Writer Michael Cuneo is fascinated with the fringes of mainstream religion in America. In his two books, the Fordham University professor of sociology has displayed both an interest in how religion intertwines with the social fabric of American life, but also how it can lead to consequences completely out of step with Judeo-Christian doctrine.
His first book, American Excorcism, Cuneo explored in detail the ancient practice and noted both its acceptance and clandestine use by a surprising cross-spectrum of American religious groups; renegade and mainline Catholics, Evangelicals and charismatic preachers alike. In Almost Midnight, Cuneo traces the life story of Darrell Mease, a Missouri outlaw charged in a trio of shotgun killings. Written as a piece of investigative journalism in the mold of Truman Capote’s genre-defining In Cold Blood, Cuneo is far more interested in the elements of faith, outlaw justice, and revenge at play in Mease’s life story.
Raised in the Ozarks, Mease, poor and white, was a child many thought destined to become a preacher. Steeped in the Pentecostal faith endemic to the region, he was a likeable kid whose piety was only outweighed by bad circumstances. After killing three people in cold blood half a lifetime later, he would return to his fiery Christian roots, and become a voice against the sins of capital punishment.
Drafted into the Marine Corps and sent to Vietnam as a combat engineer, Mease started using drugs heavily. Upon returning home, he fell in with the hard-living and hard-drinking culture of the Ozarks, where blood feuds last through generations and outsiders are greeted with open disdain, even hostility.
Two failed marriages and a life of persistent poverty eventually pushed an emotionally paranoid Mease into the methanphetamine underworld. But soon, the opportunity of making real money as an independent crank dealer led to a disagreement with Lloyd Lawrence, crank kingpin of the Ozarks and an outlaw of legendary proportions. You didn’t fuck with Lloyd Lawrence, but Mease wanted out, sure that Lawrence was using him and scamming on his new trophy girlfriend, one Mary Epps.
Mease, certain of Lawrence’s wrath, escaped into the desert southwest with Epps, a woman half his age who despite her almost middle-class upbringing was drawn to the Ozark outlaw culture. Fueled by Mease’s own paranoia (not to mention liberal doses of bad crank), the couple returned to Missouri to “end it with Lloyd” after wandering the west for almost a year.
Then, in 1988, Mease stalked Lloyd for three days, finally gunning him down in a creek bed in a creekbed along with his wife and their crippled grandson Willie. Convicted and is sentenced to death by lethal injection, Mease underwent a jailhouse epiphany, and was brought back to God and the fervor of his youth. So unshaken was Mease that he swore a miracle of God would intervene and spare his life.
In a bizarre turn of events, Pope John Paul II, who happened to be visiting St. Louis of all places at the time in early 1999, intervened on Mease’s behalf, successfully seeking a commutation of his sentence from Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan. At a mass before 100,000, the pope called the death penalty “cruel and unnecessary,” and the next day personally asked Carnahan to commute Mease’s sentence.
Caught in a political Catch 22, the governor relented, and overnight, Mease became the rallying point for death penalty abolitionists. (Killed in a plane crash months later, Carnahan would go on to become the only dead person to ever win a seat in the U.S. Senate, beating out future Attorney General John Ashcroft.)
Cuneo, who spent more than a year exploring the backroads, hills and hollers of Mease’s native southern Missouri hills interviewing family members, fellow outlaws and enemies alike, spends much effort in the book trying to come to terms with the inevitability of Mease’s crime. Reveling in tales of the rough and tumble Ozarks, Cuneo seems to indicate that Mease had little chance of ending up anything more than a bottom-dweller, despite his early religious fanaticism and being what locals constantly called a “genuinely good guy.”
Paralleling Mease’s journey from good ‘ol boy to death row convert, the Ozarks converted themselves from a dead-end place to one of America’s most family-friendly, squeaky-clean destinations. But as Cuneo discovers, the back roads outside of Branson are still places many tourists never go, and frankly wouldn’t be welcome. The irony is painfully evident; an area known for as a hotbed of outlaw activity, blood feuds, a source of some of America’s worst vices (first hooch, then marijuana, then crank) was somehow, almost overnight, transformed into the squarest place this side of Salt Lake City.
Today, the Ozark hills today remain a hotbed of methamphetamine production. Last year, over 2,000 seizures were made by law enforcement agencies in Missouri, more than in any other state. The same poverty, depravity, and redneck code of honor that created both versions of Mease (both the outlaw and the Bible-thumper) still persist. And they are not, of course, peculiar to mountainous, backwoods hollers.
There are thousands, possibly millions of Darrell Meases being created in America. His story, while seemingly unique, is in no way any different from those of other desperate men who will never benefit from the publicity of being saved by the Pope. Poverty, ignorance, police corruption, post-traumatic stress, paranoia, drug addiction; Mease had virtually every factor possible to lead him to become a killer. There are millions of Americans who live on the brink of normal life every day; he ones who lose jobs, or find themselves where there are none, the ones who become frustrated with the plodding pace of public assistance and dare to strike out in search of financial security any way they can, the ones who make one bad decision that finds them spiraling into a life wasted.
Mease, while one of the last true, “good ol’ boys” of the Ozarks, was a victim of consequence, geography, bad decisions, economics, untreated mental illness — the list could go on. The true miracle of this story is not how the benevolence of the pope and a governor who couldn’t say no to him spared Mease the needle of justice, but that crimes like his don’t occur more often than they do.
By trying, but perhaps ultimately failing, to come to terms with the circumstances of what led to the three killings, Cuneo attempts to find some sort of redemptive resolution to the tale. Mease may have been one of Missouri’s most feared killers in a generation, but in the end, he found God, and was saved by a man of God. Cuneo, like the anti-death penalty activists who had hoped to find a silver lining to Mease’s sentence being commuted, struggles to find greater meaning in his story. Sadly, there is none, and Cuneo knows it.