Driving from his home in Asheville, North Carolina, to his new job at the tiny Cane Creek clinic, Benjamin Gilmer, MD, was eager to start his new life and pay off his medical school debts.
The rural clinic had been forced to close after his predecessor, family physician Vince Gilmer, MD, (no relation) had been convicted of first-degree murder 4 years earlier. He was serving a life sentence in a Virginia prison without the possibility of parole. He is still behind bars and could not comment on this story.
As the months flew by, Benjamin Gilmer's patients shared stories about the other Dr Gilmer that surprised him. They described Vince Gilmer as a caring, generous person who went out of his way to help them. He made house calls, and if a patient couldn't afford to pay him, he would accept a bushel of corn instead.
Yet there was no doubt about the gruesome murder. Vince Gilmer was convicted of strangling his frail 60-year-old father with a rope in his Toyota truck. He then cut off all his father's fingers and dumped his father's body by the side of the road.
"Four years later, his patients were still shocked about what happened and couldn't reconcile the person they knew with the event that happened," says Benjamin Gilmer.
Yet, Vince Gilmer had admitted to the killing, and the prosecution had presented evidence at the trial that it was premeditated and that he tried to cover up the crime. The detectives found the "murder" weapons in Vince's truck: the ropes he strangled his father with and the garden shears that he cut off his fingers with. They also had evidence that he drove to Virginia to dump the body, returned to see patients for several days as if nothing had happened, and then ran away when a detective came to arrest him.
But something kept gnawing away at Benjamin Gilmer. Could there be a medical explanation for his sudden change in personality and behavior?
Little did he know that he would embark on a journey to solve a medical mystery, and then even fight to get the convicted killer out of prison.
Solving a Medical Mystery
Benjamin Gilmer decided to investigate what might have happened to Vince in the months leading up to the murder. He talked to his friends and found several clues about Vince's medical history. They recalled that he suffered a concussion in a car accident 6 months before the murder, which suggested he could have had a traumatic brain injury.
Benjamin Gilmer also discovered that Vince's father was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had been in a residential psychiatric facility in Virginia until he was released that fateful night to Vince's custody.
Vince had written to friends that "something is wrong with my brain and help me." He mentioned SSRI discontinuation syndrome because he abruptly stopped taking his medication the week of the murder (which can cause electric shock sensations and mood swings among other symptoms).
Vince had mentioned the SSRI discontinuation syndrome at his trial and that his father had sexually molested him for years and that he tried to molest him again during the ride in his truck. However, the court dismissed that information because Vince represented himself, dismissed his court-appointed attorneys, and lacked expert testimony about his mental state.
The prosecutor portrayed Vince as a lying sociopath who had planned his father's murder down to the last detail. The judge agreed. Two psychiatrists and a psychologist who later evaluated him in prison concluded that he was faking his symptoms and denied his requests for an SSRI.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Gilmer became increasingly preoccupied with what happened to Vince. "It was hard to erase a memory that had so tainted that community," he said.
When Sarah Koenig, a journalist and former producer of the radio program This American Life, called Benjamin Gilmer to interview him about the coincidence of taking over Vince Gilmer's practice and sharing the same last name, he refused. "I was scared and didn't want to be on his radar, I was afraid of how he might react."
In spring 2012, he called Koenig and agreed to collaborate on an episode about Vince's case. Benjamin Gilmer wrote to Vince Gilmer in prison, asking for a meeting. To his surprise, Vince wanted to meet them.
When Vince shuffled into the waiting area at the Wallens Ridge State Prison in West Virginia, Benjamin Gilmer was shocked by his appearance. "He looked like a caged animal, it was very hard for him to string together ideas and express himself, and he was twitching and shaking dramatically. He looked 20 years older than his actual age of 50 and like someone you would imagine in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," said Benjamin Gilmer.
He felt that "there was something clearly wrong with him." They agreed to a second meeting, and this time Benjamin Gilmer invited a psychiatrist, Steve Buie, MD, to observe Vince. As the visit ended and Vince turned to leave, Buie watched his shuffling gait. They suspected he may have Huntington's disease, "which explained why he had delusions and his mind was unraveling," says Benjamin Gilmer. But they had no way of testing him in prison.
