Bill Parker had just fallen
asleep. He had been out to dinner that night and had even had a couple of
drinks. The phone rang right after midnight. Many times he had gotten up in the
middle of the night to rush off to a murder scene. But this time was different.
dispatcher was excited and at times hard to understand. He told Bill that as
many as a dozen people could be dead in a restaurant on the corner of Midway and
Interstate 635 in the north section of Dallas.
call you right back,” Bill said, before hanging up. He thought the best thing
to do was to splash water on his face, wake up, and give the caller time to pull
“I had never heard of
Ianni’s,” Bill recalled years later. But Bill would learn much about
Ianni’s Restaurant and Club. On the night of June 29, 1984, Bill would see the
club for the first time—the site of the largest mass murder in the history of
He drove directly to the scene
from his home. A fairly large crowd had assembled outside of Cappuccino’s,
another nightclub nearby. There were plenty of policemen to hold them back, and
the news of what had happened inside Ianni’s was more than enough to subdue
could have happened to them just as easily—the two clubs, separated only by a
common parking lot in a small outdoor strip mall, were very close to one
another. By the time Bill arrived, some of the onlookers may have known that the
killer had been in Cappuccino’s and another north Dallas nightspot earlier
Ianni’s front doors were on
the sides of a glass foyer covered by a burgundy canopy embroidered with an
“I.” Bill walked in and turned
left to a reception area where, earlier that evening, the headwaiter greeted
customers and kept track of what tables were occupied. Next to the
headwaiter’s stand hung an oil portrait of Joe Ianni, the restaurant’s
police officers and medics were already there and busily at work. Two victims
had been taken away in ambulances in desperate attempts to save their lives. One
lived. The others were still on the floor in the bar, which was located down a
hallway near the back of the building.
“When you are investigating a
crime like this, you don’t have the luxury of taking the time to look at the
horror of it all,” Bill later recalled. Intensely disciplined, Bill Parker
wanted badly to arrest the man responsible for the grisly scene.[iii]
he entered the bar, to the left was a man, a mechanic, in blue work clothes
lying on his back. His shirt had the word “Mercedes” embroidered on the
pocket, and he had one of those retractable key chains that janitors wear,
clipped to his wide, shiny black leather belt. The pool of blood surrounding his
head was so thick that the dark blue carpet could not absorb any more. When the
medics turned him over to be sure he could not be saved, they saw his eyes, now
dull and set in a disconcerting stare.
gruesome path of blood told the story of what had happened to the mechanic after
he was shot. A large pool had formed on the bar in front of where he had been
sitting, encircling the mixed drink he had been enjoying and two ashtrays
positioned neatly within the pool. The blood soaked coaster was barely visible
beneath the glass. Spatters and streaks ran down the beige barstool the mechanic
had been sitting on toward the floor where he had landed. Even the rich, oak
panels of the bar near the floor had blood and tissue on them.
to the mechanic was a well-dressed blonde businesswoman in a white skirt and a
blue blouse. Her skirt had a large bloodstain over her upper right leg, but that
wound did not look to be fatal. She landed, or had crawled,
a few feet from where she was sitting.
the medics came to her, it was clear that she had died from a gunshot wound to
her head that had shattered her skull. Her eyes were open as well, and she had
that same disconcerting stare as the mechanic next to her.
across her feet was another victim. She, too, was wearing a white skirt and was
well dressed though her attire was not as businesslike. Her tan blouse had been
turned red by her blood.
medics had placed EKG electrodes on her chest to make sure she was beyond
saving, but it had to have been as a precaution only. She had been shot twice in
the head and was a bloody mess. One of the wounds entered her right cheek and
had blown chunks of her dentures out of her mouth. Her bright blue eyes were now
dull and lifeless as she lay on her back in death. They were fixed upon the
ceiling—set in a disconcerting stare. Her badly damaged head rested on the
right hand of yet another victim, a woman dressed for the evening in a white
now, it was obvious that the woman in the crocheted dress had been stunningly
beautiful. She had landed on the floor at the base of her barstool. Her head
pointed to the right, her shoulders were flat against the floor, but her knees
pointed to the right and her legs were crossed, almost as if delicately posed,
and the spike of one of her off-white high heels hooked around the leg of
another of those beige barstools. Her silver butane cigarette lighter was on the
floor next to her lifeless body. Her eyes were closed.
