It was at his home in the Indianapolis suburbs, the same home where he killed at least 11 young gay men just like me. Their bodies were decaying in the woods behind his backyard as we ate hot dogs and potato salad in the kitchen.
It was July, 1995, and I had recently gotten my M.B.A. I was living in Connecticut, but was visiting my mother and stepfather, David, at their home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was close with my parents, and always enjoyed visiting them, but one of the additional perquisites was staying in their beautiful home, which I am not embarrassed to say I had helped them design a decade earlier. As a child, rather than watch television or play video games, I used to entertain myself by drawing blueprints and floorplans and cutting pictures out of House & Garden. When I was in high school, David used to tease that I was probably the only teenage boy in the world with a subscription to Architectural Digest.
Another benefit of visiting was the backyard pool, because I loved to swim. I could spend most of the day in the water. I prefer the ocean, but one makes do in places like Indiana. And a few miles away was a stable where one could rent a horse by the hour, but it was owned buy a family friend and I could go riding for free. I’m a horse in the Chinese zodiac, and perhaps that is partly why I have always felt a kinship. However, the weather was stiflingly hot, so hot that I didn’t even want to leave the air conditioned house long enough to go outside for a swim, much less torture a poor horse. More than 700 people in the Midwest would die from that summer’s heat.
David was a successful entrepreneur, and one of his businesses was an insurance agency that wrote commercial coverage. Some of David’s clients were interesting people, and he occasionally invited me to join a business/social occasion if he thought I would enjoy meeting someone.
David was meeting a client for dinner who lived on a grand country estate and horse farm in the wealthy town of Westfield that he knew I would be curious to see, so he asked if I would like to come along. It sounded appealing, and I had nothing better to do. Why not.
A few minutes before we departed, I darted out to the garage to start David’s big burgundy Buick to give the air conditioning a chance to cool the car down to a tolerable temperature. Even with the garage door open, it felt like an oven. I ran back inside the house, already sweating from a few seconds of the heat. I hoped the car would make it for the nearly two hours down to Westfield, north of Indianapolis without overheating.
On the drive, David told me about his client, whose name was Herb Baumeister, the owner of a small but lucrative chain of Indianapolis thrift stores called Sav-A-Lot. David explained that Baumeister was married with kids, but the family was often away at their lake house in the summer. “And I don’t like being there alone,” David said. “He’s uh…eccentric. You’ll have to pardon his quirks.”
“What kind of quirks?”
“Oh, you’ll see. You’ll see!” David gave out one of his big belly laughs and shook his head. I tend to like quirky eccentric people, so I was more intrigued than concerned.
David was not without eccentricity himself. He was a big man in every way. He was tall and overweight, but he had an even bigger personality, with a booming voice and boisterous laugh. He never hesitated to say what was on his mind and enjoyed crude off-color jokes. He got a special thrill from terrorizing waitresses and front desk clerks who had know idea how to interpret his loud “politically incorrect” humor. It was a game of ours for him to find new ways to embarrass me in public, and for me to feign even greater mortification than I actually felt. When he and my mother took me to visit prospective colleges when I was seventeen, he often joined the campus tour by loudly asking the guide, in a goofy face and a mock-hillbilly voice, if they really had indoor plumbing in every building. “Imagine that, Ma!” he shouted to my mother. Nobody ever described David as subtle or restrained. I can still hear his thunderous cackle. He wasn’t afraid of anything. He once told me, “Once you’ve been shot at by an enemy army over and over for a year, nothing else seems too bad.” He had been an Army officer in Vietnam. I disagreed with his views on just about everything: issues of politics, religion, race, gender, sexuality. Even so, I found his absolute certainty in the correctness and righteousness of his own beliefs to be somehow comforting when contrasted with the wishy-washy agnostic uncertainty of my own thinking. And he also could be surprisingly sensitive, with a remarkable intuition about the internal struggles of someone like me: small, quiet, and shy, someone for whom avoiding embarrassment was, and is, a major motivation.
