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What evil lies within?

by Keith Morrison, Dateline Correspondent

Even in his drab prison jumpsuit, chained and handcuffed, confined behind a thick glass barrier in the county jail, Sean Goff is an engaging man. Which shouldn't have surprised me, of course.  After all, the man was a minister, a youth pastor, before-- well, before what he did. 
 
We met in the narrow confines of the visitor's center, separated by that barrier, not long after his conviction for a crime that was so horrific it had left more than a few people pondering the possibility for evil in one human soul.  Did I expect his face to betray something sinister or monstrous? 

Instead, the man who shuffled in leg irons to take his position behind the glass practically radiated goodness.  He was wan, of course, pale from his months of confinement during the trial and the long period of preparation since his arrest.  But he was as well groomed, as he was kindly, friendly... engaging.

And he was obviously bright. We talked for, what, 90 minutes? About the Bible, about the theological underpinnings he believed he had discovered for polygamy (a personal error, he now believes), and about many of the endless arguments surrounding Christian dogma. I confess I enjoyed the exchange; Goff is an easy man to talk to.

Then we turned to the murder of his young wife, Joy... his wife-number-two. And that's when Sean Goff's talent for argument took a turn into territory that sounded, quite frankly, as bizarre as it was self-indulgent.  Round and round we went, as he took my questions about his dreadful behavior on a merry-go-round of circular logic. Each answer became a denial -- frequently in blatant disregard of known facts -- of the crime for which he was convicted. He built elaborate excuses for the limited "bad judgment" he was prepared to admit.


Sean Goff with Joy Risker -- wedding photo

 In the end, he said, his religious beliefs dictated his controlling behavior toward his wives.  In the end, he said, it was Joy who was at fault for the horrible bloodbath that ended in her death, that it was she who refused to live by his rules, and she who attacked him.  In the end, he said, it was his commitment to the sanctity of family that led to his decision to dismember and hide Joy's body deep in the Arizona desert.  After all, he reasoned, had he turned himself in; his children would lose a father!
 
 I must tell you, I was not particularly kind in my questions. I called him on his excuses, sometimes harshly. Occasionally, to challenge the sincerity of the religious certainty he pulled around him like a cloak, I was probably unfair.  And yet he never once lost his measured cool.

It became obvious, eventually, that Goff had no intention of confessing the crime he was convicted of inflicting on Joy. And so the interview drew to an end. And then, with his strange calm certainty, free of any apparent sense of guilt -- apparent at least to me -- he told me he has been forgiven for what he did, expects to meet Joy in heaven and has started a new ministry -- in prison.  He smiled as the guards re-attached his shackles.  His goodbye seemed heartfelt.

Sean Goff, some members of the jury had come to believe, is a psychopath, incapable of genuine feeling.

A felt a chill as I drove home. What was the true nature of the man, beneath that charming, deflecting, demeanor?  Does he have a conscience?  Perhaps he does. Perhaps he is merely determined to keep his torment private. And then again, maybe Sean Goff is harboring some evil inside, well hidden behind those engaging public displays of piety and goodwill.

Keith Morrison's report, "Body of Evidence" airs Sunday, July 15, 7 p.m. on Dateline NBC. Click here to see our Web crime files, and to watch more Web-exclusive videos and to weigh in on the verdict.

[Originally posted on Jan. 8, 2007]