On Father’s Day, most dads open gifts of ties, or golf clubs, or clay items shaped by children’s hands, eat medium-rare hamburgers at family barbecues and talk a lot of huff about how they’d do anything for their kids.
On Father’s Day 1995, chainsaw artist Skip Roth actually proved this to his children by shooting and killing the drunken man who was aiming a gun at his son, a man who, Roth alleges, had sexually molested another son of his years before. The reward for his valor: A one-way ticket to prison.
Now a free man, Roth documents the dramatic shootout and the small-town antisemitism that led to his botched legal defense and resulting conviction in his recently released lightly fictionalized novel, “Chainsaw’s Justice” (de Sitter Publications).
“I regret that it was me that killed him,” he said by phone from his North Carolina home. “But he’s no longer molesting little boys, so there’s no remorse at all. Well, only that [before that day] I had tried my damnedest not to kill him.”
Adopted as a child by a “pugnacious” Jewish attorney Roth believes to be his biological father (“I could’ve taken a DNA test, but I kinda like the mystery,” he said), and his wife, a woman who Roth claims “hated” him and subsequently shunted from foster home to foster home, Allen “Skip” Roth spent his early years miserable in Miami.
“I’m not a big guy,” the 200-pound, 5-feet-7 inch Roth said, “but I had to be a tough guy to survive those foster homes.”
Like possibly biological father, like son, the pugnacious Roth got into fights galore in the schoolyard and dreamed of one day getting away from Miami — but never thought he would.
He grew up and married Trudy, a girl he’d known since childhood, fathered four children and opened a small graphic arts business. He thought his life was set.
Then, in 1979, in search of some rest and relaxation, he sold the business and took his family up to North Carolina to vacation for the summer.
“I fell in love with the mountains and started building a log cabin,” the self-reliant Roth said.
Armed with only a chainsaw and a mental image of how the cabin should look, Roth lovingly built the house. Log by log, he carved and sawed until the structure was complete. And when it was done, he was amazed at what he’d accomplished. “At the time, I thought I had invented chainsaw carving,” he said.
Although he later learned that he hadn’t, Roth worked with the chainsaw night and day, honing his skills until he was so proficient with the power tool that he could carve a statue of a dancing bear out of the trunk of a tree.
Word of mouth spread, and he was quickly commissioned to do carvings for benefactors and businesses. He and his son Christopher, who’d learned to carve alongside his dad, would often do shows where they’d carve side by side. People magazine declared him “World’s Best Chainsaw Artist.” Far from the urban rot of Miami, Roth was loving life.
But that feeling was not to last.
Soon after moving to McDowell County (known as McChester County in the book), Roth was befriended by a local man, Max Gilliam (known as Sam Williams in the book). They smoked joints together, got drunk together and generally bummed about town.
“Sam was at our camper at least three nights a week,” Roth wrote in his book. He thought he’d made his first real friend out in the country.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Sam and I would often go on beer runs,” Roth wrote. “On these trips, for some reason, he always wanted my son Michael to go along with us.”
At first, this didn’t seem all that odd to the artist. Even later, when Gilliam hired scrawny 12-year-old, 80-pound Michael to do chores around his farm, Roth saw nothing amiss.
“I like to get boys about Michael’s age,” Gilliam allegedly told Roth. “After they get to be about 15 or 16, they discover girls, and after that, they ain’t worth [anything] to me anymore.”
Though he didn’t read into that statement at the moment, Roth now realizes that it should have been his first clue.
His second came when a local shopkeeper let him know about a rumor that Gilliam had a penchant for young boys.
Not wanting to take chances with his kids, Roth straightaway forbade Michael from setting foot on Gilliam’s property ever again and was astounded when Michael responded with anger.
“We had suspected for years that Mike could be gay,” Roth wrote. But the “[sexual] interactions teenagers have with other teenagers” are one thing; Michael was the “victim of a sexual predator.”
And Michael thought he was in love. When he ran away to go camping with the older man, Trudy Roth had had enough.
She went to the police and was told in no uncertain terms that Gilliam was a good ol’ boy and that because of the Roths’ outsider status, no one would believe their word over his.
“I moved my family to the mountains because I thought this would be a really safe and cool environment for them to grow up in,” Roth said, outraged that he’d been so wrong.
While unable to get the man arrested, Roth let it be known that he would give the child molester a “well-deserved boxing lesson” if he saw him.
Livid at what they felt were false rumors being spread about one of their own, Gilliam’s family often would lay in wait for Roth’s family at the bottom of the mountain where the Roth house sat, and shoot at them as they drove up.
“Max [Gilliam] used to tell me years ago that he was related to the Hatfields in West Virginia,” Roth said with a laugh. “And I have a half-brother who’s a McCoy. It’s a smaller world than we think sometimes.”
Later, when Gilliam’s cousin set up a roadblock outside the Roth home, Roth secured a restraining order against the Gilliam family. He hoped it would keep his former friend at bay.
And for almost 15 years, it did. During that time, Michael once defied his parents and ran off to be with Gilliam. However, eventually he obeyed their wishes and stayed away from him.
Then Father’s Day 1995 dawned. Roth alleges that a drunken Gilliam trespassed onto his property and pointed a gun at Christopher. Roth shot and killed Gilliam instead. Though he claimed self-defense, Roth was quickly charged with second-degree murder. He alleges that even his own lawyer did little to protect him.
“I was a Jew in McDowell County, the only Roth in the phonebook. They didn’t need any evidence. To them I was just a Jew, a Christ-killer, and that justified putting me in jail.”
The state of North Carolina asserted that Roth had killed the man in cold blood. It cited as evidence the fact that Roth had emptied his magazine though Gilliam was clearly incapacitated after the first shot.
Though sentenced to three years in prison, Roth was determined to stay positive. “They weren’t gonna make me into something I’m not,” he said. “I painted every day.”
He also found that a murder conviction coupled with the nickname “Chainsaw” were his best tools for survival in jail. Ignorant of the actual circumstances surrounding his verdict, the other prisoners mostly left him alone.
Meanwhile, Christopher was doing his damnedest to find a sympathetic judge to review the case. It took him until the end of his father’s sentence, but eventually the conviction was overturned and Skip was a free man once again.
Today he has high hopes that Michael Easley, the governor of North Carolina, will grant him a full pardon.
“He doesn’t have to run for another term, so maybe,” Roth said optimistically.
Since his release in 1998, Roth moved his family to Marion, N.C., where he and Christopher run a small shop at which they sell their chainsaw-hewn statues.
When asked why they didn’t just move their family out of McDowell County when all the trouble began, Trudy Roth sounded almost apologetic.
“I think the reason we stayed here as long as we did is because all six of us built the place,” she said. “Me and the kids peeled the bark off of the logs. So much of us was involved in that. Our whole hearts and souls were there. It took a lot for us to go.”
Christopher agreed with his mom, and added: “It was hardcore Southern tar-heel stubbornness. If it’s your home, it’s your home.”