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The Unbearable Loss
With the rise in child murders, victims’ families are seeking
legal rights and channels for their grief
By Chip Brown
Life is arrested in the quilt. The muddy pictures of the dead stare
out like faces in a yearbook. Some squares have a bric-a-brac or heartfelt
verse below the dates of birth and death. Forever in our hearts. Under
Raynell Muskwinsky’s picture, her mother, Gilda, satin-stitched
a yellow rose of Texas; the faint red stain is lipstick from where
she bit the thread.
Glen Enright, who would have taken over his father’s business,
smiles from his parents’ family room. Kimberly Strickler is
settled happily on the knee of a department-store Santa. Daniel
Ward beams at the camera in a picture taken a month before his father
shot him in the head. The photo of Elena Semander comes from the
session she hoped would show her potential as a model; she was strangled
by a serial killer. The youngest face belongs to Sam McClain Jr.,
murdered with his mother, Linda, six weeks after his first birthday.
She was found on the floor of the living room, Sam, in the kitchen
freezer, frozen solid, with many small cuts on the soles of his
The keeper of the quilt is Shirley Parish, mother of Kimberly.
Shirley is a warm and hospitable woman, a former nurse, but in parts
of Fort Bend County, where her only daughter was shot in the trunk
of a car in January 1979, she is known as “the crazy lady.”
For ten years she has made no secret of her determination to see
the state of Texas execute Roger Leroy DeGarmo, the convicted killer
of her daughter, a man who testified at his own trial that the guilty
verdict was correct, and that, furthermore, the jury should put
him to death because if he ever got out he was going to track them
all down and kill them too – and if they were sleeping he
would wake them up first.
Many pictures on the quilt are all the more poignant because they
were never envisioned as images of commemoration. Some of the parents
Shirley asked for photos were reluctant to part even temporarily
with what had become their most precious possessions. A Houston
T-shirt shop called Street Smart agreed to transfer the pictures
onto fabric for free, and Shirley got a book of quilting patterns.
She picked out a blue border with a calico backing. A year ago last
February she started sewing. By the fall she had filled twenty-seven
of the thirty spaces. She laid the squares out boy, girl, boy, girl,
like a dinner party, but the pattern didn’t hold, because
there were too many murdered men.
On the second Tuesday of every month Shirley removes the quilt
from her bed and bundles it downtown to St. Paul’s United
Methodist Church, where she hangs it on a stand in a room on the
second floor of the youth building. As people drift in they gather
around it. Some fall to reminiscing cheerfully. Others just stand
there in a kind of stone communion, as if they were staring into
an abyss. The people arriving are mostly white middle-aged women,
but there are a number of men and some younger faces, and you would
not know from their disparate looks and backgrounds what they have
in common, why they are all here – not until the meeting starts
and everyone takes a seat in the circle of folding chairs, and a
grave ceremony commences.
“We will being tonight by introducing ourselves and telling
our stories. I’m Gilda Muskwinsky, president of the Houston
Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. My daughter, Raynell, was
murdered August 15, 1984.”
Gilda turns to her left.
“I’m Paul E. Martin and my son, Todd, was murdered
“I’m Linda Kelley and on August 29, 1988, my two children
were murdered by an ex-con who came into a pawnshop and shot them
in the head. My two children are gona nad my life is destroyed.”
“I’m Gloy Redden. James Goss was my son. I didn’t
say anything at the last meeting.”
And so they go around the room telling their stories, quilt songs,
rote summaries of privation and grief. Now it is the turn of the
attractive young Korean woman.
“My name is Caroline Min and my young brother, Walter, was
killed by two men.”
It is only her second meeting, and she begins to lose her composure.
As a new member, she has been cited in the September newsletter
piled on the table: “Into our circle of friends we cordially
welcome…” Shirley Parish has already had Walter’s
picture inked onto cloth, and she has presented the square to Caroline.
Now, with forty pairs of eyes on her, Caroline starts to weep. She
clutches the quilt square like a handkerchief she can’t use.
“He was supposed to graduate from high school…”
she says. Her last words come out in a vehement sob. “They
didn’t just kill my brother, they killed a part of my life!”
For all the lives that terminate in the quilt, the quilt is a point
of departure, the place from which survivors can start back from
the dead. It is a long road. That nothing is harder to bear than
the death of a child is axiomatic, but the truth is the death of
a child by homicide is a hundred times worse. “You can’t
prepare for it,” Shirley Parish told me one day. “One
minute you’re waving good-bye, expecting to see your child
at home that night, the next you’re looking at a tag on a
toe.” These years after Kim’s death, she still cannot
stop herself from running after a stranger in the mall because a
flashing resemblance makes her think it’s Kim.
