AP reporter: Condemned Va. killer opened up to me

Saturday - 1/19/2013, 12:02pm EST

Associated Press

JARRATT, Va. (AP) - He gave a nod and a wink before he sat down in the electric chair, then he uttered two statements as contradictory as the man himself: a Gaelic expletive and "God bless."

Robert Gleason Jr. was playful and vicious, a protector and a predator. He was likeable and reprehensible. He sent Christmas cards and made me laugh on a bad day.

He was also a killer. And on Wednesday night I watched him die.

I couldn't help but smile as Gleason strung together his last words, a mix of movie and song references that baffled the men in dark suits that lined the death chamber and the citizens and reporters with me listening intently from our green and white plastic chairs. He and I had talked several times over the past three years about what he'd say when he got there. It changed a few times. It got much shorter as the day drew closer, as he feared he'd trip over his own meticulously chosen words.

In the end, he settled on lines from the Johnny Cash version of "Jackson," which reminded him of the woman he regretted losing, and "Take it to the Limit" by the Eagles because it represented the final motorcycle ride he never got to take. I knew the expletive was coming _ he'd repeated it often in his thick Boston accent. I must say I was surprised by the "God bless," though.

Gleason flashed a thumbs up as they put the metal helmet on his head and clamp on his calf, perfectly censoring a large pinup girl tattoo. He went out on his own terms, choosing 1,800 volts of electricity over lethal injection partly because he didn't want to go lying down.

It's easy to call Gleason a monster. I'm not even sure those who knew and loved him would disagree. He killed at least three men _ strangling the last two while locked up in the state's most secure prisons. He'd been imprisoned for killing a man whose son was cooperating with the probe of a drug ring he was involved in.

But there was something about him that made me want to know more. And he was more than willing to oblige.

I'll never know exactly why Gleason opened up to me. It wasn't infatuation. He only crossed the line once, sending me a flirtatious letter. I told him to cut it out, and he never did it again.

Nor was it to convince me that he was innocent or to ask for my help, like countless other letters I've received from prisoners as an AP reporter. Rather, he openly discussed the graphic details of each of his crimes, and he believed passionately that he deserved to die for them.

What he wanted from me, I believe, was someone to hear him out and to tell his story. I think he also liked that I didn't tell him what he wanted to hear. We had disagreements ranging from how I wrote my stories about him to how he treated his lawyers. Several times he told me I was one of the only people in the world he trusted.

I'd first written to Gleason to request an interview after he killed his cellmate, Harvey Watson Jr. in 2009. To my surprise he wrote back within a week and was more than willing to talk. As I sat across from him at Red Onion State Prison months later, he vowed that he would keep killing until the state put him to death _ a threat he would repeat many times as he sought to speed up his execution.

He was moved to a prison where inmates spend 23 hours each day in segregation, but months after he first made the threat he managed to strangle another inmate, Aaron Cooper, through a separate recreation cage. I've kept in contact with Cooper's mother, Kim Strickland, since then. Although she had religious objections to capital punishment, Gleason persuaded her to testify that he deserved to die by sending her excerpts from the Bible preaching an eye for an eye.

We tell ourselves those sentenced to death are not like us. How could they be? What would that say about us?

But in Gleason I found someone who was, in many ways, like the rest of us.

This killer loved his family and was fiercely protective of them. He talked often of his mother, who died of cancer when he was young, and of his children and how he wished he'd been a better father.