There was nothing groundbreaking about Jeff Stivins. People had killed with knives before.
“Blades came along far before gunpowder,” Jeff Stivins told me. “Guns and bombs get all the attention in the news lately, and in the movies.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked. I made sure my recorder was working. It was a new one that used a memory chip, and I still was uncomfortable with the inability to see the tape wheels turning.
“Because they’re louder, I suppose.”
One “recent and glorious exception,” said Stivins, was Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino.
“What I wouldn’t give to have access to all those blades and training,” Stivins said. “Killers who use guns are cowards.”
We sat in a common area on a bench attached to a long, folding table. The cells lining each side of the room were small and had no TV’s or radios. A few of the inmates sat reading paperback books, paying us little attention.
The jail was run by Lawson County Sheriff Bruce Hatcher, a man known for keeping things simple. Inmates got three meals a day — cereal in the morning, cold-cut sandwiches for lunch, and baked chicken or meatloaf for dinner. They were not allowed to have anything that could be fashioned into a shiv. No combs or handled toothbrushes. No deodorant. To clean their teeth, they had to use a small latex thimble covered with rubbery nubs.
That made me feel a little more at ease as I sat across the table from a convicted murderer whose modus operandus was stabbing. Stivins made no effort to say he was innocent, as many killers do when speaking to a reporter. His stay there was temporary until he could be moved to the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, and he certainly knew that any pleas would fall on deaf ears in his victim’s hometown.
Stivins said the inmates tended to stay away from him. Far from being murderers, most of them had bounced one too many checks or shoplifted. Their stays would not last long, and for them a killer was more frightening than intriguing.
“There’s an intimacy to killing a man while standing within his private space,” Stivins said. “The older the method of killing, the more personal.”
“That’s why most people won’t use a knife,” he explained. “They wouldn’t be able to go through with it if they had to get that close. I enjoyed hearing a man’s last gasp. Those final muscle twitches were a nice touch, but it was in that final breath, when he exhaled his soul, that I first felt true power.”
Five years prior to our meeting, Jeff Stivins had held a modest position of power in the small Lawson County town of Curtiston. During his first and only mayoral term, police had pulled him over three times for allegedly driving drunk, and he always was at odds with the city council, comprised mostly of members of a family historically entrenched in local government. They once changed the locks on city hall to prevent him from entering. Stivins claimed that the drunk driving charges were a frame job by corrupt police hired by the council.
Part of my job had been to cover the council’s meetings. Not once did Stivins make an appearance, and nobody made much of his absence.
The mayoral position was only part time, which gave Stivins time to run his portable barbecue stand. He parked it in the same place for days and ocassionally weeks at a time, depending how business was doing. His smoked ribs and shredded pork and beef sandwiches won rave reviews from The Lawson County Register. The flavor often was compared to The Rendezvous, a rib joint below 2nd Street in Memphis.
With a chill, I recalled watching Stivins use a large butcher knife to carve his slow-cooked ribs after taking them off the grill. I now wondered if it was the same knife he would later use on his victim.
He was suspected of killing Kevin Collins, plant manager of George’s Chicken, a Tyson competitor. Husband of Curtiston city attorney Megan Collins, who had helped build cases against the controversial mayor right under his nose, he had been seen in a public yelling match with Stivins. Despite his culinary prowess, none of Stivins’ customers came to his aid when he was arrested for murder.
“What about bludgeoning and strangling?” I asked. “Nothing older or more personal than that.”
“I’m not very strong, so I would never try to choke somebody. And beating is just so… brutal.”
“Didn’t you have to overpower Collins before stabbing him?”
“Not really. He practically froze in place. Couldn’t believe it, I think. Took his mind a moment to register what was happening.”
My recorder beeped, indicating I was nearing its capacity. I knew I should have sprung for that extra memory card.
“Well, that’s convenient, because what I am about to say is off the record,” Stivins said.
My eyes widened, still locked onto the recorder. I hoped he had not noticed. I had heard many things “off the record” in the past, and never printed anything uttered in such confidence. It was an honor code for journalists, on the same level as investigative reporters’ policy of never revealing certain sources.
I would not have needed my recorder for what he told me next. It forever will be etched into my mind.