Dr. Gordon A. Crews discovers through years of research — and one man in particular — that there is always a reason for our behavior, no matter how inexcusable or difficult to understand.
In the summer of 2000 I was in the process of making the first of many mistakes in my academic career. I was working as an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at a medium size university in south Georgia. Somehow I was invited by a dean, albeit secretly I was later to find out, to apply for the Department Head position of a very large undergraduate and graduate criminal justice program in Alabama. I should have known it was too good of a deal to be true when he offered to almost double my salary, immediately make me an Associate Professor, and fund me through a private foundation for any and all “associated needs.” Being young, ambitious, and still quite dumb to the world of academia, I immediately jumped at this “opportunity.” I quickly learned that this is often how administrators recruit someone to take over a department that no one in his or her right mind would ever take.
Interestingly, an old mentor of mine was a childhood friend of this dean and had told him about me and recommended me. This old mentor of mine, given his early retirement plans at the time, was also working as an outside consultant for a publisher to review new book proposals, and edit existing works under contract. As fate would have it, he had just received a manuscript/book proposal from a man named Stephen Stanko who was serving ten years in a South Carolina maximum security prison for the charges of “Assault And Battery with Intent to Kill” and “Kidnapping.” The book dealt with his experiences of serving time in an American prison. The rough draft was amazingly written and extremely interesting. The handwriting of the individual was almost as if it had actually been typed—no errors, no white-out, no scratched out words.
Some editors were very interested in publishing the work, but wanted an “academic type” to work with the inmate and control the final draft. Thus, a final piece of the new position offer for me included a contract to work on what would be my fifth book, but ultimately one that would be the most influential in my research career. At the time the work was entitled, After the Gavel, but it would be published in 2004 by me, Stephen, and a third co-author as Living in Prison: A History of the Correctional System with an Insider’s View.
Stephen’s incarceration at the time was due to transgressions resulting from a domestic situation. Apparently, his live-in girlfriend had confronted him one night after finding out that in the prior two or three years, he had been conning her close friends out of their money through various fake deals and lies. This was very disappointing to her in that he had recently started a new job selling used cars after being fired from many others. Unfortunately, this particular day the police had come by her home looking for him with warrants for “breach of trust” and “auto-theft.” It turns out that he was very successful in selling the cars, but not so much in actually turning the money he received over to the used-car lot owner.
Sadly, this confrontation ended up with Stephen tying up his girlfriend and holding her against her will for several hours while he packed and fled from the police and the pending arrest warrants. And, according to her, during this incident he tried to kill her by choking her with a poisoned rag. After three days on the run, he turned himself in to the police. He would ultimately serve eight and one half years out of a 10-year sentence, being released just one month after our book was released in 2004. At this point, Stephen Stanko was being described by many as, “a highly intelligent, polished ex-convict who didn’t mind talking about his life in prison or the book he had written about it.” Stanko would tell everyone, “What I fear most now is that I may carry some of this total institution back into society with me.” These words were ultimately found to be foreshadowing what was to soon occur in all of our lives.
We worked on this book over the final four years of his prison sentence and had a number of arguments over it with various editors, each other, and the South Carolina Department of Corrections. The department felt that Stephen was writing some type of tell-all book, and banned me from visiting him, talking to him on the phone, and receiving or sending prison mail. Therefore, the way this book was ultimately written was from his mother essentially sneaking his writings out from the visitation room during her weekly visits. She and I lived approximately 13 hours apart at this time, so we would meet at a rest stop or restaurant off the highway to exchange pages of manuscript.
Within one year of being released from prison and six months after our book was published, Stephen began conducting library research for a second book we were going to publish. Given his growing depression and issues with returning to free society, I had encouraged him to focus on a new work with me as a way to deal with the issues he faced. While doing this research he apparently befriended a reference librarian at his local library outside Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, became romantically involved with her, and eventually moved in not six months after being released from prison. Unknown to me, he also had developed a seemingly friendly relationship with an elderly library patron.