To the right was a large pool of blood where another victim, the first to be shot, had fallen. The medics found her alive, but moaning and dying. When Bill reached that spot, he found evidence of how others had tried desperately to save her life, or at least make her comfortable. Her black silk belt and her tan shoes had been removed; they were left behind and were resting against the bar where she was sitting when her assailant shot her. She died en route to Dallas’ infamous Parkland Hospital, where John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald died in 1963.
Parker didn’t take time to “look at the horror of it all.” He examined the
bodies as he would pieces of evidence, clues to identify who might be
responsible for this senseless slaughter. In an investigation like this, a slug
or a shell, or even a strand of hair might make or break a case. Bill was
looking everywhere for everything. He searched the floors to find spent
ammunition. He talked to witnesses and the first cops to arrive and compared
what they said to what he saw. He took the time to look at chairs, tables, and
Bill came upon the final victim, still on the floor by a potted plant near where
the band played, he stopped in his tracks. He recognized the obese, gray-haired
man wearing a tan leisure suit as someone he had arrested before. Years earlier
Bill had worked vice. The dead man near the dance floor was a pimp. “What was
he doing there?” Bill thought. He wondered if there could be a gang or
organized crime connection to this mass murder, but that didn’t fit with
everything else he had seen and heard from the eyewitnesses. It was more likely
that this poor fellow was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like all
there have been other mass slayings with even greater body counts. Along the
Interstate 35 central Texas corridor alone there have been much larger
tragedies. Eighteen years earlier on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed the
University of Texas Tower and gunned down nearly fifty people in about an hour
and a half. Fifteen died as a result of his sniping. Two more victims, his wife
and mother, killed at their homes earlier the same morning, brought the total to
October 16, 1991, George Hennard drove his pickup through the window of a
cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. He pulled out a gun similar to the one used in
Ianni’s and shot fifty-six people, killing twenty-three, which is still the
largest simultaneous mass murder in American History.[vi]
mass murders always make headlines, if for no other reason than because they
surprise, shock and sicken us. But for non-victims, they seldom bring about more
than just momentary fear, anger and grief. We read the newspapers, shake our
heads, occasionally pray for people we do not know, and go about our lives.
mass murderers, like Whitman and Hennard, commit “suicide by cop” or do the
job themselves, never to face a trial by jury. When that happens, the incidents
are merely remembered on anniversaries divisible by five and ten. But the man
who killed in Ianni’s lived to face a jury.
an incident, like the Ianni’s murders, transcends the act itself. Sometimes it
is the descent of criminal proceedings into a memorable circus atmosphere of
perverse entertainment, like the trials of O.J. Simpson and the Menendez
Brothers. In spite of their high profiles, neither of those crimes brought about
a significant change in how we deal with crime. Neither did the ultimate true
crime story—the Charles Manson Family murders.
becomes epiphanic when it causes us to change our institutions, perceptions, or
behavior. Charles Whitman was the first to take his guns and go to school. He
proved a boast he had made to several acquaintances that from his perch he could
“hold off an army” of policemen for as long as he wanted. After Whitman, law
enforcement agencies throughout the United States rushed to form SWAT teams to
handle similar “domestic terrorist” events.
killers sometimes bring about change as well. In Texas, after serving
twenty-three years in prison, including six years on death row, for the brutal
and heartless murder of three high school students, Kenneth Allen McDuff was
paroled and walked out of prison. During the next three years he raped,
tortured, and murdered at least five more women. His serial killing spree
brought about radical changes in parole, called the McDuff Laws, and provided
the catalyst for the construction of billions of dollars of new prisons.[vii]
of Texas, the “Tylenol” poisonings brought about the expenditure of many
billions of dollars to repackage virtually every consumable product on store
shelves throughout the world. Today, nearly everything we buy is grossly
over-packaged and tamper-proof.[viii]
1994, the parents and neighbors of seven-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey did
not know their neighbor was a twice-convicted sex offender until after Megan had
been brutally raped and murdered. Today, in all fifty states and the District of
Columbia, laws requiring the registration of sex offenders and the disclosure of
their location are collectively called “Megan’s Laws.”[ix]
isolated incidents, these crimes were tragically common. They are different
because they were cases that forced us to look closely at our criminal justice
system, what we do, and why we do it. Some crimes force us to look at our
heritage, culture, and ourselves as a people—and they bring about change. They
are few, but the Ianni’s massacre was just such a crime for Texas.
