The Attempted Murder Of Hustler Founder, Larry Flynt
Lawrenceville, GA, was a sleepy hamlet some thirty miles from Atlanta. Many of its residents were farmers, while others commuted to jobs closer to the city, at plants like the General Motors Assembly Plant and Western Electric, a manufacturer of transoceanic phone cables. Soon the city would be caught up in a growth spurt in which its county, Gwinnett, would become the fastest-growing in the country. Gwinnett was a dry county, meaning at the time you could buy beer and wine, but no legal liquor other than in Lilburn. It was squarely in the Bible Belt, with a substantial number of churches and a population that attended them. That made enforcement of laws about decency a high priority for Gwinnett’s elected officials.
Gwinnett County Solicitor Gary Davis had led a purge of explicit materials in his county, announcing a pornography crackdown after a poll by his office showed the county’s residents overwhelmingly supported a ban. He said, “This is a nice, clean county, and we intend to keep it that way.” At the same time, Fulton, Clayton, and DeKalb Counties were undergoing their own crackdown. The stage was set for metro Atlanta to lead the Southern crusade against pornography. Clearly, someone would be made an example, and Larry Flynt was the logical, high-profile choice. The only question was which county would be first?
Larry Flynt was no stranger to the limelight or courtrooms, and his tough upbringing left him seemingly unintimidated by confrontation. He was born to a sharecropper in rural Magoffin County, Kentucky, one of the poorest counties in the nation. Flynt ran away from home at age 15 and joined the Army using a fake birth certificate. He was then able to transfer to the Navy. After being honourably discharged, he purchased a Dayton, OH bar, the Keewee, from his mother. Becoming profitable quickly, he bought two other bars. He decided to open a more upscale club featuring topless dancers, the Hustler Club. This would be the beginnings of an adult entertainment empire as he opened Hustler clubs across Ohio.
Flynt entered the publishing world when he purchased a small newspaper called Bachelor’s Beat. After he sold that paper, he began publishing a newsletter about the Hustler Clubs. This publication eventually became Hustler Magazine in 1974.
In its early days, Hustler struggled to get its content distributed due to substantial feedback. The magazine’s big break came when Flynt was approached by a photographer who had taken pictures of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sunbathing nude while on vacation. They had been published in a small Italian magazine called Playmen. Flynt purchased the photos for $18,000 and published them in the magazine’s August 1975 issue with Onassis on the cover. Circulation exploded from a few thousand to more than two million.
Flynt’s content became a lightning rod for ambitious prosecutors, and he constantly battled for what he perceived were his first amendment rights. He faced trial on pornography charges in Ohio in 1977 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Then councilman and the future Mayor of Cincinnati and national talk show host Jerry Springer recalled the trial as “a fascinating spectacle,” adding that it was “great theatre.” Flynt was convicted and sentenced to seven to twenty-five years. He served only six days and was out pending appeal on these charges (which would later be overturned) when he began facing obscenity charges in Georgia.
Seeking to face Fulton County Solicitor General Hinson McAuliffe in court to try and establish what he claimed were his first amendment rights, Flynt traveled to Atlanta in September of 1977. He rented a storefront and began selling his Hustler Magazine. He also offered to purchase Atlanta Magazine from the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Flynt was arrested and charged with distributing obscene materials. Around the same time, Flynt converted to Christianity, spurred by President Carter’s sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton.
Gwinnett County would win the race to try Flynt. Fulton County’s McAuliffe charged Flynt approximately the same time as Gwinnett, but Flynt successfully tied up the Fulton charges in U.S. District Court. In Gwinnett, Flynt was charged with distributing pornography and was set for trial in March of 1978. The proceedings would be held in the County Courthouse in Lawrenceville, the county seat.
Hughel Harrison was the presiding judge. Gwinnett’s District Attorney, Bryant Huff, had been involved with some notable cases. He was a part of a sting in the early 60s that landed former Sheriff Dan Cole in prison on moonshining charges, which led to him being removed from office. He convicted Troy Lee Gregg in a murder case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the ban on the death penalty. He led the team that convicted David Jarrell of the murder and kidnapping of Mala Still and resulted in Jarrell being sentenced to death, which would later be commuted to life without parole.
Anticipation was high for the afternoon of March 6th as the President’s sister was heading to Lawrenceville to testify about Flynt’s conversion to Christianity. Huff, who is retired and living near Douglas, GA, recalls that the case was going well for the prosecution as it continued that Monday. In a recent interview, he shares, “I always took great pains to get my cases ready for trial. When the case came up, I just laid out the cards.”
