In his high school yearbook, Stephen Stanko was called “the all-American boy”—polite, friendly, and extremely intelligent. But in 1996, that facade came crumbling down when, at the age of 28, Stephen was convicted of assault and kidnapping.
He tried to make the most out of his 10-year sentence. While incarcerated, Stanko co-wrote “Living in Prison,” in which he recounted his experience, his fears, and his desire to leave the “felon” label behind. While the book wasn’t necessarily a commercial hit, it was a personal victory for Stanko: Due to his good behavior, he was released 1 ½ years early and moved to Myrtle Beach in 2004.
Roughly one year later, Stanko began visiting the local library, presumably doing research for his second book. His hours of hard work led to a friendship with 74-year-old Henry Lee Turner, another frequent patron, and librarian Laura Ling. His relationship with Ling quickly blossomed into a full-blown romance and, just two months after their first meeting, Stanko moved into her home. There, Ling hoped she and her teenage daughter, Penny, could give Stanko the fresh start he needed.
It seemed that Stanko was doing well until the morning of April 8, 2005. Without warning, Stanko snapped—starting a violent fight between himself and Ling that lasted through the night. When questioned by the police later on, Stanko said his memory of the incident was slim: Ling had slapped him; he’d been burned by his own cigarette. That was all he could remember.
But other things had happened during the fight, and the following excerpt of Watch Mommy Die describes the terrifying details—from Stanko’s sinister M.O. to Henry Lee's murder to the miracle that helped launch the manhunt that brought him to death row.
Read on for an excerpt of Watch Mommy Die, and then download the book.
He spent a lot of time while in prison thinking about what a funny guy he was. He knew it was a tough row to hoe, but he thought he might take a crack at being a stand-up comic. He would be the ex-con comic. Tim Allen had pulled it off, and Stanko figured himself funnier than that guy. He would be the first to expose the outside world to some real prison humor! There was nothing like a long stretch behind bars to bring out the yuks.
Now, out and about, he kept a separate notebook—separate from the serial killer stuff—that consisted of his “comedy routine.” When he thought of a joke, he’d put it in there. The routine got out of order after a while, and the pages were filled with arrows and inserts scribbled up and down the margins.
He could hear himself doing it, hear roaring laughter from a packed house. . . .
[Reacting to applause] Thank you, thank you. Okay, my name is Steve Stanko [pause] and before you begin making fun of my name, let me say that I was recently released from an eight-and-a-half-year stint in prison, and this is kind of therapy for me.
Thinking twice now about poking fun at “Stanko” now, aren’t you?
It’s always funny, when I make that announcement, to watch the reactions in the audience. The men that think they are tough sit up and poke their chest out. The less aggressive seem to get shorter. I wasn’t sure at first what that was from. And then, one club-owner told me that they had to pop one guy off his seat [make an oral popping noise] like a plunger.
And, of course, gay men smile, and their faces light up. Sorry guys [turn around, shake butt and wag finger] this is an exit hole only! See me after the show, though, and I will give you some names and inmate numbers that you can write.
The women, on the other hand, are another story. That all depends on the man they are with. The proper woman will cower closer to their date . . . spouse . . . escort. No, just kidding. But they still look me up and down with that questioning face. [Wiggle eyebrows, give audience a wicked smile.]
Rougher, country, “red neck” women usually start calling me forward or winking. After going out with a few of them, I realized that all they wanted was information about their families and exes. “Did you know my daddy? . . . brother? God-damn husband? Is he okay? Queer? . . . Dead?”
No, really, none of you have anything to “be afraid of. I didn’t kill, rape, attack, mutilate or do any of the really “cool” crimes. I was one of those [dripping with sarcasm] really bad guys: Breach of trust with fraudulent intent . . . 673 counts, of course.
If any of my victims are in the audience, this gig doesn’t pay squat, so leave me alone after the show. Ten years for that—go figure, ha ha.
Prison is strange. It is and it’s not what the media makes it out to be. It can be tough. I mean, the first day I was given a total body shave, a delousing, a wire-brush scrub, stuck with two needles and told I would probably get a rectal exam.
Yeah, at the end of the day I just looked at my cell-mate and said, “Do you think they will let me out of the cell tomorrow?” He just kinda smiled and said, “I hope not!”
The first thing I had to do once in prison was learn the language of the convicts. Everyone knows what a rat or a snitch is, and of course shanks and shivs are homemade—excuse me, cellmade—weapons.
“But there is also the “deck”, a pack of cigarettes, “buck” which is inmate-made wine. Oh yeah, good stuff, not Dom Perignon but Dumb Parthenon, when it hits you will buck like an idiot in a Roman arena.
One of my favorite prison slang words is “sack,” a quantity of marijuana so small that it is folded and folded into a piece of one-inch square paper until it is about the size of a pinkie nail. Costs five bucks.
And then there’s the “sit-up.” No, that is not how you trick inmates into indecent carnal acts....
And on and on it went. Stanko thought he was a riot. When he wasn’t studying serial killers, he was watching stand-up comedy on TV, checking out the tricks they used, the timing of it. He was so going to be a star.
Then the unexpected happened. He got a real job. During the first months of 2005, Stanko worked as a salesman at Stucco Supply in Myrtle Beach.
But the job didn’t last. He was fired on April Fools’ Day by the general manager, Jeff Kendall. Stanko was hired to be a salesman, but he didn’t make enough sales—so he was served the pink slip.
