Prison staffers back clemency for inmate facing death

May 17, 2009 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ “I know he’s not the same man who came into prison,” said Bill Henry, a volunteer who has worked with Skillicorn for years in a Christian-based group. “The good things he’s done you can’t even count.”

For Skillicorn, prison deeds are all he can do to make amends for a life of crime.

“If I had three lifetimes, I know I can’t repay society for the things I’ve done,” he said in a recent phone interview. “But I think we have a responsibility to build up what we once tore down with our criminal behavior.”

Regardless of who he is now, or what he once was, the 49-year-old former Kansas City resident is in line to be the first Missouri inmate put to death since 2005.

Barring court intercession or a grant of clemency from Gov. Jay Nixon, at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, an execution team will bind Skillicorn with sturdy leather straps and inject chemicals that will paralyze his breathing and stop his heart.

He would die having never taken a life with his own hands.

But he participated in a 1994 crime spree that horrified many, spurred a national manhunt and left three bodies in two states — all innocent victims shot to death by an accomplice who may outlive Skillicorn as a resident of Missouri’s death row.

Their first victim that summer was Richard Drummond, a 47-year-old father of three girls whose act of kindness toward strangers stranded on the side of a mid-Missouri road was paid back with two bullets in the head.

Read the complete story at kansascity.com For that, Skillicorn, and his accomplice, Allen Nicklasson, were sentenced to death.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Larry Drummond, one of Richard Drummond’s three older brothers, who said he considers both men equally deserving of execution.

“I think they’re both guilty. They knew what they were doing.”

As a child, Skillicorn had two ambitions.

He wanted to be a nurse. And he wanted to play the guitar.

Standing in front of the television, he would grab an old tennis racket and imitate the musicians he saw.

He was about 12 when his mother died and his father bought him his first guitar.

His teen years brought with them a new hobby — drugs.

Skillicorn started getting in trouble when he was about 14, and his crimes escalated and he dropped out of school, said his brother, Charles Skillicorn, who is a year younger. Charles said he and his friends tried to encourage Dennis to spend time with them, but he kept gravitating toward the neighborhood troublemakers.

One day Dennis Skillicorn traded his guitar for a bag of marijuana. He also stole to support his drug habit.

On Dec. 2, 1979, he and two other young burglars from the Northeast area of Kansas City confronted an 81-year-old rural Jackson County farmer named Wendell Howell at his home.

They forced him to lie face down on a living room couch. One held a shotgun to his head while the others looted the home for valuables.

When they were done, the gunman told his partners to wait outside. Skillicorn and the other man later said they were waiting in the car when their co-defendant fired a blast into Howell’s head.

Prosecutors tried Skillicorn, then 20, for capital murder. But after seven hours of deliberations, a Jackson County jury found him guilty of second-degree murder instead. He got a 35-year prison sentence.

Authorities paroled him in 1992. He soon fell back into his drug and criminal ways.

By the summer of 1994, Skillicorn was running with Nicklasson, a 22-year-old hotheaded hoodlum who shared his taste for illegal drugs, including crystal meth.

On Aug. 23, they talked a teenage acquaintance, Tim DeGraffenreid of Blue Springs, into driving them to central Missouri to get drugs. When the car broke down, they burglarized a house, stealing, among other things, a .22-caliber pistol.

The car was repaired, but it broke down again the next day.

Drummond, a supervisor for AT&T, was driving by on a business trip to Kingdom City when he pulled over to see if he could help. He agreed to give them a ride to a pay phone. The trio piled into his car, lugging some loot from the burglarized house.

From the back seat, Nicklasson put a pistol to Drummond’s head and told him to keep driving.

For about 90 minutes, as they debated what to do, they forced Drummond to drive west with a gun pointed at his head.

In Lafayette County, they ordered him off the highway and into the countryside, where they found a secluded spot. Skillicorn took Drummond’s wallet and waited at the car.

Nicklasson marched Drummond toward a stand of trees, where he ordered his captive to kneel and pray. Then he fired two shots from the .22 into Drummond’s head.

Skillicorn and Nicklasson dropped off DeGraffenreid in Blue Springs, where the teen went into hiding at a motel. They headed west in Drummond’s car.