The judge paused the proceedings for lunch. Flynt and his attorney Gene Reeves walked to their usual lunch spot, nearby V&J Cafeteria. Owner Jeff Britt recalls that Flynt had Jell-O and grapefruit juice.
As they returned to the courthouse, the pair made their way up Perry Street. Their consistent selection for their lunch destination had inadvertently made it possible for the shooter to know where his target would be and when. Reporters followed just steps behind. No one imagined that a sniper lay in wait across the street, under an archway in front of an abandoned building.
Shots rang out, and the two fell to the ground. Virginia Mathis, a nurse in a nearby doctor’s office, reported hearing three shots. The third tore into Flynt’s abdomen. Flynt had been shot two times, and Reeves once. Flynt was immobile; Reeves, who had seen combat in the Korean War, crawled behind a nearby car. Ballistics later determined that the weapon used was a .44 calibre rifle.
Fayette Calloway, at the time a senior at nearby Central Gwinnett High School, was the first person on the scene. He had been visiting a friend nearby when they heard the shots and then cries for help. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal, Calloway said, “I ran out the door to where he (Flynt) was laying. He kept saying, ‘Oh My stomach, oh my stomach,’ and I told him to lay still. Liquid was coming out of his stomach, but it didn’t look like blood.”
Flynt and Reeves were rushed to Lawrenceville’s Button Gwinnett Hospital, and both quickly taken into surgery. Flynt underwent a second surgery soon after to stop excessive bleeding. He was soon moved to Atlanta’s Emory Hospital. In the days following the shooting, Flynt underwent three total surgeries. The criminal charges against him were dismissed.
Law enforcement began canvassing the area, but eyewitnesses were few. Prints and photographs were taken in the abandoned building. Reports came out with a description of a prospective lead on the shooter. Police began a search for vehicles fitting the description. Bret Eller was a student at the local high school who drove a similar car. Police went to his home that afternoon and told his father they needed to speak with him. He later drove to the police station. Officers interviewed him and photographed his car. They asked where he was at lunchtime, and he responded, “At Central eating lunch, and I can prove it.” The lookout for a car like his was a false alarm. It turned out that the person described was one of the school’s teachers leaving a nearby bank.
Jeff Britt recalls that a stranger had walked into his restaurant after the shooting through a back entrance. The stranger stayed just a few minutes and then left. Britt recalls that with all of the chaos at the time, it didn’t stand out, but he wonders if the person could have been the shooter, hiding from the police.
Flynt was left partially paralyzed, and his spinal cord damage meant he would never walk again. Flynt also suffered a stroke due to some of the medication he was given in his recovery, which impacted his ability to speak clearly. Fulton County tried Flynt in 1979. Reeves made a full recovery.
The afternoon of the shooting, legendary Atlanta columnist Lewis Grizzard visited Lawrenceville and, in his version of a protest against the prosecution of Flynt, purchased what he called a “dirty magazine” at a local beer store, Happy Howard’s. In his column published two days later, he quoted a lady, Mary, who had been sitting watch in the hospital where Flynt was recovering. “They never should have tried him in this county,” she said. Lewis asked her what she thought about selling magazines with sexy pictures and stories, and she replied, It ain’t as bad as selling dope.”
In 1996, a biographical film was made about Flynt’s life, “The People Versus Larry Flynt.” Flynt appears in the film as a judge in one of the cases against him. Later in life, Flynt became a critic of the Warren Commission’s findings regarding the JFK assassination. In a somewhat ironic twist, the film starred Woody Harrelson as Flynt. Harrelson’s father, Charles, was often mentioned as a suspect in the killing by numerous assassination theorists.
White supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin later confessed to shooting Flynt. He cited his motivation as the anger he felt when he saw an interracial couple in a Hustler pictorial. Franklin was already on Death Row in Missouri, so he was not prosecuted for the crime. Franklin was executed in 2013.
Flynt once said that his goal was to “offend every single person in the world at some point.” He was constantly in court for his decisions. In 1988, he was sued by Rev. Jerry Falwell, the founder of Liberty University, for an article claiming (sarcastically) that Falwell’s first-ever sexual experience occurred with his mother in an outhouse. The case was one of several involving Flynt that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the Falwell case, the court found in Flynt’s favour.
Larry Flynt died in 2021 from heart failure. He was 78.