Only one thing as bad for a parent as a murdered child
The exclamation still reverberates in my memory 17 years later.
I was sitting at my desk at a newspaper in Southwest Colorado when I heard the voice of Jim, the paper’s accountant, cut through the hum of conversation.
“Oh, no!” he said into the telephone in his hand. The anguish, the shock in that voice silenced the room. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be there.”
In any newsroom, there is a certain level of familiarity with tragedy and mayhem. It’s what you’re listening for. It’s what you expect during the course of any day.
Journalists aren’t like police officers or firefighters or paramedics. They don’t often have to deal with the crime or the fire or the accident itself. They watch. They talk. They write.
Sometimes, though, especially in a small town, the news story strikes close to home. As I watched Jim rush headlong out of the building that April day in 1983, I knew this was going to be one of those instances. I just didn’t know how bad it was.
The scene came back to me this week when I heard a 9-year-old Lake Tahoe girl, Krystal Steadman, had been murdered. Although there have been a lot of tragedies over the years, the similarities between these brought back the memories.
Two faces and two names jumped into my mind. Sherry, age 8, and Kristy, age 11. And I was suddenly back there 17 years ago in that newsroom hearing Jim cry “Oh, no!” and rush from the building.
Within a few minutes, we had an idea of how bad it would be. The police scanner let us know there was the possibility of a “Code Frank” – their euphemism for a body. Then it was confirmed there were, indeed, two bodies. Both were young. Both were girls.
The address was far into the countryside, several miles from the nearest small town. It was just the kind of six-acre “ranchette” in the woods where families move to escape the seaminess of the world.
We were still unsure, as a reporter and photographer headed for the scene, what it all had to do with Jim. He had a son and daughter, not two daughters. What had happened?
Soon the pieces of the puzzle started to fall in. The bodies of two girls had been found, both stabbed to death not long after they had gotten off the school bus that afternoon. Deputies were combing the countryside, the neighborhood had been evacuated, and an entire community was working itself into a panic that a mad killer was on the loose.
Jim’s son and daughter, I was told, were OK. The crime had actually taken place at a neighbor’s house, connected to Jim’s by a path through the woods.
The telephone call Jim had received at the office had been from his son, who had called to tell his dad that he had discovered the bodies of the girls. The urgency in Jim’s voice was that of a terrified parent, who believed his children could be next.
A few hours later, as I sat in hallway outside the sheriff’s office talking to an investigator, it became numbingly clear that only one thing could hurt a parent as much as finding out his children had been murdered.
A door opened, and I glimpsed Jim and his son sitting inside the sheriff’s office.
“Why are they here?” I asked.
“The boy found the bodies,” the investigator told me.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” I replied. “but that doesn’t explain what they’re doing here.” Their home was a good 20 minutes from town, and I was having a hard time imagining why deputies would bring them all the way into the office.
The investigator just stared at me.
“Oh, no,” I said. The same words, but I said them softly because I was beginning to understand. “It isn’t him, is it?” I asked the investigator.
He just stared at me. He never said a word. But his head nodded once, almost imperceptibly, and it was enough.
We ran the story the next day. Jim’s son was 13 years old. They had all ridden the bus together, getting off at their homes. The boy had ended up at his neighbor’s home after returning their stray dog. For some reason that nobody has ever understood, he knocked down Sherry as she chased butterflies with a net, hurting her badly.
Scared, he went into the house where her sister, Kristy, was in the kitchen. Fearing he would get in trouble for hurting Sherry, he stabbed the only witness, Kristy, to death. Then he went back outside and finished off Sherry.
It was horrible – so horrible that several people in town refused to believe the boy could have done it. They accused the sheriff’s office of incompetence and said they feared for their lives because a killer was still roaming loose.
But the sheriff’s office knew, and I knew, and the boy’s father knew.
Because when Jim rushed out of the building that day, he went home and found his son sobbing and shaking. He comforted the boy and sat with him as he answered questions for the deputies. The deputies were kind and sympathetic, until suddenly they confronted the boy, hoping to catch him off guard.
“You did it, didn’t you?” they demanded. “We know you did, so don’t lie. The story you told us doesn’t make any sense.”
The boy looked at them, frightened at the sudden change. He denied he killed the girls. He was telling the truth, he insisted.
Jim asked the deputies if he could talk to the boy alone. They went into a bedroom, but the deputies listened closely through the door.
They didn’t hear what Jim asked the boy. And they couldn’t make out the boy’s response.
But the father’s reaction they heard loud and clear. “Oh, no!” Jim cried, for the second time that day.