“Do you have any music?”
It was nearing eight o’clock in the evening on December 11, 1981, and the serial killer Stephen Morin was driving the SUV of his latest captive, Margy Palm, north out of San Antonio. Helicopters circled the city and police combed the streets, warning people to stay inside and lock the doors. Morin’s reign of terror was sputtering to a clumsy close after a rare mistake earlier that day. He was suspected of the murder, torture, and in some cases rape of more than 30 women in 9 or 10 states—and most of San Antonio now knew that he was on the loose in its manicured, country-club midst.
Morin’s concern at the moment, though, wasn’t escaping so much as finding an appropriate soundtrack for his kidnapping of Palm, the 30-year-old Texan in the passenger seat. Morin, also 30, had pulled a .38 revolver on her six hours earlier as she reached her Chevy Suburban in the parking lot of a Kmart after Christmas shopping, then shoved her inside the car. Palm looked like many of his other victims—pretty, fit, and blond—and tells me that she didn’t try to fight or flee for the same reason that some of the others hadn’t: “I’ve never felt that kind of fear.”
Cranked up on amphetamines and feeling cornered by authorities, Morin initially screamed at Palm in the car and threatened to kill her if she didn’t behave: “What’s one more damn dead bitch at this point?” Palm had missed the news about Morin and his horrific crimes that morning but was terrified enough to shake with fear, which seemed to turn him on.
As oblivious shoppers passed in front of the Suburban, Morin fretted about the cops closing in. They would probably both die in a shoot-out today, he informed Palm. Noticing the Christmas presents in the back seat, he reached back and started throwing them around. He wondered aloud why he never got gifts like that as a child. He railed against the “sheltered princess” next to him and noted that animals were treated better than he was growing up. All Palm could manage to say was “I’m sorry.”
She closed her eyes to calm herself, and it came to her that the man shouting at her—who had three knives on him in addition to his gun—was not her enemy. God had put her in that car for a reason, she decided. “I was not afraid of him, not hating him anymore,” she says.
She started praying aloud for Morin.
“Oh my God,” he said, shocked. “I’m in the car with a religious freak.”
Morin was a career criminal who disarmed his victims with his mutable character-actor looks, charisma, and a grab bag of aliases and backstories. (The psychologist who evaluated him before his first murder trial found him to be “rather charming,” “friendly,” and an “interesting” conversationalist, despite possibly having antisocial personality disorder.) Morin thought Palm was conning him with religious nonsense but started taking her seriously when she produced proof of her devotion: a black notebook filled with hand-copied scriptures.
Morin was used to easily overpowering women, but Palm caught him off guard. Suddenly feeling as though she was being guided by a force greater than herself, she did something she’d never done before and fully knows sounds bizarre. She took her hands out from underneath her, where Morin had demanded she keep them, placed them on Morin’s forehead, and attempted to cast out the evil.
“You evil spirits, go now!” she shouted. She didn’t know it, but she was externalizing Morin’s criminality—separating him from his problem. (Externalizing is a technique that therapists sometimes use on patients to make them feel less shame.) “You will not keep destroying his life and destroying mine!” she continued. “Now leave my car!”
Palm’s husband, Bart, later tells me, “Casting out the demons is not my thing, but I think that is what got her through: her belief that she was there for a purpose. That threw him off because he hated women. He wanted to dominate them. And he didn’t dominate her.”
“I don’t want to hurt you, lady,” Morin later told Palm, “but I don’t know how I’m ever going to let you go.”
After a wild afternoon punctuated by deep, confessional parking lot conversations and a stop at a drive-through (“My girlfriend and I’ll take two Cokes,” Morin told the attendant, turning on the charm), the unlikely pair was now driving toward a bus station outside San Antonio in the dark. That’s when Morin decided that Palm’s cassette collection left a lot to be desired. He ejected a tape about the power of love by a televangelist named Kenneth Copeland, turned on an interior light, and dug through the pile. Disappointingly, it all seemed to be praise music. “What is this shit?” he said, tossing tape after tape into the back seat with the beer cans he’d drained after a 7-Eleven pit stop. “You really are a fanatic.”
Then he spotted something promising, and his glowering mood lifted.
“If you have what I think you have, you’re one fucking cool lady,” Morin said, grabbing a tape and confirming that it was indeed what he hoped: Christopher Cross’s debut single, “Ride Like the Wind.” “You’ve got my favorite.” He popped in the tape, cranked up the volume, and sang along to what he considered a personal anthem.
It is the night
My body’s weak
I’m on the run
No time to sleep
I’ve got to ride
Ride like the wind
To be free again
“He had a major connection to that song,” says Palm, recalling how Morin rewound the tape to play it again.
I was born the son of a lawless man
Always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand
Lived nine lives
Gunned down ten
Gonna ride like the wind
Today, “Ride Like the Wind” is a sensory time machine for Palm. It transports her back to that traumatic car ride with a murderous sociopath who spent eight hours shifting unpredictably between rage, spiritual curiosity, death threats, apparent religious awakening, and pop-rock-inspired ebullience. “I was so scared when he was singing,” she says. “But that was the first time I had seen any kind of softening to him.”
