He was a criminal justice professor at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, teaching a course on mass murderers and serial killers. But the textbooks were inadequate. Blackwelder wanted to give his students a more visceral experience. So he and a female intern named Janice drove 400 miles to death row at Florida State Prison in Starke.
"When visiting a jail," Blackwelder said, "you never know for sure that you're going to get in until that metal door slams behind you."
They were ushered through a series of gates and metal doors before being greeted by a correctional officer.
"Mr. Bundy has been waiting for you," the officer said.
Down the hallway and around a corner was a small cage in the middle of a large room. Inside the cage sat Theodore Robert Bundy.
"Just call me Ted," Bundy said, smiling. "You must be Professor Blackwelder."
Instinctively, Blackwelder reached through the bars and shook hands with one of the most notorious serial killers in history, hands that had strangled and bludgeoned to death upwards of 30 women, including 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, whom Bundy was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering before dumping her body in an abandoned hog pen.
With his hands and feet shackled, Bundy was led into a small room. Though a guard stood outside, the only thing separating student and teacher from this cold-blooded killer was a wooden table. From the moment they were alone, Blackwelder wasted no time in getting to the point.
"I'm here to use you," he said, "because you're an exquisite specimen."
Today, from their home in Piedmont, Blackwelder and his wife, Shirley, run the nonprofit Criminology Research Project, an academic Web site dedicated to the study of serial, spree and mass murder. Blackwelder, 63, retired from teaching in 1992, after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Through encounters with notorious killers like Bundy, Charles Manson and Jeffery Dahmer, Blackwelder built a career not only of science, but of faith.
On that summer day in 1984, Blackwelder was impressed by Bundy's cool demeanor.
"Bundy was an average guy," he remembers. "If I had a daughter, he'd be the kind of guy I'd want her to date, because he seems so normal. But that's just a mask. Underneath, he's a diabolical killing machine."
For more than three hours, they interviewed Bundy, discussing everything from football and abortion to the death penalty.
"Society needs to be protected from people like me," Bundy said. "And there are others out there just like me."
That was the first of four interviews that Blackwelder had with Bundy before he was executed in Florida's electric chair on Jan. 24, 1989. Bundy told Blackwelder that, from his cell in the hours before an execution, he could smell the diesel fuel and hear the generator warming up. Through a nearby window, he could see the hearse waiting outside.
Yet when Blackwelder asked if Bundy was "right with the Lord," Bundy's answer was as enigmatic as the killer himself — a once bright and charming law student who savagely preyed on young women.
"I'm not worried about what happened yesterday, and I'm not concerned about what may happen tomorrow," he said. "I'm cosmic. And you'd be better off if you were cosmic too."
Looking back, Blackwelder still isn't sure what Bundy meant.
"But I've got to believe when that jolt of electricity hit him, he found out what being cosmic is all about."
'Among the evil'
He's befriended the Atlanta Child Murderer and accepted collect calls from The Hillside Strangler. In 1970, he used Christmas money to fly to California to watch the trial of Charles Manson.
He has FBI files and letters from Manson, Ted Bundy and The Unabomber. He's interviewed Jeffrey Dahmer, calling the serial killer/cannibal "a doll … just as sweet as can be."
Blackwelder performed the wedding of Heath Stocks, who murdered his entire family with a .45 handgun, and stood less than six feet away when child-killer Ernest Dobbert was executed in Florida's electric chair.
During every interview, Blackwelder, who's been an ordained minister since 1990, talks of salvation, serving as a witness — a flawed man of faith — to those whom society would rather throw away.
"That's where the preacher is supposed to be — among the evil, the wretched, the unforgiven," he says. "You can't do any good in church. There comes a time when you've gotta say 'Amen,' then get up, get out and go do something useful. …
"If we got what we deserved, we'd all go straight to hell," he says. "It's only through the saving grace of Jesus Christ that we're given the choice."
Growing up in Piedmont, Blackwelder, like most kids in the rural South, regularly attended church. He did and said all the right things — joining Piedmont First Baptist Church when he was 12 — but the cavalier attitude and transgressions of a hard-headed young man ultimately won out.
"Sin was fun," he says, grinning at memories better left untold. "I tried to be good. I wanted to be good, but I was just too busy living Eddie's way."
Then his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. In the years to follow, she wouldn't recognize her husband, waking up frightened by the stranger sharing her bed. Blackwelder, who was working full time, would have to lock his mother in the house so she wouldn't wander the streets.
"That was probably the first time I ever really thought about God," he says. "I started praying because I needed help. But even though I'd moved closer to God, I was still living the way I wanted to live."
Blackwelder's journey wouldn't be complete until New Year's Eve 1985. He was celebrating at the Officer's Club at Fort McClellan, when around 9:30 he received an emergency phone call. His father had suffered a stroke. The night was so thick with fog, Blackwelder could barely see over the hood of his car driving to the hospital. Not knowing if his father would live or die, he made a promise.
