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- April 03, 1995
- Vol. 43
- No. 13
Headlines Fade and Memories Dim, but the Emotional Scars of Violent Crime Last Forever
Teresa Wheel: A mother searches tirelessly for her son's killers
Despite the midday California heat, Teresa Wheel stands stoically on a street corner in the middle-class Los Angeles suburb of Hawaiian Gardens. She holds aloft a sign offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible for the murder of her son Kevin, 19, gunned down on this very spot nearly four years ago in a drive-by shooting. An endless stream of cars passes by, with most of the drivers giving her only a glance, if they pay any notice at all. A man driving a red compact slows to a crawl, scrutinizing Kevin's picture. Teresa tilts the sign forward for better viewing. But as the man cruises by, he shakes his head slowly as if to say, "Sorry."
Frustration on top of anger on top of inexpressible pain—that is Teresa Wheel's life these days. Yet two or three times a month she goes to this corner in the faint hope that her luck will change. What motivates Wheel, 43, is the memory of that night, May 3, 1991, when she and her husband, Stan, 45, and daughter Dionne, 26, rushed to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center after learning that Kevin had been shot. By the time they got there, he was already brain-dead. As police reconstructed the crime, Kevin had been sitting in his car stopped at a light when another vehicle filled with gang members pulled up and opened fire, hitting him five times. Kevin was not a gang member, and though he was white and his killers were believed to be Hispanic, police do not think race was a motive. His killing, apparently, was totally random. "You never get past something like this," says Wheel. "It's a pain that reaches into the deepest part of your soul and tears you apart."
In the year after Kevin's death, that pain seemed only to get worse. "I got so I couldn't think straight," says Wheel, who quit her job taking sales orders for a computer-parts company. "I had an ulcer, anxiety attacks, dizziness. I had suicidal thoughts. I just didn't want to live anymore." By contrast, her husband, vice president at a parking-lot maintenance company, tried to lose himself in his work. "She keeps what happened up front all the time," says Stan, "while I try to push it back." All the same, Stan Wheel acknowledges that, in a profound sense, the death of their son was emotionally numbing for him and Teresa. "Things that used to mean a lot to me don't mean as much," he says. "The worst thing that could possibly happen to me has already happened."
His wife has found some comfort by joining support groups for parents who have lost children. She and her family also posted 10,000 flyers all over Hawaiian Gardens; a year later, Teresa began frequenting the street corner where Kevin was killed. She even made leafleting trips to the nearby L.A. suburb of Artesia, a gang stronghold, and the place where police suspect the killers may live. It was at times risky business. "Gang members would sometimes drive by and yell, 'Get out of here, bitch!' or 'You're next,' " says Wheel. But for the first time she didn't feel helpless. Since Kevin's death, various tips have trickled in, including two anonymous letters naming the purported killers. She has turned the information over to the police, but without anyone willing to testify in court, there is little the authorities can do. "I'm hoping to find someone to help convict these guys," says Teresa. "But people are afraid of retaliation."
In the meantime, the family has moved to a new town 20 miles away, and Teresa has begun a new phase of her crusade: lecturing gang members at a juvenile detention facility in Whittier. David Newman, a parole agent who runs the classes, firmly believes that Wheel's talks about the heartache gang killings cause do have an effect. Wheel isn't so sure. Nor is she sure how much more she can stand being in the limbo of victimhood—weary of her grief, but unable to let it go. "When I first started out, I said I'd do this forever or until they found the killers," she says. "Now I don't know. I just want closure to this. It's like having an open wound, knowing these guys are still out there."
Ellen Levin: The Preppy Murder victim's mom crusades for justice
On the morning of Aug. 26, 1986, the body of a young woman who had been strangled was found by a cyclist in Manhattan's Central Park, and within days the crime that would come to be known as the Preppy Murder was on its way to becoming one of the city's most sensational murder cases. Charged in the killing of 18-year-old student Jennifer Levin was handsome 6'4" Robert Chambers, 19, a college dropout who insisted that he had unintentionally strangled Levin during rough sex. But at times, as headlines screamed "Jennifer Raped Me" and "Jenny Killed in Wild Sex," it seemed that the dead girl herself, rather than Chambers, was on trial. "We buried her twice," says Levin's mother, Ellen, 51. "First she was murdered by this man. Then her reputation was dragged through the mud."
In the courtroom, Chambers's defense attorney, Jack Litman, battled unsuccessfully for the right to introduce Jennifer's diary, which, he claimed, was filled with accounts of her promiscuity. "He told the court that Jennifer Levin lost her right to privacy the day she died," says Ellen. "That was the statement that changed my life."