The press dubbed Morin a “chameleon” in the early ’80s, and he never gained pop-culture notoriety precisely because he had so many guises. But Susan Reed, the former Bexar County district attorney who helped secure the first of the murderer’s three death sentences, points out that Morin’s hellacious path across the US echoed that of a far more legendary serial killer. “Ted Bundy was on the road at the same time,” she says. “A lot of the crimes ascribed to Ted Bundy, I have always wondered whether they were Stephen Morin’s.” Even setting that theory aside, Morin was suspected of more murders than Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer were convicted of.
What happened to Palm on that day in 1981 doesn’t make sense in the way that stories about life-changing events often don’t. She hadn’t planned on stopping at Kmart—it was an on-the-whim errand and not even her usual Kmart. She has a hard time explaining how she overcame gunpoint terror to attempt an in-car exorcism on a serial killer. And she still struggles to reconcile the fact that she escaped a man who brutally raped and murdered many women before her—women who deserved to live just as much as she did.
In the years since she survived Morin, Palm was approached by agents, authors, and name-brand Hollywood producers eager to turn her abduction into books, a dramatized movie, or a miniseries. Invariably, they wanted to package her story either as a two-dimensional thriller or a Christian parable in which God comes to her in a car and saves her life and a mass murderer’s soul. Palm turned them all away, making her story a white whale even in our era of peak serial killer content. She’s telling her story in full for the first time here partly because she finally understands what happened to her.
The truth of Palm’s experience—as she discovered in recent years while unpacking the trauma with her therapist daughter, Noelle—is not tidy or predictable. It’s nuanced, bewildering at times, and somehow hopeful. Unlike most “entertainment” about mass murderers, it’s the story of a survivor more than it is of a killer. (Netflix obviously knew Dahmer was the true star of their disturbing phenomenon because they put his name in the title twice: Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.) After Morin’s arrest on December 12, 1981, Palm tried to resume her normal life, but something surprising happened. Morin began calling, writing, and even sending her Christmas cards from prison. Morin felt so close to her, in fact, that he branched his friendship out to her mom and sister, calling them for regular check-ins. Palm visited Morin behind bars about 15 times and made the long trek to see him on death row the day before he was executed.
“I became friends with a serial killer,” she tells me. The statement is incongruous with both our setting—the sunny back garden of Palm’s San Antonio home, where birds chirp and the honeysuckle-like scent of bougainvillea wafts over us—and the woman delivering it. Palm is a striking 72-year-old with a gentle Texas twang. She’s wearing jeans, a crisp button-down shirt, and tasteful gold jewelry. During our time together, she shows me a trove of handwritten letters that Morin sent her from prison, along with a cache of photos, none of which she’s ever shared with a journalist. She tries to explain their surreal relationship. It sounds insane even to her, and she shakes her head in disbelief. “I really did become friends with the guy.”
At first glance, Palm looked to be everything Morin resented in life. It wasn’t just that she was a woman, but that she seemed never to have struggled financially or emotionally like he had. In the Suburban, Morin’s cheap black leather jacket squeaked with his manic movements. Palm surreptitiously pushed her gold, diamond-studded Rolex beneath her blue-and-green sweater.
Palm grew up in El Paso as the granddaughter of Thomas Moore Mayfield, a pioneer builder and developer who “twice lost and rebuilt a fortune in the construction business,” according to his obituary. Her family was regularly featured in the society column, and as a teenager with an electrowatt smile, deep tan, and blond hair, Palm began making El Paso headlines too—as a debutante, homecoming duchess, and 1970–1971’s Southwestern Sun Carnival’s sun queen, a title accompanied by a crown and scepter. The pictures represented just one dimension of who Palm was, though. She was an honor-roll student who studied Spanish, Latin, and the arts. The middle of three children, Palm was especially close to her father—a World War II pilot turned business leader and good Episcopalian who prayed alongside her each night and took her and her siblings on spontaneous plane rides over El Paso.
When Palm was 11, her father was killed in a violent car crash. Her family members crumbled emotionally, so Palm became the resilient backbone who regularly rallied to cook dinner. She burned off energy as a cheerleader and tennis player, and had a fiery streak beneath her radiant façade. It later took a handsome real estate developer, Bart Palm, seven invitations for a date before she finally accepted. Seven months into their courtship, Bart announced he was moving to San Antonio and hoped that Palm would visit. She promptly told him that she would not. “We’ve been dating long enough,” she explained. “You ought to be able to make up your mind.”
He proposed then and there. Palm’s mother, who was not a fan of Bart being a divorcé, burst into tears upon hearing the news. The morning after their 1973 wedding, the couple drove eight hours southeast to San Antonio to start their new life. “I like to say we’re still on our honeymoon,” Bart jokes today.
