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.

Wesley was on pace to take a bite out of the Apple. A layout he was hired to design for Essence won a Print Magazine Award of Excellence in 1987. That same year he also designed a cover for the Washington Post Magazine, which earned a Society of Publication Designers Award. Besides consistently churning out solid work, Wesley was well-liked by his employers. Thoughtful, affable, and willing to turn assignments around quickly, he was on the A-list.

In spite of the professional success (or perhaps as a result), Wesley was also busy developing two habits that still haunt him: drug use and a tendency to blame others for his troubles. In Spanish Harlem, Wesley says, he turned into a moving target for drug dealers working his uncle's building. It wasn't long before he picked up the crack pipe. By the late '80s, Wesley took to disappearing for days on end, driving art directors mad over missed deadlines. "You have to understand, there were drugs everywhere," he says. "I was a single guy with a low overhead. I had the means to buy drugs. The thing is, these guys would see me coming home with a portfolio, money in my pocket. That's basically how the problem started. It's not like I went looking for it."

Bob Lascaro owns his own design business in New York. When Wesley lived in New York, Lascaro worked as the art director at Ziffdavis, which once published the trade magazines Road and Track and Skiing. A friend who often sprang for dinner with Wesley once his earnings had been squandered on dope, he still can't believe the artist with that "lush, photographic sensibility" who resorted to talking in a "Jiminy Cricket" voice when cornered over deadlines could be capable of deadly violence.

"Carl always delivered beautiful stuff," Lascaro remembers. "He was very, very good. Plus, he was pleasant, he had a great sense of humor, and he was very open as a human being.

"Then I started to have problems with him. He'd show up a couple days late, with pieces that were subpar. I looked at him and said, 'What's going on with you? Are you smoking the wacky weed?' He kind of laughed and admitted there might be some kind of problem. He was rocking back and forth in his life. I kept using him, because he was a favorite. But the bottom line is, there aren't a lot of people who have time to take their illustrators out for pizza and lend them money." Even now Lascaro wonders out loud about "what could've been" had Wesley not been consumed by his demons.

By 1988 Wesley figured that changing scenes might curb his bent for self-destruction. Encouraged by Timmerman, he moved to Minneapolis, where he hoped the stakes would be lower and the living easier, saner. Two years later, Wesley says, his IRS-reported earnings approached $30,000. Local publications such as the Twin Cities Reader, Minnesota Monthly, City Pages, Corporate Report, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press were returning phone calls and putting his work into circulation.

The success was short-lived. Over the next three years, Wesley started to dabble in drugs again, sometimes checking out for days at a time. He started hanging out with "lowlifes" and laying low. Art directors he'd worked for around town found themselves frustrated, just like Lascaro. Wesley seemed adrift, turning in pieces that didn't measure up, focusing on the paycheck instead of the work. "He was a really sweet guy who was always down on his luck," Phil Tippin, an art director for City Pages between 1992 and 1995, recalls. "And I always thought that was self-manufactured. To me it was one thing only: He was desperate all the time. I would never hear from him unless he needed money. But did I think he was so desperate, so consumed by his troubles that he would kill someone? No way."

Wesley says it wasn't his idea. The killing, yes, he did that. But it was Kenny Schendel who put the thought in his head. Schendel who dreamed it up. Who set the date. Who stole the money. Who spurred Wesley to "finish him off." Schendel's a liar, a redneck, a thief. Schendel couldn't even be trusted to split the take--$12,000 cash, which police say is still missing. "It was his low thinking," Wesley insists, "that made this whole thing happen."

For what it's worth, investigators and attorneys on both sides of the fence are still prone to believe some version of Wesley's confessed account of Gallup's murder: that Schendel wrote the script and Wesley acted it out. In law-enforcement circles, how the two committed the murder is a matter made clear by analyzing the crime scene. What baffles them are the whys: Why rob an acquaintance in broad daylight? Why not wear masks? Why not use a gun? And why were these two men together to begin with?

In Wesley's mind, the final question is the only one worth answering: He was sucked into the friendship and, so, into the murder--before he could stop it, and almost against his will. One morning, a year after moving to Minneapolis, Wesley called a check-cashing store on Lake Street in Minneapolis, hoping to cash a freelance check. Bobby Quinn, the establishment's owner, answered the phone in a heavy Brooklyn accent. Intrigued, Wesley decided to pay a visit. When he walked into Quinn's shop, he noticed pictures of Coney Island on the wall. They hit it off immediately--two New Yorkers homesick for the old haunts.

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