Sanford Clark lived an extraordinary life, remarkable in that his adulthood was as nondescript as his youth was horrifying. Beginning at the age of 13, Clark was held captive on a southern California chicken ranch, where he was repeatedly abused, tortured, and raped by his uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, a psychopathic serial killer who murdered at least 20 young boys during the two years Clark remained in his clutches. Worse, Northcott forced his nephew to participate in the murders of three boys—including Walter Collins, whose mother was the focus of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 movie Changeling—and also charged him with burying or otherwise disposing of the bodies of his victims.
In the book “The Road Out of Hell” (Union Square Press), Anthony Flacco recounts Clark’s nightmarish ordeal from the youngster’s point of view, continuing the story through Northcott’s arrest, trial, and execution in 1930. Written at the urging of Clark’s oldest son Jerry (who collaborated with Flacco), the book describes the oppressive conditions that kept Clark trapped, and explains how he was exonerated for his role in the murders and later rehabilitated at a forward-thinking boys school.
Failure interviewed Flacco about “The Road Out of Hell,” which has what the author describes as a “successful, if not entirely happy” ending, as Clark—against all odds—went on to become a decorated World War II veteran, devoted husband, loving father, and productive citizen.
What led you to write “The Road Out of Hell”?
Jerry Clark read some of my writing, and because I specialize in stories about young people who are placed into extremely stressful or dangerous situations, he brought the story to me. The first couple of times he approached me I turned him down, because of the brutal violence. Finally, he said, “At least let me tell you about my dad. You have to know what kind of a guy he was.” And he started getting me acquainted with the Sanford Clark who survived the murder ranch and went on to live for another 50 years. Once I got the picture of how he lived his life, that’s what pulled me in. Frankly, I felt humbled. I began asking myself, “Could I have done that?”
Why was Jerry so determined to produce a book about his dad?
He had talked about writing this book for years and had been compiling notes and letters from friends and relatives. But Jerry is a long-haul truck driver, not a writer, and he finally said, “This is more than I can do.” He made a few half-hearted stabs at finding a writer, but nothing happened. Then when Changeling came out, he said, “I’ve got to do this.” It became a cause célèbre for him, and he wanted to counteract the message of Changeling. Not because the movie was inaccurate, but because it was incomplete.
Why was Clark’s story left out of Changeling?
The movie was brilliant, but there’s way too much story for a single film. The boy featured in Changeling was Walter Collins, and the film centered on his mother [played by Angelina Jolie], and her stress and freak out about trying to recover her son and how she was duped by the police. My book answers the question of what happened to Collins, and explains why it was so tragic that his mother spent the rest of her life waiting for him to come home. Clark knew he was dead, because he helped kill him.
How did Clark end up living with Northcott in California?
He was kidnapped. Northcott fled Canada two years earlier because there were rumors about him and the local children, and he ran out before the police got involved. But when he returned to visit his sister [Clark’s mother], with whom he was having an incestuous relationship, he talked her into letting him take Clark to California, where he planned to start a chicken ranch. Northcott originally wanted to take her youngest son, Kenneth, who was only three, but Kenneth was her favorite boy and she wouldn’t part with him. Yet the sickness of their relationship was such that she gave him Clark as a kind of booby prize. So Clark—despite his protests—was basically dragged away, which is why I describe him as being kidnapped, even though legally it wasn’t a kidnapping because his mother gave permission.
What was Northcott like as a person?
He was very much like Ted Bundy, a reasonably good-looking fellow who knew how to present himself with great charm and panache. He liked to dress well. He always kept his hands beautifully manicured, even though he was supposedly a chicken farmer. And he had a conceit of being a professional musician, having done some piano playing for local orchestras. He thought of himself as this bon vivant artiste, who was going to have a great career in Hollywood. And except for people who knew him well, nobody could believe he was a murderer, because he didn’t have the appearance of what they thought a monster ought to look like. He took advantage of the fact that back then there was no mass media, and that society at large had no understanding or appreciation of serial killers as we do today.
It’s interesting that Northcott’s most striking characteristic was the “stink”—as you refer to it—that enveloped him whenever he terrorized others.
