Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: Jeffrey Dillingham and the Tragedy of Friends with Rich Parents

Posted: September 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

One lazy Sunday afternoon in my local Barnes and Noble
I skimmed through a paperback entitled Texas Death Row: Executions in the Modern Era;
the book features photos of
the men and handful of women executed in Texas since Furman v. Georgia was overturned in 1976. The faces of the executed looked pretty much as you’d expect:
largely African-American and Latino,
features distorted by bad dental care and bad nutrition—not to mention DNA which had clearly been culled from the swampy end of the gene pool. 
There was one face, however, that was completely different: Jeffrey Dillingham, prisoner number 999071, executed on November  1st, 2000.
Clean-cut and corn-fed, Jeffrey looked exactly like the boys I grew up with in middle class suburbia—sweet, somewhat goofy boys who loved to drink beer, watch sports,
and listen to Led Zeppelin at a volume loud enough to dislodge your dental fillings. 

How the hell did someone who looked like my first boyfriend end up on death row, I wondered?  
In my experience chubby-cheeked,
doe-eyed boys like Jeffrey eventually trade in their cargo shorts for careers in insurance and then quietly go bald in heavily-mortgaged ranch houses;
they’re certainly not strapped to a gurney at the age of 27 and euthanized like a feral cat.

At the time of the murder that landed him on death row Jeffrey was a 19-year old college dropout who managed a video store—an obedient son and former honor roll student,
the Tarrant County resident was so law-abiding he’d never received so much as a parking ticket.
In the wee hours of the morning six days after his 19th birthday Jeffrey,
accompanied by his friend Brian Salter, crept into the pink mansion located at 4100 Clarke Avenue in the exclusive Forth Worth neighborhood of Rivercrest.
Brian, bespectacled and pasty-faced, was engaged to the daughter of the owner of the 4000 square foot residence,
a man who was currently asleep inside the home alongside his fabulously wealthy second wife.

Brian’s girlfriend Kristi Koslow loathed her father and stepmother;
her pet name for her father’s new wife was “the step-bitch.”
Narcissistic and entitled, Kristi was enraged by the unreasonable demands of her father Jack and his new wife Caren; the tyrannical couple actually had the audacity to demand that Kristi stay in school,
seek employment, and become a productive member of society. Oh, the humanity!

A child of privilege, Kristi had no intention of doing anything so mundane as working for a living; apparently having a somewhat skewed idea of the laws of inheritance
she instead concocted a plan to murder her father and stepmother in order to inherit their respective fortunes, thereby forever escaping the indignity of steady employment.
A born shirker, Kristi also had no intention of sullying her hands with the actual homicide;
after being rebuffed by her first choice for hired assassin she proceeded to convince her fiancé Brian to perform the ghastly deed in exchange for her undying gratitude and a healthy cut of her inheritance.

Brian had been raised in far more humble circumstances than Kristi;
unaccustomed to opulence he was intrigued by the glimpse of grandeur his connection to Kristi afforded him. 
After Brian agreed to murder Jack and Caren he and Kristi toured million dollar mansions and perused luxury car dealerships,
unable to wait until the blood spatter was dry before choosing the toys and trinkets they would purchase with Kristi’s greatly-accelerated inheritance.
The only thing that stood between this impatient,
materialistic couple and a life of bliss and leisure were Kristi’s father and the hated step-bitch;
poor Jack and Caren Koslow’s fates were sealed tighter than a coffin lid.

Seeking backup,
or possibly hoping to ensure the presence of at least one friendly face at the murder scene,
Brian recruited his friend Jeffrey Dillingham to assist with crime;
in exchange for his participation Jeffrey was to be paid the princely sum of one million dollars.
The course of the crime reminds me of poison coursing through a bloodstream—first Kristi,
then Brian, then Jeffrey were infected;
then Jack and Caren, then both killers’ and victims’ families and friends—the contagion of the crime
traveled like an infectious disease through an immunosuppressant populace.

Brian Salter’s motivation for murder is clear to me;
cajoled into the crime by his vaguely porcine girlfriend, bedazzled by his first glimpse of profound affluence, Brian sought to please Kristi and his own materialistic longings in one fell swoop. 
Although his involvement in the scheme is both evil and unforgivable his motive is classic,
closely mirroring that of  the protagonist in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.  To me, Jeffrey’s involvement in the crime is less explicable. 

Described as an archetypal nice guy by all and sundry, Jeffrey did not appear to be a budding sociopath;
had he not become embroiled in the Koslow murder he was eminently unlikely to have left a trail of swindled, battered corpses in his wake.
Although a million dollars is undoubtedly a strong motive I believe Jeffrey’s allegiance to Brian
likely played a large part in his enmeshment in the crime as well.
In my experience friendships are paramount to young adults;
as we leave our parents’ nest we seek new support systems, and for most of us it is friends that fill the familial gap.

Promises made, promises kept.
In the early morning hours of March 12th, 1992, Brian and Jeffrey,
armed respectively with a knife and a crowbar
and fortified with the alarm codes and a map of the floor plan,
entered the Koslow home intent on the devil’s business.

