The Killing Season
Players in Terry Allen Langford's life and death drama search for meaning in retributionBy DANIEL ROBERTS and ZACH DUNDAS
Photos by JEFF POWERS
The bus driver remembered dropping the killer off outside Trixi's Antler Saloon in Ovando. He told investigators he had to open the belly of the bus to retrieve his passenger's homemade leather backpack, and recalled that the man wore a denim jacket, light clothing for such a cool evening.
When detectives showed him a photo line-up a month later, the driver picked out Terry Allen Langford. That was nearly 10 years ago, at the beginning of a gruesome saga that landed Langford on death row, where he currently awaits execution.
Less than a week after stepping off the bus at Trixi's, a roadhouse bar off Highway 200, Langford murdered Ned and Celene Blackwood in their secluded home on their 400-acre ranch just two miles down the road. "I blew two people's brains out," he told investigators in a chilling confession after the Blackwoods' bodies were discovered. "It doesn't really bother me because I haven't really thought about it."
The story of Terry Langford is scheduled to come to an end just after midnight Tuesday, Feb. 24, in a converted trailer behind the maximum security building at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.
Tuesday morning, the state of Montana plans to kill a killer.
How Terry Allen Langford ended up standing outside of Trixi's on that cool June night was a matter of horrifying chance.
Langford, by his own account, came to Montana at the age of 22 from North Carolina to become a survivalist -- to kill his own food and live off the land. In a 1987 journal entry later published by Life Magazine, Langford wrote, "The power is here. Can you feel it. The power to kill. To kill at will. Everyone has it. Only a few know it. Even fewer do it."
Langford didn't know where he was going when he came to Montana. He wanted to end up in the mountains, and Ovando was the end of the line.
"He bought bus tickets for as far as he could go and just happened to end up in Ovando," lead investigator Ward McKay told the Independent. "He got to Great Falls, counted his money, asked how far it would take him, and they said, 'Well, you can go to this little place called Ovando.' And he asked 'Is that in the mountains?' And they said it was. He spent every cent. He had some survival things, a little bit of equipment, but he realized he wouldn't make it."
Murder in Ovando
After jumping off the bus at Trixi's, Langford headed for the biggest mountains he could see, an untamed spear of the Scapegoat Wilderness pointing at Ovando from the north. He never got there. Instead, according to an amalgamation of reports, he ricocheted through the hills and wooded ranches around the town for several days, his food and confidence dwindling.
At some point, he must have realized that his half-formed mountain man fantasies and jury-rigged backpack weren't going to be enough. He began to look for a way out. He needed to get back to North Carolina, out of this alien country and back home, where he at least had the rudiments of a life.
In the most literal sense, he stumbled onto Ned and Celene Blackwood. Their isolated house, set between a jut of forested hills and a pasture's long roll, could be reached in 10 minutes by car from Trixi's, but the disoriented and half-starved Langford likely didn't know where he was. Whether he had any idea what he was about to do, no one knows.
The Blackwoods were emigrants from a big-city life utterly unlike the one they tried to build in Ovando. Ned was a big ex-Marine, martial artist, avid hunter and failed rancher who'd abandoned a job as an investment banker in San Francisco. Celene, by all accounts, was a sweet woman who read Shirley MacLaine, loved animals and hugged trees. They weren't Montanans, but people in Ovando reportedly took to them. They'd made a mess of their start-up ranch business and had the property up for sale when Langford found his way into their unfinished garage.
There's no sense in dwelling pornographically on what happened next. According to Langford's own account, after helping himself to food stored in a refrigerator in the garage for a couple of days, he got a hold of one of Ned's guns, captured the Blackwoods, forced Celene to tie Ned up in a living room rocking chair, then hog-tied Celene himself.
After talking to them for a few hours, finding out where their other guns were kept and stealing their money, Langford murdered Ned and Celene Blackwood. Apparently, it took him a while to work up to it, but when he did it, he did it with ice in his veins. He ate a peanut butter sandwich right after shooting them with Ned's High Standard .22 pistol and slitting Celene's throat, then loaded the guns and money into their pick-up truck and took off.
