When Rob Horn bought an abandoned storage unit in Little Rock, Arkansas, he thought it contained a heap of old paperbacks – and little else. “I just saw a bunch of books,” he told WMC Action News 5 in June 2017. “I can sell books.” On closer inspection, however, the dozen or so boxes contained some personal journals – and the author of them was an infamous convicted murderer.
Horn, a retired Arizona cop who had recently moved to Bull Shoals in northern Arkansas, couldn’t quite believe his luck. “What is it, one in a million, to be the person who actually bought this stuff? Not very many people could be that lucky,” he said.
In fact, the author of the journals is one of the most well-known and controversial death row inmates of the 20th century. Scores of films, books and documentaries have been produced about him. Moreover, he is an accomplished wordsmith. So in both a historical and a literary sense, Horn had struck gold.
Indeed, Horn had bought the container at auction hoping to make a few bucks from the books inside it. When he flicked through them, though, he saw that many had been inscribed with a single name. And while he didn’t think much of it, his wife then found an intriguing personal letter. So who exactly had all this stuff belonged to?
“We started googling real quick,” Horn told WMC Action News 5. “Of course, we came up with it… Then I thought, ‘Wow, we might be able to make some money off this’… I consider myself really, really lucky is what I got to say.”
The books had in fact belonged to Damien Echols, one of the so-called “West Memphis Three.” Echols spent 18 years on death row for the 1993 murder of three young boys. The conviction was controversial, however, partly because prosecutors had exploited local hysteria about supposed Satanists operating in West Memphis, Arkansas – a small city in the heart of the Bible Belt.
The story began on May 5, 1993, when a trio of eight-year-old boys disappeared while out playing near their homes in West Memphis. Their parents subsequently reported them missing, and police dispatched search teams the next morning. Then later that afternoon, the dead bodies of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers were discovered in a muddy drainage ditch, naked and hog-tied.
West Memphis police soon pinned the crime on three local teenagers: Jason Baldwin, 16, Jessie Misskelley Jr., 17, and Damien Echols, 18. Echols, who was assumed to be the ringleader, was a high school dropout with a taste for trashy horror books and heavy metal. He had a history of psychiatric problems; he was a misfit and a rebel; and he fitted the profile that police were looking for.
In court, Echols’ taste for Metallica and Stephen King was offered as evidence that the three teens had murdered the young boys in an act of devil worship. What’s more, the jury, whipped up by media hysteria, apparently found such claims convincing. All three teens were found guilty of murder. Baldwin was sentenced to life, Misskelley was given life plus 40 years, and Echols received the death sentence.
However, the case was seriously flawed. A confession by Misskelley, who has an IQ of 72, was allegedly obtained under duress and intimidation. Meanwhile, a key witness who had implicated the Memphis Three retracted her statements, admitting that she had lied and was coerced into doing so by the police. There was also evidence of jury misconduct and improper handling of the crime scene.
For years, Echols lobbied for a re-trial. And during that time, he received help and support from several high-profile celebrities, including Johnny Depp. He also met his wife, Lorri Davis, while on death row. Eventually, moreover, his efforts paid off. On August 19, 2011, the Memphis Three walked free on so-called “Alford” plea deals. Technically, the court still considers them guilty, but their time has now been served.
The effects that Horn recovered from the storage unit – which was registered to Lorri Davis – included photos of Davis and Echols, artwork, letters, books and two personal journals written by Echols during his stretch at Varner Unit Supermax. “These journals are going to be an insight to what it was like for him when he was in prison,” Horn told WMC Action News 5. “That ought to make for good reading.”
Echols has actually written much about his time on death row. In fact, he has penned three published books about his ordeal: Almost Home: My Life Story, Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row and Yours for Eternity: A Love Story on Death Row. His depictions of daily life in a Supermax prison are as raw and riveting as they are disturbing.
The exercise yard, Echols explains in Life After Death, was little more than a “filthy concrete stall, much like a miniature grain silo.” There, prisoners walked in shackled silence, breathing in the fumes from rotting animal cadavers and feces. “When you first enter you have to fight against your gag reflex,” he wrote. “It’s a filthy business, trying to get some exercise.”
“In the movies it’s always the other prisoners you have to watch out for,” he continued. “In real life, it’s the guards and the administration. They go out of their way to make your life harder and more stressful than it already is, as if being on Death Row were not enough.”
Indeed, according to Echols, the guards kept the prisoners in a constant state of exhaustion. The lights were turned off for four hours a day, but the “doors slamming, keys hitting the floor, guards yelling at one another as if they’re at a family reunion – it all wakes you up. You can never sleep very deeply here anyway, because you have to stay aware of your surroundings. Bad things can come to those caught off guard…”
Naturally, Echols longed for home – and he wove poetry between his visceral descriptions of prison life. “For a split second today I could smell home,” reads one passage. “It smelled like sunset on a dirt road. I thought my heart was going to break. The world I left behind was so close I could almost touch it. Everything in me cried out for it. It’s amazing how certain shades of agony have their own beauty…”
Meanwhile, in August 2017, Rob Horn got hold of a second storage container full of yet more of Echols’ personal items. “It’s a double jackpot, actually,” Horn told WMC Action News 5. “It’s the grand jackpot as far as dealing with the stuff we got from him… There’s more personal stuff. There’s some things in here that he’s written, handwritten in prison, that makes it worth a lot more.”
The haul also includes a cache of legal documents and correspondence pertaining to the trial as well as numerous poems. Horn has even expressed an interest in publishing some of them – if he can do so legally. However, his motivations are not entirely clear.
According to WMC Action News 5, Damien and Lorri Echols have requested the return of the items in the storage container. Yet while Horn has in fact returned a handful of precious keepsakes, such as Lorri’s baby book, he intends to sell the rest online. “You know how I said I was so lucky to get the last one, just right place, right time,” he said. “Well, luck must run in my family…”