“Would you get for me a cigarette up there?” Mary Catherine Hampton asks in an accent that has trickled down from the mountains of eastern Kentucky. “I got to puff all my cigarettes when I talk about this.”
She sits on the sheet-covered sofa in the living room of her duplex, one town over from Savannah, Ga.
Stale cigarette smoke hangs in the air like wet drapes, but Hampton blames moldy walls for her intermittent cough, not the way she chain-smokes discount packs of Mavericks.
It has been almost 50 years, but today, Hampton is determined to share the tale that defines her otherwise ordinary life.
She does not tell the story so much as she allows anecdotes to burst out of her. The ragged cadence makes it no less stunning.
As a teenager in 1959, she drove off with a convicted murderer who kept her hostage and then falsely accused her of murder.
His lies brought her infamy and a life sentence behind bars. She would still be in prison today if not for the efforts of attorney F. Lee Bailey, a Miami police officer and a Miami Herald reporter whose stories about Hampton won him a Pulitzer Prize.
By some measures, Hampton was famous in the 1960s.
She was dubbed the “Hillbilly Lolita” by the true-crime magazines sold in grocery stores back then. Stories described her as a beautiful serial killer who left dozens of victims scattered across the country in shallow graves. Her supposed body count involved several Florida murders, including one of Sarasota County’s most notorious unsolved cases.
Hampton says she is talking today to clear her name. She knows some people, including some of her own relatives, think she willingly participated in her captor’s murder spree.
She also hopes her story helps her find the son she put up for adoption in Key West 48 years ago, so she can tell him she gave him away because she was poor and his father looked headed for Florida’s death row.
But most of all, she wants a lot of money from the state of Louisiana. She thinks $100,000 is fair, considering that its justice system sent her to prison when she was 18 for two murders she did not commit.
Hampton wants the world to know these things, but telling the story scares her.
Experience has taught her that what you say can get you sent to prison. She lives in constant fear of unnamed people she calls “They,” who are out to get her. If you need proof, she will ramble on about tapped phones and private mail that has been opened before she gets it.
When Hampton finally gets the courage to speak, it is clear she has health problems that have nothing to do with cigarettes or mold. The psychological toll of her life has left her with a perpetual tremble, a condition she has diagnosed as “bad nerves.”
Pills help stem panic attacks and depression, but they do not stop the trembling, which gets noticeably worse the more she talks. When a memory is particularly painful — and most of them are — the tremble turns into a shake.
When she reaches that night in Idaho, her body threatens to crumble like the flakes of ash scattered across her coffee table.
“I don’t know if anyone understood what that done to me,” she says between needy drags of her cigarette. “I’m over it some. Sometimes I try to push it out and it takes me down so bad.”
Her eyes go wide when she allows the memory to come back to her. It comes fast. Suddenly she is 2,000 miles and 49 years away, riding shotgun with Sonny on Highway 30.
She sees the man, the gun, the blood. And then the world itself comes after her.
“The trees turned into big, black figures,” she says. “I screamed and screamed and screamed.”