The havoc he left in his wake kept Ovando, for a while, engulfed in fear. Langford had dropped from a blank nowhere, talked to no one, done murder and vanished, it seemed, into the same void from which he came. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about his crimes is the tangle of chance that brought him to the Blackwood's garage. Almost as scary are the twin facts that he'd never have been caught but for more luck and his own stupidity, and that we only know this much about the murders because he's told us.
Portrait of a Killer
It's hard to draw Terry Allen Langford. His picture remains incomplete because, in many ways, he remains the anonymous killing specter that materialized in Ovando out of America's mute network of interstates, bus depots and heartbreakingly lonely state highways a decade ago.
Locked away and silent on death row, he has refused interviews. A decade has scattered his few recorded friends. His parents slam the phone down in answer to Independent reporters' questions about their son. We are left with sketchy accounts from the reporters and investigators who first encountered Langford after the Montana crimes.
"I wouldn't say he was disturbed, but he was a loner, and that's why he came to this country," says Ward McKay of the man he ultimately ran to ground. "He wanted to live, not necessarily the mountain man lifestyle, but I think the hermit lifestyle attracted him. He did it for a while, for a few days, and found it was harder than he thought it would be."
A whip-thin kid, Langford was born in Lebanon, Kentucky in 1966. He graduated from high school. He disliked his mother. He was in the Army for a while. He worked with wood and bounced from Kentucky to Illinois to North Carolina, collecting a very few friends, most of whom, according to reports from the time of his arrest, were just slightly scared of him.
And indeed, Langford wasn't quite right.
"He was 22 years old at the time of the crime," McKay continues. "He was a well-mannered Southern boy and he has maintained that ever since. But he is a sociopath. He'd had some prior contact with the law and I determined that he had certain habits and tendencies. He held a job and had some friends, but not many."
Among Langford's disturbing "habits and tendencies" was a penchant for morbid poetry. The Life story on the Blackwood case quoted a passage from one of Langford's notebooks, mistaking a copied lyric from the song "Murder by Numbers" by the Police for an original verse: "Once you decide upon a killing/First you make a stone of your heart/Then if your hands are still willing/You can turn murder into art."
Langford spent some years talking up survivalism and reading martial arts magazines. Convinced that he wanted to live in the mountains, he hopped a bus for Montana and his ultimate fate as a horrible footnote in the state's history.
On the Hunt
When the Blackwoods were found, four days after being killed, Powell County Sheriff Dave Collings called the Attorney General's office in Helena. They dispatched McKay.
"I've been involved from Day One," McKay says. "I processed the crime scene. I tracked Langford, I helped catch him, I interviewed him and received his confession.
"Later, when I was lead investigator on the  prison riot, I spoke to him again. I know him pretty well. We have quite a history."
At first, McKay is reluctant to discuss the case over the phone with reporters he's never met. Once he begins recounting his part as the driving force behind the hunt for Langford, though, he tells the whole tale without much prompting. He speaks simply and sadly. Though his speech is spiced with the kind of hard-edged phrases expected from detectives as a matter of cliché, his tone is gentle.
At first, he says, there was little to go on. The stolen truck was found in Great Falls, and a suspect's prints were recovered in the truck and at the scene. By questioning the Blackwoods' maid, McKay learned of the missing guns. At the time, no computer database could match nameless prints to criminal records, but McKay managed to turn up a description of a stranger who got off the bus at Trixi's.
"I didn't know the name Terry Langford," McKay says. "The bus driver never came forward, but when I tracked him down he said that he'd dropped a young man off in Ovando that night."
Weird rumors kept Ovando on edge. There was talk of a dwarf and an Indian seen hitchhiking through town around the time of the killings, and speculation about Ned's past life in big business and naval intelligence. Residents feared that whoever killed the Blackwoods was still around. It would take an abortive crime and a chance find halfway across the country to get the investigation rolling.
"In the middle of the night, I got a phone call that some of the guns had hit on the computer," McKay recalls. "They'd been found abandoned with a blue bag in a blackberry bush in Indiana. So, I contacted local law enforcement, and they didn't have any leads on the guns.
"I asked 'em, 'Have you had any crime around there, anybody on the run?' And they said, 'Well, there was an attempted robbery at a motel.' So I said, 'Who's the detective?' And they put me on with him and I asked him to describe the suspect. He described a young man carrying a blue bag. And I asked how he signed in, and he said he'd signed in as Terry Langford of Raleigh, North Carolina."
