The day terror came downtown
Priscilla Ford’s deadly drive
Reno, 1980. At around 47 degrees, it’s a warm Thursday in November. It’s 2:57 in the afternoon. This isn’t just any Thursday; it’s Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27. People are milling along casino row. Perhaps because of the mild weather, there are more tourists than usual here during the tail end of a national recession. Ronald Reagan was elected president weeks prior. There are 54 American hostages held in Iran.
Does a feeling of portent arise? This scene is moments away from inscription onto the pages of Reno history. A heinous act will occur on this spot in a matter of moments—an act that, while suspended in that bygone second in time, will live on more than two decades later. The person who will perpetrate the act, while undoubtedly in possession of a diseased mind, will be prosecuted to the gates of—but possibly evade—the ultimate punishment of death. The issues raised by the murders, trial and appeals will be evoked every time a name like David Berkowitz, John Hinckley Jr. or Andrea Yates arises in the national consciousness.
In this quarter-century old landscape, Reno is a different town. Fewer towering buildings decorate the skyline. The slate crosswalks downtown aren’t yet conceived, nor are the purple flower boxes and trash cans that will give Virginia Street an effervescent character. A time traveler would likely hear the sounds of Kenny Rogers’ saccharine “Lady” or Blondie’s “Call Me” from a passing car radio.
Competing with street sounds are the mechanical jingling, clinking and ringing slot machines. The noises from the slot machines are from metal striking metal, not the electronic keening that will come with advances in technology. The smell of the Club Cal-Neva’s Thanksgiving special—roast turkey or baked ham with vegetables, roll and butter, $3.95—wafts in the air. Those planning Christmas shopping are more likely to come downtown or to Park Lane Mall than to J.C. Penney at Meadowood Mall, which has yet to become the area’s shopping mecca.
Standing at the Virginia Street corner of the Club Cal-Neva on East Second Street and looking north, a time traveler sees a First National Bank across the street. Down the block, a man in sandwich boards advertises a local strip club. Harrah’s much less ostentatious casino neighbors the bank to the north; then stands the Nevada Club, then Harold’s Club, then Douglas Alley. The Reno Arch is the version with two pylons suspending a frowning arc that holds four octagons each with a letter spelling out R-E-N-O. Below is a smiling arc that proclaims “THE BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD.”
Sixty seconds pass. The sandwich board man ambles a bit farther toward the university. Three o’clock must signal a change in shift for some of these casinos, as the demeanor of the crowd changes momentarily, and a smattering of black-and-whites joins the usual street-corner drunks, who clutch free-drink tokes, and older tourists shaking plastic change cups, some brimming, some without enough coins to make a noise.
To the south, past the Truckee River and hidden by a curve and the hill that rises to Liberty Street, a 6-year-old, blue Lincoln Continental heads north on Virginia Street. Death is behind the wheel. In this incarnation, Death takes the form of one Priscilla Joyce Ford. She wears a black cape. She turned 51 nine months earlier on Feb. 10. Even though she’s a little buzzed, she’s made it all the way from her home near Meadowood Mall. She doesn’t think she’s Death, though. She thinks she’s Jesus Christ or Eve’s husband, Adam, or a 19th-century Seventh-day Adventist prophetess. Or the Holy Spirit who is, in her belief system, the feminine aspect of the Trinity.
Ford is a 5-feet-4-inches-tall black woman. She weighs 125 pounds and has brown eyes and shoulder-length hair combed back. She had crackers and Emerald Dry Wine before leaving on her errand. Her blood-alcohol ratio is .162. That’s too drunk to be driving legally, but many a barfly has made it home with higher.
