"My Interview with serial killer Ottis Toole"

September 11, 2014  •  Leave a Comment
The September meeting of the Nashville Creative Group began just like any other meeting.  I was greeted by the creative group organizer Beth Inglish McMillian at the Emma Bistro at 11 Lea Avenue in Nashville with a large group of creative professionals gathering refreshments and libation in preparation for our nightly discussions about the local art community.  The September 8th, 2014 meeting's agenda was about The Art of Storytelling.  This particular topic holds a special place in my heart as I think some photographers overlook this.  You can apply hundreds of software editing filters to your image, but if the root concept or vision is not there no amount of editing will save the image.
I do tend to bring my camera to a lot of events I attend and feel out the situation first before bringing them out.  Some events are best left for the camera in your mind but I felt this event could have some special tidbits that I would want to remember.  This event would not disappoint, in fact, the event provided me with one of my favorite images that I have shot so far.  This meeting was an intense night for all involved.  Through the forging fires of fear you can come out with some remarkable storytelling that you may not find at just a normal glance.
Volunteers from the group engaged others in storytelling method called "experimental play" led by Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling host Kristen Chapman Gibbons.  During this exercise Gibbons (a Marketing professional) gave several phrases and participants were to write the first thing that came to our minds and perhaps share with the group if we chose to.  One of the phrases was "I was so afraid..."  A lady named Sondra who was sitting in the front row said she wanted to share her story of "I was so afraid..."  She came up to the presenter and said "I was so afraid...the time I interviewed Ottis Toole."  
For those that don't know, Ottis Toole was an American drifter convicted of 6 counts of murder. He may be responsible for taking more than 100 lives in a nationwide rampage of mindless murder with Henry Lee Lucas.  In October 1983 while in prison for two unrelated murders Toole confessed to the 1981 murder of 6 year-old Adam Walsh, the son of John Walsh (of America's Most Wanted fame).
Throughout his childhood, Toole’s mother would dose him with her “nerve pills,” and his alcoholic father sexually abused him.  The youngest of eight kids, Toole was also sexually abused by his sister after she dressed him up in girl’s clothing.  She later committed suicide.  Toole often played hooky from school to visit his grandmother Cornelia, who struck fear in him because she was a grave robber and participated in blood drinking rituals passed down through her family.  Toole’s earliest memories were of midnight visits to graveyards, where Cornelia forced him to rob graves.
Sondra reminisced of arriving to interview Toole: “When I met Ottis Toole I felt that anything could happen…anything at all.  Six heavily armed guards escorted him to the tiny interrogation room where I was waiting nervously.  Suddenly I was face to face with this savage killer drag queen, which ate the flesh and drank the blood of his victims in ghoulish devil-worshipping rites.  It felt like I was standing less than 6 inches away from a rattlesnake.  Even though he was shackled hand and foot I was scared to death.  I felt myself bracing for Toole’s brutality, cruelty and hate.”
Sondra then told her story of her interview with Toole and I was shooting photographs.  I honestly didn't think much about the shots I was getting because I was listening to her story and going on autopilot with my camera making sure the shots were creatively correct.  Once I got home and started sifting through the photos I realized what a powerful moment reliving this experience was for her.  Everyone in the Creative Group was listening with full attention.
My favorite shot of the night is the image shown below.  Sondra's facial tension & body language tell the complete story of this experience in her life.  Creatively for me the support beam in the middle of the frame expresses the closing in of fear and the anxiety it must bring when knowing you are in a large space but feel confined by what your mind has derived, whether true or not.  Seeing her expressions and body language just gives me chills when I see this photo (below).  Sometimes the camera can be a shield from the world around you and what is happening 20 feet in front of you.  I was listening intently to her story and I was on autopilot (no not automatic mode) on my camera, it wasn't until I got home and reviewed the images on my laptop that I grasped the full feeling of what had unfolded in front of me.
I spoke with Sondra after the meeting was over and she elaborated more on her interview with Toole and she said “I saw cringing behind the coldness of his hooded eyes was a tormented child, crazed with pain and fear of more pain.”  Toole said to Sondra at their meeting “I can’t be around people too much.  I have to stay locked down, ‘cause I might go haywire and start chopping up somebody.”
Sondra as it turns out, is none other than Sondra London, Queen of Serial Killer Journalism.  What makes her story of interviewing Toole intriguing and terrifying at the same time is that she shares her experience of being afraid upon meeting him.  London is no stranger to serial killers having known several throughout her life.  Experience is your best teacher and sometimes your instinct is far more correct than your intellect.  I believe London’s initial fear of Ottis Toole to be genuine but once conversing with him she could see a larger picture of abuse and manipulation contributing to Toole's depravity.
London has written several true crime books including Killer Fiction, based on the writings of serial killer Gerard John Schaefer.  London had dated Schaefer in high school and she recalls of their time together: “I remember when Schaefer took me hunting in the Everglades and I dropped his shotgun in the primeval muck.  Many years later I learned that was his favorite corpse disposal place.”
London has also collaborated with serial killer Danny Rolling in writing The Making of a Serial Killer : The Real Story of the Gainesville Murders, an illustrated psychological memoir of Rolling’s confession to five murders and other crimes which he had not been charged with.
To find out more information about the Nashville Creative Group, Beth Inglish McMillian, Kristen Chapman Gibbons or Sondra London please visit their websites linked below:
Photographer's Notes:
For this shoot I brought two camera bodies and used 2 different lenses to capture these images.  The tech specs are listed below:
  • Canon 5D Mark III
  • Canon Rebel T2i/550D (Crop Sensor Body)
  • Canon 50mm f1.2L USM Lens (attached to 5D Mark III)
  • Canon 24-105 f4L IS USM Lens (attached to T2i)
    • This lens on a crop sensor camera is actually 39mm-168mm effective focal range allowing me to get closer without having to physically move and invade the subject
  • Camera settings were almost static throughout the whole shoot on both DSLR's
    • 1/40th of a second, f4, ISO 1600 (IS lenses do help but so does a steady hand and braced elbows)
    • White balance is set between 3600-3850 degrees K(kelvin)
    • The light source was almost 100% flourescent, no off camera lighting additions were used
    • I knew I would turn some of the images to black and white in post so the noise from the T2i body was not an issue



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