Losing Control: Rampage in the Ozarks
Welcome to Crime Raven; true crimes, real-life stories from law enforcement, and issues crime fighters face. This podcast highlights crime researched by retired Detective Sergeant Mark Rein, using publicly available information, court records, and personal recollections. Content may be graphic, disturbing, or violent. Listener discretion is advised. Suspects are considered innocent until found guilty in a court of law.
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The master sat in his armchair in the living room, surveying the festive scene. The ordinarily austere concrete block walls had decorations taped to them - coloring sheets from the youngest daughter; garlands strung from the corners, drooping across the sides of the rooms. That always reminded him of olden days women in their feather boas. Across from him in the far corner was the Christmas tree the kids and wife had trimmed with colorful ornaments and tinsel. The shiny pieces scattered light from a thousand tiny colored bulbs, a garish festive cacophony of reflections when room lights were low. The master thought of the effective as chaos, but it was a good type of chaos as he thought about closing out 1987.
Just off the living room, the four youngest wished the master a good day as they filed out the door for school. "Okay. Last day, see you later." He smiled and watched them go. He planned a big day, which would only start when they were gone. He waited at the door until he heard the confirmatory sound of the car engine turning over and the crunch of tires on gravel. Like many parents, the master sighed, happy they would be out of his hair for at least a few hours.
The master stood for several minutes in the middle of the living room, staring at the wall as if lost in thought. Then the spell broke. He nodded briskly and walked to his side door. Just outside, leaning against the wall, he picked up a metal rod that he'd pre-staged earlier that morning. He walked deliberately, creeping quietly down the hall as he listened for activity. He heard nothing. It was still early. They were asleep. The master opened one of the doors off the hall just to crack. Inside his namesake lay in a tangle of bedclothes. Daylight was just beginning to illuminate the room through the opaque curtains. The master stared for a moment. Then in one fluid movement, he stepped in, raised the metal rod like a short sword, swinging it in an arc that ended against the young man's skull. The effect was not as devastating as the master had hoped. Junior jerked back and let out a bellowing moan, instinctively trying to scramble away from the threat as his brain rebooted and roused. The master immediately followed the first blow with several more. These made less potent by the target's movement. One blow knocked junior down as he tried to stand, and he collapsed dazed on the floor beside the bed. The master felt a sense of urgency, aware that the others in the house were waking to the family's new reality. With this in mind, the master drew his pistol and shot the boy in the head.
Satisfied that the eldest was dead, the master turned and moved quickly down the hall into the wife's bedroom. They met face to face in the doorway. Holding the three-year-old, the wife cowered and begged as she retreated into the corner of the room. The master gave her a wicked, triumphant smile as he raised the pistol and fired two bullets into her skull. The
ringing in his ears only overwhelmed the toddler screaming for a few seconds. He grabbed her as she ferociously clung to her grandmother's flaccid body in her panic, ignoring the bloody mess she was spreading. No matter. The master viciously ripped the girl away. He wrapped a cord around her tiny neck and cinched it tightly.
The master checked all the corpses. When he convinced himself they were all really, truly dead; he carted them out back. Over the last several weeks, the master had made his kids dig an enormous new outhouse pit. From his chair inside, the master had listened to them through an open window, bitterly complaining about the size of the pit he'd demanded. Well, now they know why.
Without ceremony, he dropped the woman, the child, and the eldest into the bottom of the pit. He doused the pile of bodies with kerosene to mask future odors and covered the hole with metal roofing sheets. With the morning's work done, the master retrieved a beer from the fridge and sat in his chair in the living room, and waited.
Midafternoon found the master still on his throne when he heard the familiar sound of wheels, grinding gravel. He jumped up and rushed outside as the kids pulled up. He waved his arms, hands down, motioning them to stay where they were. The front window rolled down as he approached. And there was a nervous smattering of "hi daddy,” greeting him, accompanied by confused looks. Smiling broadly, the master said, " Hey, everybody. Stay seated where you are and wait. I have a surprise for y'all, and I wanna give it to you one at a time."
The master gauged their attitudes, noting that the two youngest girls looked surprised and excited. It was Christmas, after all. The older boy and the oldest girl were smiling, but their eyes held suspicion. "Come on, Loretta, you're first," he said. Suspicion turned nervous as she stepped out from behind the wheel and followed her father. As they got to the door, the master stepped aside, holding the door open and smiling. With exaggerated chivalry, he bowed deeply, sweeping his free arm in an arc, palm showing her inside. He closed the door talking loud enough so that she couldn't hear him throw the deadbolt. The girl looked back, and the master gestured for her to proceed across the room. "It's back there," he said, emphasizing with a tilt of his head. As she turned away, the master threw the cord around her neck and whipped it tight, effectively clotheslining her. She fell to her back, the snare already inescapably tight. The master followed her to the floor as she fell, kneeling over her and then on her, pinning her down as she struggled. She tried to pull the ligature away to loosen it. When that didn't work, she tried to strike out, but the position was awkward, and he was too close for her blows to be effective. As the darkness took her, she tried to beg to look pleadingly into her father's eyes, but his face was slack, his eyes dark and glassy, like a shark. The master held the garotte tight and watched as she stopped struggling; her face turned purple, then convulsions, then everything slackened, and he was alone. When the master was certain, she was dead. He dragged her to a staging area.
He repeated the process three more times. All went according to plan. When the master's children were stacked in the staging area, and he was sure they were all dead, he carted them off one by one, retracing steps from earlier in the day. Standing over the mouth of the pit, the master surveyed his incomplete work. Most of his close family members lay in the chaotic pile below. The wife, even in death, irritated him. She’d come to rest on her back off to this side. It seemed she was glaring up at him through cloudy eyes, vacant yet accusatory, nonetheless. He poured in more kerosene, pushed in the mounded dirt, and re-covered everything with the sheet metal.
It was early evening by the time the job was done. The Simmons house was darker and quieter than usual. The master, the patriarch of the Simmons clan set back in his chair. He had a while to wait. The next day was the Eve of Christmas Eve. It was going to be a peaceful holiday
On Saturday, the 26th of December, the master was waiting when the first of his adult children arrived for the Christmas visit. He greeted them in the driveway, motioning and saying that everyone was waiting inside. The master followed the couple up towards the house. Without warning, he pulled a pistol from his pocket and put a bullet through the back of the son's skull. He followed by putting five bullets into the daughter-in-law's head. And as the parents lay on the ground, fighting against death, the master knelt over the screaming baby and choked the life out of him.
