Early in 1986 several stories were published about
Tom, Lorna and the deaths of their spouses. Calvin Trillin wrote a mostly
factual story in the New Yorker. The Kansas City Star carried
a two-part series in its magazine section (the story, titled “The Preacher
and the Spider Lady” won a Ball State University National Journalism Writing
Award for its author, Bill Norton). Supermarket tabloids and detective
magazines published their sordid sensationalized versions.
The first edition of Joan Baker’s three-part KS Magazine series
appeared in February 1986. Virginia Bird wrote of Tom’s reaction to the
“Tom calls and is upset
because he hears of the KS Magazine article that came out written by
Baker that points him out as such a monster. This article which contains
incidents told by Lorna A. [includes]… the words supposedly screamed and
begged by Sandy as she came to her violent death. [Lorna claimed to have
nothing to do with Sandy’s death, yet she told Baker about the words Sandy
shouted out while being murdered. How did she know?]
“How horrible to depict this
gentle Tom as such a harsh killer, when he could never do such a thing to
the Sandy he always loved.
assassinations by newsprint just seem to keep on and on and we are powerless
to do anything about it. Tom speaks of giving up hope for his appeal and
saying he will be convicted again by the news media before anyone ever gets
a chance to exonerate him in the appeals court.”
Even with all this exposure, it took Scott Kraft’s Los Angeles Times
story to really catch Hollywood’s attention and penchant for making
merchandise of the latest real life tragedy.
So sick of the lies and distortions as he had become, Tom hoped that a movie
about his life and legal travails could set the record straight. The Bird’s
asked Robert Hecht, Tom’s attorney in the murder trial, to help them sort
through all the offers that they received. In case Tom signed a contract,
Hecht hoped to establish a trust fund for the children to be funded by
income from the sale of Tom’s story. Tom wrote furiously on his own book,
thinking he was the only person who could accurately tell his side of the
Eleven companies contacted Tom vying for his story rights.
Responding to this Hollywood courtship and the very idea that a criminal
might sell his story, two Kansas lawmakers introduced a bill to stop
criminals from profiting by their crimes. Republican Representatives Martha
Jenkins of Leavenworth, and Clint Acheson of Topeka, spurred on by the
quick-paced tempo set by Hollywood, introduced their bill on March 24, a
week after the Kraft article appeared in The Times. Congress had earlier
passed a similar law when John Hinkley Jr. made public his plan to write a
book about his attempt to kill President Ronald Reagan. The infamous New
York murderer, Son of Sam, had published his story and gained an infamous
notoriety that set off debates in state legislatures across America. Kansas
decided to join 22 other states that had already passed such laws.
Governor John Carlin signed the new law on April 21, less than a month
later. “The law, which goes into effect July 1, is directed at Thomas P.
Bird, a former Emporia pastor convicted of murder, and former state Senator
Paul Hess, who fled the country...” reports stated. The article failed to
mention Lorna, who had at least one signed contract with an author,
negotiated with movies companies and planned a few books of her own.
Trillin, one of the few writers Tom allowed to interview him, offered him
$1,000 for the rights to his story.
David Hacker, deep into the process of marketing his book about Lorna, also
dickered with some movie producers.
Dick Clark Productions sought to make an NBC movie. Clark signed an
agreement with Jane Grismer. “We could not, in good conscience, tell the
story from their [Tom and Lorna] point of view. And, we respect and applaud
the Kansas State law which forbids a criminal from profiting from his or her
crime. We are working with the Grismer family … to depict a moving account
of the tragic story which we plan to present responsibly and sensitively,”
Clark wrote to the Emporia Gazette. Clark decided Tom’s point of view
was without merit.
Henry “The Fonz” Winkler sought the story rights. Tom felt he presented the
best case for fairness and planned to produce a movie for ABC. Winkler
signed a contract with both Tom and Lorna on June 26, just days before the
law became effective that banned such agreements. Tom saw in this agreement
the potential to raise money from a movie to set up a trust for his
Before all the dust cleared, as many as three dozen companies fought for the
story. CBS beat them all.
