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Gary Lee Sampson, convicted of brutally murdering three men, dies in federal custody at 62

Gary Lee Sampson, center, was escorted into Hillsborough County Superior Court on June 1, 2004, in Nashua, N.H.Jim Cole/Associated Press

Gary Lee Sampson, an Abington native twice sentenced to death after brutally murdering three men in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in a single week in 2001, died Tuesday at the age of 62 in federal custody while his most recent appeal of his sentence was pending, records show.

The federal Bureau of Prisons website said Thursday that Sampson had died two days earlier. The cause of death was not disclosed.

He died at the medical center for federal prisoners in Springfield, Mo., the Associated Press reported.

A request for comment sent Thursday to the BOP was not returned.

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A federal jury in Boston had voted in January 2017 to condemn Sampson to death for the second time, after his first sentence was overturned on appeal.

The 2017 jury favored sending Sampson to his death for carjacking and killing Jonathan Rizzo, a 19-year-old college student from Kingston. The teenager had offered to give Sampson a ride after getting out of work on a Friday night.

However, the jury could not come to a unanimous decision on a sentence for the killing of Philip McCloskey, a 69-year-old plumber from Taunton who had also given Sampson a ride. Sampson received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for that crime.

A jury in 2003 had agreed to sentence Sampson to death for killing both McCloskey and Rizzo. That result was overturned because one of the jurors lied during selection.

Sampson had also pleaded guilty previously to killing his third victim, Robert “Eli” Whitney, in New Hampshire and received a life sentence in that state. But the 2017 jurors in Sampson’s federal trial in Massachusetts were allowed to consider Whitney’s murder when deciding a sentence.

Sampson carried out the killings from July 24-30 in 2001.

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The families of the three victims have expressed mixed emotions that Sampson did not die by execution, said Mike Rizzo, the father of Jonathan Rizzo.

“It’s the end of a very long fight, almost 20 years for us,“ Rizzo said during a conference call with reporters. “And while it didn’t end exactly the way we had maybe hoped for, we’re happy that it’s over.”

Rizzo, 68, who now lives in Rhode Island, thanked prosecutors for their work in the case and sensitivity with the families, but he said he didn’t think any of his relatives would ever feel like justice was served.

“There’s a fine line between justice and vengeance, I know, and so we try to walk that and be careful about it, and be humans about it as well,” Rizzo said. “But we wanted him to feel like someone was taking something valuable from him in taking his life, the way he took Jonathan’s, and Phil’s, and Eli’s. And we didn’t accomplish that.”

Rizzo said his family wants to pay tribute to his son, McCloskey, and Whitney. The Rizzo family gathers with a group of about 20 of Jonathan’s friends each summer to celebrate his life.

“He was a kindhearted person, bright, intelligent, enthusiastic, energetic, believed that he could — and would have — ‘changed the world,’ in his words,” Rizzo said.

On Wednesday night, after learning of Sampson’s death, his family gathered to remember Jonathan over pepperoni pizza and Bud Light beer, Rizzo said.

Pizza and beer “were Jonathan’s favorite things, as a 19-year-old,” his father said. “So we had one of those and said ‘Merry Christmas,’ and told him we did the best we could.”

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In a phone interview, former assistant US attorney Zachary Hafer expressed sorrow for the families.

“My heart goes out to them, and I continue to admire the way they handled this entire ordeal,” he said.

“In a very real way, when a defendant dies, it’s closure. In terms of the individual families, I don’t want to speak to their own internal struggles, but there’s no doubt this is the end of the road in federal court for this case,” said Hafer, who left the US attorney’s office this year and is now in private practice.

Throughout his 2017 trial, jurors heard gruesome details of the killings, including Sampson’s taped confessions. He admitted carjacking McCloskey, who was driving to Weymouth to meet a friend who would help with his taxes, and directing him into the woods at knifepoint. He dragged him up a hill and stabbed him multiple times.

After wandering through communities in the South Shore, he got in a car with Rizzo, directed him at knifepoint to woods in Abington — not far from where Sampson grew up — tied him to a tree with yellow rope, and stabbed him repeatedly.

He then drove Rizzo’s Volkswagen Jetta to New Hampshire where, after a day of wandering, he broke into a home.

Sampson killed Whitney, a maintenance man who was tending to the home. He told authorities that, tired of the blood from the stabbings, he strangled Whitney for several minutes and left him in the bathroom while he explored the home. He drank beer and made breakfast.

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Throughout the 2017 trial, Sampson’s lawyers portrayed him as a mentally ill man who had a troubled upbringing and suffered years of physical and emotional abuse.

A judge in August 2017 declined Sampson’s motion to set aside his second death sentence, writing that Sampson “brutally and incomprehensibly murdered Philip McCloskey, Jonathan Rizzo, and Robert Whitney,” and that he now “faces the ultimate, irreversible punishment for two of those killings.”

His appeal of the 2017 death sentence remained pending at the time of his death, with his appellate lawyers filing their brief in October with the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, legal filings show.

Acting US Attorney Nathaniel Mendell said in a statement: “We are aware of the news that Gary Lee Sampson has died. Our thoughts are with the Rizzo, McCloskey and Whitney families today. Their resilience is extraordinary.”

Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.