The master pulled the bodies inside, positioning the parents on the floor of the dining room near the Christmas tree. He wrapped the baby in plastic and placed him in the trunk of one of the derelict cars in the backyard. Then he retraced his steps to clean and reset the scene.
When the next guests arrived, the master repeated the procedure from earlier. Greeting them at the car, ushering them towards the house, shooting the two adults, and manually strangling the children. First, the seven-year-old to keep her from running away while the one-year-old screamed and wandered between his parents as they bled out. Then it was the little boy's turn. When all four were dead, the master packed the baby, like the other one entombing him in the trunk of one of the abandoned cars. The master haul the three remaining bodies into the house, positioning one on the dining room floor next to the others; one in a back bedroom; and he put the daughter on the dining room table and covered her with a shroud.
It was midday on Saturday. Seven of the master's subjects lay in the ground behind the house. Four lay in the dining room. Two in the trunks of his cars and one in a back bedroom. Everything was going according to plan. He cleaned up and ran some errands. When he returned, the master spent time with his guests.
On Monday, December 28th, the master drove into town, first stopping in front of a business bearing the sign Peel and Eddy Law Firm. As the master stepped through the front door, an attractive young woman looked up from the reception desk. When she saw the master, her smile melted and was replaced with apprehension, then fear. The master used the moment of surprise to close the distance between the door and the desk. He pulled his pistol and shot the woman four times in the head. Then walked back to his car.
The second stop was at the industrial yard of the Taylor Oil Company. The master walked through the lot, scanning. When he didn't see whom he was looking for in the yard, he proceeded to the office building. Once inside, the master saw whom he was looking for, standing with another man. The second guy looked like he could interfere. No matter. As the master approached, the target greeted him. The only warmth in the response was the master's gun barrel. He left both men bleeding on the floor.
The Sinclair Mini Mart, about five minutes from Taylor Oil, was the third on the list. As usual, the day clerk was behind the register. The owner was off to the side, sitting at one of the tables and talking to someone. They greeted the master as he stepped in. He responded by pulling out his gun and firing a round over the register. The bullet hit the cashier in the head, and she collapsed to the floor. The owner immediately stood and grabbed the only weapon in reach - a chair. He whipped the chair overhead, launching it at the master, who simultaneously fired his pistol. The range was only four feet, and the bullet hit the man in the head, causing him to fall to the floor with a gushing head wound. The unknown man began throwing cans of soda at the shooter. The master having no quarrel with the second man, walked back to his car and drove away.
Satisfied with the mission so far, the master drove the short distance to the office of Woodline Freight Company. Once inside, he had no trouble finding his target. He walked briskly up to the woman, pulled his pistol, and shot her four times in the head and chest. She collapsed to the floor. He paused. There was satisfaction in watching the pool of blood slowly expand around her upper body. When the master finally turned away, he felt spent. There was a second woman in the office, trapped behind her desk as she had a dazed deer in the headlights look. The master smiled his most magnanimous smile; shaking his head, he pulled up a chair close to her desk and sat. Speaking softly, the master angled his head toward the bloody mess on the floor and told her that he was there to kill her. He added in a reassuring tone that he was finished. He'd gotten everyone who'd wanted to hurt him.
In foothills along the Southwestern edge of the Ozark mountains, the region is a knitting of small towns, including Russellville, about 30,000 people and growing, and the much smaller community of Dover, about eight miles north of Russellville.
It's certainly not a place accustomed to violent crime on a large scale, other than the occasional homicide. With the succession of calls that hit Pope County 911 center on the morning of December 28th, 1987, it seemed to the first responders like the world had gone crazy.
The first call was from the offices of the Peel and Eddy Law Firm. A woman had been shot. Help had barely arrived at that location when the next call came in. Two shooting victims at nearby Taylor Oil. Cops and paramedics arriving at Taylor oil were stunned when they recognized one of their own, firefighter Jim Chaffin. Jim had taken a bullet through the eye and was beyond their help. There was only a brief reprieve from the calls until the third location was broadcast. Two shot at the Sinclair Mini Mart, four miles away, injuring Roberta Woolery and David Salyer. This time, the callers were able to put a name to the chaos, a former employee, Ronald Gene Simmons,
Linking the shootings together, authorities now knew for whom they were looking. Although almost no one knew him personally. Having a name didn't prevent the fourth call for help at Woodline motor freight, where Joyce Butts was reportedly shot. There was a surprising postscript to that call. The suspect was still on scene and waiting for the police.
Police arrived at Woodline freight, expecting a gun battle with a man who'd been on a four-stop shooting rampage. They were surprised when the man, a normal-looking, overweight, balding white guy, came out, obeyed commands, and submitted to arrest.
Once Simmons was in custody, the scene was secure, and Joyce Butts had been transported to the hospital, the officers couldn't help but reflect on the last hour and a half. The crazy leapfrog from one scene to the next, the entire time, a growing recognition that a reckoning with the man responsible was coming. Then for it to end without a deadly confrontation seemed, well, it seemed like there was a shoe still yet to drop.
As the smoke cleared, the scenes were processed, and the blood stains began to get washed away, one of the investigators thought to ask a critical question. Who knows something about this Simmons? The guy had worked at the places he targeted and presumably had beef with people there. However, no one knew anything about his kin. Has anybody talked to any of them? From the vehicle registration and talking to coworkers, Simmons lived on a small piece of property near Dover. Attempts to call the residence were unsuccessful, and it was unclear if their listed phone line was even working. Sometime in midafternoon, two officers were sent to contact the family.
As officers pulled up the driveway, they saw a dingy hybrid of a home that looked like maybe someone had added on to a mobile home with a concrete block structure. They saw obvious signs of poverty, including outhouses and old junk cars. In the driveway, ahead of the officers, were several newer, functional-looking cars. Too many to be from those living in this ramshackle trailer house. It was silent as they exited their patrol cars. That preternatural silence weighed heavily on the officers as they cautiously approached. One officer went up to the door, and one stood back in contact and cover. This wasn't the usual way. It was just that this hadn't been a usual morning. They didn't know what to expect. And the tension was a palpable bond between the two. In any case, when someone answered, and it turned out everything was fine, the family was not going to be happy with the news. The officers were acutely aware. They were, at the very least, bearers of very bad news.
