The Mammoth Cave Murders
Quik Trip, Kansas City, MO
September 21st, 2007
“Who could kill all those poor children?”
I was buying a newspaper, apple and bottle of water from the local QT and the cashier proposed this rhetorical question to me, reacting to the disturbing headline on the front page and what also must have been the thoughts of everyone in the Midwest. She was an older woman, heavy-set with a face and neck crawling with wrinkles. An incredible challenge for a figure drawing. As for myself, I certainly wasn’t impressing anybody with my ratty hoodie, pajama pants, unwashed hair and unshaven face. An incredible challenge for the blessings of my girlfriend’s parents. Edith, her nametag said. Edith looked at me with an expression full of anguish, confusion and anger as if she was looking the killer right in the face at that very moment. Her eyes grew glassy and moist and I must have become a bit blurry through her rising tears and dingy drugstore spectacles. The thought I had right after she asked me this question had nothing to do with the news of the discovery of multiple mass graves just outside of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. I thought how silly someone as old as her looked in a bright red polo with “QT” embroidered on the breast. Maybe it was the contrast of the pressed shirt and her creased skin looking like it had been balled up in the wash and hung to dry on a clothesline in the desert, turning into a stiff wrinkled mass. And she saw these errant thoughts in my blank face. She could tell I didn’t care – and I didn’t, at least not at that moment – and she remained taciturn throughout the rest of the transaction. She handled my items carelessly after scanning them; setting my bottle of water on its side, letting it roll off the counter to crunch on the floor and slamming my apple down on the newspaper so hard that there was a blast radius of its juice now soaking through the headline that flustered her so. She looked away and simply pointed to the blades of green digital numbers glowing from the register’s display. That’s the total, asshole, her eyes told me. I paid in cash and let her keep the change for the take-a-dollar-leave-a-dollar tray. Grasping the apple, I fingered the taut and spongy area where she had slammed it down. I wasn’t looking forward to the pocket of juice that would undoubtedly explode in my mouth and dribble down my chin and neck. It was a Saturday and this was my morning routine: a short walk to QT, buy an apple, water and the newspaper and then take a short walk back to my apartment. The apple used to be a donut and the water used to be milk, but I was trying to get into better habits back then. A thunderstorm the previous evening left the world wet and grey and my baggy pajama pants dragged under the heels of my shoes, soaking them further with each step.
As I read that morning, the earliest reports in the newspaper would only elaborate, with admirable effort, on the sensational, yet less than accurate headline: MASS GRAVES UNEARTHED IN KY, SERIAL KILLER ON THE LOOSE. Yes, there was a killer, most likely a serial killer, but whether or not he was at large, dead or alive was anyone’s guess at that point. Below an aerial photo of the mass gravesites, both areas circled in red, a subtitle to the headline read: Victims of a serial killer. All bodies found were those of children discovered in two mass graves: one containing skulls, the other containing the rest of the decomposed bodies. Were I younger, shit like this being printed in newspapers, aired on TV and talked about by adults would have scared me into a life of solitude in my bedroom. But now, older, more mature and with a healthy jaded relationship with murder and mayhem, I just saw it as another drop of blood in the rusty bucket of American violence.
