The Murderous Odyssey ...
The Murderous Odyssey of a Teenage Thelma and Louise - Maxim
By Simon Cooper
“I’m so fuckin’ tired of always havin’ to walk away or drive away. It’s like my world falls apart. U mean everything to me. U R my whole world, the only thing that matters to me is U! U R all I care about & I can’t wait for the day when we are together & will never have to leave each other again. That is, if we even have a future.”
—Holly Harvey, in a letter to Sandy Ketchum, June 29, 2004
Holly Harvey thought she was free at last.
A petite girl, not much more than five feet tall and just over 100 pounds, Holly burst out of the kitchen door of the ranch-style house. Her brown hair framed a pretty face that made her look younger than she really was—15 years and four months old. Holly ran under the carport, across to where a dark blue Chevy truck was parked. She was slippery with blood, giddy with adrenaline, panic-stricken.
Reaching the passenger side, Holly opened the door and threw in a seven-inch carving knife, smeared from point to handle with fresh blood. She slid onto the seat as her best friend and lover, Sandy Ketchum, climbed in through the driver’s door. Sandy, a year older but just as slight and baby-faced as Holly, held the truck’s key but was shaking so violently that all she could do was stab at the ignition.
“Oh my God, oh my God…”
Holly leaned over and took Sandy’s slick hands, holding them tight. Keeping them cupped in hers, she guided Sandy’s fingers toward the ignition. The key slid straight in. As the car backed out of the driveway, Holly took one last look at the house that held so many bad memories. Then Sandy gunned the Silverado’s engine and they were gone, down onto Plantation Drive, a long road running through Fayetteville, a small town that pushes up against the northern Fayette County line in Georgia.
Chain-smoking Newports, they tried to think what to do next. They had nowhere to go and they had to get cleaned up. The truck’s extended cab filled with the sweet, coppery smell of blood, which coated Holly’s face, hair, hands, and arms. Her T-shirt and jeans were soaked through; when she later undressed she found blood in her underwear, her socks, and even inside her shoes. They hit the GA-92 highway and minutes later were out of Fayetteville, constantly reassuring each other:
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“We’re together now.”
Before they met each other, the most extraordinary thing about Holly Harvey and Sandy Ketchum was just how ordinary they appeared to be. They were both bright, sensitive kids who liked all the things many teenagers like—listening to music, hanging out at the mall, smoking weed. They came from chaotic, dysfunctional families, not rare in the environs in which they grew up.
But after they met, these two unremarkable girls became something else altogether. Friendship turned into love, love became obsession, and obsession mutated into paranoia, then madness. Extreme crimes are usually born of extreme circumstances and this one was no different. Still, for the residents of Fayetteville, the crime’s genesis seemed far removed from the town’s clean-cut image. Even before the bodies the girls left were removed from 226 Plantation Drive, Fayetteville residents were swapping rumors and gossip over church pews and beers at Applebee’s, reveling in the shocking details:Lesbians. Drugs. Murder.
Mostly, though, they shared a sense of disbelief that this could have happened in their modest, conservative Southern Baptist town, so firmly anchored to the trinity of God, Country, Family.
It was the most brutal crime in Fayetteville’s history.
Now Holly Harvey and Sandy Ketchum were together, on the run, and armed with knives. And they were desperate. One local newspaper dubbed them a “teenage Thelma and Louise.”
Holly Harvey was born into trouble. Her mother, Carla, was a high school dropout who’d run away at the age of 17 with Gene Harvey, a petty crook with a long record who was wanted by the police. Dodging the law, the couple spent four years on the road, bouncing all the way to California and back again. “We must have lived in 16 states in those years,” recalls Carla Harvey in a cigarette-roughened Southern drawl that is part Marlene Dietrich, part Dolly Parton.
She remembers Harvey as a violent, jealous drunk. Once, while staying at a Texas motel, he saw Carla talking to another man while she sunbathing by the pool. He dragged her to their room and, as she recalled later, “beat my ass so bad he broke my nose and both my eyes were swollen shut.” When he was finished beating her, Harvey went to sleep.
“Why did I stay with him? I don’t know,” says Carla. “I loved him. I was desperate for someone to love me and for a family of my own to love. I wish I’d known it takes more to be a parent than just having a baby.”