But no one answered. And no sounds from inside. The pair began a circuit around the house, calling out, looking into and through dirty windows. The evidence of Christmas celebration the officer saw as his eyes adjusted to the darker interior reassured him that everything was well until he saw the foot. One of the windows allowed a view in the dim light, just visible through an interior doorway; he could see a foot positioned in such a way that the owner had to be laying prone on the floor. Urgently the officer banged on the window and shouted, "hey, police!" The pale foot did not stir. The officer and his partner were able to pry a window open and shimmy inside. They continued to announce themselves as they passed through a room and burst into the open dining room, and at their feet, three corpses lay in repose, a fourth under a shroud on the dining room table. A brief search of the home also revealed a little girl in a bed in a back bedroom. To the officers, this was no longer a home. It was a mausoleum.
The discovery of additional bodies required additional resources. So officers and investigators were enlisted from around the region. As the sunset on the day of the shootings that rocked the Russellville region of Arkansas, the investigators took stock of what they had. The shooter, Simmons, had killed a 24-year-old legal secretary, Kathy Kendrick, whom he'd known from a prior job at Woodline Motor Freight. Simmons' next stop was Taylor Oil, where he'd shot the owner, Rusty Taylor, and Jim Chaffin, the firefighter. Rusty Taylor, after being hit twice in the torso, would survive, while Jim Chaffin, shot through the eye, died instantly. The working theory on this shooting was that Simmons left employment at Taylor Oil under strained circumstances and was seeking revenge on Rusty Taylor. Jim Chaffin was possibly an uninvolved bystander.
Similar to the first two incidents, the Sinclair Minimart was Simmons's most recent employer. Miraculously, Roberta Woolery survived with a grazing wound to the head. David Salyer had tried to hit Simmons with a chair. The bullet passed through that chair and penetrated David's scalp, but not his skull.
Simmons's last stop was to target an employee he'd also worked within the past. He shot business manager Joyce Butts. Despite suffering serious wounds to head and chest, Joyce would live. So out of the six people that Simmons ambushed and shot on December 28th, four survived.
Police at Simmon's home delayed their search so that they could apply for warrants and wait for sunrise. The bodies in the dining room were identified as Simmon's daughter, 24-year-old Sheila, under the shroud on the dining room table. On the floor with Sheila's husband, Dennis McNulty, 33, Billy Simmons, 23, and Billy's wife. Renata 21. The body of the little girl found in the bedroom during the initial sweep of the house was Sylvia Gail McNulty, Sheila's six-year-old daughter. This tally left several family members conspicuously missing. And at the end of the day, one investigators knew that the odds of finding them alive were not looking good
Day two of the investigation brought movement and resolution to parts of the murder spree that had been visited on Russellville and the Simmons compound. The patriarch, Simmons, was sent to the state psychiatric hospital in Little Rock for a court ordered evaluation.
When the search resumed, two of the missing little boys, William "Trae" Simmons, one, and Michael McNulty, one, were found encased in garbage bags in trunks of abandoned cars. Excavation of a recently filled-in pit in the backyard yielded the remains of seven Simmons family members: Ronald Gene Simmons, 29; Bursabe Rebecca "Becky" Simmons, 46; Barbara Simmons, three; Loretta Simmons, 17; Eddy Simmons, 14; Maryanne Simmons, 11; and Rebecca Simmons, eight.
The pattern seen with the other bodies was consistent. The adults were each shot in the head some, several times, and the children appeared to have been strangled. The Russellville area was shocked for the second day by the numbers as the seven confirmed deaths on Monday increased to 16 deaths on Tuesday.
The investigation in the aftermath of the shootings, the search of the Simmons property, and the recovery and examination of all the victims. All of these events and processes gave detectives a massive amount of information about what happened. The investigation would have a much more difficult time answering why it happened.
Investigators found nothing at the home that spoke to his motive. Simmons hadn't written any end-of-the-world manifestos. However, there were strange things about the home that indicated that there were issues. Basic living amenities were either inoperable or disconnected. There was a telephone, but the line was not operational. There was plumbing, but no water flowed, and the toilets didn't work. The same was true of the heating and AC systems. Interviews with witnesses and people surrounding the non-family victims gave the first insights about Simmons. Kathy Kendrick, the woman shot at the law firm, used to work at Woodbine motor freight for Joyce buts.
Woodwind used to work at the Woodline motor freight for Joyce Butts. Kathy's complaint that Simmons had made sexual overtures and had started harassing her when she turned him down led to Simmons quitting Woodline Motor Freight in lieu of termination. Simmons blamed both women for that situation. Two of the other victims he shot, Rusty Taylor of Taylor Oil and David Salyer of Sinclair Mini Mart, were also former bosses. Simmons had left work at those businesses because he was difficult, confrontational, and quick to anger. In particular, he seemed to have conflicts with women with whom he had to work around Simmons quit the job as a clerk at the Minimart only days before the shooting after the owner turned him down for a raise. Only one of the victims, Jim Chaffin had no known conflicts with Simmons.
Detectives were frustrated early in the investigation because Simmons was reclusive. He appeared to have no friends. People from the community recognized him as a local resident, but they could find no one who knew much about him. One of the residents of a neighboring property said that Simmons was like a slave driver to his children, making them work all day, doing physically demanding chores, like carrying buckets of soil and digging ditches. The neighbor also said that Simmons didn't like anyone trying to talk to the kids if they happened to buy them on the edges of the property.
Friends of the 17-year-old Loretta and 14-year-old Eddy provided the only current insight into the family dynamic. Mom, Becky, was planning to escape the marriage because Simmons was emotionally and physically abusive towards every member of the family. Loretta's best friend told the police that the girl hated her father. Loretta said that her mother was going to leave and file for divorce as soon as she could save some money and make arrangements. It was slow going because Simmons would not allow his wife to leave the property and censored all the mail. The friend would sometimes help smuggle correspondence to and from the family to circumvent Simmons.
The most compelling information came when investigators were able to speak to Becky's brothers and sisters, who all lived in other states. They related that Simmons went into the Navy at 17. He met Becky in San Diego at a dance, and they immediately became a couple.