I’d love to see someone do a biochemical study about this. They used to say the same thing about Bundy. I don’t know if [serial killers] just ignore their hygiene, or if there are chemical changes associated with their state of mind. We know there are certain mental illnesses that cause a change in the aroma a person gives off, and that there is a chemical connection between the brain, the mind, and someone’s aroma, so maybe that was happening with him.
Where was Clark’s family during the time he was held captive?
They were up in Canada, and with the exception of his sister Jessie, didn’t make any effort to get in touch or inquire about how he was doing. Meanwhile, Northcott forced Clark to write letters home, which he would dictate. And his family enabled Northcott by accepting the idea that the letters were from Clark. But his sister, who was four years older, read the letters and thought they were weird. First, she noticed that Clark’s handwriting wasn’t improving, even though he was supposed to be in school. Second, she thought the letters didn’t sound like him.
Finally, she got old enough and frustrated enough that she went—by herself—from Saskatchewan to Los Angeles to confront Northcott. He jumped her and nearly strangled her to death. She fled the farm and contacted authorities, and that’s what got Clark off the ranch. It was his sister who saved him. His parents abandoned him completely.
But when Clark’s mother was contacted by authorities and advised that her son had been held for two years on a murder farm, and that Northcott had been raping him and murdering other children, her reaction was not to go be with her son, her reaction was to hook up with Northcott and assist him in his attempt to evade authorities. The sickness in Clark’s family ran deep and large, and it’s understandable why he didn’t have children of his own. He adopted his two boys.
How did Northcott react to being captured and prosecuted?
He alternated back and forth between indignant denials and being very arrogant and saying things like, “You’ll never convict me.” If he had stuck with the story that he was being framed by a corrupt police department, he might have gotten some mileage out of it because the police department was corrupt.
In the end, he basically talked himself onto the gallows. And by the time he was hung, [the authorities] hated him so much that they “accidentally” used a rope that was too short so his neck wouldn’t break. A guard who was conveniently positioned at the bottom of the drop jumped forward and grabbed his legs and hung on for 12 minutes while he strangled to death.
In fact, Northcott raised the passion and hatred in the community to the point where the community didn’t even want to be called Wineville anymore. They changed the name to Mira Loma.
Why was Clark sent to the Whittier School instead of being imprisoned?
He was charged with conspiracy, and if it were not for the assistant prosecutor—a man named Loyal Kelley—he would have been tried alongside Northcott. While he wouldn’t have received the death penalty, he would have gotten a severe punishment. But Kelley instinctively understood what we now know to be Stockholm syndrome [emotionally “bonding” with captors]. He recognized that Clark was not a perpetrator but a victim.
In a sense, Clark had the same amount of blessings in his life as he had curses. The case was heard in the Whittier Courthouse in Riverside County, only a few miles from the Whittier School for Boys, which had an extremely forward-thinking rehabilitation program. All the boys were referred to as cadets and not inmates. No one was ever allowed to discuss their crimes or why they were there. And they spent half the day in school and half in a shop developing a skill. Everything was focused on avoiding recidivism. And Clark took that mindset to heart. When he left the school, Kelley charged him with proving that rehabilitation works and that the faith that had been placed in him was real. Clark internalized that and kept it his focus for the rest of his days.
Is the Whittier School still open?
It was closed and sold to private developers this year because California is so broke. This is a tragedy as far as I’m concerned.
What kind of emotional and physical scars did Clark suffer?
He carried a sense of despair and survivor’s guilt for the rest of his life. He wasn’t a macho guy who could put it all behind him. There’s a picture of him in the book that shows the expression he would get on his face when he would get lost in the memories.
As for physical scars, his rectum was so damaged by the invasive rapes with foreign objects that he never was right in that area for the rest of his life.
It’s amazing that Clark was able to live a normal, productive life after all he’d been through.
There is redemption in that he lived his life in an exemplary way. There’s not a happy ending, but a satisfied and successful ending in terms of showing that he had no part of any of Northcott’s mindset. What he wanted to do was to be a decent man and live right, but it cost him tremendously, right up until he was on his deathbed.
During the last conversation Jerry had with Clark, he said, “I love you dad.” Jerry said his father looked at him like he was confused and responded, “Why would you?” In his moment of despair he couldn’t appreciate how much he had done because he was so haunted.