The crime was brutal.
Attacked while they slept, both Jack and Caren were repeatedly stabbed and bludgeoned;
Jack attempted to retrieve a shotgun kept in a nearby closet but was no match for the two younger,
weapon-equipped men. 
I wonder what went through Jeffrey’s mind as he repeatedly wielded the metal bar against two living, breathing human beings;
this was not a quick crime—it was lengthy, bloody, and hard-fought. 
It is reported that Jeffrey had never engaged in any type of violent behavior before that misbegotten night;
when he imagined how the crime would transpire did he accurately envision the thud of cracked skulls,
the smell of blood, the sight of gaping, pierced flesh?
Did it terrify him? Sicken him?
I am reminded of Nathan Leopold’s famous utterance during the murder of little Bobby Franks:
“Oh God! This is terrible! I didn’t know it would be like this!”

Their victims seemingly vanquished and unable to find the large stash of loot Kristi claimed would be secreted in the closet,
the boys stole $200 in cash and Jack’s wallet and wristwatch.
This would be their sum total take for the crime—so many lives destroyed for an amount of money that could easily have been earned in a few days behind the counter of any fast food franchise.

Unbelievably, Jack survived the vicious attack;
at 4:15AM he managed to stagger to a neighbor’s house and summon police and paramedics to the scene.
Alas, it was too late to save his wife;
her windpipe crushed, Caren died in a pool of blood on her bedroom carpet,
her life snuffed out for a couple of hundred bucks and a secondhand wristwatch.

Jeffrey’s actions after the crime were a veritable check-list of things one should not do if one hopes to get away with murder.
Rather than simply discarding the murder weapon and his bloody clothes in an out-of-the-way dumpster Jeffrey asked a friend, to whom he also confessed, to dispose of the items.
This friend, citing an attack of conscience, took the items to the police two weeks later.
The police were astounded—Jack’s fortuitous survival and Caren’s substantial wealth had convinced many in law enforcement that Jack was in fact the perpetrator of the crime,
his own wounds simply staging.

Hewing to his post-murder not-to-do list,
when confronted by detectives Jeffrey confessed in grisly detail,
implicating Brian and Kristi for good measure.
Did Jeffrey understand, I wonder, that as he signed his confession he was also signing his own death warrant?
I try to imagine what it feels like to confess to murder in a police interrogation room but I can’t quite grasp it.
By all accounts Jeffrey was not stupid—did he understand as the details of the crime spewed forth
he would never go home again,
never see the night sky, never hug his parents or walk barefoot over grass?  Did he?
Did he confess because his shame at the horrible deed he’d committed bubbled up inside of him and demanded to be released, damn the consequences?
Or did he confess because, ever the good and obedient boy,
his urge to please authority figures compelled him to answer all the detectives’ questions, no  matter how damning, in a thorough and truthful manner?

I suspect the entire interrogation process must seem like a dream—this is a situation that occurs solely on television, you must think, never in reality;
so how could it possibly be happening now?
There’s no question in my mind, however,
that the first time a pair of handcuffs are clamped onto your wrists there can be no more denying—your world has cataclysmically changed,
and not a whit for the better.

Jeffrey’s parents were agog at his arrest.
“We thought it was a mistake and would be cleared up,” his father told The Dallas Morning News.
His mother described her feelings upon learning of Jeffrey’s involvement in the crime as “being thrown up against a brick wall over and over again.”
It must be horrifying to learn the child you brought into the world has crushed the windpipe of a sleeping stranger for financial gain;
if there’s a litmus test for failed parenting, you must think, committing murder for money is it.
Jeffrey’s parents divorced  in 1997;
the stress of dealing with Jeffrey’s incarceration became too much for the couple to bear and they were no longer the same people they had been prior to their son’s arrest.
The human wreckage from Caren Koslow’s murder radiated ever outward,
tiny ripples on the surface of a pebble-struck pond.

As the cherry on his sundae of poor murder-related choices Jeffrey rejected a prosecution deal which would have spared his life in exchange for his testimony against Brian and Kristi.
I am touched by his loyalty, misguided though it was,
particularly in light of the fact that it was a friend,
the confidant to whom he’d entrusted the murder weapon,
who had initially fingered him to police:
Jeffrey’s respect for the bonds of friendship withstood his own betrayal.
At the same time I am puzzled by his  ill-fated decision not to testify;
Jeffrey had freely implicated Brian and Kristi in his confession,
and by 1992 the death penalty in Texas did not simply exist in theory—by that time convicts were dying at a fairly regular rate.
Did Jeffrey understand that he could, and would, be among them?