Palm had been a passive Episcopalian since her father’s death, but an early 1970s retreat in Las Cruces, New Mexico, awakened a spiritual interest so deep that she kept it from friends and family for fear they’d judge her. Maybe it was a way of reconnecting with her late father, or a means of occupying her mind in a new town. Or maybe it just gave her a rush of existential fulfillment and meaning. She felt a powerful connection—not to any particular doctrine so much as to the concept of God’s love being universal and more powerful than fear or hatred. She had been a debutante, yes, but she was also a serious thinker who spent hours absorbing scriptures, hand-copying those passages into her black notebook, and seeking out books that expanded her spiritual understanding. “What happened to you?” Bart asked Palm early in their marriage, surprised by her transformation.
After Palm had Noelle in 1977 and her son, Mills, in 1979, she became a devoted stay-at-home mother who relished arts and crafts activities with her kids and making clothing for them. She volunteered for the Junior League and fostered her faith. The night before her kidnapping, Palm read about Corrie ten Boom, a Holocaust survivor and activist who found healing in forgiving a Nazi guard stationed at the concentration camp where her sister was killed. Loving someone who loves you is easy, Palm knew. The true challenge was loving someone who hates you.
On the morning of December 11, before she encountered the serial killer who would change her life, she knelt in her closet and told God she would serve him however he needed her to that day.
Growing up, Morin dreamed of becoming a stock car racer, but as a teenager, the only racing he did was from the cops. He was born in Providence and spent his teen years in Florida. After a stay in a juvenile detention home and multiple car thefts, he was briefly placed in the state-run Florida School for Boys, in Marianna. The reform school was notorious for its horrific conditions—understaffed and overcrowded facilities, boys being chained to walls, beatings, abuse, and in some instances death. In 2013, anthropologists discovered 55 graves on and around the property.
At age 14, Morin made headlines for his escape from the school. After stealing a car from his father, who was visiting, Morin ended up wrecking three vehicles before he was caught. He was taken to a hospital with injuries, escaped the hospital, led the local sheriff’s department on a 100-mph car chase, and was caught again. That same year, having already stolen more than 20 cars in his short life—“How was I to know he’d use [the lessons I taught him] to steal?” his mechanic father once told the press—Morin was tried as an adult and sentenced to time in Florida State Prison, the same institution in which Bundy lived before his execution two decades later.
Morin blamed his criminal perversions on his mother sending him to a boys’ home, his witnessing of his mother’s alleged sexual abuse of his brother and her supposed sexual exploits with a friend his age, as well as being sent as a 15-year-old to prison, where Morin claimed he was sodomized. (He habitually blamed others for his crimes, including a woman he murdered for “making” him do it.) As a teenager, Morin once sent his parents a letter that read like a cry for help: “Boy I’m sick (not the kind of sick you need a doctor for).” His parents later shared the letter with a reporter along with a scrapbook containing write-ups of Morin’s crimes.
After being paroled, Morin became an even more prolific criminal. His offenses included possession of various drugs; hitting a girlfriend; and killing the girlfriend’s Siamese cat, Sweetie, then delivering Sweetie’s body in a box to his girlfriend’s office.
In 1976, after marrying his first wife, Morin was said to have committed a crime so disturbing that a lawyer who worked one of his trials is still haunted by it. Morin lured his sister’s 14-year-old friend back to his apartment under the pretense that his sister needed her help. Once there, Morin gagged the teen and sexually tortured her for six hours while the TV blared. The experience was so horrific, the survivor tells me nearly 50 years later, that she found herself wondering if she could get the momentum to swing herself through the second-floor window to a more humane death.
The 14-year-old eventually appealed to Morin with softness. After Morin removed her gag, she told him, “You just need somebody to care about you. You’re just hurt.” The woman explains, “I think that’s why he let me live. Because I showed him compassion.” Before fleeing town, Morin allowed her to leave, with bruises covering her body and face, as well as trauma that manifested throughout her life via low self-esteem and drug addiction.
The women Morin attacked afterward were not so lucky. With a warrant out for his arrest in San Francisco and an FBI file now devoted to him, Morin moved on to Las Vegas. There he assumed new aliases, got a new job and wife, and leaned into murder. His modus operandi was to hunt attractive white women, mostly in their teens and 20s; tie them up; torture and kill them; then steal their cars, IDs, and assorted possessions. By the time authorities found his victims—discarded in deserts, shallow graves, and fleabag motels—Morin would be hunting a new woman in a new location using a new alias.
Even as Morin and his second wife celebrated the birth of their son, he is said to have kidnapped 18-year-old Susan Belote and 19-year-old Cheryl Daniel, both of whom were found dead in the wilds of Utah. (Hauntingly, Belote went missing the same day Morin’s wife went into labor.) It speaks to Morin’s arrogance that, after killing Daniel, he reintroduced himself to a friend of hers, Sarah Pisan—now Davis—using a different name. Morin had changed his appearance so convincingly that Davis had no clue she’d already met him. In the months before authorities found Daniel’s body, Davis says Morin repeatedly asked her out, stalked her, and left her disturbing messages around the clock, including horrifying threats and the apparent sounds of people being tortured. To this day, Davis tells me, “I will never be without a gun. I have a .45 next to me now, another gun in my vehicle, and a rifle by my bed.”