It takes another minute for the Lincoln to make its way to 100 feet south of the southeast corner of Second and Virginia streets. At 2:59 p.m., the Lincoln jumps the curb and careens down the sidewalk. It hits the curb at about 20 miles an hour, a speed not likely to blow the tires. The car rapidly accelerates to as high as 40 miles an hour, driving 100 feet down the sidewalk, witnesses will later say. It crosses the Second Street crosswalk and continues another 322 feet down the sidewalk in front of the bank, in front of Harrah’s, Nevada Club and Harold’s Club. Then it’s back on Virginia Street, crossing to the southbound lane and stopping two blocks later behind traffic at the Fifth Street traffic light. The light is red.
Destruction follows the car’s path like an indictment. Five people are killed immediately, and 24 are injured. Fourteen people will be sent to Washoe Medical Center; the remaining 10 to St. Mary’s. Street signs, body parts, clothing and the wounded and dead lie on the sidewalk and in the gutter like victims of a natural disaster. But this is an entirely unnatural disaster.
It takes only a few seconds for Ford to drive that five-block total. For the victims, every second following the attack is an eternity, waiting for help to arrive, for family members to come, for the news of survivors and casualties. But the longest wait, some will later say, is for justice.
The two daily newspapers, the Nevada State Journal and the Reno Evening Gazette, contain chilling accounts of the killings in progress.
“It looked as though someone had gone through the streets with a lawnmower, mowing people down,” a woman from Canada who’d witnessed the massacre from the Onslow Hotel-Casino tells the Gazette. “It looked like a battlefield—there were bodies all over the place.”
Marty Edmondson of Reno offers a chilling view of the car as former schoolteacher Ford sped onto the pages of Nevada’s list of most infamous mass murderers.
“She came right at us, she came right at us with a body still on the hood of the car, and she looked like she was looking for somebody else to hit.”
Priscilla Ford doesn’t resist when police remove her from the car. She is mad, though.
John Oakes is the deputy district attorney on call that day.
“I was dispatched down to a hit and run,” he says. “I thought they were kidding me; it’s Thanksgiving. I got downtown, and it was a fucking war zone. There were bodies and shit everywhere. It was carnage. People were crying, and ambulances were responding. It was a cluster-fuck.”
Later, Oakes is told to keep an eye on Ford.
“There was a trauma center set up down at Washoe Med, and we had the victims coming in crying and screaming. Family members crying and screaming. She was right next door. An officer and I were directed to maintain security because a lot of people wanted to kill her.”
Oakes spends around five hours in the company of the killer. He says the most remarkable thing about her was her calmness—mixed with callousness.
“She looked at me point-blank and said, ‘How many people did I kill?’ I said, ‘Five or six.’ She said, ‘Good.’ She was very placid. Like just another day. Very matter of fact. Very matronly, motherly. She was acting self-righteous, like she was justified in what she did. We couldn’t figure out why at the time.
“What’s the first defense of anybody who creates this kind of carnage? ‘Only a crazy person would do something like that.’ I got down to RPD before she was brought into booking, and I had them set up the video. [Video technology was new in Reno.] So we could see on tape exactly how lucid she was. She knew who she was and where she was; that tape was worth its weight in gold.”
The trial would not begin for a year. On Jan. 29, 1981, Ford was found incompetent to stand trial and sent to Lake’s Crossing for mental treatment. On April 29, 1981, she was ordered to submit to treatment, including drug therapy. Finally, on Aug. 4, 1981, she was found competent for trial.
The trial began on Nov. 12, 1981, and would last nearly five months—making it, at that time, the longest and most expensive in Reno history. There was little doubt as to whether Ford drove the murder car. There were dozens upon dozens of witnesses to the act. The community’s heart poured out to the injured and killed. There was no lack of voices calling for blood or vengeance.
All that was missing was a motive—one that the community could understand. Of the several motives offered, it seemed each one was crazier than the last, or at least just as unfounded in reality. As details about the woman’s life became clearer, the primary issue in the murder trial—Ford’s ability to recognize the difference between right and wrong—became murkier.