Six years ago, in response to the traumas of the murder and the ensuing trial, Levin, who was divorced from Jennifer's father, Steven, in 1973, left her job as an advertising executive to found Justice for All, a lobbying group that so far has been instrumental in passage of nine victims' rights bills in New York State.
Chambers, who eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree manslaughter, is now seven years into a five-to-15-year sentence and has been turned down twice for parole—in part because Levin has been campaigning to keep him locked up. At his first parole hearing, she collected signatures from 50,000 people opposing his release.
On May 21, Jennifer's birthday, Levin will again make her annual trip to a Long Island cemetery to plant spring flowers on her daughter's grave. Her efforts to help ease the suffering felt by crime victims and their families are, she says, "the legacy that Jennifer left me. Everyone's path to healing is different. This is not just my job. It's my life."
The Watkinses: A random subway slaying gives a family a cause
For the Watkins family of Provo, Utah, May 15 was, for two decades, one of the happiest days of the year. Sherwin Watkins and his son Brian were both born on that date, and the doubly festive birthday party organized by Brian's mother, Karen, had always rivaled Christmas in the close-knit family of five. But now Karen has another May 15 ritual: laying flowers on Brian's grave.
In 1990, news of 22-year-old Brian Watkins's stabbing death in a New York City subway station appalled the nation. Killed as he tried to stop gang members from attacking his mother during a robbery gone awry (the Watkinses were in town to see the U.S. Open tennis tournament), Brian and his fate loomed as a cautionary tale of the bad things that can happen to good people in urban America.
But the Watkinses lost a son, not a symbol. "When you lose a child, it's totally different than if you lose a parent or sibling," says Sherwin, 50. "It's a part of you who died." Grief-stricken, the couple briefly sought counseling after the murder, which was also witnessed by their son Todd, now 30, and his wife, Michele, 27. (Daughter Emily, now 14, didn't make the trip.) "Mainly we coped by just trying to get back into a routine," says Karen, 50.
That wasn't made any easier six weeks after Brian's death when Sherwin lost his marketing job with a brick manufacturer. He started his own marketing company in 1992, but doubts life will ever be what it was. "I have to forgive those kids for my own salvation," says Sherwin, a Mormon. "But it's a hurt that'll never go away."
Karen, a radiology technology student in 1990, now works at a Provo medical center. But the Watkinses also have nonpaying jobs that are closer to their hearts. Karen occasionally counsels other mothers who have lost children to gang violence ("Losing a son has taught us to be more compassionate," she says), and both work as "gang ambassadors" for Utah's Juvenile Justice and Crime Committee. They talk to school and church groups about the ruined lives of the seven gang members convicted in their subway attack, all of whom are serving sentences of 25 years to life. And the couple, Sherwin says, urge listeners to seek out "the one kid who doesn't have any friends and is teased by everyone. These kids are vulnerable to joining gangs—they want to be accepted. Sometimes all they need is a little attention and love."
The family has also sued New York City for $100 million. Their suit includes allegations that a subway worker ignored their pleas to call for help and that Brian's ambulance did not go to the nearest hospital. They promise to use most of the money to set up "safe-neighborhood" programs in the city.
Lately the Watkinses have been focusing attention and love on one child in particular: their 21-month-old granddaughter Rebekah. Last June, a new Watkins birthday tradition began.
Bartek Frykowski: Seeking dollars from a killer named Manson
How much is a parent's life worth? For 36-year-old Polish cinematographer Bartek Frykowski, the figure is $1.2 million. Bartek's filmmaker father, Voytek, was one of five people, including actress Sharon Tate, murdered at the Beverly Hills home of director Roman Polanski in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson. "Manson ruined my life," says Bartek, whose mother, a Polish socialite, abandoned him when he was 2. "He has to pay for that."
Frykowski brought a 1971 civil action for damages and suffering against Man-son and the three killers, all of whom were convicted of first-degree murder and are serving life sentences in California. He was awarded $500,000—which interest has since plumped to $1.2 million—but received nothing, since neither Manson nor his followers had any assets.
Frykowski later finished film school in Lodz. He married Monika Broma, now 39, a nurse, in 1981, and has two children, Rosalia, 13, and Serge, 9. His L.A. lawyer Nathaniel Friedman, meantime, was renewing the suit every 10 years as required by law. The foresight paid off in 1993 when Guns N' Roses had a hit with a song written by Man-son, "Look at Your Game, Girl." Frykowski has so far received some $36,000 (Manson's share of the royalties, less legal fees and costs).