If he wasn’t assaulting and murdering women, he was recruiting them for other selfish purposes—like a woman in Buffalo whom he convinced, after only knowing her for two months, to liquidate her belongings, buy a van, and join him on a cross-country road trip. (The woman’s son later wrote an essay recalling how he helped Morin nail carpet to the van’s ceiling and walls before the trip. Years later, he realized in horror that he had helped the serial killer soundproof his vehicle.) During a 1981 pit stop in Denver, Morin, using the alias Rich Clarke, picked up 23-year-old former teacher Sheila Whalen, strangled her to death, checked into a motel, turned on the TV, and deposited her nude body on the bed. Immediately before picking up Whalen, Morin had taken another woman on a date, where the two played video games.
In the early hours of December 11, 1981, the same day he kidnapped Palm, Morin made a mistake. While pulling a gun on 21-year-old Carrie Marie Scott in the parking lot of Maggie’s, an eatery in San Antonio, Scott’s friend suddenly appeared—surprising Morin, who shot both women, Scott fatally. A bystander took down Morin’s license plate number and, hours later, the police tracked him to a seedy motel. When Morin left his room—where he was keeping a woman named Pamela Jackson hostage—to grab a Coke from a vending machine, he spotted police in the parking lot. He returned to his room, snaked his five-foot-eight frame out a tiny bathroom window, and escaped before the motel was swarmed by the SWAT team. (Though they missed Morin, police were able to free Jackson.)
Stunningly, Morin had slipped away from authorities even more narrowly before. Earlier that year, he had been arrested and brought into police custody twice under aliases—in Pleasanton, California, for false imprisonment and brandishing a weapon, and in Buffalo for loitering with the purpose of engaging in a deviant sexual act. In Pleasanton, Morin made bail and disappeared before authorities could determine his true identity. In Buffalo, he was fingerprinted and spent the night in a cell, but since the alias he was using had only a single minor arrest on record, authorities did not rush fingerprint analysis and let Morin out with a trial date before getting the results.
“They had him in their custody, and they let him go,” says Reed, the former Bexar County DA. “They could have saved several lives of young, innocent women—and that didn’t happen.”
Palm finally caught up with the news of the day several hours into the abduction when Morin pulled into a 7-Eleven and told her to go inside and get him a newspaper, cigarettes, and beer. Palm entered the empty fluorescent-lit store. She got a case of Budweiser from the cooler and a pack of cigarettes, then found the San Antonio News. The front-page headline made clear that her captor was far more dangerous than she’d let herself believe: “Accused killer of 30 guns down 2 in S.A.” “I freaked out when I saw the headline,” Palm tells me. She set the items down and wrestled with whether she should alert the cashier. “I was the only one in there with this girl, and I did not turn him in. He was sitting there watching me, and I knew if I did something I might die and she might die.”
There was a phone booth outside the 7-Eleven. Morin forced Palm into it, pressed his gun into her side, and instructed her to call her husband and tell him everything was fine. Morin listened as Palm told Bart that she’d decided to finish her holiday shopping that evening. She asked Bart to feed their children, give them baths, and put them to sleep. She had never once in their marriage asked him to handle the kids’ evening rituals, but Bart chalked it up to pre-Christmas jitters. It was only after watching the 10 p.m. news, which was devoted to Morin’s San Antonio rampage, that Bart became worried. His wife still wasn’t home. He called the cops.
Hours later, after he’d listened to “Ride Like the Wind” in the Suburban a few times, Morin became polite (for an armed captor). He was now apologizing for cursing in front of her and volunteering details about his personal life. He told Palm that he hated himself and that he was a fraud—that he had been married and had a son that he loved but abandoned. Before that, the emotion Morin projected most was hatred—a hatred for himself and others so deep, Morin claimed, that no god could ever rid him of it. “All of a sudden he’s telling me how much he loves his son,” says Palm.
Palm had been trying to tell Morin for hours that everyone is worthy of forgiveness, but he hadn’t bought it. She turned to him and posed a question: “If your son committed the kind of crimes you did, do you think you could forgive him?”
Morin seemed to get it. “Lady, you’ve been preaching to me all day long, and I now understand what you’re saying,” he said. Palm felt calmed by the conversation and even grew peaceful enough to fall asleep. She was jolted awake by Morin pulling the car over. He threw his hands up in the air and said, “I’m sorry, Lord, for everything I’ve done. Please forgive me. I want to go to heaven.” Afterward, at a rest stop, he opened his revolver, poured the bullets into Palm’s purse, and told her, “I’ll never kill again.” (To be clear, they were not his only bullets. When police arrested him hours later, he had 11 backups in his pocket, as well as a bag of speed and sedatives.)
Palm had spoken throughout the day about her own religious beliefs, which she had kept secret from friends. “Strangely, I found myself saying to him—this guy that kidnapped me and I can’t get away from yet—things I never said to anyone,” she says. “If I had said it to people I knew, they would think I was crazy. It was really strange, being in that car…I felt compassion for him, but he was still kidnapping me.”
Palm had told Morin that ministers preached God’s love to inmates who’d done the same things he had and helped free them of their hatred. She also told Morin about Copeland, the televangelist, who was based in Fort Worth. Morin decided to go there and, in a grand gesture, lay down his gun on Copeland’s desk.