"I said, 'God, let him live. But if he's gonna die, let me be there when he does. And if you do that, I'll live the rest of my life for you.' "
Blackwelder's father survived the stroke, but was severely weakened. His mother died in 1989, followed by his father in 1990.
"God will get your attention one way or another," Blackwelder says. "And he never forgets."
Hooked on true crime
The first time Blackwelder visited a prison was with his father in 1959, when they toured the old Holman Prison near Wetumpka. He even got a chance to see and touch the electric chair, nicknamed "Yellow Mama" — though he declined to take a seat.
But it was a term paper that spawned Blackwelder's macabre curiosity. In 1964, while a senior at Piedmont High School, Blackwelder wrote a research paper for political science class on "Crime in America."
"From that moment I was hooked," Blackwelder says, grinning. "I read every true crime magazine I could get my hands on, looking for the stuff boys like best — blood and guts."
After graduating from Jacksonville State University in 1975, Blackwelder pursued criminal justice and sociology, gathering graduate and post-graduate degrees from the University of Alabama, JSU, UAB and Nova-Southeastern University. By the early '80s, he was teaching criminal justice at Gadsden State and political science at St. Bernard College, before developing the curriculum for the criminal justice program at Wallace State Community College.
His research is meant to gain insight into the minds of serial and mass murderers. It's a philosophy that Blackwelder maintained with his students, whom he often took to trials and jails to gain firsthand knowledge. But more than the legal side, he also showed his students the devastation that criminals wrought on families, by having victims share their stories.
"I always wanted to give students both sides," he says. "These were not just stories in a book, names and dates to memorize. These were people's lives, and some of those lives had been destroyed. I wanted my students to see that."
Through his access to various jails, Blackwelder began to focus his faith on prisoners. But it wasn't until 1984, sitting at home watching Jerry Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour, that he found his calling. During the program, Falwell mentioned Liberty Prison Outreach, one of the largest such ministries in the country.
"I didn't know how to run a prison ministry," Blackwelder says. "All I knew was that when these guys died, I wanted them to go to heaven."
Blackwelder called Falwell's church in Lynchburg, Va., where he spoke with Garry Sims, director of the prison ministry. As soon as Blackwelder learned that Sims was from Weaver, their friendship was immediate — as long as conversations didn't linger too long on high school football. Blackwelder was invited to Virginia, where he met with Falwell for advice.
"Eddie's a dedicated — some might say eccentric — and passionate man," Sims says. "Eddie's not your typical preacher — not by a long shot. If you go to the Huddle House in Piedmont at 3 a.m., that's where you'll find Eddie — that's when the drunks, the whores and the drug addicts come in. Now you couldn't put Eddie up in the pulpit at the First Baptist Church, because the people he's lookin' to save wouldn't be there anyway."
Faith was always a part of Blackwelder's prison interviews. While the more notorious killers — Bundy and Charles Manson for example — offered little in return, all were respectful about the subject … save for one: John Wayne Gacy, Chicago's "Killer Clown," who murdered 33 boys and buried them under his house.
"He wouldn't even let me get started," Blackwelder says of their phone interview. "He just said, 'Look, you son-of-a-bitch, I know what you're all about, and I don't wanna hear it.' That was pretty much the end of it."
But there have been success stories.
In 1972, Ernest Dobbert was tried and convicted for beating his 9-year-old daughter to death. Later evidence linked him to the death of his 7-year-old son as well as two other children. In the months leading up to Dobbert's execution in Florida, Blackwelder met with him, for both academic and spiritual purposes.
On Sept. 7, 1985, when Dobbert was electrocuted, it was Blackwelder who led him those final few steps, praying with him along the way. And when the switch was thrown, Blackwelder was standing some six feet away.
"I know that when he died, Ernie went to be with the Lord," he says. "What he did was awful … killing his own children … but he left that prison a changed man, a better man."
The Criminology Research Project
After he retired, Eddie Blackwelder sought a greater purpose for the research materials and FBI case files he's collected throughout his long career studying mass murderers and serial killers. The Criminology Research Project, founded this year, makes all his files available online or for the asking to college professors, attorneys, students, law enforcement agencies and those curious to learn more about serial killers. Visit the Criminology Research Project at http://criminologyresearch.org.
Befriending the Atlanta Child Murderer
In 1982, Eddie Blackwelder got a phone call from the legal team representing Atlanta Child Murderer Wayne Williams as he stood trial for murder. During the trial, Blackwelder served as a consultant, splitting his time between sitting at the table with Williams and sitting beside his mother and father, Homer and Faye Williams, in the gallery.
At the time, Homer was already an old man, and Faye had cancer. She wanted someone to help look out for her son.
