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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008 09:40 pm

Guns and Roses

Sara Gallant got tangled up in a twisted love triangle, but nobody believes she wanted to die

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In a poem Sara Gallant wrote about Mike Scanlon, she described him as “Mr. Splitfoot” — another name for Satan — “with the gentle eyes.”
PHOTO BY STEVE CLIPPER

Three years ago this week, a pair of bodies was discovered in a wooded area near central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks. One was a young woman with wavy blond hair and a beautiful face marred only by a small-caliber bullet wound. The other was a man in his midforties, identifiable only because of the note he left with instructions for the dispersal of his personal belongings. The woman was identified as Sara Lynn Gallant, a Springfield native who had grown up in the unincorporated working-class neighborhood known as the Cabbage Patch. The man who had apparently shot her — then walked back to his sister’s house, cleaned the .22 rifle and packed it in its case before returning to the woods with the more powerful 30.06 rifle to dispatch himself — was her lover. Their deaths represented the collapse of a love triangle so rife with passion and drugs and jealousy that it’s hard to believe that it all happened in the space of 13 months. Such soap operas often grab the public’s attention, but aside from a few brief newspaper articles in the St. Louis area and here, the saga of Sara and her rival lovers didn’t get much notice. They were, after all, the kind of foot soldiers we tend to take for granted or overlook — they held menial jobs at thrift stores, supermarkets, carpet-cleaning companies, convenience stores. There was another twist: Both of the men in Sara’s life were living with AIDS. To some, that fact was enough to soften the suicide into something more like acceptance of the inevitable. But what about beautiful 22-year-old Sara?

On her tombstone at Oak Ridge Cemetery are the words “Free Spirit.” Sara was, by all accounts, unusually intelligent, broadminded, and determined to think for herself. Sara’s great-aunt Marge Smith recalls her niece as spiritual: “She believed in God, and other things, like mythology. She was very open to new ideas. She thought things through; she didn’t just go on what people said.”
“There are some people who are just different, and she was different,” says one girlfriend. “You could say she had an old soul.”
Some of her maturity was earned the hard way. Bounced from place to place, with no stable adult presence in her life, Sara seems to have almost raised herself. She was still in diapers when her mother, Toni Ushman, took off with a new husband and young son, leaving Sara with grandparents Barb and Tony Ushman. Her grandmother doted on her, and Sara always called her Mom.
Sara Gallant, at Creve Coeur Park in St. Louis, spring 2004
PHOTO BY STEVE CLIPPER

