February 14, 1996
Lawsuit Tests Lethal Power of Words
By JAMES BROOKE
OULDER, Colo. -- With his V-necked sweater, reading glasses, and sunlit office cluttered with manuscripts, the amiable owner of Paladin Press seems to fit right in at this liberal university town, sometimes called "the People's Republic of Boulder."
But in contrast to Boulder's left-leaning literati, Peder C. Lund, adorns his desk with a razor-sharp combat knife. Behind his chair hangs his faded green beret of the Army Special Forces. On a wall, a bumper sticker reads, "Nuke the Whales."
Over the last 25 years, this former Green Beret captain has labored in obscurity, gradually building an "Action Library" of the kind of fringe titles often peddled in the backs of comic books and on matchbook covers. Publicity-shy, Lund has avoided debates with critics who contend that he is making money by promoting violence.
Now totaling 600, Paladin books include: "Breath of the Dragon: Homebuilt Flamethrowers," "Credit Secrets: How to Erase Bad Credit," "Counterfeit ID Made Easy," and "Make 'em Talk: Principles of Military Interrogation."
There is a self-defense manual called "Pool Cues, Beer Bottles, and Baseball Bats," an explosives guide called "Homemade Semtex," and, for $10, a macabre paperback called "Be Your Own Undertaker: How to Dispose of a Dead Body."
Now, in what is shaping up as a case that legal experts say will test the boundaries of the First Amendment, a Maryland lawyer says that, with a paperback called "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Contractors," Lund crossed the line from poor taste to criminal conduct: aiding and abetting a triple murder.
"It's a murder manual," said the lawyer, Howard L. Siegel, who is suing the book publisher on behalf of the daughter of a woman killed by James Perry in Maryland in 1993. "Perry bought the book from Paladin, he followed 27 specific instructions in the book, and he executed three human beings."
Last October, Perry, a Detroit man, was convicted and sentenced to death in Maryland for the murders of Mildred Horn, her 8-year-old quadriplegic son, Trevor, and his nurse, Janice Saunders. This April, Lawrence Horn, the divorced husband of Mrs. Horn, is to go on trial on charges of contracting the killings in an effort to inherit proceeds from a medical malpractice settlement stemming from Trevor's condition.
Documents filed in the suit say Perry bought the "Hit Man" manual a year before the killings. In the murders, the suit says, he followed several steps recommended and explained in the book: using an AR-7 rifle, drilling out the serial numbers to prevent tracing, using a homemade silencer, and filing down the barrel and shell chamber to confuse ballistics experts.
"At least three shots should be fired to insure quick and sure death," preaches the manual, published under the pseudonym, Rex Feral. "Aim for the head, preferably the eye sockets, if you are a sharpshooter."
Perry shot Mrs. Horn and the nurse in the eyes three times, from a distance of three feet. He then smothered the invalid boy with a pillow.
"The intent of this book is to train people to become assassins and killers, that's aiding and abetting," said Siegel, a liability specialist who is representing Mrs. Horn's 10-year-old daughter, Tamielle.
Talking over the telephone on Monday from a Caribbean vacation home, Siegel said, "If the intent of the publisher is to aid murderers, then he is going down."
Back in Boulder, with a winter sun glinting off the silver captain's bars of his old beret, Lund rose to the challenge. After receiving "100 calls from the media," Lund had decided to break his traditional silence and give a rare interview.
"We didn't have anything to do with inciting Mr. Perry to murder," the publisher said, his bushy eyebrows arching combatively. "In how many ways did these particular killings differ from what was written, from the killings described in the Hit Man manual?"
"I know of hundreds and hundreds of books and films that are just as explicit in their instructions," the publisher continued in his first public comments since the case was filed in December. "I see this dead on as a free-speech issue."
"It's a very simple issue: Do we have the right to purvey information?" he said. "We are purveyors of information; we do not advocate anything illegal."
Saying that legal defense costs could easily bankrupt his small publishing house, he added, "The implications of this suit are enormous, for the movie industry, for the television industry, for the fiction industry, for the Internet."
Mostly written under pseudonyms, Paladin books often contain some form of disclaimer, either a label reading "For Academic Use Only" or, as in the case of Hit Man, "For informational purposes only!"
But Siegel, the plaintiff's lawyer, said, "The legal effectiveness of the disclaimer is zero."
Canada has banned the sale of two Paladin books, "Kill Without Joy" and "How to Kill I." But several experts on civil liberties said Siegel will have a hard time proving his case in American courts.
"There is something kind of nutty in trying to hold expression responsible for criminal acts," said Leanne Katz, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a New York-based group, adding that the case sounded like "a nightmare."
William C. Wise, first assistant district attorney for Boulder County, who said he had studied Paladin's book list, said he was skeptical that Siegal would win his case. "I read so many of these books where they write about killing and torture; if they do it in a novel form, it's OK," Wise said.
Feminist groups have had little luck proving in courts that there was a link between pornography and specific acts of rape and other forms of violence against women.
"Women's groups have attempted from time to time to show that particular pornographic works have inspired someone to do something horrible to women," said James H. Joy, executive director of the Colorado branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I don't think that anyone has proven a causal connection between the pornography and the violence."
Censorship is the issue, said Bill Heasty, owner of Newsland, Denver's largest chain of newsstands.
"Take these things out of circulation, and you're talking Prohibition, you're talking about Nazi Germany," said Heasty, who sells about 250 Paladin books a month.
When he was interviewed on Monday, his voice betrayed irritation over a local newspaper column that tried to draw links between 51 gang-related firebombings that wracked Denver last year and Newsland's brisk sales of one Paladin title, "The Anarchist Cookbook."
"We don't think that 12- to 13-year-olds should be looking at that stuff," he said. "We try to put those sort of titles -- lockpicking, getting even with people, making bombs, terrorism stuff -- we put it in an area where we can keep an eye on it."
With a discreet nameplate the size of a small belt buckle, the two-story headquarters of the publishing house have not drawn any protesters. Instead, Lund said, the publicity has increased mail order sales and telephone receptionists were busy today taking orders.
"People call and say, 'I want to buy books from you before I can't buy books any more,' " the publisher said, echoing an apocalyptic vision of an authoritarian future shared by many right-wing militia groups.
Some of Paladin's books reflect this world view.
For example, "Modern Weapons Caching: A Down-to-Earth Approach to Beating the Government Gun Grab" tells readers how to win "the race against the firearm roundup in the U.S."
Another book, "Improvised Weapons of the American Underground," claims to be "compiled from actual handbooks of various paramilitary organizations."
Lund, a Vietnam veteran, said he had no ties to militias. And he said, "Secret Service, FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, I can't count the number of law-enforcement agencies, police agencies that buy our books."
But his reasoning sometimes echoed the militias' world view.
"First, they take away your right to speak out," he said. "Then, they take away your weapons. Then, it's up to the gray men and the thought police to tell you how to go."
Mainstream public opinion seems to be reflected by a cartoon printed in a local newspaper last week.
A drawing of the "Hit Man" book was labeled "Protected by 1st Amendment." A drawing of a sniper rifle was labeled "Protected by 2nd Amendment."
Beneath both drawings was the caption: "Our rights are safe. Our people aren't."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company