Murder for Hire: Working for the "Hit Man" Publisher
In March of 1993, James Perry murdered Mildred Horn, her eight-year-old quadriplegic son, and the son’s nurse. With a $2 million settlement his son had received for his injuries at stake, Horn’s ex-husband hired Perry to do the hit. Among Perry’s possessions was a copy of Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, published by Paladin Press. The book provided step-by-step instructions for soliciting, planning, and committing a murder for hire--and it wound up at the center of a controversial lawsuit calling into question the nature of protected speech.
Working for the Man
I made exactly $3,600 a year from my teaching assistantship at the University of Arkansas when I was in grad school, so during the summers, I worked. One summer, I tended bar. The other, I worked for Paladin Press in Boulder, Colorado. It was 1980.
Peder Lund, Paladin's owner, was retired Army Special Forces and had published the Vietnam story of a fiction writer who was a student in the creative writing program where I studied poetry. After Lund visited Fayetteville and learned I had an editorial background, he offered me the job.
I worried about taking it because of Paladin's content--military history, survivalism, and “burn and blow” porn, books like The Do-It-Yourself Gunpowder Cookbook, How to Customize Your Glock, and Vicious Strikes, Street Wrestling, and Gouges.
To prepare me, the fiction writer showed me a few of the books in the series How to Kill, by John Minnery, telling me that if I could stand them, I’d probably be okay. The violence was cartoonish and silly. One deadly suggestion involved ramming the blades from a blender into your victim’s eye. I could picture it: “Excuse me for a minute while I just, um, unscrew this blender jar.”
Another idea involved arranging to land butt-first on your victim's . . . deadly area? Kill point? It included the awestruck question “Who would have thought the lowly buttocks could be such a lethal weapon?”
I was used to barging through life, doing whatever it took to get by without thinking about it too much, so I was sure I could handle it. Besides, I needed the money, and I knew a married couple who lived in Lafayette, 10 miles from Boulder, who would let me stay with them for free.
Life After Doomsday
Lund's Special Forces background made for extreme clarity. There was no question where you stood or what he expected of you. Not long after I’d gotten there, he assembled the staff and gave everyone a good old-fashioned platoon-style dressing down.
He didn’t yell—instead, he coldly and efficiently reamed the group, first collectively and then individually, up one side and down the other. Finally, it was my turn. “You,” he said, fixing me in the crosshairs, “haven’t been here long enough to screw up.”
That summer in Boulder, I edited the book Life After Doomsday, by Bruce D. Clayton, a self-proclaimed classic about surviving nuclear war and other disasters. Incredibly, this book is still in print, although as one Amazon reviewer notes, it's dated: “The author states an HK 91 will only cost $500. Gunbroker price is $2000+ used.”
As a duck-and-cover kid, I knew Clayton’s advice about building a bomb shelter, laying in supplies, and acquiring the proper arsenal to defend your perimeter was ridiculous. I was well aware that if someone decided to drop the Big One, the best thing to do was to kiss your ass goodbye.
I diligently applied myself to the project, cross-checking references and even imposing the National Council of Teachers of English guidelines for nonsexist usage. But as I worked, I began to feel more and more surreal.
It was difficult to reconcile the goofy Buddhism of the Naropa Institute and the lively performance art and flower-child spirit of the Pearl Street Mall with passages about mayhem and mass death. And the Flatirons, heaved up west of the city, already looked like they'd been hammered by something.
The paste-up artist, an oversized guy with an acne-ravaged face and a sparse goatee, looked like he actually might read Paladin publications, but the other people working there seemed fairly normal. There were women working in the marketing and order departments downstairs, but I worked upstairs with the managing editor, the paste-up artist, and another editor—all male.
Lund lived in an apartment on the premises. He would often wander out in his bathrobe or a towel to discuss some point or another. Occasionally, he had women overnight, and I recall a time he ostentatiously escorted one of them out through our workroom. He stopped in the middle of the room to fasten her bracelet, the two of them giggling like a couple of kids. The gesture felt wrong, both inappropriate and proprietary.
