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Friends Issue | Magazine

How can I call a convicted killer my friend? This is how.

It has taken time to understand that while friendship can be fragile, it is also incredibly flexible.

globe staff photo-illustration; photograph by Andrew Dickerman/ap

I SHOOK THE HAND that held the knife that killed the girls.

It was our first handshake in the roughly dozen years we’d known each other, on the first day we had visited without plate glass between us.

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Craig Price wrapped me in a big, back-slapping bro hug, and I hugged back. He had trimmed way down since I last saw him, before he was transferred to Florida. Gone was the hulking physique from the news photos. Now he had the build of a college halfback. We sat on steel furniture bolted to the floor of the visiting room and caught up over microwaved hamburgers from the commissary, deep inside a fortress wrapped in razor wire an hour west of Jacksonville. The place is blandly called Florida State Prison, or FSP, as if it were a football powerhouse in the Southeastern Conference. The boring name belies how serious an institution this is. The serial killer Ted Bundy went to the chair at FSP.

Price and I met in 2002, when he was locked up in Rhode Island and I profiled him for the Providence Journal. We have stayed in touch for 15 years. These days it is mostly by mail, a few letters back and forth each year. Cards at Christmas. I’m not sure how he gets his hands on Christmas cards, but he often does. I met with him in Florida in 2013, making a daylong detour on a trip to my in-laws. My letters to him are typed and laser-printed; his, painstakingly printed by hand or written out in cursive. I usually send him a couple of fresh stamps with my letters. I’ve done him little favors over time when he has asked, like Googling the addresses of places he wanted to write to and sending them to him — easy things that take me hardly any time at all. Like a lot of men, Price and I communicate on two levels, benignly kvetching about politics or the Red Sox, until one or the other confesses, as if by accident, something deeply personal and true.

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At some point in the last few years, he started signing his letters to me: “your friend, Craig.”

Was that right? Were we friends?

These questions took some time to sort out. I’ve always realized friendships are fragile. It can be remarkably easy to lose a friend. Move on his girlfriend. Spread a secret told in confidence. Neglect to show up when you are needed. Any serious trust breaking, really. Do it without repentance, and you’ve lost a friend. Most people would look at the facts and say you didn’t deserve that person’s friendship.

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And many would say, yes, it’s possible to do something so terrible that you don’t deserve any friends.

TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS after Craig C. Price was arrested for murder in Warwick, Rhode Island, I would bet he is still the most despised person in the state.

He stabbed four of his neighbors to death in their own homes before he was old enough to drive. Price was 13 when he killed 27-year-old Rebecca Spencer, a mother of two, in 1987. He got away with it for two years, and then killed Joan Heaton, 39, and her daughters, Melissa, 8, and Jennifer, 10. The effects of these crimes cascade through time to today and into the future, multiplying with every generation that should have been born, but isn’t. Family trees are missing entire limbs.

The Heaton murders drove the state into panic. Gun stores and dog shelters were cleaned out. Two weeks later, the state was shocked once again, when police arrested a 15-year-old — a neighborhood kid in a man’s body — for the crimes. Price confessed and disappeared into juvenile detention without a trial. Under Rhode Island law at the time, juvenile offenders had to be released at age 21, but the state wanted to hold Price longer. He has essentially done five years for four murders and 17 years for contempt of court, a sentence linked to his refusal to take a court-ordered psychological exam, which state officials hoped to use to keep him locked up. He got additional time for threatening a corrections officer, for fights with officers that led to multiple assault charges, and for beating up an inmate in the prison law library.

By the time the new century rolled around, he was looking at a release date in the 2020s.

At some point in the last few years, Craig C. Price started signing his letters to the author: “your friend, Craig.”

IT’S FASHIONABLE TODAY to say journalists should only write about victims, not perpetrators. Don’t mention their names. Starve them of the attention they crave. My mind-set is the opposite — that more information is better than less. We should write about every aspect of crime, the way we write about fires and crashes and derailments, to learn what happened, so maybe next time it won’t.

That’s why I wrote to Price in 2002 to ask for an interview. I was surprised to hear back.

We met in Rhode Island’s most secure prison, known as supermax. He had been jailed for 13 years at that point, but I recognized him the moment he entered the visiting room. The famous face, that big body, filling an orange jumpsuit, size XXXXL. He took the seat across the glass from me and we each lifted a telephone receiver, like in the movies.

I thought I had prepped myself for anything. Threats. Lies. Attempted intimidation. Had he menacingly whispered the creepy parts of the Book of Revelation, I would not have been ruffled. Would have been a great detail for the story.

But Price just calmly asked:

“Did you sign that consent form when you came in?”

Um . . . 

Yeah, I said. I signed where they told me to sign when I checked in.

He frowned. This was bad news. He told me, “You just consented to a strip search on your way out.”

I had come mentally prepared to interview the most notorious inmate in Rhode Island history. I had not come prepared to get naked in supermax.

He let me think a few seconds and then smiled. “Nah,” he said. “I’m just messing with you.”

Huh, I thought, great prank. I might get along with this guy.

Our story interviews went on twice a month for two years. With no notebooks or tape recorders permitted, I had to keep each interview short enough to memorize his answers, no more than a few specific questions. Once he answered them, we’d still have an hour or so left of visiting time. That last hour would be just two guys talking: one black, one white, but both from middle-class backgrounds and close in age. Price is intelligent, funny, and laughs easily. I appreciate how jarring this is for a lot of people, but the truth is I enjoyed talking with him. And I knew he’d rather yak with me — with anybody, maybe — than stare out a skinny cell window and count cars on Route 37.

Back then, we were on friendly terms but not friends. A reporter working on a story about you is not your friend. Ask any politician. Friends are loyal. Reporters, decent ones, are only fair. That’s no way to treat a friend.

Price and I couldn’t possibly spend all those hours talking about him. Sometimes we talked about me.

Through conversation — in person and by letter — he witnessed as my new girlfriend became my longtime girlfriend and then my wife. He heard, ad nauseam, about the first time I staggered through the paperwork demands of getting a home mortgage. He traveled, in a way, through my descriptions of the places I have been.

He told me what I needed to know about his crimes, sometimes in terrifying letters I read between my fingers while covering my face with my hands. He described the oddball characters warehoused in supermax and shared what was left of his time-bleached dreams for life after prison, which included marrying a good woman and filling a house with about 10 kids.

We began, slowly, to experience each other’s lives. This is how relationships change. How friendships can emerge, almost without notice.

My profile of him was published in 2004, but I continued to see him until he was transferred to Florida later that year, when we were left with letters.

Price is 43 now. He’s due to be released in a few years. He will never stop trying to get out sooner; the state is unlikely to stop trying to hold him even longer. Back when we met, he didn’t have that crease across his forehead. I didn’t have this gray on my temples. We don’t talk anymore about the murders, but they are always close by. I recognize a letter in my mailbox and know the hand that addressed it is the hand that held the knife.

It has taken time to understand that while friendship can be fragile, it is incredibly flexible. It allows for two seemingly exclusive things to be true at the same time: to be appalled by what someone has done (or continues to do, if you consider the assaults and alleged threats made in prison) and yet to care about his well-being and wish him peace. I’ve been thinking about these issues for years. And I’ve decided my friendship is nothing so special that there could be someone who doesn’t deserve it.

Globe reporter Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
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