Today, Westfield and the surrounding towns such as Carmel are largely over-developed with gargantuan “McMansions” packed right next to each other on tiny lawns chemically kept artificial-turf green, but back then it was much more rural and genteel: rolling meadows, pastures and fields, dotted with farm houses and an occasional large mansion set far from the road on park-like grounds. David pulled the big burgundy Buick into the driveway of such a house, marked with a large sign that read Fox Hollow Farm. Herb Baumeister’s home. A long winding driveway meandered through the grounds past barns, stables (I don’t remember seeing any horses), a pond, and a 5-bay garage, all contained by ranch rail fences. It was lovely. At the end of the drive stood an imposing but beautiful Tudor-style mansion, behind which was a thick dark woods. It was the kind of country home that wealthy people used to build when they wanted to substantiate their social class with tasteful restraint, rather than garishly display their wealth with one of today’s suburban crass colossuses.
We parked in the circular drive near the front door to minimize our time in the searing sun. A tall thin man with reddish brown hair answered the big wooden door, above which hung a half-turret of brown limestone. He was all smiles with a hint of toothy overbite. Horse teeth, I thought. He welcomed us inside and told me how glad he was to meet me finally, having heard so many good things from David. “But he didn’t mention how handsome and strapping the boy is,” he said. I remember that word, “strapping”, because I was far from it. I was five feet and seven inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. My nickname growing up was Elf.
When I called him “Mr. Baumeister,” he chided me and cradled the sides of my head between his hands and shook me gently. “I’m not Mr. Baumeister! I’m Herb! Mr. Baumeister isn’t even my father, because my father is Doctor Baumeister, and he is long dead. Long dead!” he said, breaking into a high-pitched squeal of laughter that went on much too long. He had a southern Indiana accent, which has just a touch of Kentucky in it. He was quite effeminate. He ran his fingers through my hair and said, “So soft! I usually prefer brunettes, but is all blond hair this silky?!” I did not know what to say.
His mannerisms made him appear awkward, as is the stereotype of tall lanky men. He had a habit of bobbling his head around his skinny neck when he talked. He would stare intensely into your eyes for a few seconds, and then look around the room, avoiding your gaze, blinking rapidly. He would grow silent at these times and seemed as if he were daydreaming. His mouth was glossy from frequently licking his lips. The iconic photo of Herb Baumeister that most people know resembles a mug shot. Maybe it was, because he was once arrested for a drunk driving hit-and-run and later for car theft. In the photo, he is staring languidly directly into the camera with pursed lips. He looks morose and insolent. He looks cold and uncaring, bored, ironic. Maybe he was drunk. He could easily pass for a serial killer, a sociopath. But I never saw him like that; the man I met reminded me of an affable but zealous church deacon trying to convince a new guest to attend services again next Sunday.
The living room had a beamed cathedral ceiling with a large brass chandelier hanging very low from it, in front of the large stone fireplace. It looked like a modern suburban version of a medieval great hall. David had thought that we would meet at “Herb’s” house, perhaps get a brief tour and maybe a drink, and then head out to a nice restaurant or a country club. But Herb had dinner all laid out on the kitchen counter for us: hot dogs in a steaming pot of water, peanut butter sandwiches on sliced white bread, and potato salad and a cherry pie, both still in their plastic supermarket containers. I assumed the man didn’t know how to cook, and this was the best he could do with his wife away. He apologized for having no vanilla ice cream to accompany the pie, but said, “We can make up for it with lots and lots of beer.” Cherry pie and beer? Indeed, the refrigerator was packed with dozens of cans of Miller Genuine Draft. He opened a can of beer for David and himself, and handed me a Coke. David, eternally in his futile fight with his nearly 300 pounds, always drank Miller Light beer, and it was the only time I saw him drink regular beer.
David laughed, and said, “He’s twenty-eight. He can have a beer.”
“Oh my, the boy must bathe in Retin-A cream. I thought you were a high school student,” Herb said as he poured the Coke down the drain. I heard those kind of “high school” comments often, long after I finished my master’s degree. He opened a can of beer and handed it to me. “Much better, right? Hey, what kind of music does the boy like?” After going through a brief list of possibilities in his head, he put on a CD of Abbey Road. I didn’t tell him Abbey Road was, and still is, my all-time favorite album. “Music for filthy beatniks,” David called it.
