(1986-1987) was a 28-year old mentally retarded drug abuser who lived in
a slum district of Philadelphia and rented a third floor apartment.
He was evicted for smells coming from his apartment, but before he left
he nailed up the bedroom door claiming there was some property in there
he was coming back for. When he never came back, authorities broke down
the door and found 7 bodies, all in various stages of decomposition.
Only 2 bodies could be identified, and one was his former girlfriend.
He turned himself in to police, and admitted strangling all the women
while having sex with them during and after their deaths. He was
sentenced to life for 7 counts of murder and 7 counts of abusing a
A mentally-retarded drug abuser, Harrison Graham was well-known in his Philadelphia ghetto neighborhood. Sometimes, he would amuse the local children with his "Cookie Monster" puppet; other times they found him digging graves -- for dogs, he said -- in nearby vacant lots. Apparently, no one suspected that his simple mind might hide a darker urge, compelling him toward homicide.
In early August 1987, Graham quarreled with his landlord's nephew, afterward evacuating his apartment, nailing the door shut out of spite. Police were summoned on the afternoon of August 9, when neighbors filed complaints of a pervasive stench that emanated from the room. Inside, patrolmen found two strangled women's bodies, three more skeletons beneath a mound of garbage on the floor, another tied up in the closet. Graham had been living in the squalid hole since 1983, and he had not been idle. Officers began to search the neighborhood for Graham, house by house, while newsmen noted that the suspect's dwelling stood a mere three miles from Gary Heidnik's "house of horrors," where another ghoulish scene had been discovered five months earlier.
The roof of Graham's building yielded skeletal remains of victim number seven, but initial warrants simply charged the missing suspect with abuse of corpses. Murder was not proven until August 11, when a medical examiner reported that the freshest victims had been strangled some time in the past ten days.
On August 14, another skull and partial skeleton were excavated from the dirt floor of a row house three doors down from Graham's building. He surrendered two days later and confessed to seven murders since the winter months of 1986. According to his statement, Graham picked up female addicts on the street, enticing them with offers of a fix, and brought them home where they were murdered after sex.
On August 26, psychiatrists declared that he was competent for trial.
In April 1988, dispensing with his right to trial by jury, Graham laid his case before a solitary judge. Convicted on seven counts of first-degree murder and seven counts of abusing a corpse, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, followed by six electrocutions. The unusual sentence -- hailed by Graham's lawyer as "compassionate and brilliant" -- theoretically assures that he will never be paroled.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial
Killers - Hunting Humans
Harrison Graham Story
During the 1980s, the city of
Pennsylvania became home to three notorious serial killers: Gary Heidnik,
aka the “Frankford Slasher” who murdered seven people and held several
more women in a torture chamber he retrofitted out of his North Marshall
Street home’s basement. Then a man named Leonard Christopher was
arrested after an escaped victim turned eye-witness linked the killer to
at least seven murders of females in the Frankford-area. Finally, during
the summer of 1987, police responded to complaints of residents living
at a decrepit apartment complex in north Philadelphia. Behind a door,
nailed shut by its renter, women’s decomposing bodies were found on that
There is no such thing as one murder
more heinous than the next; whenever life is stolen, degrees of less
tolerable are impossible to measure. We consider a murder, shake our
heads in disbelief, and wonder ‘how’ and ‘why’? What sorts of monsters
are capable of stealing life? Who does this? Is it evil, a bondage to
darkness that takes over and possesses creates literal bogeymen? Perhaps;
certainly, it is worthy of examination. Sometimes, we can actually look
at a murderer, and see the missing links in his character, and wonder to
ourselves how someone, somewhere along the way did not point a finger
and say, ‘hey, someone needs to intervene here…we’ve got some wrong
behavior going on over here…’
When researchers look back at
infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, a background of abuse to animals
and other pathological cruelty is uncovered. Charles Manson spent most
of his youth in reformatory. Oppositely, Ted Bundy, who murdered at
least two dozen women, had no criminal background. He was able to elude
suspicion all of his life, all the while harboring obsessive sexual
fantasy. Harrison Graham could not be categorized into any of these
categories. He was not cruel to animals, he was not in and out of youth
camps, nor did he charm people with his courtesy and flirtations. Never
the less, he was a red flag waving high in the street, begging for
supervision, crisis intervention and intervention in the most major way.
It was so humid on Sunday, August 9,
1987 it felt like if you tried to cut the air with a knife, you’d fail.