According to McKay and other reports, Langford tried to kidnap, or maybe kill, a maid at a motel in Clarksville. Caught in the act, he fled, dropping a knife and ditching the bag of loot from the Blackwoods' place. The lead that would solve the murders in Ovando was so obvious that the Indiana investigator ignored it entirely.
"I asked the guy, 'Is there such a person as Terry Langford?' And the detective's response was basically, 'Why the hell would anyone sign in with their real name if they intended to rob the joint?'"
A phone call to North Carolina quickly established that there was, in fact, such a person. Langford was on probation for forgery in his adopted home state, and the prints and photos provided by Tar Heel investigators established him as the prime suspect in the Blackwood killings.
As a tactical move, McKay asked that Langford be arrested on warrants from Indiana and that no mention be made of the murders. Langford was captured in Raleigh, where his residence, friends and habits were known. McKay and Collings were on a plane the next morning.
As McKay hoped, Langford was stunned when the two Montanans identified themselves. McKay doesn't think the surprise, however, had much to do with the confession that quickly followed.
"There was no great skill on my part involved in the interview. He wasn't ashamed of what he'd done. I asked him if he'd ever been to Montana, and he said yes. That surprised me. I asked him what he'd done here, and he said, 'I killed two people.' From there, we went into more detail.
"Awful sad, isn't it?" McKay notes without irony.
Guilty as Charged
After his capture and confession, Langford flew back to Montana with McKay and Powell County Sheriff Dave Collings, pleaded guilty and asked to be hanged. The sentencing hearing in January 1989 was a bizarre spectacle, as both Powell County Attorney Chris Miller and Langford's then-attorney, Conde MacKay, requested the death penalty. Langford had already spent nearly two months in the state mental hospital in Warm Springs, where he was judged competent to stand trial and make decisions for himself.
"Everyone wants to see that psych report," Miller says of the sealed document. "All I can say is, they didn't find any fundamental impairment that would impede his appreciation of the criminality of what he did. He was able to understand what he was doing at the time."
Six months after the sentence was pronounced, Langford decided he didn't want to die after all. He began a series of appeals stretching from July 1989 until this week, when last ditch efforts still sit before the Montana and U.S. Supreme Courts. Along the way, Langford switched attorneys, kept his silence and repeatedly waived his right to appear in court.
Over the years, the case's paper trail has twisted and grown to surreal length. Tucked in the mass of bleached-white legal documents on file in Deer Lodge's modest county building are a handful of handwritten letters by Langford himself, variously instructing his attorneys and officers of the court to halt and resume his appeals. The letters are formal in tone and written in precise, printed characters on blue-lined notebook paper. Some complain about conditions in the prison's Max Building. Langford habitually misspells the word "exicution."
The most infamous part of Langford's prison career is his murderous role in the bloody riot that consumed the Max Building on Sept. 22, 1991. He was the only inmate on death row at the time to leave his cell when the outbreak occurred. During his trial on five counts of deliberate homicide by accountability after the uprising (he was convicted on one and sentenced to life without parole), Langford had his closest personal encounter with the man who prosecuted him.
"The cross-examination during the riot trial is the closest I've ever come to having a conversation with him," Miller says. "He seems to be a very intelligent guy, aware and well-spoken. Of course, I don't know what it'd be like to sit down and have a conversation with him."
Miller says the years since the Blackwood killing have done little but reinforce his belief that Langford must die. "His part in the riot just confirmed in my mind that he's a pathogen," the prosecutor says.
Back At Trixi's
Except for the curious addition of a Karaoke machine, Trixi's has changed little since Langford stepped off the bus there 10 years ago. The bar itself is a converted army barracks purchased for $1 from Fort Harrison in the 1950s. The rugged Blackfoot Valley tavern is the kind of place where a stranger should never start a fight, and Ovando is the kind of town that takes care of its own.
At 9:30 on a recent Friday morning, two men and two women are discussing the Langford execution at the end of Trixi's battered oak bar.
"I think they should hold a lottery to decide on who's going to flip the switch on that guy," says one man with an angry glare.
"I think execution is too good for him...too easy," says another with the same look in his eyes. "But I'd love to be the guy that gets to do that to him."