Since the other survivors did not renew their suits, Frykowski is the only one to get a penny from the murderers. Still, he remains bitter. "I'm sure Man-son is getting money I don't know about, with all the books and songs about him," he says. Frykowski's attorney sighs when he hears the complaints. "Bartek grew up with this thin reed of hope that there would be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," says Friedman. "Well, it wasn't a pot—it was a very small container."
The Bryants: Two numbed lives go on hold after a daughter's murder
On many mornings at 4:30, in the comfortable colonial-style house in Fairfax Station, Va., Wilbert and Emily Bryant wake with a start. It was at that hour on July 10,1993, that their phone shrilled, announcing the tragedy that destroyed part of their lives forever: Their daughter Lisa, 21, had been murdered. "I wake up with the thought that that call is coming in again," says Wilbert, 54, a retired Army colonel who is now Virginia's deputy secretary of education. A man used to order and precision, Bryant remains at war with a senseless act that has plunged him and his wife of 31 years into a minefield of unresolved emotions and questions.
"It's hard to explain to anyone what losing a child means," says Emily, 53, an assistant director in Fairfax County's Office for Children. "There's not 10 minutes in a day that I don't think about my daughter. She was the one who said, if you were dressed up, 'You look so nice.' Or she'd tell me, 'You know, you're really special.' I still have my husband and my son [Lisa's older brother Wil, 30, a sales rep, lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Gail, and 2-year-old Erika], but Lisa took a piece away that no one can fill."
Lisa Bryant was gregarious, gifted and energetic, and her promise seemed boundless. Voted most likely to succeed at her Fairfax high school, she won an ROTC scholarship to Princeton University, where she resurrected the moribund cheerleading squad, wrote her senior thesis on life in military families and earned her second lieutenant's bars in the Army ROTC. She intended, after four years of mandatory military service, to go to law school. "Plan as if you will live forever," she wrote in her Princeton yearbook, "live as though you will die tomorrow." A month after graduation, in the hallway of her barracks at Fort Bragg, N.C., where she was waiting for her assignment in the Corps of Engineers, Lieutenant Bryant was shot four times in the face with a .357 Magnum pistol. She was the first of Princeton's graduating class of '93 to die.
Although there were no witnesses to the shooting, Ervin Graves, then 33, a sergeant who lived down the hall from Lisa, was convicted by a military court of attempted rape and murder. He had been drinking heavily on the night of the killing, and Lisa had declined when he asked her to dance at a post bar where enlisted and commissioned personnel were allowed to mix. (Graves, who never admitted guilt, is serving a life sentence in Leavenworth, Kans. He escaped the death penalty because the military jury was not unanimous.)
The Bryants have learned to live with memories of Lisa. Although they cannot yet bear to watch family videotapes, Lisa's cheerleading megaphone and her beloved T-shirt collection have been saved. "I see them and my heart just dies," says Emily. "But I can't get rid of them." Other memories come unbidden and without warning. "When you're driving and you glance at someone, you see a dress, a hairdo, the color of lipstick," says Emily. "It's just all there."
Lisa was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery (family friend Gen. Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended her memorial service), yet she is alive, in a way, in the Bryants' home. "We're very comfortable talking about her, even though it makes some people uncomfortable and some people would like to forget it," Emily says. "But as long as we have the opportunity to talk about her, to include her, we will be happy."
Their grieving, though, is done in private. Support groups for parents who have lost children could not comfort, and social occasions, aside from those involving close friends and family, have been largely cut out—cocktail chatter is too awkward. The Bryants also avoid reading the front page of the paper, where murders are reported. Although initially sorrow strained their relationship, the couple have learned to give each other room to mourn. "If he comes in when I'm falling apart," says Emily, "he gives me the support I need." Wilbert has his own rituals. He visits Lisa's grave each week, and, he says, "I don't tell Emily, but I go up to Lisa's bedroom and lay across the bed for half an hour."
The Bryants' anger too remains intense. Questions were raised at the time of Lisa's death about the Army's cost-cutting policy of allowing enlisted and commissioned personnel to share barracks and facilities. But Wilbert's emotions are more elemental. "Even when I was in Vietnam, I didn't feel the rage for the Vietcong I feel for this man," he says. "I'm a nonviolent person, but this murder has made me into somebody I'm not. The military better keep him locked up because there are a lot of people who are angry at him." Adds Emily: "When you're the victim, there's almost no justice. Someone has lost a loved one, and this criminal's going to come back out, to get to laugh, be happy and carry on like anybody else, when he's taken a life? It doesn't make sense.'
Although they go through the motions of everyday life, for the Bryants it seems there can be only one sure closure for their grief. "On one of my trips to Lisa's grave, I realized that we're all going to die sometime, and she just went earlier," says Emily. "I guess what is comforting is to know that I will be right there with her one day."