I was charmed by the casualness of our meal, which we ate standing up at the kitchen counter, and Herb was an engaging host, asking me all sorts of questions about my life. When David and Herb started talking politics, I did not say a word, because they were both conservative Republicans and Evangelical Christians. Being one of their dreaded godless East Coast Ivy-educated liberal elites, and a homosexual at that, I knew when to shut up when outnumbered. In Indiana, if you are a white man who looks at least middle class, everyone assumes you are a Republican. After a brief period of Bill and Hillary Clinton-bashing, Herb reverted to drilling me with questions, which got increasingly personal, even flirtatious, as he drank more and more. David tried to steer the conversation toward business, Herb’s family, the Oklahoma City bombing, the O.J. Simpson trial, the heat wave, the Bosnian War, or anything to change the subject, but Herb always veered back toward talking about me.
He wanted to know if I had a girlfriend. I did at the time, though I soon replaced her with a boy. Why didn’t I bring her with me? I said she came to Indiana with me, but she wanted to stay home and study. “Oh you came together? That’s not easy to do,” he said. David belted out a loud guffaw.
Though twenty years my senior, Herb had a boyish face and looked much younger. The only obvious clue to his real age was his dyed hair. He was a reasonably attractive man, and his flirtations would not have bothered me, except that he was married with three children and had just a few minutes before been espousing “traditional family values.” Also, it was awkward in front of David. Although David was always supportive of me personally, he was uncomfortable with what he termed my “lifestyle choices.” Being reasonably good-looking myself, I was accustomed to such treatment from middle-aged men (“straight” included), but it had never occurred right in front of my family and amidst conversation about “pinko” Bill Clinton’s “homo agenda.” “Pinko” was David’s term for Communist.
“I love beer so much!” Herb said. “Lots and lots of beer!” He was not exaggerating. He went to the refrigerator compulsively for beer after beer. With every can of beer he got for himself, he would also bring David and me a new beer, pull open the tab and set it on the counter in front of us. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care that we had not finished the first one. By the end of dinner, David and I each had ten or twelve opened and completely full cans of beer in front of us.
Occasionally, in the middle of conversation, Herb would dart out of the room for a moment, returning buoyant and manic, chattering uncontrollably. I had seen this kind of behavior before in college, and was certain he was taking cocaine, or something similar. Toward the end of our meal, David whispered to me when Herb disappeared for another hit of cocaine, “He’s blasted!”
At one point, Baumeister abruptly turned away and walked out the door. “He’s likes to pee on the lawn,” David said in a confidential whisper, rolling his eyes.
Herb wanted to show us around the house and grounds. As we walked, Herb began to touch me frequently, putting his arm around my shoulder, squeezing me as if we were close friends, patting me on the back, tousling my hair: “So soft!” He was very proud of his home ,and was eager to impress us. He reminded me of the nerdy kids from high school who wanted to be popular, but never quite made it. It was sad, maybe even a little cute that a successful middle-aged man should feel the same way. He often made self-important quips such as, “If the boy every wants to amaze his friends, he’s welcome to have them over for a pool party” and “If you work very hard, you might get to live like this someday.” The latter seemed to be directed at both David and me, despite David’s also being very successful in his own right. There was no hint from Baumeister of the reality that his business was coming apart, and soon would be bankrupt.
It was almost eight o’clock, but the sun was still bright in early July. We walked around the exterior of the house as he pointed out various features, but because of the heat we did not linger. The angry robotic chorus of katydids pulsed loudly in the trees, nearly drowning out the crickets in the nearby field and the blue jays screaming in the distance. For such a grand estate, it was odd how unkempt everything was. What had obviously once been beautifully manicured gardens were overgrown with weeds, roasted brown from the heatwave, and the scorched lawn had not been mown in many weeks. The tall brown grass was largely overtaken by wilted milkweed, touch-me-not, pokeberry and Queen Anne’s lace, and the shrubs hadn’t been trimmed. The air was perfumed with the lemony scent of evening primrose. Herb himself was wearing soiled khaki pants and polo shirt, as if he had been out working in the garden, but it was apparent nobody had been working in the garden for a long time. It looked like nobody lived there.
We were glad to be back inside. “Oh my, the boy is so sweaty,” Herb said pointing at my forehead and handing me a tissue. “You can go for a swim later. Do you like to swim? You have a swimmer’s body.” He looked me up and down. “Very nice.”
