From James Wolcott to Professor St. James
By Kim Janssen Staff Reporter email@example.com August 3, 2013 11:15AM
James Wolcott, 15, was found not guilty by reason of insanity of killing his parents and sister in 1967. | Courtesy of Georgetown Advocate
Updated: September 5, 2013 6:57AM
GEORGETOWN, Texas — He was a straight-A student with a professor for a dad and an IQ in the top 1 percent.
He spent his summer as a camp counselor with his church, helping poor black kids learn to love the Texas outdoors.
He was a devoted peacenik, who loved beat poetry and protested against the Vietnam War.
But at the age of 15, he grabbed a bolt-action rifle and gunned down his family in a premeditated attack.
What happened to Jim Wolcott?
It’s a question residents of this Austin suburb have been asking themselves for 46 years.
Last week it appeared again — in giant black type on the front page of their local paper.
The Georgetown Advocate’s revelation that Wolcott quietly changed his name to James St. James and has been working as a professor of psychology at Millikin University in Decatur since 1986 came as almost as much as a shock to his former friends and neighbors in Texas as it did in downstate Illinois, where Professor St. James’s colleagues and students have worked alongside him for 27 years unaware that he is a self-confessed killer.
Now the Sun-Times has reviewed court documents arising out of the August 5, 1967, murders of Wolcott’s father, mother and sister, his 1974 release from a state hospital, and interviewed witnesses from the small town he grew up in.
They shed light on how his brilliant young mind unraveled, leading to the slayings and his eventual acquittal on grounds of insanity.
Among the educated elite
Today a thriving, upscale suburb of neatly-trimmed lawns and cactus-planted yards 40 minutes outside Austin, Georgetown in 1967 was a small rural county seat, home to just one tenth of the nearly 50,000 residents who now live there.
Home to Southwestern University — Texas’ oldest college — it had long been defined by a split between “town and gown” — the gritty and conservative cowboy rancher “town” folk, who formed the majority, and the more cerebral and liberal minority of “gowns” connected to Southwestern.
Though mutual respect and small town manners typically kept a lid on tensions, the peaceful coexistence was threatened by the social and cultural upheaval of the late 1960s, which formed a backdrop to the Wolcott murders.
The family was among the town’s educated elite. Wolcott’s father, Gordon Wolcott, had moved his family to Georgetown to take up a post as the head of the Biology Department at the university.
His wife, Elizabeth, hailed from South Carolina, was “vivacious” and active in their Methodist church, according to newspaper articles of the time.
Their daughter, Libby, shared her brother’s academic bent. Two years older than Jim, she was quiet and shy but on course to be valedictorian at Georgetown High School.
“The home was an intellectual home, a college professor’s family, and the kind of books, conversation and the music and this sort of thing would be what you identify with highly articulate, understanding, educated people,” the family’s pastor, Rev. Wallace Chappell, testified at Wolcott’s trial.
Outwardly, Jim Wolcott seemed a typical — if nerdy — high achiever. He wore braces and glasses, worked a paper route, appeared in school drama productions and helped organize the summer day camp at the Methodist Youth Fellowship.
At home, he shared a quick wit with his father. They specialized in “Tom Swifties” — a punning word game of the time, perhaps because one of Wolcott’s best friends was called Tom Swift.
“They were both so funny,” Swift recalled this week. “I didn’t have any idea what was going on.”
Bored with it all
Privately, Wolcott’s mental health was deteriorating.
If his intellectual competitiveness meant he consistently got As, it also made him a target for bullies and jocks in a school proud of its football tradition.
Athletically inept, he “did tend to be a bit of a snob at times,” classmate Bob Brock told a probation officer.
His snootiness made him “socially awkward,” according to his friend, Laurie Locke. The only girl he ever asked to a dance turned him down, according to court papers.
Increasingly he turned towards the counter-culture, growing his hair long and fighting with his father over the peace pins and anti-war protests he liked to attend in Austin.
Though a probation report describes his battles with teachers and figures of authority as “polite,” not everyone remembers it that way. In a conservative town unused to teens “talking back,” one teacher, who asked not to be named, said he was “scared of Jim — the icy way he looked when he argued was frightening.”
A psychologist who later examined Wolcott, Mac Sterlin, noted that Wolcott “would carry a grudge” and, in arguments with adults, tended to “conclude that he is right, that he knows more than they do, and that most adults are inept and mediocre.”
That may have sounded like a typical hippie teenager. But behind closed doors, in his bedroom, he started a dangerous habit — sniffing glue.
Twice in the winter of 1966, he later told his pastor and several doctors, he’d attempted suicide with a gun, only to “chicken out” at the last moment.
“He simply said he was bored with it all,” Chappell testified.
Then, in the weeks leading up to Aug. 5, 1967, his behavior took a macabre turn.
He started talking to pals strangely about something he called “Black Mass,” read a hypnosis guide and “In Cold Blood,” the recently-published Truman Capote book about the brutal murder of a small town family.
‘My God, my God’
The night of the slayings, three young men on their way to Houston were driving through town when they saw a young man shouting at them.
“My God, my God, help me!,” Wolcott yelled.
It was 1 a.m. and the three people closest to him in the world were dead. “Someone shot up my family,” he screamed.
The men — Charles Rihn, Dan Beto and Marion Cox — tried to rouse a neighbor while a hysterical Wolcott got “down on his hands and knees and pounded on the floor,” Rihn later testified.