That first day, the article was mostly fluff, but it supplied the public with a great nickname: The Mammoth Cave Murders. Like a strong cup of coffee that only got weaker with each sip, the headline exploded and the article fizzled. In fact, the only information they really had was on the front page. The rest of it was details about how the gravesites were found, (workers developing land for a plot of real estate came across the remains when digging foundations for new homes) an interview with Michael Riddle, the owner of Riddle Investment Company, who was developing the land that used to be a trailer park (he said that he redesigned the layout of the neighborhoods so that there wouldn’t be any homes constructed on or around the gravesites; instead a park and playground would be built to offset the grisly image of dead children with a future of living, happy children, memorial statue and all) and other interviews with locals that were filled with wild speculations and good old religious country wisdom (“Well, God have mercy on the souls of all those poor children. God works in mysterious ways and those children are in a better place now. I know Jesus Christ, our Lord and savior, won’t let the devil who did this escape the hellfire that surely awaits him.”) As the days passed and more information came to light, the front pages and subsequent articles were beginning to gather the pieces of a puzzle with an unclear picture. At first the workers excavating the land thought the small bones they found belonged to animals and it wasn’t until they found the skulls that they stopped working and brought it to the attention of the foremen and then the local authorities. After the feds came in to help investigate and regulate a task force, six more solitary graves were found around the original dig site with intact child skeletons. All the skulls were found to have missing teeth, but every set was complete enough to crosscheck with local dental records to identify all 16 children. Of course all of the victims had been reported missing at some point, but the missing person cold cases that matched up with all the victims had surprising similarities. Sex (male) age (10-12), time of disappearance (June) and areas last seen (their schoolyard). These similarities existed in other cold cases, which led police to believe that there were more graves in places they hadn’t yet explored. At one of the many press conferences, the lead detective, Danny Dethridge, made sure to establish that this didn’t mean they were going to start digging up the entire state of Kentucky. A more tactical approach was needed, but there were, at that point, no leads, and worse, no suspects. There were one or two false confessions and the parents of all the missing children were all brought in for questioning, but this information only came about much later when all of their names had been cleared. Meanwhile forensics was taking a look at every inch of every skull and bone to look for clues or even chance DNA. And this chance DNA was eventually found. It was discovered on the teeth of one of the skulls (later, all of the skulls) and at a press conference the name of the suspect tied to the DNA was revealed to the public. Shaun Coughlin. But you already knew all that.
Mosaic Games, Overland Park, KS
October 9th, 2007
The day of that press conference, everyone at my work gathered in the break room so we could watch as the details of the case developed. The scene was the same all over the country, people glued to their TVs waiting for the next juicy piece of information and myself and the rest of the staff at Mosaic Games were a part of that very same cultural event. Detective Danny Dethridge up on the screen charmed everyone with his smart dress, colloquial yet elegant manner, genuine emotional reactions to every twist and turn in the case and just the right amount of drawl in his voice. His alliterative title and name was also probably part of his appeal, but I digress. At the podium yet again, Dethridge gave a concise summary about the aforementioned DNA evidence and presented the name of the suspect. Shaun Coughlin. On a screen behind him in a dark serif font underneath a mugshot of this same person. Shaun Coughlin. As if on cue, everyone in the break room transformed their bated gaze at Detective Dethridge to incredulous stares all aimed at me. The room felt silent, as if even the TV had been muted. “Greg, do you know this asshole?” Someone said this, it seemed, to break the uncomfortable stillness in the room. I’m not sure who said it, but I wondered the same thing myself. Did I know him? Everyone laughed, as it was clearly a joke, but that the suspect of these most ghastly murders shared my last name was enough to make me cringe with an unfounded sense of guilt. Then I felt regret for the apathy I displayed that one morning at QT. Edith was the first one I thought of when Shaun Coughlin’s name was announced, which seemed a simultaneously natural and perverse train of thought.
“I knew you were fuckin’ crazy, mate. I didn’t know it ran in the family.” That was my cubemate, Julian. After the commotion died down, he tucked his head down and locked his eyes with mine, saying this low enough so only I heard it. His acerbic comment was punctuated with a wry smile. I responded, flashing a similar smile, with my traditional response to any one of his jokes: “Fuck you.” And with that, what could have been weeks of office hazing settled down as most everyone didn’t want to appear insensitive about such a gruesome event. As everyone’s attention returned to the screen, everything around me became silent again. Still. Like I had strapped pillows around my ears and jumped underwater. And in this silence, in this stillness, the only thing I could focus on was Coughlin’s mugshot. He even looked like me.