Unexpectedly, an event happened that turned the whole case on its head. Vince was moved to a psychiatric hospital in southern Virginia because he had threatened to commit suicide. The chief psychiatrist, Colin Angliker, MD, was willing to order a genetic test, and the results confirmed the diagnosis: Vince Gilmer had a terminal degenerative brain disease.
Benjamin Gilmer worried how Vince would take the news. To his surprise, Vince was grateful and relieved. He finally knew what was wrong with him.
Vince also improved with the SSRI that Angliker prescribed — he was less anxious and more mentally alert. "He expressed joy for the first time, despite the death sentence of a diagnosis."
Still, he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison for the crime he committed.
After the This American Life episode aired in 2013, Benjamin Gilmer felt that he couldn't just abandon Vince to the prison system, where thousands of inmates with mental illness languish without adequate treatment.
Benjamin Gilmer decided he had a new — although controversial — mission — to get Vince out.
Confronting the Politics of a Pardon
After nearly a decade of trying, Benjamin Gilmer now admits that he was naive to think he could get him released quickly.
After the episode aired, offers of legal help started to arrive, and a team was assembled who agreed to work on the case pro bono. They wanted justice for Vince but also to prevent anyone else with mental illness from experiencing a similar tragedy.
The goal was to get Vince transferred to a secure hospital, a psychiatric facility dedicated to Huntington's patients, or a nursing home with a dementia unit.
However, after realizing that Vince may not survive a potentially lengthy court battle, the legal team decided to ask the governor of Virginia to grant a clemency pardon.
They gathered the evidence for Vince's case and presented their petition to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). He rejected it at the end of his term in 2017.
The team tried again with his successor, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a neurologist. He dashed their hopes when he rejected their petition in late 2021.
That was a huge setback. The team had spent $1 million and had exhausted every contact they could make with the governor's office, says Gilmer. "We were totally demoralized."
He dreaded having to tell Vince that yet another governor had rejected their clemency petition. "I went to prison and could see the hopelessness and despair in his reaction. I lost it emotionally," says Benjamin Gilmer.
Vince surprised him by hugging and comforting him and thanking him for all his efforts. They had developed a strong bond over a decade of visits and calls. Benjamin Gilmer had even brought his wife and children along on special occasions.
"I thought of him as a friend, as a patient, and someone who was really suffering, all those things helped our relationship evolve and kept me engaged with him all these years and continued to inspire me to fight for him. I also liked him because I knew what he was like before the murder from the stories I was hearing from his friends and patients."
But his continuous advocacy came at a personal cost. "This battle pushed me to my limits emotionally and intellectually. I was busy building my career, trying to be a good doctor, teacher, husband, and father to two young children. I became so distracted that my wife confronted me several times about not being more emotionally present," says Benjamin Gilmer.
But he knows that without Vince in his life, he would not have written his first book (released earlier this year) about the case and their unlikely friendship.
A Pardon Is Finally Granted
He had also given Gov. Northam's staff advance copies of the book. In a highly unusual move, the governor reversed his previous rejection and granted Vince Gilmer his long-awaited pardon on January 12.
Benjamin Gilmer isn't ready to celebrate yet. "Despite being a free man, Vince is still living behind bars because we haven't been able to find him an available bed in a secure treatment facility. There has been a shortage of beds due to COVID."
He says Vince is looking forward to being safe and being surrounded by people who are committed to caring for him and not punishing him. He can't wait to be around his family and to give and receive hugs.
"After a while, it was hard not to believe that I was supposed to be in his path and this was just part of my destiny," says Benjamin Gilmer.
Christine Lehmann, MA, is a senior editor and writer for Medscape Business of Medicine based in the DC area. She has been published in WebMD News, Psychiatric News, and The Washington Post. Contact Christine at clehmann@medscape or via Twitter @writing_health.
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Cite this: Christine Lehmann. A Gruesome Murder Changes Two Docs' Lives, and One Was the Killer - Medscape - Apr 13, 2022.