Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Mike's Story

Many moons ago in a life now far, far away I was born at San Francisco General Hospital in California on March 29th, 1960. I was the fourth of seven children brought into the world by my mother; by the time she was only 24. By right and reason I should not have been born as after the first three (my oldest sister Debra and my two older brothers Donald, Jr. and Jeff) my mother contracted polio and was bedridden and not to have any more children.

In those early years my father and grandfather owned a steel fabrication plant in San Rafael and we lived a comfortable middle class life in Marin County. I was too young to remember the first home I lived in, in Mill Valley and as the family grew and evolved we would move often. My first memories were of a house on Oak Spring Drive in San Anselmo and those memories were and still are unpleasant. Although faded and broken by years that have passed at times I can still remember the violent arguments that led to my parents’ divorce. Or rather remember hiding from them.

Then mom was gone and I remained alone with the father I feared, especially when he was drunk – and it seemed he was always drunk. About the time I began school I met my stepmother. She barely spoke English and was hired originally as a housekeeper. I was to young to recognize the seemingly sincere Mary Poppins persona she first projected that all too quickly evolved into the incarnation of evil within her that manifested itself immediately after she and my father married. By that time we were living in a large house high on a hill in Woodacre, over looking the Lagunitas Valley below. Not long after they wed we moved to a subdivision in San Rafael, on Court Street close to where the canal opened into San Francisco bay.

Soon the family began to grow even larger as my stepmother Consuelo became pregnant with her first. We moved again to a house outside of Novato but still within walking distance to Olive Elementary School. I met my first best friend there as his family has a small ranch nearby. Over the hill behind us, a short walk away, was the valley George Lucas where parts of “Star Wars” was filmed. There were good times, but there were bad times. My best friend Russell was killed in a freak accident and my oldest sister – often my only protector – ran away. By the time I was ten she was barely a teen but I understand now why she had to leave, why living on the streets off the generosity of so-called “hippies” and hanging with bikers was better than staying at “home.”

With a half brother and two half sisters the family grew to a total of ten children. From outside looking in I suppose we appeared to be an average family – at least it was the only family I knew so I thought it was average. On weekends, especially during the summers we would all pack up and drive out to my uncle’s coastal ranch (“Diamond T”) on nearby Ft Reyes, now part of the Ft. Reyes national Seashore. On long weekends and holidays we would go camping at Clear Lake, or Lake Mendocino and as evening set we’d all gather around a campfire singing songs as dad played the guitar.

But then came the early seventies and the family business was abruptly forced into bankruptcy. We moved from Novato to the sleepy hollow community of San Anselmo. My two older brothers and I joined the Boy Scouts and served as alter boys at the Catholic Church. My oldest sister, then barely 16 was committed to the Napa State Hospital, pregnant with her first child. By the time I began middle school we moved again to a small farm with an old Victorian house outside of Sebastopol in Sonoma County. By then I discovered the means to escape reality first with alcohol, then drugs.

My grandparents suffered a car accident and both died a few weeks later and my dad all but gave up even trying as he found his own escape in heavy drinking. There were no more holidays with the grandparents, outings to the ranch, or camping trips. As my stepmother took control life at “home” went from bad to worse. It wasn’t long before we again moved – this time in a caravan of travel trailers like a band of gypsies. But it was the best time of my life, as for the entire summer of 1974 we camped out at Yosemite National Park. Now barely 14, I couldn’t imagine how it could get any better. Any pretense of parental supervision was now gone and I was free to explore the park all day, every day as if it was my private playground. As a bonus, I quickly discovered a seemingly infinite supply of free beer; as campers upstream would place their beer in the icy Merced River only to be washed downstream by the rushing current… entire six packs were there for the taking and in surprising abundance. What I couldn’t drink was easily sold or traded for pot (marijuana) and the best summer of life became a long party. It was the best of times.As the summer drew to an end we packed the trailers up and began a two week exodus across America, finally reaching Florida.

For several months we lived in the two trailers and a large tent at a campground outside of Tampa. At that time I began going to a local Baptist Church for the very best of reasons – a girl I met in school belonged to the youth group and I really wanted her to belong to me. As I got more involved “Brother Jeff,” the charismatic youth director “saved” my soul and I found a new high in Jesus. After years of attending the Catholic Church this seemed so alive and fulfilling.

A few months later Dad bought a small house in the farming area southwest of Plant City known as Turkey Creek. My stepmother claimed her domain and made it clear that only her children would be allowed to live in the house. But we didn’t complain. My oldest brother Donald, Jr. joined the Army and became “career military” until that career abruptly ended when he was hit with an aerial grenade during the first Gulf War. That left my older brother and I, and arch nemesis Jeff to share the one small travel trailer while my even younger sisters Mary and Janet shared the other.