Weeks later, anonymous tips, good police work and the stupidity of Coughlin himself all led up to his unceremonious arrest. Tipsters who knew Coughlin, mostly barflies looking for some reward money, coughed up locations where he’d been over the past couple of weeks. The police honed in on some of his haunts and eventually he got himself caught by getting drunk and beating up some random woman in a bar. Naturally, she called the cops. Shaun never knew anyone was looking for him, and most of the drunks that surrounded him didn’t know either. But in this unrelated incident, displaying the basest of human behavior, Shaun Coughlin, in a way, denied the American public a more appropriate and climactic end to the Mammoth Cave Murders. Police footage of his arrest and subsequent interrogation further exacerbated this anti-climactic atmosphere. Without shame or dignity his arrest went down like something you would have seen on a bad episode of Cops. Some sorry, old, white-trash drunk being strong-armed out of a dive bar by two officers, slammed onto the back of a cop car, cuffed and taken away all in a cloud of profanity, racial slurs and drunken gibberish. Just some asshole. When he was brought in for questioning, the police told him he was also under arrest for the murder of the 17 children they found near Mammoth Cave. Shaun was visibly confused. Brows knotting up, mouth agape. After the officers tried to clarify the situation the best they could, it was clear that Shaun had no idea what they were talking about. When they officers delivered what they thought would be the final nail in Shaun’s coffin, the DNA evidence, Coughlin replied in a strangely pitiable way, “Dee-ehnnay? Whathefuckiz dee-ehnnay?” His trial was soon arranged and Shaun Coughlin would face a jury of his peers to be judged guilty for 17 accounts of pre-meditated first-degree murder. The most publicized footage of this now historically short trial was of the reticent Shaun Coughlin catching the camera in his hypnotic gaze and smiling like a naïve child to reveal his dirty mouth full of ramshackle gold teeth.
After the trial, after Coughlin was on death row, no one was questioning the fact that he was guilty, but every news outlet and talk show had their own psychologists, criminologists and detectives come on to discuss a potential motive. Why did he do this? Here’s what they all had to say in a nutshell. First off, sometimes there isn’t even a reasonable motive to speak of, and there are a few reasons for this. Killers often commit suicide after a mass murder or after being caught, taking their motive with them to the grave. Those that don’t kill themselves sometimes package their motives in oblique and circuitous philosophies that have a basis in religion or conspiracy theories, avoiding any sort of logic to their actions. And then sometimes, like Shaun Coughlin, they simply refuse to talk about it, most likely at the advice of a lawyer. And even when we are given a motive, when we are given an answer to the question “why did they do this?” it can be so mind-blowingly simple or benign that there seems to be a complete disconnect between the motive and the crime. Everyone would cite Dahmer, even though he had an extremely complex relationship with his motives. But the most repeated theme was Dahmer’s attraction to his victims and his desire to be with these people and keep them forever. The logical step, at least for Dahmer, was to kill them and preserve their bones and body parts. So the conclusion was, motives aren’t satisfying answers because the reasons serial killers do what they do has nothing to do with a rational thought process and everything to do with their childhood and family history.
Meanwhile, there was still a police hotline requesting any information about other victims or gravesites. Detective Danny Dethridge was very insistent on finding more bodies and giving some peace of mind to some of the families of missing children. “We caught Coughlin just lying in the dirt of his own destroyed life,” he’s now famously quoted as adlibbing, “but he won’t let us dig up the answers he buried along with the children we still haven’t found. Family, friends, anyone. Please come forward. We need your help.” But you already knew all that, too.
North Kansas City, MO
November 19th, 2007
A couple weeks after this public plea for assistance and information, Danny Dethridge gave me a call. After I answered and found out who he was, the same silence and stillness that came to me at work the day he announced the Mammoth Cave Murderer’s name arrived yet again.
“Greg? Greg?” He tried to jolt me back into this reality.
“Uhh…yeah. Sorry. Umm…what can I do for you, detective?”
“You can help me find some bodies, Greg…what do you think about that?”
“You mean the Coughlin case?” I was still trying to grasp a tangible concept that would keep me grounded.
“I really don’t know anything more than I’ve read in the papers or seen on the news.”
“Ok, so you don’t know, then. Well, Greg, this may come as a surprise to you as it was so difficult to find and connect this information ourselves…I hate to be the one to tell you…but Shaun Coughlin is your grandfather. I need you to come in for questioning so that you might help us find the bodies of some of these missing children.” This revelation was indeed surprising, but it was only a quiet punctuation on my developing fears I had since the day I learned his name and saw his mugshot. In a sense, I was relieved to know for certain that he was or was not related to me. “He is your dad’s dad,” Danny Dethridge continued, “but I haven’t been able to contact your dad as of yet. You were easier to find.”
Grasping at this new topic, I was now eager to discuss something I actually knew about. “Yeah, he’s…well hidden. He’s in a skilled nursing facility, and…well, not of sound mind. It’ll be a while before you get through the bureaucracy of that place. Especially with memory ward patients. I’m not sure he would be any help here either. Holy shit…” This last sentence came out in an unintentional whisper and Danny Dethridge chuckled at my accepting the relation to Shaun Coughlin.
