In the summer of 1974, a movie that is still a mainstay on Halloween Horror Flick lists was released. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while fictional, has some basis in reality. Leatherface (above, played by actor Gunnar Hansen), the central killer of the piece, was partially based on Ed Gein, a Wisconsin man with some very sick hobbies. Gein had a penchant for killing people and robbing graves, and then making home decor and masks from their parts and skin.
Nobody knows if a screening of the movie inspired a Travis County, Texas, man named Robert Kleasen to kill Mormon missionaries Mark Fischer and Gary Darley on October 28 of that same year. However, the fact that Kleasen used a taxidermist’s saw to cut those missionaries into pieces was an eerie similarity that couldn’t be ignored.
According to reports, prosecutors even entered the archaic six-foot-tall band saw as a terrifying piece of evidence. Within the rusted machinery, investigators had found traces of human hair and blood. That evidence formed the backbone of allegations that Kleasen had somehow first shot the missionaries and then chopped them into pieces using the saw.
In addition, Darley’s prayer book was found nearby, run through with bullets. Police believed that he eventually buried the remains, but investigators have never been able to find the bodies.Kleasen had a record that included violent outbursts. In 1950, when he was just 18, Kleasen’s mother had rushed him to the hospital after he had stepped on a rusty nail during a hunting trip. While they were waiting to be seen at the emergency room, Kleasen reportedly lashed out. He hit his mother, then went back to their car and got a gun. When he came back into the emergency room, he came back shooting. Fortunately, nobody was injured. Unfortunately, Kleasen spent the next two years in a psychiatric facility.
A couple of decades and an astonishing amount of lies later, Kleasen ended up in Austin, Texas. He had learned taxidermy during those 20 years, and he got a job helping out in a local taxidermy shop. Somewhere along the line, he decided he wanted to become a Mormon. That was where Fischer and Darley came in.
The two missionaries went to Kleasen’s Travis County trailer for dinner on October 28, even though the church’s leaders told them that they weren’t sure Kleasen was stable and worried that he might be dangerous. When the duo disappeared, police quickly believed that Kleasen was a suspect, but needed to get more evidence in order to obtain a search warrant. Some research into Kleasen’s past brought up one illegal gun purchase years before. It was enough.
When police finally got into the trailer, they found a cache of weapons, many phony IDs that Kleasen was believed to have used in order to buy some of the guns, and one watch that stood out — there was blood on the watchband. Fischer’s relatives identified it as belonging to the missionary. They had managed to put together enough evidence to get Kleasen convicted of Fischer’s murder, but he never went to trial for Darley’s death. Kleasen was placed on Death Row.
Astonishingly, that wasn’t the end of things for Kleasen. Within five years, he was back on the streets. In November 1977, Kleasen’s conviction was overturned on a faulty search warrant. Unfortunately, by then, the evidence that police had obtained from Kleasen’s trailer had either been destroyed or disappeared. In light of that, prosecutors did not pursue the suggested retrial.
After a stint in a New York jail for federal firearms violations, Kleasen began spending time at Her Majesty’s pleasure in a British jail on charges that included threats to murder his new wife (who had been a Death Row pen pal) and illegal possession of firearms. He was still there when forensic investigators finally got the blood evidence from the 1974 trial processed for DNA. Blood evidence found on Kleasen’s clothing was established as Darley’s, and a grand jury indicted Kleasen for the killings based on the new DNA evidence. The U.S. began the extradition process to get Klesen back to face that long-delayed retrial, but it wasn’t to be. Kleasen died at age 70 of a heart attack in 2003, while still occupying a British jail cell.
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Main photo: screenshot from trailer