From The Vault: Cincinnati comes face-to-face with 'monster' in racist killer Joseph Paul Franklin

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Posted at 9:05 AM, Jun 09, 2016

CINCINNATI – Try to imagine the families' suffering:

Two young cousins are shot to death walking to a store to buy candy.  Five, 10, 15 years pass, and police don't catch the killer.

After 17 years, the murderer confesses. The boys had just happened to walk into the gunsight of a crazed, racist serial killer. Joseph Paul Franklin had been criss-crossing nearly a dozen states during a four-year shooting spree from 1977 to 1980, killing as many as 18 people - most of them black, most with a high-powered rifle.

WATCH a 1997 WCPO story about the shootings and Franklin's confession in the player above.

What causes a racist serial killer to confess?

Melissa Powers, then an assistant prosecutor, testifies during Joseph Paul Franklin’s trial in Cincinnati in 1998.

Franklin, who was on death row in Missouri when he confessed in 1997, considered himself a ladies' man, so prosecutor Joe Deters sent a pretty, young assistant prosecutor, Melissa Powers, to interview Franklin in prison. She called him a "monster," but she played him, and Franklin blurted out his "I did it" almost before she could turn on her tape recorder.

"I sold my soul to the devil in order to get what we needed," Powers said afterward.

A year later, when Powers took the stand and played Franklin's racially-charged confession, it took a jury only 45 minutes to convict him.

One of the darkest chapters in Cincinnati history began on June 8, 1980 when 13-year-old Dante Evans Brown and 14-year-old Darrell Lane walked down Reading Road on a hot Sunday night.

"It was one of the most horrible crimes that ever happened in our community," Deters said in 1998 before Franklin's trial. "The nature of it was so cold-blooded and senseless."

There was one question that must have haunted their families for years:

What were the odds?

One, that the despicable Franklin, who usually targeted racially-mixed couples, would be passing through Cincinnati and hiding on top of a train trestle, waiting to shoot the first black man who came by with a white woman?

Two, that Dante and Darrell would sneak out of their grandmother's house, where they spent the weekend?

Three, that Franklin, who said he wanted to incite a race war, would get tired of waiting for a mixed couple just about the time the boys passed by? Franklin had never killed children up to that night. He said later that he didn't realize in the darkness that they were kids, but not with any remorse.

The next day, police would find four spent cartridges from a 44.-caliber magnum rifle on the trestle. Dante died at the scene. Darrell's sister tearfully testified at Franklin's three-day trial that she heard the shots and ran down the street in time to see first responders load her brother's bleeding body into an ambulance. He died three days later.

Dante's family didn't tell his 7-year-old brother, Levon, about the shooting, but it didn't take Levon long to realize something was wrong.

In 1997, Levon, then 24, talked to WCPO after hearing of Franklin's confession.

"We shared bunk beds.  I knew something was wrong when he wasn't at the top bunk 'cause I needed him there to go to sleep every night," Levon said.

WATCH Levon talk about his brother in the video below:


Levon said he was looking forward to Franklin's trial.

"I just want to look him in the eye," Levon said.

Deters and Cincinnati police said they had Franklin on the top of their list of suspects within months of the Bond Hill shootings. But there were no witnesses.  Franklin apparently sold the rifle and it could not be found even though prosecutors placed ads in newspapers offering a reward. Three months after the shooting, Florence police arrested Franklin for stealing an Indiana police officer's handgun. But Franklin escaped from the interrogation room.

By 1997, Franklin had nothing to lose by confessing to killing Darrell and Dante. He had already been convicted of murdering a black man in Missouri and confessed to wounding black civil rights leader Vernon Jordan and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Franklin said he shot Jordan because he had seen him in public with a white woman. He said he shot Flynt because Hustler published a photo of an interracial couple having sex.

Besides a death sentence, Franklin was also facing life sentences here and elsewhere. But Deters pressed on. Deters said it was well known that Franklin liked to talk to women – reporters, investigators, even prosecutors. So Powers started writing him letters and buttering him up.

"He definitely thought he was a ladies man, so I think using and talking only to women – that was his intent," said Powers, now a judge.

Powers said meeting Franklin close-up in a Missouri prison was "traumatic."

"I was face-to-face with somebody very dangerous that was capable of killing without any kind of conscience or remorse," she said.

She admitted she was scared, but "I didn't want to show it and blow this opportunity that Cincinnati may get in order to bring closure to the families.

"I flattered him a lot," she said. "I made him feel that he was important, asked for his assistance -- definitely played up the compliments and the flattery."

WATCH and listen to Franklin's racially-charged confession in the video below (WARNING: Franklin's comments about blacks are offensive):



Franklin's attorneys tried to get the taped confession thrown out, but Judge Ralph Winkler allowed it. With Powers on the witness stand, prosecutors played the tape as Franklin appeared to listen along.

Franklin's voice was cold and casual as he talked about shooting Darrell and Dante.

"I just put the gun on the biggest dude first and I fired one shot with that .44 magnum," he said. "And so, I just heard somebody go ... make a sound ... like they just gotten shot.

"The other guy bolted ... it was just like though a miracle that I got him. I did not even aim the gun at him … I just shot in the dark hoping I would get a lucky shot and, sure enough, I hit him."

When Powers asked Franklin why he killed Darrell and Dante, he said,

"I was trying to get rid of all the ugly people in the world and I considered blacks the ugliest people of all."

At that point, Levon had heard enough and walked out of court.

"It was more than I expected," he said.

There was just one full day of testimony, and the jury quickly convicted Franklin of two counts of aggravated murder. Outside the courtroom, the victims' families hugged and cried. They had waited 18 years for this small consolation.

WATCH the reaction to the verdict in the video below:


Levon kissed his mother on the cheek.

"I'm just thankful that it's over," she said. "He didn't get what he deserved, but it's over. He'll reach his final judgment when he meets his maker, but I'm glad it's over."

Because Ohio didn't have a death penalty, and so much time had gone by, some people had asked why Deters wanted to prosecute Franklin in the first place. He answered that eloquently in his closing argument.

"These are our children and 18 years means nothing," Deters said. "Justice for these two boys, for these two families, for this community, this is what matters and this is what will measure us."

In the hallway, Deters took a different measure of Franklin.

"He's the biggest creep I've ever seen …  What he did to those two kids, because of the color of their skin, is incomprehensible," Deters said. "There's no fate bad enough for him."

When court reconvened the next day for sentencing, Franklin stood before the bench and complained to Winkler.

WATCH Winkler jaw with Franklin in the video below:


"Your Honor, I didn't even have to confess to this in the first place. I helped these people out solving this case. I did not have to do that. I should at least get credit for that," Franklin said.

The judge fired back.

"Throughout this case you've whined all the way," Winkler said. "If  there was such as thing as a motion to whine, I'm sure you would have filed it."

Outside the courtroom, Deters had the last word.

"I hope we get him out of our jail as soon as possible. I'm tired of paying for his food," Deters said.

After spending 15 more years on death row, 63-year-old Joseph Paul Franklin was executed by lethal injection in Missouri on Nov. 20, 2013. A district judge stopped the scheduled execution on the previous day, but the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the stay.

SEE other video and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.

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