It would have been unimaginable, living in the urban squalor near Cecil
B. Moore Avenue that provided tenement living to the poor and desperate.
Still, it was better than no home at all, which was becoming more of a
reality as the city continued to board up and close shop on many of the
buildings that had been overcome by dope dealers and pimps and the
resulting endless stream of officers flailing through insurmountable
drug busts and domestic disputes.
1631 North Street appeared to be
abandoned. If one were prone toward dark secrets, such a venue may well
serve this purpose. Water sometimes ran, then again sometimes it didn’t.
The front entrance to the building consisted of a broken down door and
rubble obstructing the opening. The front windows had been shattered
providing free entry into the apartments, which would cause for the
assumption that no one would live behind such vulnerability – and in
such an area. And yet, people did. Addicts and otherwise homeless, the
mentally ill and deviant; this was their home. It almost seems
reasonable that drugs were paramount – reds and blues, Ritalin and
Talwin, uppers and downers – anything to numb the suffering from that
unbearable heat, the purgatory of hopelessness, the fear that it could
be even worse.
Officer Pete Scallatino was the first
to respond to the complaints of foul odors on that afternoon. He
recognized the scent of death as he entered the dilapidated structure.
Following his instinct and his odiferous senses, he climbed the stairs
to the third floor until he reached an apartment which screamed of rot.
The front room, which was accessible from the hallway by an opened door,
was filled with the materials of stench: food containers, molded
newspapers and magazines, dried feces and filthy clothes piled knee-high.
On the wall were rough sketches – one particularly disturbing drawing of
a naked women accessorized with someone’s verbal denouncements poured
over it in what appeared to be dried blood.
The officer walked past the kitchen
to a door he assumed led to a room; the smell was thickening around him,
and he felt certain the cause was coming from behind this door. The
name “Marty” was etched into the door, and below was an open key-hole.
He leaned down and peered through, able to see a human figure. He
demanded the door be open, but the legs he could see were motionless.
Scallatino called for back up. With the help of investigator Charles
Johnson, the door was pried open, and the body of a black female lying
on a mattress was in full view. The body was bloated and decomposing.
Next to the mattresses was a second body, another female, sprawled dead
on the floor.
The two men needed more help; it was
difficult to assess whether the deaths were drug-related or homicide. As
detectives began to show up, a crowd began to gather. The conditions
within the building were an obstacle and now a circus show was building.
Police taped off the scene, and as authorities filtered through the
waste, a third body was discovered beneath all the debris. The victim
was skeletal, which meant that whatever had been going on at 1631 North
-0000000 had been going on for quite sometime.
The search continued. Mean donning
masks braved through syringes and spoons, broken glass, dog feces and
human remains and within mere hours uncovered a fourth victim – this
body also appearing less than human in its remains, which had been
mummified in sheets carefully binding it’s occupier. A search that had
begun in the early afternoon was now into the sunset hours. At 5:30 the
search party discovered by #5, hidden between two mattresses. This body
had not been wrapped or bound, but left to decompose past the point of
gender identification. An officer called to the men in the back room. He
had found a body in the front closet, littered with garbage and tattered
A light rain accompanied the muggy
temperatures and the sun had fallen, making the search more
uncomfortable and visually less possible. With a body count at six, the
search was called off until morning. Crowds of people gathered around
the building – beyond the neighbors and locals. The media had caught
wind of a potential serial killing spree in urban Philadelphia, and news
teams were gathering among the homeless, the pimps and prostitutes, the
junkies and the other desperate of the community.
August 10, the search was broadened
to the outside of the apartment structure. Officers and crews began to
dig; a search atop the building found more body parts, a leg and a foot,
dismembered. Morning newspapers displayed the tenant’s picture: A
handsome, younger black man appearing in healthy physical condition. His
name below the picture read “Harrison Graham.” An APB had sheriffs and
officers and every other authority in the area on the lookout.
Harrison was known as “Marty” by his
neighbors. He was described as quiet and easygoing. Women tenants were
not in fear of him; in fact, he had done handy work for some, and had no
history of posing any sort of threat. As is often the case with serial
killers, his involvement in the grisly crime scene was shocking – even
to his less than upstanding co-habitants. Word on the street,
specifically from drug users, provided a different slant. While Harrison
Graham appeared to be mild mannered, he was also dealing some of the
more popular drugs, as well as participating in the lifestyle. He
received three hundred dollars each month in social security, but
appeared to be supplementing his life with drug money.
The victims were autopsied, and no
signs of physical trauma or violence were found. The first two bodies
had decomposed rapidly as a result of the climate; they had in fact only
been dead a few days. While the coroner’s were able to assess their
gender as female, the other victims’ were less identifiable.