The characters in the courtroom drama were almost clichés. At one table, the community’s voice of retribution, District Attorney Cal Dunlap. He declared early on that he wanted to see Ford’s end in Nevada’s gas chamber. (The 1983 Nevada Legislature would change the method of execution to lethal injection.) At the other, Public Defender Lew Carnahan. The combatants were seconded by police, doctors, witnesses to the act and eventually by Ford’s family and acquaintances.
Ford was charged with six counts of murder and 23 counts of attempted murder. Seven people had died of injuries suffered in the attack, but due to the issues involved in changing the murder indictment, she was charged with only six.
Ford’s plea was also expected: not guilty by reason of insanity. It’s a desperation defense that rarely succeeds. Still, wags would say that she’d have to be crazy not to try the insanity defense. Years later, the Nevada Supreme Court would agree with the wags.
“The more dead, the better,” a police officer quoted Ford as saying as she waited for tests to determine her blood’s alcohol or drug content at Washoe Medical Center. That was in the early days of the trial. “I deliberately planned to get as many as possible. A Lincoln Continental can do a lot of damage, can’t it?” Later the officer testified Ford said, “I am a New York teacher. I’m tired of life. I want attention, I’m sick of problems. In June 1980, a voice told me to drive through a crowd at a theater and kill as many as possible. But another voice said she’s too much of a lady to do it.”
That voice was Joan Kennedy’s. That would be Joan Kennedy, wife to Sen. Edward Kennedy. The voice that counseled her against the mass slaughter was a nationally famous attorney. These celebrity relationships existed only in Ford’s head.
The accused had a few associations with fame, although they were also related to Ford’s mental deficiencies. She had an unusual fixation on Barbara Walters and thought Walters was a beast. She wrote to Dear Abby. In 1978, she unsuccessfully sued the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a half a billion dollars. She called herself “America’s only authorized divinity,” which would be funny if she hadn’t been deadly serious.
Ford’s story evolved from almost the first moments after the crime. She claimed to a psychiatrist that Reno child welfare officials had stolen her 11-year-old daughter, Wynter Scott, seven years before, and so she committed the murders to get attention so that she could get some help finding her daughter.
It was true that officials had taken her daughter after Ford had been arrested for trespassing and assault, but they’d been trying to contact the drifter, Ford, to tell her the child’s whereabouts for years. Still, vengeance for the loss of a daughter was a motive people could understand. The problem is that other testimony showed she’d known her daughter’s location, in Los Angeles with relatives, for some time. Later, she claimed the car had suffered some kind of mechanical malfunction. It seems a person would have to be crazy to change stories with the knowledge that the earlier stories had been widely reported in court and in the newspapers.
Throughout the months leading up to the trial, and interspersed in the trial, were the testimonies of expert medical witnesses who said Ford was suffering from a variety of mental illnesses—including paranoid schizophrenia with religious delusions and paranoid psychosis. According to newspaper reports, she’d been diagnosed as mentally unstable since as early as 1973, when she was diagnosed as having a passive-aggressive personality with hysterical episodes. (Perhaps the fact that she shot her second husband and then herself in 1957 might have given medical officials pause. No charges were filed in the self-defense shooting.) The only opinion experts didn’t express was that Ford was faking it.
Dunlap wasn’t convinced, though, calling the insanity defense a sham. But the biggest dispute at trial boiled down to whether Ford knew it was wrong for her to hurt and kill those people on Virginia Street on Thanksgiving Day in 1980.
At various times in the trial, Ford was ruled competent and then incompetent to stand trial, understand the charges against her or to assist her lawyers in her own defense. The prosecution argued that medication made her competent, and the court agreed. Of course, it seemed once she was competent for trial, she was also competent to decide whether she wanted to be medicated, but that argument was quickly squashed with a new motion from prosecutor Dunlap.
The competency issue was in part muddled by the fact that a person doesn’t necessarily have to be sane to be competent enough to stand trial. And the Nevada insanity standard, known as the M’Naughten Rule, doesn’t say that competence to stand trial proves sanity or insanity at the moment the crime was committed.
