Gary Taylor's Reviews > The Darkest Night: The Murder of Innocence in a Small Town

The Darkest Night by Ron Franscell
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Jan 22, 10

Read in January, 2010

The good, the bad and two kinds of ugly

By Wyoming standards, the horrifying 1973 murder of 11-year-old Amy Burridge and the rape of her older half-sister still looms as a contender for crime of the century. As a subject for traditional, in-depth true-crime treatment, however, the case pales beside more complex and gruesome events. It remained a mysterious “who-dunnit?” for just eight hours and the resulting trial unfolded as a slam-dunk conviction complicated only by a half-baked, desperate attempt at an insanity plea in which the defense doctors even failed to declare the defendant insane.

In the hands of Texas journalist Ron Franscell, however, this case transcends the true crime genre to become a powerful exploration of good, bad and ugly. In The Darkest Night, Franscell nails the good of the two sisters, the bad of two criminals and takes a stab at the hardest part of the literary equation: the ugly that is easy to see but hard to explain. He delivers two kinds of ugly: the tragic ugly of a girl who died twice and the pathetic ugly of her tormentor’s disgusting survival. The result is a book that deserves its awards and stellar reviews.

The girl who died twice was Burridge's 18-year-old sister, Becky Thomson. The two girls were kidnapped from a Casper convenience store by a pair of local punks, Jerry Jenkins and Ronald Kennedy, who took them to a spot near the Fremont Canyon Bridge. After tossing Burridge over the bridge into the North Platte River to her death 100 feet below, they raped Thomson and pitched her over the rails as well. Although Thomson survived to identify her rapists and send them to prison, she never recovered from the emotional shock of the event and committed suicide 19 years later by leaping from the bridge at the same spot.

Franscell paints a stark contrast between the guilt-wracked post-crime life of Thomson as a victim and the unrepentant existence of the rapists, particularly Kennedy, who became a trusty, enjoyed conjugal visits and even penned a ludicrous, cowardly memoir accusing Thomson of stalking him. Although obviously a fairy tale about his youth as a legendary pre-teen reincarnation of both Robin Hood and Lothario in 1950s Casper, Kennedy's memoir actually sheds more light on the mental state of a psychopath than a dozen psychiatric reports could do. Franscell offers a literary MRI of Kennedy's twisted brain by summarizing the memoir while dodging the temptation for editorial pot shots. He recognizes that some jokes require no punchline. Franscell even goes the extra mile by investigating some of Kennedy's outrageous historical claims, providing a few flakes of fact that add more perspective to Kennedy’s blizzard of bull.

Although he now lives in Texas, Franscell is able to add another dimension to his narrative from the perspective of his past—growing up in Casper at the time of the crime. He had no direct involvement but still manages to inject a personal perspective without overreaching to give the reader an insider feel for the events. He describes the book as a memoir of his personal quest for understanding what had been an influential episode in his development.

In the end, of course, Franscell finds no complete answer to the question of evil’s origins. But The Darkest Night does provide an entertaining and thought-provoking portrait of his search.
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