Abandoned by Mom, Karen Silkwood's children struggle with a complex legacy

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She was a scrappy, 28-year-old lab analyst who somehow had been contaminated with plutonium. She became a national symbol—a martyr, to some—on Nov. 13, 1974, when she died in a mysterious car crash en route to a meeting where she planned to expose unsafe practices by her employer, Kerr-McGee. Two years earlier, though, Karen Silkwood had made a dramatic exit of a different sort that didn't endear her to anyone: After discovering that her husband, Bill Meadows, was having an affair with her friend Kathy Adams (whom he later married and divorced), Silkwood cleared out of their gray brick home in Duncan, Okla., leaving behind three small children. Before Karen left, Kathy recalls, "she asked me to take care of the kids."

Kristi Meadows, 32, Michael Meadows, 29, and Dawn Lipsey, 28, still have not come to terms with their mother's death—or her desertion. Gathered in Dawn's spacious living room in a five-bedroom home in Tulsa to talk publicly about Karen for the first time, the three close siblings take little comfort from Silkwood's place in history as a whistle-blower who shook the nation's confidence in the nuclear power industry. "I really, really appreciate what she did for the world," says Kristi, public relations director for a Chevrolet dealership in Cleburne, Texas. "I can't appreciate what she did for me, my brother and my sister."

The last time they saw Karen "was on a Saturday morning, and we were watching cartoons," Kristi recalls. "I was 5, Michael was 3, and Dawn was 18 months. She said she was going out for cigarettes and would I watch my brother and sister. 'Keep an eye on your brother and sister.' That's all she said." Months later, adds Kristi, "I can remember hoping and hoping that she would come back and get us. I remember Dad telling us she was dead. I remember being so upset because I knew then that Mom would never come back and get us. That was all I thought—that she would never come back. My mother was gone."

Though Silkwood's death was ruled an accident—an autopsy revealed Quaaludes in her system, which may have caused her to fall asleep at the wheel and run her white Honda off the road—unanswered questions prompted speculation about foul play. She had carried a file folder of secret documents to her aborted rendezvous with a New York Times reporter and a union official, but none was found in her car, and there were fresh dents and traces of rubber in the rear bumper and fender. Her children don't believe her death was an accident. "But it will never be validated, so why worry about it?" asks Dawn, a devoted mother of two boys with husband Richard Lipsey, who manages a Chevrolet dealership. "It's like how we deal with whether or not she loved us. It will never be resolved."

Their father, now 52 and a mechanic in Ardmore, Okla., also regrets the lack of closure. "For their sake," he says, "I wish their mother would have been available to them." Still, he is glad that Silkwood didn't fight for custody. "As long as they were with me, I knew they were gonna be all right and I didn't worry about them."

Karen "lived on the edge," explains Kristi. "I don't think she thought a lot about consequences." None of her children views her as a saint. "My belief is that she did what she did because she was a troublemaker," says Dawn. "I don't believe her intentions were as good as everybody said." That doesn't bother Michael, a finance manager for a Tulsa car dealership and the father of two girls with wife Teresa. "I am proud of Mom," he says. "Whether she did it to become the kind of legend that she became is not really important. It doesn't make up for the loss, though." He shares his only memory of Karen: "I had gotten up before her and decided to make my own cereal. Instead of using milk, I used soda, and she gave me a little swipe." He pauses. "It's sad that you remember a bad one."

The children were told of Karen's death two days after Kristi's eighth birthday. She was riding her new bike when her father called her. "When I opened the door, my dad was holding Dawn, and he had Michael by the hand," she says. He loaded us in his truck and took us to get an ice pop. When we got back in the truck, he told us."

"It was a casual thing," says Michael. "'Karen died last night.' It was kind of like hearing that an aunt or uncle had died. I didn't associate her with 'mother' anymore. I associated 'mother' with Kathy." Michael never told anyone who his mother was. "I kept it to myself," he says. "It's nothing that I want a whole lot of people to know."

After Silkwood's death, her father, Bill, asked Kerr-McGee for $5,000 in compensation for her household goods, all lost to radiation contamination. When the company responded with $1,500, Bill sued. The case dragged on and was finally settled out of court with $1.6 million for the children, minus $1 million in legal and administrative fees.

