It would be easy enough to dismiss the scarred and brief life of Mark Frechette simply by calling him a born loser. Certainly, it was a life in which very little seemed to work out right, and his recent death in Norfolk prison seems, thus, to be an appropriately tragic and bizarre end.
But we would be closer to the truth, I think, if we thought of Frechette as a victim. Of what? Well, as the man said, what've you got? Frechette seems to have been a sensitive and bewildered young man who was always being manipulated, be it by a movie director, a self-styled guru, or the press. And manipulated towards ends that probably did little to help him resolve his own inner conflicts. He may have been better off if all those who used him had left him entirely alone. But, ironically, only the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, which took custodial care of Mark Frechette's body though not his mind for the last two years of his life, was willing to ignore him. And that may have led to his death.
Frechette's death was apparently an accident. No one, for now, is seriously doubting the official explanation that he died while trying to bench press 150 pounds in his dormitory at Norfolk died when the weights slipped from his hands and the bar fell upon his throat. His lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, dismisses the possibility that Frechette could have been murdered, pointing out that the handsome 27-year-old was well-liked by the other inmates, had only relatively minor hassles with the Norfolk guards, and was strong enough that he could not have been subdued without signs of a struggle.
But Frechette's friends and fellow inmates report that he had been deeply depressed for the last month, roughly since the second anniversary (on August 29) of the bank robbery for which he had been convicted (as a participant) and in which Frechette's close friend and fellow devotee of Boston's Fort Hill commune, Christopher "Hercules" Thien, was killed.
Frechette had virtually stopped eating, according to both his lawyer and David Gude, a friend who had visited him just a week before his death. And, though a corrections Dept. spokesman professed to be unaware of it, Frechette had apparently lost a considerable amount of weight, enough so that, it is fair to speculate, he had grown too weak to handle the 150 pounds of weight that had killed him especially since his last workout, on Saturday morning September 27, was also his first one in weeks.
But the state was very much aware that Mark Frechette was an emotionally troubled young man as well it should have been, since as long ago as April of 1974, when he was convicted of armed robbery, the court's own psychiatrist warned that he would become "increasingly depressed" in an institutional setting. And as recently as this past June 13, the superintendent of Norfolk pronounced him of "questionable stability." It's just that the prison bureaucracy seems not to have known quite how to deal with those qualities. As David Gude put it, "He just sort of got into a state of depression, and of course the cure for that just makes it rougher for the guys. They don't get no sympathy. They just stay healthy or go under."
Attorney Silverglate urged, after Frechette pleaded guilty two years ago and the court's psychiatrist questioned his fitness for institutional life, that Frechette be sentenced to Concord Reformatory, rather than Walpole, and that the sentence be light. However, apparently because Frechette, then 26, was beyond the inflexible cut-off age of 25 and under for Concord inmates, Judge Herbert Travers sent him to Walpole and recommended an administrative transfer, which is how he wound up at Norfolk, a minimum-security institution with dormitories instead of cells.
Still, Atty. Silverglate contended that the sentence, six to 15 years, was unduly strict for someone who, though technically guilty of a violent crime, had entered the Brigham Circle branch of the New England Merchant's Bank with no bullets in his Smith and Wesson revolver and who had dropped it and flung his arms upward before the police even realized he was anything but an innocent bystander. Since Frechette would be required to serve two-thirds of the minimum sentence before being eligible for parole, it meant he was facing a sure four years of incarceration, unless he could convince the Norfolk superintendent, the Corrections Commissioner, and the parole board to grant him an early release.
He applied for one early this year, but, although the institutional parole board recommended in favor of it, Norfolk Supt. Larry Neacham denied it, citing his "questionable stability." He said Frechette would be considered again for release only after he had successfully completed a furlough.
He was successfully furloughed on August 12. Just the same, his lawyers were told, there was that emotional problem. Well, if he has a problem, said the lawyers, he should be getting treatment. And so a psychiatric appointment was arranged for Mark Frechette on Saturday, October 4. He died the Saturday before.
"In my opinion," said an obviously upset Harvey Silverglate, "what destroyed Mark Frechette was the prison system." "The real problem," added David Gude, "was a complete lack of understanding. He was long past the point where prison could cause any change in him. It was real clear that he should have been out on work-release or something. The big mistake they made was in not seeing that this man needed to be let go. One thing I'd like to see in the prison system is a better understanding of people. They either miss opportunities or in this case a man dies."
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Why do we care at all about Mark Frechette's fate? For all the wrong reasons, probably. Not because he was a bright but troubled soul looking to make some sense out of a society that outraged so many of his peers, but because he was, likely to his own regret, an extraordinarily good-looking boy who at age 20 was plucked out of obscurity, manipulated, and just as quickly forgotten.
A French Canadian high school dropout from Fairfield, Conn., Frechette wandered into Boston in 1966. He was working as a carpenter on Roxbury's Fort Hill part of the time, reading Avatar the original Boston underground tabloid put out by Mel Lyman's Fort Hill commune part of the time and, according to friends, panhandling in Harvard Square and dealing dope a good deal of the time as well.
He was 20 when, so the story goes, he was snatched up by a pair of talent scouts who spotted Frechette standing on a local street corner screaming, "motherfucker!" They were looking for a star a symbol of youthful rebellion to play the lead in what was to be Michelangelo Antonioni's American epic, Zabriskie Point. The film was a disaster, both critically and financially, but it brought brief fame to Frechette, whose mop-topped head, complete with delicate features and brooding, haunting eyes, actually made the covers of both Look and Rolling Stone.
Frechette could probably have made something of a film career out of such credits worse-looking no-talents have but he chose, instead, to take the $60,000 that Zabriskie Point and a later obscure Italian flick made him and hand it all over to Mel Lyman, the one-time banjo player for Jim Kweskin's jug band and self-styled Fort Hill guru.
As Frechette explained in a jailhouse interview two years ago, shortly after he and his then-wife and child came to town, his troubles began to multiply. He was busted on a dope charge. When he left town to post bail for a friend in Vermont, he got busted for a parole violation, His wife left him. He went to live with a friend in Roxbury, eventually taking his own apartment on Fort Hill, which rises up in the center of the ghetto and is topped by an odd, Eastern European tower, a relic of the Revolutionary War.
He was instantly attracted to the small but growing personality cult that surrounded Lyman, an introspective communal group that had begun as a hippie drug-culture crash pad. Much has been written too much, probably about Lyman, perhaps the first of the isolated, quasi-religious cults that developed for disillusioned, Vietnam-era flower children. Suffice it to say that Frechette and his both undeserved and un-asked-for fame were swallowed up by Lyman's commune. And he was not heard from again until the August, 1973 bank robbery.
The robbery, unplanned and impulsively carried out within shouting distance of Fort Hill in a neighborhood where Frechette's face was well-known, was a "perfectly honest" thing to do, Frechette told the Phoenix while awaiting trial at the Charles Street Jail. "There was no way to stop what was going to happen. We just reached the point where all the three of us [Frechette, "Hercules" Thein, and Sheldon "Terry" Bernhard, the sole survivor, who is still serving time at Norfolk] really wanted to do, was hold up a bank. It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death. There didn't seem to be anyone else [...]
Though the bank robbery, like most desperate acts and maybe like Frechette's entire life, ended in futility, it also seems to have been inevitable: "I just do what I have to do," said Frechette at the time. "Because if you fall asleep like most people in this society, you're a fuckin' dead man."