In cold blood II

Brooks Douglass was 16 years old when two drifters entered his family’s Oklahoma farmhouse, killed his parents, raped his sister and left him for dead. He survived, and passed a law allowing him to watch his attacker be executed. But it took 30 years, and making a movie reliving the tragedy, to bury his demons, writes Lois Romano

WHEN I first met Brooks Douglass 15 years ago, he was a restless 32-year-old state senator — the youngest ever elected in Oklahoma. Outside of politics, his life seemed to be a treadmill of small-time deals, but he was barely hanging on financially.

His first wife, a childhood sweetheart, had finally thrown in the towel when he sold their home, promising grand plans for a better one — plans that never panned out. He was trying to unload a garage full of latex gloves, another one of his get-rich-quick schemes, when she finally decided she’d had enough. He had remarried, but the same unfocused energy would ultimately contribute to the collapse of that union, too.

“I was just so angry, and I kept adding stuff to bury the demons,” he would later reflect. “The result was that I destroyed everything, including my relationships.”

On the surface, it could be anyone’s pained search for stability and purpose. But his demons were far more formidable, far harder to conquer — and had consumed his entire adult life.

Brooks was just a teenager when he watched his parents die, choking on their own blood. When we spoke, he could recite every detail from the night of the crime, but with unsettling detachment, as if he were a bystander talking of another man’s tragedy. Imagine if the gruesome events memorialised in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood unfolded in your living room when you were just 16 years old.

Brooks and his family were getting ready to sit down for dinner in October 1979, at their modest farmhouse in Okarche. His mother, Marilyn, a gifted singer, was tending to the beef patties and gravy; his father, Richard, one of the state’s prominent Baptist ministers, was watching football.

Daughter Leslie, 12, the reigning Miss Teen Oklahoma, was outside when a scruffy stranger approached, pretending to be lost. Brooks, just home from his car-detailing business, welcomed the man in to use the phone.

Within minutes, the stranger, an oilfield roughneck named Glen Burton Ake on a day-long booze-and-coke-fuelled bender, had pulled a handgun from his belt; his buddy Steven Hatch followed close behind, waving the shotgun they had just stolen.

They hogtied the parents and Brooks immediately, and proceeded to terrorise the family for nearly three hours. Marilyn begged for mercy, but none was to come. Ake dragged Leslie through the house demanding to know where the valuables were hidden. Along the way, they yanked out every phone — and ate the family’s dinner.

Ake took Leslie into a bedroom, where the men took turns raping her. “We could hear her crying and him jiggling his belt buckle as he raped her,” Brooks remembers. “He wanted us to hear it.”

The assailants eventually brought her back to the living room, hogtying her too. Ake instructed Hatch to go outside and start the car and “wait for the sound”. Ake emptied the six rounds of his .357 revolver into their backs, shooting Leslie and Richard twice, and Brooks and Marilyn once.

They took off with all of $43 and the couple’s weddings rings.

Brooks helped free Leslie, who crawled to the kitchen to find a knife to cut her brother loose. Brooks untied his mother in time to watch her die. “Dad, Mom’s dead,” he told his father. “I love you, Dad.” Richard never said another word.

Brooks and his sister survived, but they have struggled for 30 years to put to rest the memories of that night.

It has tarnished their marriages, crushed their dreams. They would feel relief when the men were sentenced to death in 1980, only to be consumed by rage when Ake’s life was spared at a retrial. They each had to testify nine times over nearly 20 years, their lives intertwined with those of the killers.

A few years ago, Brooks decided to leave Oklahoma, hoping to finally unburden himself of the event that drove his life. En route, he did something startling. He decided to re-create it.

I met Brooks again not long ago in Washington. At 47, the years had lined his face and thinned out his hair. He was a husband again, and the father of two blonds, a boy and a girl.

But something more important had changed since we’d sat down to dinner in 1996. He was remarkably calmer and introspective.

After law school and his stint in politics, he tried yet another career, this time in Hollywood, where a teacher in a screenwriting class coaxed out of him the story he desperately needed to tell. He decided to make a film about what his family had gone through, even casting himself in the role of his father.

These days, he is travelling the country to screen Heaven’s Rain for churches, law-enforcement agencies and national victims’ rights groups.

“I want people to see this as a story of forgiveness and strength — not just a true crime,” Brooks says. “It’s also about the choices we make every day. I made a choice to get up off the floor that night with a bullet in my back, no shirt, and one shoe. I made a conscious decision that I wanted to live.”

But to live, and to heal, he eventually needed to lift the burdens he’d carried privately for so long by inviting the world to share them with him.

Brooks and Leslie staggered to the family car that night, blood pouring from their wounds, and made it to the home of a local doctor with Brooks clocking 100mph.

They missed their parents’ funeral as they fought for life in intensive care, where Leslie spent her 13th birthday. When they were finally released from the hospital three weeks later, they were given all of one hour to gather some belongings from their home before it was sold and its contents auctioned off.

The siblings — emotionally shocked, grieving, and homeless — were then separated.

“No one was interested in taking us on together,” Brooks recalls. He moved in with a family from his church so he could finish his last semester of high school. Leslie was taken to live with distant relatives about an hour away.

They were never given counselling — and they hardly saw each other. They remember those years as painful and empty. But law-enforcement officials and prosecutors would marvel at their poise at trial.

