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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Richard Savage: The Classified Ad Hit Man

     In January 1985, Richard Savage, a Vietnam veteran with a criminal justice degree and a brief stint as a police officer, placed the following ad in Soldier of Fortune Magazine: "Gun-For-Hire: 37-year-old professional mercenary desires jobs. Vietnam veteran. Discrete and very private. Body guard, courier and other skills. All jobs considered."(Italics mine.) 

     In response to Richard Savage's ad, people asked him to guard gold in Alaska and to find men still missing in Vietnam. But most of the people who answered his ad wanted him to kill someone.

     Within weeks following the publishing of Savage's gun-for-hire ad, he accepted his first assignment, the murder of a 43-year-old businessman from Atlanta named Richard Braun. Savage dispatched a crew of three hit men to Atlanta to kill the murder-for-hire target.

     In June 1985, just before Mr. Braun climbed into his van, it blew up. He survived the blast, but two months later, Savage's hit men killed him with a hand grenade attached to his vehicle.

     Savage's murder-for-hire gang, in August 1985, were in Marietta, Georgia to kill Dana Free, a building contractor. Savage had been paid $20,000 for the hit by a Denver woman who was furious with Mr. Free over a business investment. Two of Savage's men planted a grenade under Mr. Free's car. The murder-for-hire target drove around for a day with the unexploded grenade attached to the underside of his vehicle. The following night, one of the hit men slid under the target's car to make adjustments. The next morning, as Mr. Free backed out of his driveway, the grenade shook loose and rolled out from under the car. After that, Mr. Free got the message that someone was trying to kill him. He went into hiding.

     In late August 1985, Richard Savage accepted a murder assignment from Larry Gray who wanted his ex-wife's boyfriend, a Fayetteville, Arkansas law student named Doug Norwood, killed. In October 1985, when Doug Norwood started his car in a University of Arkansas parking lot, it exploded. The law student escaped the blast with minor injuries.

     In January 1986, as Doug Norwood drove from his home to the university, he realized he was being followed. The murder-for-hire target called the campus police department and officers pulled over the suspicious vehicle. From the car, officers recovered a machine gun and arrested the driver, Michael Wayne Jackson, a member of Richard Savage's murder crew.

     When questioned by the police, Michael Jackson confessed that he had been hired by Richard Savage to kill Doug Norwood. According to Jackson, the mastermind, Larry Gray, had found Richard Savage through his gun-for-hire ad in Soldiers of Fortune magazine.

     In the spring of 1986, Michael Wayne Jackson and Richard Savage were convicted of a murder unrelated to the Doug Norwood case. The judge sentenced Savage 40 years in prison. A year later, Savage was convicted of the attempted murder of Doug Norwood and was sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

     In 1986, Soldier of Fortune magazine discontinued publishing the gun-for-hire ads.

     Doug Norwood, in January 1987, sued Soldier of Fortune for publishing Richard Savage's ad. Attorneys for the magazine filed a motion to dismiss the suit on grounds the First Amendment right to free speech protected the magazine. The judge denied the magazine's First Amendment claim.

     In 1989, Richard Savage and three members of his crew were convicted of the 1985 bombing murder of Atlanta businessman Richard Braun. Mr. Braun's son, in 1990, filed a wrongful death suit against Soldier of Fortune magazine for running the hit man's classified ad. In 1991, a jury in Atlanta awarded the plaintiff $12 million. The trial judge later reduced the damages to $4.3 million. An appeals court, in 1992, upheld the wrongful death verdict. In so doing, the appellate judge wrote:"The publisher could recognize the offer of criminal activity as readily as its readers obviously did."

     In August 1992, the magazine settled the Doug Norwood lawsuit out of court.

     Beginning in April 2016, after 40 years of publishing the magazine in print form, Soldier of Fortune became an online magazine. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the magazine sold 150,000 copies a month. 

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