Gruff exterior hides heart of gold |

Gruff exterior hides heart of gold

F.T. Norton
Gary James sits on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in his front yard Friday. The ex-biker says he has seen it all and just wants to help teens avoid some of the mistakes he has made in the past. Photo by Brian Corley

Covered in tattoos and bearded, Gary James admits he is more at home on the back of a Harley Davidson than anywhere else in the universe.

But despite the stereotypical “biker” reputation, he will tell you he’s never happier than when he can help someone.

“Just for the satisfaction of knowing I am doing some good,” the Placerville transplant explained.

For the past two years, James, 51, has been an earthly angel of sorts, readily accepting the position as caretaker of a memorial for a slain little girl he never knew.

When Krystal Steadman, 9, of South Lake Tahoe was kidnapped and murdered in March 2000, James was one of the thousands in Carson Country heartbroken by the story.

He took that heartbreak and turned it into motivation, calling Krystal’s sister Sonya Klempner and offering to build a new memorial to the lost fourth-grader.

“I told her, ‘I can do this and I’d like to if it’s OK with you,'” James, a skilled carpenter, said Saturday from his Carson City home. “She was quite surprised.”

But the task proved daunting after the memorial he built was stolen. Then a second memorial he built was vandalized twice.

Each time, James’ resolve was strengthened and he would go back to the spot 2-1/2 miles from Carson City on Spooner Summit where Krystal’s body was found, and repair the damage.

“I’m hardheaded,” he offers.

In the process, James struck up a friendship with Krystal’s father, John, who lives in Tennessee.

“I figure since he can’t be here, I am just doing what he would if he were able.”

James will be the first to tell you he hasn’t always led a perfect existence, however.

He’s been through hip replacement surgery in September 2000 and suffers with degenerative disk disease he blames on 30 years of “looking for the ultimate party.”

“I thought my body was an amusement park and I wanted to ride all the rides,” he said. “I just wanted to have a good time, which I’m paying for now.”

Between those two things, James finds himself unemployed.

“I can’t do any physical lifting, which counts out everything I’ve done for a majority of my life.”

From spending four years in the Coast Guard during the Vietnam War where he road his first Harley to construction jobs, James has always had labor intensive work. Because his wife, Jody, works full-time for Harley Davidson Credit, James said he is ineligible for any federally funded job training.

The jobs he’s applied for recently — desk jobs and sales positions — haven’t panned out. He hopes to find work counseling kids.

Recently, James gave up his membership in a motorcycle club for Sundays at the Mountainview Church of God.

He admits his renewed faith is tested each time someone vandalizes the memorial, or he is turned down for work.

“But finally the right time and the right place came in and God came back into my life. It’s made me a lot more relaxed and feeling a lot better,” he said.

Saturday, James spent the day with Jody and their son, Sean Morey, 29, who is planning an April wedding to his fiance Kim McGoldrick.

Jody coached her husband of 12 years to mention he was “married to the love of his life and just as happy as he can be.”

But, despite the job woes, James wasn’t hard pressed to agree.

“It’s true,” he said.