Becky lived at her parent’s cattle ranch in Colorado, but the pair kept in touch, writing regularly while Simmons was deployed. They married in New Mexico in 1960. Becky's siblings described that Simmons was a different person back then. He seemed normal. There was confidence within their family that the military man would make a good husband.
Simmons spent the next few years in the military with posts around the world. Two years in Vietnam, followed by Italy, California, and New Mexico. The couple's first child, Gene Junior, was born the year after the marriage. According to Becky's sister, this is the point where Simmons became controlling. While he was overseas, Becky was made to live under severe orders. Simmons dictated household schedules. She was to serve meals, clean, and do laundry according to his dictates. Becky was sent very little money to support the family and was not allowed to go anywhere on her own. When Simmons returned to the United States, he eventually moved his family to New Mexico.
His dream was to have a remote farm and live off the land. The family grew to seven children, and as they became old enough, he put them to work. They often worked on the farm all day on weekends and every day after school. Simmons transformed into an almost hermit-like figure, keeping few associations of his own and eschewing modern conveniences like the telephone. He limited his children's friendships and began limiting Becky's communication with her family.
In 1981, the family was at the center of a scandal. Simmons's eldest daughter became pregnant at 15. Sheila Marie had always been Simmons's favorite. And as she grew, he gave her gifts and attention, even as he ignored and scorned his other kids. As Sheila grew older, the attention became sexual abuse. And by 15, she was pregnant with her father's child. Inside the family, Simmons announced the pregnancy, ignored the fact of paternity, and indicated they would just carry on. Becky knew what was happening but did nothing. Her siblings in Colorado urged Becky to take the kids and leave, but she refused.
Outside of the family, one of Sheila's teachers heard the rumor from students and contacted child protective services. Following an investigation, Simmons was indicted for sexual assault and incest. By the time police went to the farm, the Simmons family had fled the state.
Investigators called the Alamogordo New Mexico District Attorney's Office. They confirmed that Simmons had been indicted on several charges related to fathering a child with his then 15-year-old daughter. They also confirmed that law enforcement was unable to locate Simmons for arrest. The warrant was posted in the National Crime Information Center or NCIC data system, but it expired without Simmons ever being contacted.
Simmons moved his family to a small property near the town of Ward, Arkansas. Sheila had a baby girl named Sylvia Gale. Simmons almost immediately impregnated Sheila again. Despite espousing firm religious beliefs to the contrary, Simmons arranged for Sheila to have an abortion.
Becky's siblings said that the move to Arkansas precipitated an even greater deviation from normal behavior. It turned out that the property Ward wasn't secluded enough. The children had friends living nearby. The older kids could easily leave and do things in the area. Sheila started taking business classes, which Simmons encouraged at first, but then resented the new relationships she was making.
In response, Simmons moved the family further out to a remote 14-acre property 20 minutes north of Russellville. The house was the most rundown of any they'd experienced yet. Lacking indoor plumbing or ventilation. Drinking water was collected from roof runoff. The point of this move was to isolate the children, particularly Sheila, and ensure that they remained with the family and under Simmons's control.
Despite Simmons' best efforts, one by one, the children flew the coop. By 1987, Sheila, Gene Jr., and Billy had all moved out and begun their own families. Their father saw this as a betrayal, particularly for Sheila, who married a man she met in school. Sheila's husband was aware of the situation with Sylvia Gayle and chose to legally adopt her.
Another of Becky's sisters, Viola, said that Simmons was becoming stranger and more violent as time went on. She and Becky had agreed that if Simmons did anything to Becky, the children could live with Viola
Simmons was found sane enough to stand trial for 16 counts of capital murder. The prosecution chose to divide the trials between the family cases and the non-family cases. The trials were practically proforma put on simply because they were capital cases, and Simmons didn't put up much of a defense.
There was one significant incident in the second trial. The prosecutor read part of a letter from Simmons to his wife. Simmons suddenly jumped up and punched the attorney in the face. And then unsuccessfully tried to grab one of the bailiff's handguns.
Unsurprisingly, Simmons was found guilty on all counts at the conclusion of both trials. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection. There was an additional prison sentence of 147 years to serve in the event that the death penalty was not completed. Simmons made a public statement that he did not want any appeal to delay the death sentence, saying it was the sentence that he deserved. Despite asking to be put to death, there were appeals by outside parties filed on Simmons’s behalf - by a Catholic priest and a fellow death row inmate. These cases delayed execution by more than two years. The fellow death row inmate's appeal made it all the way to the US Supreme Court, where it was rejected.
Following the Supreme Court ruling, then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton signed an execution order for Simmons. On June 25th, 1990, Simmons became Arkansas's first prisoner to die by lethal injection. His body was never claimed.
In contrast, the funerals of his victims were attended by hundreds of people from Russellville and surrounding towns. Kathy Kendrick, a single mother who left behind a young son, was described as a beautiful much loved young woman with an optimistic outlook. Her pastor described her as a great person, a joyful, delightful person who always had a sparkle in her eyes. Jim JD Chaffin was a firefighter and father to three kids. He was transported to his funeral in one of the town's ladder trucks loaded with his uniformed brethren. The procession was more than a mile long. His pastor said Chaffin was a man who loved life. He was deeply devoted to his family.
At the Catholic Church in Conway, four caskets lined the aisle. The deacon called Dennis and Sheila McNulty wonderful parents to their beloved Sylvia and Michael, who often volunteered for the church. In their hometown of Fordyce, at the services for William Simmons, his wife Renata, and their year-old son, William Trae Simmons, their pastor read a letter from Renata to her infant son. She had intended for him to read it when he grew up. "I just finished putting you to bed, and I'm sitting here, wondering what you will be like when you grow up. I love you so much. I will always remember how fragile and small you were tonight, and you will always be my little boy." Renata and Tree shared a casket and were buried beside William.
In the aftermath of the murders, detectives were able to obtain a lengthy handwritten letter that Becky had recently sent to her son, Billy. In it, Becky wrote of her plan to leave Simmons because of the abuse. She complained that Simmons was making them all prisoners in the house. She said that she was looking forward to the day when her children could come and go as they pleased. Talk to whomever they wanted and could all visit without Simmons’s oversight. Becky expressed uncertainty about how she would support herself and the remaining children but that she knew the pain would be worth their freedom.