“They never wavered, never changed their story,” says former district attorney Cathy Stocker. “It was remarkable.”

Leslie eventually became a teacher and school administrator in Oklahoma. Twice married, she hid behind the anonymity of her married names until recently. She wanted no one to know what she had been through. She was not able to talk about the murders without sobbing.

Brooks, by contrast, struggled with the narrative more publicly. He stumbled through a series of colleges, enrolled in law school, then ran for a state senate seat in the tiny town that had never forgotten his family and the horrific crime. In the legislature, he found a cause in victims’ rights. Touting his own circumstances, he pushed through groundbreaking legislation that would ultimately make Brooks and his sister one of the first victims’ families in the country to watch a convicted murderer put to death by the state.

But only one of his parents’ killers would be executed.

After Ake and Hatch left the Douglasses for dead, they went on a month-long drug-addled rampage across eight states, killing two more people. They were apprehended 37 days later in Colorado. In Ake’s 44-page statement, he takes full blame for the murders, dismissing his running buddy as a coward.

“Steve (Hatch) can’t kill nobody because he don’t have no guts to do nothing,” Ake told authorities. “Out of this here, I want the death sentence and I want the injection as soon as possible,” he declared.

Nonetheless, Ake appealed his conviction to the US Supreme Court — on the grounds that he was denied a court-appointed psychiatric evaluation to mount an insanity defence.

In a landmark case, the high court agreed and overthrew his conviction. He was retried and sentenced to life in prison.

As Hatch’s execution date approached, Brooks found he could not get his mind off the man who had actually pulled the trigger. One day in 1995, while touring the state penitentiary as part of his legislative duties, he impulsively asked the warden to see Ake. Prison officials spent hours trying to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t budge. Finally, they asked Ake — and he agreed.

What happened next stunned Brooks. Ake, shackled and sitting alone at a spare wooden table, blurted, “I am so sorry for what I did to your family. I wish I could do anything to take it back. The truth is I don’t why I did it. It was senseless.”

“I was totally shocked,” Brooks says today. “I told him that for the last 15 years all I wanted is for him to be dead. I told him that he ruined my life and he took away my family. But it was like we had a weird bond ... What happened that night controlled the rest of both of our lives. I told him I forgave him,” Brooks says.

The meeting gave him a sense of enormous relief. He hoped for a similar experience a year later, when he would watch Hatch put to death at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. I watched Brooks and Leslie hang onto each other as the lethal cocktail was released into Hatch’s veins. He was gone in seven minutes, with no final words of remorse.

“I was glad he was dead, but it wasn’t really over,” Brooks says. “I was still dancing as fast as I could to escape it.’

Brooks knew it was time to shake up his life. He declined to seek re-election and looked for a path out of Oklahoma, where the memories weighed on him. He joined the army reserves, trained for the special forces, and was deployed to the Middle East. In 2000, he was accepted to the Kennedy School of Government’s mid-career master’s programme. He met and married graduate student Julea Posey, and they settled in Malibu. In 2007, he enrolled in a screenwriting class and found his future in his past.

“He brought me two ideas,’ says his then professor Paul Brown. “And I said, ‘What else you got? What’s your story?’ And he starts telling me and I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I said, that’s the story you have to write.”

Brooks resisted at first.

“I was just so tired and drained from talking about the worst day of my life every day,” he says.

But he found that as he wrote the script with Brown, for the first time in three decades he was able to unpack faded memories of an earlier life — adventures on the Amazon River in Brazil, where his father had served as a missionary, and later in Okarche, where the family was treated as a pillar of the community.

“It was time to make a record of the good memories,” he says. “We already had spent enough time remembering the bad.”

The meeting with Ake is an intense and powerful scene in the movie — and in his view, the crux of the film’s message as well as a turning point in his life.

“What I did not expect was that it would release me from the anger and rage. I had my guard up my whole life, and it poisoned everything. By forgiving him, I could begin the process of turning my life around. It was what my father would have wanted me to do.”

Brooks insisted on playing the part of his father as a tribute, but underestimated the pain involved in reliving his death. “I just cried and cried — tears I never really shed realising it was the last day of his life. I just felt so bad for my parents.’

In one riveting clip, he intones the gentle exhortations of his father’s prescient last sermon, urging his flock to let go of past grudges. Brooks says he has thus far rejected offers from mainstream studios interested in distributing the film in favour of targeting megachurches and Christian broadcasting, which have been drawn to the film’s themes of survival and redemption.

He is in talks with a production company with strong Christian ties for a one-night national showing that would produce enough revenue to allow Brooks to pay back investors. He is also negotiating a book deal. (Acclaimed film editor Richard Halsey, who won an Oscar for his work on Rocky, is re-editing the film to give it a sharper focus.)

“He has a purpose,” says Brad Henry, the former governor of Oklahoma and a close friend from Brooks’ days in the legislature, who has a cameo role in the film as himself.

“He figured out how to turn something horrible into something good. He’s the happiest he’s been since I’ve known him.”

Indeed, after resisting offers for his story for 30 years, Brooks now sees the film as his destiny. “I know this is what I was meant to be doing,” he says.

As if on cue, Glen Ake died in prison a few months ago.

(c) 2011, Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC

Picture: The image used to accompany this feature is from one of the movie posters for Heaven’s Rain.

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