An excerpt from Death Row’s Oddest Inmates by Ty Treadwell (available March 21, 2012).
Ty Treadwell has been researching death row for years. In fact, the 10th anniversary edition of his book, Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row was released in 2011. In Death Row’s Oddest Inmates, he reveals the wild and crazy side of the prison system. From prisoners who beg for death to those who claim to be the president of the United States, here are tales of peculiarities so perverse they could only be true.
Every social group has one member who’s a little off. Maybe their sense of humor is a bit edgy, a bit inappropriate. Maybe they talk too loud, smile too wide, or have a strange look in their eyes. They might have bizarre hobbies and interests, or use words you’ve never heard before. One minute they make you laugh, the next minute they make you nervous.
In school, it’s the class clown. At work, it’s the office prankster. And despite the gloomy surroundings, every death row cell block has at least one oddball as well. Some of them goof off, act silly, and make nonstop wisecracks. Others have a dry, more sophisticated sense of humor. Some are amazingly articulate. Others ramble and rant like a mystic yogi on LSD. Some are regarded as flawed geniuses. Others are just flawed.
So if a convict cracks jokes about their own impending execution, does that make them totally warped or just a little bit weird? If a prisoner invents their own language or discusses space ships and time travel, should we consider them brilliant or brain-damaged?
It would be easy to simply label them all insane, but that would be a broad and inaccurate conclusion. Insanity is a highly popular defense strategy—especially during murder trials—but it’s often used as a last-ditch effort when every other legal appeal has failed. Some killers do have past histories of mental instability, but others only show signs of dementia after spending countless years in prison.
Psychiatric experts have also pointed out that while it’s nearly impossible for an insane criminal to fake being sane, a sane criminal can pretend to be deranged without much effort. One of the most famous cases of this involved David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as Son of Sam. In court, Berkowitz claimed that a demon who took the form of a black dog instructed him to murder his six victims. Less than two years after he was convicted and given a 25-to-life sentence, Berkowitz admitted that he made up the stories about demons and dogs.
In a reverse situation, lawyers for Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski thought an insanity plea would help their client avoid a death sentence, but Kaczynski—whose mail bomb campaign killed three people and wounded 23 others—refused to go along and swore that he was mentally sound when he committed his crimes.
So what’s the verdict on all those jailhouse jesters whooping it up in their cells? Are they clever and cunning, or just plain peculiar? The jury’s still out on whether it’s creative genius or malfunctioning brain matter that fuels their actions, but one thing’s for certain; despite the lack of sunshine, fresh air, and other pleasantries of daily life, there’s apparently no shortage of silliness and outlandish behavior on death row.
The inventive genius of Thomas Edison. The resourcefulness of MacGyver. And the spelling skills of a slightly dim first grader. Put them all together, add a dash of humor and a spoonful of psychotic rage, and you’ve got Robert Vickers—or “Bonzai Bob,” as he was known in the prison circuit.
Vickers began his life of crime at an early age; he developed a fondness for stabbing other children with pencils, and was arrested for the first time while still in sixth grade. As a teenager, Vickers turned his attention to theft. He once committed 12 burglaries in a 13-day period and confessed to dozens more while in custody. But it wasn’t until Vickers entered the prison system that his criminal rampage truly began.
After being jailed for grand theft at age 19, Vickers added another 10 to 15 years to his sentence by stabbing a fellow inmate. Shortly afterward, Vickers was given a new roommate; convicted killer Frank Ponciano. The arrangement lasted less than two weeks.
One day while Vickers was napping, guards delivered lunch trays to the cell. Ponciano failed to wake Vickers up, and also drank the Kool-Aid from the other man’s tray. Vickers was so enraged that he strangled Ponciano with a bed sheet then stabbed him with a homemade shank made from a sharpened toothbrush. Once Ponciano was dead, Vickers used the shank to carve bonzai—a misspelled version of the famous Japanese war cry—into the other man’s back.
At least he didn’t spell it bonsai. There’s nothing less badass than those tiny little trees.
“Bonzai Bob” then yelled for the guards, saying “Get this stinking son of a bitch out of my cell! I think he died last night.” The guards were wary, but when Vickers started poking Ponciano with a lit cigar to prove he was dead, they entered the cell to inspect the body.