The day after the police caught up with Harvey, Carla discovered that she was pregnant. With nowhere to go, she turned to her parents.
If there is such a thing as the Fayetteville establishment, Carla’s parents were part of it. They knew most everyone, and most everyone knew them. “They were kin,” says Randall Johnson, who has been Fayette County’s sheriff for 30 years and knew the Colliers for 40. Married since 1951, Carl and Sarah Collier lived in an understated white brick house in the Newton Plantation subdivision on the edge of town. Carl, a house painter, was unable to father children, and so he and his wife Sarah adopted—a boy, Kevin, in 1965 and then Carla in 1967. Like many in Fayetteville, a town of 14,000 located just 15 miles south of Atlanta, the Colliers were devout Christians. They were prominent figures in the First Baptist Church, one of more than 100 congregations in the town.
After Holly’s birth, Carla moved in with her parents, but the joy the baby brought was short-lived. The Colliers discovered Carla had visited with Gene Harvey and, after a furious row, disowned her. Carla left, taking with her a bitter resentment that Holly was eventually to inherit.
When Holly was 10, Carla found a job waitressing at the Crazy Horse Saloon, a few minutes from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. “It’s a titty bar,” Carla says. “Girls dancing there were earning $400 on a bad night.” Soon she graduated from waiting tables part-time to dancing on them full-time.
An unusual relationship evolved between mother and her preteen daughter: Carla became less a parent and more a friend to Holly. “I wanted to be the kind of mother I wish I’d had,” she says. “Maybe that was a mistake.” One night the bond between the two unraveled. After dancing a shift at the Crazy Horse, Carla returned home drunk and began arguing with her daughter. According to Holly, Carla suddenly grabbed her by the throat. “You make me sick,” she shouted, throwing her daughter onto the bed. Holly fled screaming from the room: “Mama tried to choke me! Mama tried to kill me!”
In 2002, Carla was sentenced to three years in jail, but was out within months. She sent Holly to live with an old high school friend, Anita Beckom, near Peachtree City, a small town 20 miles from Fayetteville.
I’m glad I found U. God sent U to me (I don’t care what it says about gay people in the Bible).—Holly Harvey to Sandy Ketchum
Holly Harvey couldn’t help herself. She had to shout the name out, and to this day she has no idea how she knew the girl standing in front of her was Sandy Ketchum. She just knew. She was 13 and like Sandy was attending Fayetteville Middle School. She’d been friends with a boy named Walt, Sandy’s cousin. Walt had told her about Sandy, but the two had never met. But on that day, walking toward the school bus, Holly had an instinct that the girl with the burgundy hair was Walt’s cousin. She suddenly had the urge to call out. It was a defining moment for her, one she relived in a letter to Sandy:
U turned around and U looked like an angel! I didn’t even kno who U were, but I fell in LOVE w/U! I used to think lesbians were like the nastiest thing on earth. But yet, here I was ‘fallin head over hills’ 4 U in a matter of 2 seconds.
Both girls felt an instant connection. Holly, reeling from her mother’s jail sentence, discovered in her new friend someone who felt as disconnected from her family as she did. Sandy had been abandoned by her natural mother when she was one. Now 14, she was on her third stepmother: the first died after a series of aneurysms, the second physically abused her. She lived in an apartment complex in downtown Fayetteville.
Sandy introduced Holly to her small group of friends—Kitten, Amanda, and Lacey—who, like Holly, felt like outcasts at Fayetteville Middle School. Together the gang would go to the $1 showings at the Movies 10 theater on Thursday evenings. They’d raid the Hobby Lobby for spray paint and leave their tags all over town—Sandy’s trademark PEACE OUT FOREVER is still visible on the walls behind the cineplex.
Sandy confided to Holly she’d had boyfriends and girlfriends before. But she preferred girls.
“You’re so pretty,” she told Holly.
Holly struggled to resolve her feelings for Sandy. “I was falling in love with her, but I didn’t understand it,” she recalls. “I’d never felt this way about anyone before. And certainly not about a girl.”
Sandy began inviting Holly to her house, where she met Tim and Beth Ketchum. Tim was impressed by Holly, whom he remembers as “possibly the nicest kid I’ve ever met.” When Sandy asked if Holly could sleep over, Ketchum didn’t give it a second thought.