before the dead could be buried, the bullet holes patched up, the shattered
smoked mirrors replaced, and the carpet in Ianni’s changed, prosecutors knew
that it would not be possible for this
killer to be prosecuted for capital
murder. What he had done was not a capital crime in Texas!
supporting the death penalty, preparing for a legislative session that was to
begin in a few months, raced to draft bills to rectify a gross “loophole” in
the Penal Code the Ianni’s murders had revealed. Current law favored property
over a second human life. If the Ianni’s murderer had killed one person and
stolen a dime from her purse, he could have been sentenced to death. If he had
dragged one of the dying victims to his car and taken her to a store next door,
he could have been sentenced to death. If he had walked off with an ashtray or
stolen a fork off a table, he could have been sentenced to death. He did none of
those things. All he did was kill six people and wound a seventh. Thus, under
Texas law at the time, the death penalty was not an option.[x]
Whitman, for example, had he been taken alive, would have been eligible for the
death penalty only because one of his victims was a policeman. So, the
observation went, if he had missed the shot he fired at the policeman, and
killed only sixteen instead of seventeen people, he could not have gotten the
the murders in Ianni’s, opponents of the death penalty had little hope of
containing the emotion resulting from six dead bodies. Coupled with imagined
scenarios of terrorists poisoning entire cities and all sorts of other multiple
murderers who could not be put to death, the six bodies proved to be more than
death penalty opponents could successfully combat.
death penalty opponents pointed out the obvious; surely the Ianni’s killer,
and the multiple murderers who strike fear into our hearts, could care less
about whether or not what they do leads them to the death chamber. What does
capital punishment mean to a man who would wipe out an entire community if he
could? People who do these things are not considering the law while loading
their semi-automatic pistols—quite the opposite. And most of them, like
Whitman and Hennard, do not intend to live anyway. A new capital murder statute
for multiple murderers, they argued, was merely an expansion of a policy we
should not have in the first place. It exacerbated inequity and injustice by
covering another group under its umbrella. It did nothing more than add to the
body count of already tragic events.
some believe that deterrence is not the issue; some believe death is justice, an
appropriate response to a monstrous crime. Maybe, as old-time Texas Rangers say,
“Some people just need killing.”
what if the murderer was crazy at the time? Surely someone who guns down seven
people in full view of a bar half full of patrons has to be crazy? Almost all
other people handle anger, even when provoked, without resorting to murder, much
less mass murder. Does this mean he was insane? Some say, “yes.”
Others, using the same argument and looking at the same case, say, “no.”
Cases like the Ianni’s murders, and that of Andrea Yates, convicted in 2002 of
the drowning murders of her five children in her suburban Houston home, bring
forth a debate we should have over
what we, as a state and nation, are willing to accept as an excuse for murder.
debate without facts becomes a meaningless, emotional, and irrational exercise.
The relevant facts come from the murder cases, like Ianni’s, after a period
sufficient to allow for a dispassionate historical review. History is the source
of wisdom; to believe otherwise is to believe the wise are psychic.
man responsible for the carnage of June 29, 1984, was a Moroccan national named
Abdelkrim Belachheb. He never denied the fact that he gunned down those innocent
people. During his trial his defense did not challenge a significant statement
of fact or piece of evidence. Accepting in
toto the prosecution’s version of events, the first sentence of the
defense attorney’s opening statement was, “You know now what happened at
Ianni’s on June 29, 1984, and now the defense is going to tell you why
it happened.”[xi] [Italics added]
why matter? The Belachheb plea was
“not guilty by reason of insanity.” In most states, Texas included, insanity
essentially means that at the time of the crime, the perpetrator did not know
the difference between right and wrong. It is always a controversial defense. It
is also a misconception that the insanity defense is used often and successfully
by the guilty to “cheat” prison, or the death chamber.