"I felt it was dirty money, and I spent it as fast as I could," says Michael of the $160,000 he collected. The three paid off their father's mortgage, and the girls financed their studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Silkwood's personal effects are stored in Dawn's pool house in two white cardboard boxes marked Mom's Things. The stash is meager: a few photos, her birth certificate and driver's license, a dried yellow daisy and some costume jewelry. Sorting through it, Kristi looks up at Dawn, who bears a striking resemblance to their mother. "If this was like Oprah," she says, "and Mom walked in, what would you do?"

"I'd cry," says Dawn.

Kristi: "Would you hug her?"

Dawn: "Nope."

Kristi: "I would, but she probably wouldn't hug me back."

"Yes, she would," says Dawn. "I think there had to be some love or else the three of us would not have been as loving as we are. 'Cause we didn't just get that from Daddy."

Joanne Kaufman
Elizabeth McNeil in Tulsa

After braving the blizzard, the Stolpas drifted apart

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It has been six years since Jim and Jennifer Stolpa were stranded in a blizzard on a desolate Nevada road with their then-5-month-old son, Clayton. But it only takes one trip to the mall to bring it all back. "I see some cute dress or skirt, and I can't buy it because I can't wear the right shoes with it," says Jennifer, 27, who, like Jim, lost all her toes to frostbite as a result of the ordeal. "I can't wear heels, I can't wear sandals. I have to wear tennis shoes all the time It kind of sucks." Says Jim, 27: "We really miss our toes."

Those nine days in the cold (after walking for 24 hours, Jennifer huddled in a tiny cliff side cave with Clayton while Jim trudged 48 more miles through hip-deep snow to find help) gave them both a new appreciation for life and pride in their ability to survive. "Living through something like this makes you understand you can get yourself out of a lot of things, even when they look hopeless," says Jennifer.

During the next few years that confidence came in handy. The couple spent several months out of work as they re-learned to walk, and Jim's injuries put an end to his Army career. Medical bills and living expenses ate up the bulk of the money they received for a CBS movie about their ordeal. In 1994 they moved from Northern California to Oak Creek, Wis., where Jim is now a machinist and Jennifer keeps the books for a trucking firm. Daughter Shelby was born in 1995, but two years later the couple, who had married just out of high school, divorced. "I'll always love him as the father of my children, and I'll always respect the fact that he saved my life," says Jennifer. "But people change, and we changed in different directions."

The split was friendly, and the couple now live across the street from each other to make shared custody easier. Although Jennifer has a new boyfriend, Jim isn't currently seeing anyone. "I'm available," he says, "but I don't want to rush into anything."

When not working, he writes poetry and music and tries to think up devices that might help his feet. "I have faith this isn't a permanent thing," he says of his truncated extremities. "But if it is, it ain't nothing but a thing. I'm still here and I'm still breathing. I just walk a little slower, that's all."

Cynthia Sanz
Johnny Dodd in Oak Creek

Scott O'Grady shares lessons learned in Bosnia

When a Serbian missile struck his fighter jet during a sortie over Bosnia in 1995, Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady knew he had to act fast. He pulled the ejector handle and parachuted into a forest. For the next six days he survived by sucking water from his socks, dining on insects and grass, and hiding motionless while rifle-toting soldiers scoured the woods. Finally he was rescued by Marines who'd picked up his radio signals. Returning to a hero's welcome, O'Grady was invited to lunch at the White House. Having had his fill of leafy greens, he turned to his commander-in-chief and said, "Excuse me, Mr. President, if I don't eat my salad." Now living in Salt Lake City, O'Grady travels around the country teaching survival skills for the military. "Bosnia," he says, "made me a stronger person." He wrote of his ordeal in the bestselling Return with Honor and in his spare time lectures about his travails. "Scott was always very private," says his mother, Mary Lou Scardapane. "Now, to watch him share his story is wonderful." O'Grady, 33, whose military commitment ends in two years, sees marriage in his future. But "women are hard to figure out," he says. "Bosnia was a picnic compared to dating."