On April 20, 2002, Holly sat with Sandy on her bed listening to music. Sandy’s parents were asleep in the next room. In the privacy of her room, the door closed and Sandy made the first move, asking Holly, “You wanna go with me?”
“You’re just saying that to mess with me,” Holly replied.
“No,” said Sandy. “I really do like you.” They kissed, shyly at first and then with more confidence. To Holly it felt right: the smell of Sandy’s skin, the way her hipbones poked Holly as they held each other.
“I love you,” she whispered to Sandy.
But for both girls the elation of that first night was soon snuffed out by the realities waiting for them outside the closed door of Sandy’s room. In a town like Fayetteville, secrets are difficult to keep. Sandy and Holly’s relationship quickly became the subject of gossip and rumors. Within a couple of weeks the whispers turned to shouts:
“Dykes!” “Queers!” “Lesbians!”
It became a daily refrain unleashed as Sandy and Holly walked up the aisle of the school bus, a gauntlet that soon became unbearable.
Sitting in the neat living room of her little house next to the railroad tracks in Griffin, a small town 40 miles south of Atlanta, Sandy’s stepmother, Beth Ketchum, recalls how “I couldn’t get Sandy to ride the school bus—they would pick on her, call her names.” Adds Tim Ketchum: “She dressed like a little boy, baggy pants, bandanna. I don’t know. Maybe she should have been a boy.”
Holly and Sandy began ditching classes to go hang out in the woods, smoking more and more weed, their fledgling romance developing into a full-blown love affair. “We’d get high, lie around, and laugh at each other,” says Holly. “We’d laugh all day.” They spent every minute they could together, and when they were apart they wrote long, impassioned letters to each other.
You give me that feelin’ when I’m with you. It’s like paradise. I figured out the word for it. It’s called Estacy [sic]—not the kind U buy. Look it up. Another word: utopia—look that up too.—Holly to Sandy
Sandy was equally passionate, rejecting any notion this was just a teenage crush, once writing, “I hate it when older people say that young people don’t know what love is… But I know what love is and how it feels cuz age ain’t nothing but a number.” They discussed the future, Sandy saying they should get married, have children with sperm bought from a clinic. “Are you serious?” Holly asked. She loved the idea, telling Sandy, “I don’t have much to give, but you can have it. You can have me.”
In the summer of 2004, Carla Harvey landed in jail again, this time receiving a three-year sentence for possessing marijuana with intent to sell. Holly moved in with her grandparents, Carl and Sarah Collier. They were now in their 70s and enjoying a comfortable retirement. But they were, as Holly had learned, unhappy people. In Sarah Collier, Fayetteville knew a devout, teetotaling woman. But she had a hidden side, one the family kept secret. Holly’s grandmother had a cruel streak, and a hair-trigger temper, which had much to do with the falling out between her and Holly’s mother years before.
Like everyone else in Fayetteville, Sarah Collier knew of her granddaughter’s romance with Sandy. And it disgusted her. She vowed to break the couple up, to “bring structure” to Holly’s life. She refused to listen to Holly’s pleas. “You’re too young to know what love is,” she told her granddaughter.
Holly lived in the basement of 226 Plantation Drive, a self-contained home within a home with a bedroom, a living room with a fireplace, and glass patio doors leading out to the lawn. Despite the relative freedom of her space, Holly felt trapped. She cut herself on the arms and legs. “I’m addicted to pain,” she would later confess. She was smoking 15 to 20 joints a day.
Sandy was 20 miles away in Griffin, but with Holly’s grandparents determined to keep the girls apart, she may as well have been on the moon. The girls were too young to have driver’s licenses. “Man I fuckin miss you,” Holly wrote Sandy. “I can’t stand this crap no more. I really need to see you.”
Holly and Sandy conspired to find ways to grab a few precious hours together. Sometimes Sandy would show up at the Colliers’ home and wait near the bushes by the Collier house. “My grandparents always went to bed by 10 p.m.,” says Holly. “So as soon as they were asleep, I’d sneak out or she’d sneak in to see me.”
Pot offered a relief from school, town, and family. They started taking other drugs, too; methamphetamine when they could get it, cocaine when they could afford it.