Shortly thereafter, something went terribly wrong on the night of April 8, 2005, with both of these relationships. Stanko was charged and convicted – after a failed insanity defense – of strangling his new librarian girlfriend, shooting the elderly patron, and sexually assaulting and twice slashing the throat of his girlfriend’s teenage daughter, who survived and made the 911 call for help. The details of what is known about what happened that night are eerily similar to those which occurred with his prior girlfriend on that night in 1996.
Subsequently a nationwide manhunt ensued, my family was taken into police custody for protection, my college campus was closed for two days, and my face appeared on every television show from Good Morning America, to Anderson Cooper 360, to even Nancy Grace. Eventually Stanko was arrested without incident by the U.S. Marshals Service in Augusta, Georgia, on April 12, 2005. Following the conviction he was sentenced to death and placed on South Carolina’s Death Row at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, South Carolina. Since this time I have served as a consultant and interviewee on 48 Hours episodes, Evil Men episodes, and numerous true crime books about Stephen Stanko. Each time I have tried to bring attention to the issues that individuals experience while trying to return to our communities as convicted felons, and what baggage they may bring back with them from being incarcerated. Though there is no excuse for such violence, there are causes.
After his first round of unsuccessful appeals were over, we renewed our contact and began working together again in the fall of 2008. Since that time, we have become colleagues in writing and research projects, but in a weird way that I cannot articulate, we have also developed a very unique and close personal relationship, even friendship.
As of 2015, we are working on a number of writing projects including two books under contract. The first is entitled The Realities of Living and Dying in Prison. This work is an extensive examination of all stages of the criminal justice process from initial arrest, the trial, appeals, years of incarceration, and even up to facing the ultimate penalty on death row from the perspective of the incarcerated offender. The second is entitled The Death Row Cookbook. This work is a fascinating collection of over 200 recipes which can be made in a 6 x 11 cell with only a bowl, spoon, hot water, and occasionally a microwave, while in lock down for 23 out of 24 hours per day. This collection includes appetizers, entrees, and even deserts. The ingredients for these recipes can only come from the prison canteen list, from certain food items being “relocated” from the kitchen by a prison food service inmate, or saved after one’s meals in his or her cell.
Ours is a very unusual relationship. It always has been, and always will be. We speak on the phone two-to-three times per week. We visit once every other month, even though we are approximately nine hours apart. And we continue to write and publish together. Our visits are face-to-face, but through very thick panes of glass, and we speak through mesh metal plates. He mails me his writings for me to type up, edit, and review, and I mail drafts back and forth between us.
To say our relationship is a bit unorthodox and hard for some to understand would be a huge understatement. During our various forms of contact over the years, we have shared opinions on each other’s situations and whatever issues one of us might be facing at any given time. As bizarre and incomprehensible as it might sound to some, over the last 15 years Stephen has offered advice to my son on how to deal with growing up with a demanding father, advice to me on how to deal with romantic relationships, advice to my daughter on the benefits of going away to college, and career advice to my students through class lectures given over a cell phone and a speaker. Before my experience with Stephen I would have never imagined any of this from such an individual, but that change in my attitude is part of the important lessons I have learned over the years. I also feel that my past experiences before meeting Stephen have had a major impact on making such a relationship possible.
Prior to beginning my academic career, I worked in law enforcement as criminal investigator (crimes against persons and sexual assault), a field training officer and bloodhound tracker, and eventually in corrections just prior to accepting my first college teaching position. Since that time, my research focus has been on violence and the damage we cause to each other as human beings. I saw it daily in police work and studied it weekly in graduate school. I wrote about it in nine books and numerous articles. I have interviewed many violent adult and juvenile offenders about why they have committed some of the most horrible acts imaginable. This combination of unique real life experience combined with personal interests, albeit dark, have allowed me a deep understanding and appreciation for why people sometimes do what they do. This does not mean it should be excused, nor that they should not be punished – just that any type of behavior has a cause. Violent behavior is no different.