“They gave her anything she needed. She went to private school,” Toni says. But by age 7 Sara was segueing into the role of caretaker: “Mom” had emphysema. When her grandmother died, seven years later, Sara’s grandfather sent her home to live with Toni, who had been, by her own description, more of a sister to Sara. Marge, who is Toni’s aunt, uses the words “serene” and “sheltered” to describe Sara’s early childhood and says that the move was a lifestyle shift for Sara.  “With Barb, she couldn’t go to the mall with a girlfriend, even if their parents were going,” Marge says. “She went from one extreme to the other.”
Sara tried all sorts of living arrangements. Besides moving in and out of Toni’s home, she spent a year with her father in California and a year with her Aunt Marge. She spent several years living with a boyfriend, first with his parents and then on their own. Somewhere along the way she became addicted to drugs — marijuana, cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine. Her younger half-brother, Jonathan Ushman, says that drugs — particularly meth — changed his sister from a friendly, outgoing, happy girl into someone whose edgy behavior could drive him from a room. Her moods ranged from the prickly irritability of needing a hit now to being strung out once she got her drug. “She was constantly shaky, always fidgety, always moving around, couldn’t sit still, always had to be doing something,” he says. “One day I watched her clean an entire house in about an hour, then do it all again. I just had to get up and go.”
Somehow she had managed to kick the meth habit by the time she met Steve Clipper. Clipper had stopped by the Goodwill store on 11th Street, looking for bargains on classic-rock CDs. He struck up a conversation with the pretty cashier and fell instantly in love. Clipper drove to Auburn to pick up his youngest daughter, then-15-year-old Rachael, and brought her back to the Springfield store, telling her he wanted to introduce her to the woman he hoped to marry.
Rachael’s reaction? “At the time, I think, of course, I liked her. I’m not a very judgmental person. She seemed interesting to me,” Rachael says. “But as I told my dad, ‘Really, honestly, she’s 22 and you’re 40, and that’s just weird.’ ”
As it turned out, the age gap was the least of their problems.
For a week, they had lunch together every day. During these dates they did more than just get acquainted. Sensing that they were on the verge of a serious relationship, they laid all their cards on the table, to see whether there were any deal-breakers in the deck. Sara told Clipper about her drug addiction, saying that she’d been clean for a year and a half. She told him that her best friend in the world was Jimmy (not his real name), that Jimmy was gay, and that she wouldn’t date anyone who wouldn’t let her hang out with Jimmy. She also told Clipper that she’d had a colorful life and that he should walk away if he had any problem with the fact that she had “been with a lot of people.” In fact, the reason they were having these discussions over lunch was that she was still living with her longtime boyfriend. None of her confessions fazed Clipper. He had deal-breakers, too, though none so poetic. He was older, divorced, raising two daughters. And, like Sara, he had his own sad story: He had also lost the security of family at age 14, when his father was seriously injured in a car wreck and lapsed into a coma. Clipper’s father, who never regained consciousness, died in 1983, when Clipper was 20. Clipper’s formative years were spent in Maryland Heights, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. As a teenager he landed a night-clerk job at a convenience store called the Short Stop, which happened to be located in an unincorporated area with scant law enforcement. That feature, combined with its oversize parking lot, made it a prime teen hangout. Clipper, who worked his way up to night manager, kept the store stocked with all the latest promotional items from the area’s most popular rock station, KSHE-95, and generally functioned as the host of a never-ending party. “When he gave you change back, he always bounced it off the counter. He’d catch it, most of the time, and hand it back to you,” says a Short Stop veteran we’ll call Bob because has he asked that his name be kept confidential. “Steve was pretty famous. ‘Short Stop Steve’ is what they called him.”
Clipper worked there 1978 through 1985 and even returned a few years later, after he was married, to work part-time as a clerk to augment his salary as the branch manager of a carpet-cleaning-supply wholesaler. In 1992, Clipper began missing work for days at a time, sick first with a particularly nasty case of chickenpox and then with persistent breathing problems. In March of that year, pneumocystic pneumonia was diagnosed. Clipper had full-blown AIDS.
Clipper never figured out how he contracted HIV, though to close friends he admitted that he had been molested as a boy and that he had gone through a brief phase of experimentation during early adolescence. His wife and daughters tested negative for HIV. Bob says the diagnosis surprised Clipper but didn’t scare him: “Steve just worked harder. He didn’t ever believe it was going to kill him.” When Bob ran into Clipper a few years later, Short Stop Steve was “bigger and stronger than ever.” He had become a bodybuilder.
The first snapshot of Steve Clipper and Sara Gallant together, taken at Sam’s Pizza
PHOTO BY RACHAEL CLIPPER

 Clipper didn’t tell Sara that he had AIDS until their second dinner date. After a meal at Hooters, he told her to go consult anyone she trusted — friends, relatives, medical professionals — before deciding whether to continue their relationship.
A few days later she called and asked him to meet her at the Station House, a gay bar Sara frequented with her friend Jimmy. When Clipper walked in, Sara ran to him, jumped into his arms, and told him she loved him. Her relatives didn’t have quite the same reaction.
“She told me that she had met this guy and she really liked him, and he was really good to her, and she thought she wanted to move in with him, but he has AIDS. And I said, ‘Sara! Sara Lynn!’ But she knew more about it than I did,” says Marge. “She was an avid reader, very intelligent, and she got a lot of information from the hospitals. She said, ‘I’ve done my homework, I know all about it, and I’m not worried about getting it.’ ”
When she met Clipper, Marge thought he was “a little pushy.” Nevertheless, she understood why Sara was drawn to him. “He was very sympathetic to her life and the way her life had gone, and Sara needed that,” she says. Clipper wanted to wed Sara but discovered that marriage would drastically decrease his monthly disability checks. They settled for living together and wearing wedding bands, and they planned to have an unofficial marriage ceremony on a Cancun beach in 2005. Deliriously in love, Clipper showered Sara with gifts: everything from new eyeglasses to tattoos, and numerous surprise bouquets of roses.
Rachael, Clipper’s now-18-year-old daughter, watched this romance somewhat warily. She accepted Sara’s presence in their home for one reason: “You could tell that she honestly did love my dad.”
But before Rachael knew it, she found herself becoming close to Sara. They shared a similar dry sense of humor, they both loved to dance to the Violent Femmes and sing along to Indigo Girls, and they could swap and borrow each other’s clothes. “She changed a lot about my life and probably the way I think about life,” Rachael says. Sara’s family noticed that Clipper changed Sara. “She definitely bettered herself, in a lot of ways,” says Sara’s brother, Jonathan. “She seemed a lot happier in life, more motivated, energized, and off whatever drugs it was that she liked.”
“She always had a smile on her face when she was with him,” says Sara’s mother, Toni Ushman. “Anything she wanted, he made sure she got it. He just idolized her. He would take pictures of her for hours. They were going to get married. She had a beautiful engagement ring.”
Clipper changed, too. Previously a one-Shih-Tzu guy, he opened his home to a menagerie of mammals — five dogs, two cats, two rats, seven gerbils, and a guinea pig — because Sara said she wanted to be a veterinarian. Then she heard him mention another stray creature — Mike Scanlon, an old night-shift co-worker from his Short Stop days. In 2003, Scanlon had learned that he had AIDS and had notified all his old buddies personally rather than have word spread through the grapevine. Their co-worker Bob recalls that Scanlon was “devastated” by the diagnosis. At Sara’s urging, Clipper tried to check in with Scanlon and was told that his old friend was spending his days lying on a couch, waiting to die. Clipper invited Scanlon to come visit him and Sara. Planning to remodel his house, Clipper figured that Scanlon could help with the project, earn some dough, and cheer up. “I think my dad was honestly trying to show Mike that there’s life after AIDS,” says Clipper’s daughter, Rachael. “He didn’t think about the bad things that could happen. He just thought about the good things. But these two other people didn’t have the same mindset.”

Steve Clipper and Mike Scanlon met when they were 14 and assigned by their peers to fight each other after school. Clipper was the new kid in town and Scanlon didn’t have any beef with him, so he backed down. Out of gratitude, Clipper considered Scanlon a friend. A few years later, Clipper returned the favor when Scanlon was working at the Short Stop as a night clerk. Once, when the night crew went out partying after work, Scanlon got drunk and — depressed that his recent diagnosis of diabetes had ended his ambitions for a military career — decided to crash his car in hopes of killing himself. Clipper wrestled Scanlon’s keys away from him and calmed him down. The next day, Scanlon thanked Clipper for saving his life. Despite these deep bonds, the two men hadn’t kept in touch, and there was a lot they didn’t know about each other by the time Scanlon showed up at Clipper’s house in September 2004. Scanlon had been married, but only briefly. He had spent some time living in Florida, returning with enough money to pay cash for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and most of his current friends were bikers. His last steady job was at a Dierbergs supermarket, where he was active in the grocery workers’ union. Bob, the Short Stop regular, had never lost touch with Scanlon, who, he says, had helped him through some of the darkest days of his life. But at some point Scanlon’s friendship began to make Bob vaguely uncomfortable. “I felt like he was closer to me than I thought he ought to be,” Bob says. Scanlon was a nice guy, charming even, never without bar companions. “He had a softer side that attracted girls,” Bob says, “not as dates, necessarily, but as friends.”
He also had a mysterious side, disappearing for as much as a week at a time on solo hunting and camping trips. “I always thought he had something else he was doing besides hunting,” Bob says. “He went deer hunting every year, but he never brought a deer back.”
Scanlon could be moody — friendly one minute, angry the next. He blamed it on fluctuations in his blood sugar and eventually was prescribed an insulin regulator. Beer also affected his mood, Bob says: “When he would drink beer, he would get irate and ridiculous, loud and obnoxious.”
When Scanlon arrived at Clipper’s house, he was thin, bald, tattooed, pierced, and chain-smoking — pretty much the opposite of healthy, clean-cut Clipper. When they started on the remodeling project, the two men argued about how to do things, and Clipper — being more robust than Scanlon — ended up doing more of the work. But home improvement wasn’t Clipper’s only goal; he wanted to help his friend learn to cope with AIDS. A caretaker by nature, Clipper helped Scanlon get medications to tide him over until he could afford his own, and coached him through the complicated process of applying for Social Security disability. Sara also seemed to like having Scanlon around. Both Geminis, both into tattoos, they discovered they had something else in common: Like Sara, Scanlon had been addicted to drugs. He told her that he had recently gone through treatment at an inpatient facility in St. Louis. That revelation was news to Clipper, who had no idea that Scanlon had used cocaine for more than a decade.
In a poem Sara Gallant wrote about Mike Scanlon, she described him as “Mr. Splitfoot” — another name for Satan — “with the gentle eyes.”
PHOTO BY STEVE CLIPPER
Although Sara was drawn to Scanlon, Rachael was repulsed. She and her sister confided to each other that Scanlon seemed creepy. “Our first thought was that he reminded us of a sex offender,” she says. She started finding reasons to stay away from the house; when she had to be there, she avoided getting entangled in conversations. She couldn’t understand how Scanlon could be overly emotional at times and “emotionless” at others unless he was putting on an act. Rachael also sensed electricity flowing between her father’s friend and her father’s girlfriend, and she knew that Scanlon could woo Sara in a way that her father never would. “Sara loved having a lot of attention, and Mike gave her that attention. So did my dad,” Rachael says, “but Mike had drugs.”

Sara’s mother, Toni Ushman, says that Sara often spoke of wanting to do just enough drugs to keep herself slender. “Her issue was ‘If I could just do a little bit, I would lose weight,’ ” Toni says. In the Clipper house, Sara expressed other reasons for wanting drugs. There were times when she craved meth so badly that she would take pictures off the wall, break the glass, and cut her arms, telling Clipper that she felt like something was crawling through her veins. He would hold her until she could calm down. Rachael says Scanlon took a different approach. Instead of trying to help Sara stay clean, he started sneaking in cocaine. For months, Clipper seemed unaware of the relationship brewing right there in his own house, but in November the situation became impossible to ignore. At a bar in Girard the trio ran into Rick Cotterman, the pharmacist who filled Clipper’s prescriptions. When Cotterman’s wife noticed that Clipper was there with a woman, she decided to make sure that Sara knew the man she was kissing had AIDS. Clipper was so outraged, bouncers escorted him from the bar while Sara and Scanlon apparently engaged in fisticuffs with the pharmacist.
All three left the bar upset. At home, Clipper got in the backyard hot tub to relax and fell asleep. When he woke up, hours later, he found Sara and Scanlon sleeping together in his bed. They were both fully clothed, but Clipper asked Scanlon to move out. A week later, Sara told Clipper that she wanted to leave, too, claiming that customers at the Auburn convenience store where she worked kept asking her whether the rumor was true, that she had AIDS. She had to get away from this small town, just for a week, she told Clipper. She packed some clothes and went to stay with her best friend, Jimmy.
Documents found after her death show that she and Scanlon began exchanging phone calls and love letters as soon as Clipper sent Scanlon away. In these letters, Scanlon warned Sara to keep their relationship secret. In a letter sent Nov. 26, the day Sara left Clipper, Scanlon wrote: “I wish I could be there for you now but I think that would possibly put you in a dangerous spot since Steve knows where Jimmy lives, and could come stalking you at any time. Please be aware of your surroundings so if he does start stalking you that you’ll be able to call for help before it’s too late and someone gets hurt.”
Clipper kept in constant touch with the woman he still considered his fiancée, oblivious to the fact that Scanlon frequently spent the night at Jimmy’s house with Sara. The truth emerged one Tuesday afternoon, just after Christmas, when Clipper called and Jimmy told him Sara was asleep and that he didn’t think he could wake her up because she had taken a lot of sleeping pills. Fearing the worst, Clipper raced to Jimmy’s house and pounded on Sara’s bedroom window. When she told him to go away, he heard another voice inside. Police arrived, and an officer checked to make sure that Sara hadn’t overdosed on pills. Then the officer delivered a message from Sara to Clipper: “She says your friend from St. Louis is inside with her and that you might know what that means.”
Clipper’s reaction was dramatic. He threw all of Sara’s belongings onto his front porch, delivered to Jimmy’s house the entire menagerie of pets he’d been feeding, and demanded that Sara return her wedding and engagement rings. He explained this behavior not as jealousy but as “tough love,” because he believed that Sara was back on drugs.
Sara had introduced Clipper to her family, but for whatever reason some of her closest relatives — her mother, Toni; and brother, Jonathan — never met Scanlon. Her Aunt Marge met him but didn’t approve. “I told Sara I did not like him. To be honest, he looks like the devil,” Marge says. It wasn’t just looks. Marge has worked in restaurants and taverns all her life (she and her husband owned several bars), and she considers herself a good judge of character. “I know that sounds weird, but he had a demeanor that was not sincere,” she says. “It was like he was trying to convince you that he was a really nice guy. He was pushing too hard to make you like him. I never did see what she saw in him, and I told her that.”
In a poem Sara Gallant wrote about Mike Scanlon, she described him as “Mr. Splitfoot” — another name for Satan — “with the gentle eyes.”
PHOTO BY STEVE CLIPPER