“I’ll be fine now that I’m back in the air conditioning,” I said.
Inside the house, rooms were furnished and decorated simply. Every surface was opaque with thick dust. Nothing looked particularly expensive or impressive, but everything was all jumbled and clutter was everywhere, as if the family were in the process of just moving in. In fact they had lived there for four years. Someone, almost certainly Herb, was a pack-rat who was very comfortable with a high level of disorder. Couldn’t they hire someone to clean this place up?
As he showed us around the house he said, “Julie and the kids are spending most of the summer at the lake, but I’m stuck here for work. It gets lonely. But fortunately I have some friends here to keep me company.” We had already toured most of the house and had neither seen nor heard any sign of other people. Then he took us down to the large walk-out basement with many windows and sliding glass doors onto a patio and back lawn. We could see the dark woods through the glass across the lawn. On one side of the basement was a large entertainment room with a bar, and on the other side was another room with indoor lap pool. I had never seen an indoor pool in a private house before, and would have been impressed if I had not been distracted by the life-size department store mannequins along the pool deck. “These are my party guests, the ones I said keep me company,” Herb said, once more squealing with laughter.
Yes, it was a little creepy, but it was even more sad and pathetic. I felt his laughter was from some terrible inner pain. These plastic mannequins might have indeed been his only friends. I felt sorry for him.
Herb held up his can of beer and poured a stream into his mouth from high above. “Looks and tastes just like piss, don’t ya’ think?” He squealed with laughter, choked, and spat mouthful of beer all over himself and into the pool. He tried to stop the gush by covering his mouth with his hands, only making the spray more forceful, and dropped his half-full can into the pool. This caused him to laugh even harder. “Oh my, I’ve pissed myself!” More crazy laughter. “Someone peed in the pool! Good thing Julie’s not here, or she’d be pissed.” Even crazier laughter. We pretended to laugh with him.
Suddenly I was overcome with fear. I was not afraid he would hurt us. At that time, I had no sense that he was violent. I was afraid, because I could sense that this man was deeply damaged. It is the same kind of fear one might feel when realizing someone nearby has a horrendous contagious disease. And Herb’s was a disease, I suspected, that I had narrowly escaped myself. Having suffered and recovered from my share of mental illness, I could sense it in others, and it frightened me. Of course I knew in my head that mental illness is not contagious, but I so feared going back to those dark days again that I had an intense irrational phobia of it. I did not want to be around him any longer. I was in a near panic. David could sense that I needed to leave, and we somewhat clumsily forced our way to the front door against Herb’s protests that we should stay.
Herb was slurring his words as he said how privileged he was to have met me and fawned over how intelligent and charming and handsome I was. It was embarrassing and horrifying. He shook David’s hand and said, “Thanks for coming down.” But to me he said, “Please come visit me again sometime. We’ll go for that swim.” He gave me a firm bear hug and kissed me on both sides of my neck.
“Well, that was weird,” David said as we drove away in the big burgundy Buick. “I knew he was strange, but not like that. Sorry for exposing you to that fruit. I mean, that freak.” As we left the driveway and passed the Fox Hollow Farm sign, he shouted out, “Free from Freak Hollow Farm!”
I bristled at ‘freak’, the same term having been often used against me as a kid, but then, David would not have known that. I said, “Pretty over-the-top.” A few minutes later, I added, “There’s something very wrong with that guy.” David twirled his index finger around his ear as he whistled “cuckoo”.
He then uncharacteristically went silent and stared straight ahead over the steering wheel without looking at me for a long time. He thought he had made a faux pas by making light of something that had been very painful to me. My struggles with mental illness were years before he met my mother when I was sixteen. We never talked about it directly, but of course he knew. I was grateful for his moment of silent apology, and wanted to make him feel better.
“A freak, for sure,” I said. “Somebody pissed in his genetic pool.”
David burst into laughter. “I’ll never drink beer again.”
We talked and laughed the rest of the drive. It was one of a few times that a long drive became a bonding experience for David and me, the most notable being when years later he flew to Los Angeles to help me drive a moving van across the country.