Renee Katz: A flutist's devastating injury inspires a new direction in life
She was late for school that morning of June 7, 1979. So Renee Katz, 17, a talented flutist at Manhattan's prestigious High School of Music and Art, stood at the edge of a 50th St. subway platform in Manhattan, impatient to board the incoming train. "There was a thud," says Katz, now 33. "Then I was under the train. I realized that my hand was severed. I yelled for my mother. I yelled that I wanted to go to college, that I was a musician."
Surgeons at Bellevue Hospital performed a 16-hour reattachment operation on Katz's right hand that seemed miraculous at the time and brought her the kind of front-page celebrity she would never have sought. Although her career as a flutist was over and she has had to learn to write and eat with her left hand, she can now perform after six more surgeries and hundreds of hours of therapy, such mundane tasks as shifting gears in her car. "Her life changed in a split second," observes occupational therapist Pat Casler, "but that wasn't going to stop her." Nor was it going to rob her of her considerable store of compassion. "There is always an area within yourself that you can develop and give to other people," she says.
A few months after she was shoved, a CBS office clerk was arrested, but he was acquitted after he established an alibi. No one else has ever been charged. Katz, who was married in 1981 and divorced nine years later, now shares a New York City apartment with fiancé Brad Borst, 31, a chef and law-enforcement student. She works as an occupational therapist. "I have a special understanding that I can bring to others," she says. Meanwhile, a second career, as a cabaret singer, is taking off. She is a hit at Eighty-Eight's in Greenwich Village. She attributes her grit to her parents, Rose, 59, a composer, and Isidore, 69, owner of a clothes-pattern business. "My father is a Holocaust survivor," says Katz. "If he could survive and keep going, so could I."
Adelina Hernandez: For a massacre victim's mother, permanent pain
Joshua Coleman doesn't think about the 1984 McDonald's massacre much anymore. When he does, the 21-year-old Pine Valley, Calif., ironworker remembers it with cool distance and startling clarity—the bullet holes in his arm, the gushing blood, the heat of the pavement as he lay beside the bodies of his friends Omarr Hernandez and David Flores, both then 11. "I'm fortunate," he says. "I still think about Omarr and David. But the shooting doesn't bother me. Life goes on."
Talk to the Hernandez and Flores families, though, and they will tell you just how it goes on: in a considerably altered state, one that is emptier, chillier, grayer. "Things will never be the same," says David's mother, Maria Flores, 44. It was on a sultry July afternoon in 1984 that the three boys bicycled to the McDonald's in their hometown of San Ysidro, Calif., near the Mexican border, for ice cream. What they got was a 77-minute bloodbath. By the time a police sniper had shot the killer, an unemployed security guard firing from inside the restaurant, he had murdered 21 people and wounded 19 more.
When Omarr died, says Adelina Hernandez, her husband, Fernando, 66 and a retired telephone worker, "stopped living in a way. The only happiness he has now is keeping up the burial plot at the cemetery." Adelina, 63, briefly tried therapy and tranquilizers. But the best medicine was returning to work as a lunchtime supervisor at San Ysidro's Sunset Elementary School—Omarr's school. "It lifted my spirits to be around the children," she says simply.
Maria Flores too was stunned by her son's senseless death. In the months that followed, she says, "I would go to other funerals, people I didn't even know."
The strain of the tragedy dealt a final blow to her already rocky marriage. A cosmetologist, Flores believes her grief has been eased by a new family—two sons, ages 5 and 2, with a Tijuana attorney—and by a comforting friendship with Adelina. Still, she says, she feels a qualm when she sees children on bikes. "I look at them and think, 'They are happy now, but I wonder what will happen in the future.' You never know."
David Collins: A son's disappearance fires his father's crusade
David Collins knows how many flyers printed on 20-pound bond paper can be mailed for 32 cents. He knows how to set up a bank of phones and how to organize volunteers to answer them. And he knows how. to deal with private detectives, psychics, reporters and police.
Collins, 55, knows all this from 11 years of searching for missing children, a search that began when his own 10-year-old son, Kevin, disappeared one afternoon in 1984. "I'm certain he's dead," Collins admits, "but in the back of my head is a little piece that says he could be a street person somewhere."
Before his crusade began, Collins was in nursing school. (He'd previously held a succession of jobs, from bus driver to postal clerk.) His wife, Ann, now 55, was studying to be a medical assistant, and the couple was living happily in the working-class Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco, raising their eight children and one foster child.
Then on Feb. 10, 1984, their sixth child, Kevin, left the St. Agnes Catholic School gym after basketball practice, stepped outside to catch a bus home—and vanished forever.
