Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How far would you go?

Ryan's dad
I’ve followed the Ryan Ferguson case since it became the focus of news shows like Dateline and 48 Hours, and like so many other people around the world, I rejoiced when the justice system in Missouri finally came to its senses and let Ryan go free. If you aren’t familiar, he was arrested nine years ago at the age of nineteen when a friend claimed he’d murdered a man. Never mind that the friend didn’t have the facts regarding the method of the crime correct, or that the friend had mental and emotional issues, or that there wasn’t one shred of physical evidence tying either of these young men to the crime scene. Ryan was convicted and sentenced to forty years anyway, and he spent the entire decade of his twenties behind bars. One of the things he said, I believe more than once, was that it was harder for his parents. Well, who knows, but I’m a parent of two young men so that remark resonated. 

The prison where I once lived with my family was a first-offender unit and housed mainly young men
The Fergusons - who could have imagined the calamity to come?
Ryan’s age. I got to know many of them and often their parents. There were designated days a few times a year when the families of the inmates were invited to visit the prison grounds, sort of like college level parent and student orientation day. The inmates’ families and the prison administrators’ families would mingle on prison grounds in an outdoor area furnished with picnic tables and playground equipment. One of the young men whose parents I met at one of these functions, a good looking kid who had a bright future until one night when he decided to hold up a mini mart with a gun, was a beloved babysitter to my two pre-school age sons. You might wonder how a mother could allow a convicted felon around her kids, but this young man wasn’t bad. He got in with drugs, the wrong crowd, something like that. He went off the deep end like kids do sometimes, the ones who are only temporarily lost. They need a wake up call. He got his. In part, I think the unique setting he was in really helped. It kept him segregated from more hardened criminals. He received counseling, one-on-one and in groups. Rather than a cell, he was confined to a room in a dormitory type building. He had meaningful work. He was given every chance to reform, to atone, and he did.

“We never expected our son would get into this kind of trouble,” his dad said on an orientation day. “He went to school, made his grades. He played basketball, for God’s sake, and he was good at it. He made varsity his sophomore year.”

“The police knocked on our door. We were just sitting down to dinner,” his mother said. “It was the first we knew. The police said they had every right to arrest him, that he was an adult.” She looked at me. “He was seventeen.”

“Even now, if he’s an adult, I’m Tinker Belle,” her husband said.

Sitting at the picnic table, listening to them talk about the calamity that erupted in their lives without warning a year ago, I couldn’t imagine it. These people were parents like any other. They could have lived next door and anyone would have been glad to have them as neighbors.

“I think maybe I wasn’t there enough for him.” The dad’s voice slipped and caught. He looked off, jaw working. “It’ll be different when we get him home again. I’m not giving up on my kid.”

His wife took his hand.

My throat was tight. As it turned out, he didn’t give up on his son. We kept in touch for several years once he was released, and as far as I know, there was never another brush with the law.
It’s a good story, a happy ending story. Like Ryan Ferguson’s story. His family believes in him too. They’ve been there for him, never once wavering in their faith in him. His dad crisscrossed the country in a car painted with a message: Free Ryan. He never let up, not once. He was always so composed, too, like Ryan, himself. I got the sense Ryan’s dad would have done anything to have Ryan free, to have him safe. To get him back.

The situation was heartrending to me as it was to thousands of others. I can say, honestly, I lost sleep over it a couple of times—it seemed so horrifying. And there was that question of how far a dad would go for his son; it was so compelling.

How far would a dad go? Or a mom, or a sister?

How far would you go to save him, if your son or your brother was arrested for murder?

The family in my latest novel, SAFE KEEPING, faces this nightmare. On an evening like any other they’re sitting down at the dinner table when the knock comes on the door and the police take their son. Their lives unravel. Their faith in the justice system falters and is finally lost. Now they have to decide: How far will they go?