With all the legal maneuverings, it seemed the doctors and lawyers would be the stars of the show. That was true until Ford took the stand in her own defense. During the subsequent five days, she made such claims as that she was the spirit of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and Adam reincarnate.
“I am human,” she testified. “And I am divine. I don’t like it any more than anyone else does. I don’t want to be divine.”
The only person whose non-credentialed testimony seemed to have as much impact was the testimony of Wynter Scott, the daughter Ford claimed had been abducted by child welfare officials. Scott told of her youth with Ford. Among other things, Ford taught her daughter how to smoke marijuana at the age of 9. At various times, Ford had discussed her belief in her own divinity and had suggested plans to have Scott artificially inseminated in order to bring another messiah, through virgin birth, into the world.
“She talked about Jesus Christ, about her being Jesus Christ, about me being Jesus Christ,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported Scott’s testimony. “She talked to my aunt about me being artificially inseminated to bear Jesus Christ.”
The seven-woman, five-man jury only took 13 hours of deliberation to find Ford guilty of murdering six people and attempting to murder 23 others. All that was left for the jury to decide was whether she would be put to death in the gas chamber or receive life with or without the possibility of parole.
It took nine more days, to March 28, 1982, for the verdict: death in Nevada’s gas chamber.
But that was just the beginning of a new chapter for Priscilla Ford.
More than 21 years later, defense attorney Lew Carnahan says the case was a difficult time for him, that in some ways, he’d prefer to forget.
“My firm belief was that she was legally insane, even under the strict M’Naughten Test,” Carnahan said. “If the jury had found the facts as I believe they existed, she would be in a mental hospital, not in a prison. I certainly respect the jury and their efforts, but I think they made a wrong decision in their interpretation of the facts. I think she should have been found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed in a secure facility, such as Lake’s Crossing. I believe she would have been there for the rest of her life.”
Although she immediately disputed the insanity plea, claiming sanity, and said she wanted “to be left alone to die in peace,” state law mandates a review of the death sentence.
The 21st anniversary of her first assigned end in the gas chamber passed unnoted Saturday, July 12. In 1986, her conviction was upheld by the Nevada Supreme Court, but in a footnote to the opinion, the court called into question the justice of the sentence.
“Notwithstanding our disposition of this appeal, we do not perceive this case to be among the brightest stars in the judicial firmament. The senseless nature of Mrs. Ford’s conduct, coupled with her troubled and poignant history as wife and mother, lead us to conclude that the better course would have been a negotiated resolution assuring society of the defendant’s permanent sequestration. Such a resolution would have been just considering the ambivalent nuances of her mental condition and the unrelenting obsession of a mother deprived of her child that haunted her life for many years prior to her unfocused act of vengeance.”
The justices also wrote that by April 8, 1986, excluding the district attorney’s fees, public defender’s fees, judicial salaries, judicial support staff salaries and some commitment of facilities, Ford’s direct trial costs totaled $274,494.
Dunlap says even if he knew then what he knows now, he would not have changed his efforts to get Ford sentenced to death.
“The reason I went for the punishment I went for wasn’t because I thought she would ever be put to death,” he said. “It was the best way that I knew how to assure that she would never hurt anybody else. In those days, and since then, the mental health people have let people go, and the parole people have let people go, people who have killed again—they shouldn’t have been let go. People who have the death penalty to deal with don’t get out at all or they get out a whole lot later than those who are convicted of first-degree murder without the death penalty.”
To date, due to sanity hearings and death penalty appeals, Ford has missed more than five court-appointed dates with the executioner, and many people, including prosecutor Dunlap, doubt she’ll ever be put to death.
Editor’s note: Priscilla Ford, 74, is incarcerated at the Southern Nevada Women’s Correctional Facility in Las Vegas while her case proceeds through the federal court system. Currently, it is before the federal bench in Las Vegas for a habeas corpus hearing.