The Collins family and hundreds of St. Agnes parents immediately hit the streets. Before they were finished, Kevin's face was pictured on local flyers, highway billboards and even the cover of Newsweek. But in the end, not one useful lead turned up—only other parents asking how to get attention for their missing kids. So many contacted the Collinses that in 1984 they created the Kevin Collins Foundation for Missing Children to help organize searches, to lobby for new laws—and sometimes simply to listen to terrified parents whose kids have disappeared. "They need to tell their story to somebody," says Collins. "They need emotional support that can only be given by someone who's been through it."
Ann eventually left the foundation to begin a secretarial job. "We had our other children," she explains. "They had lost us, in a way" And, in a way, they never have gotten their father back. "For David, it was almost immediate," she says. "Like that was his career, his lifework." The couple separated in 1989 and divorced amicably two years later. Collins sees his kids regularly, and they understand his dedication to the foundation. Even now, more than a decade after the loss of Kevin, Collins shows no sign of ceasing his quest. "There are too many people depending on what I do," he says. "Now I could never leave."
Larry Park: Beating back rage after the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping
"I was very violent," recalls Larry Park, 25, a 6'2", 250-lb. bearded former youth-prison inmate. "My mom was afraid of me, and she was right. I could have seriously hurt somebody." Park's descent into rage began in 1976, a product of one of the most notorious crimes of the decade. The school bus that was carrying the 6-year-old in Chowchilla, Calif., a tiny farming community 60 miles northwest of Fresno, was hijacked by three men. Park was one of 26 students, aged 5 to 14, who, along with bus driver Ed Ray, were later sealed in a truck that was buried in a gravel pit. (An unsent note demanding $5 million in ransom was later found.) After 16 hours of oppressive heat and darkness, Ray and some of the older students managed to claw their way out.
Fred Woods, whose father owned the quarry where the children were buried, and Richard and James Schoenfeld, sons of a wealthy podiatrist, all in their mid-20s at the time, are now serving life sentences for kidnapping. "There's been a lot of fears that I wouldn't have without the kidnapping," says Park. "I had nightmares, I was petrified of the dark, and I always thought people were trying to get the better of me—even if they weren't."
Some other survivors suffered bouts of depression and addiction. Park's sister Andrea, 26, a college student, refuses to speak about it. Says their father, Rodney, a tour bus driver at Yosemite National Park: "Larry had some discipline problems before because he was hyperkinetic, but nothing to the way he was afterward." By ninth grade, Park was arrested on charges he will not discuss (his youth-court records are sealed) and spent five years in California youth prisons, where he uncovered his rage in group therapy. "I was too angry to cry," he says. "Once I realized what it was about, they taught me how to deal with it."
Now a full-time student at Merced College in California, Park hopes someday to go to medical school. He recently broke up with his girlfriend of three years and lives with his sister in a neat, two-story house in Chowchilla. "I can discuss the kidnapping now," says Larry, "without getting angry."
Two cops' families: Haunted still by the Onion Field murder
She has just two faint but precious mental snapshots of a father who was gunned down when she was only 3 ½. "I remember him carrying me on his shoulders. And I remember me running through the house and waking him up one morning," Valerie Campbell, 35, says of her late father, Ian Campbell, the Los Angeles police officer whose execution-style murder inspired Joseph Wambaugh's bestseller—later a 1979 film—The Onion Field. Though her memories of her slain parent are dim, the hatred Campbell has had for her father's convicted killer, Gregory Powell, burns as brightly as ever. "There's the chance he'll be released," she says. "But as long as I'm breathing, I'll try to see that he isn't."
On the night of March 9, 1963, Powell, then 29, and Jimmy Lee Smith, 32, both seasoned armed robbers, made an illegal U-turn while driving around Hollywood. They were pulled over by Officer Campbell and his partner Karl Hettinger. But as Powell stepped out of the car, he pulled a pistol on Campbell and ordered Hettinger to surrender his gun. At Campbell's urging, Hettinger complied. Then he and Campbell were forced into a stolen car, which the thieves made Campbell drive north to a deserted dirt road near Bakersfield. There, Powell dragged Campbell, 30, outside and shot him in the mouth. Hettinger, 28, screamed, fled down a road and hid in the darkness of a nearby onion field as Powell pumped four more slugs into his partner.
Powell and Smith were eventually sentenced to death—but after California courts overturned capital punishment, both received life terms. Smith was released in 1982, though he has been in and out of prison several times since, mainly on drug charges. That same year, Powell too was scheduled for parole, which turned Valerie Campbell into an activist. She and her mother, Adah, who died in 1990, led a massive petition drive that helped persuade the state to keep her father's killer locked up. Now 61, Powell has been denied parole ever since.