“Well…how about you, Greg. Can you come in? You may have somethin’ locked in that brain of yours that we could really use. You do want to help us, right?”
“Yes, but-” Dethridge cut me off.
“Let me tell you a story, Greg, then you can decide whether or not you want to come in and help, ok? Even if you say no, I’m gonna get you in here one way or the other.” I said nothing. “Ok, listen….over the course of twenty years, your grandfather abducted, raped and killed 17 adolescent boys. You won’t hear this on the news, but the DNA that led to his identification and eventual sentencin’ was found in the form of blood and semen left on the teeth of the children’s skulls. I’m sure you get where I’m goin’ here but let me be absolutely clear. Your grandfather kept these boys trapped who-knows-where and spent days, maybe weeks torturin’ them. Their bodies showed evidence of blunt force trauma in multiple fractures on their skulls and bones. There was evidence of fourth degree burns. Burns, Greg, that went through their skin, muscle and down to their skeletons. And we can’t say for certain whether or not he did this before or after chopping off their heads, but he sodomized these boys, Greg. Fucked their mouths until he came. Fucked them so hard his dick would bleed, you follow? We took a look at his dick, Greg, and it was the most horrid, scarred up, sorry lump of flesh I’d ever seen in my life.” He took a moment to pause and let this sink in. “Now Greg. We’ve found 17 of these boys. We think there are 5 more. Your grandfather won’t tell us anything, he’s just waiting to die. This story doesn’t have an ending, Greg, and that’s where I need to get to…that’s where you come in. Now whether or not you think you know anything and whether or not you think you can help, it would be an enormous service and an incredibly noble gesture for you to come in and talk to me, ok?”
I hadn’t taken a breath during his entire monologue. I breathed deeply, holding back tears and agreed. “Ok.”
“It would be great if you could come to Bowling Green, it’s where we’ve relocated the task force. We can take care of your travel expenses. Bring your sisters too, You can tell them the news, I’d rather not have this conversation with too many people. It would make my life much easier, and I’m already dealing with a lot, don’t you think?”
He had a way of dominating a conversation and making you feel like you’d done something wrong. Just one weapon in his psychological arsenal. “Yeah, yeah…I think I can do that,” I replied and then added in a slightly sarcastic tone. “I’m sure that they’d love to hear that Shaun Coughlin is their grandfather.”
“Well, Greg, something tells me you were already about 75% there before I told you. There’s the name, of course, and you know he looks a lot like you. I know you’ve already entertained the idea. If your older sisters are as bright as you, the news won’t come as such a surprise to them either.” He had a way of slyly working in compliments to build you up after he’s broken you down. Classic abusive relationship pathology. I would know. I’ve been on this same side many times. “And listen,” he continued, “there’s something in it for you all as well. As Coughlin’s only next of kin, your family could use a lot of protection and we’ll make sure to keep everyone under the radar. Sound good?”
“That’d be great. Thank you, detective.” See? He already had me thanking him.
“Great, let me transfer you to Anita and she can set something up for us. See you soon, Greg.
Detective Danny Dethridge was right. Amy & Jeannette, my sisters. They knew. Or at least they were probably 90% there before I told them. Rather, before my mom told them, she beat me to it. Jeanette was the first one I talked to about it and I decided not to call Amy after that because what was the point? Our conversations were always stilted and full of silence. But Jeannette told me she knew right away. Well, actually Amy figured it out, discussed it with Jeannette and then verified it with our mom. Our mom knew the whole time. When they said his name and showed his face, she knew. So she called my sisters to tell them just that. Shaun Coughlin is our grandfather. She didn’t call me, but then again we don’t talk much as it is, and my sisters are more or less our liaisons. They didn’t call me to tell me this because they didn’t think I’d handle it well, given how our dad was doing. So when I called Jeannette to enlighten her about our paternal grandfather, I ended up looking to her for answers.
“So what’s the story, then? Mom told us he died when dad was a teenager. You never met him, did you?” Before this there was a long period of silence due to my being nonplussed. And before that, Jeannette told me she already knew Shaun Coughlin was our grandfather, contributing to me being nonplussed.