Palm had no idea that there was a bus station in Kerrville, a small city 65 miles north of San Antonio—this was long before the internet—but says that instinct guided her there. She announced the plan to Morin and, after he asked her for money, withdrew $300 from an ATM for him. They drove north, passing a steakhouse. Under different circumstances, Morin told her, he would be taking her there on a date. At the station, they discovered that Morin could get to Fort Worth on the next bus, with a stopover in Austin. Palm bought Morin a ticket, so he could find the televangelist.
“You don’t want to come with me?” he asked.
“I have two kids at home,” she reminded him. “You’ve got to get on that bus. God is with you.”
After asking permission, Morin hugged Palm and kissed her on the cheek. She gave him her notebook of scriptures and told him to use them instead of his weapons. He reached into a pocket, produced an earring with a cross and a green stone, and gave it to her.
When Morin walked away, Palm got into the driver’s seat of the Suburban and immediately locked the doors. As the bus pulled away, Morin waved from a window with a big smile, like a kid on his way to summer camp.
When Palm pulled out of the parking lot, she burst into tears. Later, she says, she was told by police that Morin had given similar earrings to women he’d murdered.
Driving home, Palm was overwhelmed by terror and relief, but strangely, she felt a bit of hopefulness too. “I felt like something wonderful happened to him,” she insists. “I saw the change.” As she turned onto her street, police responding to Bart’s call pulled in behind her.
Seeing Palm pull into the driveway, seemingly fine, Bart was initially furious with his wife for causing unwarranted worry. He confronted her: “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been thinking you’ve been with this rapist.”
“I have been with him,” Palm said.
She opened her purse to show him, and the officers now huddling with them, Morin’s bullets. The police were shocked to see she had survived the encounter apparently unscathed. They told her and Bart how lucky they were.
“I need a drink,” Palm announced.
“Somebody get her a drink,” demanded an officer.
Bart made Palm a martini, then the couple loaded into the back seat of the squad car—Palm with glass in hand—to go to the police station. While there, the reality of what Palm had encountered set in. She was shown photos of what looked to be 15 or 20 different men. They were all Morin. “I felt like somebody hit me with a baseball bat,” she says. “I couldn’t comprehend it.”
Then the police showed her crime-scene photos that revealed what Morin was capable of—pictures of his victims, who had been bound, sexually assaulted, and murdered. “I was so disgusted and sickened,” she says. “I had never heard of a mass murderer. I didn’t realize the magnitude of how lucky I was to get away from this man.”
She also felt duped. There was no way that a man who tortured women for apparent sport had seen God in her car. “I thought, He’s been conning me all day,” she says. “That was a sickening feeling. Even in the face of all the horrible stuff I saw—and learning this is the most diabolical con man out there—I wanted to believe what happened was real.”
Palm was terrified that, if Morin found out she had given the police information about his whereabouts, he’d return to San Antonio and do to her family what he’d done to so many others. So she told the officers that she had left Morin at the Kmart. They must have known she was lying. There was no way that the criminal who had outwitted police for years would have burned eight hours, while they were hunting him, only to go back to the place he started. But they drove Palm and Bart back home to recover.
Once inside her front door, Palm broke down and told Bart everything. She knew where Morin was: His bus would be in Austin for less than an hour before it left for Fort Worth at 3:30 a.m. It was now roughly 2:45. Bart insisted they call the cops: “If he kills anybody else and you had the opportunity to stop him and didn’t, it’s going to be on your conscience.” He phoned the San Antonio police and explained why Palm had lied. Then he called the local FBI office. The agent Bart spoke to appreciated the information but was highly skeptical that Morin would actually be in the Austin bus station. “We’ve been after this guy for years,” Bart recalls the agent saying. “He doesn’t do anything stupid. He won’t be there.”
Nevertheless, Bart says, the agent dispatched police to the bus station, where they surrounded the building. A plainclothes policewoman entered the terminal, where she was shocked to find Morin calmly waiting for his bus and reading Palm’s book of scriptures. Until that day, Morin had told anyone who would listen that he’d never go back to prison after the horrific experiences he had in institutions in his youth. But when the officer approached Morin and identified herself, his revolver was still empty and he did not resist arrest.
The press had a field day reporting the unbelievable story of the woman who peacefully defused the serial killer who’d evaded authorities for so long. “That’s the most fantastic pinch I’ve heard about in the last five years,” a sex crimes officer told reporters. “This was a highly religious woman,” San Antonio detective Abel Juarez marveled to the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle. “She prayed a lot and softened him up. Through her religion she convinced him to release her, and after listening to her preaching, he decided to empty his gun.”
Months after Morin’s peaceful arrest, Palm began to truly believe that he had seen God that day and decided to change. Morin’s surviving victims and their families, and Texas prosecutors, would be harder to convince.