It's old-fashioned, eye-for-eye justice and it's no surprise that the sentiment is echoed throughout the Blackfoot Valley. The Blackwoods were part of the Ovando family and it's difficult to believe that anyone in this tightly knit community feels any differently than the two men seated at the end of the bar.
Sheriff Collings, now retired, was the first law enforcement officer on the scene the day that the Blackwoods' bodies were discovered. His opinion of Langford hasn't changed in the past 10 years and his feelings of rage haven't subsided in the least.
"I'll be glad to see him go. That's all I have to say about it," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, he's not capable of living because of what he done."
Miller, too, can muster little sympathy for Langford's end, but says it's hardly something that should be celebrated. "There is a sense of satisfaction, I suppose," he says, letting down his tough prosecutorial facade for just a moment.
"But it's hard to feel joy. There's so much death involved in this already. The Blackwoods were real people and this won't bring them back. Nothing will."
Though there is no one who can defend Langford's character, there are those who feel that the death penalty is not justified under any circumstances -- even in a case as disturbing as Langford's.
Angela and Dean Bennett own the former Blackwood property. Dean's brother lives in the house where the couple was killed. They are outspoken death penalty opponents and admit they are a minority in Ovando. Angela's anti-death penalty comments in a recent Missoulian article drew anonymous hate mail.
"Capital punishment seems like a waste," Angela says with great sadness. "It would have been more valuable, more informative if they had tried to figure out what makes him tick -- talk about a sick boy. If you can understand him you can understand others and maybe prevent this next time."
Gov. Marc Racicot refuses to comment on the Langford case or the death penalty itself until after the scheduled execution. But in a letter sent to Helena's Independent Record when Montana's last death row inmate, Duncan McKenzie, was executed in 1995, Racicot described his stance on the death penalty.
"In my view, the criminal law does not punish in order to inflict suffering. It does not seek to redress violence with violence," he wrote. "It uses punishment to prevent the repetition of crimes.... [The death penalty] has been thoughtfully and rarely applied when the unequaled atrocity of an offense required it."
But Dead Man Walking author and anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, who spoke to the Independent last week from her home in New Orleans, says executions just perpetuate a cycle of violence.
"I remember one story... of a pool of reporters asking a man on death row who showed no remorse for his crimes, 'Give us one good reason why you should not be put to death?' He said, 'Because you're better than me.'
"That's the answer," she says. "The death penalty just multiplies the violence and the killing. It doesn't end it."
The group at Trixi's continues to discuss the upcoming execution. True justice, they seem to believe, will eventually find Langford. "Well, he'll get to Hell one way or another," says one of the men.
On Death Row
If Langford dies next Tuesday morning as planned, it will be the 72nd judicial killing since Montana joined the union. All but one of the previous 71 executions were done with the hangman's noose that sits at the center of the state's self-made Vigilante mythology. Langford will be the second to die unromantically of poison in the trailer behind the Max Building.
Langford's neighbors on the prison's maximum-security F Block include six other men sentenced to die. Doubt of their guilt ranges from slim to none.
Each has killed more than once. Five of the seven have killed other inmates while in custody. Three of them got death for offenses committed with recreational equipment issued by Montana State Prison. Three, including Langford, have been convicted of participating in the killings of five protective custody inmates during the 1991 Maximum Security riot.
When Miller, back in 1989, asked District Judge Ted Mizner to impose a capital sentence for the Blackwood murders, he placed Langford at the right hand of the Evil One. "Beelzebub has a devil set aside for Terry Allen Langford," he said. "The sooner they meet, the better."
Sitting in his small office in Deer Lodge, Miller avoids such theological pronouncements. While he reiterates that Langford is a prime candidate for the death penalty, he stresses that society must keep a tight rein on its urge to exact vengeance on killers, using execution only when there is no alternative.
"It's a hard thing," he says. "I've been involved in four death penalty cases, and it's always hard. The code provides guidelines for the sorts of evidence you need, the various aggravating factors that must distinguish a case in order for the death penalty to be considered. In my experience, though, I need to bring myself to the point where I have to believe that there is no other way to protect society and individuals from the defendant.
"The public tends to like the death penalty a lot. Any time a crime of this magnitude is committed, there's a lot of pressure to seek the death penalty. That makes it tough for an elected official. When the mob is out there calling for blood, it's quite easy to get in front and lead the way. But if you're doing your job responsibly and reflectively, that's not how you act."