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Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
You may recall back in June of 2021, how the first live televised execution of a death row inmate had gone off without a hitch. It was one of the most anticipated TV airings in recent – and I suppose even in distant – memory.
The months leading up to the event had been filled with controversy. There were clashes between protesters and supporters. The protesters stated that the general public, especially children, should not be subjected to such “barbarism”. The supporters argued that viewing it was not mandatory and that children could be kept from seeing it by their parents if they felt it was necessary to shield them. Not only that, but it would also be a major deterrent for many would-be criminals.
Right or wrong, it had already been decided upon and approved by all government agencies involved. When it was announced in January that this would happen, it became the primary conversation point of every man, woman and child. People discussed it around workplace water coolers. Strangers discussed it on subways, buses, and in doctors’ waiting rooms. School children talked about it at recess and in gym locker rooms. It could be eavesdropped from adjacent restaurant tables everywhere. Everyone had an opinion, and everyone was curious how it would all play out.
The criminal’s name was Harlan Wade Forrester – known by all three of his names, as most serial killers seem to be. However, before his capture the public knew him as “The Red Baron Killer” because he’d left each victim with a neatly carved Maltese cross in the small of their back. He was the epitome of a vile human being. In the three years leading up to his capture he’d managed to kidnap and murder 23 people, mostly teenage girls, but with occasional adult men and women thrown in for good measure.
He had always left their corpses out in the open posed in the most ordinary situations. For example: one of his victims was found early in the morning when the sun rose, sitting on a park bench with her hand resting palm up on her lap. The hand was filled with bird seed and pigeons flapped about and ate from her palm. Another was discovered late at night riding in an el train car in Chicago, leaning against the window as if looking out at the passing scenery. She had ear bud headphones in place and an mp3 player still blasting away. And so it was with each of his victims – one found behind the wheel of a car in a K-mart parking lot – one relaxing in a lawn chair on her back patio with sunglasses and a drink with a little umbrella in it. All were fully clothed. All appeared perfectly fine and normal until approached.
The incidents had taken place throughout nine states in the Midwest. As the body count rose, so did the panic level. News story after news story surfaced with seemingly no end. It became rare to see teenage girls out alone. They began doing everything in groups – pairs at a minimum. People only stayed out late into the night if they absolutely had to. Many would not go out after dark at all. If someone was found sleeping or resting motionless in public, they were approached with great caution as the next possible RBK victim.
There was a collective sigh of relief in big cities and small towns alike on the day it was announced that he’d been captured. Relief swept over the population, and things returned to a sense of normalcy. Folks went about their lives without having to keep that madman in the back of their minds.
Harlan Forrester’s trial gripped the nation. He was without question the most hated man in America, and if you asked anyone you met, they’d tell you that they couldn’t wait to see him pay for what he’d done. It just so happened that they would get their wish.
The court proceedings were highly publicized and not a day passed that local and national news channels did not update the trial’s progress. The FCC had already been searching for a case to use as a precedent, but there were two main factors that led to Harlan’s case being chosen as the first for televised execution.
One: He was guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. After all of the DNA and fingerprint evidence was collected and presented he had confessed to all of the killings, and even divulged two that had not yet been discovered. There was no way the FCC was going to allow a criminal to be executed on live TV if there was even a miniscule chance that he was innocent.
Two: Everyone wanted him dead. As mentioned previously, the public’s opinion of Harlan was on par with Charles Manson or Adolph Hitler. If the FCC was ever going to act, now was the time. It was a perfect storm.
The trial reached its completion in December 2020 and Harlan was sentenced to death by lethal injection. The execution was immediately scheduled for Monday, June 21st, 2021 – 6:00 PM. This brevity in the legal process was almost unheard of, but special circumstances were encountered due to the nature of the case and to keep public interest heightened for the impending broadcast.
On the day of Harlan’s execution the entire country, and many other parts of the world, came to a virtual stand-still. People took the day off to prepare their homes for viewing parties. Those who did have to work that day, made sure television sets in break rooms and conference rooms were capable of picking up the network that had won the bidding war for the broadcast.
