(The names, with the exception of my own, have been changed to protect those who
have suffered so much from this tragedy.)
"Religion has ruined my life. I have never had any fun...." The voice cracked. It was my brother Ken's voice, recorded directly after the murders. He sobbed, soul-rupturing sobs that broke my heart, yet again.
Perched in the third row of the courtroom, I listened to the recording and stared at the back of his head. Stoic, seated beside his attorney, he faced the front. His hand partially covered his face, the way it had the past two days of the trial.
Tears gathered in my eyes. My legs, my arms, even my lips shook. I had never heard Ken cry, nor had I known his anguish. Of course, he had never killed anyone, had never been in trouble with the law prior to that awful day in March, nine months earlier. Everyone who knew him, who heard of his crimes, was deeply shocked, heartsick, horrified, disbelieving.
Since then, he had not talked to me or anyone else in the family about the murders. The walls had ears he said; the governor of the state was in cahoots with the police because of the way he voted in the last election. There were microphones and spies everywhere, he said. A shy man, he never shared his most personal thoughts with anyone, not even with his wife. But I . . . I desperately needed to know why he had killed his neighbors and if he was sorry.
Beside me, my sister, Denise, stared at the floor, tears trickling down her freckled cheeks. Tugging her flowered blouse over her tummy, she twisted and twiddled her hands. Our maternal aunt sat next to Denise. Frozen into a series of events with no possible positive outcome, we listened to our brother's recorded words. Outside in the hall our parents waited for the inevitable - their call to testify against their only son, born to very proud parents forty-one years earlier.
"How did we let him get this far?" Denise whispered, almost to herself. Two years younger than our brother, she grew up next to him, though they were never close. If ever he was close to anyone, it was me, the baby sister ten years his junior.
"I don't know." My words were simple, unprofound, pointless. I needed answers, but there were no answers I could find. That was why I defied the order of my brother's public defender and sneaked into the courtroom - hoping to discover why Ken killed his neighbors.
On that rainy March night, standing on his neighbors' front porch, Ken had looked in on a man, his wife and one of their two young children as they watched Billy Graham on television. Ken tried the door. It was locked. He shot the doorknob. He still couldn't get in. Taking aim through the living room window, Ken pulled the trigger. The bullet passed through the man's head and into the easy chair. Knocking out the rest of the window with the butt of the rifle, Ken climbed through, chased the woman down the hall and shot her point-blank in the head. The blast disintegrated the phone she held to her ear. Before his rampage was over he killed two more adults further down the country lane. All four adults died because of my big brother. My big brother. It was still unbelievable. Since then he had been lodged in the county holding facility.
We had not been acquainted with his first two victims, the ones living directly across the graveled road from his house. With the other two victims, Kathy and Maurice McCall, the pain was more personal. When I was six, we attended their wedding at our church downhill from the high school. My memories included images of them and their four children seated in the back row in the church auditorium, Sunday after Sunday. To avoid further heartache we had purposely avoided news broadcasts and newspapers for days after the killings. We couldn't bear it.
Continuing to stare at the back of Ken's head, I silently demanded for the umpteenth time, Why? Why did you kill them?
He said nothing.
At the front of the room the tape of Ken's confession clicked off. The judge called a recess.
My heart lurched. Standing alone near the exit was Kathy McCall's sister, Hazel. I wondered if she hated me and my family. I worried what she might do or say. I dreaded a spouting of hateful words, directed at me, my sister or my parents. I couldn't tolerate one more negative thing.
It had been fifteen years since I had seen Hazel, when she returned from missionary work in Thailand. She always seemed like a quiet, gentle person. But a quiet manner did not necessarily mean a quiet heart, not at a time like this.
Waiting for the room to clear, cautiously my sister and I avoided Hazel and found our way to our parents. Dad's eyes were watery. Mom concentrated on her knitting, a frantic activity to occupy her hands, giving her something to focus on besides the horror. I hugged Dad, then Mom.
"How'd it go, Sissy?" Dad asked, his hand gently caressing my long brown hair. Sadness overshadowed the love in his eyes, love he had always shown me. He wore the tortured, broken-hearted-look of a defeated man.
"The officer who arrested Ken isn't done yet," I said.
"I guess we won't have to testify today, then. Kathy and Maurice's kids were here earlier. They were told they could go home for the day. Those poor kids," Dad said. A lone tear escaped his eye, then another.