Buzz Smith rises from the ashes of a volcano

Buzz Smith no longer backpacks up Mount St. Helens. He knows what can happen. On May 18, 1980, the 30-year-old logger and his sons Eric, 10, and Adam, 7, were on a fishing trip about seven miles from the southwest "Washington mountain, which had been shooting light ash during the spring. "They talked about it blowing up, but nobody believed it," recalls Smith, who lived 14 miles away. After breakfast, pumice the size of golf balls began raining down, followed by suffocating ash. Smith led his boys to the base of a cedar tree and draped their sleeping bags over a fallen bough as protection from the ash and the spew of poisonous gas. "I remember thinking, 'This has got to be like hell,' " says Smith. Though they were rescued by a National Guard helicopter, there was more pain to come. Smith lost his home to the eruption, and his son Adam died in a 1990 accident. Smith now works at a steel mill and lives in Vader, Wash., with his second wife, Dallas, 38, who says, "I tell him all the time, God has a plan. I don't think you could live through something like that if there weren't a big reason for hanging around."

For Rodney King, the fight goes on

Even with dark sunglasses and his hair pulled back into a short ponytail, Rodney King has a hard time walking the streets of Los Angeles unrecognized. Strangers give him a thumbs-up as he passes, and, on occasion, police officers have approached him to offer their support. "I even get invited to cop parties sometimes," he says. "But I don't go. It would be too weird for everybody."

It was, after all, the video image of King being beaten by LAPD officers after they stopped his car in 1991 that brought the city's simmering racial tensions to the boiling point. And it was a trembling King who offered his now-famous plea for peace— "Can't we all just get along?"—when the acquittal of his tormentors sparked riots a year later.

Eight years after the beating, which broke his leg and shattered the right side of his skull, King, 33, still suffers headaches and sometimes, he says, crippling pain. He has had other problems as well. Between 1991 and 1995 he was detained by police five times and arrested twice: in Pennsylvania, for drunken driving, and in L.A., for allegedly trying to run over his third wife, Crystal. (They divorced in 1996.) King was acquitted on both charges. His cousin Ontrescia Avarette blames his erratic behavior on "a situation where he had major anxiety and depression." But she also claims that police target King. "They create a scene as often as they can," she says.

King used the first installments of the $3.8 million in damages he won from the City of Los Angeles to start a small construction firm and his own record company. "When they gave me the money, they thought I would be broke right away, spending it on stupid stuff," says the father of three, who shares a small condo with Avarette in the San Gabriel mountains. "But that's not what I did." At present, he is ignoring warnings from his cousin about his next plan: learning to skydive. "Once you've been to the extreme in pain," he says, "why not?"

Riot victim Reginald Denny bears scars but no bitterness

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Reginald Denny calls it his "souvenir." It's the walnut-size indentation in his right temple where his skull was crushed by a brick on April 29,1992, during the riots that erupted in Los Angeles after four white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King were acquitted by a predominantly white jury. "The doctors wanted to fix that, to make my head round again," says Denny, 43, a former truck driver. "But I said no, no, no, no, no. That's the war story. You can't just cover stuff up like that."

The image of Denny being dragged from his rig, thrown to the pavement and then repeatedly kicked, stomped and bashed with a brick and a hammer by at least six men is one few will ever forget. "I had more fractures than Humpty-Dumpty," says Denny, who, in addition to having his skull crushed, suffered blood clots in his lungs and swelling in his head and neck. "All the surgeons thought I was going to be a vegetable."

Even more remarkable than his physical recovery, however, is his lack of resentment toward his attackers—-none of whom was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison. "I was the catch of the day," he says. "Forgiveness is there. It has to be. I don't have time to sweat those guys."

Yet Denny admits that his emotional recovery is far from complete. He tends to avoid crowds and unnecessary risks and describes himself as "withdrawn." "I can tell you, I don't go venturing around so freely as perhaps I used to," he says. He keeps his hair, once long and dyed blond, short now and has let it return to its natural brown. And he's uncomfortable with being recognized on the street. "He was always a very private person," says his ex-wife Shelley Montez, 36, a video postproduction consultant. "Suddenly he was talk over the dinner table. I think it was all too much for him."

Money has also been a concern. As a result of the beating, Denny is susceptible to seizures, so he can no longer drive a truck, and despite having graduated at the top of his class from a marine-mechanics course in 1997, he has so far been unable to find steady work. He scrapes by on the $120 a week he receives in disability. (His $40 million lawsuit against the city blaming his attack on a lack of police protection was thrown out of federal court last May.) Unable to afford rent, he bunks in the home of his former in-laws or with friends. And his social life is nonexistent. "I can't afford a girlfriend," he says.

The bright spot in his life is his daughter Ashley, 15, who lives with Montez in London. They talk by phone every week, and she visits him in L.A. several times a year. "She went overnight from a little girl into a young lady," says Denny proudly. But he admits her new maturity can also cause problems. "Guys look at her, and I give them a 'What are you staring at?' kind of thing," he says. "Ashley says, 'Dad, someday somebody's going to beat you up.' But they got to get in line for that one. I've been there."

Cynthia Sanz
Lyndon Stambler in L.A.

Aren Almon and Edye Smith start new families after the Oklahoma City bombing

For a long time it was painful for Edye Smith to watch small children. It was particularly agonizing to watch little blond boys; they reminded her of her own beautiful towheads Chase, 3, and Colton, 2, two of the 168 victims of the terrorist bomb that ripped through Oklahoma City's federal building four years ago. "Time has helped," says Smith, 26, a secretary turned child-care worker. So have her marriage to Paul Stowe, a cameraman at a local TV station, and the birth January of their son, Glenn "Chase and Colton will never be replaced," savs Smith's mother, Kathy Wilburn, "but the most soothing balm is that baby." Smith has also found comfort in her new friendship with Aren Almon, 26, who lost her year-old daughter Baylee in the blast and who also gave birth last January, to Bella. Smith visited Almon at the hospital. "I take Glenn down to see Bella," she says. "They're so cute together." The mothers catch up "on everyday things, but every once in a while we talk about the bombing," says Almon, who, with her husband, Stan Kok, runs Miss Baylee's Deli less than a block from the federal building. "I still miss Baylee a whole bunch, and I probably will forever."

Burn victim Sage Volkman plans for the future

It was supposed to be an idyllic camping trip in New Mexico. Michael Volkman and his 8-year-old son Avery had gotten up early to go fishing, leaving 5-year-old Sage asleep in the trailer. Noticing smoke billowing up from the campsite, Michael raced back and rescued his daughter just seconds before a propane stove exploded. The flames had eaten away the little girl's nose, lips, eyelids and part of her scalp. "She had one of the worst burns I've ever seen," says Dr. Joseph G. McCarthy of New York University's Medical Center, who performed many of the 64 operations that Sage has undergone in the past 12 years. Now 17 and a popular senior at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, Sage plans to put further surgery on hold when she attends college next year. Her hope is to become a plastic surgeon. In the meantime she counsels young burn victims. "Just because you're dealt this hand doesn't mean it's the end of the world," she tells them. "It's the beginning."

Verna Heath puts a murder plot behind her

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When Channelview, Texas, housewife Wanda Holloway was arrested in 1991, the charge was straightforward: solicitation of capital murder. The motive, though, was almost too strange to believe. Police said Holloway tried to hire a hit man to kill neighbor Verna Heath so that Heath's 13-year-old daughter, Amber, would not try out for her junior high school cheerleading squad and Holloway's own daughter, Shanna, also 13, would have a greater chance of being chosen. The bizarre tale spawned a book, two TV movies and countless talk show discussions. In 1996, Holloway, now 45, accepted a 10-year sentence, six months of which would be served in jail and the rest on probation. She works as a secretary in Houston. Heath, 45, a legal services marketer and mother of four (twins Amber and Aaron, now 21, Sean, 17, and Blake, 11), received a $150,000 settlement from Holloway's insurance company, but life was never the same. She talked to PEOPLE contributor Gabrielle Cosgriff about her neighbor's near-fatal obsession.

I still think about it over and over. Why did Wanda do that? We used to be friends. Our children went to school together. In the weeks before it happened, she asked me to sit with her at a football game, she asked Amber to spend the weekend, and all the time she was planning my death.