A part-time clerk, Campbell has been married since high school—she prefers not to divulge her married name—and has two daughters. In 1982 she cofounded Justice Administration Watch, a California group that has lobbied against the release of violent criminals. "I don't believe in rehabilitation, not for violent offenders," she says.
The Onion Field, of course, is a tale of two victims. For although Hettinger escaped, the ordeal "ruined his life," says his widow, Helen, 52. He spun into a depression after the incident—to the point of contemplating suicide—and his death from liver failure last year, at 60, was doubtless hastened by a drinking problem he refused to acknowledge. Hettinger also developed into a compulsive shoplifter and was asked to resign from the LAPD in 1966 after stealing a pack of cigars from a supermarket. "He didn't even smoke," says Helen, shaking her head. "It was a cry for help." Their daughter Christine, 28, says her father once confided that "he never went to sleep without having that nightmare—waking up in a cold sweat, hearing [Campbell] scream and seeing the blood spatter."
After leaving the police—and moving to Bakersfield—Hettinger went on to become a manager at a plant nursery and later entered local politics, serving as Kern County supervisor from 1987 until 1992. "It didn't heal him," says his widow. "He kept everything inside."
To all appearances, Helen and her children—Laurie, 31, Kurt, 30, and Christine—are similarly stoic. "But we have a lot of anger," says Helen. "People used to ask what would happen if Powell came knocking on our door. I would really love him to." So, it seems, would daughter Christine. "I'd welcome him," she says bitterly. "I have a bullet with his name on it."
Betty Jane Spencer: Her children slain, she helps other victims
It was just after midnight on Valentine's Day 1977 when four shaggy-haired young men wielding sawed-off shotguns burst through the doors of Betty Jane Spencer's farmhouse in Hollandsburg, Ind. She thought at first it was a prank concocted by her son, Greg Brooks, 22, and her three teenage stepsons, and she clung desperately to that belief as the gunmen ordered her and her sons to lie facedown on the floor—until the first shots rang out. " 'Oh, God, I'm flying,' " Spencer remembers Greg moaning. "I felt him die against my body." The killers moved on, fatally shooting her stepsons Raymond, 18, Reeve, 16, and Ralph, 14, and spraying bullets at Spencer's head and back. Though her scalp was only grazed, the wig she was wearing flew off, and the killers left her for dead.
Afterward, Spencer often wished they'd been right. When her 12-year marriage to Keith Spencer, a radio engineer who had been working at the time of the shooting, collapsed under the weight of their grief, "I felt put out to pasture," she says. "I'd lost the role of mother, and now I wasn't a wife anymore." Still, she adds, "I needed to make those boys' deaths mean something. Their killing had been so senseless." The four gunmen, ages 17 to 23, decided to embark on a thrill killing after vie wing Helter Skelter, the TV movie about Charles Manson. They warmed up by shooting a dog the afternoon of Feb. 13, then picked the Spencers' house at random. All are now serving life sentences.
After the trial, Spencer cofounded Protect the Innocent, a victims' rights organization that worked for the enactment of anticrime laws in Indiana and other states that in part make it more difficult for violent criminals to get early parole. Today, Spencer, 62, who lives outside Atlanta, is the victims' rights coordinator for Georgia's Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "By now," she says, "I'd have a house full of grandchildren." Instead, she has a mission. "Sometimes I think God must be preparing me for something really big," says Spencer. "He's trying to see how much I can take. Well, I'm still going."
Willie Mae Mathis: For one mother, a painful case remains open
In February 1981, when police discovered the body of Willie Mae Mathis's 10-year-old son, Jefferey, in a wooded area of south Atlanta, her greatest fear was that his killer might never be caught. Now, 14 years later—14 years after the arrest of his alleged murderer—Willie Mae Mathis, 47, still has that fear.
In 1981 authorities picked up Wayne Williams, 23, a photographer and aspiring music promoter, and accused him of a two-year series of killings that had terrorized Atlanta and left at least 29 young blacks dead. Though Williams was convicted of only two of the murders, police insisted he was linked to most of the other victims. As a result, as soon as Williams was arrested, the police investigation into the other homicides quickly wound down. "Wayne Williams was and is a scapegoat," says Mathis. "There's no way he could have done so much harm to so many."
At his trial, Williams was convicted largely on the basis of a few key pieces of circumstantial evidence. The first turned on the fact that he had been stopped for questioning late one night near a bridge after a police officer heard a splash in the river that ran underneath. Though Williams was allowed to go, the nude body of 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater was found two days later floating downstream. (A witness later testified that he had seen Williams and Cater leaving a movie theater hand in hand shortly before Cater disappeared.) But the most controversial evidence against Williams came from forensic experts who testified that unique carpet fibers taken from Williams's car, as well as hairs from his dog, closely matched some of the microscopic fibers found on several of the bodies.