Mike Robe led the CBS effort to do a movie originally titled Kansas
Gothic, then Broken Commandments, and finally Murder Ordained.
Robe’s grandfather had run an Emporia hardware store, his father attended
college in Emporia and he still had relatives living there. Robe represented
Interscope Communications, directed the movie and co-wrote the script.
“Because it happened in an area that has always seemed like home to me, I
really wanted to do the story. I wanted to try to find out how those things
could happen and why they happened. Additionally, I think I wanted to make
sure that it was done in a way that was fair to Kansas.”
Kathleen Cromley, another Interscope employee who worked on the movie, had
relatives in Emporia and the nearby town of Olpe. At the beginning of the
production, CBS took great care to salve the sensitivities of Emporians, and
Cromley helped ease their way. “We do not want to dwell on the early
[sexual] events at all. We’re interested in unraveling how it happened, who
was involved in bringing these two to justice.”
Robe won the
support and imagination of most Emporians. He waged and lost one battle,
though, trying to find a church willing to be used as the set for Faith. The
public debate got ugly and Robe threatened to move the shoot out of Emporia
altogether. The mere thought of losing the notoriety and the $10 million the
community hoped to earn from the movie caused the Gazette to gag. Ray Call
wrote a “Classified Ad” begging some understanding church to realize how
important the movie was to the community’s economy and release their
building as a movie set. The churches united and refused to cooperate
stating that their mission was to spread the Gospel, not the filthy lucre of
a Hollywood movie.
Eventually a church
in Lawrence signed on. Aware of the centuries old division between the
Lutheran and Catholic churches, Robe snidely scripted the church as St.
finds life as Tinsel Town
Emporia came alive. The town’s spirit was captured in an April 1, 1986,
letter to the editor written by Kay Little “and unnamed cohorts.”
“A bunch of us were sitting
around Saturday evening discussing the major issues of our fair
community…when we decided what this town needs is a movie based on the lives
and loves of our most famous (infamous?) couple, Tom and Lorna.
“It seems highly probable that
there will be a movie, so why not make it here where everything really
happened. Our ailing economy would benefit greatly by all those movie people
coming to town. Motels and restaurants and bars would be full again, and
they could probably use any number of us locals as extras.”
Ms. Little suggested various actors to play lead roles in the movie,
picturing Jack Nicholson as Tom and Jessica Lange as Lorna. For Danny and
Darrel, she debated between “Don Johnson, Burt Reynolds, Tom Sellack and Dom
Deluise.” Little believed such a movie could win an Emmy.
Ms. Little forgot that Tom’s court appeal was, at that time, headed for the
Kansas Supreme Court, and if she did know, she may not have cared. Emporia,
the sleepy commercial town suffering from an economic downturn, would win
money, jobs, and notoriety.
Jake Thompson wrote in the Kansas City Star, quoting Janis Ralston
from the Emporia Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s unfortunate this whole
scandal happened. But if we’ve already had the negative publicity, we might
as well get something positive back.”
The “something” she referred to meant money for Emporia’s businesses.
Thompson knew that the Kansas Film Board stood to make millions off such a
A Tom Bird movie meant an economic boost for everyone.
On August 12, 1986, The Los Angeles Times ran a special story
about the movie’s progress, but Emporians took offense at the way it
pictured them. The Gazette wanted to deflect the Times’ perception of
Emporia as a backwoods town and in an editorial, Ray Call wrote:
“It is clear that writers and
television reporters arrive in town with a pre-conceived notion of what
Emporia is like. Usually their descriptions seem to fit the old visions that
city dwellers have of heartland America; a place where life is stuck in a
Leave-It-to-Beaver time frame.