It wasn’t long before they were busted, Sarah Collier coming down hard on Holly. “I don’t have to put up with you,” the old lady yelled, her hands planted on her hips. “You can go be a whore like your mom.”
Tensions in the Collier house were rising to unbearable levels, especially between Holly and her grandmother. Things were a bit better with Holly and Carl Collier; the two had always doted on each other, but in the hothouse atmosphere of that summer, Collier became wary of the increasingly angry teenager in his home. She sometimes scared him, he confided to his son, Kevin.
On the weekend of July 24, 2004, Holly and Sandy packed smokes, food, a $50 bag of weed, and some meth and took off. As darkness fell, they found an unlocked car and spent their first night away cuddled up on its backseat. The girls ran out of cash and came home four days later. The Colliers told police to charge Holly as a runaway, resulting in a hearing, but there was no punishment.
After the Sarah Collier hearing, a furious Holly ground out her cigarette on the hood of her grandparents’ truck. “I’m going to kill you,” she told them. Sandy also vented her anger on paper, telling Holly, “I finally got you back and I’m not going to lose you again god dammit…I love you so fuckin’ much that it drives me crazy not to be with U every day! I mean damn! What do I have to do?”
The answer: Defy everyone—her parents, the Colliers.
Oh, my God, Sandy! I had a fuckin’ nightmare! I was walkin’ down these stairs & this old black lady was walkin’ in front of me. I pushed her …& her head hit the edge of the step & blood splattered up on my face & crap. It killed her instantly…This is not the bad part of the dream…I laid back & I took a deep breath, when I exhaled or whatever I was fuckin’ breathin’ out fire. That’s the part that’s fuckin’ w/my head! Sandy, I had the motherfuckin’ devil inside of me.—Holly to Sandy
At about 11 p.m. on the night of Sunday, August 1, Sandy slipped in through the basement of 226 Plantation Drive. The girls locked themselves inside Holly’s room. They made love, smoked some weed. At 2 a.m. they escaped to a friend’s apartment and spent three hours smoking joints laced with crack. At 5:30 a.m. their friend drove the girls back. They sneaked into the Colliers’ house and again locked themselves in Holly’s room.
They spent the day of August 2 hidden in there. They played music and smoked cigarettes, squirting air freshener into the air vents to disguise the smell, hiding the butts in Coke can ashtrays.
As the afternoon rolled around, both girls were edgy and paranoid, still feeling the effects of the crack. They had enough weed for just one more joint. Sandy wanted more. But they had no money between them and, worse, they had no way to get to any of the local dealers.
“We should take their truck,” said Sandy, referring to the Colliers’ 2002 Chevy Silverado.
“We’d have to kill them to do that,” Holly replied.
“We could hit them with the lamp,” said Sandy, indicating the seashell lamp near Holly’s bed.
“That might just make them pass out.”
“Go get a knife.”
Holly slid upstairs and returned with a carving knife. They took turns stabbing Holly’s mattress to test the knife’s sharpness. Then they laid a painting of some white puppies on the bed and took turns stabbing that too. The knife was sharp enough.
Holly scrawled a to-do list on her arm.
KEYS. KILL. MONEY. JEWELRY.
The girls lit their last joint and waited for the smell to drift upstairs, where it would reach the noses of Holly’s grandparents and surely bring them down to investigate.
There was a knock on the door.
Sandy hid, squeezing down into the narrow space between Holly’s bed and the wall. Holly put the carving knife behind her back and slipped it into the waistband of her jeans. She opened the door.
Sarah Collier, standing with her hands on her hips, immediately noticed the knife.
“What are you going to do with that?” the old lady demanded.
“I’m going to kill myself. I hate it here.”
“You’re going to end up just like your mother,” Sarah Collier retorted and turned her back to her granddaughter. Holly pulled the knife from her waistband, closed her eyes, stepped forward, and plunged it into her grandmother. The knife punched through Sarah Collier’s pastel T-shirt and cut deep into her flesh, the blade passing between her ribs and into her right lung.
Oh, my God, Holly thought. I just messed up so bad. She opened her eyes . She heard the sound of the old lady’s screams. She pulled the knife out and saw her grandfather lunging at her. A punch landed on her chin.
And then the lights went out.
