Insanity Plea: Hurricanes, Husbands, and Hallucinations
A chaotic life story becomes fodder for murder excuse.
Posted February 20, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
On the evening of January 7, 1981, 44-year-old Mary Ann Gerlach fatally shot Lawrence Kietzer five times with a .357 Magnum pistol, killing him. She’d divorced him two months prior but still lived with him – and held a life insurance policy on him. After the shooting, Gerlach called the police and went to a neighbor’s house. As officers arrived, she became hysterical and tried to kill herself. They took her to a psychiatric facility. When charged with murder, she presented a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. This was no simple idea about her mental state at the time of the offense. It involved incidents from Gerlach’s bizarre life story, which were presented at her 1982 trial, as well as in an appeal.
Kietzer was Gerlach’s eleventh husband. (Once, she’d been married for just seven days.) She’d been hospitalized numerous times for depression, hysteria, drug abuse, and suicide attempts. According to court records, she regularly hallucinated such things as spiders, monkeys, and ghosts. Gerlach also claimed to have a dozen different personalities. To distinguish them, she wore a variety of wigs. In addition, she was famous. She’d claimed to be the sole survivor when Hurricane Camille had demolished her apartment building in 1969 during a hurricane party. The tale had garnered national publicity, and she rode its wave for years.
In 1969, Gerlach was married to her sixth husband, Fritz. They were in the Richelieu Manor Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi. A news story from 1989 offers her account. Despite hearing pleas from officials for a full-scale evacuation, Gerlach wasn't concerned about the approach of Hurricane Camille. She’d been through other hurricanes and, according to her, “a hurricane party was a good time to drink and play cards under the hurricane lamps.” The Gerlachs knew about the party on the third floor but instead went to bed on the second floor. She later told reporters that this decision had saved her life.
Camille wasn’t in the mood for fun and games. With Category 5 winds and a massive surge over 24 feet, the storm drove ashore during the night with mass destruction on its mind. Water flooded the Gerlachs' bedroom. “We swam out of the window,” Gerlach recalled, “and I immediately got tangled up in telephone lines.” As she freed herself, she heard her husband yell for help just before he went under and drowned.
Gerlach grabbed onto a floating pile of debris. “I will never forget seeing the hurricane lamps as they were still lit and disappearing under the water. I knew all those people inside were gone.” The next morning, she was rescued. By then, the apartment building had collapsed and those who’d been inside were swept away. Reporters began to cover the tragic fate of the hurricane party goers, naming Gerlach as the sole survivor.
Her tale about the party, however, was a lie. So was her claim to be the only survivor. In fact, others had gotten to safety and they denied that there’d been any such party. They’d all been exhausted from preparing the building. Yet, the narrative persisted and Gerlach willingly presented herself as the star of the show. She lied so easily, people believed her. Or they just wanted to believe such an incredible story.
But at the core, Gerlach was an unreliable witness. Her claim that hurricane PTSD had damaged her memory failed to prove she had a deficient understanding of her husband Lawrence Kietzer’s shooting. Four witnesses who saw her directly afterward supported the State's contention that Gerlach had known exactly what she'd done. She’d spoken to a dispatcher, a neighbor, an investigator, and a psychiatrist. All thought she’d been aware of her actions and able to appreciate right from wrong.
On January 28, 1982, the jury found Mary Ann Gerlach guilty of murder. She received a life sentence (and apparently married twice more while in prison). In 1992, after serving ten years, she was released on parole.
Mary Ann GERLACH v. STATE of Mississippi. 466 So. 2d 75 (1985) No. 54694.
Dolin, E. J. (2020). A furious sky: The five-hundred year history of America's hurricanes. W. W. Norton.
Hearn, P. D. (2009). Hurricane Camille: Monster storm of the Gulf Coast. University of Mississippi Press.