Soon, they were inside the Wolcott house. It was a scene of unimaginable horror.
Photos from the court file show Gordon Wolcott where he fell from a living room armchair, bloody rifle wounds visible on his chest, his broken glasses and slippers beside him, a copy of James Baldwin’s anti-racist classic “The Fire Next Time” inches from his outstretched hand.
Prof. Wolcott was breathing and had a pulse when the men found him, but was dead within minutes, Rihn testified.
Libby didn’t last that long. Laid out on the floor next to her bed, she’d been shot in the chest and head.
But Elizabeth, gunned down in her bed where she was woken by the earlier shots, was still alive despite shot wounds to the head and chest.
“She moaned, but nothing you could understand,” Rihn testified.
A desperate Wolcott was “looking for someone to comfort him,” but when he “tried to put his arms around” Beto, Beto testified that he “shoved him away.”
The confession didn’t take long. After his mother was declared dead at the hospital, Wolcott went to Chappell’s parsonage, where he was soon joined by Georgetown Police, a Texas Ranger, the Williamson County Sheriff, and the prosecutor who would eventually try to lock him up.
Medicated with tranquilizers, his pastor sitting next to him, he waived his right to an attorney when the Ranger, James Riddles, told him it was time to square himself “with the Almighty,” Chappell testified.
When Riddles asked Wolcott if he’d done it because he “hated” his parents, Wolcott said “Yes, sir,” agreeing with the police account of how he first killed his father, then his sister before dispatching his mother, several witnesses testified.
“I have known for some time I was mentally ill,” he told the Ranger.
Back at the house, he showed the officers the spot in the attic where he’d hidden the murder weapon — a .22 caliber rifle, a few feet from the model airplane glue he’d been sniffing earlier that night.
It seemed a straightforward case, what a probation officer called a “heinous crime” caused by “a conscience...that has allowed the emotions of jealousy and hate to completely take over.”
Wolcott’s father’s attempt to ban Wolcott from an anti-war march the next day appeared to have been a decisive factor.
But in the days and weeks that followed, half a dozen doctors and psychiatrists interviewed Wolcott.
At least two — town doctors Hal Gaddy and Douglas Benold — were close to his family. And all six agreed he was insane, diagnosing him as a paranoid schizophrenic.
Ate loudly, bad accent
At the trial in February 1968, prosecutor Timothy Maresh offered the opposing opinions of two cops and a classmate who saw Wolcott that night, but failed to call a single doctor who would say Wolcott was sane.
Gaddy, who testified for the defense, said that for the last month before his killing spree, a paranoid Wolcott read dark motivations into the “looks in (his mother’s) eyes and the fact that she “ate loudly.” He was also suspicious of his sister’s “bad accent.”
Five days before the murders, he became convinced that he had to do something before his family could complete a plot to “drive him out of his mind,” Gaddy said.
Wolcott planned the incident — how he’d hide the gun and blame a stranger — the night before, Gaddy said.
“He took the glue to give him courage to kill his folks, although that he knew Thursday night that whether he got a chance to sniff the glue or not that it had to be done Friday.”
“He said that he was sorry that they were gone and he was sorry he had killed them, but he felt not too badly.”
“He knew he had nothing specific that he could prove against these three people, that they were conniving against him.”
Though the 12 jurors are believed to now all be dead, it’s likely that the unchallenged doctors’ opinions proved decisive.
But a crucial moment may have come in the very last moments of the trial, when in a highly unusual move, Wolcott’s attorney Will Kelly McClain called Wolcott’s prosecutor to the stand.
In a dramatic coup, McClain — a close friend of his client’s father — asked Maresh whether the motive for murder was really Wolcott’s hatred of his parents.
“I can’t really answer that, that has puzzled me,” Maresh responded.
“It has puzzled us all,” McClain testified, resting his case.
Wolcott, who never took the stand, flushed, then smiled when the not-guilty by rule of insanity verdict was read.
Asked if the sentence, which required him to be sent indefinitely to the state psychiatric hospital made him happy, he said “Yeah.”
Filled with wonder
In the years after he was locked up, a glade of trees was planted near a science building at Southwestern, next to a plaque honoring Prof. Wolcott.
Apocryphal James Wolcott sightings became a semi-regular sport at high school reunions, and once, the name “James Wolcott” was even signed in the visitors book at the town’s visitor center, sparking a buzz of gossip.
But most in town wanted to move on.
A jury had ruled Wolcott sane, freeing him just six years after he was locked up.
Wolcott’s psychiatrist told Swift it wouldn’t be in Wolcott’s interest for Swift or any of his old friends to track him down now that Wolcott was doing well at Stephen Austin University, beginning the successful academic career that would eventually bring him to Millikin.
“I read that Jim said he didn’t care what people in Georgetown think of him,” Swift said this week. “I can’t blame him for that.”
Like almost everyone in town who remembers that awful night, Swift says the decisions to acquit then free his old friend worked out for the best.
“He’s made a success of his life — this isn’t a cold case. He paid his price and I hope this doesn’t ruin everything for him,” Swift said.
Echoing what many others told the Sun-Times, Rev. Chappell, now 93 and living in Dallas, said the case showed that “Intelligence and sanity are two different things.”
“I’m groping for words,” he said when told of Wolcott’s new life. “Astonished. Surprised. And filled with wonder over the whole thing.”
Contributing: Becky Schlikerman