Marcy: So, moving into the discussion about this case, Mark, talk about what was your approach to writing this narrative?
Mark: I was intrigued by this case because when you start to read it and think about what he did, it's really horrifying. And afterwards he didn't talk about it a lot. We're left to decipher what his motive was, which if you look at it really wasn't difficult, but, it's unusual because a lot of these guys who do stuff like this are pleased to say and place blame. I could almost guarantee if he had spewed the putrid contents of his mind, it would be a lot like a lot of the other abusers, narcissist, sociopaths, psychopaths. It's not his fault. They drove him to it because, X, Y, Z reasons.
The contrast to this is in the Murders on Main Street episode, the narrative I wrote about Christian Martin, I felt pretty good writing the things I did there because I didn't have to guess. There are so many well documented statements detailing, his attitude of belligerence, where he plays a victim and blames everyone else for the situations basically he created. But because Simmons said very little, I wanted to allow his actions to do the talking. When I add commentary, I try to make it come from somewhere you know it had to happen. Like, you know that at some point Simmons stood over the seven members of his family that were dead in the bottom of the pit and looked down at them. What do you think he was thinking? Considering he followed those seven up with many more killings, he surely wasn't contrite.
Marcy: Can you describe what it's like to go to something that you know is probably going to be emotionally bad?
Mark: If we're talking about patrol calls, they often come in, really screwed up. The calls are never exactly as they're first stated. So you kinda get this, wait and see attitude, which is healthy as long as you're the type of person that doesn't think every big call is bullshit. But the big calls tend to brew and build as you're enroute. Dispatch can add ominous details, like multiple callers are stating this. Mostly the worst things you see as a cop are really bad wrecks, even more than most shootings. Bad wrecks you can roll up on and you start to see how bad it is. There's cars ripped open. Sometimes there's active fires, a lot of smoke. When you get outta your car, you could very well see massive trauma, people dead are in the process of dying. On really nasty calls, you kind of get this shields up kind of feeling. That allows you to function no matter what happens and what you see.
Marcy: Talk about the difference between, say a new officer and a more veteran officer in dealing with those types of scenes. Cuz I don't guess that the " shields up", preparedness is an automatic response.
Mark: No, it's definitely something you develop. So the first time I ever saw a really bad wreck, I wasn't actually on duty. You and I were going to visit your parents. We were driving up to Fairbanks. When you leave Anchorage it's seven, maybe eight, hours to get to Fairbanks across beautiful scenery. You go over mountain range where Denali is the highest mountain in north America, but it is very remote. Well, we, were following a RV, and we come around a bend and the RV has exploded in the middle of the road. And what has happened is an oncoming full size pickup truck has come head on. The guy was drunk and had been smoking marijuana, and had head-oned this RV. The guy driving the truck was killed instantly. In fact, he's in the front of that truck and the truck was compressed so much that I could only see part of his body, his arm was sticking out, but his body was basically twisted in the metal and he was instantly killed As I went in through the back of the RV, the driver looked back at me and I could see that his face was ripped away over his eye. He lifted his right arm and it basically folded in half so the lower bones in his arm were fractured. There was a dog that had been impaled on the gear shift in the middle that was dead. And the man's wife who was sitting next to him was semi-conscious. The two in the RV were badly injured, but, would eventually live., We had to spend two hours before we got help on that wreck from EMS coming from, far away.
I had no shield. It was etched in my mind, for a long time. This kind of sensory overload, those things lasted for days. I thought about them for a long time. That didn't happen after a few calls like that. After a few calls you know it's gonna be bad and somehow your brain kind of transitions to be able to deal with it. You don't have an emotional response. But I think it's critical that new officers have those experiences to get to that point where you can go on and, you know, after, after a little, while you, go to a call like that and you immediately go to lunch and don't even think about it.
That's the kind of thing that officers that arrived at the Simmons house, on that day where they had just experienced the shooting victims and they have to go to this house. I'm sure that they were, depending on the type of experiences they had had prior, were in a really a shields up kind of mode as they walked up to that house. They knew that it was possible they were about to see potentially worse.
Marcy: The first group of Simmons victims were in the ground and exhumed after about a week. Have you dealt with victims who were dead for a long while?
Mark: Yeah. I mean, depending on where you work as a cop it's fairly common to go to calls, where there are unattended deaths. Not necessarily murders or homicide type situations, but people die alone all the time. There'll be a weekend where somebody didn't go to work and their coworker'll go check on them. One call, that comes to mind when you ask me that question is I went to a call off of 25th street in Spenard. When I arrived, it was the early morning hours. Generally, when you go to a call and you don't know the situation, you park down the street so you're, you know, you don't pull up right in front of the house in case there's something dangerous, right? So you park down the street. I step outta my car and I can immediately smell the odor of a deceased person. It's an unmistakable smell. Once you've smelled it, you'll never forget it. The caller was a man's girlfriend and she had been away from their apartment for a week. She'd come home and opened the front door and it's a small apartment, once it was open, the man is basically 15, 20 feet back facing the door, sitting in a recliner, and unfortunately he had died the week prior, and had been sitting underneath a space heater. And he was bloated, maybe two or three times his normal size; skin, a mottled color, blue gray. So the long time girlfriend was understandably, very upset. She had been pissed with him not returning her calls while she was traveling.
I had to talk to her. I'm trying to steer her away from the apartment for two reasons. First it's accepted advice to not spend a lot time around a loved one who's died and sustained major trauma because it's hard for them to forget that moment when they try and remember them in the future. And I think that's probably true. Second, I apparently have a weak gag reflex. So I'm trying to talk to this woman and trying to be compassionate while I'm trying not to retch. Somehow it seemed to me as disrespectful. I retched so hard on that scene as I processed it, that I had petecial hemorrhaging afterwards. If you're not familiar, some of the capillaries in, in and around your eyes begin to burst. So I had the people I was working with flip me shit because the whites of my eyes are turning red and I have dots all around my eyes because I was retching so hard.
Marcy: Let's be clear. You do have a famously weak gag reflex for anything disgusting.
