Who’s Laughing Now?

You can’t handle the truth.

During my senior year in high school, a group of my friends and I started each school day with a study hall. With the end of high school in sight, we suddenly had permission to spend the first 90 minutes of the day doing nothing. It was like we’d won the lottery.

It didn’t last long. The nun who ran the study hall had no love for slackers and put us to work. We’d read, we’d study, we’d do chores around the school. She also wanted us to be well-informed, which meant we had to watch the local news.

I say “watch,” but once she was out of earshot we’d spend more time making fun of the local news: The over-earnestness, the fixation on tragedy, the clichés. Then came the first week of February 1995, when the newscast opened with the anchor saying something like:

“We begin tonight in Clearfield County, where an argument over a gerbil has led to murder …”

Imagine yourself as 18 again, full of ironic detachment and black humor. How do you hear a deadly serious anchorwoman say that and not laugh?

So we laughed. And laughed and laughed. Only this time, Sister Marie O’Malley — who came with all the threat that the name implies — heard us, and had heard what we were laughing at. TV off. We tried to stifle our laughter. Essays were probably assigned. We stopped watching the news after that, and the gerbil-related murder disappeared from my radar.

Fast forward to 1999, and my first job as a newspaper reporter. My editors made me the court reporter after a few months, and in my first week on the beat, I was covering a death penalty murder trial.

His name was Ronald Champney, on trial in a murder-for-hire case. He was convicted and sentenced to die — the third person in Schuylkill County to face the death penalty. To accompany my story, I had to put together a sidebar on the other two capital murders. There was Daniel Saranchak, who shot and killed his grandmother and his uncle while they slept in 1993. And there was Mark Spotz.

In 1995, Spotz got into a fight with his brother, Dustin. Dustin stabbed Mark with a butter knife. Mark shot and killed Dustin. Then Mark and his 17-year-old girlfriend — he was 23 at the time — went on the run.

Over the next two days, he killed three women for their cars: June Ohlinger in Schuylkill County, Penny Gunnett in York County and Betty Amstutz in Cumberland County. He was caught in Carlisle, tried in all four killings, convicted four times. Manslaughter for his brother, first degree murder for the three women. In each of those three cases, a jury sentenced him to die.

“Shit happens,” he told reporters in Schuylkill County after the death sentence was handed down.

Spotz disappeared from our paper for awhile. Then, one day in 2001, he was back on the hearing schedule with an appeal, looking for a new trial in Ohlinger’s killing in Schuylkill County. It was a slow week and he was big news.

The day he came to town, I waited outside the courthouse with a photographer for the deputies to bring Spotz over from the prison. Spotz saw us and sighed.

“Get a life, guys,” he said.

We kind of chuckled. Then I went inside, and never again laughed at anything having to do with Mark Spotz.

The hearing was to determine whether Spotz hadn’t gotten a fair trial because his lawyer didn’t introduce evidence of his abusive upbringing. In a capital case, that sort of thing is considering a mitigating factor, and something that could keep a defendant off death row.

So for the next few days, everyone in the courtroom heard of the nightmare that was Mark Spotz’s childhood. “The very bottom of bad,” is how a psychologist described it. All his pains, his dark secrets, his humiliations … his fear of rodents.

It was that argument over the gerbil that sparked all of his. On January 31, 1995, Spotz was sleeping on his couch when his nephew — Dustin’s son — put a gerbil on his face. Spotz woke up and flew into a rage. His brother stepped in, and the fight went from there — butter knife and all.

I’d like to tell you I had this great epiphany when I heard the gerbil story for the first time. “Oh god, that thing I laughed at five years ago was actually the catalyst for something that ruined dozens of lives.”

But to be honest, I didn’t remember the study hall incident — and thus didn’t connect it to Spotz — until years later. At the time of the hearing, I was actually a little numb.

By that point in my reporting career, I’d covered the trial of Champney, the hitman, and the woman who’d hired him. He looked like a dumpier Ron Perlman; she looked like a middle American mom. I’d written about arsonists and child molesters, waited with a family for two straight days only to hear a jury acquit the men who killed their son. On the night before the 2000 presidential election, I traveled with another reporter to Daniel Saranchak’s execution, which ultimately didn’t happen. My colleague was going to witness it; I was his back-up.

In none of those cases had the criminals stared at me, the way Spotz did.

At first I didn’t think much of it. An extremely attractive young woman — she never told me who she was — had come to visit Spotz, who already had a pretty significant entourage of lawyers. I figured Spotz was looking at her, and I just happened to be in his line of sight.

When I saw him turning around even when she wasn’t in the courtroom, I realized he was staring at me, his eyes pale blue and a little weepy-looking. I tried staring back, but who was I kidding? I’m 10 years older now and still get nervous if someone’s kicking my seat at the movies; I was no braver at 23.

So I kept my head down, and took notes, and heard about Spotz’s childhood — a litany of malnutrition, mental illness and physical and sexual abuse in the most broken of homes.

It went on for four days: The psychiatrist, various Spotz relatives, his trial attorney. By the time the judge made his decision — denying the appeal — it was weeks later and I’d been hired by a different paper. Just in the past few months, judges in the other two counties where Spotz was sentenced to death have denied other appeals.

I’d like to say that learning about Spotz’s upbringing allowed me to see the wounded child inside of a man who’d done so much evil. Maybe I did, for a little while. Mostly I just felt drained.

The idea that everyone has a story to tell, that everyone has the capacity to be the hero or villain of that story, is one that I hold dear. But it wasn’t a lesson I learned that week nine years ago. It’s something I’m still working on, as a writer and as a person.

I still laugh at the news sometimes — just not as much.

Article © 2010 by Tom Coombe