"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." – Maya Angelou
There’s a scene in one of my favorite films, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, where the character Delmar O’Donnell, played by Tim Blake Nelson, is convinced that his recent river baptism means that he is absolved of all of his past crimes. The character Ulysses Everett McGill, played by George Clooney, breaks the bad news to his friend.
“That’s not the issue, Delmar,” Ulysses says. “Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the state of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”
The tale of a condemned prisoner finding religion is so cliche, but that didn’t stop mass murderer Carl Reimann from claiming his religious redemption as one reason why he should have been let out of Dixon Correctional Center.
During Reimann’s April parole hearing, Tom Johnson, a member of the Prisoner Review Board, said Reimann, 77, told him the “precise turnaround moment in his life occurred in February of 1988, when he attended a Salvation Army service at Dixon Correctional Center, where he had a deep and personal conversion,” according to minutes from that meeting.
Me? I never believed it for a second, and I'll tell you why.
That statement reminded me of a letter I got from Reimann 10 years ago. Writing about that letter is something I’ve been mulling over these past couple of months, but more acutely with the state’s most recent decision to re-release Reimann from prison following two unsuccessful attempts to place him in private homes that resulted in his temporary return to Dixon.
In 2007, I wrote a story for the Record marking the 35th anniversary of Reimann’s murders, interviewing some victims’ family members and gathering court documents, photographs and other information. After the article was published, I considered writing a book on the crime, which led me to seek out an interview with Reimann in the summer of 2008.
Reimann’s accomplice in the crime, Betty Piche, had died, and the family that had witnessed the robbery declined interview requests and were essentially in hiding. So Reimann was the only remaining direct connection to the crime that I could talk to. I wanted to ask him why he did it, but more importantly, I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he had done.
Initially, Reimann responded to a letter I had sent him and agreed to a face-to-face interview. But the following week, about two days before our scheduled interview, I got a follow-up letter from Reimann. He was still open to an interview but under one condition.
“You see in this world nothing is free,” he wrote in unsteady cursive. “You need my story, I need your help, and you could help me if you wanted to. I need outside help to make parole; without outside help I will never be released. Then we will talk about what you want. Then only if we can have privacy. I cannot talk freely with someone looking over my shoulder or listening to every word that I say. I pray that we can help each other! Respectfully, Carl”
Nowhere in that statement was an expression of remorse, or a mention of his religious conversion. Reimann wasn’t declining an interview because the topic was too painful, or because he just wasn’t comfortable talking about it. He wanted something – a quid pro quo.
That's why whenever I read about Reimann's religious conversion, it looks to me as genuine as Delmar O'Donnell taking a holy dip in the river and declaring that "all my sins is warshed away ... including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo."
At this point, Reimann is again set to become a free man if he can find a suitable home. That is, unless his neighbors complain anew about having to live next to the convicted killer of five people and he has to move again. We'll see. After all, in this world, nothing is free.
• Tony Scott is the news editor for Record Newspapers.