Brian had no such compunctions about accepting the prosecutor’s deal;
in exchange for a life sentence he testified against Jeffrey and his onetime fiancée.
Kristi also escaped the executioner’s needle,
despite Jack’s plea to the jury that she be given a sentence commensurate with Caren’s;
sending young, well-mannered blonde girls to death row is an anathema, even in rootin’ tootin’ Texas.
As life sentences in Texas at the time provided the possibility of parole Kristi and Brian will  be eligible for release in 2027;
they will be in their mid-50s.
Jeffrey will have no such option; but then again, neither will Caren,
so although the arguably-least guilty conspirator received the harshest sentence an argument can be made that justice,
if such a thing exists, was served.

I choose not to speculate about Jeffrey’s seven years on death row,
although I’ve seen enough episodes of Oz  on HBO to know that young middle-class white men generally do not fare well in such circumstances.
His appeals dwindling, Jeffrey embraced Jesus,
seeking comfort in the arms of He who is not bound by the Texas Department of Corrections’ minimal visiting hours and strict no-contact rule.
Finally, on November 1st, 2000, fortified by a hearty meal of cheeseburgers, lasagna and chocolate milk,
Jeffrey was  strapped onto Huntsville prison’s well-used lethal injection gurney.
He then thanked his parents, apologized to the Koslows, name-checked his heavenly father and,
ever the affable and obedient son, went gentle into that good night.
Kristi Koslow’s plan to evade the indignity of gainful employment had claimed its final victim.

Jeffrey’s story resonates with me because the first few years after I completed my undergraduate degree I was completely lost—I had a succession of menial jobs
and spent all my free time with a posse of wastrels and ne’er-do-wells,
many of whom were freshly paroled.
One evening while we were lounging around smoking pot and drinking beer
one of these pillars of the community announced to the group, apropos of nothing, “I could kill somebody for the money,
but first I’d have to know that they were a real asshole.”

There followed a momentary lapse in conversation.
I understand now that in that moment of silence my life hung in the balance.
If a single person in the room had said something akin to,
“My father’s a huge asshole and I’ll inherit a fortune when he dies,”
there’s no question in my mind I would’ve found myself planning a murder.
Obviously, I understood that homicide is illegal and morally reprehensible,
but at the time I was definitely too immature to understand the complex issue of accomplice liability—I wouldn’t have thought myself truly guilty lest I personally
wielded the metal bar of doom.
More importantly,
even as I plotted and planned I would never have believed a murder would truly take place;
my crew of layabouts and deadbeats were all talkers—there was nary a doer in the heavily-tattooed bunch.

And this, I believe,
is how people like Jeffrey Dillingham become embroiled in a fatal conspiracy;
they agree to do the unthinkable but it’s all bluster—they never believe the crime will actually come to fruition. How could it?
Murders happen on movie screens, not in real life.
But somehow, some way, the unthinkable begins to gain traction in reality;
and eventually the only way to extricate yourself from the crime’s tarbaby-like grasp is to back out at the last minute,
thereby betraying your friends and revealing your own cowardice,
the stigma of which is barely conceivable to fragile young adult psyches.
Next thing you know it’s 4AM and your all-black outfit is covered in blood.

At the time of my friend’s potentially fateful comment the esteem of my social circle was of the utmost importance to me;
I was profoundly insecure—if my friends thought I was cool then there was a chance, albeit slight,
that I wasn’t the huge loser I suspected myself to be.
That I would’ve participated in the murder of a stranger to solidify the approval of my peers sounds ridiculous now, but at the time it wasn’t entirely out of the question.
I knew murder was wrong,
but I also believed letting down my friends would be an unpardonable sin;
it’s entirely possible that in my approval-hungry mind the latter may have outweighed the former.
In hindsight I realize it was sheer luck that my friend’s comment hung in the air,
bereft of response—in this crowd of riffraff there were no wealthy parents to be had,
my own included.

Eventually, after a few seemingly-endless seconds someone broke the silence by retorting,
“Oh please, you’d kill Mother Teresa if the price was right;”
laughter broke the spell and our normal banal chatter resumed.
Jeffrey Dillingham was not so lucky—although the woman he murdered is the person most deserving of sympathy part of me mourns for Jeffrey as well.

There but for the grace of god and the absence of friends with wealthy parents go I.

Comments
  1. Non-Fiction Writer says:

    An interesting article, and well-written. In recent years since Jeffrey Dillingham’s execution, I believe there have been studies about teenagers and friendships and the developing brain that seem to agree with the premise of this article.

  2. Laurie says:

    Great article. At the time of the murders I was employed at the Tarrant County Corrections Center. Having personally dealt with all three of these teenagers during their incarceration, and knowing the facts of the case, I have always believed that Dillingham was the least culpable of the three and yet received the harshest penalty.

    • C. Lee says:

      I was too in booking. Wonder if we worked there same time?

      • Laurie says:

        Probably…I worked there from 1989 til 1996. Started in the Corrections Center when it was first opened. Went on to Green Bay, Cold Springs, Belknap, dispatch and patrol.

  3. do brian salters parents live in texas

  4. Bobbie West says:

    Kristi Koslow was adopted??I guess I’m confused about her relationship with her Dad and stepmother..don’t recall ever seeing anything about her being adopted.So had her Dad divorced her adopted mother?