“Emporia City Commissioner
Leonore Rowe makes a good point when she is quoted… ‘We’re really not a
“A careful reporter would find
that most Emporians DO NOT depend on cable television to keep in touch with
the outside world. Many Emporians are well-traveled. Indeed, there is a good
chance that the ratio of world-travelers is greater in Emporia than it is in
“Mayor William Jenks
commented. ‘I don’t want to sound inhuman, but we do need income (from a TV
production). But we need that kind of publicity like a hole in the head.’
“Chamber of Commerce president
Dale Stinson said, ‘We wish it had never happened…but we’re going to make
the most of it.’ ”
The battle for Emporia’s pride even drew barbs from other Kansas towns. The
Gazette reacted to a story written in Hays. The writer warned Emporia to
shed its naiveté about how Hollywood would tell the story. She saw Tinsel
Town as totally uninterested in accuracy, only caring about sensationalism.
The Gazette acknowledged this, but chastised the writer for this quote:
“Probably, Emporians won’t much care. They seem more interested in the money
that’s to be made by cooperating with the vultures…”
The Gazette retorted, “Most of the folks who agreed to help with the film
were motivated more by the desire for accuracy than by greed. These
Emporians and members of Sandy Bird’s family, signed on as consultants to
help the filmmakers tell the story right. They will work for their money.
They also will be paid for allowing the film makers to portray them in the
The Gazette didn’t realize the bias this story revealed, or if it did, it
totally discounted Tom’s side of the story. Mentioning Sandy’s family as
consultants sent a clear signal to the Birds: Jane’s version of events would
set the movie’s tone. Without the Birds to counter her clouded
recollections, it left little hope for accuracy.
What Emporians might profit from the movie?
Trooper John Rule became the highest paid of the local consultants. While
still on the Kansas Highway Patrol payroll, he signed a contract paying him
$75,000, plus $1,000 a day for his work on the movie.
Dennis Arb testified in Tom’s second trial and was a cousin of Sheriff Dan
Andrews. He wrote to the Gazette on October 30, 1986:
“Were you on the bridge July
17, 1983? Did you see the fine investigative work of our Highway Patrolman?
Several citizens did. We found blood that he wanted to push aside as
‘fish-bait blood,’ the same samples that were used as evidence in the trial.
And what about the other evidence—the party cups. Why were no fingerprints
established? Our patrolman let the cups sit at the murder scene over half a
day to be fingered by all onlookers, including himself.
“I, myself, went back that
afternoon. No one was around, but there sat those cups. It was easy to see
that foul play was involved, but for some reason blood samples were filed
away and another life had to be lost before our Highway Patrolman came
forward and said he had it figured out all along.
“If it took $75,000 for a lie
to become a true story, what is the truth worth? A little peace of mind, a
bit of satisfaction, and a little less respect for the law enforcement and
reporters just doing their job.”
Arb said Andrews, and later Agent Humphrey, actually kept the investigation
going. It rankled Arb that Rule became the movie’s hero and its highest paid
consultant. Rule’s big payday rankled others too, who thought Kansas law
prevented these types of payments to government employees. Rule eventually
received a promotion and a transfer out of town. Arb said it was the result
of bad feelings by other local police toward him because of the money and
credit that he received.
Gazette reporters Horst and Birk also got paid. They were portrayed in the
movie as duel heroines for forcing local and state authorities to pursue the
investigation into Sandy’s death. Humphrey became a consultant.
The Kansas film board received $3 million from the producers for helping
stage the movie.
Kansas made money. Emporia made money. Officials made money. Robe made a
On June 11, Terry Smith called Ralph and Virginia about a Topeka TV news
story. “Channel 13 had a news item about the people in Tom’s case signing
with the movie companies and in the background the TV coverage of the trial
was shown again picturing Ralph and me, etc. Lorna A. has signed with HBO
Virginia wondered, since so many of the investigators, reporters, and Jane
received offers from production companies, why she and Ralph were ignored.
“It’s funny, but no one has asked us for a contract as yet. I don’t think
they are interested in Tom’s true story or ours.”
CBS began filming on November 3, 1986. The Kansas Supreme Court heard oral
arguments for Tom’s appeal of his murder conviction four days earlier, on
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