“God, no, Greg. No. Not even mom has met him. You’re out of the loop because she lied to you.”
“That much is obvious.”
"So, me and Amy asked dad about him once upon a time. You know, like…kids at school would all talk about their parents and grandparents. And when these same kids asked me about my grandparents, I, you know, had nothing to say. Back then I thought this was kinda weird, right? So I asked Amy if she knew who our grandparents were. She’s…older than me and whatever. But she didn’t know anything either so we asked dad.”
“And he told you about him.”
“Not exactly…Aster! Quiet down, honey. Mommy’s on the phone. With uncle Greggy, yes.” I could hear the distant sound of children’s clatter grow louder and softer as her kids moved about the house singing, laughing, yelling or playing with noise-making toys. “Sorry…You know how little things from your childhood stick out in your memory? Like if it was something weird or traumatic or whatever?”
“I think I know what you mean.”
“So how dad replied to us was one of those things. It’s so vivid, Greg, I remember exactly what he said. It was me and Amy, right? And I asked him if we had any grandparents because all the kids at school have grandparents. And he looked at us like he never expected us to ask him anything like this. Like we were asking him how many unicorns he’s ridden in his life or something. Like the concept of grandparents was…I dunno, like a fantasy or something. But he finally responded to me and told us ‘Girls…your grandfather was a very, very bad man. But you shouldn’t worry about anything because he can’t hurt you and we’ll always keep you safe. Mommy and Daddy will keep you safe.’ And then he started crying, Greg. He got down on his knees and hugged us both. I could feel him shaking as he kept weeping. It was really bizarre. And kinda sad and scary too, you know. Like the way he said it kinda made me and Amy scared. Like maybe he was alive and he could do something to hurt us. People don’t say things like that if there isn’t an off chance that it’s true, right? So I told mom about what he said and she could tell I was scared. She told me everything would be all right and somehow, coming from her, it calmed me down a bit. But then for the next few weeks, dad was in a really bad mood. He would snap at mom all the time and yell at her. He’d yell at me and Amy too. Normal parent stuff like eat your vegetables and clean up your toys kind of thing, but there was this anger behind everything that we’d never seen before. Mom was on edge and walking on eggshells and I remember hearing them having these screaming matches at least once a day. One day he totally flipped out and broke some of mom’s shit. I don’t remember what, but after that she kinda went ballistic on him and then things sort of settled down. This was like…a month later or something. A month after I asked dad about our grandparents. Mom came up to me and Amy after all this and told us that all of our grandparents were dead, dad’s dad included, and that we shouldn’t talk about these people because it would upset dad. So…”
“I know. Sorry we never told you any of this. Didn’t seem like anything you really needed to know, right? I mean, dad chilled out and everything was pretty much cool after that so…I dunno. Didn’t seem like we needed to tell you all about the weird shit dad did before you were born.”
“So you didn’t know anything else about him, though? The topic just never came up again?”
“Yeah, pretty much. But now, you know…I guess what dad said made sense. He’s a very, very bad man. I’m trying really hard to keep this away from my kids. All the stuff on the TV. I don’t want them to be as scared as I was back then. And they have a reason to be scared, you know? We didn’t really. It was all so…vague, I guess.”
“So what do you think? He beat dad or molested him or something?”
“Something like that, probably. I know it’s a long shot that we’ll ever get to talk to him again and figure this stuff out. You know, dad that is. Not whoever the dominant alter is these days. Who is it, by the way? Do you know?”
“James. You ever talk to him?”
“No, I think I only ever talked to Dennis. He didn’t really talk all that much anyhow, though.”
“I’m sorry, Greg, is all this just way too fucked up for you right now? I mean it is for us too, but I dunno. You know…”
“Yeah, I know. I mean, I dunno. It’s like, unreal. Dad never hit us or molested us or neglected us or was abusive in any way. It’s hard to think that he’s carrying some legacy of violence and murder in his genes, you know? And that we’re part of that legacy too. But we’re not that fucked up, right? I can’t get my head around it all. I just don’t understand any of it.”
“Aster! Come here, baby. Come say hi to Uncle Greggy.” Jeannette would do this a lot, seemingly dismiss something I was saying to divert the conversation elsewhere. It always stung for a second, but I knew she would get back to what I was saying.