DEAD MAN WALKING
Morin’s first capital murder trial, for the killing of Carrie Marie Scott in Maggie’s parking lot, was fast-tracked the following year. By April 1982, just four months after Scott’s murder and Palm’s kidnapping, the serial killer stood in a Beaumont, Texas, courtroom. Reed, the district attorney, was reading the indictment when Morin jumped up—“in a scene that would make a Perry Mason fan’s heart leap,” the papers reported—and announced, “Before the jury and before God, I plead guilty.” He was asked whether he understood that the charge would result in either life in prison or the death sentence, with no chance to negotiate. “The only plea bargaining I’ve done, your honor, is with my Lord,” Morin replied.
During the sentencing arguments, Reed says, Morin’s “whole defense” was that he had found Jesus. He quoted scripture while addressing the jury from behind a bulletproof barrier—“any man that be in Christ is a new creature and old things are passed away”—and brought his own Bible into the courtroom. One of his lawyers acknowledged that Morin had been “the scum of the earth” and “a murderer, kidnapper, rapist, and thief,” but claimed he had “undergone a transformation and is born-again.” Palm was called as a defense witness to testify about his conversion. Morin’s lawyer argued that his client’s conversion could be educational to others.
After hearing from some of Morin’s survivors, the jury deliberated for just over two hours, and the defendant received the death penalty. “We could accept that he was a born-again Christian,” the jury foreman said afterward, “but we didn’t go along with it to the point of where we felt he wouldn’t kill again.”
At that first trial, Morin had, in a narcissistic flourish, asked to act as his own cocounsel, hoping to represent himself as Bundy had. The judge denied the request. But Morin was allowed to question potential jury members for his next trial, in Corpus Christi, Texas, for the strangulation of 21-year-old Janna Bruce. One question he posed was, “Do you believe that a person—despite what an individual’s past has been, no matter how bad—can be sincere in changing?” Morin was again found guilty and sentenced to death.
In April 1982, less than two weeks after he was initially sentenced to death, Morin wrote the judge in his first murder trial and asked him to set an execution date. “Christians are not afraid to die,” he wrote. “I have been prepared to meet my maker from the time I was blessed enough to meet Mrs. Palm.” Later, Bart finally accepted that Morin had changed. “Every police officer I talked to said he was a consummate con man, so who’s to say he wasn’t conning us,” says Bart, noting that posing as a born-again Christian to lighten his sentence “would’ve been the ultimate con. But when he refused [to appeal], that’s when I believed.”
In 1984, Morin was extradited to Golden, Colorado, where he stood trial for the 1981 murder of Sheila Whalen. Though Morin already faced two death sentences, the former Jefferson County deputy district attorney Cary Unkelbach says that Morin was such a clear threat as a repeat murderer-rapist that the state of Colorado decided to prosecute him in the event his sentences in Texas were overturned. “Death penalty cases are a lot of work, a lot of emotion, a lot of cost,” says Unkelbach. But “we were confident we’d done the right thing. We were sure he was going to kill again.” During Morin’s trials, she notes, one judge was so wary of the accused that he kept a loaded .357 Magnum on his bench.
Despite what Morin repeatedly said about being saved, a sheriff’s deputy found that he had a pair of shoes hiding $50, razor blades, a list of names and addresses, and a Texas driver’s license. Morin claimed he needed the items for protection. In his letters to Palm after the contraband was reported, Morin vaguely referred to a lapse in faith that had occurred while he was in Colorado.
Unkelbach says that she and others tried to negotiate with Morin during the sentencing in Colorado in the hopes of determining his involvement in dozens of other murders. Despite his claim that he was a God-fearing individual, he refused to work with prosecutors. There was not much of a negotiation upside for him—he had already been served two death sentences. “We really wanted to clear up those cases,” says Unkelbach, “but they were never connected to him because he wouldn’t talk.”
In Golden, Morin was again found guilty and given his third death sentence. By now, Palm was one of Morin’s primary lifelines outside of prison. When he moved into the Texas penitentiary, the family’s phone would ring with a collect call once or twice a week. Whenever Bart would pick up, he’d roll his eyes and accept the charges, his rationale being: “He’s on death row. What am I going to do?” Morin tried to chat Bart up like a long-lost buddy—“How are you doing? How’s everything?”—but Bart’s answer was always the same: “I’m fine, Stephen. Here’s Margy.”
Palm and Morin talked about Morin’s life, but their conversations were largely spiritual. One day he asked her, “Do you think I’m going to die?”
“I hope you don’t die,” she told him. “I hope you live and can help other people the way God has helped you. But at the same time, if you do die, I believe you are going to be with the Lord.”
Despite believing that Morin could be forgiven, Palm never thought he deserved anything less than life in prison. “It’s like a wild animal,” she says. “Try to tame a wild animal and they might be sweet for a while. Then they bite your head off. He lived so long in that dark place. I imagine that the thoughts he lived with for so many years would come back.”
