NEWS

New documentary profiles Norman Porter, Saugus murderer

Mike Gaffney

Remember the murder that took place at the Robert Hall clothing store on Route 1 more than four decades ago?

A new documentary film will debut this weekend, profiling Norman Porter, the convicted murderer behind the 1960 slaying of a Saugus store clerk who escaped from prison and spent nearly 20 years on the lam before authorities tracked him down living a double identity as a poet in Chicago.

Titled “Killer Poet: The Double Life of Norman Porter,” the documentary produced by Northern Light Productions uses the absorbing story of Porter’s life to delve into complex issues regarding the U.S. penal system and what it takes for a prisoner to become fully rehabilitated.

The film, clocking in at 77 minutes, begins with an interview of a retired Lynn Item crime reporter who covered the unsavory acts Porter committed as a young man. The journalist produces an envelope filled with press clippings from the early 1960s, when Porter was handed down two consecutive life sentences for his role in separate murders — the first of which occurred at the Robert Hall clothing store on the south side of Route 1.

“The journalist says how this is Norman Porter’s story in an envelope,” said documentary Director/Producer/Writer Susan Gray.

From there the documentary follows the parallel stories of two characters who the filmmakers later reveal are one and the same: Porter, a fugitive and convicted double murderer imprisoned for 25 years in Massachusetts, and JJ Jameson, the false persona he conjured up after breaking out of prison in 1985 and starting a new life in Chicago.

The elaborate ruse came to a screeching halt in the spring of 2005, when the Massachusetts State Police Violent Fugitive Apprehension Unit arrested Porter in Chicago after the FBI matched his fingerprints to a dispute over a contested check that occurred in the Windy City 12 years earlier.

By making “Killer Poet,” Co-Producer Dominic Musacchio said the intent was to lay out the facts regarding Porter’s life so viewers can decide how they feel about him.

“We wanted people to think about what the proper outcome is for someone like Norman Porter,” Musacchio said. “We show how this is someone who spent 20 useful years trying to atone for his sins, then contrast that with the people who think he should be locked away forever because he committed two murders.”

“Killer Poet” switches back and forth between the story threads on Porter and Jameson, before they come together about one-third of the way into the documentary, Gray explained.

Part of the film focuses on the violent past of Porter, who made headlines back in 1960 for his role in the murder of John “Jack” Pigott, a Lynn resident and employee at the Robert Hall clothing store.

According to witness reports, Porter held a shotgun to Pigott’s head and killed him execution style during a robbery. He subsequently denied pulling the trigger following the loss of original trial records, though police reports obtained by the Essex County District Attorney’s office reveal that he admitted to killing Pigott in a signed statement.

Only months later, Porter and another inmate, Edgar W. Cook, escaped from the Middlesex County Jail.

Their freedom came at a steep price — the murder of jail master David S. Robinson, who Cook shot with a smuggled handgun. Police arrested Porter two days later and he received consecutive life sentences with no chance for parole for 30 years.

Filming in Saugus

Camera crews from Northern Light Productions showed up in the Boston area to film different people that Porter affected over the years including family members of the murder victims, judges and the dogged law enforcement officials who worked on his case.

One segment shot right in Saugus involves the fiancé of Pigott, who walked the director through the crime scene on the 45th anniversary of Pigott’s death.

Gray said it was powerful to see the woman revisit the former site of the Robert Hall store — now a Pier 1 Imports — for the first time since the grizzly murder.

“She told us the weather was the same as the day her fiancé was killed,” Gray recalled.

Northern Light Productions also made several visits to Chicago to interview people who befriended JJ Jameson, the identity Porter crafted for himself after he escaped from the minimum-security Norfolk Pre-Release Center on Dec. 21, 1985.

The documentary shows how once Porter arrived in Chicago, he carved out a reputation as an accomplished poet and active churchgoer.

“People who knew (Porter) in Chicago talk about him as a religious man who is no threat at all to society,” Musacchio said. “They truly believe he has been rehabilitated.”

In addition, the documentary depicts footage of the proceedings when authorities extradited Porter to Dedham Superior Court to stand trial for escaping from prison.

Another piece of the story is told by Porter himself, as Northern Light Productions successfully lobbied to get a one-hour interview with him at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Shirley where he spends up to 23 hours each day in his cell.

Crime and redemption

While “Killer Poet” recounts the fascinating story of Porter’s life, Gray said it also aims to explore the larger issue of the country’s heavily politicized prison system and how elected officials have the final authority on who gets released.

The reality, Gray noted, is the climate has swung far enough to the right that being labeled as “soft” on crime is tantamount to political suicide for an elected official.

To illustrate this point, “Killer Poet” examines the case of Porter, who during the 1970s became a poster child for rehabilitation and the darling of many reform-minded academics for his exemplary prison record, which included helping write a new constitution for a prison charter, and founding a prison newspaper and radio station.

In the documentary we learn former Gov. Michael Dukakis commuted Porter’s sentence for the murder of Robinson, but was blocked on an attempt to do the same on Pigott’s murder.

Losing faith in the system, Porter ultimately took matters into his own hands and walked away from prison five years before he was up for parole consideration.

Without picking sides, “Killer Poet” presents facts about Porter to let viewers draw their own opinion as to whether he is indeed a model example of a rehabilitated convict, or instead a deceiver who abused the system and deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail.

“I feel that by looking at Norman Porter’s life over 50 years, you get a feel for this country’s penal system and the issues facing the parole and rehabilitation of prisoners, ” Gray said.

Movie debut

Tickets are still available for the U.S. premiere of “Killer Poet: The Double Life of Norman Porter,” which will be unveiled at the Boston International Film Festival on Saturday, June 14, at 4:45 p.m. at the Lowes AMC Boston Common Theatre, 175 Tremont St., Boston, MA.

To order tickets or find more information log on to www.killerpoetfilm.com