I shook my head, wanting to be strong for him and Mom, wanting to tell them it would be all right. But it wouldn't be. He knew it. I knew it. There was nothing I could say to make things better.
Keeping her voice low, referring to my brother's wife and two children, Mom said, "Teresa and the kids are here. They got in last night. They stayed with friends."
Wearily, Dad added, "They're over in the district attorney's office. They might have to testify too."
Slumping against the wall on the opposite side of the hall, my sister asked, "Have you seen them?"
"No. They've been told not to talk to us." Dad's eyes held a wistful look.
Mom pursed her lips, trying not to cry. For months tears had ravaged her face.
When court resumed, my sister and I listened carefully. Again my brother's attorney failed to notice me. Since he said he might need my testimony, I waited anxiously, lest he kick me out. I had yet to be subpoenaed.
That night in the bedroom of my childhood, I lay in bed rigidly awake, listening to the groanings of the old farmhouse. Country darkness obscured the bedroom furniture and everything familiar in the room. I was scared.
Since the murders I had been terrified of an imaginary gunman. He could be at the end of the room or outside the window, waiting, stalking me. My mind saw him everywhere I went and in everything I did. His shadowy image looked a lot like Ken.
Hugging my back to the wall, the way I had when I was small, hoping to blend into the wallpaper, I prayed no intruder would notice me. As a child Ken's pranks initiated my fear. It lived on because of his actions. If my brother could kill someone, anyone could. There was no safety anywhere, not for anyone, not ever.
Ken's words from the tape resounded through my brain.
"Religion has ruined my life. I have never had any fun."
I considered the church services we attended as kids, all the hell-fire-damnation sermons, the intolerant passion of the self-righteous minister and all of the "thou-shalt-nots."
Recalling the psychological studies I read in college, I considered what they meant to me now. According to those studies, twenty-five percent of first time admissions to mental institutions were products of severely-restrictive, religious backgrounds. That same twenty-five percent felt they could not measure up; by violating one small rule they negated a lifetime of behaving in a Godly manner. The consequences - eternal damnation. Their minds short-circuited. The result was mental illness.
I wondered if that was what had happened to Ken.
"Oh, Ken," I whispered, "I love you. I'm sorry you've been so unhappy. I'm sorry I failed you. I must have. I must have. But what could I have done? How could I have known that you were this desperate, that you would do something like this?"
The following morning found me back in the courtroom seated beside my sister and my aunt, determined to avoid my brother's attorney, the attorney who was too busy to answer my calls, the attorney who never kept us informed. His inattention exacerbated our fears, our heartaches.
The testimony of the arresting officer continued, revealing technical details surrounding the arrest. After a lengthy morning session, court recessed.
Then came the dreaded event. Ken's attorney spotted me.
"Violet," he said, his tone parental and disapproving," I must ask you to leave the courtroom. I may need you to testify."
Irritated, frightened, somewhat defiant, I nevertheless complied. Maybe something I could say might help my brother.
When court reconvened I remained in the hall with Mom and Dad. And so the wait began, the unacceptable, unavoidable wait. Watching my parents' misery wrenched my emotions. Nothing they did warranted this mess. They loved us; they devoted their emotional and economic resources to raising us properly.
Why? I demanded of God, Why did you let Ken hurt those people?
God was silent.
"Here they come," Dad said, his expression painfully distraught.
At the end of the hall were two of Kathy and Maurice's children, Christy and Cal, accompanied by their aunt Hazel, the woman I avoided the day before. Christy looked a lot like her mother.
Desperate thoughts leapt into my mind, again. What do I do? What if they're hateful to us? I would understand if they were. Those poor kids. My brother murdered their parents. My brother murdered their parents. Dear God, help us.
Standing beside my parents I waited as the three approached, Hazel in the lead. Her eyes were compassionate and filled with tears. Mom and Hazel clung to one another.
Pulling away, Hazel greeted my father. In a scene of awkward friendliness, everyone greeted everyone...except for me.
"Do you remember our youngest daughter, Violet?" Dad said.
Warmly taking my hand, Hazel said, "Oh, yes, but it's been a long time."
"No. I'm afraid not," Christy said, her brother shaking his head in agreement.
"You were little kids the last time I saw you," I said, jittery, trying not to show it. Amazed, I watched the friendly interaction between my parents and the family of the people their son murdered.
