinion, Wesley's logic board had fried: He'd lost sight of what makes human beings moral.

"Carl was really self-absorbed and preoccupied with himself and just kind of taking things that happened in the world around him intensely personally. He didn't have much of an awareness that there were other people in the world," Karn says. "The habit is still there, but up to the trial, he was really beginning to wake up to how the family of the person he killed must've suffered."

Karn hasn't visited Wesley since he was sentenced. As he picks nervously at his nails in the visiting room at St. Cloud prison, it is apparent that her influence is fading. He's still trying to explain how it all went wrong. But now the self-analysis is more self-serving than revealing--a combination of buck passing and adolescent bravado. He wants people to know he's "truly sorry" for knifing Gregg Gallup 70 times. He wants them to know he accepts his lot. But most importantly, he wants everyone who cares about the case to believe he, too, is a victim--of circumstance.

In an attempt to put into words a life he himself can't yet make sense of (and to maybe make some money for his kids' college fund) Wesley is writing his autobiography. Already filling more than 100 pages of a college-ruled notebook, printed neatly in #2 pencil, the tale is a study in self-indulgence, with its lead character more beguiled hero than villain. "It didn't really occur to me until I started rehashing things in written form," he says, "but I've always lived a double life."

The work-in-progress begins with his mother Barbara Hill, who was just 15 when she gave birth to her only son, in North Carolina. Too young to take care of the boy, she sent Carl to a tenement on the West Side of Manhattan to live with her mother. Across the street lived Carl's aunt Dora, her Puerto Rican husband Jacinto, and their children Timothy (who was born in 1958, the same year as Carl) and Hector.

Recalling Harlem as if it were a set piece from West Side Story, Wesley writes that those early years left an indelible mark. Uncle John ran with street gangs. Jacinto made wages as a loan shark and two-bit gambler. The whole lot of them were, in Wesley's words, "poor, poor, poor...A good deal of our entertainment came from what we could see from our windows."

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