With the family reduced to living on welfare, we were all forced to skip school and work on local farms or orange groves and the income was used to feed us. If any of us dared to protest, of God forbid not work at all, the physical repercussions were immediate. But once that day’s job was complete, that pretense of parental supervision again quickly disappeared and we did as we pleased.

Not long after moving to Turkey Creek my older brother, Jeff and I and even my younger sister Mary began hanging with a “neighborhood” crowd. We never aspired to be a “gang” and never roamed the area preying upon anyone. Our thing was simply to meet almost nightly in a group, pool our money, and party. Looking back, I now realize that all of us were from similar backgrounds and in our own way became family. On the days I was allowed to go to school I would often join a crowd of others who regularly “skipped” school. On good days we would hang out and party in the woods behind Plant City High School or go swimming at nearby Mudd Lake. On bad days we would walk to the mall in Plant City and hang out. Although caught more than a few times, it didn’t really matter, as I knew nobody at home would care. When the school would impose suspensions it only meant that I didn’t have to pretend to go to school in the first place, which was even better. I never failed a grade. Somehow I attended just enough classes to absorb what was necessary to pass the tests and I made a point of always taking the important tests. Never – not even once – did a single teacher attempt to talk to me about my chronic truancy or anything. I was a lost child and they accepted that.

As the months passed my stepmother demanded more of us and we became, for all practical purposes, virtual slave labor. My protests increased and the physical beatings became more severe. A few months before my 16th birthday the fair came to Plant City for the annual Strawberry Festival and I found a job working at a game concession… and I found a new life.

By my 16th birthday I was out on the road on my own, working carnivals around Chicago. Say what you want about “carnies’” but this band of misfits were family and they made a point of looking out for each other. Most nights I would sleep in the carnival tents and spend my money on food and partying. Although it would seem to have been the last place a teenage kid should be on his own, even though I didn’t appreciate it, those on the lot knew I was a kid and seldom did I go anywhere without a watchful eye keeping me out of trouble. We worked long, hard hours and when the lights on the Midway went off we’d gather in groups – often pooling our money to rent a motel room – and party to excess.

In all the years I worked on the road, not even once did I get in any kind of legal trouble. Contrary to popular myth, habitual criminals were not welcome as the show would not tolerate anyone bringing heat down on the show. From early spring into the summer we would work local carnivals in Chicago area, then with summer came the county and state fairs, which meant even longer hours, even days straight during “Midnight Madness.” From Michigan and Illinois State Fairs, we would work our way south through Arkansas and Oklahoma, then into Texas, and across to Louisiana and finally back to Florida for “winter quarters”.

Returning to Florida in late 1977 I met a girl I knew in high school when I briefly joined the high school ROTC program. Almost immediately Kathy Marie and I became inseparable. A few months later when it was time to head back up to Chicago for the new season she tagged along. By late summer she was pregnant and we made plans to return home and settle down. On October 27th, 1978 – both of us barely 18 – we were married at the Polk County Courthouse in Bartow, Florida. The next day I was on a bus and on my way to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma to report for active duty in the Army. Without a high school education and any job skills other than working carnivals, the military meant I had the opportunity to take care of my new family. But what may very well have become a “career” as it was for my brother, abruptly ended with an accident while on duty and a discharge for failure to perform my required duties. After my discharge we lost our health coverage and when our daughter was born in March 1979 at Tampa General Hospital we almost lost her when the doctor failed to do a c-section in time and our little “Niki” (Jennifer Nicole) came to life still in the womb and drowned in her own fluids. For a month she remained in a coma at the neo-natal unit of Tampa General kept alive by respirators, and tubes, and wires, but then she finally came home.



The prolonged deprivation of oxygen and physical trauma of her birth caused permanent brain damage and epilepsy. But she was our little girl and she was home and that’s all that mattered. Both of us still too young and irresponsible to be parents ourselves, and still “partying” beyond excess, bad judgment was a way of life. Within months we returned to the road, living in our car and countless motel rooms. Working carnivals and fairs was he only life we knew. As the season drew to an end Kathy Marie announced she was pregnant again and we made plans to “settle down.”Returning to Florida just after Christmas in early 1980.




I quickly blew the money we had saved to get our own place on a motorcycle – then wrecked it racing another bike on the highway. That was the last straw… Kathy Marie’s family descended upon her, insisting she leave the loser. Her mother gladly hired a divorce lawyer and formal divorce proceedings were initiated; however, before any hearing could be held, we reconciled, rented a mobile home, and I actually got a real job. Accomplishing all that I didn’t see any need to stop partying too. Soon I was supplementing my income by any means necessary as my use of alcohol and drugs substantially increased. No longer surrounded by the protective “family” of carnies, I began hanging out with a more destructive crowd.

