Letters From Hell

Robert "Gypsy" Comer, whose path to death by lethal injection was paved with bad intentions, sent a series of letters to New Times before his execution on the morning of Tuesday, May 22.

"I'm ready, and I've been ready," he wrote from his cell in Florence on April 29, "though I know there are some people out there who are going to fight me until they put the needle in my arm."

Comer was the first person executed in Arizona since November 2000.

Comer's missives remained consistent with what he had been telling attorneys, judges, confidants and New Times for years — that he wanted to waive any remaining appeals and be put to death as soon as possible.

Becoming a death penalty "volunteer" was far more of a legal ordeal than the 50-year-old killer originally envisioned. Along the way, Comer's toughest fight was against his court-appointed habeas lawyers, whose job it was to find legally compelling flaws in their client's trial and sentencing.

Those attorneys tried desperately to convince various state and federal courts ("Arizona's Worst Criminal," May 2, 2002) that Comer had been rendered mentally incompetent to make decisions about his life by his long incarceration at the Arizona Department of Corrections' SMU II unit, a super-maximum-security facility, where isolation from other inmates and other mind-twisting punishments are the norm.

But Comer had presented a credible case for his execution during a memorable March 2002 federal hearing in downtown Phoenix, telling U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver that "[this] has to do with me paying my debt to society. I ended a whole bunch of innocent people's lives, and changed their lives forever. I was sentenced to death. That's the legal sentence."

Silver concluded that Comer was competent, a key finding that moved the long-standing case ahead.

After years of other legal twists and turns, the infamous inmate finally landed on a gurney and poison coursed fatally through his veins, courtesy of the state of Arizona.

It is unlikely that those who weren't in Arizona back in early February 1987 can grasp the level of antipathy and horror that Comer's name conjured. It was then that the California native went on a reign of terror near remote Apache Lake, about 65 miles north of downtown Phoenix.

Then 30, a methamphetamine-fueled Comer shot a disabled camper in the head at close range, then cut his throat, and stole his possessions. He also killed the man's beagle. Later that night, Comer and a female companion (who would serve about six years in prison) came upon a young Chicago couple who were camping.

Comer raped the young woman after binding her boyfriend to the fender of his pickup truck. He left the boyfriend tied to the truck in the desert. He then kidnapped the woman in her vehicle (taking along his companion and her two young children). He continued to sexually assault the Chicago woman over the next several hours.

That vehicle ran out of gas north of Roosevelt Lake, and the young woman miraculously escaped into Tonto National Forest, practically naked. Bloody and bruised, she sought refuge for almost 24 hours, until passers-by found her along Arizona 188 near the little town of Punkin Center, about 40 miles north of Phoenix.

The next day, Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies, aided by tracking dogs, arrested Comer and his companion at a campground in Gila County.

Television cameras recorded the end of the highly publicized manhunt, and the heavily tattooed, feral-looking career criminal reminded many of the infamous Charlie Manson, except that this guy did his own killing instead of leaving it to others.

During his trial, which Comer chose not to attend, the prosecutor called him the "reincarnation of the devil." An appellate court later characterized the statement as excessive but not necessarily inaccurate.

Jail officials rousted Comer from his cell before his sentencing with water from a pressurized fire hose (after he had tried to stick one of his captors with a shank), shackled him, covered with only a blanket and his underpants, to a wheelchair, and took him into court, where he told county Judge Ron Reinstein, "Let's get it on."

The crimes for which Comer went to death row in April 1988 included murder, kidnapping and rape.

Though long known to prison authorities as one of their most troublesome and dangerous inmates (Comer's weapon-making abilities are the stuff of legend among correctional officers), records show that his last infraction came August 30, 2001.

In his letters to New Times, Comer attributed his marked positive change in attitude to courteous corrections officers who treated him with respect and to attorneys Holly Gieszl and Mike Kimerer, who worked on his behalf to expedite the execution.

But he added a cautionary note in a 2002 letter, writing: "I am not Hannibal Lecter, but I'm not that far away from being him, either, under the right circumstances."

Comer adopted a more pensive tone in recent weeks, as the likelihood of his execution became apparent.

"Executions are creepy," he wrote. "Imposed death — violent or at the hands of the state is wrong. Murder is murder, no matter the name you give it . . . I don't believe in Jesus, have no urge to tell anyone to go to Hell (I'll be there soon enough), and telling the families I've destroyed that I'm sorry on my deathbed, no matter how sincere I am, would just be written off as a load of crap.

"So, they will either forgive me of their own accord, or hate me. Hopefully, if they hate me, they will channel that to helping other victims cope. Wish I could help stop the violence. In the end, it's all so very stupid."

In this final letter to New Times, received last week, Comer wrote a postscript to his terrible life.

"Just between you and me, I'm tortured in my mind, in my heart for all the wrong I've done," he wrote. "No matter what was done to me, I had no right to destroy anyone's peace, anyone's life. How could I hurt, destroy like that?"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin