The shocks kept coming. Initially police focused on two surprising suspects: King's sons Derek, then 13, and Alex, 12, who had fled after the fire started. Then police came to believe Alex had been sexually abused by a convicted pedophile named Ricky Chavis, 40, who had acted as the "principal" in the murder, meaning he had instigated King's killing. In the months that followed there were confessions and recantations, and a bewildering muddle of motives began to emerge. By the time the case lurched to its bizarre conclusion on Sept. 6–Derek, now 14, and Alex, now 13, were found guilty of second-degree murder and arson, while in a separate trial Chavis was acquitted of similar charges–it was hard to be certain that justice had been done. "I'm disappointed to have the adult manipulator set free yet have the abused children in prison," said King's brother Greg, a computer administrator. "But that's our system."
The lives of King and his two sons had been messy and troubled for years. Raised in Texas and Florida, King married Rebecca Ruth Tolbert in 1981, but the couple separated less than a year later. He worked first as an air conditioner repairman, then as a printing-press operator, but always had financial difficulties. From the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s he lived off and on in Pensacola, Fla., with Janet French, who has worked as a strip-club waitress and dancer and with whom he fathered Derek and Alex.
The boys' early home life was anything but stable. As youngsters they bounced around to various relatives. In 1994 they were put up for adoption by an agency specializing in children in crisis. Derek ended up being taken in by Frank Lay, a high school principal living near Pensacola, and his wife, Nancy. Alex was put in another foster home but was so unhappy there he ended up being sent back to his father. Gradually the boys had less and less contact with their mother, who is now married, living in Kentucky and going by the name Kelly Marino.
By all accounts King, though a strict disciplinarian, tried to do the best he could as a father. Working the late shift as a printing-press operator, he would bring Alex along with him and fix up a cot where the boy could sleep because he could not afford child care. "He had a tough life," says brother Greg. "But he wanted his own children with him."
Meanwhile Derek began having trouble at the Lays'. At first he had seemed relatively well-adjusted, especially considering his chaotic background. Though he had a temper, "He had never expressed any violence toward anyone," says Dave Paxton, a youth minister at Pensacola's Olive Baptist Church who had Derek in Bible-study class and who is good friends with the Lays. Yet in his foster home he was becoming a disruptive force. Paxton isn't sure what happened at the Lays', who have declined to comment, but Derek ended up being returned to his father in September 2001.
Derek's reunion with King and Alex took place with a new complicating factor–namely Ricky Chavis, who had come on the scene in the summer of 2000. As usual King had been having money troubles and needed tools and a place to make repairs on his car. Chavis, a local mechanic, offered the use of his yard and equipment. When King came around he always brought Alex, who soon developed a bond with Chavis. From the start King's mother, Joyce Tracy, didn't like the setup. "Rick struck the wrong note with me right away," she says. "He did all kinds of things to make it easy for Terry to be there." What they didn't know was that Chavis had a lengthy criminal record, including two convictions for burglary and two for lewdness, which involved sexual contact with minors.
By the summer of 2001 Chavis had a very strong hold on Alex. In a manifesto of sorts later found by police, Alex proclaimed his love for Chavis, nearly 30 years his elder. "My life used to be cloudy," said the statement, which contained childish misspellings. "Before I made friends with Rick, I had a whole lifetime ahead of me and I didn't know what to do with it...My ultimate goal in life now is what his is...Before I met Rick I was strate [sic] but now I am gay." What's more, Joyce Tracy, among others, is convinced that Chavis began turning Alex against his father. She claims Chavis told the youngster that King was not his real father.
Ten days before the murder Derek and Alex ran away and stayed for a while with Chavis before returning home. King was apparently sleeping in his favorite recliner the night of the killing because he feared the boys would try to run away again. The day after, the boys, who had spent the night with Chavis, turned themselves in to police. Under questioning they readily admitted they had killed their father, with Derek wielding the bat and Alex looking on. In a taped confession Derek maintained that King had pushed Alex around that night, causing the boy to cry. They said they were tired of being abused and wanted to live with Chavis. They also provided a sickeningly detailed account of the assault. The sound of the bat on his father's head, said Alex, was like "wood cracking, or hitting concrete or something."
Earlier this year, however, the boys suddenly recanted their confession. They maintained that Chavis had induced them to say they killed King, assuring them they could claim self-defense. In this second telling they insisted they had only let Chavis into the house and then waited outside while he committed the murder. In preparing his case, state prosecutor David Rimmer made a controversial decision: to put both Chavis and the boys on trial–two separate trials–for murder. It was Rimmer's belief all along that Derek, who was with Alex, struck the blows but that they had been put up to it by Chavis. But when Judge Frank Bell, citing an absence of evidence that Chavis had done any such thing, prohibited Rimmer from sketching that scenario in his closing argument, it helped Chavis win acquittal. Sharon Potter, one of the two attorneys for Derek, calls Rimmer's approach nothing short of "prosecutorial misconduct"–and strong grounds for appeal. "They put three people on trial for the same crime," she says, "when only one person's hands could have wielded the weapon."
In any event, the two juries heard much conflicting testimony, which led to contradictory results. At the Chavis trial, which came first and had a sealed verdict, the graphic description of the killing in the boys' initial confession convinced those jurors that Derek and Alex had been the ones using the bat. But jurors in the boys' trial concluded that while they had been part of the plot, only an adult could have inflicted such damage on King, which was why they opted to find the youths guilty of second-as opposed to first-degree murder. Indeed, at least one juror in the boys' trial, Lynne Schwarz, 52, expressed shock when the sealed verdict was later opened and she learned that Chavis had gotten off. "I was sitting on the couch," she recalls. "I stood up and I said, 'That's wrong! That's wrong!'"
Tried as adults, Derek and Alex now face anywhere from 22 years to life. Though found not guilty of killing King, Chavis will now face charges of being an accessory after the crime, as well as having sex with a minor. All that is small consolation to Greg King. In selecting an inscription for his brother's tombstone, he ignored the irony and chose words that he believes summed up his brother's life: "I love you, Alex and Derek."
Don Sider and Steve Ellman in Pensacola