Investigation Discovery’s ‘Signs Of A Psychopath: Hey Look, I’m a Serial Killer’ chronicles how Joseph Paul Franklin was convicted of killing at least eight people and suspected of murdering 20 more in more than ten states between August 1977 and August 1980. Born as James Clayton Vaughn Jr. in Mobile, Alabama, on April 13, 1950, he claimed he suffered severe physical abuse as a child. If you’re interested in finding out more about Joseph and how he was caught, here’s what we know.
Who Were Joseph Paul Franklin’s Victims?
From 1968 to the late 1970s, Joseph Paul Franklin’s life was marked by ugly racial incidents and sporadic arrests for carrying concealed weapons. According to reports, he became increasingly drawn toward the American Nazi Party and completely lapsed into the segregationist movement after his mother died in 1972. He joined the neo-fascist National States Rights Party after shifting to Atlanta while simultaneously holding membership in the local Ku Klux Klan. Over the following couple of years, Joseph slowly embraced his disturbing racial views altogether.
What began as insulting interracial couples in public soon transformed into stalking one such couple and spraying them with chemical mace on Labor Day 1976. Around this time, he legally changed his name to Joseph Paul Franklin and spent the following three years — from 1977 to 1980 — wandering across the South and Midwest. He employed around 18 pseudonyms, altering cars and weapons frequently, and constantly changing his physical appearance as he killed at least eight more in a one-man, heated war against minorities.
On July 29, 1977, Joseph detonated an explosion in Beth Shalom Synagogue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and destroyed the building. Though it was the home to 55 families, no one was fortunately hurt because the congregants left the Friday evening Shabat services early because they were two people short of a minyan. However, Joseph struck when he fatally shot a young interracial couple, Alphonse Manning Jr. and Toni Schwenn, in a parking lot at East Towne Mall in Madison, Wisconsin, on August 7, 1977.
Fueled by his anti-Jewish sentiments, he hid in the bushes near Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel synagogue and fired on a group attending services on October 8, 1977. He killed Gerald Gordon, 42, and injured two more — Steven Goldman and William Ash. Joseph alleged he was involved in the ambush of Larry Flynt, Hustler publisher, and his lawyer, Gene Reeves, in Lawrenceville, Georgia, on March 6, 1978. Though no one was ever charged in the shooting, Joseph claimed he shot at them to retaliate against the magazine’s edition displaying interracial sex.
Joseph hid near a Pizza Hut in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on July 29, 1978, fatally shooting Bryant Tatum, an African-American male, with a 12-gauge shotgun. He also shot at his girlfriend, Nancy Hilton, but she survived. He confessed to fatally shooting Harold McIver, a Taco Bell manager, through a window from 150 yards in Doraville, Georgia, on July 12, 1979. He claimed he killed Harold because she was allegedly close to white women, though he was never tried or sentenced for this crime.
His last victim of 1979 was another interracial married couple, Jesse E. Taylor and Marion Bresette, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on October 21. Joseph claimed he seriously wounded civil rights activist and Urban League president Vernon Jordan upon seeing him with a white woman in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on May 29, 1980. While he initially denied involvement in the crime and was acquitted of charges, he later confessed. He killed the teen cousins — Darrell Lane, 14, and Dante Evans Brown, 13 — in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 8, 1980.
According to Joseph, he was waiting on an overpass to kill an interracial couple but ended up shooting the teenagers instead. A week later, he shot and killed another interracial couple — Arthur Smothers, 22, and Kathleen Mikula, 16 — with a high-powered rifle on June 15. They were walking across the Washington Street Bridge in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He was never arrested for these murders but later confessed to them during a jailhouse interview. Joseph killed two hitchhikers — Nancy Santomero, 19, and Vicki Durian, 26.
The murders occurred in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, on June 25, 1980. Joseph claimed he picked up the two female hitchhikers and murdered them after hearing one of them say she had a black boyfriend. While a Florida man named Jacob Beard was initially convicted and imprisoned in 1993 for the double homicide, he was freed in 1999 after Joseph confessed in 1997. His final victims were two African-American males — Ted Fields and David Martin — near Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, Utah, on August 20, 1980.
How Did Joseph Paul Franklin Die?
The FBI and its law enforcement partners were closing in on Joseph by 1980. He had remained under the radar due to his skill at living the life of an anonymous drifter and the often vast miles and lack of evidentiary connections between his crimes. Court documents stated his primary source of financial support was multiple bank robberies and paid blood bank donations. However, an observant Kentucky police officer noticed a gun in his car’s backseat on September 25, 1980. He was arrested after his records showed an outstanding warrant.
The police brought Joseph in for questioning, but he escaped while being detained. However, the Bureau was on his trial, and its behavioral analysts contributed their insights as the FBI shared its growing knowledge of Joseph’s characteristics and tactics with law enforcement and the public. Two details were crucial—his racist tattoos and his reliance on blood bank donations for cash while between bank robberies. The Bureau issued a nationwide alert to blood banks regarding Joseph’s conspicuous racist tattoos.
It ultimately led to his arrest when a Florida blood bank worker noticed Joseph’s ink work and contacted the FBI. He was arrested in Lakeland on October 28, 1980. In one of his last interviews in 2013, he compared himself to a US soldier in Vietnam, trained to be a sniper in the war. Joseph said, “I felt like I was at war. The survival of the white race was at stake.” While claiming Jews and interracial couples as his enemy, he added, “I consider it my mission, my three-year mission. Same length of time Jesus was on his mission, from the time he was 30 to 33.”
Joseph was convicted in Utah of murder and civil rights violations and serving life on those counts. More convictions followed, such as the Chattanooga bombing, the double murder in Wisconsin, the June 1980 double murder in Cincinnati, the killing of William Tatum in Chattanooga, and murdering Gerald Gordon in Missouri. He was given a death sentence for the Missouri murder, and the 63-year-old was executed at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, on November 20, 2013.