"We're all Wayne's got," Faye Williams told Blackwelder one afternoon after her son had been sentenced to life in prison. "I want you to promise that you'll never forsake my son."
Through countless appeals, DNA testing and requests for a new trial, Blackwelder kept that promise, visiting Williams in prison and writing letters often.
"It hasn't been easy," Blackwelder says. "Wayne's not always the easiest person to get along with."
Blackwelder's relationship with Williams lured him to Columbus, Ga. on a muggy, overcast afternoon in August, where in the backyard of a house on Meadow Drive sat a 1970 Chevy station wagon, left to rot among the weeds and fallen tree branches.
The car became infamous in 1981 when around 2 a.m. on May 22, Williams was stopped by police while driving the station wagon, which belonged to his father, after an officer staking out the James Jackson Parkway Bridge heard a splash below in the dark waters of the Chattahoochee River. Though police let Williams go that night, he became a suspect in the Atlanta Child Murders two days later, when the body of 27-year-old Nathaniel Carter was found floating in the same river.
When Williams was convicted of two murders and implicated in 22 others, it was based largely on dog hair and carpet fibers, many of which were related to the Chevy station wagon. After the trial, Homer Williams reclaimed possession of the car, often taking it fishing.
After Homer died in 2005, the car was parked by an old shed, its windows rolled down until the doors had nearly rusted shut.
Blackwelder was given custody of the car by Wayne Williams, and went to Columbus to have it towed back to Piedmont. A camera crew from CNN was there filming a documentary about the Williams case.
"I'm still collecting pieces," said CNN executive producer Jim Polk, who has interviewed and is working closely with Blackwelder on the documentary. "I don't even know what the puzzle looks like."
Blackwelder was simply doing his due diligence for a piece of evidence that could become relevant again. "Not saying that it will, but if this ever got back to trial, it's better to have it and not need it, than it is to need it and not have it."
Collect call from the Hillside Strangler
Kenneth Bianchi and his cousin Angelo Buono Jr. were dubbed The Hillside Stranglers for their signature method of dumping the bodies of their victims in the hillside surrounding Los Angeles during a four-month period between 1977 and 1978. Buono died in jail of a heart attack, while Bianchi continues to serve a life sentence at Washington State Penitentiary.
It was from that address that Eddie Blackwelder began receiving a steady stream of letters. And then, late one night, the phone rang. On the other end was the Hillside Strangler, making a collect call from prison.
"What could this guy want?" Blackwelder thought.
Blackwelder knew Bianchi wanted something. His correspondence with Bianchi had proven as much. Whether it was typewriter ribbon or opinions on his unpublished novel, Bianchi always had ulterior motives.
"He wanted us to help him find his son," Blackwelder remembers. "It was a long shot, but I said I would try."
Blackwelder and his wife, Shirley, who is a paralegal and his best research assistant, started digging. Within a few days, a photograph arrived from Bianchi, a worn-out picture of the boy who was an infant when Bianchi was convicted. All he knew what that the boy was living with his maternal grandfather somewhere in California.
After getting the man's last name, Shirley called every name in the phone book until she found the right one. The boy, who was in his teens, wouldn't come to the phone. Instead, Shirley spoke to the grandfather.
"He'll never see that boy again," he said. "Don't ever call again."
Though they failed at the reunion, Blackwelder took the photo Bianchi sent and had it blown up to an 8-by-10, giving him at least something to hold on to.
"And that's something at least," Blackwelder says. "Probably more than he deserved."
The marriage of the Eagle Scout
One by one, as they walked into the house after a basketball game on Jan. 17, 1997, Heath Stocks shot and killed his mother, father and younger sister. Once an Eagle Scout growing up in Lonoke, Ark., Stocks, who was 20 years old at the time of the murder, had been molested for years by his scout master.
Though he doesn't condone Stocks' killing spree, Blackwelder has remained close to the young man, offering advice both legal and spiritual.
"I would never be for letting Heath out of jail," he says. "Never."
Blackwelder even agreed to perform Stocks' wedding to a woman who had seen his case on Court TV, left her husband and moved to Lonoke to be closer to him. Knowing the marriage was doomed, Blackwelder opposed it, but after prayer and counseling the couple, he honored the request.
The wedding was at the prison chapel. The bride wore a white gown with a train, and Blackwelder's wife served as the maid of honor. After the service, Stocks and his new bride sat in a pew holding hands for 15 minutes before the guards took Stocks back to his cell.
Angry and bitter for having her wedding night ruined by the reality of marrying a convicted killer, the new bride was consoled by Blackwelder and Shirley over dinner at Garfield's.
"You'll never be any closer to Keith than you were tonight," Blackwelder told her. "That's the kind of marriage you've gotten into."
The couple divorced within a few months. Stocks has since remarried.
"These guys are incapable of love," Blackwelder says. "I don't feel sorry for them, but it's sad that they have no conscience and no concept of what love is."