Mark: Well, until I became a farmer, I'd say that's true. Yeah. But this was a particularly bad scene. I used to if I went to a dead body and I had Vicks vapor rub, you put it under your nose so it overwhelms your sense of smell. I didn't have that there and this was a particularly bad one. On most patrol cases, I would help pack up and load a body. But on this one, my Sergeant happened by, and he called the medical examiner and he told them they'd have to send at least two with full bio suits. This is because I wouldn't have been able to take additional calls after that without having complete decontamination. It was moments like this, where I remember my street sergeants, fondly. and I learned how to take care of my people after I was promoted. But even with just the death investigation processing, taking photographs without actually having to touch the body very much, we apparently reeked. I went to breakfast with some of the guys who went to that scene at a diner where we went frequently. We had a separate area all to ourselves and the waitress who we knew for years, very familiar with us, came back and said, "what is that stink? You guys smell!" We just didn't realize how bad we were.
Marcy: So one of the things that, from my experience that I recognized about this Simmons case is that the number of people dead probably quickly overwhelmed the local resources that would be needed to handle the logistics of post-mortem management. I can almost guarantee that there were not enough assets at the ready - things like vehicles to transport and refrigerated places to store the bodies while they awaited autopsy. Performing that many autopsies probably also required they call an additional personnel, not to mention the number of funeral homes that would be needed to be involved. This is a mass casualty situation in any community, but undoubtedly, it was made more complex by the ruralness of the scene. Talk about the NCIC. Simmons had a warrant from New Mexico that never was served. What happened there?
Mark: So NCIC is the National Crime Information Center and among other things, they run the central database of criminal warrants. Basically, my experience with NCIC is as a patrol officer and as an investigator. You can check the crime computer to see if, there's property like a gun you found is stolen. If it's in NCIC, it could be listed anywhere in the country. Oftentimes you'll get a hit, a warrant hit from outta state. Say you make a traffic stop and, the person you're running, NCIC comes back and says he's wanted outta state. And what would happen then was we'd have a query where that based on that hit our department would transmit to that jurisdiction and say, are you willing to extradite this individual on the warrant that's in the computer? And, they would say yes or no. In this situation, this would be a sexual assault. I would guess that they probably would have extradited from almost anywhere in the country. Oftentimes as a patrol officer or a detective, you'd see that a subject you had or wanted to, get would have out state warrants and being in Alaska, the, the state you're requesting information from would often say, no, we will not extradite from Alaska, especially on things like robbery, it seemed like outta state jurisdictions were very happy to hear that their bad guy had fled to Alaska and hoped he stayed there.
Marcy: Yeah, in my recollection of, being a dispatcher, what I recall is unless it was a murder warrant, they were not gonna do an out-of-state extradition.
Mark: Yeah, it just depends sometimes. Uh, like we had, I had a robbery that was extradited at one time, but it would've to be more than your average thing. The good thing here is, some serial numbered properties that you had a, crime spree, and you recovered a bunch of tools that were serial numbered. Some of those could be listed in NCIC and you could get a hit with interstate transportation there. As far as this, warrant, for somebody who isn't regularly involved in criminal activity, somebody like Simmons living in a rural remote area who didn't have much contact with cops who would run him, where he could be found in NCIC, it's not surprising to me that this warrant ran its duration and was removed from the computer. So you can have, misdemeanor warrants in NCIC that expire pretty quickly, but this would be a felony warrant and it probably was there for a year or more without being closed.
Marcy: It seems pretty clear to me that this was a pretty classic, domestic violence relationship that ended in a really severe outcome.
Mark: Off the top of my head defining domestic violence, usually is the use of physical force or psychological abuse with the goal of subjugating, a partner or family member. State laws vary, and some include, anybody, even if you're not in intimate or a family relationship who live in any given structure or home. But usually when the cops are called it's some serious conflict between two intimate partners. Patrol calls for domestic violence run the gamut, everything from a bad argument. that the neighbor hears, all the way to homicide. And like most people that work patrol. I have a lot of experience with DV, and when I talk about DV, my mind immediately goes to people, usually male who are absolutely torturing emotionally and sometimes physically, some or all the people they live with. This is what I think when I think about bad DV.
In Alaska, if a police officer is investigating domestic violence, and it could be determined that the fight was physical and it caused visible injuries, the officers required by law to arrest the primary physical aggressor. Most of the time, not all this was the male half.
Marcy: What's the purpose of state laws that mandate arrest?
Mark: In the seventies and eighties timeframe there's recognition that serious DV within marriages was being ignored as kind of family business. And over time, what was seen is DV has a lot of lasting effects. It's cyclical. DV in a relationship often increases in severity over time, and it can increase based on the stress level of the offender. When I say it's cyclical, I mean that if you grow up in a domestic violence situation, you're likely to be violent in a domestic situation, or you're likely to be a victim in a domestic situation. With wider recognition of the problem came legal efforts to target these crimes, and to arrest offenders, mandate counseling, and there was closer scrutiny by social services. One of the lessons, based on the study of domestic violence across the country is that offenders should be arrested earlier. Maybe when they're younger, because early intervention trains a person that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. and this has been shown to reduce the long term severity of outcomes.
Alaska has a horrible DV murder rate, but it would be higher if we didn't have some of these intervention efforts, This effort became nationalized through VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act, which brought funding and training to states to enact certain laws and training to law enforcement. It also brought funding to victim advocacy and to fund shelters. And one of the things VAWA does is extends protections to be interstate. So if you have a domestic violence restraining order, those can be tracked across and transferred between states and are enforceable between states.
Marcy: You went to national VAWA training, didn't you?
Mark: I was sent there as a Sergeant, of our sexual assault unit. I think every officer should have an opportunity to go to VAWA training. You listen to victims, you hear what the trends are. It's weird because, you work in your own little fishbowl and you may have no idea what's happening outta state? What things are similar, what things are different. When I went there, there was a focus on, animal torture as domestic violence. Some of the more sadistic guys I had never heard of this, but some of the more sadistic guys that had been trained early on that they're gonna go to jail if they beat up their girlfriends or wives decided that what they needed is a surrogate victim. Some states were already making it a felony and it should be. A family forced to watch the brutal execution of a beloved pet, that should be more than a misdemeanor animal abuse.
When I went to VAWA, the keynote speaker was a woman who told the story of long time domestic abuse. It was horrific, long lasting, and it was by her husband, who was eventually sent to prison. Unfortunately, he was a prominent police officer in his area. Keep in mind, this is a conference where cops are easily a third of the attendees. We're all listening to the shit this guy's done. This police officer, what he did to his wife and his family. It made me feel horrible, but these are the kind of things you need to hear. They sent me to VAWA as a sexual assault Sergeant because so much sexual violence is not a stranger jumping out the bushes. So much is in relationships of varying depth from the guy you met recently at work, to the 30 year divorce in progress.
