Editor's note: Billy Milligan, 59, who died Dec. 12 in a nursing home in Columbus, was believed to be the first person to successfully deploy a multiple-personality disorder defense in a case involving a violent crime. In 1978, a Franklin County judge found Milligan not guilty by reason of insanity on charges that he had kidnapped and raped three Ohio State University female students in 1977.
Following that verdict, he spent several years as a patient in the Athens Mental Health Center, on the Ridges, as well as at other state mental hospitals. He underwent outpatient treatment in Athens before being released from state treatment in 1988 and eventually moving to California. While in Athens, he was the focus of intense media coverage, part of it generated by community members' fears that he would commit another violent crime.
In 2007, the Columbus Dispatch published an in-depth account of Milligan's crimes and time in the Ohio mental-health system, including in Athens.
In this article, former Athens NEWS Editor Melody Sands recalls her own coverage of Milligan when he was a patient at the Athens Mental Health Center.
When word spread that Billy Milligan would be housed at the Athens Mental Health Center (around 1980 give or take a year), our phones at The Athens News rang constantly. Concerned citizens, many senior citizens, stopped by my desk to express their fears and worries over having Milligan housed in the Athens Mental Health Center.
One woman, who had worked at the Center (at the time on the Ridges), insisted that Milligan could get on and off even a locked ward, without being noticed or stopped. This seemed unlikely to me, especially for a patient with such a high profile, but she was adamant, and told me some of the ins and outs of getting on and off wards. Intrigued, I decided to investigate.
Since the A-News was an edgy publication, I decided to visit the main building (which now houses the Kennedy Museum of Art) and see if there was any truth to her concerns. I only told one person what the plans were, and especially did not inform our attorney, the late Tom Eslocker, who would have steered me away from the idea.
Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I was indeed able to slip on and off every ward - even the one housing Milligan - in the main building without once being stopped, questioned or challenged as to why I was there.
I'd slip in behind workers as they keyed themselves through doors onto wards, just like in the spy movies. At times, the effort to be unobtrusive was unnerving. Once, I found myself in the basement catacombs. A patient with a foot-dragging limp appeared from one of the many hidden stairs behind me, and asked what I was doing. I said, trying to find my way around. She heartily offered to show me all the hidden tunnels and passageways from the main building to the other buildings on the grounds. The cave-like, dark tunnels with the side barred cells, twisted and turned all over the grounds, emerging into other buildings, onto the streets and to unlocked doors and other passageways.
This trip showed me that someone who was determined to get out of the Mental Health Center, could probably do so. I wrote about the visit I had, and what I saw and felt in the paper, probably stirring up more concern among citizens than allaying their fears.
Milligan apparently saw this piece, and later contacted the paper to try and assure the community he was not dangerous. Athens NEWS reporter Sue Vaudreuil had read Daniel Keyes' book on Milligan and asked permission to do an in-depth interview with the multiple-personality figure. After permission was granted, she turned in a stellar piece of writing about her time with Billy, which ran in a multi-part format in late 1982.
As fascinating a story as Billy was, we always used extreme caution on reporting about him. Verifying anything he said was extremely difficult, so we let his words speak for themselves. Later, when doctors determined that Billy's multiple personalities had "fused," he was granted permission to walk around Athens, unsupervised whenever he wanted. He had seen my other investigative reporting, and decided I was someone he wanted to talk with. Usually without warning, he would show up at the Athens NEWS offices, and want to speak with me. We would sit and chat for a couple of hours at a time. Once, my sister, Kim, who was working the receptionist's desk and looks a lot like me, met Billy, who launched into one of the stories he wanted covered… right now. She politely held up her hand to stop him, and said, "I believe you want Melody." He'd pause, look at her, and say, "yes, yes, that's who I need to talk to; right now please."
Billy was usually polite, made sense sometimes, and always had a major story that he wanted me to investigate. More often than not, he wanted to talk about the injustices he felt were leveled at him by the legal system or the mental-health system. One particular phone call (these became weekly occurrences), he wanted to talk about the movie being made about his life; he had big plans for this movie, and knew he was going to make a lot of money off it. He had big plans for the money, too.
I listened, always took notes on these two-hour calls, and asked him questions about his intentions. Once we even discussed making the movie in Athens to create jobs in the community. He liked that idea better than going to California, but soon realized he did not have much say in the matter - another two-hour call.
Our graphics editor at the time, Howie Snyder, brilliantly captured the essence of Milligan in one of his drawings, and he meticulously recreated the main Mental Health Center building to illustrate the story of Milligan's arrival in Athens. I never got into the details of Billy's crimes, charges or mental condition; I just listened and learned a lot about one of the more fascinating characters to ever visit my desk. We covered Billy Milligan with caution, curiosity and because we realized his impact on Athens was of concern to the community.
Melody Sands served as editor of The Athens NEWS from 1978 to 1986 and a co-owner from 1978 to 1987. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in media arts and studies at OU, and teaches journalism and English composition at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth.