(MOBILE, Ala.) - The year was 1976, America was celebrating it's bicentennial, but in Mobile, the celebrations was tempered. A killer was on the loose.
Mara Tillman was only a child then, but she vividly remembers those words of warning from her grandmother.
"Her saying, get them babies in!" Tillman says. "That crazy man's on the loose. Get them babies in!"
Someone was killing female clerks working at a chain of local convenience stores. Two so far, there would soon be a third.
"Yeah, this is real," she recalls family members saying. "He's snatching women up. He's killing them!"
Such was the reign of fear that would last for 18 months. It would be Tillman's own uncle, deputy Larry Tillman, who would finally arrest the man responsible for the murders and the terror.
"He would keep returning to their bodies and just mutilate," she said. "He was Mobile's very own serial killer. He was someone who terrorized a community. He touched everybody's life in one way or another."
He was 29 year old Thomas Warren Whisenhant, a Prichard native already on parole for attacking and nearly killing a woman while he was in the Air Force in Colorado.
A savage crime, but one that paled in comparison to his Alabama victims, two of whom were tortured and mutilated. After 32 years on death row, Whisenhant was executed by legal injection last year.
End of story. But is it?
Mara Tillman grew up in a family of cops and deputies, some of them who worked on the convenience store murders. Looking at pictures of the young women, Mara couldn't help but notice the similarities between them and her, especially her long, dark hair.
In the year's following her uncle's capture of Whisenhant, Tillman's fascination with the criminal mind and Whisenhant continued to grow. They began to exchange letters, hundreds of them. When she asked to visit him on death row, to her surprise, he agreed. What came next was a five year jailhouse conversation with Mobile's most notorious serial killer. There were more letters, even gifts that Whisenhant made for Mara, including this replica of Alabama's own electric chair, kept just yards away from his cell. And as they talked, Mara began to suspect something.
"I knew in my heart of hearts there were other victims, too," she says. "And in the back of my head I was sitting there thinking, you know? Maybe there's a reason he was lingering around for so long."
That's where the story takes us to a tiny, white wooden house that still stands in Prichard. That's where Thomas Whisenhant grew up. His was not a happy childhood. His father was an alcoholic. His mother was overprotective of her son, rarely letting him out of her sight. Experts would later testify at his trial that Whisenhant's crimes against women were a product of his over dominating mother. It was in this house that experts believe Whisenhant's frustration and anger grew. Helped along, Mara believes, by a force literally in their back yard, a church only a stone's throw away.
"Yeah, that's the church where, Whisenhant said, people would get really loud hollering Jesus, and he would put his hands over his ears and say, they'd get so loud! They would get so loud," Tillman said.
It was near that church where an elderly woman was shot to death leaving services. Whisenhant was questioned for the shooting, but eventually released. Now, decades later, Mara found herself sitting next to a man who was set to be executed in just two days.
"So I told him if he'd hurt anybody else or done anything to anybody else he needed to come clean. I said whether you tell me or anybody else, you do not want to meet your maker on the other side without putting things to rest and give people peace in their life," she said.
Her last minute lecture paid off.
"Now that evening," she recalls, "I got home and I got a phone call. It was him on the other end, and he said, 'I've got something I want to talk to you about.' And that's when he started crying. I thought, whoa, you know? He never cried before!"
Over the next hour, says Mara, Whisenhant talked and wept and told her things he had never told her during their five years of jailhouse visits.
"And, of course, I'm sitting there with my heart beating 90 to nothing, so he said, I need to come clean with some things," she said. "And he started naming off these places and what he'd done and these other people he had killed and I'm just sitting there and I'm floored myself."
Yes, there were other murders, said Whisenhant, committed well before the convenience store murders, for which he was about to die, most within a few miles of the house where he was raised. And now he was telling Mara of deaths that, 30 years ago, were considered accidents, suicides, unsolved or just plain forgotten. But Mara was in for an even bigger surprise as she met with Whisenhant one last time, on the eve of his execution.
"And as I was leaving," she said. "That's when he handed me this. A map. A map of the other victims and where X marks the spot."
It was a map drawn with ink on an ordinary piece of notebook paper. On it, Whisenhant had drawn streets and squares to represent houses and those X's, all within a few blocks or a few miles of Whisenhant's childhood home.
They were places he had not seen in more than 30 years. But he remembered them exactly, what used to be a laundry mat, a grocery store an old chemical plant, all places where Whisenhant told Mara he committed his crimes or left bodies.
LOCAL 15 News took that map to District Attorney Ashley Rich. She is now working with local law enforcement to create a cold case team. When that happens, she says, she wants to examine Whisenhant's death row confessions. She says they must be checked out, in case there is someone out there who has lost a loved one and is waiting for an answer.