Marcy: Are the serious cases of domestic violence, always men?
Mark: No, in my jurisdiction, there are well known examples of violent women. Jim Wolf, who was a municipal prosecutor who was murdered by his, I think a wife or girlfriend, and he was actually the guy who handled the domestic violence cases from the municipality of Anchorage. There was also a retired Trooper Colonel, he was having an affair and she murdered him in his home and shot his wife. It's not all men, but I can tell you that the proportion of men is very, very high. There are women that go and rob banks and go on mass shooting sprees, but they're few and far between.
Marcy: You have a bunch of horrible DV stories. Can you gimme an example of one?
Mark: Some of those I'm gonna save for later episodes, but one of the first really bad DV calls I went on, was what some medical examiners call a homi-sui. I was sent to a shooting. It was somebody shot in the intersection, off of a pretty big neighborhood in south Anchorage called Independence Park.
When I arrived, there's a truck in the middle of an intersection in this neighborhood where a guy is hanging out of the driver window. There's a pistol on the ground. And he has a hole in his head and he's basically bleeding onto the ground out the driver window. Now, that took a little bit of my attention. And then I noticed behind the truck was a vehicle that had collided with the rock wall. And there was a female sitting in the driver's seat there and she had been shot many times. What had happened was here's a woman who lived in an apartment building up the street. The man had been staking out her house and had actually parked kind of in the shelter of the rock wall that she ultimately ran into. When he saw our vehicle come down to the stop sign, he pulled forward so that their windows were window to window and he shot her. And as she tried to drive away, he continued to shoot her, in the side and then the back and she crashed into the wall and he immediately put the gun to his mouth and, killed himself. We got the story after the fact of what was going on. So this guy was super controlling, and she wanted out and she had gotten herself an apartment and he waited for her. She was paralyzed from this, and, fortunate to live, but, very, very, very badly injured. We go to this guy's house to search, and everything is meticulous. Every drawer has a label of what goes in the drawer, and, that's how he was described is uber controlling, everything had to be was in its place, and this lady had gotten out of her place and he wasn't gonna stand for her and shot her.
This Simmons case is not unique in that you have a guy who's super controlling and is losing control of these relationships. The unique part is that he was willing to basically kill everybody.
Marcy: So the family knew this was a domestic violence situation and everyone apparently hated him and was a victim of his. Why did they gather for the holidays with him?
Mark: So there's certain dynamics that are consistent with a lot of abuse victims. In some respects, it's the frog in the pot thing. They endure a little bit and the little bit gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And they, and sometimes they've endured it for so long, it just seems normal. That's the way they live. Even if they realize how bad, how painful it is and how damaging, they're afraid of the consequences. The story I just told, the lady who ultimately got shot, was afraid of him and knew that he could potentially be violent if she broke up with him.
In this case, Becky, the mother, her stated reason for not leaving was financial. How will I support myself and my kids? This is a common issue. Her thinking is, we may live under his thumb, but at least we're not gonna starve to death. The reality is probably, and she doesn't have to say this for everybody in the family to understand this, she knew that Simmons was capable of at least killing her.
So my call on this is that these people wanted, they all went there knowing that, they didn't wanna be around him. They wanted to be around the other people, have a normal family Christmas gathering as much as that is possible, despite the presence of the abuser. These people, are the only family they had and they love the other 13 people, if not Gene. And they wanted to see them and have, and try to have a good time.
Marcy: Why did so many of the non-family members survive the shootings?
Mark: Simmons was apparently a pretty good shot. When you think of the number of head shots he made, even though some of them were fairly close range, it's difficult in dynamic situations with moving targets to reliably, make head shots. That's why when police train, the standard response for police officers using deadly force with a pistol is three rounds - two to center mass, and one to head. It's trained like that two to the body, and if you still have a headshot, take the headshot if the suspect isn't already down or out of the fight. The point of that is the two to the body is the easiest to make. While the solid hit to the head, while it's the most reliable to stop the bad guys, is harder to actually achieve. The reason the victims lived is most likely due the two factors. One shop placement. In the case of the mini mark clerk, she suffered a grazing head wound. The other thing is it's an inferior caliber bullet. The 38, Simmons used is not considered a powerful weapon. It's a relatively slow round and without the penetrating power of say the nine millimeter. With the victims who were hit, but survived some had rounds to the head, but the lack of bullet speed and associated penetrating power meant they didn't have the devastating wounds associated with the larger, faster calibers. The reason he was successful in killing every one of his family members is that he had to a certain extent, their trust, and he planned it out to strike them when they were alone and in a moment of vulnerability.
Marcy: Why do you think the children were strangled and not shot?
Mark: Yeah, it's quieter. The children are easier to control. Some of the logistics meant that he had to be quiet. He tried to bash his son's skull in and when the noisy fight started Simmons just decided to shoot him. And I think that was the template for whatever he did after.
Marcy: He just didn't wanna take the risk that the adults would fight back or get away.
Do you think Simmons was insane?
Mark: No, I think he was a rageful narcissist. I've thought about this, there are instances where, people kill their kids or loved ones and they're clearly insane. There was a case of a mother, south end of Anchorage, who basically shot her kids as they came home from school. Three kids. Hid the succession of bodies. And then when she was done, she left and went to a payphone and called the police and said, I've rescued my sons from demons. She didn't do that because she was angry at anybody she did that because she was insane.
Simmons did the things he did because he wanted revenge. It was a planned out thing. And he only had certain targets who had stewed about and thought about, and they were taking the control away from him that he had so, wanted and maintained for so long. And he was doing something about it. That was killing them. That's not insanity. That's just him doing what he wanted to do. Don't get me wrong. Aside from the homicides, there are signs of mental illness, for sure. Simmons killed his two eldest kids and their kids and laid them out and went to run errands. This is the day after Christmas. He went and bought booze. and he picked up some late Christmas presents. You have to say to yourself, WTF?