Vickers openly confessed his crime to the prison psychologists. He admitted to strangling and stabbing Ponciano and said his only regret was that he didn’t have time to dot the i with a swastika when he carved bonzai into the other man’s flesh.
Vickers wasn’t upset when he was sentenced to death for the crime. In fact, he seemed eager to die and wondered why the state was taking so long to execute him. “What’s the hold up, fella?” he once wrote in a letter to the governor. “If ya don’t do it soon, I’m gonna draw more blood than your cheap mops can absorb. I’m a very impatient person. I never did like waiting. I’ve got a date with the devil’s wife!”
After his transfer to death row, Vickers became even more of a troublemaker. The wily killer was both clever and double-jointed, enabling him to escape from handcuffs and holding cells. He attacked guards and fellow inmates whenever he had the chance, and he had a knack for creating makeshift weapons from anything he could get his hands on. He could turn nearly any object into a knife, and he once stabbed a guard with a spear made from typewriter parts and rolled-up newspapers.
Vickers also escaped from his death row cell one night by shorting out the electronic lock then climbing through an air vent to the prison roof. Once he got there, though, he realized that he was too high up to jump. After performing a striptease for a nearby female guard, Vickers was roughly escorted back to his cell.
Less than a day before Vickers was scheduled to die in Arizona’s gas chamber, a district judge granted him a stay of execution. Vickers went nuts and told reporters that he hoped somebody “snuffed the judge’s mama.” He also vowed to carve the judge’s name in his next victim if the state didn’t execute him soon.
To speed up the process, Vickers decided to add a second murder victim to his long list of offenses. Buster Holsinger, another death row inmate, had once made a rude remark about Vickers’s niece, so Vickers made a Molotov Cocktail by filling an empty ice cream carton with hair tonic, stuffing a strip of toilet paper inside, then lighting the crude device on fire. He tossed it into Buster’s cell, then squirted more hair tonic through the bars when the flames didn’t seem high enough.
The entire death row block had to be evacuated because of the smoke, which nearly killed all the other inmates. When a guard asked Vickers what happened, he calmly replied, “I burned Buster.” The guard then asked if Buster was dead, and Vickers said, “He should be. He’s on fire.”
Vickers received yet another death sentence for murdering Buster Holsinger, and was promptly confined to his cell. The bars were covered with a sheet of thick plastic to keep Vickers from throwing out bodily waste or stabbing anyone who happened to walk by. “Bonzai Bob” spent his final days writing letters to the governor and other state officials, always using a swastika to dot the i in his nickname.
In one letter, Vickers asked if his last meal could be prepared by a woman. He also requested permission to wear a 3-piece suit to his execution. “I wanna die dressed,” he wrote. “Gonna be some ladies there. I don’t wanna go nude or in state clothes.”
Both requests were denied, but Vickers did receive his chosen last meal—green chili burros, burritos with barbecued steak, French fries, vanilla ice cream, cream soda, and a cigarette.
Prison officials breathed a sigh of relief once Vickers was strapped down to the lethal injection table. (By the time Vickers was executed in 1999, lethal injection had replaced the gas chamber as Arizona’s instrument of death.) The condemned man seemed pretty cheerful as well, smiling at his relatives and calling out, “Hello everybody. See you later!”
After the execution, the other death row inmates were finally able to relax, too. Now that “Bonzai Bob” had uttered his final sayonara, their maximum security cell block was once again a calm, quiet place to live.
Who was Monty Delk? Well, that depends on who you ask. Police and prosecutors labeled him as a clever, manipulative killer. Fellow death row inmates described Delk as smart and educated. Prison psychiatrists and Delk’s own attorney believed Delk was mentally incompetent and possibly insane.
And if you asked Delk himself, he would have told you he was a doctor, a police chief, a submarine captain, or a zombie, depending on what time of day it was.