Scarcely ten years ago, family members who had been victimized
by a violent crime often felt injured twice – once by the
crime and a second time by the criminal-justice system. Judges excluded
them from courtrooms lest they prejudice juries. Prosecutors dropped
charges or fashioned plea bargains without notifying them. Their
emotional losses were not taken into account. They were shunned,
perhaps out of some superstitious fear of murder, or judged morally
defective when they voiced the natural desire for revenge. Grieve,
but privately, was the message. Express your anger, but not too
loudly. Seek justice, but don’t get in the way of the law.
With nowhere to turn, they turned to one another.
The Parents of Murdered Children was founded in 1978 by a Cincinnati
couple whose daughter had been murdered. Today the organization
claims 30,000 members in seventy chapters. P.O.M.C. is one of a
raft of groups in the victims’-rights movement, which has
improved the treatment of the survivors of violent crimes. In death-penalty
cases, the Supreme Court is reconsidering whether to allow “victim-impact
statements” that describe for jurors the suffering of a victim’s
family. Many states have adopted restitution laws and passed victims’
bills of rights. Many prosecutors now make a point of keeping families
apprised of legal developments. “I was one of the very first
parents allowed to be present at the trial in Texas,” Shirley
But these victories have been won in the face of greater losses.
Murder rates continue to rise, and in the late eighties criminal
homicide was the second-most-common cause of death for Americans
between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Congress, which will
declare August 12 to 18 National Parents of Murdered Children Week,
has been locked in debate over a more substantive response to violence
in America. The Brady Bill, passed by the House, would impose a
waiting period on handgun purchases. And President Bush has submitted
a crime bill that would expand the use of the death penalty, limit
legal appeals for death-row inmates, and permit “good faith”
exceptions to existing restrictions on the use of evidence by police
Congressman Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who chairs the
hose subcommittee on crime, believes that P.O.M.C. is a valuable
outlet and hopes the commemorative legislation will “generate
a broader base of support and assistance.”
In Houston, where there’s a murder every fifteen hours, P.O.M.C.
has one of it’s most active branches. A core of about forty
people regularly attend meetings. Newcomers are referred by police
and victims’-assistance officers. Active members canvass the
morgue and drop brochures off at funeral homes. (“A lot of
men think we just sit around and cry,” said one member.) The
format is not for everybody, and the attrition rate is high.
“Nobody can tell you what to do,” said Jack Enright,
sitting in the office that had once belonged to his thiry-two-year-old
son, Glen, murdered in the summer of 1989. “We needed help
and we knew it. We were going in all crazy directions. My wife and
I went to one meeting of Parents of Murdered Children and we didn’t
get a lot out of it, but I stuck it out, and she started coming,
too. It’s the best thing we’ve done. They don’t
perform miracles, but they can help you mentally or with things
you don’t know about.”
The purpose of the meetings is “to give sorrow words,”
but often parents unburden themselves of darker emotions that can’t
be expressed anywhere else in public. They voice their rage, the
violence in themselves that tempts them to take the law into their
own hands. They are bound as much by the effort to articulate a
loss that beggars description as by their special suffering. Their
stories, repeated month after month, acquire a kind of liturgical
power. As in the text of a Mass, the language is both literal and
symbolic. Even at the extremes of despair, the ritual of telling
the tale reflects some faith in the power of the word. In saying
what happened, somehow there’s hope.
And so, that night newcomers and long-standing members alike were
introduced to Terri Jeffers: “I’m Terri Jeffers and
my son, Daniel, was murdered by my ex-husband while I listened on
A few days later, I visited her at her home in an apartment development
twenty miles north of Houston. Now thirty-seven, she works as a
scrub technician for an ophthalmologist, and lives alone with ten-year-old
Melissa, her daughter from her first marriage. James Ward was her
second husband, and at the time, they had been divorced a month.
He had three-year-old Daniel. She had attached a tape recorder to
the phone, trying to get proof that he was dangerous. She played
the tape of the phone call for me.
Ward’s voice is flat and purposeful, and filled with calmly
insane logic. She is sobbing as she pleads for the life of their
“Honey, I do love you,” he said.
“Don’t kill my baby. How could you threaten to kill
my baby?” she said.
“You want to tell him good-bye?”
“You’re going to kill him?”
“Yes I am. Here he is.”
“Don’t you dare!”
“Don’t you dare touch my baby!”
“Hey, you’re the one who called the cops. You thought
you were cool, bitch. You did what you thought was right, huh? Think
Then two light, flat pops that on the tape sound almost inconsequential.
Terri shut off the recorder and removed the tape. It was raining
outside. I didn’t know what to say.
She had met James Ward in May 1983 through friends of friends.
He was a carpenter, and as she wrote in notes made after Daniel’s
death, “He seemed to be everything I wanted – hard worker,
family man, churchgoer, [and he] liked Melissa.” She said
that his temper surfaced eight months later. He drank caseloads
of beer. Extremely jealous, he accused her of being a whore, and
threatened to cut her hands off. Eventually she moved out; they
reconciled when he agreed to see a counselor. In February 1988 he
smashed he against the headboard of their bed, and she fled to a
women’s shelter and filed for divorce. He received the news
with what seemed to her to be an “eerie calm,” and persuaded
the court to let him have visitation rights. While she believed
he might try to kill her, and Melissa too, she was sure he would
not harm Daniel. When Daniel kept saying “Daddy’s got
a gun and he’s going to kill me,” she reassured him,
“No, Daniel, Daddy loves you.”
At the hospital on August 6, 1988, Terri held her son’s hands.
He was brain-dead, but his heart flailed on at two hundred beats
a minute. She cradled him until the organ-donor team arrived.
Now, two years later, in her bedroom, she pulled down the books
of Daniel, four blue volumes of photographs showing Daniel being
born, Daniel standing up, Daniel wearing a fire hat with a siren
in the crown. Terri paged through his short life: “This is
when he was three – he was so proud that he was tall enough
to jump up and turn off the light switch. And here he’s bobbing
for apples. And this is Daniel at his last birthday, at Show Biz
pizza. I bought him a banjo and his cowboy hat, and some six-shooters
because I had them as a kid. That’s Jim loading them with
The last pages are filled with pictures of the funeral: three days
after Daniel died, she was spending money she didn’t have
to buy him a white shirt, a double-breasted navy blazer with gold
buttons, and a bow tie. She bought him shoes too, even though no
one would be able to see his feet in the casket.
Melissa came through the living room. Terri stopped me from opening
a manila envelope until Melissa left. “She’s never seen
it.” Inside was Daniel’s autopsy photograph: one of
those pictures that register before you mean to look. A .22-caliber
slug smashed open a raw red crater of tissue and blood in Daniel’s
forehead. Jim Ward recovered from his self-inflicted wound. Six
months after his son’s death, he was convicted of murder.
He is serving a life sentence, and in 2003 he may be eligible for
“I just don’t think I can forgive him,” Terri
said. “If it was a drowning, or something accidental, but
to deliberately pull a gun and pull the trigger – to say ‘I’ve
got him now and I’m going to hurt you’… I believe
in God, but I’m angry at God because he’d let somebody
like Jim go to heaven. If he repents, he can go to heaven. There’s
something terribly wrong with that. My heart has been ripped out.
All the plans I had, all the love – you raise your child,
you teach them, you stay up at night when they’re sick. Daniel
never got to play baseball. He never got to go to AstroWorld. One
of my last vivid memories is of him standing in the bathtub, saying,
‘I love you, Mama.’ It’s all I’ve got…”
She began to cry. Every time she opened the newspaper she found
more evidence of man’s depravity. And now the atrocities were
impossible to ignore: “Christopher Kalmbach – his mother’s
boyfriend poured pepper down his throat. Tommy Lott – he was
tortured to death in 1981. I just wrote the parole board. A man
just got fifty years for raping an eight-month-old baby –
she had semen in her chest cavity, her chest cavity had been penetrated.
Another child was thrown out a window and died, and the man who
did it got ten years. A father shot his two kids in the head; that
was the one-year anniversary of Daniel’s death. I listened
to all the little details. Just last week a mother stabbed her daughter
twenty-seven times because she broke a music box. There’s
a lot of us in Parents of Murdered Children who are considered crazy
because we’re talking about what happened, because we’re
not afraid to say how we feel. I just get this rage – how
can these people do this and get away with it? I’m stunned.
I can’t believe it. There are some people in this world that
She was stunned, and that rage which had given her strength also
threatened to consume her. It had eroded her faith. She used to
read lessons at Mass, but after Daniel’s death biblical homilies
made her restless, and the doctrine of forgiveness, the axis of
the New Testament, outraged her sense of justice. She had bought
a .38 with a four-inch barrel – a present to herself one Christmas.
There was a bullet-riddled target taped to the back of her closet.
Parents of Murdered Children helped channel here feelings. She’d
toured death row with members from the group. Campaigning to make
child murder a capital offense, she’d taken her autopsy photo
to Austin to show to state legislators. She’d played the tape
of her son’s execution on TV talk shows. Now she’d shown
the picture to me, and played the tape for me, and as I stood up
to leave she thanked me profusely.
Was it simply that she needed someone to hear her out? To help
her come to terms with the evil she had encountered, the grief,
the pointlessness of her days, which made her not care if she got
fat or ever met anyone again?
It was more than that. One could venture that she was stuck in
her story, telling it over and over, but not getting anywhere. She
was still devoured by rage at what people did – what your
own family could do. Such feelings were only human, but they had
trapped her. Anyone who listened had to know there was a plea for
help in her confidences, her willingness to review the most harrowing
episodes. There was an appeal not that one endorse her bitter feelings
but that perhaps one could show her the way beyond them. There had
been meaning and purpose in the days before Daniel was killed. There
had been peace of mind too. Whatever rage might accomplish (and
she had sworn to return violence for violence if the occasion should
arise), it could not beget peace of mind. However much vengeance
might satisfy her, it did not contain the germ of new life. She
could not build happiness around brutal newsclips and a .38, and
yet she could not get her mind around forgiveness, the untenable
idea that the murderer, who once had been her husband, had a place
in heaven with her son. The rain had quit, and the air on the front
porch was fresh. We shook hands, and Terri thanked me again. Then
she summoned Melissa inside, pulled the door, and threw the lock.
If Terri Jeffers was stuck, her friend Sam McClain had moved on,
or at least seemed to. He had made a new life for himself. He had
remarried. He had a new son. His days had been redeemed, and yet
he still viewed his life through the prism of the past, and on the
second Tuesday of the month, sometimes accompanied by his new wife,
he went to the Parents of Murdered Children meeting, where he said,
“My name is Sam McClain and my wife and son were murdered
and no one was ever caught.”
A few days later I drove out to see him at his house in northeast
Houston. He let me in while Jumbo, his black “bark-and-hide”
lapdog, bounded about like a keyed-up cat. His new wife, Kerry,
was holding their boy, Ricky, born four months earlier. On the living-room
shelf were pictures of Sam’s first wife, Linda Annette Flora,
and his first son, Sam junior.
At twenty-seven Sam was younger than most members in the group,
lanky and soft-spoken, with large liquid eyes. Two years ago he
had been living with Linda and Sam junior in a house in Woodland
Acres, a short drive away. He worked as a machinist; Linda had a
job at a Wal-Mart store. They had been together for a year and a
half, but had dated since high school. The baby had been born prematurely,
and pulled through only after five dicey weeks in neonatal intensive
Shortly after two on the afternoon of August 7, 1988, Sam returned
from a trip to Trinity County. The door was shut but not latched.
The stereo was playing, the air-conditioning was on. Linda was sprawled
on the floor on top of some of Sam’s toys. By the eerie pallor
of her legs and the glazed, milky color of her eyes, Sam knew the
situation was dire. Baby Sam was nowhere to be found. Sam called
At eight that night, after the cops had combed the house, a patrolman
on guard noticed a couple of loaves of bread on top of the refrigerator.
On a hunch, he opened the freezer. Sam junior’s naked body
was curled up in the fetal position, frozen solid. It had to be
pried out. The morgue was unable to type the blood, and the coroner
noted evidence of torture: thirty-three cuts on the boy’s
feet and buttocks, abrasions on his penis, fractures on both sides
of his head.
“I went in to see him for ten or fifteen seconds,”
Sam recalled in a soft, halting voice. “I had to see him –
I couldn’t let them take this object off under a blanket and
me accept it. It was a gruesome sight, but if I hadn’t seen
it, I might have trouble believing it.”
For a week he was a suspect. He was interviewed by detectives all
night, and several days later took six hours of polygraph tests.
No money or jewelry was missing, and there was no sign of forced
entry. The horror of being a suspect himself scarcely registered
as he struggled to come to grips with the annihilation of his family.
“If the police were suspicious of me, I didn’t care.
Their deaths were such a giant idea. It was so big you couldn’t
conceive of it all at once in your mind. I’d go home and pick
a little piece of it to think about.”
Eventually the police ruled out Sam. They videotaped the funeral,
but turned up few clues. Today the case remains unsolved.
A month after the murder, Sam went to a neighborhood hangout called
the Junction with Linda’s brother. He met Kerry, who read
about the case, but didn’t recognize him. She sympathized.
She let him go on. Not long afterward, he asked her to go with him
to a meeting of Parents of Murdered Children. He felt out of place
among the older members of the group, who were in their later forties
and fifties, but he could relate to Terri Jeffers. Their children
were killed on the same day.
Two months after Sam met Kerry, he gave her an emerald ring. “You
helped me,” he said. “You were there to talk to. You
“I had some reservations about getting married,” she
recalled now, shifting little Ricky to her shoulder. “I knew
he wasn’t over it, I know he’ll never be over it. There
are some people at Parents of Murdered Children whose child died
twelve years ago and they’re not over it. I just thought,
this is what he wanted. I knew I loved him, I knew it was going
to be tough, and he told me he needed me.”
“Most people at the meetings are able to tell their stories,”
Sam said. “what I say is: ‘My wife and son were murdered
and I have had a hard time.’ It’s easier to avoid it
than to say my little boy was cut up and Linda was stabbed eleven
times. When I try to wonder what Linda felt, all I can feel is panic…
Sometimes, I get real mad. I drove by the house once; a lady with
a little kid was sitting outside. Part of me wanted to stop and
say, ‘Do you know what happened here? How can you live here?’
But I’ve had a second chance. It’s harder on an older
person. If I’d have been twenty years older, I would have
lost out. I had Sam for thirteen months. That’s not a long
time. I’m wondering how these people whose children are my
age, how they manage. It’s not like somebody being sick. It’s
just all of a sudden, boom, like lightning striking. Everything
in my whole life changed the moment I walked through that door.
I lost my wife, I lost the person I talk to, I lost my son, I lost
the place I lived. It took everything. I almost feel it took a part
of my life sometimes.”
A year after the murder Sam and his brother Jim had leaflets printed
up offering a $1,500 reward. On the night of the first anniversary
of the murders, Sam stayed up all night assembling a model of a
gold Jeep. Kerry slept beside him on the living-room floor. He is
afraid of losing his new family, and insists Kerry spend the night
at her mother’s if he has to go out of town. For months he
used to time her trips to the Laundromat. He moved Ricky’s
crib away from the window. He always phones before he comes home,
not wanting to enter an empty house. He’ll check the closets.
For months it was impossible for him to open the refrigerator and
His keepsakes are few; two pairs of baby shoes, one outfit, and
the blue scrub suit he wore in the delivery room – the smock
stamped with his son’s inky footprint. And photographs, including
the pictures of Linda and Sam that Shirley Parish sewed into the
quilt. And there is the videotape: baby Sam’s first birthday,
June 26, 1988, at Pistol Pete’s Pizza in Pasadena. We watched
it that night, laughed about all the p’s as Sam slipped the
cassette into the VCR. Suddenly baby Sam’s face appeared on
the screen, prodigally smiling. He was dressed in a red-striped
shirt and shorts and a party hat. Kerry glanced at her husband’s
face and at the video. The camera zoomed in on Linda.
“She’s perfect now,” Kerry said. “I can
never be that perfect person.”
Jumbo climbed off the couch. On the screen, the party unrolled
with no dramatic developments. “This is probably pretty boring
for you,” Sam said to me.
“Not at all.”
“Look at this part. He’s on a merry-go-round and somebody
calls his name, and he almost falls off trying to look back over
his shoulder. He’d just started walking. He was killed four
days after he took his first steps.”
On the sound track a voice called, “Sam! Sam! Sam!”
“He’s smiling a lot.”
“He’d smile at anything. You see him there, and then
what happened… You wonder how anybody could… It’s
two totally different deals… I wonder…”
Little Ricky began to fuss in the other room. “I better throw
a bottle in the microwave,” said Kerry, getting up.
“It’s really helped since he came along,” said
When Kerry was pregnant, she had a baby shower; Terri Jeffers came.
She gave them Daniel’s stroller.
“Two and a half years ago,” said Sam, “if somebody
showed me a picture of where I’d be now I’d say, ‘No,
that’s not me, that’s somebody else…’ ”
His voice trailed off; he seemed embarrassed by his frailty. In
some ways he would never catch up to the events that had engulfed
him; he would always be dislocated by his life’s violent turn,
and the tenacity of grief, and the mystery of never having answers,
much less the satisfaction of justice. Perhaps he would always struggle
with the miracle of deliverance too, as the possibility of happiness
now hovered before him in the form of his new wife and son.
The camera zoomed in on baby Sam and then panned to Linda, who
was holding up a large yellow T-shirt, a gift to the birthday boy
from Pistol Pete’s. She looked into the camera and said, “One
of these days it’ll fit.”
Last fall many parents in the Houston Chapter were outraged when
two federal judges ordered inmates released from the county jail
to ease a severe overcrowding problem. When the release date approached,
Shirley Parish stayed on the phone all week mustering a crowd to
protest; Jack Enright called local TV and radio stations, and even
the White House. He had the idea to form a human chain around the
jail. Also, he was hunting around for a coffin, the idea being to
dramatize the impact of violent crime by having the parents fill
it with copies of their children’s death certificates.
By the time Harriett Semander got to the jail on Friday night an
angry crowd had assembled, and sheriff’s deputies had established
a cordon between the protestors and the prisoners coming out. Some
parents had taped pictures of their murdered children to plastic
Halloween tombstones, although the inmates being released were not
murderers, or even felons, but people like the guy who’d been
in jail a week awaiting trial for driving with a suspended license.
Someone handed Harriett Semander a Marks-A-Lot and some poster
board. She didn’t know what to put on her placard, and so
in big letters she scrawled a message that had less to do with the
issues of overcrowded jails than with her own imprisonment and the
story of her daughter Elena, who was strangled to death eight years
ago by a serial killer named Coral Watts. He message was simply:
NO, NO, NO!
And yet more than anyone I met at Parents of Murdered Children,
more than Sam McClain and surely more than Terri Jeffers, Harriett
Semander has divined meaning in her daughter’s death. If her
conclusions betray the compulsion to twist and bend inscrutable
events so that they fit some pattern in our heads, her efforts have
at least produced a kind of reckoning. The journal she kept traces
Holy Week April 1982: The similarity of Christ’s death and
Elena’s was revealed to me – the humiliation, the nakedness,
pain, beatings, and in the end, both were wrapped in a sheet and
taken away. This was on Holy Thursday. Holy Friday was confusing
– whose funeral, Elena’s or Christ’s?
Elena was the oldest of the four kids Harriett raised with her
husband, Zack. Zack taught math, and Harriett worked in the office
at an exclusive Houston private school. Elena was educated there,
a whiz in math, with a talent for sculpture and drawing. She also
excelled at sports, enough to earn a field-hockey scholarship to
the University of Denver. She had gorgeous chestnut hair, and was
flirting with the idea of being a model.
On the night of February 6, a night cold enough for her to have
worn her rabbit jacket, she stopped by a friend’s apartment.
He wasn’t home. It was after midnight. As she was getting
back in her car, she was jumped by Coral Watts, a twenty-eight-year-old
mechanic who had been under surveillance by Houston police as a
suspect in a number of other killings. Six months later, when he
confessed that hers was the fifth of nine murders he had committed
in the Houston area, Watts told the story of Elena’s death.
“Did she fight?” detectives asked him.
“Remember what she said during the struggle?”
“Then what happened? What was this that you choked her with?”
“O.K., then what happened?”
“Then I took her coat and her pants and shirt off…
I tied the shirt around her neck and one end around her leg.”
“What did you do this for?”
“I don’t know.”
“All right, then what did you do?”
“Picked her up and put her in the Dumpster.”
“Remember what the dumpster looked like? What color was it?”
“Gray, I believe.”
“Was it a tall dumpster?”
“A short one.”
“Was she heavy to lift?”
Stripped and hog-tied, Elena was discovered that morning by a garbageman.
Harriett was able to identify the body when she recognized her daughter’s
crooked toe. The only reason Watts was caught three months after
Elena’s murder was that a woman he had tied up escaped while
he was busy trying to drown another woman in a bathtub. IN exchange
for telling police where nine of his victims were, the state of
Texas allowed him to plaed guilty to one count of burglary. He was
sentenced to 60 years; because the judge found that the water in
the bathtub was the equivalent of a deadly weapon and therefore
an aggravating factor, Watts would not be eligible for parole for
Mother’s Day 1982: Love never dies, it just grows. I felt
Elena’s love on Mother’s Day and she felt mine. Our
love continues to grow throughout eternity. What a glorious resurrection
it will be when we are all again united. I wonder if Elena’s
murderer celebrated Mother’s Day and what kind of woman his
Harriett had survived the first years pretending Elena was away
at college. She would sign Elena’s name to Christmas presents
for her other kids. Once, she sat by a pool for four hours watching
a twelve-year-old girl who looked like Elena at that age. Even picking
up an apple could trigger grief: it reminded her of Elena, who was
afraid of red apples because of what had happened to Snow White.
The second year, she started to harness her feelings. She opened
files on Watts. She tried to contact the mothers of some of his
other victims. She mapped out the sequence of killings, drawing
up an elaborate chart, annotating news accounts, digging for information
from the police. She worked for four years to audit a tape of his
confession. She attended his sentencing. And in August 1989 she
and Zack won a $1.1 million wrongful-death judgment against him.
(They were represented by Shirley Parish’s husband, whom they
had met through Parents of Murdered Children.)
“I was at the beginning of the victims’-rights movement,
and the police and district attorney didn’t know what to do
with me. I was asking for things no other parents had asked for.
They thought I was crazy, my husband thinks I’m crazy, but
it was part of the grief I had to deal with.”
When Watts was sentenced, Harriett thought she could move on. In
July 1987 she wrote in her journal: “I find myself moving
out of the ‘justice’ stage to the more healing area
of ‘acceptance’ by sharing Elena’s story…
The type of built-in anger that I can’t seem to shake is giving
way to an inner voice that tells me life is too short.”
Then in August of 1989 she called the Board of Pardons and Paroles
and learned the astonishing news that Watts was Eligible for parole.
The judicial finding that a deadly weapon – the water in the
bathtub – had been used in the commission of the burglary
had been overturned on appeal, and though it was unlikely that Watts
would be released on parole, he nevertheless qualified for review.
“My husband and I are getting old,” she said. “We’d
like to do something together in the five or ten years of good health
we have left. Then one fatal phone call and I’m back in it.”
She alerted the national headquarters of Parents of Murdered Children
to put out the word, and more than one thousand letters arrived
decrying the possibility of parole. The experience impressed upon
her the necessity of unceasing vigilance.
June 4, 1986: I was reading through my journal meditation from
1979 to 1981. So many prayers were written for Elena to find a meaningful
Christian relationship with a boyfriend! I never understood why
the Lord didn’t answer that prayer for me before she died,
when tonight it suddenly dawned on me that He did answer those prayers.
Every boy Elena dated has probably given their relationship Christian
meaning since her death. There is no time element with God.
The Semanders are Greek Orthodox; like Terri Jeffers, a Roman Catholic,
they are as troubled by the doctrine of forgiveness as by God’s
purpose in taking their child’s life. They have struggled
to reconcile religious precepts on life’s sanctity with their
personal experience of evil, which has made them advocates of the
As they are Greek-Americans, I asked if they had read Nicholas
Gage’s book Eleni, which tells the story of how the author
returned to Greece and tracked down the man who had murdered his
mother. In the climactic scene Gage stands over his mother’s
murderer with a gun but does not pull the trigger. They had read
the book, and had in fact discussed that very scene with the author
when he came to Houston to speak.
“I went up to him afterwards,” Harriett said. “I
said, ‘My daughter’s been a murder victim, and there’s
something bothering me. Do you regret not shooting him?’ He
said there were moments when he wakes up and wishes he had. In God’s
eyes he did the right thing, but I don’t know how he did it.
How did he control himself? If Coral Watts was in this room I would
start beating on him. It’s not hate – it’s an
uncontrollable urge to fight back, to protect, to revenge.
“The first time we went to church after Elena’s death,
we had to kneel down and thank Him for everything good and bad.
I had to thank Him for Elena’s death. I couldn’t do
it, not at first. It took a couple of years. I had a list of people
to pray for, the living and the dead, and I had to put Coral Watts
in the living list and Elena in the dead.”
Her husband was staring at a classical clay bust on the den table
– Elena had made it. “Wiping Watts out of my mind, I
don’t know if I could do that,” said Zack.
“When I think of Elena, I think of Watts,” said Harriett.
“I know his birthday. I think about his daughter. I would
like to go back to school someday and study painting; I’m
interested in portraits, and one of the first I would do is Coral
Watts. His face is embedded in my mind. He’s part of my family.”
Could there be a more wrenching introduction to our condition as
pawns of fate than having to cope with homicide? Two cases I heard
about seem now to exemplify the beginning and the end of what is
a long procession of wounded people struggling to go on. A few years
ago, a woman in the Houston Chapter came to the meetings mourning
her murdered daughter. She seemed to be mending on schedule, and
then suddenly she took her own life on her daughter’s grave.
And then there was the late Kitty Yonley, who stands out as the
only person anyone can think of in the Houston Chapter who was opposed
to capital punishment. She forgave the man who had stabbed her daughter,
Nina, to death in August 1979. She sent him a copy of the Bible.