I had given Herb a business card at his request early in the evening, and when I opened up my email that night, I already had a message from him. He was worried, and asked to let him know if we made it home safely, “especially with all the drinking.”
Thus began nine months of daily email correspondence, sometimes several times a day. I didn’t like getting emails from Baumeister, but I was soon safely back in Connecticut with the thick buffer of cyberspace. The only thing strange about his messages was how normal they all were, as if he and I were old friends keeping in touch about day-to-day trivia: what he had for lunch, what did I eat? how hard his day at work was, what did I do today? a short trip he was preparing for, did I have to travel much? how drunk he had been the previous night, did I take drugs other than alcohol? On rare occasion, he would again invite me to visit, but there was nothing outwardly inappropriate. I always answered politely, because he was after all my step father’s customer, but my replies were shorter than his messages, I asked no questions, and I tried to do nothing to encourage further contact or indicate that I had any interest in him. Then suddenly, the emails stopped, and I figured that he had gotten the hint and moved onto stalking someone else.
I had no inkling of what that stalking entailed. A month after Herb’s emails ceased, David phoned me and asked if I had heard the news about Baumeister. He was dead, shot himself in the head in Canada, on the run from the police for alleged involvement in multiple murders. I was stunned.
“Alleged involvement? You mean we had dinner with a serial killer?”
“Seems that way,” David said. “I’m sorry.”
“No need to be sorry. Who could have known?”
There was a long pause. “Well, that’s all. Have a good night.” It was a rare instance when David did not want to talk.
It has now been more than ten years since I met Herb Baumeister. After David called with the news, I read with horror about Baumeister’s murders. When his wife and kids were away at their lake house, he lured intoxicated young men away from gay clubs to Fox Hollow Farm, and strangled them in the pool. He then dragged their bodies into the woods behind his house to rot, covering them with mulch, not even bothering to bury them. When his son discovered a complete skeleton and showed it to his mother, Baumeister explained to his wife that it was simply a display from his father’s medical office that he had not wanted to keep. A week later, the skeleton was gone. Baumeister decided to clean up, and started burning the remains. He was caught only because one of his intended victims played dead when being strangled, and lived. This fortunate man later led authorities to Baumeister and Fox Hollow Farm, where they found more than 5,000 bones and bone fragments from at least eleven men, eight of whom were identified. A spate of disappearances was solved. Later, Baumeister was also named as the “I-70 Strangler”, who had dumped the bodies of ten more gay young men from Indianapolis over bridges along the I-70 interstate highway just beyond the Ohio border. These bodies stopped showing up once Baumeister bought Fox Hollow Farm and had a private place to dispose of the evidence. Those twenty-one murders are those where human remains were discovered, but there were likely more. Experts believe he likely killed thirty or more people in total, perhaps many more, making him one of the most prolific and despicable serial killers in U.S. history: my dinner buddy and pen pal.
Some of the details were particularly troublesome to me. All his victims were the same or very similar to me in age, stature, sexuality. I had been to at least two of the gay clubs in Indianapolis where he picked up his victims. I wasn’t attracted to him, but if I had been drunk at a bar (which was common in those days) and a decent-looking charming guy offered to take me back to his fabulous mansion, I might have said yes. I could have ended up as a rotting corpse or a pile of ash in his woods. They were killed in the pool where I had been repeatedly invited to swim. He strangled his victims; he had hugged me almost painfully tight while he kissed me on the neck. His clothes had been dirty at dinner that evening. Had he been out in the woods, perhaps burning things? Had he just killed the night before? Did he kill again that night after we left? The final line of Baumeister’s suicide note, in which he complained of his failing marriage and business and made no mention of the murders, was, “I’m going to eat a peanut butter sandwich and go to sleep.” I thought of our dinner.
The horror eventually subsided for me, and for a long time, I did not think of Baumeister often. Every once in a while, I would read a reference to him, and I have watched a few lurid “true crime” and silly “ghost hunter” television episodes about him and Fox Hollow Farm. It was difficult for me to be entertained by such programs; I could think only of the victims and the families and friends who loved them. They were real people, not characters on TV. Mostly, however, I managed to put Baumeister out of my mind. Thankfully, he never became the household name that some serial killers have, so I did not have to hear about him often.
