On that warm March afternoon, what pastor Fred Musser first thought was the sound of freight palettes dropping from a truck turned out to be the crack of a .44 caliber Marlin rifle—a weapon designed to kill large game. The target was Larry Flynt, who was fighting misdemeanor obscenity charges at the Gwinnett County courthouse. Local attorney Gene Reeves was also shot on the sidewalk as both men walked back to court from a light lunch of salads at V&J Cafeteria.
Despite conspiratorial talk—echoed in the 1996 Milos Forman Flynt biopic—that the federal government tried to assassinate Flynt, generations of Gwinnett prosecutors (and Reeves) believe the shooter was neo-Nazi serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, who sits on death row in Missouri for 1977 shootings at a synagogue and reportedly was driven to shoot Flynt by a Hustler magazine spread featuring interracial sex. Franklin was indicted for the shootings in Gwinnett but never prosecuted, as extraditing him was deemed too costly and dangerous.
The shootings left Reeves in a coma and the Hustler publisher paraplegic. Reeves made a full recovery and after the attack, the charges against Flynt were dismissed.
Thirty-five years later, three men with ties to the event describe what happened that day.
Pastor Fred Musser
Now eighty, the minister was the only civilian to rush to Flynt’s aid.
I heard tires squalling and then I heard commotion, people.
I went straight across to him. I got there and I looked down and I realized who it was. I knelt down beside him and put my hand on him, and I said, “They’re on the way. You’ll be alright.”
I just prayed that he would not die and that God would help him, protect him, and that he would recover. Something like that.
His eyes, you know, you could tell. I’ve seen that. I’ve been around people at the time before they die, right after they die, from accidents and everything else—I’ve been there. So that’s what I saw. Fear in his eyes that something had happened, kind of in shock. He never made a sound.
You could actually see some of his insides sticking out through his fingers. He was literally holding his guts in. Seems like I remember a diamond ring.
There were thirty or forty people [who eventually gathered]. They stayed back. Nobody came up there where I was. I thought that was funny, unusual.
A number of years later [Flynt] sent me a check in the mail, to the church. Maybe it was a thousand dollars or something. I put it in the church account. I never spoke to him, never made any attempt to contact him.
To me he was just another man. Of course I knew who it was, but he was just another man who needed some help.
Now eighty-three, Flynt’s former lawyer is a retired Gwinnett County senior magistrate.
It was a nice, pretty day. It was mild. We had on suits with coats but no overcoats or anything like that. I believe that one of [the prosecution’s] experts was on the stand testifying about sex in general. We were really just barely into the thing.
[Flynt and I] both had a light lunch: salad. We were sort of on a diet.
He and I were walking together, and when the shooting occurred, they didn’t hit me, they hit him. I think there were two shots. One of them hit him in the spine; the other one was a flesh wound that went though him and into my arm, stomach, and pancreas. But you got to realize it was a .44 magnum, which is sort of an elephant gun.
It looked like someone picked [Flynt] up and threw him about four or five feet, because he took the impact of the bullet. He was on the ground, and I recall I got up and tried to see how he was. About that time, I passed out. Then I came back to and when I did, they were taking him to the hospital. Then another ambulance came and got me.
[The bullet] blasted my gallbladder off and sat in my pancreas. I was in the hospital for twenty-six days. Of course it had a tremendous effect—all at once, I was an international news thing. I got my five minutes of fame. If I had it to do over, I’d pass.
One good thing came out of it: While I was in the hospital I went without a cigarette for twenty-six days [after smoking three packs of Kools per day], and the nurse one day told me I could have one. She said, “Now, you’ve been without one for twenty-six days, you could probably quit if you want to.” I did quit. I haven’t had one since.
I guess you’d say I’m bound up with [Flynt] as a result of that. I ran for office of judge, and all anybody had to do to beat me was mention that I was Larry Flynt’s lawyer, you know. The public somehow associates the lawyer who represents someone with them, apparently. So I was appointed a magistrate by the judges of Gwinnett County.
As far as career-wise, it probably helped me, because at least people knew who I was. A lot of people figured, “Well, Flynt hired him—I’ll hire him, you know.”
[Flynt] thought all kinds of things were behind [the shooting], but I think he finally accepted the fact that this is what happened, and that [Franklin] was the one. He paid my hospital bill in full, which at that time was around $18,000.
I don’t feel one way or the other toward [Franklin]. I don’t think he was out to shoot me or anything like that. It was right funny, when the detectives played a recording of a phone conversation they had with him, they told him if they brought him back to Gwinnett County for a trial, a lawyer would be appointed to represent him. And he said, “You’re not going to appoint Gene Reeves, are you?”
Gwinnett County District Attorney, 1992–present
First of all, there was a letter to a police officer. He showed it to then D.A. Bryant Huff and [investigators] went to Marion, Illinois, and interviewed Franklin.
Franklin basically said, “If you’ll bring me down to Gwinnett, I’ll tell you all about [the Flynt shooting].” We were in the old jail back then, where the work-release program is now. [Former D.A.] Tom Lawler said we’re not bringing that crazy bastard to this jail. By that time, Franklin was under-the-ground on the Chattanooga sniper shooting and the synagogue bombing. He gave enough information in the letter and the subsequent interview that are all consistent with the Flynt/Reeves shooting.
Then about five years ago, a female detective in DeKalb County, an investigator in the D.A.’s office, she went and interviewed [Franklin], and he confessed to two killings in DeKalb County which put him in this area at the same time as the Flynt shooting—and, in fact, he referenced those shootings, that he was here to [shoot Flynt] when he shot these other two people in DeKalb. [The detective] traveled to Missouri, and he likes pretty girls; she’s a blonde and attractive and he spilled it all to her. So, yeah, I’m satisfied that he did it.
Huff indicted him on two counts of aggravated assault, but Lawler dismissed it sometime in his second term, once Franklin was given the death penalty in Missouri. More than twenty years ago.
Franklin has obliquely admitted shooting Flynt in several confessions to other crimes. His shootings are mostly racially driven. The sniper shootings in Chattanooga and [other shootings] are all interracial couples, and he doesn’t like Jews either, so he’s bombed a couple synagogues.
If you go over and look at where the shooting occurred, you can pretty much figure out how he got away, because it wasn’t that hard. He fired the shots, and then he just scooted out the back door and across that empty parking lot—and was gone. He told [investigators] that he had a car parked there and that he just drove off. I believe the shell casings were on the second floor.
I’m so far back in the line [to prosecute Franklin]—I mean, he’s still got pending murder charges in different states. I never could justify the expense or the danger of bringing him to Gwinnett County to try him for an aggravated assault.
[Flynt has] never pushed me [to prosecute]. When Huff initially presented this evidence, Flynt didn’t believe that Franklin did it—he thought the CIA did it. As far as I know, he never came back to Gwinnett County.
This article originally appeared in our March 2013 issue.