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“Drifting Into Darkness: Murder, Madness, Suicide, and a Death ‘Under Suspicious Circumstances’” By: Mark I. Pinsky

“Drifting Into Darkness: Murder, Madness, Suicide, and a Death ‘Under Suspicious Circumstances’”

Author: Mark I. Pinsky

Publisher: NewSouth Books

Pages: 380

Price: $24.95 (Paper)

Mental Illness Meets Manipulation, Ends In Murder

True crime books are a special genre and pose special difficulties for the writer and also for the reviewer.

Usually, as in this case, the crime has been committed and the murderer caught.

The writer’s job, then, is to tell the story of that crime, in detail, examining all the evidence, laying out the timeline, and explaining why the perpetrator committed the crime and how.

In Montgomery, Alabama, on Thanksgiving in 2004, Charlotte and Brent Springford Sr., in their Garden District home, were viciously beaten to death with an ax handle and then both their throats slashed with a knife. The suspect, their son, Brent Jr., was quickly caught and arrested.

He definitely did it, but was also clearly a very disturbed young man. Pinsky narrates the lawyers’ debate over the charges and pleas: Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, perhaps.

Pinsky spends a good deal of time examining Brent Jr.’s mental health, obsessions and descent into what is diagnosed as bipolar disorder with the possibility of schizophrenia.

That drift into madness occurred over a period of years and there were contributing factors and various signs and symptoms.

Although it would be ridiculous to suggest being spoiled was a cause for parricide, Brent was famously spoiled. The family business was the Pepsi bottling franchise. Perhaps surprisingly, the two most lucrative jobs in most towns are the bottling franchise and a car dealership.

These positions, one has learned, yield almost one and a half million per year.

The Springfords were world travelers and generous philanthropists. Brent Jr. had anything he desired. There was drinking and drug use and privilege. He was, apparently, never disciplined.

But along with this privilege came a family inheritance of mental illness.

Perhaps as a reaction against the family wealth, Brent became obsessed with matters spiritual.

Pinsky traces Brent’s journey, his geographical and interior search for transcendence. Brent used alcohol, marijuana, mushrooms, hallucinogenic drugs. He travelled to holy places like Machu Pichu and read an exhausting number of books, classical and New Age: the Dharma, the Tao Te Ching, “The Celestine Prophecy,” “Siddhartha,” “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” “The Razor’s Edge,” Madame Blavatsky, the Bhagavad Gita.

He enrolled at and then sporadically attended Vanderbilt, and later Naropa in Colorado.

He fasted, stayed at monasteries, Buddhist and Hindu retreats, shaved his head, hurt himself, had hallucinations, was possessed by a malignant spirit named Akasha, became celibate.

He was clearly in great emotional, mental trouble and as vulnerable as one could imagine.

So, with bad luck he fell into the clutches of a brilliant, merciless, shameless, unscrupulous con artist named at this time Caroline Scoutt. Scoutt had had several names over time and listed her birthday in several different years in the ’50s and ’60s. Born Carol Gonzales, she claimed at different times to have a Ph.D., to be Apache, Comanche, Oglala and Lakota Sioux. She claimed to have been abused herself and collected large sums from donors to build a retreat center for abused Native American women. Never happened.

She ran a scheme with a Dr. Billica, billing thousands of dollars for herbs, vitamins and supplements; Billica diagnosed each emotionally unstable patient with lead and mercury poisoning which needed cleansing.

Scoutt operated as a shaman, a healer and nutritionist, gave counseling and breathing lessons and “rebirthing” sessions (don’t ask).

She put Brent in a trailer on her property in Wyoming and so completely bamboozled, ensorcelled, bewitched him that he turned over his paycheck and went hungry. She was a vicious dominatrix without leather and sex. His parents sent mountains of cash to Caroline, to care for him.

But, when she feared the financial spigot was going to be turned off, did she persuade him to kill his parents?

And, perhaps not coincidentally, there was another death on her property, presumably a suicide. Had she shot that fellow herself or convinced him to kill himself?

Pinsky spent years chasing down every detail concerning this larger-than-life con artist, read every document, interviewed all the officers of the court, learned what could be known. Readers do learn what happened to Brent and Scoutt and there are surprises.

My own takeaway: it is terrifying to think that such people as Caroline Scoutt are out there, roaming the world, sniffing for victims.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.