I felt the need to write about this experience now that I have had enough time and space from David’s funeral. He died of cancer earlier this year at the age of only fifty-six. I have been mentally cataloguing our times together and his influence on my life. David and I rarely talked directly about Baumeister again after the murders were discovered. When we did, I greatly appreciated David’s refusal to acknowledge or talk about Baumeister’s alleged schizophrenia. Schizophrenics are no more likely to be violent than non-schizophrenics, but I have lived with that kind of misconception and internalized self-contempt like a shadow most of my life. I wish I had told David how much I valued his restraint in avoiding that topic.
I no longer have a fear of mental illness, or those suffering from it. Perhaps seeing another face of it, an infinitely darker and more vicious version of it, helped come to terms with my own past, and realize how fortunate I was to have such relatively mild symptoms. And how fortunate I am today to be free of it.
Now that there is enough distance from those events of ten years ago, I can talk about Herb Baumeister with the sensationalism and fascination of anyone discussing the juicy details of violent criminals’ horrible acts. Fox Hollow Farm feels less like a true personal nightmare and more like salacious fiction, and thus Herb Baumeister means less and less to me with each passing year, like a fading two-dimensional villain in a scary movie I saw long ago. But my stepfather, David, means more to me by the day. I can still hear him shout, as we pulled out of the driveway that night, in his deep thunderous voice and bellowing laugh, “Free from Freak Hollow Farm!”
I have told all the above to a number of people. However, what I have never before told anyone until now is that I saw Baumeister one more time. I visited Indiana again over Christmas and packed my swimming trunks. I had emailed him in July to thank him for dinner, and he replied immediately, once again inviting me to use the pool. My mom and David had a pool, but it was outdoors and had been drained since Labor Day. So I emailed Baumeister again in December, and he said to come down anytime. “It’s lonely here with the family at their grandmother’s.” I lied to my family saying I needed to spend the day Christmas shopping, and drove down to the Indianapolis suburbs. I was excited. What might we end up doing after our swim?
But he was different. He wasn’t the smiling friendly man I remembered from six months earlier. He seemed tired and was very drunk in the middle of the day. He acted like he didn’t know me at all. I drank one beer with him in the kitchen, but it was difficult to hold a conversation with him. He didn’t look at me when he spoke and seemed completely lost in his thoughts. I lied again saying that I had forgotten my swimming trunks, and added quickly (because I was certain he would encourage me to swim naked) that I wasn’t feeling entirely well. I wanted to stop by to say hello, I said, but I would come swimming another day. I was disappointed, even angry at him. I never contacted him again. I didn’t realize then how monumentally fortunate for me that was.
ANOTHER UNKNOWN VICTIM
I was of course shocked. Baumeister was quirky and nerdy, but he seemed like a friendly, gentle man, and with his slight build, it was difficult to believe he could overpower a man 20 or more years his junior. I recall his skinny arms sticking out of his polo shirt the sleeves half-filled and loose. Then I learned that his method was to invite these men to his home and get them very drunk, possibly drugging them, and encourage them to engage in Baumeister’s fetish for erotic asphyxiation: strangling during sex to the point of nearly passing out, which supposedly heightens the physical pleasure. These young men would have been next to helpless. I awoke from terrible nightmares about Baumeister for months, and I sometimes still have them.
I have often wondered how the kind quiet man I met – and liked – was at the same time such a monster. It is impossible to reconcile. If I had to hypothesize, I would guess that his first killing may have been an accident. Maybe they all were. The sexual asphyxiation went too far. At some point perhaps he realized that the killing was in itself sexually rousing. I have read that sociopaths are often intelligent and charming, but while they are outwardly warm and friendly, they are in fact cold and heartless, with no conscience or sympathy for other people. They have the capacity to cause great violence and harm while continuing to go on with what seems like a completely normal life, with no difficulty separating these disparate aspects of their personality. Few people can detect anything wrong. A sociopath with a penchant for sexual thrill-kills would be an extremely dangerous person.