As 6:00 PM approached there were fewer and fewer cars on the road until finally, almost every metropolitan area in the nation resembled a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Time stood still. And we all watched, riveted to our TV sets and devices.
It would come to be known as one of those defining moments that people would never forget. They would always remember where they were and who they were with when they watched it happen.
In September of 2021, I attended the estate auction of a man named John Radcliffe. He had died alone just days earlier, the victim of an apparent home invasion. He had no living will and no close relatives to claim his belongings, therefore the state took control of selling his personal effects.
I always enjoyed going to auctions such as this because every once in a while I would come across a deal that was just too good to pass up. And this auction was no exception. Being a movie buff, I was excited when lot #312 hit the block. It was two large plastic tubs full of Blu-ray and DVD movies. I estimated that there were probably two hundred or more. During the sale of that lot I raised my hand several times until I was the only remaining bidder. I smiled, knowing that I had landed a remarkable deal at a mere $57.
At home that afternoon, I couldn’t wait to begin unpacking and cataloging the contents of the tubs. My initial thought as I removed the lid from the first container was ‘I’m going to have to buy more shelves.’ However, it was a problem I didn’t mind facing. I spent hours unboxing the movies and arranging them in alphabetical stacks on my living room floor.
It was what I found in the bottom of the second container that puzzled me – a small unmarked USB thumb drive. I shrugged at first and set it aside in favor of continuing my cataloging, but the more I thought about it, the more it ate at me. I retrieved my laptop and plugged in the drive. Contained on the stick was a single audio file titled RBK_execution.mp3. I double-clicked it.
The audio clip began with an inordinate amount of noise as the person doing the recording fumbled with the microphone. It then settled into the steady hiss of ambient background noise.
“This is John Radcliffe”, the recording began, “and I feel that I have to share my story. It’s been bothering me for weeks now and I want to get it off my chest.”
[He paused and cleared his throat.]
“I was involved in the live execution of Harlan Wade Forrester – The Red Baron Killer. I was approached by the deputy warden of the prison where he was being held two days before his scheduled execution and asked if I would take part in it. I had no idea why at the time. It wasn’t until I was escorted to the prison and was briefed by the Warden that I really knew what was going on.”
[There was another pause, then a sound as if he’d taken a swig from a bottle, which gave way to more ambient hissing.]
“You see, I was chosen because I look so much like Harlan – at least that’s what they told me. And I agree. I do look like him. Well, as it turns out, Harlan had actually escaped from his prison cell the previous day. Don’t ask me how he did it. They wouldn’t tell me either.
“The thing is though – they wanted to go ahead with the execution for the public’s sake. It had been played up so much and millions of dollars had already been spent on the TV contract, and advertising, and what not…”
[Another drink from the bottle.]
“They just didn’t want everyone to go back into panic mode, you know? Not only that, but the prison needed to save face. There would’ve been hell to pay if the higher-ups found out that RBK had escaped on their watch. And so… as the old saying goes… the show must go on.
“I laid there just like they asked me to. Didn’t move a muscle. I was a perfect actor. When it was all said & done and the cameras were turned off, I was debriefed, given some monetary compensation and told never to tell a soul about this. I had to sign a bunch of papers saying so. Then they let me go.”
[There was a somewhat long pause and then another bottle clank and swig.]
“Technically I’m not telling anybody. I’m just recording this for my own conscience. I need to be able to sleep better.”
[And then more ambient hiss before the recording device clicked off.]
I was in shock. I had no idea what to do with this information. It was like I’d stumbled onto proof that the moon landing was faked, and I was the only person on earth that knew about it. Except in this case there were at least a handful of others that were privy to the charade. I needed to think.
I turned on my TV – the very same TV on which I’d witnessed some guy named John Radcliffe fake the death of Harlan Forrester back in June. The evening news was on, and to my surprise, there was a mention of the death of John Radcliffe. The young lady anchoring the news was barely able to keep her composure while she read the lines from her teleprompter that told how John’s autopsy had revealed a Maltese cross carved in the small of his back.