Evil Among Us
by Ken Driggs
[p.195] On June 4, 1975, Kleasen arrived at the Texas men’s death row at the Ellis One Unit outside Huntsville. Travis County deputies drove him there less than three hours after his sentencing.
When Texas went to a centralized state execution system in 1924, state authorities began numbering death sentenced inmates starting with No. 1. Kleasen was No. 527.
The Texas electric chair almost immediately acquired the name “Old Sparky.” It was first used at the Walls Unit located in downtown Huntsville on February 8, 1924. Five black men were put to death in less than two hours. Charles Reynolds was executed at 12:09 a.m., quickly followed by Ewell Morris, George Washington, and Mack Matthews. Melvin Johnson had been scheduled for execution that night but received a last-minute one-hour reprieve from Governor T. W. Davidson that was not further extended. Johnson became the fifth execution when he was pronounced dead shortly after 2:00 a.m.
Until a 1995 change in Texas law, executions were carried out after midnight but before dawn.
Death sentenced men were held at the Ellis One Unit about ten miles outside town, but they were brought to the Walls Unit for executions. They passed their final hours in a small steel-wire cell just off the death chamber. This remains the practice, but in 1982 lethal injection replaced the electric chair.
Kleasen arrived at the Ellis One Unit about the same time as “The Candy Man,” Ronald Clark O’Bryan. O’Bryan was inmate No. 529, sentenced to death for the Halloween 1974 poisoning of his eight-year-old son Timothy with cyanide-laced candy. His Houston trial and death sentence were handed down about the same time as Kleasen’s.
[p.196] O’Bryan’s case made him even less sympathetic in the public’s mind than Kleasen. An optician by trade, O’Bryan had dug himself a deep financial hole, owing as much as $100,000 to various creditors. By the fall of 1974, he was selling the family home to pay debts and still juggling bills. He took out $20,000 insurance policies on the lives of each of his two children. In August 1974 he ordered cyanide from his employers to clean gold frame glasses. This in spite of the fact cyanide had not been used in the optical business for over twenty years. His employer refused, but O’Bryan eventually secured it through a chemical supply house. O’Bryan also asked, out of “curiosity” he said, about doses fatal to humans as well as about how cyanide was detected in deceased persons. In October 1974 he began telling friends and creditors he expected a large sum of money very soon.
After taking his children trick-or-treating on Halloween night, O’Bryan, or so a jury believed, gave his son Timothy candy laced with cyanide. He encouraged Timothy to eat all of it even though the child complained that it tasted funny. The boy got sick almost immediately and was dead within an hour. An autopsy discovered levels of cyanide almost twice as high as are required to kill a person. A police search of O’Bryan’s home later produced additional Halloween candy which had been tampered with. A key witness in O’Bryan’s trial was Harris County medical examiner Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk.
O’Bryan had been represented at trial and on appeal by Houston defense lawyer Marvin O. Teague. Teague was a prominent criminal defense lawyer and civil liberties champion. A 1961 graduate of the University of Houston Law School, he was the in-coming president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. While many Texans didn’t care for Teague’s commitment to civil liberties, few could resist his broad smile, sense of humor, and love of people. His charm was effective at containing difficult clients like O’Bryan. If a client were especially unsympathetic, as many charged with capital crimes were, he would use his personal warmth to deflect some of the public hostility. He was a lawyer’s lawyer who threw himself completely into his cases. Colleagues were always amused by the deep layer of papers that buried his desk.
[p.197] O’Bryan and Kleasen were in individual cells next to each other. The other inmates wouldn’t speak to O’Bryan because of his crime, but he and Kleasen became friends. Boredom is a constant burden for men on death row, and Kleasen complained of having nothing to do but play Dominoes in the day room. Most inmates’ time is devoted to endless rehashes of their trial and appeals.
O’Bryan bragged about the sharp lawyer he had. Kleasen, never shy about changing lawyers, was impressed. Ganne and Bays realized Kleasen needed more experience than they possessed for his appeal and actively encouraged Teague to take the case. Kleasen wrote Teague, who traveled the 85 miles from Houston to visit him. It’s hard to say what Teague thought of this delusional man, but he was impressed with the legal issues in Kleasen’s case. Soon he was on board as Kleasen’s attorney for the mandatory appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA).
Teague immediately saw the trailer search as a potential winner. He often praised Ganne for making certain it figured in the record of the trial. “I learned from Teague that the most effective appellate lawyer was the trial lawyer who preserved the issue,” Ganne now recalls.
O’Bryan would not be as lucky as Kleasen. The CCA affirmed his sentence in 1980 making him the third person put to death in Texas during the post-Furman era. Charles Brooks was executed for a Ft. Worth murder on December 7, 1982, followed by James Autry’s execution on March 4, 1984, for a Port Arthur convenience store robbery-murder, then O’Bryan on March 31, 1984.
Once the Erie County, New York, district attorney’s office confirmed Kleasen’s conviction and death sentence, they dismissed the thirty-eight firearms counts arising from the 1971 ATF raid of his Victoria Street home.
As part of routine death row paperwork, Kleasen was interviewed about his life and the facts of his crime by a prison parole officer. His January 1977 report recited what Kleasen said about his life without attempting to verify facts. Kleasen acknowledged that he had been arrested repeatedly since 1968, but claimed that “all of these arrests occurred because of harassment he was receiving from the Central Intelligence Agency because of his involvement in the anti-Vietnam war movement.” He refused to discuss his capital conviction other than to say that “all the evidence presented at his trial was manufactured by the Central Intel-[p.198]ligence Agency.” He claimed to have lived all over the world from 1952 to 1968 while he was a CIA agent.
Kleasen explained that his CIA “cover” was as a “professional student and school teacher.” As a result he taught school in “different places throughout the world,” most recently in 1973 at the “American School for American Studies” in Zahle, Lebanon. Kleasen claimed an 80 percent hearing loss as the result of injuries received when Israeli troops attacked the school in Zahle. He also claimed to have two master’s degrees, one in education from the University of Stockholm, the other in sociology from the University of Copenhagen. At this point he still claimed to be Mormon, albeit excommunicated as a result of this conviction. The officer concluded his evaluation:
Mr. Kleasen is an emotionally unstable person of above average intelligence who displays considerable evidence of a severe psychological disorder involving delusional thinking. His thought processes are disorganized to the extent that any factual information reported by Mr. Kleasen and included in this report must be viewed with extreme skepticism. His delusional system centers around the belief that he was at one time a high ranking member of the Central Intelligence Agency and his belief that the Central Intelligence Agency manufactured all the evidence used to convict him in an attempt to persecute him. Mr. Kleasen apparently believes that everyone connected with his conviction for the instant offense were either CIA agents or acting under instructions from the CIA. The nature of his delusional thinking and his conviction for the instant offense indicate that he is an extremely dangerous person who would constitute a threat to society if ever released from the institution and would constitute a threat to prison inmates and officials if ever released to the general inmate population.
Pat Ganne visited Kleasen once on death row. He had a parole revocation hearing in Huntsville and called the Ellis One Warden to schedule time with his former client. They talked less than thirty minutes, but Ganne was shocked at what he saw. In just a few months, [p.199] Kleasen’s hair had turned completely white and he had put on more weight. It was a pattern that would balloon Kleasen out considerably during the next few years.