Nobody will ever know the inner workings of Baumeister’s mind, because he shot himself in the head in a park in Ontario. I’ve been to Pinery Provincial Park. It is halfway between Detroit and Toronto, with beautiful beaches and sand dunes on the shores of Lake Huron. Not a bad place to spend one’s final moments. He left a rambling suicide note about the failure of his business and his marriage, but made no mention of the killings. The last line of his note about eating a peanut butter sandwich and going to sleep sounds just like the weird, random kind of thing he would say. I never would have imagined he would say it before putting a .357 magnum to his forehead.
I went for years trying not to think about Herb Baumeister. The murders were horrific, but what bothered me most was the personal connection I felt with him when we met. He was quiet and shy, and sensitive about what others thought of him, just like me. He had a boyish face that made him look 10-15 years younger, just like me. He was intelligent but awkward and insecure, just like me. In the photos of his younger self, he even looked like me. Might I resemble him in other, darker ways that I didn’t consciously know about? I liked him. I admired him. I might have even been a little attracted to him. How could I not have detected the evil that was within him? True, even Baumeister’s wife of 25 years didn’t detect the depths of his depravity, but I was still angry at myself for not knowing. I didn’t want to think about it.
I don’t know why I’ve started thinking about Herb Baumeister more often lately. Through the years, I have seen occasional references to Baumeister on television, and I know there are at least two books about him. I don’t want to read them. He has never risen in the serial killer pantheon to the levels of others such as John Wayne Gacy or Charles Manson, the latter of whom may have never actually killed anyone himself. I have wondered why a relatively small number of people know about Baumeister. Is it because he didn’t wear clown makeup or carve Nazi swastikas in his forehead? He was an outwardly normal, boring family man and successful entrepreneur who lived in the suburbs and drove a Buick sedan. People who knew him well have given accounts of random strange anecdotal things he did, but then my own close friends could certainly make a long list of weird things about me too. But I have never killed or hurt anyone, nor have I ever had any inclination to do so.
My stepfather, David, died of cancer in 2005. He was very good to me, but more than anything, I miss how good he was to my mother, whose life seems to have come largely unhinged since his death. She can’t sleep without tranquilizers, and she can’t make it through the day without anti-anxiety drugs. I have had my own struggles with alcohol, so I am in no position to stand in judgement on anyone for their dependencies, much less my own mother. I simply wish she could be the person she was when David was alive. I also wish I could go back in time to those days. I am now a year older than Baumeister was when he killed himself. Nobody calls me “the boy” anymore or thinks I’m in high school. Looking young now means looking 40.
I don’t mean to diminish the terror that Herb Baumeister’s murder victims underwent as they were being slowly strangled, nor the horror of how their remains were desecrated and discarded. But I’ve come to realize that I was also, in a small way, one of Baumeister’s victims. I wish I could go back in time to those days, pre-1995, when I could have a silly crush on an older man and not even think about the possibility that underneath his sweet exterior he might be a sociopathic murderer. Because I do think about that now, all the time. That simple hot summer evening with Herb Baumeister irreparably damaged me. I don’t trust people as much. I am never not suspicious. Worst of all, I don’t fully trust myself. I like to believe that, despite my few eccentricities, I am relatively stable and normal, but then I imagine Baumeister might have thought that too. Am I really? How do we know? How do we fully know and understand the volcanic emotional forces that are building up beneath our thin veneer? I fear this in others, and also in myself. Thanks to Herb Baumeister, this fear, almost an obsession, is with me constantly. And now, unlike in 1995, I face this abyss without David. Many believe that Baumeister’s ghost still haunts Fox Hollow Farm. I don’t know about that, but it certainly haunts me.
I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago in a fit of anxiety. I poured myself what was probably my 8th or 9th bourbon of the night and watched a Youtube video of old television program about Herb Baumeister. I watched the video clip at minute 37 over and over again. I had not seen it in a long time. It was a home video of Baumeister two years before he shot himself, and one year before I first met him. It was Christmas, and he was wishing for world peace. “And if I can’t get world peace, I’ll have some of those red and green M&M peanuts,” he said. How could he say such a goofy thing when just yards away lay the decomposing bodies of his victims? It was deeply disturbing and I wanted more than anything to get back to sleep, but I couldn’t stop watching it again and again. The phrase kept repeating in my mind, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I don’t believe in God, any god, and I don’t believe in grace. What is to stop me? What is to stop anyone?
If only David were here to sort it out for me.