Three days later, along a desolate stretch of desert in western Arizona, they drove off the highway to rest. The car bogged down in the soft sand of a dry creek bed. Unable to free it, they hiked to the nearby home of Joe and Charlene Babcock. Joe Babcock offered to pull them out.

As Babcock kneeled and attempted to scoop sand from around the car’s tires, Nicklasson pumped four bullets into his head.

They returned to the house and confronted Charlene Babcock, who fought for her life before Nicklasson shot her too.

They fled in the Babcocks’ vehicle.

Back in the Kansas City area, Drummond’s family fretted. Days passed without word from the Excelsior Springs resident. Their fears intensified after authorities found his car in Arizona near two murder victims.

A week after Drummond vanished, police acting on a tip found the 17-year-old DeGraffenreid in Blue Springs. The next day, he led them to Drummond’s body.

By then, authorities had launched a cross-country manhunt for Skillicorn and Nicklasson.

The tense weeks-long search ended quietly 42 days after Drummond’s death.

A police officer saw the fugitives hitchhiking with a third man in San Diego. Nicklasson gave a fake name but provided his real Social Security number, which got him arrested. Skillicorn, who didn’t make the same mistake, was let go.

The next day, less than 20 miles away, a motorist saw Skillicorn hitchhiking alone, recognized him from news coverage and called police. Skillicorn submitted peacefully when officers converged on him.

In the aftermath, DeGraffenreid pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He remains incarcerated.

Tried separately, Skillicorn and Nicklasson each received sentences of death.

Skillicorn has maintained that he thought they were going to strand Drummond in the country long enough for them to get back to Kansas City. He says he didn’t know that Nicklasson was going to kill him.

To this day, Skillicorn says he doesn’t understand why Nicklasson shot Drummond.

“He can’t even tell you why he did it,” Skillicorn said.

Skillicorn never has denied his part in robbing Drummond and said that, regardless of his involvement, he feels remorse.

“I think about Mr. Drummond’s family every day,” he said. “I’m well aware of the fact, or as aware as I can be, of how devastating it must have been.”

In jail awaiting trial, Skillicorn found himself drug-free for the first time in many years. He also discovered literature from Set Free Ministries, a Bible study correspondence program for prisoners.

It began a new journey.

After entering prison, Skillicorn volunteered to help with the ministry program. Sober, he discovered talents like writing, speaking and leading. He started finding fulfillment from something other than drugs.

“Making a difference is a high in itself,” he said.

He fell in love with a woman interviewing him for a possible book. He married the former Kansas City Star reporter, who had left the paper after covering his trial, and became stepfather to her son.

He has continued his work with Set Free Ministries and even picked up the guitar again, playing it during worship services. He has helped set up and run a program to help incarcerated men and their children develop closer relationships. He volunteers in a hospice program to comfort terminally ill prisoners.

A book he edited, “Today’s Choices Affect Tomorrow’s Dreams,” contains essays, poems and artwork by him and other inmates on death rows across the country. It is provided free to juvenile detention facilities to give at-risk youths a firsthand understanding of what can happen if they succumb to bad choices made by men like Skillicorn.

“There’s no way I can bring Mr. Drummond back,” he said. “But I might be able to prevent some other family from being in the same situation as the Drummond family.”

He has been working on a follow-up book and hopes that someone else will complete it if he can’t.

The books are an offshoot of “Compassion,” a bimonthly newsletter edited by Skillicorn that features similar works. It has raised thousands of dollars in scholarship money for relatives of murder victims.

Those efforts are indicative of how Skillicorn has spent his time in prison, according to some former and current employees of the Potosi Correctional Center, where Skillicorn lived until recently.

About 12 current and former prison staffers gave statements for his clemency petition.

Their efforts were joined last week by Rep. Steven Tilley, the majority leader of the Missouri House, who called on Nixon to commute Skillicorn’s sentence to life in prison.

By helping other inmates turn their lives around, Skillicorn is helping make communities safer, his supporters say.

“I don’t condone what he did and I’m not asking that he be put out on the street,” said Sam Finley, a prison volunteer. “I just want to see him stay alive so he can be a positive influence for our society.”

Skillicorn says none of his work was done to save his life.

“I’ve never known of a person to get off death row for doing good things,” he said. “I’ve never been under that delusion whatsoever. I’ve simply done what I’ve done because it’s the right thing to do.”

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