Three decades later, the effects of synagogue shooting are still being felt
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2010 - It was supposed to be one of the most memorable days of his young life. And in fact Richard "Ricky" Kalina's bar mitzvah certainly was that, but not in the way he, or his parents, or any of the guests had envisioned.
On the day that in the Jewish religion signifies Ricky's passage from boyhood to manhood, the 13-year-old was forced to deal with a tragedy of life-changing proportion. It left one family friend dead, two others wounded and a neo-Nazi serial killer on the loose.
"It was the day that I lost my innocence," says Kalina, now 45, married and the father of two. "My whole life changed in a matter of seconds."
The day Rick Kalina became a man
Proud parents Maxine and Merwyn Kalina had invited about 200 guests to their eldest son Ricky's bar mitzvah at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel in Richmond Heights on Oct. 8, 1977. A reception at Le Chateau in Frontenac was planned for the evening and a brunch at the Kalina's home in Town & Country would take place the next day. A separate kids' party was to occur later that Sunday.
"I felt good about the bar mitzvah service," says Rick Kalina, recently recalling the sunny autumn day more than 32 years ago. "I read my Haftorah without messing up, recited the prayers and gave my speech. It all went very well."
Around 1 p.m., as the kiddish luncheon following the three-hour service was winding down, guests began to leave. As Ricky was saying goodbye to them outside the synagogue and showing a friend his brand new digital watch, he heard what sounded like firecrackers being shot.
"I had just said goodbye to Gerry Gordon, his wife, Sheila and their kids," Kalina says. "Gerry was something of a jokester so when I heard the shots, I saw him grab his stomach. At first I thought he was joking because that's what he did. But then his wife came running over to me in tears saying Gerry's been shot, help me. She had blood all over her dress."
Steve Goldman had been standing on the synagogue parking lot talking to Gordon, who had one of his three young daughters in tow. Gordon's wife and other daughters were nearby. Goldman heard a popping noise then felt what he thought was some sort of bug bite his shoulder. Like Ricky, Goldman thought Gordon was joking when he grabbed himself. But then he was lying on the pavement, bleeding from his chest. Goldman swooped up Gordon's little girl and held her tight as they ducked between parked cars to avoid more bullets. "She was yelling for her daddy," Goldman, now 62, remembers.
Ricky ran inside to find his parents. He told them Gerry Gordon had been shot. The Gordons, who had recently moved to Chesterfield from Creve Coeur, were among the Kalinas' closest friends.
Kalina talks about the shooting
"There was such disbelief and horror," Rick Kalina recalls. "This was long before cell phones. I remember running to the office of the temple, but it was locked. We needed to find someone to unlock it so we could call an ambulance. I remember people trying to get out of the synagogue as fast as they could."
Ambulances arrived quickly and rushed Gordon, 42, to the old St. Louis County Hospital where he died in an operating room about two hours after he was shot. A bullet had pierced his left arm and lodged in his chest, destroying his internal organs.
Another guest, William Lee Ash, 30, of Akron, Ohio, lost his left pinkie finger, which got embedded in his hip when he was struck. He was treated and released from County Hospital.
In all, five shots were fired in fast succession. One of the bullets passed through Goldman's suit coat, though he was not injured. "I hadn't even realized that I had been hit until a police officer noticed a hole in my jacket," says Goldman.
Franklin's day in court
In 1997, roughly 20 years after the murder at his bar mitzvah, Rick Kalina found himself inside a St. Louis County courtroom listening to Joseph Paul Franklin tell how he wanted to kill as many Jews as possible and how he had traveled from state to state to do so.
Kalina listened as prosecutors told how Franklin had chosen BSKI randomly from the Yellow Pages and decided on it after visiting some other synagogues in the St. Louis area. He figured the high grass behind a telephone pole in view of BSKI's parking lot was a good place for him to stage an ambush.
Before the shooting, he purchased some 10-inch nails, a bicycle and a guitar case, which he used to carry a Remington 700 hunting rifle to his hiding location. He made sure to scratch the serial number from his gun so police couldn't trace it.
When he arrived that Saturday morning, he hammered the nails into the pole to use as makeshift gun rests. He waited several hours for people to leave the synagogue before opening fire.
At roughly 1 p.m., after squeezing off five shots, he made his getaway on bicycle to a nearby location where he had parked his car. Then he drove south, never to be caught until he eventually confessed to the crime 17 years later.
"When they would bring (Franklin) into the courtroom, it was like the atmosphere turned ice cold," recalls Kalina, who attended the three-day murder trial alone, without friends or relatives by his side. "It was as if he had sucked all the life out of the room. He has the type of charisma that is just dead. It reeks of death."
In 1994, Franklin was incarcerated at the Marion, Ill., federal penitentiary where he first told the FBI, and later Richmond Heights police, that he was the one who had murdered Gerald Gordon at BSKI. He said a dream told him to confess and he always listens to his dreams.
At the time, he was serving six consecutive life sentences -- two federal and four state -- for four murders: the killing of an interracial couple in Wisconsin in 1977 and the killing of two black men in Salt Lake City in 1980 as they jogged with white women. He was involved in roughly 20 violent crimes, including the 1978 shooting of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, which left Flynt paralyzed, as well as the shooting of then-Urban League President Vernon Jordan, though Franklin was acquitted in 1982.
It took the jury 39 minutes to convict Franklin of the sniper killing of Gerald Gordon and 65 minutes the next day to agree that Franklin should die of lethal injection.