While many of the investigators working on the case ultimately came to believe that Williams was responsible for some of the deaths, including the two for which he was convicted, they had qualms about linking him with such a large number of killings on such tenuous grounds. "Most detectives I know will always doubt Wayne Williams committed all of those murders," claims Jim Rowell, 46, a homicide detective with the DeKalb County police who reported to the massive task force that investigated the crimes. "The evidence just wasn't there."
In recent years the doubts about Williams's guilt in many of the cases have only deepened. It turned out, for instance, that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation suppressed tape-recorded evidence suggesting that members of the Ku Klux Klan might have been involved in some of the killings. Critics also contend other potential suspects weren't fully investigated.
State Attorney General Michael J. Bowers continues to defend the case against Williams. Mathis, a widow with six surviving children, has tried to press officials into reopening the cases. In the process, she has become friendly with Williams, who has maintained his innocence all along. She fully supports his latest appeal for a retrial, for only when he is released, believes, will the city be forced to find the real killer of her son. "The mayor said that no stone would be left unturned," she says. "Well, we got big boulders raining down on us, and I still don't see them doing anything."
April Bruffy: Struck by a drunk driver, she's scarred and still angry
She first laid eyes on him in the Florida courtroom where he was sentenced to 17 years in prison. What struck April Bruffy then was that Bruce Kimball didn't look the part. "He was so little," she says. "I guess I thought he'd be big because of the damage he'd done."
Bruffy has made an impressive recovery since the night nearly seven years ago when the drunken Kimball, a 1984 Olympic medalist in diving, slammed his father's Mazda into her and four other pedestrians on a Brandon, Fla., road. Though her doctors feared she might not walk again, Bruffy, 25, teaches aerobics. But she hasn't fully healed. "I have anxiety attacks," she says. "I hate seeing headlights at night. I'm not the person I was." The most painful proof of that, in her eyes, is the disfigured leg she hides from the world. "My leg looks like a shark ate it—I won't wear shorts or dresses or go to the beach."
Yet she knows she was lucky. On that night of Aug. 1, 1988, Bruffy, a recent high school grad, had just arrived at the end of the cul-de-sac her crowd called the "spot" and was standing with a group when she glanced up and saw Kimball's headlights. An instant later she was thrown 50 feet, her right leg shattered below the knee. Two others were also injured, and two young men died at the scene. "For a long time afterward," says Bruffy, "I felt guilty I'd survived." Seventeen days later, when Kimball, then 25, competed in the 1988 Olympic trials and missed the cut, Bruffy was still hospitalized and in danger of losing her leg. "I've never been madder," says her father, Larry, a retired Army sergeant.
Back home with her father and her mother, Rita, April's anger grew. Along with the other victims and their families, she sued Kimball (who had pleaded guilty to DUI-manslaughter) and won a $1.3 million group settlement. She enrolled in college in 1989, then quit because her 13 surgeries took so much of her time. In 1990 she married department-store salesman Robert Shepherd. They had a daughter, Tayler, now 3, and divorced last year. "Because of the accident, I didn't have a fair chance to get my life the way I wanted it," says Bruffy. "Getting married early didn't help."
Meanwhile, Kimball, who, ironically, had been injured by a drunk driver himself in 1981, went through drug and alcohol counseling, won a sentence reduction and was released from prison in 1993. Now studying social work at the University of Illinois, he rarely discusses the accident and has never spoken with his victims. (In 1990, in his only public statement about his crime, he told the Tampa Tribune, "I want people to know that I am sorry for what I've done, and I'm trying to change my life.")
Bruffy says she has "accepted and gone on." But sometimes she still finds herself wondering why Kimball isn't a bigger man. "He could write a letter of apology," she says. "That might help me understand him. Because I don't."
Carolyn McCarthy: Voicing anguish and ire on a day of reckoning
She had specifically reminded her husband and son to put up the family Christmas tree, so when Carolyn McCarthy returned to their Mineola, N.Y., home on the evening of Dec. 7, 1993, and found the tree still outside, "I thought, 'Those guys! They didn't put it up!' " she recalls. Then her brother Tommy walked out and met her in the driveway. "He thought I had heard already," she says quietly. "I hadn't."
What McCarthy hadn't heard was that a gunman named Colin Ferguson had opened fire on a crowded New York commuter train, killing six and wounding 19. Her husband of nearly 30 years, Dennis, 52, a broker, was killed in the attack. Her son Kevin, 27, shot in the head and hand, was not expected to live.
