In a lifetime of bad decisions, one of the worst Russell Wayne Carpenter ever made was going out drinking on the evening of December 27, 1957 with a man known as Jack the Barber. Carpenter (1936-2021) was already a capricious. He was a brawler. He smashed bottles over people’s heads. He bounced out of high school; he was kicked out of his uncle’s house, where he had landed after leaving his mother’s house at the age of thirteen. He had a difficult relationship with his stepfather. Her own father, a notorious piercer with exceptionally large hands, spent most of his life in prison. Perhaps that’s why Carpenter, then twenty-one, turned to Jack the Barber, who was at least twice his age and just as prone to getting into trouble, when he wasn’t cutting. not the hair. Jack, whose real name was Henry Clay Overton, was an affable former convict who raged while drinking. He lived in the same building in Washington, D.C., as Carpenter’s mother, and she introduced them when Carpenter was in town for Christmas.
On the aforementioned night, Overton and Carpenter went for a drink at Jo Del Tavern, a cozy joint in a sleazy downtown Washington neighborhood. A country music combo was playing. Overton was a regular at the Jo Del, and he strutted around, chatting with other patrons, while Carpenter persuaded the drummer to let him bang on the drums. During the evening, Overton and Carpenter went through two bottles of whiskey. When they were served the bill, at almost two a.m., Overton protested, saying the tavern owner had offered to buy their drinks. The owner, a young man named George Kaldes, disagreed. After Overton and Carpenter argued with an egg vendor who came to Kaldes’ defense, Kaldes dumped them. The two men went to Overton’s car, took a shotgun and a pistol, and returned to Jo Del, guns blazing. Kaldes and the combo’s guitarist were killed instantly; the pianist later died in hospital.
Carpenter and Overton rushed out of town in Overton’s car. Near the Virginia border, they decided they had to dump the vehicle. Seeing a young couple parked in a Chevy convertible, they pulled over and turned them away, and headed south, taking the couple with them. The men had now committed murders, carjackings and kidnappings; Overton had also begun to push himself on the young woman, Doris Mattingly, but Carpenter talked him out of it and even let her go when Overton fell asleep. In Virginia, they ditched the Chevy (leaving Mattingly’s boyfriend locked in the trunk) and hijacked a woman in a Buick. (They let her out to South Carolina and kept the car.) After a day on the run, they reached Miami, and Carpenter left alone after Overton abandoned him. This likely saved his life, as Overton was caught up in a car chase with police soon after and died in a collision. Carpenter was arrested a few days later by a rookie cop in West Palm Beach.
At trial, Carpenter’s attorneys argued that he had been overpowered by Overton and was bidding on the older man out of fear, but the jury still convicted him on multiple counts of kidnapping ( a federal crime, as they had crossed state lines) and automobile. theft, and the judge cited him for contempt of court. He also later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was transferred to Lewisburg Penitentiary, Pennsylvania, in 1960. He was a poor model prisoner, and he was soon discharged to Alcatraz, the maximum-security, minimum-privilege facility for the most incorrigible federal inmates.
Alcatraz, located on a small island just over a mile off San Francisco Bay, had been the site of a federal prison since 1934. Al Capone served his time there, as did Machine Gun Kelly (l ‘original), Creepy Karpis, and a host of other well-known mobsters, but most of its inmates were less notorious criminals like Carpenter, who had been sent there because they refused to abide by the rules of other jails. (Even at Alcatraz, however, Carpenter’s earthiness was notable, and he failed an escape attempt he had planned with other inmates because he was in solitary confinement the night of the escape.) Alcatraz was extremely expensive to operate – housing an inmate there cost three times as much as in a regular prison – and, in 1963, the federal government closed it down. Carpenter, at the time of his death, was one of the very last survivors among the former inmates of Alcatraz.
When Alcatraz closed, Carpenter was sent to a Georgia Penitentiary, where he attempted to escape, and then to Marion Penitentiary, Illinois. A drastic change has come to Marion. Carpenter began cooperating with the director; he became the head of the inmates’ union; he liked to say that he had helped put down a riot of prisoners. His record was beginning to improve. He had been in prison for more than fifteen years when he decided to try his luck by applying for parole. One of the witnesses speaking on his behalf was Doris Mattingly, whom he kidnapped but later released. To almost everyone’s surprise, he was granted parole on his first attempt. “It was amazing,” her half-brother John Kirsch, a Reno attorney, said recently. “That almost never happens.” After prison, Carpenter’s life remained eventful. He had trained as a welder in prison, and he got — and soon quit — about 20 welding jobs. He found a new best friend, whose brother was known to the FBI as a criminal mastermind and master bank robber. He was in a shootout in Florida, but escaped without being caught. The FBI asked him about Whitey Bulger, whom he had known at Alcatraz. Except for one weapons charge, which was ultimately dismissed, he skated as a free man.
Along the way, he reconnected with Mattingly, a former victim, former character witness, and married her. In an unpublished memoir, he explains that the minute he saw her during the abduction, he noticed she was beautiful and “well-built”, and he felt they had a special bond, despite the situation. “I thought at the time that it was a shame that I didn’t have the chance to meet this girl in different circumstances,” he wrote. “I would have liked to have known her, but it was no longer possible now, because here I am on the run from the police.” Mattingly’s parents were fiercely opposed to the marriage. Perhaps they objected to her marrying someone who had once kidnapped her. They insisted that she divorce, and she complied.
In his later years, Carpenter moved to northern California gold country, hoping to strike it rich. He swept the American River and amassed a little pocket of crumbed gold. Kirsch and another half-brother mostly supported him, but Kirsch said Carpenter also made some money transporting illegal drugs from the Mexican border and renting some of his land to marijuana growers.
Carpenter spent a lot of time in his later years building fences around his property and harboring grudges. Shortly before his death, one of his dogs went missing, and he was convinced his neighbor had hurt him. He told Kirsch he was going to kill the neighbor, as a reward, and he spent time working out the details of how he was going to do it. Kirsch suggested that the dog might have just wandered off and killing the neighbor might not be a good idea, or at least not something to be done in a hurry. A few days later, someone returned the dog, and Carpenter admitted that waiting had probably been a good decision. Soon after, Carpenter was transferred to a memory care facility, as he had developed dementia. Even then, he remained a badass. Shortly before his death, he got in trouble for punching another patient in the nose.