For five more years, Wanda lived right around the corner. She'd drive her white Continental past my house, we'd see her at the grocery store, with my kids knowing she'd paid someone to have me killed. It made me so angry. I cried. I was sick. I lost 16 pounds in 12 days. I could barely go watch my son play basketball because I'd hear parents screaming and yelling at each other. I thought, after all that happened, how can anyone fuss over children competing? But what hurt more than anything was that the innocence of my children was gone. Blake was only 3, but he wouldn't leave my side because this mean lady wanted his mommy killed. Once, at the mall, he handed me a toy sword and said, "Mommy, keep this with you so the mean people won't hurt you." Teachers told me, "Verna, we want to see your kids smile again."

I feel that we've taken a trip to hell and back. The movie people just took our lives and treated us like uneducated morons. My husband, Jack, had a stroke and was sick for nine months. I ended up with heart trouble, our marriage suffered, and we are currently separated. People want you to be strong and be an example to others. I want to be like that, but it still hurts.

My children are remarkable. When Amber was going into high school, she wanted to try out for cheerleader, and I told her I didn't think I could go through this again. She said, "Mom, I'm not going to let them stop me doing what I've wanted to do all my life." Now she's a senior at Baylor University and head twirler. But you never know with children. I often wonder how all this affected them deep inside. Blake and Amber have both had health problems, and two years ago, Sean lost a kidney to renal cell carcinoma. Thankfully, he's beaten the cancer, but I can't help but think it had something to do with the stress we went through. I do know this, though. When Sean got ill, Wanda no longer consumed me. I'm alive. Amber's alive. So I think I've finally found that peace. I didn't find it easily, but I realized I'm a mom, I have four kids, and I can't allow it to destroy them.

Jim Jones Jr. battles the ghosts of Jonestown

When the call came, 18-year-old Jim Jr. was in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown, some 140 miles from the Jonestown enclave that his father, Rev. Jim Jones, had carved out of the South American jungle. Jim Jr., now 38, can still hear his father's voice on the shortwave radio that day—-Nov. 18,1978—-ranting about traitors and urging him and his brothers Stephan and Tim to join his Peoples Temple cult in a mass suicide. "He was saying, 'We have to make a stand,' " Jim Jr. recalls. "I was pleading, 'Dad, no!' He said, 'No, Jim, this is it.' "

Within hours, more than 900 of the cult's followers, including some 250 children, had either drunk a poisoned fruit punch or been shot by Jones's security force. Jones and his wife, Marceline—-who had adopted Jim Jr., an African-American, as part of their plan to have a multiracial "rainbow family" (Stephan was their only biological child)—-were dead, along with their son Lew, 20; daughter Agnes, 36; and Jim Jr.'s 19-year-old pregnant wife, Yvette. "I lost everything," says Jim Jr. He moved in with older sister Suzanne, a government worker in San Francisco who had distanced herself from her parents before their Jonestown move. There, Jim Jr. worked his way through college to become a respiratory therapist but later fell into alcohol abuse and, for years, sank into depression every November as the anniversary of the suicides neared.

Last spring, however, Jim Jr., along with Stephan, 39 and now doing temp work in San Francisco, returned to Jonestown for the first time since 1978 to confront his past. (Tim, who runs a furniture business in the Bay Area, declined an invitation to join them.) "It was cathartic for him," says Jim's wife of 12 years, Erin, 39, a nurse. "Now he can voice his memories more easily instead of keeping everything inside." The trip, financed by ABC for a 20/20 special about the anniversary, also allowed Jones to discuss the past with his three sons, Robert, 10; Ryan, 8; and Ross, 4. "It was my childhood, I wanted them to know," says Jones, now a Pacifica, Calif., pharmaceutical salesman. "More important than forgiving my father for what he did, I've finally begun forgiving myself for surviving."

He also tries to focus on his happy memories. "The 1960s, black kid in an orphanage...the statistics say I should be dead, a drug addict or in jail," says Jim Jr. "My father gave me a feeling of self-worth, a feeling that it didn't matter what color I was, I had opportunities." Even in the face of overwhelming tragedy, that optimism endures. "I look at Nov. 18, 1978, as the day I was born," says Jones. "I came back from Jonestown with nothing. God didn't give me anything to hold me back from whatever I really wanted to do."

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth McNeil,
  • Johnny Dodd,
  • Lyndon Stambler.