Death House Conversions

The story of Dennis Skillicorn prompts us to consider issues like how much credit should we give a cold-blooded killer who repents and demonstrates remorse through good works.
 
In the 1990s Skillicorn killed three people as he and a couple of friends made their way across the Midwest from Missouri to California in a drug-induced frenzy of violence and mayhem. A decade later Skillicorn, now a death row inmate whose last, best hope to avoid the needle is a sympathetic governor, is the editor of a national bimonthly publication of prisoners’ essays, letters, and poetry, called Compassion. One of the magazine’s notable accomplishments is to raise money for scholarships to help family members of murder victims get through college.
 
Skillicorn described his spiritual rebirth as his “Road to Damascus conversion” in an article on Compassion in Mother Jones magazine in 2006, and he states upfront in the article that “(it’s) not an attempt to extinguish the pain we’ve created. You really can’t do that. But it gives guys like myself an opportunity to give something back to those people that have been victimized by violent crime.”
 
The American criminal penal philosophy is punishment tempered with rehabilitation. The system does not have any place or use for redemption, but Skillicorn’s case raises the issue of redemption by asking whether it is possible for a condemned prisoner to work his way off death row through good works. If so, how much atonement will change a death sentence into a life term?
 
Death penalty opponents don’t have to worry about those questions. No capital punishment is OK in their view. But supporters of executing convicted murderers do have to look at inmates like Skillicorn and wonder if redemption is possible in a justice system that exacts the ultimate penalty for some crimes.
 
William James, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, examines conversions like the one Skillicorn says he had. Religious experiences have four things in common, he wrote. The commonality that concerns us today is that a spiritual awakening is transformative. It changes the person who is converted.
 
What follows is the story of what Dennis Skillicorn was like before his conversion. The old Dennis Skillicorn earned a ticket to the death house. Readers can visit the Mother Jones article above and decide for themselves what the new Dennis Skillicorn has earned.
 
In late August 1994, Skillicorn, Allen Nicklasson, and Tim DeGraffenreid headed east in a broken-down Chevy Caprice from Kansas City in search of drugs.
 
After their car broke down and they turned down a state trooper’s offer of help, the trio decided to burglarize a nearby home, stealing guns and money. They used the money to pay for a tow to nearby Kingdom City, Missouri, where a mechanic managed to make their beater driveable.
 
The trio then drove the car back east toward the site of the robbery when the car stalled again.
 
Richard Drummond was driving by and saw the stranded group. Being a Good Samaritan, he stopped and offered to take them to use a phone.
 
The three loaded their swag into the trunk of Drummond’s car, and got in, with DeGraffenreid in the front, and Skillicorn and Nicklasson in the back. Nicklasson pulled a gun on Drummond, forcing him to drive them at gunpoint.
 
According to Skillicorn’s later statement to the FBI, as Nicklasson held a gun to Drummond’s head, Skillicorn asked Drummond questions ostensibly in order to calm him down, but included in the questioning whether Drummond’s “old lady” would miss him. As Drummond drove east, Skillicorn “got to thinking…if we let this guy off, he’s got this car phone.”
 
Skillicorn told Drummond that they would have to disable the car phone, and take Drummond “out in the woods somewhere on one of these side roads” and “lose” him. Skillicorn claimed that Nicklasson told him that Nicklasson was going have to “do something to this guy.”
 
They directed Drummond to a secluded area off an exit on I-70 — the road dubbed “America’s Sewer Pipe” by law enforcement because of the crime and mayhem that it brings as it meanders across the country — just east of Higginsville, Missouri. As Nicklasson prepared to walk Drummond through a field toward a wooded area, Skillicorn demanded Drummond’s wallet.
 
“We decided we was going to take his car and leave him out in the middle of the woods,” Skillicorn told the FBI. Knowing that Nicklasson carried a loaded .22 caliber pistol, Skillicorn watched as Nicklasson led Drummond into the wooded area.
 
Nicklasson walked Drummond into the forest, ordered him to kneel, told him to say his prayers, and shot him in the head twice.
 
Allen Nicklasson“I started to get a warm feeling in the center of my body and it spread as I looked at him kneeling in front of me,” he later confessed. “I put the gun to the top of the back of his head, told him to say a prayer, and bam! bam! I shot him.”
 
Drummond’s remains were found eight days later.
 
Nicklasson, Skillicorn and DeGraffenreid continued west on I-70 in Drummond’s car. They stopped at a house in Blue Springs. A woman who had dated DeGraffenried came to the house looking for him. She knocked on the door.
 
Nicklasson answered, then came outside and said, “Don’t nobody touch my car,” referring to Drummond’s car. With that Nicklasson took a shotgun from the trunk of Drummond’s car. He put the shotgun to the woman’s head and announced that he would kill her.
 
“He did not kill her, apparently satisfied that he had made his point after he hit her in the face,” the Missouri Supreme Court wrote in Nicklasson’s appeal.
 
Sometime later, Nicklasson, DeGraffenried and Skillicorn left and went to another friend’s house. There, Nicklasson told her that he had killed someone in the woods and described the murder. After a planning session at a local restaurant, Nicklasson and Skillicorn decided to drive to Arizona. DeGraffenreid stayed behind.
 
While on the run, in Arizona, Nicklasson shot and killed Joseph Babcock under circumstances similar to the Drummond murder — the man tried to help them retrieve their car from where it was stuck in the sand.
 
Skillicorn said he told the Babcocks they had been hunting and needed help getting the car unstuck. Joe Babcock agreed to help, drove the men to the car and tried several times to pull the car out with his truck. But the car wouldn’t budge.
 
“Al said, ‘Well, you know what I’m gonna have to do,’ and I said to give him a chance,” according to Skillicorn. “He (Babcock) said, ‘I really think you’re going to have to get a tow truck. ‘ That was the end of it for Al.”
 
After killing this Good Samaritan, the two went back to Babcock’s house and Nicklasson killed the his wife, Charlene. Nicklasson and Skillicorn then absconded across California, stealing a purse from a woman in a supermarket and committing armed robbery along the way. They eventually made it to Mexico, where, according to Skillicorn, Nicklasson killed a waitress at a diner.
 
Skillicorn said he had told Nicklasson that he was afraid of him — with good reason. Nicklasson also said he threatened to kill Skillicorn and would if he felt it was necessary.
 
“When we got down to Mexico I said: ‘Brother, I’ll tell you the truth,” Skillicorn said. “There’s been nights I had trouble sleeping around you. You told me yourself you enjoy this.’”
 
Eventually the two returned to the United States, and both were arrested in San Diego after the police picked them up on successive days as hitchhikers.
 
Following his arrest in San Diego, Nicklasson gave a confession to the FBI. Skillicorn also gave a sworn statement to the FBI admitting his involvement in the Drummond murder. Skillicorn also recounted the Arizona murders, the burglaries and armed robberies committed on the journey, and described how Nicklasson had killed the waitress in Mexico.
 
Nicklasson and Skillicorn were sentenced to death in Missouri. Skillicorn received a pair of life terms in Arizona. DeGraffenried pleaded guilty for his role in Drummond’s murder.
 
The question about Skillicorn’s death house conversion is academic now: On May 20, 2009, Dennis Skillicorn, apologizing to the family and friends of his victims, was executed by the State of Missouri.
 
Nicklasson was executed by the State of Missouri on Dec. 11, 2013.