During all this, the
Daily News printed a story about the relatives and friends of Cookie
Mathis, a victim. They discussed how they'd "known" when they'd first
heard reports that Cookie was among the victims. Her husband heard about
the shirt found on a body and knew it was his wife. He'd bought it for
Anthropologists were brought in to
dissect information from tissue and bones. Within a week, the public
would serve to be more aid in helping police solve identity mysteries.
The media was running stories about the ‘madman on the loose,’ as
Harrison was still at large. A husband came forward to inquire about his
wife, who had been missing for over two years. The roommate of another
victim told authorities that she believed Sandra Garvin had gone to buy
drugs from Harrison. She had not returned. Further, debris from the
crime scene filled in missing pieces: jewelry, including a heart-shaped
necklace, and three earrings were newsworthy. Photos brought in answers
from the public when relatives stepped forward to help identify another
Harrison Graham was still nowhere to
be found. August ___, The sought after suspect had four younger
siblings and his mother, Lilly, all living in the Philadelphia area. The
family put out a public plea for Harrison to come home. He’d been seen
at local shelters, even on a city bus, but he’d somehow continued to
Investigators continued to search the
condemned building, atop, beneath, and adjacent. Some bones were exhumed
from the grounds surrounding the apartment, but after a closer
examination by the coroner, these were animal remains, not human.
On August 15, however, another body
was found – the search had expanded to surrounding buildings, and in the
basement of a complex down the street from Graham’s residence, a
similarly preserved (wrapped in a blanket and bound with electrical cord)
human being was discovered under a what appeared to be a burn-pile. Upon
scrutiny, it appeared only the torso and the skull remained – leading
investigators to question if this was an eighth victim, or if this would
be the connection to previously found leg bones.
While the search for Harrison Graham
intensified, the Medical Examiner was attempting to attach names to
bodies. One female had been identified, a mother of five, Mary Jeter
Mathis. While the office personnel worked feverishly to piece the puzzle
together, Lillian Graham was receiving the phone call that could provide
investigators with a plethora of answers: Harrison.
On August 17 the phone rang at
Lillian Graham’s Philadelphia residence. It was her eldest son, hungry
and tired. He wondered if she might meet with him and bring him
something to eat. According to Harrison, his mother was able to talk
some sense into him. “Stop running, son. Whatever happened, we can work
this out. Just come on home. We love you. Your family loves you.”
Harrison waited at a street corner for the police to pick him up.
“At first, I couldn’t say it. God
help me, I couldn’t tell them. But the Lord hath helped me. I know how
sin is…it overtook me, lest it wasn’t me…”
It was getting late, but the
persistent officers continued to press the detained suspect until
finally he admitted that he had played a role in the murders of the
seven women. He had tried for hours to convince the men that the bodies
had been there when he’d moved in to the complex. Reluctantly, he would
admit to one killing, than finally relented and told the whole truth –
with a twist. It may have been his hands, but it was not his mind. “It
was Marty,” he explained.
“My mamma tol’ me to read my Bible;
and Hell hath no place for sin…but he done these things…I love my bible
‘an I hath no place for these things…he done these things…” Harrison
Graham, 1998 from Harrisburg Penitentiary
When Harrison was a small boy,
according to both his own version of his life and more evidentiary, the
research of investigators, his familial situation was not always sound.
At an early age, he was both the lover to and employee of a male pimp.
Troubles at home led him to the streets, where, for the first time,
Harrison claims to have felt “deeply loved.” He was introduced to
homosexual relationships and prostitution and also to drugs. In his
early teens, his mother’s own “spiritual revelation” was imposed upon
him; she dragged him from the streets he’d come to know as home, and
began to preach the immoralities of his lifestyle – one she’d been
utterly uninvolved in for a very long time.
Not even the most seasoned
psychologist could explain for certain why Harrison Graham became a
serial murderer; however, even a layperson could point to specific
incidences in his childhood and adolescence that were surely significant
in the “splitting” of his person – that of the loving and rehabilitated
Christian son, and oppositely the homosexual addict with an insidious
passion for the underbelly of street living. It would only be a matter
of time until he would develop a name for his altered state. Once
established, all guilt could be carried by one entity, leaving the other
“person” to live a life, free of the responsibility of both his perverse
sexual needs and drug habits and ultimately, his serial crimes.
It is both tragic and unsurprising
that among his victim’s was his former girlfriend, Robin DeShazor.