Dinner, Drinks, and a Strip Club
Every summer, Lund took his staff of 15 or so to a a hot-air balloon resort in southern Colorado for morale boosting. But I would need to leave Boulder before then, so he offered to take me to dinner instead.
I don’t recall the restaurant, except that it was nicer than the restaurants I could afford, and that the drinks kept coming. After dinner, Lund offered to take me to a club. It was a local landmark, and it would be a shame for me to leave Boulder without seeing it.
The club was a strip joint called the Bustop. (Think “Bust-Op,” not “Bus Stop.”) A low, flat building surrounded by trucks and cars, it did have the busy appearance of a transportation center. And Lund was right—it is a local landmark, still in operation on the outskirts of Boulder, on Broadway near the junction of Route 36.
I suppose the combination of dinner, drinks, and noodie bar had been an effective form of foreplay for Lund in the past, but this time the plan blew up in his face like a homemade gun. I’d been in strip clubs a few times before, and each time seeing the girls doing their bump and grind caused me to feel a profound combination of pity, despair, and hopelessness. This time, the sadness overcame me. Partway through the first drink of the two-drink minimum, I began to bawl.
I Tell a Lie
The work on Life After Doomsday and the hypermasculinity of Paladin Press place had been wearing me down, and the friends I’d been staying with had been having marital problems. Over the summer I’d come to realize that the relationship I’d left in Arkansas had also been a disaster of sorts. I was tired--tired of being competent and holding myself together and always doing what needed to be done.
Lund ushered me out of the place and drove me back to Paladin Press, where I’d left my car. I remember that he tried to console me but he also obviously wanted to find out why I’d broken down. He asked me in several different ways . . . was I all right, what was wrong, what had happened? I couldn't explain--I didn’t really understand it myself.
Finally, a possible answer came to him. He asked me if I’d ever worked in a place like that. If I had, the experience might have scarred me enough to account for my reaction. I was frustrated and angry, and at the time it seemed as good an explanation as any. So, through a curtain of tears, I nodded yes.
I was in no shape to drive, but damned if I was staying there, so I got in the car and drove back to Lafayette. I got a few hours sleep before dawn. When my alarm went off, I woke with what is probably the worst hangover of my life. I forced myself to get out of bed, though, and drive the 10 miles back to Boulder—the desire not to give Lund the satisfaction of seeing me vulnerable again propelling me forward. A tanker of chicken guts had overturned on Route 7 some weeks earlier, and the road still reeked of it.
When Lund rolled out of bed at around 11, in his bathrobe, he found me sitting on my stool at the counter. I'd made it there on time, and I stayed all day, though I was sick, sick, sick. We both pretended nothing had happened, and that was just fine with me.
So They Made a Movie Out of It
A U.S. court of appeals ruled in 1997 that Hit Man was not protected by the free speech/free press clause of the First Amendment and that Paladin could be held liable for the triple murder Perry committed. Lund wanted to continue the fight and was sure he would prevail, but Paladin's insurance company settled, fearing the cost of an extensive legal battle.
The made-for-TV movie Deliberate Intent detailed the Paladin murder-for-hire case. In it, Timothy Hutton is a high-powered legal scholar who is persuaded by the victims' attorney (Ron Rifkin) to bring the Hit Man publisher to justice. Veteran character actor Bill McDonald plays Peder Lund.
Ironically, Hit Man started out as a novel written by a Florida housewife, who had cobbled together information from various detective and crime novels. The book was rewritten under the pseudonym “Rex Feral” as a how-to manual, for greater appeal to Paladin readers. So you could say Lund was hoist by his own petard.
Lund had another day in court, but this one didn't find its way to the screen. In 2004, Paladin employee Marilyn Ranson sued Lund for sexual harassment and won a $100,000 verdict. The suit specified both unwelcome advances by Lund and a hostile work environment, rife with sexual innuendo.
Among the charges were that Lund made female employees hug and kiss him before handing over their bonus checks--and that he frequently walked around the office wearing nothing but a towel.