The letters that Morin wrote to Palm from various cells in Texas and Colorado are a wild ride into the consciousness, delusions, and contradictory sentiments of a violent sociopath who insisted that he had reformed. Oddly, he seemed to feel guiltier about disrupting Bart’s life than about the women he murdered. Morin wrote in one early letter, “If [Bart] doesn’t feel too kind towards me, I can understand. It would be hard for any man to have the privacy of his family invaded.” Incredibly, Morin seemed to consider himself to be a threat to Bart and Palm’s marriage, writing to Bart, “I sincerely hope and pray I have not come between you and Margy, nor will I ever due to my encounter with your wife.” Writing on Jefferson County detention facility stationery, Morin later attempted to turn Bart on to religion, even using real estate terms that might appeal to the commercial developer: “Why not invest your life and heart into the bridge of eternal life?”
In one letter, Morin reflected on his marital history with appalling delusion: “I don’t feel bitter towards any of [my wives], as I’m sure I was a big part of things going bad.” In another, he talked about being converted—claiming that he could have easily evaded authorities after Palm dropped him off at the Kerrville bus station. “Instead, I sat in the bus station for over three hours with a pocket full of bullets and an empty gun awaiting whatever fate our Lord had in mind for me,” he wrote. “I sat there reading Margy’s scriptures with a warmth inside of me beyond words.” But every time Morin appeared to approach accountability, he veered off course. In the same letter, he says, “Furthermore, just for the record, I have not committed a quarter of the crimes which I am being accused of.”
In 1984, Morin floated the idea of trying to sell the book and movie rights to his life story. He fantasized that the project would “not be based on my crimes, but what…contributes on all levels to…an innocent child [going] from parent, school, et cetera, et cetera, to death row.” He went so far as to divide the hypothetical profits—allotting 20 percent for himself, 10 percent for Kenneth Copeland Ministries, and 5 percent “to my son’s trust fund for his education (not streetwise).” He claimed, “I don’t want anything other than to be able to turn a tragic ending into something good.”
Morin often maintained that he had no qualms about being executed, and on March 13, 1985, he made good on that claim. On his way to the death chamber, the 34-year-old jokingly asked if anyone wanted to go fishing instead. Once inside, he was strapped to a gurney and stayed calm while technicians struggled for at least 40 minutes to successfully insert a needle into one of his veins, which were damaged from drug use. It was finally inserted at 12:44 a.m.—along with a cocktail of sodium thiopental, potassium chloride, and Pavulon. Morin’s final words were, “Lord Jesus, I commit my soul to you. I praise you, and I thank you.”
Texas’s attorney general at the time, Jim Mattox, called Morin’s execution the least violent one he had witnessed: “It was like a person being put to sleep in an operation.”
Most people I speak to reject the idea that Morin was actually born-again. “My grandfather was a minister, and I believe in God like there’s no other way,” says Sarah Davis, the woman Morin stalked and terrorized in 1980. “But I don’t know that this man could have ever been saved.”
The woman who was raped and tortured by Morin when she was 14 doesn’t believe it either. She thinks that the “Christian” Morin was just another alias that Morin used, like “Robert Generoso” or “Robert Andrew Ireland.” “He was just reaching out for an excuse to get off the death penalty,” she says. Though she was a prosecuting witness in Morin’s first murder trial and still bears the emotional scars of Morin’s torture, she admits that she cried when she realized Morin would be put to death. “Isn’t that stupid?” she tells me. “Just the fact that I knew I killed somebody.” When I protest that she didn’t kill anyone, she replies, “It sure felt like I did.”
After her traumatic encounter with Morin, the woman actually sees horror movies like Saw—about a murderer who subjects victims to physical and psychological torture—as inspirational. “I like to see how people make it through,” she says. Even five decades later.
Palm was initially reluctant to discuss her kidnapping because it exposed the depth of her faith. People are going to think I’m a Christian nut and I’ve lost my mind, she remembers thinking. She agreed to a few local interviews but insisted that she be identified by her maiden name or, if she appeared onscreen, that she appear in shadow. She turned down Good Morning America and Today. Later, Palm did share her story with churches and religious organizations, but she’d often have a limited amount of time to describe an event that she hadn’t fully plumbed, so she told abbreviated versions in what she calls “Christian-ese,” the power of God’s love being the star of the story.
Like the other Morin survivors I spoke to, Palm never tried therapy, which wasn’t as widely accepted as it is now. It was only when Palm began writing about the experience with the help of Noelle about 10 years ago that she began processing what happened to her on a deeper level. Noelle has since become a marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma, and she emits empathy like an essential-oil diffuser. She coaxed her mother into confronting a more complicated reality about what she endured. “I do not and could not have answers,” Palm says. “But I have a story.”
By no means does Palm think she had some secret formula that the other victims did not. She understands that she encountered Morin at the end of a crime spree when he was feeling cornered and, perhaps because of that, was more receptive to her. “It was an anomalous moment,” she tells me, speaking from an antique bench in her living room, light streaming onto her from the French patio doors and a skylight above. Had he kidnapped her months before, who knows if she would have survived.
“I’ve grown a lot in the past few years and learned about trauma and how to talk about these things,” says Palm. She wishes that she’d had the vocabulary and understanding to hold Morin more accountable for his crimes—to urge him to speak to victims’ families and cooperate with authorities’ questioning about the other murders he was suspected of committing. “I didn’t have that language at age 30, but if he were still alive, that’s what I wish I could do.”
