Episode 6: His Release
Everything hard pulled from the earth
is gathered here.
The souls rise—
smoke-white souls who
listen through the black side of twilight
for the shut
of a door, for someone come home.
— From the poem “1988” written by me, k.b. marie.
And this is the true story of who killed my mother
I open Joe’s arrest record and refresh it again as fast as my fingers allow.
My heart is pounding, my face hot.
The changed court date is the first thing I see. For weeks it said August 5th. Now it reads today’s date, the meeting time at nine that morning. Six hours ago.
I search the file updates and the first case I find is the Aggravated Assault - Strangulation - Felony case. Its status reads:
“Nolle Prosequi without costs”
My stomach sours.
The court abandoned the case. They chose not to pursue it. Why?
How in the world could they just drop the charge. Then I see the note: Incarceration Special Conditions: victim is deceased
They dropped the case because my mother is dead.
Are you kidding me?
Their only reason for not hearing the case is because she’s dead.
A whip-sharp headache cracks along the inside of my skull.
How in the world did this case get dropped because “victim is deceased.”
It’s not like she was the only living witness.
I’m alive. I called the police that day. I have a phone record to prove it.
I couldn’t testify. The police who came to the house could testify, could relay what they wrote down, what they saw. Surely these details, the evidence was recorded before a warrant is made.
Hell, or even the fact, that he evaded arrest. That he took off when the police were called and they couldn’t arrest him.
Why hadn’t anyone come back to the house, tried to catch Joe by surprise in the seventeen months between the strangulation and her death that my mother was alive, if the fact that her being alive was the sole requirement of the case to go forward.
I think of how the cops came to my grandmother’s house in the summer of 1990 and arrested my mother for an outstanding DUI. They had no problem showing up to collect her.
I don’t know what I’d expected to feel if Joe was set free. I’d known all along that there was a strong possibility he wouldn’t be charged with her death…
But not that he’s free even for the strangulation, which I know he did, I am so…pissed.
Sure, there might be some lack of clarity about how responsible he was for her death, but the strangulation is no contest! He did it! There were witnesses, there was evidence.
How in the world does her death nullify that?
Are you telling me that if I shoot someone and they survive, then they are later killed by someone else before I’m arrested and go to trial, I’m good? Because they’re already dead?
“I don’t understand,” I lament to every person who will listen.
But I really shouldn’t be surprised. This is the old pattern. Like the other 116 charges on Joe’s record, the charges have nearly all been dismissed or reduced. Every time.
And the two drug charges he incurred with this arrest are no different.
The other charge of which they had evidence: contraband in a penal institution - felony - was also Nolle Prosequi’d. They didn’t even convict him of having the drugs in his body— the drugs they found! The meth and heroin he intentionally tried to bring into jail with him when he was arrested.
And as maddening as this is, it’s the third case — the third charge that I find most irritating. The misdemeanor charge, the possession or casual exchange charge has the word guilty beside it.
Surprise, he was actually convicted of the misdemeanor, the most innocuous of the charges.
But what does it say beside Incarceration Special Conditions?
This is the third time he had been convicted of a possession, casual exchange misdemeanor charge. In February of 2002, he got thirty days for his first possession misdemeanor, and in June of 2005 he got supervised probation for 11 months and 29 days in lieu of any jail time or his second possession conviction.
And for this third charge, he only spent twenty nights in jail.
There’s no mention of probation, or the fact that he’s a repeat offender.
In an alternate universe, had he been convicted of the felony drug charge of which they had evidence, and the felony strangulation, which he absolutely committed, that would’ve been his third felony. Tennessee had a third strike law.
Three felonies, and it’s possible to spend life in prison without parole.
My mother’s murder would have never had to see trial for justice to be served.
But that didn’t happen.
Joe was set free.
It’s moments like this that illustrate why people are so disappointed in our justice system. How often it fails us. How often it should work, has every reason to work, and yet doesn’t.
How the rage from that disappointment, of not being seen, heard, can build inside a person. How it can make them feel helpless. Hurt.
I try to articulate those feelings to my wife Kim and my friends.
How angry I am.
They listen, express their empathy, and despite the circumstances surrounding me, I find myself grateful again for all the loving, caring people who have come into my life in the last fifteen years.
All the people I have who love me— people my mother didn’t have.
And just like that my anger folds into sadness. Heartbreak for her. For everyone like her— unprotected, unheard.
“Even if he killed her,” I tell Kim. “I’ll never see justice. He’s made of teflon or something. None of these charges stick! Why?”
I wonder again if he’s an informant. A narc for their drug department — If I write too much crime fiction, or if somehow he really is that lucky.
Lucky enough to be arrested shortly after the jail had a coronavirus outbreak. And as the cases rose, they probably sought to empty their cells rather than fill them.
When I tell Katie I’m not coming to Tennessee on Monday as planned, that we can’t possibly go to my grandmother’s house because Joe will certainly be there. I feel a strange mixture of disappointment and relief.
I’d been nervous about going, the thought nipping at the back of my neck for weeks. Wondering if going into the house was a big mistake. If while cleaning I would’ve poked myself with a dirty needle, or found something I could never unsee.
And now I don’t have to.