Franklin, who was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the trial, claimed after the trial that his only regret was that "killing Jews is not legal."
Aftermath of the shootings
Rick Kalina remembers feeling tremendously guilty and afraid in the aftermath of his bar mitzvah. "I felt a lot of kids pulled back from me. Friends I had (before the shootings) no longer wanted to be my friend," he says. "The anti-Semitism really came to the surface. Our house was vandalized with anti-Semitic slurs. I remember being called a kike. Within a year of the incident, we moved from our house in Crystal Lake to Spoede."
Kalina points out that 30 years ago therapy was something many people, including his parents, shied away from because of how others would perceive it. There were no grief counselors to help him at school. His parents, wanting to protect their son, didn't allow him to attend Gerry Gordon's funeral. Essentially, he was on his own to figure out how to deal with the tragedy.
"The world wasn't really equipped to deal with this kind of hate crime," he says. "The entire Jewish community in St. Louis at that point in time hid from this. (The Jewish) Federation didn't take a position or a stand. Today, the organization would set up a scholarship for the children of the victim or raise money to support the family. There would be counseling and help. But it was a different time back then."
Eventually, when he was in his mid-20s, Kalina did go to therapy, in part to help deal with the bar mitzvah incident. "I have issues associated with post-traumatic stress syndrome," he explains. "There are certain times when I feel cornered and threatened and my reactions are not the typical reactions."
Kalina, who now belongs to Shaare Zedek Synagogue, says he has a hard time picking up his older daughter from Sunday school. Last year he went to BSKI to attend a bar mitzvah -- the first one he had been to there since his own -- and found himself running to his car when it was over. "I didn't park in the (temple) parking lot," he says. "I parked in the street. There are still really crazy things (I do). And yet I don't want my kids to be affected by my fears and experiences."
Kalina says that until now he has declined to be interviewed about the BSKI shootings because "one of my fears is publicity and the other is that sometimes you don't always get what you're hoping for. It's safer to say 'no comment.'" But he is speaking out, in part because he feels too many people in the Jewish community still "act naively" when it comes to hate violence.
"There is still denial in the Jewish community about this," he says. "That in 2009 we had a Nazi organization hold a rally under the Arch and we didn't demand to know who these people are. That's crazy. They could be our teachers, our neighbors, our co-workers. Freedom of speech is one thing, but that stops when it hurts me and the people I love."
Sheila Gordon, the widow of Gerry Gordon, declined to be interviewed for this article because, she says, it is still too painful for her to speak publicly about her husband's murder. Her three daughters, now married with children and each still living in the St. Louis area, also declined to be interviewed.
Joseph Paul Franklin today
One person who is very eager to talk is Joseph Paul Franklin. Currently serving his death sentence at the Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Point, Mo., about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis, Franklin spends days and nights alone in a cell waiting to be executed. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, he remains in "administrative/disciplinary segregation for poor institutional behavior" and is no longer allowed in-person interviews with the media. I went to the prison earlier this year and spoke to Franklin by phone.
Now 60 years old, Franklin is eager to discuss everything from his interest in Eastern religions to how meditation turned his life around to what he says was an abusive childhood to a desire for female companionship. When it comes to reflecting on his deadly, four-year crime spree in the late 1970s and the repercussions of hate violence, he says only: "The devil had control over my mind at the time. I was out of my mind for real. It's been, like, 30-something years ago. I've changed a lot. I wish it never happened, but there is no way you can go back and undo something like that."
Franklin, who represented himself during the BSKI trial, waived his right to an appeal and requested an execution date after he was sentenced for the sniper killing of Gerald Gordon. Franklin had urged the jury to put him to death, saying he would kill again if he were released.
Some time later though, he filed an appeal, which eventually made its way to the Missouri Supreme Court and was denied in June 2000. Franklin says he had changed his mind about being executed because "that's not what the Lord wanted me to do. I get signs from God about what to do. Also, I'm into numerology and get guidance from the numbers." He told me that prior to our conversation, he had checked my numbers using my name and phone number, and they turned out to be good.
Franklin says he "got into white supremacy" when he was around 18 and "became obsessed with anti-Jewish literature." He even changed his name when he was 25 from James Clayton Vaughn Jr. to Joseph Paul Franklin as a tribute to Nazism; Joseph Paul came from Joseph Paul Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda.
Franklin grew up in Mobile, Ala., with two sisters and two brothers. He says his father was an alcoholic and his mother was abusive. "My brother and I would sleep together in the same bed when we were little. My mother would think of something we had done wrong during the day and get up in the middle of the night to beat us," he says, adding that he thinks the abuse he endured, coupled with his alcoholism, led him to become violent.
He says he no longer hates Jews or blacks, adding, "in fact, just the opposite." Meditation as well as learning about Hinduism, Buddhism and even Judaism, he says, has made him tolerant.
In late January, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster asked the state Supreme Court to set an execution date for Franklin after a federal appeals court cleared the way for Missouri to resume scheduling executions by rejecting a lawsuit from eight inmates over the training and competence of the state's execution team. As of last week, no execution date for Franklin had been set.
Is he fearful about being executed?
"No, not really," he says. "I just figure may the will of God be done."
The state of hate
Last November, the Jewish Light received a grant from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis to study hate violence and its effects not just among Jews, but also other groups. The St. Louis Beacon partnered with the Light on two of the stories, as part of our Race, Frankly series.
Ellen Futterman is the editor of the Jewish Light.