On the surface, one might think Stanko a natural at sales. Instead, he daydreamed, perhaps plotting the future, not maximizing the present.
Perhaps Stanko’s preoccupation with manipulating people proved to be a detriment. That was counterintuitive, but maybe Stanko actually found himself unable, or just unwilling, to work for a living; so hungry was he to scam and to con, to exploit the fact that others had consciences.
According to one “dear friend” of Laura Ling’s, it was that first week in April, after Stephen Stanko lost his job, that Stanko “totally took over” the Socastee library. She said he turned the place into his own personal office, where he pretended to be a lawyer and conned old ladies out of their money. She spoke to Laura about it, told her there was something dead about Stanko’s eyes that gave her the chills. Laura said, “Mind your own business”—and she did.
For Laura, Stanko was now a liability both at work and at home. He was spending her money faster than she could make it. She was a librarian, not an heiress, and on the verge of receiving an eviction notice. Something had to give. It was time she read Stanko the riot act.
BOILING OVER: APRIL 8, 2005
Stephen Stanko’s own urge to kill, and kill again, boiled over on Friday, April 8, 2005, sometime after midnight. He’d completed his self-taught course in serial killers and he’d given himself a grade of A. Now, with his real job kaput, his obsession with murder blended with a growing rage. His rickety dam of self-control cracked, then gave way, releasing a torrent of turpitude.
He stressed badly. He needed money. Being fired turned out to be a greater blow to his ego than he would have expected. Rejection of any kind pumped up Stanko’s pressure cooker.
According to his story, Stanko and Laura Ling had an argument. She slapped him and a lit cigarette in his mouth flew between his glasses and his face, burning him.
That was it. Mr. Hyde, come on down! Let the bondage begin. Stanko bound Ling’s wrists together behind her back. He was too jacked and did a sloppy job.
BTK would have laughed.
Stephen Stanko then turned his attention to Ling’s teenage daughter, who was in her room asleep in bed. When he entered her bedroom, he flicked on the lights. Penny woke up.
Penny’s mind tried to register what she was seeing. At first, it simply didn’t compute. Stephen was in her room, with a knife in his hand. He’d gotten home about nine o’clock that night and everything was normal. She’d gone to sleep at about eleven-fifteen, and all was still peaceful. Now it was an hour and a quarter later, and Stephen was next to her bed with a knife in his hand. At first, he just stared at her, and she hoped it was a dream. It didn’t register. Maybe he had secretly called a fire drill or something.
After a couple of seconds, Stanko said, “Scream, and I will kill you both.”
He was referring to her mom. Mom was in trouble. She had to get to her. Stanko produced more neckties and was about to bind her wrists at the small of her back when she wriggled free.
Penny ran down the hall and looked in her mother’s room. Mom was on the bed, moaning and kicking.
That was the last thing the daughter remembered for a while, as Stanko hit her over the head with a blunt object and knocked her out. When she woke up, she saw him beating her mother. The punches became frenzied. Stanko dished out a vicious beating that continued until his hand was bleeding and he couldn’t punch anymore . . .
When the act was complete, he positioned the “daughter so she could watch as he returned his attention to Laura Ling. Stanko still kept his weight on Penny so she couldn’t move. He flipped Laura onto her stomach and, with Penny watching in horror, choked Laura until she was dead. She fought hard. She heard her mother making choking noises. Then the noises stopped, and that was it.
Penny forced herself to look away. She closed her eyes really tight and tried to make it go away. She didn’t want this to be the last image she had of her mom.
She tried to replace the nightmare with pleasant memories of her mom. How beautiful she was—how smart and funny. She was a warm and inviting person, the kind of person everyone wanted to be friends with. She was—oh God, now she was gone.
At some point, he pushed Laura off the bed and she lay still on the floor between the bed and the wall. Stanko got up and looked down at his lifeless girlfriend. He then looked down at Penny; his eyes still filled with raging ire, he said something truly bizarre.
“Look what you did to her!” he screamed at the girl. “And I loved her!”
The killer flipped the teenager over, forcing her into a prostrate position. He lifted Penny’s head, and, producing a knife, twice slit her throat.
Stephen Stanko took a shower, and when he re-dressed, he felt in vain for a pulse in Laura Ling and her daughter. He later claimed he felt suicidal at that moment, but his actions suggest he was a man with plans for a future.
Believing Laura and Penny dead, he tarried: calmly removing a gold bracelet from Ling’s lifeless wrist, then packing a bag. He emptied out her purse and pocketed her car keys. He went into her wallet and took all of the cash and her ATM card. Only then did he leave the house.
As was true of many famous murderers, Stanko had turned violent, not under a full moon, but under the slenderest silvery sliver—on the eve of the new moon. Those were the darkest nights of the month, and killers on the run liked their nights dark.
His first stop was Ling’s bank, where he used her card to empty her account of seven hundred dollars. A surveillance camera captured him, his face composed, as he made the transaction at the drive-through machine.
Penny was not dead, however. Why Stanko couldn’t find her pulse is one of the mysteries—and miracles—of this story. She regained consciousness and even made it to a phone. Bound, with blood still flowing from her neck wounds, Penny called 911.
Want to keep reading? Download Watch Mommy Die by Michael Benson.
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Featured photo: Murderpedia