Hazel entered the courtroom, leaving her niece and nephew in the hall. Moving to the half-wall above the stairwell, I stared out the window at torrential rain. Inching in beside me, the fifteen-year-old girl my brother orphaned waited too. Blonde with Scandinavian features, she looked fragile, too fragile to be in the courthouse waiting to testify against a murderer. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to whisk her away to some place safe. Inside, I cried for her. Outside, I attempted a smile.
"Have you seen Loni and Russ?" she asked.
"No," I said, "but they're here somewhere."
"I want to see them so bad," she said. "I've really missed them. I used to be over at their house all the time."
"Loni talked about you a lot," I said, thinking fondly of my brother's eleven-year-old daughter.
"I wrote them a couple times. They wrote back. Loni was having a hard time with what her father did. She was afraid I would hate her. Why should I? It wasn't her fault."
I gave a poor and meaningless response. Christy talked of her friendship with my brother's children.
Finally she said, "When Ken walked by me in the hall yesterday I got scared. I remembered that night.... I heard a loud explosion. Dad, Cal and I were in the other end of the house. Mom was in the kitchen getting ready to give me a permanent. We all ran out to the kitchen to see what happened. Dad was first, then me and Cal.
"I heard Mom moan. That's when the second shot went off, and Dad fell. I started screaming. I remember I just screamed and screamed. When I finally stopped I went to Mom. She was blue and funny looking. I felt for a pulse. There wasn't any. I crouched beside Dad. He was trying to talk. Blood was coming out all over the floor. He told me to turn off the lights, go into the bedroom and hide under the bed. I did. Cal went for help.
"After a while I crept back in, knelt down beside him, and said, 'Daddy, don't die. I love you. Daddy, please don't die.' I leaned closer and tried to hear what he was saying, but I couldn't understand him. I stayed with him for a long time. There was nothing I could do," she said, her voice rising in quiet hysteria. "My daddy was dying, and there was nothing I could do."
Standing beside Christy, I was emotional pulp. In my family we tried to hide our pain. I held mine in, hoping somehow I could help her. I had wanted to help her and the others in her family for months. So, I listened to the rest of her story about how her father died with a gurgling breath, and what she had done until the police arrived.
A short time later she was called to testify. I rejoined my parents seated along the wall. After more than an hour, the doors opened. The small-framed girl emerged, her feet freezing to the tile outside the courtroom. Desolation and fear lived in her eyes.
I knew I should go to her, take her in my arms and hold her close. After all, she had reached out to me. My feet would not - could not make the seven long steps.
From the corner of my eye I saw my dad, the father of the killer, shuffle toward Christy and embrace her with gentle arms. He guided her away from the doorway, down the stairs to the landing and cuddled her against his chest. Clinging to him, she sobbed in the safest place she had been in months. Bending his white head to her blonde one, he kissed her hair; tears slid unchecked down his pallid cheeks.
In the days ahead, both of my parents testified, each further devastated by the ordeal. At one point my brother's attorney told me to disappear - so I would not be forced to testify against my brother. The attorney figured if I was not readily available, they would not take the trouble to find me. Forlorn and alone, I drove around, wandering through the neighboring city, hoping no one would find me, praying I would not have to testify. With the passing of each car I worried it might be a cop, coming to take me back. I fretted about where I would spend the night. I certainly could not go home. They might look for me there. I could not stay with family - family who hadn't bothered to call to comfort me or offer support during all the long months since the murders.
Late afternoon, nearing desperation, I found a phone and called my parents' house, just in case. To my surprise they were home. I was told that the prosecution rested early. I would not be subpoenaed. I had been driving around, frightened, for nothing. For nothing.
The following day I again entered the courtroom, this time to hear the testimony of the psychologist for the defense. He said the label for my brother's mental illness was paranoid schizophrenia, a condition I had suspected. It made sense, but before the murders I never even considered it. For all I knew, the things Ken claimed about other people were true.
The jury found my brother guilty of three counts of manslaughter and one count of felony murder. By that time we were emotionally broken. And Ken?... I still did not know why he had done it.
Ken was transferred to the state penitentiary. Two months later my visitors application was approved. Eager for, yet dreading the first visit to "the big house," I overrode my fear and made the trip, alone. After fifteen anxious minutes in the large pseudo-living room with a dozen or so prisoners, their guests and a guard seated at the front of the room, a door along a side-wall opened. Ken stepped through. Peering around the room, he headed toward me, his shoulders hunched, his face gaunt and drawn, his eyes sunken.
