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Detective describes chilling confession from man on death row

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- There are new details about a series of murders that happened decades ago as the man at the center of the case awaits his execution. Joseph Paul Franklin was set to be put to death in a Missouri prison at 12:01 Wednesday morning, but late Tuesday afternoon a federal judge granted him a stay of execution.

Franklin is accused of killing at least 20 people across the country in the late '70s, including an interracial couple in Johnstown in 1980. It's a case local authorities couldn't prove for nearly 18 years, until Franklin, himself, confessed.

Franklin recently sat down with CNN and explained the reason behind his three-year murder spree. He said his mission was to "try and get a race war started."

A self-proclaimed white supremacist, Franklin is accused of targeting dozens of Jews, blacks and any whites associated with them. He was a sniper, who carried his rifle in a guitar case, gunning down his victims in cities across the country. His most notorious case was the shooting that paralyzed Larry Flynt, the publisher and founder of Hustler magazine. Franklin said he shot Flynt twice because his magazine featured an interracial couple.

Franklin's arrest didn't come until 1980, after authorities believe he had already killed at least 20 people, including a young, interracial couple in Johnstown.

On June 15, 1980, Arthur Smothers, 22, and Kathleen Mikula, 16, were walking along the Washington Street bridge in Johnstown, when someone shot them from the hillside. At the time, police believed Franklin was behind the murder. They said it fit his profile and they were even able to place him in the city.

"Our investigation has established the fact that this individual was in our area and this has been learned from a witness," Johnstown Public Safety Director William Tomallo said in an interview with 6 News in 1980.

"He was always a person of interest in this case," former Johnstown Detective Jeannine Grech said Tuesday. "They just did not have the technology or the capability then as to what we have now."

The shooting happened long before Grech came on board, but she was there in the Tennessee prison with Franklin in 1998 when he confessed to the murder.

"He noticed the hillside and he thought it would be a good location to do what he describes as his hunting," said Grech. "He stayed here long enough and he completed what he wanted to do and when he did, he left."

Grech said the Cambria County District Attorney's Office received a call from the prison saying Franklin wanted to talk. Because he would only speak with women, then-Assistant District Attorney Kelly Callihan and Grech were chosen to go.

"They flew us down and they were only giving us a time limit of three days to get a confession or statement from him," said Grech.

Grech said it took all three days before Franklin laid it all out. She said he recalled the day in detail and even illustrated how he got away after the shooting.

"When he drew that map, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he definitely was the killer," said Grech. "Upon the completion of the interview, he wanted to shake our hands, which we did, and the eerie, cold, clammy feeling that you had when you shook his hand is something that you just never forget."

Franklin was never charged with the double murder, mainly because he was already on three death rows and serving several life sentences.

"I think he wanted to confess for notoriety, not because he was remorseful in any way, shape or form," said Grech..

Grech also recalled talking with the victims' families after that interview, now 15 years ago. She said they understood and were relieved to have some closure.

If Franklin's execution ever goes through, Grech said, justice will be served, but said she still feels for all his victims' families, who have to live with what happened every day.

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Edgar Snyder

Washington Times