'Violent Act' follows killer's crime spree while relating its impact on the victims

February 19, 1993|By Mark Caro | Mark Caro,Chicago Tribune

A killer on the loose. A town paralyzed with anxiety. A massive manhunt turning up precious few clues.

Given recent events in Palatine, Ill., where seven people were found dead in a restaurant, a true-crime book with that scenario may seem like the last thing the world needs. But there is nothing pulpish about Alec Wilkinson's account of a man who kills his probation officer and then takes off on an interstate crime spree.

"A Violent Act" is at once multifaceted and economical -- a taut tale about a psychotic who becomes unhinged and the complex chain of reactions set off by his rampage.

Mike Wayne Jackson was a 40-year-old ex-con living in Indianapolis when, on Sept. 22, 1986, he shot and killed Tom Gahl, a probation officer making a routine visit. Jackson then fled, stealing a series of cars, vans and trucks and often temporarily taking their owners hostage. By the time he had made his way to a small town in Missouri, two more people were dead, and Jackson was "the most sought-after criminal at large in America."

Mr. Wilkinson chronicles Jackson's flight through witnesses' accounts and his own piecing together of the facts. But instead of merely spinning a good yarn, the author returns to Indianapolis and Tom Gahl's family to explore the victims' emotional journey.

Throughout, Mr. Wilkinson refuses to impose any false order or zTC symmetry on events. While Gahl was being shot three times and dying on the sidewalk, his wife, Nancy, "had no premonition of his end. Going about the errands of her morning, she never heard his voice in her mind, or saw a vision of his being in danger."

Mr. Wilkinson documents Jackson's development from a boy whose fragile psyche couldn't cope with frustration and the sight of his mother's killing chickens, to a preening man who acquired a heroin habit and found himself in and out of prisons and mental institutions.

The author provides a vivid picture of Jackson without pretending to get inside his twisted mind. But Mr. Wilkinson's fondness for conciseness results in a few too many gaps. On one page Jackson's abused wife, Carolyn, is moving under a different name to a new, unknown address. A few pages later, she is receiving poems from Jackson with no explanation of how they reached her.

Also, Carolyn and other characters have a habit of kicking him out and allowing him back into their lives -- not an uncommon pattern -- but Mr. Wilkinson never reveals what positive traits Jackson possesses that would cause others to expose themselves to his behavior.

The book's most gripping section comes when an apparently wounded Jackson "disappears" mid-chase in Wright City, Mo. The FBI seals off roads leading out of town and launches an exhaustive manhunt that is expected to last a few hours but drags on much longer.

As day after day passes with no sign of Jackson, the townspeople turn from appreciation of the tireless FBI agents' work to resentment of the intrusion into their lives. Meanwhile, Jackson takes on the dimensions of the bogyman, as residents frequently, but erroneously, claim to have seen him.

The detailed detective work and accounts of efforts by bloodhounds and an Indian-style tracker to find Jackson's trail are true thriller material.

But the resolution holds no sense of triumph. Instead, the final, moving chapter returns to the Gahls, closing the book on a sadness that will never end.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Violent Act."

Author: Alec Wilkinson.

Publisher: Knopf.

)Length, price: 226 pages, $22.

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