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A life lived in free fall hits bottom

THOMASVILLE, N.C. — When he showed up on his former father-in-law’s doorstep in Madison, N.H., five days ago, Gary L. Sampson, 41, looked like what he’d been for years: a deadbeat dad, a two-bit thief, a desperate alcoholic running from a past he couldn’t bear to face.

Sampson offered cash and a car to help out his baby and his former wife, but Jack Alexander told him to leave. “We don’t need your money,” he told Sampson, according to a family friend.

It wasn’t surprising, given Sampson’s history, that the father of his former wife would turn him away. But they were stunned three days later when Sampson allegedly confessed to a string of three murders in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, violent acts that some say indicated a life spiraling out of control.

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Now, those who know of Sampson’s troubled past in New England and his second identity as a bisexual bank robber in North Carolina speculate Sampson’s alleged murders could be the desperate finale of a man who believes he is HIV-positive.

”You never know what’s going through a person’s mind when they’re out there and they have nobody,” said Ricki Carter, Sampson’s former lover, who believes he contracted the AIDS virus from Sampson.

The son of a couple described in Abington, Mass., as “really nice people” who just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, Sampson has spent much of his childhood in the town where his father was a firefighter and his mother a homemaker.

But most recall him as a troublemaker who from an early age seemed destined for prison: He once bound, gagged and beat three elderly women in a candy store, hijacked cars at knifepoint, and had been medically diagnosed as schizophrenic, according to his first wife, Nancy Beaton.

Then known as Nancy Judge, she was 17 and pregnant when she married Sampson on July 12, 1977; their daughter was born three months later. Just two months after the wedding, however, he was arrested and charged with rape for having “unnatural intercourse with a child under 16,” according to court records.

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Beaton said Sampson raped one of her friends at Abington High School. A jury acquitted her husband, but their marriage was over in less than six months.

In the time she knew him, Beaton said, Sampson had already started developing a hair-trigger temper, terrorizing her and their young daughter. His penchant for violence was so bad that she sought a restraining order before they separated and asked the court to bar him from seeing their daughter.

”He could be sitting there laughing one minute and throwing things the next. You never knew,” Beaton said.

Sampson got a second chance when his parents moved to Tamworth, N.H., and opened a doughnut shop, so their youngest son could “get a fresh start,” one neighbor recalled. But Sampson’s problems only worsened.

As the years passed, Sampson had at least four failed marriages, was an absentee father to two children, and became an alcoholic and a drug user with a rap sheet so long his friends estimated he spent nearly half of his adult life behind bars.

Yet, Sampson seemed to have a habit of confession - or boasting - and tried at least once to turn his life around. Still, he always seemed his “own worst enemy,” said Charles Brennan, a former neighbor.

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Sampson began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but got angry during one session and pulled a shotgun on a friend, declaring: “I am going hunting . . . I am going to kill everyone that persecuted me, and I am going to start with you,” said one AA member who was there.

He got a steady job and married Karen Alexander, the daughter of a well-known family, but abandoned her just weeks after the wedding to go to South Carolina with a woman he barely knew.

Sampson returned to his new bride, but the marriage ended in divorce even though Alexander gave birth to his child.

So when he faced the prospect of jail time for stealing from an antique store in 1998, it seemed that Sampson was destined to spend more of his life behind bars - until he jumped bail.

At his arraignment, prosecutors said Sampson’s past and his violent reputation made him dangerous, and they urged a judge to keep him locked up until trial.

”Based on the defendant’s past criminal record, his admitted alcohol problem, and the nature of the charges before the court, the defendant poses a danger to the community and a risk of flight,” said Carol Chellman, Carroll County prosecutor.

The judge refused. And Sampson fled.

He headed south and took on a new identity: Gary Johnson, a construction worker. He landed in Thomasville after a truck he was driving broke down there, according to the Davidson County sheriff’s office.

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Sampson told friends in North Carolina that he had relationships with men in New England prisons, and he apparently felt comfortable enough to live an openly bisexual life. One of the first people he met was Carter, a transvestite who took him him in. But his relationship with Carter was anything but stable.

Carter said Sampson once put a gun to his head, breaking his ribs, and threatened to kill his family.

”When he first came into my life, he was the perfect gentleman,” Carter said. “It was always flowers, nice dinners, the romantic type thing. But then he would crack.”

”I had that fear that one day, I would open up the door and he would blow me away,” Carter said. “I tried to soul-search him very closely, but all I could come up with was a black hole. I could never see inside him.”

The two eventually broke up, Carter said, but not before Sampson had sex with a man with AIDS. Carter, who is HIV-positive, said he believes he contracted the disease from Sampson.

As Gary Johnson, Sampson spent thousands of dollars a night at casinos and allegedly planned five bank robberies, ultimately setting up his friends to take the fall, authorities say.

After his breakup with Carter, police said, Sampson moved in with a new girlfriend, Karen Anderson, her 7-year-old son, and a roommate named Bennie Lee Mills. Police say the trio allegedly plotted five armed bank robberies.

Neighbors recalled the trio as unfriendly and said the boy wasn’t shy about mentioning that cocaine was available inside.

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Davidson County Sheriff Gerald Hege described Sampson as “very, very sharp; very cunning,” an incessant gambler who charmed vulnerable people and strutted around in the sun, wearing muscle shirts and gold chains.

The bank jobs followed a pattern, police said: Anderson, posing as a customer, would case the lobby. Sampson would ride his bike to the bank, draw a gun, take the cash and drop it in the waiting getaway car with the others inside.

Instead of joining them, authorities said, Sampson would often make his getaway on the bike, lowering his risk of getting caught. But sometimes, authorities said, he would linger at the crime scene to watch the police come.

”It’s just the way he would do bank robberies,” Hege said. “He would basically set someone up to do the driving. Everyone else was taking the risk if he was stopped.”

Sampson’s taste for gambling was so well known that when police tried to arrest him for the robberies, they posted officers at the Cherokee Indian casino.

But they couldn’t catch him.

On July 20, police staked out Anderson’s house, and arrested her and Mills as the two tried to drive off in their car. Sampson was nowhere to be found.

”We just missed the guy by a few hours,” Hege said. “We were hoping to get this guy, but he had already made plans to ditch this man and woman. He had already set them up for the fall the whole time.”

Houston Roberts, owner of the Royal 8 motel, where Sampson moved after breaking up with Carter, said he believes Sampson had AIDS, too, and became distraught after contracting the incurable disease.

At the motel, Roberts said, Sampson worked as a handyman to subsidize his rent and had several girlfriends, including Anderson.

But the last time he saw Sampson, Roberts said, he had tears in his eyes.

The news was grim: Sampson told him he was dying, and planning to return to Massachusetts.

Roberts said Sampson’s alleged criminal rampage in New England could have been some final, desperate act to end his life on the run.

”Maybe he is sick and maybe he was doing this as a way out,” he said.


Marcella Bombardieri, Andy Dabilis, and Andrea Estes of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Chris Frates and Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.