Sometime in January, Sara got tested for HIV and asked Marge to take her to the hospital to pick up the results. She was relieved and happy that the test showed she was HIV-negative. Marge took her out to breakfast, and noticed that Sara was ravenous. “I said, ‘Sara Lynn, are you eating? Do you have money?’ ” Sara said she was doing OK. However, she told her aunt that she was confused about Scanlon and was considering trying to reunite with Clipper. “She said she didn’t know what to do. She was absolutely having second thoughts,” Marge says. On Feb. 7, Sara called Toni, and Jonathan happened to answer the phone. His sister talked to him for half an hour about Scanlon, saying that she had made a mistake and that she wanted to move back to Clipper’s house. Scanlon, she said, made her nervous. “I asked her if she wanted me to come over there, but she said no, she could handle it,” Jonathan says. He heard a click, and asked Sara if someone was listening on another phone. She said no, but that she had to go. It was his last conversation with Sara. On Feb. 9, she helped Scanlon move a load of his belongings from Jimmy’s house to his sister’s place at the Lake of the Ozarks. They went out to dinner with Scanlon’s sister and her husband, then stayed up watching movies and drinking beer, telling the sister they preferred to sleep in the living room instead of on the upstairs futon. Early the next morning, Scanlon’s brother-in-law found a note on the kitchen table: “Sara and I have decided that this life is not worth continuing so we are ending ours tonight. . . . ” Shortly after sunrise, search personnel found their bodies by a fallen log about 25 yards off a nearby roadway.
Hhe day after the deaths, Sara’s mother took Marge, Clipper, and Rachael to Jimmy’s basement to collect Sara’s belongings. Toni said that Sara would want Rachael to have her clothes, and as she looked through the dresser drawers Rachael found photos of herself that Sara had evidently hidden for safekeeping. Elsewhere in the room they found snapshots that had included Clipper — but his head had been cut out or scribbled across in Scanlon’s handwriting.
“You could just tell there weren’t good things going on down there,” Rachael says. They found letters, poems, and a handwritten will in which Scanlon had listed who should receive his truck, his furniture, his television, his washer and dryer, his generator and chainsaw, his hunting gear and camping equipment, his Harley-Davidson memorabilia, his switchblades and collectible knives, all the way down to his Jack Daniel’s shot glasses. They couldn’t help noticing how similar it was to the letter Scanlon left on his sister’s kitchen table — only the one in the basement read, “I cannot continue to act like I’m not miserable and lonely,” and the one left at Lake of the Ozarks had Sara’s name inserted. They take solace in the fact that in one sentence, Scanlon scratched out “I” to replace it with “we,” a near-admission that Scanlon was actually writing only for himself. In the aftermath, Clipper has become obsessed with understanding what happened to his beloved Sara and why. He has dissected her poetry, quizzed her friends, and replayed events in his mind, looking for clues. He believes that Scanlon overheard Sara’s 30-minute phone conversation with Jonathan, realized that she was leaving him, and decided to kill her. Her mother, Toni, is a bit more practical. She’s comforted by the red polo shirt Sara took with her. It was her Harper’s uniform; she had intended to report to work as scheduled the next day. But probably the best evidence that Sara Gallant didn’t intend to die isn’t any of the items she left; it’s what she didn’t leave. Sara was a gifted and prolific poet; the letters left by Scanlon show none of her artistic touch. Anybody who knew Sara Gallant knows she wouldn’t have made an exit without leaving behind some pungent prose.
“Sara wouldn’t have let anybody else talk for her,” Rachael says. “Sara would’ve talked for herself.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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