“I went numb,” Holly recalls. The next thing she knew she was pinned to the bed by both grandparents. Holly began stabbing at Carl Collier, shouting: “Help me. Sandy! Why aren’t you helping me? Help me!”
Carl fell off Holly and fled from the room, heading for the kitchen, where there was a telephone. He left behind his glasses, twisted and broken on the carpet. Sandy emerged from her hiding place as the old man escaped the room.
“Go get him!” she shouted at Holly.
Holly handed the carving knife to Sandy and chased after Carl Collier, down the length of the basement, flying up the stairs that led to the house’s upper level. As Holly entered the kitchen, she saw her grandfather holding a phone in one hand, a long filleting knife in the other. I’m going to die, she thought, then charged forward.
In the next few seconds of chaos, she wrestled the knife from her grandfather’s hand. Behind her Sandy appeared, wild-eyed, shaking, and bloody. Carl Collier reached for a coffee cup and hurled it at the girls. Half-blind without his glasses, he missed, the cup smashing the wall by Sandy’s head. Sandy turned her head to avoid the impact and, as she looked back, saw Holly strike.
“I just closed my eyes and started stabbing,” says Holly. She heard screaming, somewhere way off in the distance. Later she would realize that was the sound of her own voice. Between 17 and 20 times, the knife went into Carl Collier. Holly stabbed at his face, his shoulders, and his arms as he tried to fend her off. She felt something hot splash her face. She opened her eyes. Her grandfather was walking away from her, the knife sticking out of his neck. “Oh, crap,” he said and fell to the floor. The blade had sliced across his vertebrae, cutting his aorta.
Holly returned to the basement. Bloody streaks along the length of the white walls bore testament to the old lady’s last desperate flight. Sandy had chased and slashed at her head, neck, and chest. Sarah Collier finally fell at the base of the stairs, faceup. The lovers stood over the old lady, who was still moving a little.
Sandy: “You’ve got to finish her.”
Holly: “I won’t!”
Sandy: “You’ve gotta.”
Holly stabbed her grandmother—the 22nd and final wound.
The girls moved quickly now, grabbing a change of clothes, scooping some jewelry into Holly’s knapsack. They went back to the kitchen. “We had to jump over the pool of blood,” Holly says. They squabbled briefly about pulling the knife out of Carl Collier’s neck.
“We’ve got to. It’s evidence against us,” Holly said. She pulled the knife out. Then they ran.
At 19:32 the Fayette County sheriff’s department received the following call: “This is Spalding County. We need a residence checked on—to check on the welfare of two subjects in your county.”
“OK, what’s the address?”
“226 Plantation Drive. This would be the residence of a Sarah and Carl Collier.”
“OK. What’s the problem?”
“Earlier today their granddaughter was at a friend’s house…advised she had killed her grandparents…by stabbing”
“How old is she?”
“She is 15 years of age.”
Ten minutes later detectives dispatched to Plantation Drive discovered the crime scene.
Fayette County’s chief investigator, Lt. Col. Bruce Jordan, followed bloody footprints to the body of Sarah Collier. The dead woman’s shirt was torn and soaked with blood. She was still wearing her glasses, and her eyes and mouth were open. It looked like she was frozen in midscream.
Jordan walked past her to the back basement bedroom, still redolent of marijuana and in disarray, a seashell lamp smashed on the floor, bedcovers tangled up, blood on the walls. As cops sifted through evidence, one officer handed Jordan a stack of pictures of Holly at the beach, where she’d vacationed over the years. Jordan studied them and was struck by a sudden instinct.
They’re going to the beach, he thought.
Four hours and 250 miles away, Sandy steered the stolen Silverado along a quiet residential street in the resort town of Tybee Island, 18 miles south of Savanna, Georgia. The girls just made it: The needle of the truck’s fuel gauge was deep in the red.
Brian Clayton, 22, and his brother, Brent, 14, were as new to Tybee Island as the two girls driving by in a blue truck, having moved to a nearby beach house with their mother, Trish Pellerin, earlier that day. The truck stopped up the street, turned around, and pulled up alongside them.
Did they have a cigarette, asked the driver, a young girl with reddish-brown hair and a bandanna. Brian did and walked over to the truck to hand one over.