I characterize things like this, Simmons is basically committing suicide in slow motion, right? There's a lot of things that aren't involved in homicides that people do, that I think are, basically suicidal act. For example, shortly after I retired, and moved to the south, there was a teacher in Tennessee and this teacher kidnapped a girl that he had, tried to romance 14 years old and disappeared with her. Here's a guy who's about to retire. He was later caught with the girl in California.
Now there's no way that this guy thinks he's gonna go and never get caught. It wasn't very long before he is caught. That's basically a suicidal crime. He knows that he is gonna spend the rest of his life in prison, and I'm sure he is going to. Just like Simmons here. I think had no illusions that he was going to, somehow just live out his days on his homestead after murdering all these people. And I think that is born out by his acceptance that he'll take the lethal injection. So do I think Simmons was insane? No. I think he went to revenge and was effectively committing suicide.
Marcy: One of the last tasks he set for his children was to dig the giant outhouse hole that was really their grave. Like a final fuck you. That is just really, really sick.
My father is a Marine Corps combat veteran of the Vietnam war, which has had a lasting impact on him. Do you think that they looked at how his Vietnam service affected Simmons?
Mark: Yeah. His tours in Vietnam war is an OSI investigator. He never saw combat. He lived in luxury at a civilian compound in Saigon. He had servants and regular vacations. It wasn't like he was a Marine grunt.
Marcy: The defense attorneys made a big deal about how the initial responding officers did not get a search warrant. Why didn't they need one to enter the property?
Mark: Simple answer to that is exigency. So there's a whole bunch of principles wrapped up in the idea of exigency: the community 911 principal or the emergency aid doctrine. Basically the emergency aid doctrine requires that police have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency threatens imminent harm to people on a property. This has been supported by the Supreme court, but it's not clearly defined at what constitutes imminent harm. And in this situation with multiple people shot in, in Russellville, you can really say, "Hey, we need to check and see what going on with his family. you know, if somebody's been shot up there, maybe they're not dead. Maybe we have a chance of saving them. I can give you an example of, the, emergency aid doctrine, and how you can go in an emergency or, perceived emergency to check on a property to see if anybody's hurt inside. So I'm a patrol Sergeant and it's a weekend night, and there's a party at a big house, a really wealthy family's house in south Anchorage. And there's a series of shots fired out in front, in the driveway of this house. So we go screaming down there and, get to the house and the house is dark. It's the middle of the night house is dark. We can see there are shell casings laying on the driveway, outside the front door. It isn't apparent if the house has been hit, but it's dark. We're going in, right? I can't remember if we broke a window to open a door or we bust the door in or something. But basically we go in to search the house to make sure that nobody is shot inside. And we find the son of the owners of the house, the owners of the house are in Hawaii. They'll be happy to hear from us. They were happy to hear from us. and the son of the owners of the house downstairs drunk. And when we go in there, he's belligerent and tries to fight with us and, nobody's hurt. But you need a search warrant. In fact, when I talked to the father owner of the house, he wanted to know on what basis I go in there. And I told him this story.
Another party at a house in south Anchorage, not too far from this one. A whole bunch of us go down because there's been somebody shot. And in the time after this boy, maybe he's 14, 15 years old has been shot in the gut, the girl who lives there, same thing. Parents are out of town on vacation, and she's like the same age, 15, 16.
There's another kid that's been playing with one of the father's guns. And that kid shoots another kid who's sitting on a bar stool at the bar, the kitchen, and gets shot right through the middle of the torso and is laying on the ground when we get there.
And what these kids said, they cooked up a whole thing about how a bunch of black kids broke into this house and shot up the place and then ran away and they're all gone now. Well, that was completely cooked up fabricated. I have no doubt that if that kid had been the, resident of that house, everybody else would've left him to die in there. Right?
We had to go in to make sure nobody was shot inside and to figure out what's going on and to be sure that everybody's okay. And we'll go to court and fight about it later. But in this situation, you're not hiding 14 bodies because, well, the police didn't have exigency. They did.
Marcy: And that boy in the story of the getting shot at the party he died.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. He died. Unfortunately.
Marcy: Why did the prosecution divide the cases into two trials?
Mark: So with criminal charges, you only get one bite at the apple. I just talked about the principle of, exigency, and emergency aid. Some of these principles are subjective and you can get rulings out of courts that sometimes don't make sense. Dividing it into two sets, that way, if something is screwed up or gets overturned and that screw up can be not the fault of the prosecutors, not the fault of the investigators. It could be something the judge said when he was reading instructions that causes a mistrial. Dividing this number of deaths into two or more, trials make sense because you're basically, safeguarding yourself against some kind of crazy, thing that overturns the case. Watching somebody who's murdered 16 people get off into technicality is, is nothing that anybody wants to see happen.
Marcy: This is an extremely example of domestic violence. However, what we know is that domestic violence can happen to anyone. It can happen to people of any race, age, gender, sexuality, religion, education level, or economic status. It can be physical harm, threats, emotional abuse, or financial control. If you know someone who might be experiencing domestic violence, there is free, confidential help, always available at the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call 1-800-799-SAFE or text start to 88788. You can also visit thehotline.org to live chat, or get more information.
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AP News. (Dec. 31, 1987). Massacre victims eulogized at funerals with AM-Alonga killings. https://apnews.com/article/73630a60d031a70a6717c0a48dc673fa
Applebome, P. (Dec. 31, 1987). 16 murders and countless questions. The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1987/12/31/us/16-murders-and-countless-questions.html
Marshall, B. & Williams, P. (1991). Zero at the bone. https://amzn.to/3wWbElL
Harris, J.F. (Jan. 1, 1988). Divorce plans may be motive in Arkansas killings, probers say. The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1988/01/01/divorce-plans-may-be-motive-in-arkansas-killings-probers-say/733168ac-f13f-4ce6-9055-20991bad79d1/
Jonas H. Whitmore, Individually and as Next Friend of Ronald Gene Simmons, Petitioner v. Arkansas et al. 495 U.S. 149 (1990): https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/495/149
L.A. Times Archives (Dec. 30, 1987). Mass slayer abused wife, got daughter pregnant, in-laws say. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-12-30-mn-21766-story.html#:~:text=Enraged%20relatives%20of%20Rebecca%20Simmons,cut%20off%20from%20the%20world.
Simmons, B. (Jan 3, 1988). Mass murderer’s relationships with wife, children – not working. AP News: https://apnews.com/article/55549446f58d5cddf3cdfa540f5f9955
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