Pain splintered through me as I hugged him, attempting to convey my love and support. He did not respond. After we were seated, he began telling me about the other prisoners in the room, what they were in for, about his suspicions of conspiracies against him and where to look for hidden microphones.
For months after that first visit to the penitentiary, the look in his eyes stayed with me. Haunted by it, I tried to decipher what I saw, what was so different about the big brother I had grown up loving.
My answers arrived as a slow-dawning truth. For years I had heard about them; in church I had prayed for them, sometimes accepting, sometimes rejecting the definitions of "the lost." It was on the drive home, following a visit several months after his transfer to the state facility, that I came to know what the term really meant. Contemplating the look in his eyes and the hunched, hopelessness of his physical presentation, I realized my brother was lost. And lost did not mean what I had been raised to believe it meant. My big brother could not find his way through the maze in his own mind. For him, there was no exit from the distorted thoughts; there were only interconnecting, dead-ending tunnels. He could not find his way out. All lost really means is, cannot find your way.
The court did not acknowledge his mental illness. He receives no treatment. He is warehoused. When he was convicted, the death penalty was in place. We fretted and ached about it. I worried what the strain - the death sentence and years of appeals - would do to my parents, especially since my father suffered from congestive heart failure. A week before my brother was to be sentenced, the death penalty was declared unconstitutional in Oregon, the state where we lived. When I heard it on the radio, I raced to the phone and called my mother.
"Oh, Violet," Mom said, "it's an answer to prayer. I've been praying so hard Ken's life would be spared. Maybe now he'll have a chance to find God."
In the twenty-seven years since the murders I striven to discover what went wrong. I've known for a long time that finding God was not the issue. It was mental incapacity of some kind. But what caused it? That became my question. Was it overdosing on unrelenting religion? Probably. Was it genetic? Possibly. Was it diet? He is, after-all, hypoglycemic; people with that malady are often misdiagnosed as being mentally ill. A change in diet under the guidance of a competent health care professional can erase the symptoms. What about all the prescription drugs he was taking at the time of the murders? Valium, Thorazine, Librium, Stellazine and two others I can never remember. They are drugs with horrible side effects, especially in combination with each other. I believe the irresponsibility of the medical and pharmaceutical communities pushed him over the edge.
And there is another thought - maybe he agreed to come into this life to teach the rest of us valuable lessons.
If I allow myself to dwell on it, I still feel pain for those he murdered, for their families and for my parents who never truly overcame their grief. Dad's heart failed three years after the murders. My sister worried long and hard about everything. She died of cancer two years ago. My frail elderly mother now lives in a nursing home, eagerly awaiting the time she can rejoin those who have gone before her.
Early on, I decided to turn those horrible events into a catalyst. For me, one of the best ways to turn tragedies into positives is to grow through them. It is difficult, but not impossible. My focus became threefold. First, to develop my compassion. Second, I decided to write, third to paint.
My first book, HIDDEN VICTIMS: The Other Side of Murder, the story of my family's experience, was released in 1993. I appeared on two television programs to share my story. I was willing to go anywhere and talk to anyone about it. When I refused to allow network television to interview my mother or come to the community to check it all out, further promotion for the book was dropped. My publisher and agents refused to understand, though I told them going in, that I would always, always protect my mother. That's why I changed all the names. I've seen the way the networks lie about what they are going to do. By the time the lies are discovered it is too late to protect those being interviewed. The networks do it for ratings, for sensationalism, for greed. I refused to risk my gentle mother's well-being. Anyone with any sense of decency would do the same. The book is now out of print. I am currently working on my fifth novel.
As for my big brother, years ago he removed me from his visitor's list, once he decided I had joined the forces persecuting him. These days he writes only when he wants to manipulate me. I do not allow it. I no longer worry about him, although I still care. I love him, a man who committed murder, the brother who dabbed mud on my bee sting so it would stop hurting, the boy who taught me to whistle. I will always love him. I now know that someday he will find his own way, either in this life or beyond, as will all others who live on and attend this schoolhouse called earth.
All the mystery and knowledge of the universe are open to us, each of us in our own way, in our own time. The traumas I've been through, the heartaches I've known, the things I've sorted out led me to the Zen of experience. It is my teacher. When we allow it, experience leads to moments of satori, which leads to what Joseph Campbell called finding and following our bliss. I am following mine.
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