“What y’all doin’?” Sandy asked, passing the cigarette to Holly, who dragged gratefully on it. They’d run out of smokes 100 miles back.
“We’re just going for a walk on the beach,” Brian replied.
“Mind if we come?”
Leaving the truck in the parking lot of a nursing home, they walked to the beach and shared a joint, looking out at the Atlantic surf.
“I’ve always wanted to go to the beach,” said Sandy. Holly, sitting beside her, was silent.
Sandy told Brian they were runaways and asked if he could offer a bed for the night. What the hell, he thought. An hour or so later, the girls were curled up on a mattress in a back bedroom of Brian’s new beach house, their limbs intertwined, their faces touching.
“I fell asleep looking at Sandy,” Holly says.
Back in Fayetteville, the U.S. Marshals’ Fugitive Task Force was on the girls’ trail, using GPS technology to track Holly’s cell phone. But at 1 a.m. the phone’s signal disappeared. In Tybee Holly had turned the phone off.
Through the early hours of the morning, marshals fanned out through Tybee, searching the coastal town for the blue Chevy. At 9 a.m. they found it abandoned at the Oceanside Nursing Center, just a few yards from the beach. By the time Jordan arrived, at 11 a.m., the hunt had narrowed to a two block radius on Bright Street.
Inside one of those houses, Trish Pellerin was meeting the two strays her sons had brought home. Holly and Sandy sat in the living room, Because the phone company hadn’t yet connected their home phone, Pellerin asked to borrow Holly’s cell. Without knowing it, she was about to bring Holly and Sandy’s flight to an end.
Outside, the U.S. Marshals’ GPS came to life, pinpointing the phone’s location. They moved in to surround the area. At about 2 p.m. Brian heard a commotion and stuck his head out the door. Coming toward him, guns raised, were at least a dozen cops.
It was over in seconds. Holly and Sandy were found in the upstairs bedroom, pinned to the floor by the cops, arrested, and handcuffed. Detectives found two knives in Sandy’s pockets. As he got on his cell phone to inform Fayette County of the arrest, Jordan saw Holly trying to pull her hands free of the cuffs. He dropped a knee into her back. “You’re not fighting with your grandmama now,” he said.
Holly was led out first. Jordan pulled Sandy to her feet and walked her to a waiting patrol car. “Are you going to tell the truth about what happened?” he asked her.
“Yea,” said Sandy, “I’ll tell you the truth”
Tearfully, Sandy told Jordan everything. She said they had killed Holly’s grandparents so they could “be free”—so they could be together forever. She talked and she cried for about an hour, describing the killings in detail.
“Those people didn’t deserve to die,” Sandy told Jordan.
Sandy and Holly sobbed through the indictment hearing. Swaddled in bulletproof vests, hands shackled to their waists, they sat just a few feet apart, separated by their lawyers. During the first hearing, Holly turned to her lawyer, Judy Chidester, and whispered, “I can’t believe they are dead. I can’t believe I did that. I feel like it’s a bad dream.”
Sandy agreed to testify against Holly, but in the end both girls cut deals. In return for guilty pleas, Sandy was sentenced to life for the murder of Sarah Collier; Holly received two life sentences for the two killings. During Holly’s lengthy allocution, Judge Paschal English demanded, “Why did you decide to kill them?”
“So we could be together. We could leave.”
“Where would you go?”
Drowning inside her oversize prison “browns”—the standard uniform of state prisons in Georgia—Holly is soft-spoken and occasionally tearful, twisting her hair and looking down at the table when she speaks because she is shy and still, really, just a little girl. Yet out of this little girl’s mouth come the gruesome details of the killings, described as though she is recalling the plot of a movie she has just seen.
But mostly she tells me about Sandy, incarcerated hundreds of miles away. Her passion remains undimmed, even though Sandy agreed to testify against her. “I understand why,” says Holly philosophically. “She was just trying to save herself. I would probably have done the same thing.” She had even made two engagement rings, woven out of thread pulled from her prison blanket. “I love her so much it hurts,” Holly says. “I miss her so much.”
Sandy will be 30, Holly 35 before they are first eligible for parole. Holly says they still plan to marry. “Sandy says she’ll be waiting for me at the gates when I come out,” Holly says and smiles.
And for the first time, she looks truly happy.