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The surprising story of Dr. Gilmer and Dr. Gilmer

Benjamin Gilmer
Benjamin Gilmer
Dr. Benjamin Gilmer is the author of The Other Dr. Gilmer

When Benjamin Gilmer graduated from medical school, he had a wife, a child, another on the way and a mountain of debt. He urgently needed a job, and the perfect one presented itself in Fletcher, North Carolina – a tiny town about 18 miles from Asheville.

When Gilmer interviewed for the position, he was surprised to learn that the clinic where he would work was once staffed by a man named Vincent Gilmer. He also learned that his predecessor was serving a life sentence for strangling his father, but Benjamin Gilmer wasn’t spooked.

“I didn’t really want to know much about it. I just wanted the job initially,” he recalls.

The two doctors were not related, but patients told stories that intrigued the younger man.

“They described him as a beloved doctor, a doctor that they considered a friend. His patients called him Bear, because he hugged everyone.”

And Benjamin Gilmer was inspired by the other doctor’s approach to family medicine.

“You know rather than just throwing medicine at someone for depression, he would take them outside on a walk and ask them to look for four-leaf clovers,” he explains.

A cousin was friends with public radio reporter Sarah Koenig and told her about this strange situation. She called Ben Gilmer, and eventually he agreed to work with her on a story – attempting to figure out what had happened to the other Dr. Gilmer.

During his trial, Vince Gilmer argued that he had been taking a common anti-depressant drug that can – when withdrawn – cause violent behavior or suicidal thoughts, but the judge and jury didn’t buy a mental health defense.

Benjamin Gilmer decided to visit his namesake at the Wallen’s Ridge Prison in southside Virginia. Vince shared stories of an abusive childhood and told what happened on the night he killed h is dad.

“His father had sexually abused him for most of his life, and tried to do so that night," says Ben Gilmer. His father was not well himself and had delusions and was thought to be a schizophrenic.”

And Vince himself heard voices that night -- telling him to kill his father.

“And after a second visit where I asked a psychiatrist friend to join me, we came up with a diagnosis for him that explains why he was having delusions that day.

The diagnosis – Huntington’s Disease – confirmed by a genetic test. Both Vince and his father had the disorder.

“You know Huntington’s disease doesn’t make people kill others, but it can destabilize your brain and make people more impulsive.”

Huntington’s is progressive and eventually fatal, but Vince was heartened and began getting treatment for his symptoms.

“For him it was an opportunity to finally understand why all these years he didn’t feel right in his head. His anxiety improved, and his outlook was brighter. Finally he had a team of people working with him to try and get him out of prison.”

Ben Gilmer would spend a decade fighting to free Vince. Two governors – Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam – refused requests for a pardon, but then – hours before he left office, Northam had a change of heart. Unfortunately for Vince, the state did not have a bed in any of its psychiatric hospitals.

“So he’s a free man living in prison right now, despite the fact that there’s a mental hospital just across the same parking lot which is shared with the prison.”

Ben Gilmer continues to advocate for his new friend and for prison reform.

“I had never set foot in a prison before, never knew that 800,000 mentally ill people are locked up in our prisons. That’s ten times more people than live in mental hospitals.”

He’s working with Virginia’s Senator Creigh Deeds to improve this state’s mental health system, and next month he’ll speak to members of North Carolina’s general assembly – his publisher providing 60 free copies of his book, called The Other Doctor Gilmer, for those lawmakers.

Benjamin Gilmer will speak Saturday, March 19 at noon in Charlottesville’s Code Building as part of Virginia’s Festival of the Book.

Updated: March 18, 2022 at 8:59 AM EDT
Editor's Note: The Virginia Festival of the Book is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.