Pete Shellem, The Patriot-News (Harrisburg), Nov. 28
Warning to readers: Due to the nature of this crime, the following story contains images of graphic violence.
Former Luzerne County District Attorney Robert J. Gillespie Jr. vividly sees the images 22 years later:
Three women and two children dead, still sitting where they had been shot in rapid succession.
Upstairs, the body of an 11-year-old girl huddled in the corner of her bed, where she tried to shield a 1-year-old boy from the gunfire. The murderer stood on the bed to put a bullet through the infant’s head.
In an adjacent room, a 1-year-old girl on the floor next to her bed, with a bullet through her eye.
Outside, one man dead and another critically wounded.
Nearby, in suburban Wilkes-Barre, similar carnage had taken place at a mobile home where two women and two young boys were shot to death. Two other boys at the trailer were spared, and no one is certain why.
At the end of this methodical rampage in 1982, George Emil Banks had killed 13 people, including his five children and their four mothers.
“These pictures are seared in my mind,” Gillespie said in a recent interview. “There are a number of these victims that I will see until my death.”
Gillespie hopes the suffering of the victims’ relatives will subside on Thursday. That’s when Banks, a former Camp Hill prison guard, is scheduled to die by lethal injection.
Banks’ attorneys have filed last-ditch appeals asking Luzerne County Court and the state Supreme Court to intervene because Banks is so “chronically psychotic” that he is legally incompetent. The state high court has rejected Banks’ appeals three times. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him twice.
Banks, 62, did not respond to a request for an interview. In court papers, Banks said he believes God has vacated his sentences and that he will be released. His mother, Mary Yelland, 84, is pursuing his latest appeal.
Albert J. Flora Jr., who has been his attorney for two decades, maintains Banks is insane and was not competent to stand trial. That claim has been rejected at every level.
“I just have a spot in my heart for people who are severely mentally ill,” Flora said. “Beyond that, I have a deep belief in the legal system. If you can’t ensure a fair trial to a man like George Banks, then we’re all in trouble.”
Gillespie concedes Banks is mentally ill but says that does not absolve him. “There is certainly a mental defect in George Banks,” Gillespie said. “No rational human being commits this kind of crime. But what was abundantly clear from the way he acted, was he knew what he was doing, he knew it was wrong and he just didn’t care.”
Relatives of the victims who were contacted by The Patriot-News did not wish to participate in this story.
Childhood taunting blamed:
Mary Yelland said her son’s problems date to his childhood in Wilkes-Barre, where his family was harassed because she is white and his father was black.
Banks’ father, John Mack, died when Banks and his brother were young, but Yelland married another black man who raised the boys.
A biracial couple in Wilkes-Barre in the 1970s attracted attention.
“When I had the kids, they were colored kids,” Yelland said. “They used to make fun of the kids.”
“Georgie would get upset. Georgie was always taking up with white girls, too,” she said.
Banks’ girlfriends were white. He would later say he killed his children so they wouldn’t have to face the racism he endured. He felt he was persecuted by whites and blacks.
Banks, considered an underachiever in high school despite his high IQ, joined the Army in 1959, but was discharged two years later, reportedly because of disagreements with his officers.
Unemployed, Banks robbed a tavern at gunpoint in 1961. He shot and injured the unarmed bar owner when the man said, “You won’t shoot.”
After being paroled in 1969, he worked at odd jobs before landing a job as a water-quality technician at the state Department of Environmental Resources in 1971.
Despite his criminal record, he joined the Department of Corrections in 1980 as a tower guard at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill. At the time, there was no rule barring former inmates from serving as guards.
His personal life, which bordered on the bizarre, apparently was falling apart.
At 40, he was living in a home on Schoolhouse Lane in Wilkes-Barre with three women between the ages of 23 and 29 who had each borne at least one child to him. Two of the women were sisters.
He also shared an apartment with another woman, Sharon Mazzillo, 24, the mother of his 5-year-old son, Kissmayu.
Gillespie said Banks had a low view of women and “lived to degrade them.”
“He had a unique ability to attract women, and once he attracted them he gained control over them,” Gillespie said.
During the summer of 1982, he started losing that control.
Mazzillo moved out, taking their son to her mother’s mobile home in The Heather Highlands mobile home park just outside of Wilkes-Barre.
In July, Banks filed for custody of Kissmayu.
Meanwhile, two other women were planning to leave him.
About two weeks before the murders, Regina Clemens moved to a shelter for battered women, where she told workers she was moving to Florida. Days before the murders, a neighbor saw Banks slapping Susan Yuhas, Clemens’ sister, saying, “You’re just like your sister, Gina. You’re going to leave just like her.”
Banks was facing the loss of control and money, Gillespie said. The women were receiving welfare benefits.
Banks also started having problems at work.
He was writing a book about an impending race war.
He wrote to his brother, telling him he had an impulse to shoot inmates.
He told co-workers he wanted to kill himself and his family to spare his children from racism.
After barricading himself in a guard tower with a shotgun and threatening suicide, Banks was suspended Sept. 6, 1982. He was told not to return to work until he received counseling.
He visited a psychiatrist from the Luzerne County Mental Health Center with one of his girlfriends, who posed as his wife. The psychiatrist wrote to Banks’ supervisor that he was fit to return to work, saying Banks was getting over depression caused by domestic problems.