Graham stated in an interview, “I wanted so badly to love her…but I
could not stop my need to do the other things…I never liked the sex and
it got so much easier when I didn’t have to see her…” To explain,
Harrison somehow felt more at ease having sex with his girlfriend once
he had strangled her. In a sense, he has said, his secrets were safer
with her, dead. “She knew ‘bout Marty, ‘an his desires…I didn’t want her
looking at me that way and I seen God being angry through her eyes…”
Harrison Graham lured all of his victims, whether he knew them
previously or met them on the street, with drugs. Consensual sex led to
strangulation, which, Harrison explains, always shocked him in the
morning, when he’d awake to find a woman lying next to him, dead.
Harrison confessed to the police that
with his first victim, DeShazor, he was so shaken by what he had done,
and so afraid as to what to do next, that he simply left her body in his
apartment. It was not until he brought a different woman to his
apartment that he attempted to conceal her, by hoisting the corpse unto
his roof through a bedroom window.
During interrogation, Graham wrote a
ten-paged confession; however during his arraignment, the question of
mental illness was topic. Joel S. Moldovsky was appointed his public
defender, and immediately, the point of whether Graham had been capable
of signing his own confession aka death certificate was argued. While
detectives claimed that the confession had been procedurally sound, with
the suspect’s mother present, Moldovsky was able to successfully point
to due process conflict: Harrison, he claimed, was never told he had a
right to have an attorney present. In spite of the heated, emotionally
charged facts surrounding the murderer’s case, his rights were still to
On August 27, 1986, a detective read
through the gruesome account of findings during a six-hour hearing.
Harrison was reportedly agitated, rocking back and forth as the
detective read that the defendant had described maggots in his apartment
as “fur ball bugs” to a visitor. He “had to stay high all the time to
[ignore the birds eating a body outside his window.” Drugged and in a
paranoid state to begin with, Harrison was panicked when the police
arrived, literally throwing bodies into the back bedroom. Until this
point, he had staged the corpses of his most recent murders in the front
room. In a chaotic flurry, he hurried and boarded up the door and ran.
This, according to Joel Moldovsky,
among other characteristically bizarre behaviors, were paramount in
determining his client’s competency. Further, Dr. Robert Stanton, a
psychiatrist, evaluated Graham, citing an I.Q. of 63, which is
considered to be less than mentally competent. This, coupled with his
substance abuse and addictions, resulted in a man who, according to the
laws of the state of Philadelphia, was incapable. Harrison was suffering
from chemically induced auditory hallucinations, psychosis, black outs
and chronic paranoia. More over, a psychologist by the name of Albert
Levitt testified that aside from the defendant’s chemical and
physiological issues, Harrison was incompetent in fundamental academic
skill: reading, writing, math, and telling time.
In a rather shocking turn, with the
evidence to the contrary, Judge Edward Mekel still declared Graham
competent for trial. He based his opinion in part on the DA’s counselor,
Robert Sardoff, who had told reporters that he felt Harrison had been
utterly “able” during the initial confession.
Contrary to the prosecution’s stance,
Moldovsky was arguing insanity, specifically a multiple personality
disorder. During an interview with Philadelphia’s “Daily News,” the
attorney commented that Harrison Graham often spoke in a second and
third personality. “Marty” was an easy-going handyman. He liked his
mother, he was heterosexual and a religious zealot. At times, “Junior”
would show himself – this personality was most familiar as the child-like
male whose neighbors purportedly remembered hanging on to his Cookie
Monster stuffed animal. It was “Frank” who was responsible for the
heinous crimes of both murder and necrophilia. It was Frank who could
not stand to be with a woman, in brutal contrast with Marty, who hated
the sinful nature of homosexuality. Who felt it was a condemnation to
eternal death. Frank, however, was streetwise, with a desire for drugs
and harder core, homosexual relations including his own prostitution.
Again, something he had been introduced to in his own adolescence.
In fact, Harrison was
involved in a fight in prison and blamed his part on “Frank” which King
summarily dismissed as Harrison Graham’s ability to “fake it.” A
psychologist, Dr. Gerald Cooke, offered a statement that he had organic
brain damage (although he was not an expert on the subject and this
issue had already been dismissed by a neurologist). Cooke also said that
Graham suffered from "sexual sadism," which is not a mental illness that
makes a person insane or absolves him of guilt, so he seemed to be an
ineffective witness on key issues.
Ms. Graham was her son’s greatest
ally: She did not believe, she stated, that “Harrison would be capable
of such horrible crimes.” She reasoned that he was too simple, and too
non-violent. Even had he ever gone off due to the alcohol or drugs he’d
been accused of abusing, he would not have had the where with all to
plan such crimes, or hide bodies. As adamant as she was, she guided her
son away from a jury trial, explaining to him that while he was innocent,
she knew that the jury would be prejudice, once the prosecutors revealed
their crime scene photos.