“Hi Uncle Greggy.” Aster was on the phone, mouth much too close to the receiver talking much too loud, distorting her voice like some old radio broadcast.
“Hey there darling.”
“Greg?” Jeannette got back on.
“Yeah. She’s not much of a conversationalist.”
“Well, she’s two.”
“Your little star.”
“That’s her name…so anyway.” There was a long pause where she was trying to recall the pieces of our conversation from a minute before and she continued sort of mid-thought. Sort of mid-sentence. There was something she wanted to say before she talked but she skipped over it to get to this point. “You know how mom keeps saying that dad’s declining mental health was because of fucking MK Ultra or whatever? Or that's what he said to her or something? That’s gotta be bullshit, right? You know. You’ve done the research, you’ve talked to the people at Summer Song. Almost every case of DID has a history of traumatic childhood abuse, sexual or otherwise, right? And with every other…what did they call it…comorbid thing that’s going on, it kind of all points to the possibility that this asshole fucked dad up when he was a kid.” She was getting angry. She swears a lot when she’s angry.
“Yeah…” I try to remain neutral and diffuse her building ire, but I’m wading around in this muddy swamp of my brain in the haze of all this colluding information so this one-syllable response is all I could come up with.
“So it kind of does make sense in that way. It’s fucked up, but it’s logical. As logical as psychology can get, you know?”
“Yeah…ah fuck, this is crazy.”
“I know, I’m sorry hon. But you can always call me, you know that right? Anything I can do, just let me know.” Right when she said that, I remembered Detective Danny Dethridge.
“Want to come to Bowling Green with me next week?”
“Ha! Really. To see the second, third and fourth cousins at fucking Beech Bend? No thank you.”
“Well, I thought we could see some of them.”
“Oh shit, you aren’t kidding. Why do you want to go to Bowling Green?”
“The lead detective on the Coughlin case wants to talk to me. He wants to talk to you and Amy too. And then maybe we’ll get him on the phone with mom at some point.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ. Um…ok, well. If it’ll help you if we go…”
“It really would. I’m not sure what he’s going to ask me. Or you. He said he thinks there are 5 more bodies that they haven’t found yet, but he didn’t go into too much detail as to why. Told me some really horrific shit though. Thinks we can help find the bodies.”
“Well we certainly don’t know anything.”
“He thinks we might. Not in an accusing way, though. Like we might have some insight or something. Some clues in between the lines of our lives that we don’t know about. I’m sure if he asks the right questions, he can get the information he needs. At least that’s how they do it on the procedurals and those Dateline specials.”
“Is that what you’re watching nowadays?”
“Anything that my rabbit ears can pick up.”
“Seriously Greg, I will pay for your cable.” Jeannette and Amy would say things like this often. They would say things about how they would pay for some amenity that I couldn’t afford. There was always an equal amount of pity, condescension and love mixed into this complex verbal cocktail. The things that brought them happiness - bought them happiness - they wanted to pay for me to have those same things. I declined most of the time, but do owe them some credit for improving my life in certain arenas. They got me my job, more or less, and always gave me their hand-me-down cars. But I have to draw the line somewhere. I don’t want to be indebted to them too much, even if they are favors.
“Nah, I’m fine, thanks though. I’m buried in books most of the time anyway. That and video games.”
“Of course, of course. You never change, Greg. So anyway, what are the details for this Bowling Green road trip?”
I told Jeannette the details and she told me that she would work it out with the family. It would turn out that her kids and husband all took time off so that they could come meet us before we talked with the detective. A sort of impromptu family reunion was in the making and there was something about it that was comforting amidst the heavier obligations at hand in the dark rising tide of this new reality that included the fact that I was related to a serial killer. I know Danny Dethridge would have a lot of questions for us in his search for 5 missing bodies. I had a lot of questions too, but about what sort of fucked up genes were laying dormant in my DNA and about how the cycle of violence somehow ended with my dad. He very well may have had the answers to our questions a long time ago, but by now they’ve been buried in the dark folds of his brain, lost forever to the shifting alters of his dissociative identity disorder and all their complex and fabricated histories. Danny and me, we’re both relying on my dad to give us and ending to a story. So I’ll just have to listen to him, navigate through his layered realities and dig up the bones of his truth so that Danny and I can understand the skeletal beast that’s going to give us some answers.