A Freeman’s end

August 6, 2010

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The younger of two brothers who for decades owned and ran the Pine Bluff Commercial shot and killed his wife and then himself in the kitchen of their west Little Rock home Thursday morning, less than a week after the couple’s 20th wedding anniversary, police said.

Armistead Councill Freeman, 81, called 911 at 7:54 a.m. to report two people killed at his own address, 99 El Dorado Drive, police said. The first officers to arrive, Peter Hutson and Damon Whitener, found the front door unlocked. They found Freeman and his wife, Gail Cross Freeman, 75, dead from what Hutson’s report described as “obvious wounds.”

Freeman had been depressed recently and was likely to have kept firearms in the house, his older brother, Edmond, said. Freeman and his wife both suffered lingering health problems — he had lung cancer; she heart and stomach issues — but seemed otherwise fine, his brother said.

“Whatever exactly happened between them in their house, I certainly do believe it would have been a surprise to Gail,” Edmond Freeman said.

Gail Freeman was Armistead’s third or fourth wife, depending on the count. He married and divorced one woman twice after his first wife died of lung cancer in the 1980s. Gail enjoyed tennis and trips with her friends to Mexico, Edmond Freeman said.

She and Armistead had known each other since their youth in Pine Bluff, Edmond Freeman said. And after 20 years of marriage there was no obvious friction between them, he said.

“I just don’t have an answer for you about what might have happened,” he said.

Paul Greenberg, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s editorial-page editor, won a Pulitzer Prize at the Commercial in 1969 working for the Freemans and stayed friendly with them in the years since.

“Gail had the most vibrant eyes,” he said. “You knew as soon as you saw her that she was your friend.”

Greenberg described Armistead Freeman as a man of “intense loyalty.”

“He was one of those people who instinctively knew that if a newspaper doesn’t have integrity, it doesn’t have anything.”

When they married in 1990, Gail moved into Freeman’s house on El Dorado Drive. Set back from the street and surrounded by trees, the house is 5,000 square feet, built in 1980 and appraised most recently at $475,000.

Their neighborhood of sidewalkless, winding streets west of North Rodney Parham Road and south of Cantrell Road is quiet. Even a breeze on a heavy, humid morning makes little noise through the bushes and trees.

The neighborhood was, however, the setting for one of the most sensational crimes in Arkansas history. In 1982, Mary Lee Orsini hired two men to kill her former attorney’s wife on Inverness Circle, just southeast of the Freemans’ house on El Dorado Drive. Orsini died in prison in 2003.

Armistead and Edmond Freeman inherited the Commercial from their father, E.W. Freeman Jr., in the 1960s.

According to a 1981 article in the Commercial marking the newspaper’s centennial, one of Armistead’s first tests working there came in 1951, when he was 22. Several production unions went on strike, protesting a faster-printing press. Already interested in the production side of newspapers, he started working as a press operator during the strike.

“I went to work on Thursday, March 29, and didn’t go home or to bed until late Sunday,” Freeman said in the article.

He also spent time as a photographer at the Commercial.

“I used to cover all the wrecks and executions,” Freeman said in the 1981 article. “I enjoyed taking news pictures, being where the action was. I probably covered, oh … let’s say more than 20 but less than 25 executions. That was kind of the low man’s job, to cover the executions, because you had to get up so early in the morning and it was a hard way to start the day.”

Armistead and Edmond Freeman split their duties running the Commercial, with Edmond managing the news and editorial operations and Armistead handling production and circulation. In 1959, he applied for what became U.S. Patent No. 3,022,022, a mechanism for adding new rolls of paper to a printing press without having to slow down the press. It was granted in 1962.

Beginning in the early 1960s, the brothers expanded the area the newspaper covered and gave prominence to investigative reporting and opinion pieces supporting racial equality and civil rights.

“Even though he was on the production side of things, he was interested in what we in the newsroom were doing,” said Gene Foreman, the Commercial’s managing editor from 1963 to 1968 and later managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Edmond Freeman remembered a time when members of the White Citizens’ Council came to visit.

“We went into a back conference room,” Freeman said. “There was a chance the meeting would not go well. It was late in the afternoon. Armistead had, I thought, long since gone home.”

But when the meeting ended, there was his brother, waiting outside the door.

“He was right there and ready to do whatever was necessary to protect me, and he didn’t even always agree with what we wrote,” Freeman said.

The Freemans sold the Commercial in 1986 to the Donrey newspaper chain, now part of Stephens Media Inc. After the sale, Armistead Freeman essentially retired, his brother said. He seemed comfortable and happy, his brother said. Even after his lung cancer was initially inoperable, Edmond Freeman said, Armistead responded well to chemotherapy and learned during one recent doctor’s visit that he was cancer-free.

“But there was something that wasn’t right, I guess,” Edmond Freeman said. “This has been such a terrible tragedy.”

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