In July 1980 our son Daniel Brian was born at Tampa General Hospital. With my irresponsibility reaching new heights, Kathy Marie began paying expenses by forging her mother’s signature on her family’s trust account. On our second anniversary, she was arrested on 24 counts of forgery, and I was arrested on outstanding traffic tickets. Her family took temporary custody of our kids. After a month I was released but she remained in jail until February, three months later. Her family refused to let me have custody until Kathy Marie was out.

Again my “partying” escalated and I began getting into trouble. With nothing to hold me back, I lived in bars and lounges selling drugs and consuming the profits. Having proven my inability to be a mature and responsible husband and father, nobody was surprised when I started cohabitating with another woman. When Kathy Marie was released from jail in February 1981 she quickly renewed the divorce proceedings and by April the divorce was final. Now accompanied by “Kitty” I returned to Chicago to work the new carnival season. Kitty was not a carnie, nor would she ever be. In June we returned to Florida, as she was pregnant. Shortly after we returned I ran across Kathy Marie. With our divorce (which I never challenged) final less than two months, she had already remarried a family friend. But by that night she left Walter – and I left Kitty – and we reconciled.

In August of 1981, while extremely impaired, an argument evolved into an act of inexcusable road rage resulting in an accident when the other vehicle hit a telephone pole. Intoxicated and in possession of illegal drugs I fled the scene only to be arrested a few days later for aggravated battery. For months I remained incarcerated until the charges were finally dropped. During that time Kathy Marie’s probation on her forgery charges was violated and she was ordered into a state “halfway” house in the Ybor City area of Tampa. In late November 1981, Kathy Marie was walking to a nearby store from that halfway house when she was abducted, then taken to a nearby lot where she was raped repeatedly by two men, then beaten and left for dead.

Again this created a wall around her that I could not penetrate. The next month, I left Florida for Utah where I intended to meet my mother for the first time since I was a child. I knew I had to get out of Florida and away from the destructive lifestyle I was living. Once in Salt Lake City I stayed with my mother and found work. But I didn’t escape my need to party and it wasn’t long before I was hanging with a new crowd but doing the same thing.



A few months later came an arrest for drunk driving – even though I wasn’t driving at the time! (It was Utah – everybody knows those Mormons are nuts!). In early March 1982 I received a telephone call from my former girlfriend Kitty telling me our son Cary Michael, Jr. (born prematurely in Michigan in late December) was in the hospital with pneumonia in Plant City, Florida and might not make it. That next day I left Utah driving nonstop to Florida in less than 48 hours. Not long after arriving back in Florida I was arrested in Plant City on an outstanding warrant for violation of probation. After a few months in the Hillsborough County Jail my probation was formally revoked and I was sentenced to state prison for two years on the original felony conviction – a single “bad check” charge, my only prior felony conviction. (It should be noted that when many members of the Congress committed the same crime – deliberately writing a check on their accounts without sufficient funds -- no action was taken against them.)

With almost nine months of time already served in the county jail, that two year prison sentence was actually less than a year. After about six months in state prison I was transferred to a state work release center, where I would work a regular “free-world” job then report back and stay at the work release center.

Once again my drinking got the best of me. Within a few days of arriving at the work release I was caught smoking a joint and “busted.” A disciplinary action was filed and I was placed on administrative probation. A few weeks later I skipped work and went out drinking with my younger brother Chuck – and again got caught. This time it was another disciplinary action and assigned extra duty in the kitchen, and instructed I had to find a new job working days, not nights.

A few days before Christmas 1982 the company I found work with held a Christmas party, which included a smorgasbord of hard liquor. By the time I was due back at the work release center I was wasted. I knew if I went back in would be my third violation and I would be returned to state prison as well as lose all my accrued “gain time” which would mean almost a year in prison. That seemed like a lot and I didn’t want to face it, so I simply did not return, which in Florida is technically considered an “escape” from state prison. A fact I conveniently failed to appreciate when I made my intoxicated decision not to return. That decision led me to relocate to LaBelle, Florida and set the stage for the case that led me to death row. And here I remain.

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4 comments:

  1. Hello Mike, Your story is so moving.

    Michele

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  2. Thanks for sharing your story with us

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  3. Hello Mike,
    Your life is one heck of a story and I'm glad you shared it. Somehow, I think there is hope in you that you'll change. Your story mean a lot of other people and sharing it inspires others. thanks

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  4. debra lambrix harper15 January 2016 at 12:04

    I read this story and bringing so many things to home..i realize the rough road that was ahead of us.and how some of us survived..being your older sister in a way I always felt responsible..and nothing in life could ever change what has happened..it would be so much easier for me to be you instead of sitting on this side of the wall..you never had achance and if you had would things be different?i love you little brother..and you are always in my heart and on my mind...

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