‘Kill Them,’ T-shirt read:
A week later, Banks attended a birthday party with his three girlfriends, wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Kill Them All, Let God Sort Them Out.”
Banks left the party with Regina Clemens.
A short time later, he called the party and talked to Dorothy Lyons. Lyons was crying when she hung up the phone. She asked her nephew to retrieve Banks’ Colt AR-15, an assault rifle that he kept at the house where the party was being held.
By his own admission, Banks awoke during the early morning hours of Sept. 25, 1982, to find the gun in his lap.
From the evidence police would find later that day, it appeared Lyons, 29, along with Yuhas, 23, and Clemens, 29, and their two respective children, Bowendy Banks, 4, and Montanzima Banks, 6, were sitting in the living room when George Banks snapped.
Clemens was shot in the face. Yuhas was hit in the chest. Lyons apparently tried to defend herself — a bullet went through her arm and into her chest while another went through her neck. Both children were shot once in the head.
Banks then headed upstairs, where two more of his children, along with Lyons’ 11-year-old daughter, were sleeping.
Mauritania Banks, 1, Yuhas’ daughter, was shot through the eye.
In the bedroom next door, Lyons’ daughter Nancy, 11, was apparently awakened by gunfire and tried to protect Faroude Banks, 1, who was sleeping with her.
Banks shot Nancy in the face, and according to testimony, stood over her body to shoot his child through the head.
Four people outside the home heard gunshots, then saw Banks, dressed in fatigues with a bandoleer across his chest, emerge from the house.
One of the group, Raymond F. Hall Jr., 24, said, “I know you,” as Banks approached the group. “Yeah, you’re not going to live to tell anybody about this,” Banks said.
He shot Hall and a friend, James Olson, 22. Hall died, but Olson lived to testify.
Around 2 a.m., Banks commandeered a car from a man leaving a bar.
About 20 minutes later, Banks burst into Mazzillo’s mobile home, saying, “I shot some of my family. Now I’m going to shoot some of yours.”
He shot Kissmayu, who was asleep on the couch. Sharon Mazzillo and her mother, Alice, 47, tried to push Banks out the door, but he chased Sharon’s 7-year-old nephew, Scott, saying, “You called my son a nigger.” He hit Scott with the rifle butt, kicked him, and shot him in the head.
While Alice Mazzillo frantically tried to phone police, Banks walked up to her and shot her in the face. Sharon Mazzillo was shot and killed as she ran out of the trailer.
As he left the trailer, Banks told Alice Mazzillo’s sons, Angelo Vitale and Keith Mazzillo, “I’ll get you next time.”
Angelo had to lift his mother’s brains off the phone to call police.
Banks showed up at his mother’s house at 6 a.m., saying, “I killed them, I killed them all.”
His mother drove him to a friend’s empty home, where Banks barricaded himself and awaited police. After a four-hour standoff, a friend talked Banks into surrendering.
He resisted insanity defense:
Because of Banks’ mental state, his June 1983 trial became a battle of experts — and a battle between Banks and his attorneys.
Claiming a conspiracy of police and the judicial system, Banks told the judge he saw the trial as “the only shot I got to pull the mask off the face of the devil.”
Banks fought his attorneys’ attempts to present an insanity defense.
Despite psychiatric testimony that Banks was psychotic, and his attorneys’ complaints that he wouldn’t aid them in his defense, he was found competent to stand trial.
Throughout his trial, Banks shouted during testimony and left the courtroom twice while pathologists described the gaping wounds of the victims. He even asked that the victim’s bodies be exhumed to prove his theory that police had tampered with them.
Flora, who represented Banks with another public defender, broke down and cried when Banks insisted on showing the jury graphic photographs of the victims that the court already ruled were inadmissible.
Banks claimed the photos and autopsy reports showed police killed nine of the victims and mutilated their bodies to make the crime seem more gruesome.
“I don’t want to show you these photographs, but I’m a desperate man,” Banks told the jury. “I swear upon my sons’ souls as they lie in the grave that I am not responsible for the mutilation of nine of these bodies.”
Banks admitted some of the shootings but testified that he was helpless to stop. “I can’t explain what was going on in my mind,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe me. To see something horrible happening in front of your eyes and being unable to stop it is unexplainable.”
On June 21, 1983, the jury found Banks guilty of 12 counts of first-degree murder, one count of third-degree murder, attempted murder, and other lesser charges.
The next day, they sentenced him to death.
One juror wept as she was polled on the verdict.
Banks called out, “It’s not your fault — you were lied to, ma’am.”
Suicide attempts reported:
If the execution is carried out, Banks would be the fourth person to die by lethal injection since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in 1978.
On death row at Graterford, Banks spends 23 hours a day in an isolation cell and gets an hour of exercise.
His attorneys say he has tried to commit suicide four times and has gone on hunger strikes that ended with him being forced to eat.
In 2002, he went on a hunger strike because he believed Jesus had forgiven him and that he would be released.
He has no visitors but his lawyers. Flora said he is the only one Banks will talk to.
Gillespie doesn’t want to attend the execution, but will if invited, out of a sense of obligation to the victims.
Yelland said she occasionally gets a letter from her son but is unable to visit him because of her age. She doesn’t want to watch the execution.
“I don’t want to see him die, but what am I supposed to do?” she said. “I’m not going to hold no grudge against anybody. If they’re gonna do it, they’re gonna do it anyhow.”
PETE SHELLEM: 255-8156 or [email protected]