At Ferguson's three-day sentencing hearing in a Long Island courtroom last week (he effectively received life without parole), McCarthy, with Kevin at her side, was one of more than a dozen victims to give emotional testimony about the crime's terrible impact. "[Today] started off as every morning: I had to help Kevin get dressed," said McCarthy, as her son broke down in tears. "But I couldn't put on his tie. I couldn't get on his shoes. That's where his father should have been. His father should be here—with us." Throughout the victims' testimony, Ferguson remained oddly impassive, but at times even his legal advisers—like most of those in the courtroom—wept.
Today, after more than a year of therapy, Kevin's left side is partially paralyzed, he wears a leg brace, and a titanium mesh plate has replaced part of his shattered skull. Yet more troubling than his physical scars is "the emotional pain that comes up," he says. "It's dealing with becoming handicapped and with losing my dad."
His mother, a registered nurse, plans—along with most of Ferguson's other victims—to sue manufacturers of the semiautomatic pistol and hollow-point bullets used in the attack. She has also become an impassioned lobbyist for improved gun control. "I'm not going to let my husband die in vain," she says. "Dennis was my greatest supporter."
In her fight, McCarthy draws on the courage of her son, who, despite a grueling therapy schedule, hopes to return soon to his job as a Wall Street securities trainee—the same job he was traveling home from on the day of the attack. Commuting, he insists, will not be a problem. "I'll take the train," says Kevin matter-of-factly. "There's no other way to get to work."
Diana Wood: After years of suffering, a widow finds new hope
At the time, it seemed inconceivable that anything redeeming could come out of the cold-blooded murder of a promising young pediatric surgeon. But now, 13 years after John Wood Jr., 31, was shot and killed in a street-corner robbery, his widow believes she has found some salvation during the long aftermath of the crime. "In a way," she says, "his death impelled me to do something that I would not have been able to do had he not died."
On the night of Nov. 2, 1981, Diana Wood, a 24-year-old surgical nurse, five months married and pregnant with her first child—seemed destined for a comfortable life as a doctor's wife. That evening, her husband, a popular resident at Manhattan's Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, came home to visit his wife, then set out on the eight-block walk back to work. On the way, at 8:45 p.m., police believe that three men accosted him, shot him in the chest with a .22-caliber handgun and stole his wallet containing $5. Ninety minutes later, Wood was pronounced dead at the very hospital where he worked. "I felt sorry for me when it happened," Diana Wood later said. "John was my whole emotional investment—the life we were going to have together, the child we were going to have."
The following March, John Chase Wood III was born. Six months after that, on what she describes as "an impulse," Wood herself decided to become a doctor, and in 1988, aided by tuition assistance and money from her husband's life insurance, she graduated from Columbia's medical school. In time, though, she began to realize that her involvement in her own education and career had shielded her from the full impact of her husband's death. "It was just too much to think about," she admits, "so I didn't." But on July 30 last year she had little choice but to think about it again when Patrick McDowell, a 30-year-old unemployed janitor who had served 10 years in prison for another killing, was arrested and charged in John's death. (Police expect to indict a second suspect this month.)
On March 18, Wood, now an anesthesiologist in Burlington, Mass., married Gregg Dunphy, 35, a computer consultant, and is optimistic about her future. "To love Gregg, I had to open up to emotions I had pushed aside," she says. But she concedes that the prospect of McDowell's upcoming trial is finally forcing her to come to terms with an inestimable loss. "What I have to face is not just what I lost, but what everybody lost," she says softly. "John Wood is lost to all of us. That's the sad truth that wall never, ever go away."
This special section was written by Brooks Clark, Bill Hewitt, Kim Hubbard, Richard Jerome, Mark Lasswell, Shelley Levitt, J.D. Reed and Susan Schindehette. It was reported by Betty Cortina, Maria Eftimiades, F.X. Feeney, Elizabeth Fernandez, Cathy Free, Meg Grant, John Hannah, Laird Harrison, Dietlind Lerner, Allison Lynn, Kurt Pitzer, Jamie Reno, Stephen Sawicki, Jill Jordan Sieder, Sarah Skolnik and Michael Small.
- Betty Cortina,
- Maria Eftimiades,
- F.X. Feeney,
- Elizabeth Fernandez,
- Cathy Free,
- Meg Grant,
- John Hannah,
- Laird Harrison,
- Dietlind Lerner,
- Allison Lynn,
- Kurt Pitzer,
- Jamie Reno,
- Stephen Sawicki,
- Jill Jordan Sieder,
- Sarah Skolnik,
- Michael Small..
March 30, 2015
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