Some parents are stuck; some adjust. Some cannot pick up the burden
of catastrophe; others are able to find grace, a balance between
the yearning to remember and the need to forget. A lot of success
has to do with ritualizing a connection with the murdered child.
For ten years after Kim’s death, Shirley Parish, who had never
smoked before, would start her day smoking one of her daughter’s
brand of cigarettes.
Success also often seems to depend on what sort of understanding
parents can reach about the people who killed their children. To
understand is not necessarily to make peace or to forgive. Time,
which according to the platitude heals all wounds, has in many cases
turned parents into ferocious advocates of capital punishment. Nearly
two-thirds of P.O.M.C. members support the death penalty. In Texas,
a fair number would relish the chance to start the lethal solution
dripping into the vein of the condemned. They know the appeal-laden
process of imposing the death penalty can be more expensive than
committing a murderer to life in prison. They know the New Testament
injunctions against killing, the plea for forgiveness. They know
Camus’s famous argument that no murderer’s deed can
compare with the evil of capital punishment, “the most premeditated
To Camus, many parents would reply that, however great the agony
of the condemned, no doubt exists about what debt is being paid.
A condemned man knows why he is to die; their children did not.
In advocating capital punishment, what many parents seem to be seeking
is not so much the extermination of a killer as an equivalency of
feeling: they want their suffering communicated and shared. They
want the people who murdered their children to know the torture
of their loss. The desire for revenge is the ugliest emotion in
the human psyche, but it often collapses into something almost poignant
– the longing to find a shred of conscience in people whose
moral capacity is grotesquely diminished. Why did you do this? they
ask, and they pore over criminals records and family histories,
hunting for answers, for any trace of that sympathetic faculty by
which one person can know and even suffer another’s pain.
Murder ultimately was a measure of their moral capacity. Many found
themselves wanting. Their innocence had been stripped away; their
values and beliefs had been badly gouged, if not wrecked. For most
parents, murder ruptured the idea of unalloyed goodness. But for
others, honest of brave enough to look within, it ruptured the idea
of unalloyed evil too. Evil was nothing apart from them anymore
– no longer “the Other.” It had stolen into their
homes and seeped into their hearts. They had to live with the vengeful
impulse to return death for death, and, conversely, had to find
the resolve to hold themselves back. In their extremes of emotion,
nothing was black-and-white; the world was a palette of grays. One
could a glibly pay sanctimonious lip service to the idea of forgiveness
as join the ignorant masses clamoring for the executioner. Forgiveness
would never come cheap for parents, but then, vengeance would never
be blind. It was personal. It was, in a strange way, family.
So they marched on courthouses and mailed off Bibles and stitched
together quilts. They did something because they needed to do something,
if only to fend off the full experience of loss. More than from
grief, they needed to save themselves from their own powerlessness.
If murder was a book of lessons in fragility, ephemeral happiness,
the irreversible arrow of fate, the hardest lesson of all was that
life is not organized around human needs; for every one thing they
could control there were a million they could not.
After Captain Bill Edison from the Houston Homicide Division gave
a little talk, and somebody joked that maybe they should get Charles
Bronson to speak at the next meeting, and after the group rejected
the idea of putting the names of the killers on the quilt below
their victims (“Why would you want that scum on the quilt?”
“We can make another quilt and let it burn”), and after
Terri Jeffers made a pitch for the fifteen-dollar heart-shaped lockets,
the proceeds to go to the national organization, and after some
discussion as to what might be done to counteract the anti-death-penalty
slant of a new movie on Home Box Office (resolved to write a letter
to HBO), and after more discussion as to whether the chapter ought
to include a rose when distributing brochures to funeral homes,
the September meeting broke up.
“Ya’ll remember to bring your death certificates next
meeting,” said Gilda Muskwinsky as the circle of friends dispersed.
The cake plates and the truth-in-sentencing petitions were packed
up. The quilt came down. Shirley Parish carried it out to her car.
The air after the rain was clean and sweet. Caroline Min would return
the cloth square fixed with Walter’s face, and tomorrow or
the next day, or sometime soon, Shirley would sew it into the Houston
Chapter’s tapestry of phantoms. They’d likely seen the
last of Caroline. She was moving back to Seattle with her parents
– heart-broken immigrants from Korea. Walter was their American
future. Walter was going to be a lawyer… Face after face,
story after story. It had occurred to Shirley as the quilt came
together that it could never be finished. It could only be kept