Then, just before the judge’s ruling,
the prosecution entered a “surprise” witness: “Paula” – a woman who
claimed to have lived with Harrison. She accused Harrison of strangling
her during sex – causing her to pass out at times. She also said that
during the three years that she lived with the man, off and on, he had
bragged about strangling Robin Deshazor, and then having sex with her
dead body. Paula had been frightened that he would do the same thing to
her, if she broke off their relationship. His excuse for strangling the
woman to death was simply that she’d tried to leave him. Paula didn’t
According to her testimony, the woman
had endured rape, beatings and torture at the hands of Harrison Graham.
What was supposed to be a queue for
the state, turned out to be an accomplishment for the defense. First,
Robin had been beaten not strangled, leading to the conclusion that the
witness had lied about her former boyfriend’s testimony. Further,
Harrison had no history of long-term relationships; in fact, he had
killed his only so-called girlfriend. It did not fit the pattern of
Graham’s murders or “personality” to have maintained a three year
relationship with any woman, much less one that would live. If anything,
Paula’s statements that Harrison kept her in drug-induced stupors and
was often “using” himself only added to the stability of the defense’s
claims that the defendant was not in control of his facalities.
On March 8, Harrison Graham told the
judge that he was not responsible for the murders, and that “someone
else had done [it].” Harrison put his fate in Judge Latrone’s hands,
waiving his right to a jury. He was found guilty of first-degree murder
and abuse of a corpse on all counts. His attorney told reporters that he
doubted Graham knew that he’d been found guilty, or what the
ramifications of that would mean; he then directed his own attention
toward keeping Graham from execution. The large, black man listened to
his conviction, barely making a wince. Afterward, he told reporters that
“everything would work out just fine…” He requested his Cookie Monster
be given back to him, now that it was no longer needed as evidence.
Moldovsky was never
required to fight the good fight for his client: In May Judge Latrone
ruled that while he would sentence the defendant, Harrison Graham, to
six death sentences, he would first be remanded to prison to serve out a
life term. The single life sentence was for DeShazor's murder. She was
the first, so there were no other murders to add aggravating factors.
Graham was additionally sentenced by Latrone to serve six consecutive
sentences of seven to fourteen years each. Harrison’s mother had not
been able to make herself present for the ruling; however, his attorney
was greatly relieved, defining the judge’s motion as “Solomonic.” And it
was: by allowing Harrison to serve his convictions of death prior to his
life sentencing, he had achieved a life sentence without possibility of
parole. Latrone had taken into account the mitigating factors of
Harrison’s abusive, neglectful childhood. While some scoffed at his
compassion, it was never the less true that Harrison had learned to
adapt to unthinkable circumstances as a boy, and that in part, to
survive, it was acceptable to believe that he had developed altered
personalities, a not uncommon characteristic of broken adults which
stems from tragic, early childhood conditions.
King also felt that the conviction
was in “all interests” and protected everyone involved; the victims, the
victims families, and Harrison Graham, from Harrison Graham himself.
Until 1994, Harrison Graham was a
prisoner at Harrisburg Penitentiary in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. But then
the Supreme Court, after a routine review, deemed his sentence unethical
and illegal. The Court ruled that Graham’s life sentence be overturned,
and that the death sentence be implemented. He was then scheduled to die
on December 7, 1988. Judge Latrone was again in the position of making a
decision to let Graham live or die. He stayed the execution. The
murderer’s case seemed to spend much of its time in appeals, and in and
out of higher courts, until in 2002 the US Supreme Court banned the
executions of all mentally retarded criminals. Harrison did not meet the
initial requirements of the ban. As stated by a psychiatrist involved in
his case, “he tested lower than he functioned, so even if his IQ was
below 70, he was not mentally retarded.” But because, according to the
criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association that an
onset of mental illness occurring before the age of eighteen years
mandated the same relief from execution, Harrison Graham was permanently
off of death row.
Today, Harrison resides in a medium
security facility in Pennsylvania. His case manager described him as
“mild and non-violent.” He has received a minister’s certificate, and
continues to practice his faith – religiously.
It is often said of substance abusers
that once the drug is removed, sanity returns. This may be the case for
Harrison Graham. And faced with the haunting of childhood demons, and
his ability to deal with them alone, perhaps the security of his routine,
and his cell walls provides the structure and predictability he never
knew. And yet, when I called to interview him, he still told me that he
“could only do the interview if I promised to call him Marty…”
M RACE: B TYPE: S
MO: Retarded addict; strangled
prostitutas and kept the remains in his apartment
DISPOSITION: Convicted on all
counts, 1988: life term followed by six death penalties (to prevent