In some ways, the Palms resumed their life post-kidnapping with remarkable normality. Amazingly, they kept the Suburban—“I have no idea why we didn’t get rid of that thing,” Palm says—which had been the scene of the crime. “I think it was an absolute fluke that will never happen again,” Bart tells me in the living room, as the family’s calico cats, Tiki and Lala (i.e., Tequila), survey the premises. “Just wrong place, wrong time.” After spending days with Palm in San Antonio, I understand how Morin could have been softened and enchanted by her kindness. By the end of a long weekend, she’s invited me to join the family’s Sunday-night dinner on the lawn of the local country club with her kids and grandkids. When Palm tells me how happy she is that we met, her words are so sincere, I feel as though I’d be welcomed back for Thanksgiving.
The imprints of the grislier side of her kidnapping are still evident in her everyday life, however. She drives a car in attention-grabbing fire engine red, and she only parks in well-lit spots near entrances. She rarely goes to big stores unless she has a companion with her. The Christmas season—and Christmas carols in particular, much like “Ride Like the Wind”—are activating, sending her down a terrifying memory spiral. She freaks out, understandably, if she does not hear back from her grown children in a timely manner.
Not long ago, Palm was unnerved by a scene in Mindhunter, the Netflix series inspired by pioneering FBI profiler John E. Douglas and his studies of serial killers. At the end of season one, the Douglas proxy (Jonathan Groff) sits opposite shackled murderer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton). Groff’s character has come to consider Kemper a work friend. But during the scene, Kemper slowly peels back the friendly façade to reveal that he is still very much a murderer and threat, even to Groff’s character, who runs from the room, realizing that he’s fallen for the killer’s manipulations. When Palm and Noelle watched the scene, they had to take breaks to shut off the TV and turn on lights.
Morin asked Palm to attend his 1985 execution, but she decided it was more important to be with her husband that day. She visited the killer on death row at the infamous Ellis 1 Unit, near Huntsville, Texas, the day before, though. The trip was long. Palm flew to Houston and buckled in for a road trip to the prison alongside a priest who waited in the prison parking lot. The red brick building was ominous, with spiraled razor-wire coils atop tall fencing, high-voltage signs, and guard towers. But inside—after passing through a security checkpoint and a heavy metal door—Palm says the warden gave her a hug and greeted her warmly. At the time, she recalls, there were open windows allowing in a pleasant breeze and the scents from a vegetable garden. She was taken to a room. Soon, Morin was led in and sat behind a glass partition. He had his Bible, a can of Sprite, and a huge smile on his face.
“He was happy,” Palm tells me. “He said, ‘I’m ready to die. I feel good. I’m gonna be with the Lord.’” I have a hard time believing Morin could really be happy hours before his execution until Palm shows me Polaroids the warden took that day: Morin’s grinning like a high school senior on the last day of school.
During that final visit, Palm showed her former captor photos of her young children. The mood grew serious when the two turned to the Bible. “We took hands and prayed,” says Palm, adding that Morin cried about the crimes he committed. “He said, ‘I’m sorry for what my life has been. I wish I’d done something with myself.’” Morin also told her, “I’m sorry for kidnapping you, but not really. I’m glad we met because my life changed. I’m not the same person I was before…. I’ve got so many friends now. I’ve got all these people that really love me.”
After telling me about this final meeting, Palm sits with me and Noelle at her kitchen counter, combing through Morin’s letters. One envelope bears the image of a unicorn and a sticker reading “Sing a new song to the Lord.” Sent in September 1982, the letter says in part, “You once said you would never give up on me. I want to thank you for standing by your word.” In another letter, Morin expressed surprising affection, writing, “I do love you.” Even after everything I’ve heard, I am shocked to see that. I look up at Palm, expecting to see my surprise mirrored back, but she’s smiling. I ask her what she feels when she reads those words now. “It’s touching,” she says. “The fact that he went from screaming at me to saying that is pretty incredible.”
Earlier, I’d asked Noelle what she thinks of her mother’s reconciliation of Morin the serial killer and Morin the saved man. She curls her feet up underneath her and collects her thoughts before answering. Like many daughters, Noelle is the preeminent expert in her mother’s emotional experience. Having grown up with this kidnapping story, she’s had decades to metabolize it and contemplate various possibilities: that Morin was genuinely saved, that he was a narcissistic sociopath, or something in between. Maybe Morin stopped delaying his execution because he was ready to accept punishment. Or maybe he knew that being executed would spare him years of misery behind bars that mirrored his teen days in Florida State Prison. Noelle has considered all the alternatives and admits: “I am of the opinion that I have no clue.”
But she does know her mom. “I think every survivor has to find a story that gives them peace,” she says. “It’s going to be different for every survivor. For some survivors, it’s like, ‘He’s going to rot in hell,’ and that gives them peace. For Mom, I think the story that helps her survive is that he was a changed man.” She references the way Palm isolated Morin’s evil impulses from Morin himself during the car exorcism and in the years since. “Separating the person from the problem has been such a survival tool for her,” she says. “It’s what’s helped her that day, and it’s what helped keep her from having nightmares.”