Belachheb insanity defense was unique in that it included the notion that he
suffered from “culture shock,” or the inability to adjust from where he had
come from to where he was at the time of the killings. His trial was largely a
parade of doctors, each with impressive credentials, all examining the same
person and looking at the same data and coming to precisely opposite
doctors do not decide what is an excuse for murder, i.e., insanity.
Democratically-elected representatives on the state level who, hopefully, during
a deliberative process, do more than read headlines, count dead bodies, and look
at crime scene photos, give juries a precise definition. And even when a state
decides with certainty and clarity when killing is murder or a manifestation of
mental illness, what is to be done with the creatures that have committed
either? Some say “life” and others say “death.” The people decide not
only what is murder but also what is justice.
finally, sometimes crimes like the Ianni’s murders present us with warnings of
things to come, and thus, with opportunities to take action and even avoid
catastrophe. Consider this opening by Barbara Walters from a segment of the ABC
News Program 20/20:
killer… came here as a tourist, and his past foretold the violence… He came
in to America with no questions asked. Bob Brown reveals how easy it is—Passport
for Murder. Up front tonight, a mass murder, it’s a frightening tale heightened by
this fact: The killer came through American customs on a tourist visa.”[xii]
segment aired, not after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but
sixteen years earlier on August 22, 1985. The story was not about Al Qaeda but
about Abdelkrim Belachheb and how he easily bluffed his way into the United
States. Afterwards, the FBI, State Department, CIA, and the Immigration and
Naturalization Service pointed fingers of blame at one another. It turns out
Belachheb’s records had been destroyed (along with all other visa
applications) after only a year and while he was in the United States illegally.
It could not be determined exactly how he got in, or who let him in, or if he
had help to get here. All the Consulate in Morocco knew was that he lied on his
application. If he had volunteered the
truth, the fact that he was a criminal, an ex-con from a Kuwaiti prison, and
wanted for violent crimes in Belgium, he could never have gotten his visa.
of instituting any serious reform, the agencies decided that screening, and thus
detecting, visa applicants for criminal records was “impractical” and
nothing could be done to stop people like Belachheb from entering the United
States. In short, nothing changed.[xiii]
showed us how easy it was for a common criminal with minimal abilities to flaunt
our open society and do us harm. We preferred to believe that uncommon,
thoughtful, cunning criminals—terrorists, with much greater resources and
grander designs for murder could not do the same thing.
In the surreal world of mass murder, the body count in Ianni’s, six dead and one wounded, is rather small. The crime itself lasted only a few minutes and there was never any mystery about who did the killing. However, few crimes and even fewer criminals are as mysterious. At the center of it all is Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate #387133—Abdelkrim Belachheb.
[i] Bill Parker, interviewed by the author on June 22, 2002. Interviews will be cited first by name and date and then subsequently by name only.
[ii] Descriptions of the restaurant and the crime scene are from crime scene photos in the files of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office and the Dallas Police Department.
[iii] Bill Parker quote from interview.
[iv] Bill Parker.
[v] See Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1997) in hardcover/trade paperback, and (New York: Bantam Books, 1998) in mass market paperback.
[vi] Elinor Karpf, Anatomy of a Massacre, (New York: WRS Group, 1994), is the only book about the Luby’s Cafeteria tragedy listed in the Amazon.com database.
[vii] See Gary M. Lavergne, Bad Boy from Rosebud: The Murderous Life of Kenneth Allen McDuff, (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1999) in hardcover and Bad Boy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001) in paperback.
[viii] An excellent overview of the Tylenol poisonings is in John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Anatomy of Motive, (New York: Scribner, 1999), pgs. 103-22.
[ix] Washington Post, May 21, 2002.
[x] Norman Kinne, interviewed by the author on June 14, 2002.
[xi] Frank Jackson quoted in Texas v Belachheb, 291st Judicial District, Cause no. F84-75078-SU, et. al., V, pgs. 1234-36.
[xii] Barbara Walters quote from ABC News: 20/20, first broadcast on August 22, 1985.
[xiii] Dallas Morning News, August 5, 7, 8, 1984 and January 17, 1985; Dallas Times Herald, August 7, 12, 1984.