From an early age, Monty Delk was a man you wouldn’t want to work with, or be married to, or get within 50 yards of. As a teenager, Delk made death threats against a co-worker at a lumber mill and another co-worker at a Pizza Hut. He routinely beat his young wife, although he also tried to recruit her as his partner in crime. The former wife had this to say at Delk’s trial:
“Well, he looked through the paper, and he would see an ad for something like a ring, a diamond ring, worth a lot of money; and the plan was we would go to their house, say we were married and everything, see how many people were in the house, and hold them at gunpoint, tie them up and take their valuables, and shoot them in the head and leave.”
Delk’s wife smartly vetoed the idea, but that didn’t stop Delk from trying the plan on his own. Having just lost his Volkswagen in a card game, Delk saw a newspaper ad for a used Chevy Camaro and went to the owner’s house to see the car in person. The owner, Gene “Bubba” Allen, offered to take Delk for a test drive. During that ill-fated ride, Delk murdered Allen with a shotgun blast to the head, dumped his body in a ditch, and stole the car. When Delk was arrested four days later, he was still in possession of both the car and the murder weapon. He also had a photo of his victim’s wife in his wallet, which prosecutors claim “showed very bad judgment on his part.”
Delk was summarily tried, convicted, and given a death sentence—but after several years on death row, the killer began to say and do odd things. He babbled constantly. He uttered bizarre statements. His supposed identity changed from moment to moment. Delk claimed to be a policeman, a judge, a federal agent, a prison warden, the king of England, the president of Kenya, a commando, and a congressman. He once signed his name as “Vito Corleone” and told tales about his adventures aboard a nuclear-powered submarine during the Civil War. He gave his age as 50, or 99, or 129, and claimed that he had been married 95 million years earlier.
“I was born old,” he explained.
The nuttier Delk acted, the less attention he paid to personal hygiene. He rarely took showers, and when he did, he refused to use soap or remove his clothes. Delk’s body odor grew so bad that he had to be segregated from other inmates to keep them from becoming nauseous.
“I think he’s bonkers,” remarked Delk’s attorney, who clarified that statement with a more clinical description. “He has long periods of psychotic thought punctuated by grandiose delusions, incoherent ramblings, and smearing himself with his own feces, interspersed with brief moments of lucidity and compliance.”
The general opinion was that years of confinement and a bad reaction to prison medicine had turned Delk’s brain into mush. He was labeled bipolar and treated with special care. Delk’s new lawyer tried to get the death sentence commuted on the grounds that Delk was too mentally unstable to be executed. But many in the legal system weren’t buying it.
“He’s crazy like a fox,” said one member of the sheriff’s department. “If anybody needs a needle stuck in his arm, that dude’s the one who needs it.”
“He is a faker,” added a local district attorney. “He’ll slip up occasionally with inmates, other personnel, and show his true colors.”
A prison employee claimed he heard Delk tell another inmate that he had been “playing the crazy fool” in order to get out of his death sentence. The state pointed out that Delk seemed perfectly normal during his trial, and that he “finds it in his best interest to appear incompetent when an audience is available.” Delk had shown signs of high intelligence and cunning while in prison, including times when he would eavesdrop on conversations between prison employees and memorize the names of their wives, their children, and even their license plate numbers in order to make personalized threats.
The attempt to spare Delk’s life with an insanity defense ultimately failed. While the Supreme Court won’t allow an insane person to be executed, they also don’t define what constitutes “insane.” To them, Delk was just as sane as any other psychotic, delusional, incoherent, feces-smeared person.
The state of Texas executed Delk on February 28, 2002. Delk wasn’t happy about the situation, and he kicked and screamed all the way to the lethal injection table. His last words were a rambling string of obscenities followed by threats and insults. “I am the warden of this unit!” Delk shouted. “Get your warden off this gurney and shut up! You are not in America. This is the island of Barbados. People will see you doing this!”
When asked for their reaction later that day, the population of Barbados reportedly answered, “Excuse me? Monty who?”
Copyright ©2012 by Ty Treadwell
Ty Treadwell is a freelance writer who’s authored over 150 articles on topics such as travel, art, food & wine, boating, pop culture, and parenting. He’s the author of the humorous mystery The Devil Did Grin and co-author of Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row. For more death penalty trivia, read Ty’s blog at http://lastsuppersbook.blogspot.com/
Read all of Ty Treadwell’s posts for Criminal Element.