Katie tells me, “All I can think is that the universe is looking out for you.”
“I hope so,” I say. “You’re probably right.”
Katie also tells me not to give up. That the universe might surprise me. That situations like this are never resolved quickly and I just have to be patient. In the meantime, do my best to find peace.
“What are you going to do next?” she asks me.
I think about it. Then that night, before closing my eyes to sleep, I reply: “Call him.”
It’s July 25th, 3:58 pm when I call Joe. Almost twenty-four hours since I got the Inmate Release Alert text on my phone.
I pace my office, his number on my cell phone, my thumb hovering over the call button.
My heart is racing and my knees feel weak. Either sit down or fall down, I think. And cross my office, out into our sunroom. I curl myself into the rattan chair, feeling the summer breeze ripple through the screens and tussle the long stems of the herbs I have growing in the boxes along the windows ledge.
I press call. Hear the ring trill through the phone’s speakers.
I focus on the heart-shaped leaves of the redbud tree swaying in the sunlight, try to draw enough air into my lungs to breathe.
After a minute of slow, melodic trills, I’m starting to think he won’t answer. Then he does. “Hello?”
“Hi. It’s me, Kory.”
“You were on my list of people to call,” he says.
I register the strained condition of his voice. It’s high, strident. Not unlike my mother’s voice when she straddled the line between uncontrollable laughter and tears.
I don’t know if he’s distressed, and it’s adrenaline or panic I hear, or if he’s high on something. Regardless of the cause, it’s clear he isn’t entirely in control of himself. I proceed with caution.
“Why were you arrested?” I ask. I don’t mention the strangulation charge or warrant. I don’t reveal that the police called me, asked me questions about his history of violence against my mother.
“Because I opened my mouth,” Joe says. “The cops were all here and one of them said, “just another dead junkie” and I lost it, Kory. I lost it.”
He sounds like he’s about to lose it now.
“No one’s going to talk about my sister that way. No one.”
“So they arrested you for fighting a cop?”
“I knew I was going to get my ass kicked, I just didn’t know how many it was going to take. Four of ‘em apparently. They knocked out one of my teeth, but I got in a good blow or two myself. But they had to let me go. They couldn’t keep me on any of that.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because my lawyer got them to release their body cams. It showed the whole thing. Showed them beating up on me and what they said. Even one told me no one should’ve talked about my sister like that and I thanked him.”
“So they dropped all the charges,” I say.
This is the first time I hear this story. The detective had made no mention of a fight, or my uncle resisting. And there was no resisting arrest. I don’t know what, if any of this, is true.
And it’s important to remember that this man lies like he breathes. Once he stole the stove and refrigerator from a firefighter’s driveway, while the home was being refurbished. The firefighter had come home from work and found his appliances missing.
The police went to the nearby recycling facility, found the appliances and my uncle’s face on the surveillance footage. He was arrested and held on a $15,000 bond.
The lies he’d told to the facility attendants in order to sell the appliances for scrap, and the lies he’d told the police to avoid arrest. How much practice he must have.
I tell Katie this story, but admit I can’t remember when it happened. It takes her, my research assistant extraordinaire, no time at all to find the 2015 news article in the Tennessean.
“I just got home,” he says. “Kory, if you could see the place right now, you’d be in tears.”
“It’s torn up to hell and back.”
“Why would they tear up the house?”
“They thought I’d killed her!” he cries out. “They were looking for a murder weapon or something, I guess. But this place is an absolute wreck demolished.”
“Why would they think you killed her? You said you thought she’d died of an overdose.” I reopen the old argument to see what version of the story will emerge now.
“I do think that,” he says. “I know what an overdose looks like and she was blue just like that.”
He’s sticking to the original script, his words unchanged.
“But how could she have gotten ahold of anything? You said you had everything locked up?”
His exasperation grows. “Damn it, I don’t know. I came home and my safe was busted open in the middle of the concrete patio. I don’t know if they did that or she did.”
Here we have our first variation in the story. He would’ve absolutely seen his safe dashed on the patio long before the police had come. My mother slept at one end of the house, in my old bedroom. He slept in the other.
Between the two he would’ve had to walk right past the sliding glass doors and had a full view of the patio. Not to mention the safe was in his bedroom.
In order for this story to be true, three unlikely things would have to be true:
- Before entering my mother’s bedroom and find her dead, he would’ve had to wake from his room, and exit it without noticing his safe was missing. Unlikely.
- He would’ve had to walk in front of the glass doors and not see a busted safe with his drugs all over the patio. (Also unlikely) He would’ve had to continue to not see it or check his safe after finding her, after calling the police, after spending hours in the house waiting for them to arrive.
- The meth and heroin he’d had in his body when he was arrested, would’ve had to be in his body for what? A whole day?
Because if he kept his drugs in there, when did he remove the heroin and meth and hide it in his body? After her body was found and before the police came seems the most likely scenario.
All of this is overlooking the glaring impossibility that my sick mother with her chronic health problems would’ve had the strength to dash a safe against the concrete long enough to crack it open and get to the drugs.
At this point, I simply don’t believe the story about the safe. At least not paired with the story of entering her bedroom and finding her dead Saturday morning.
If he really had come home in the middle of night and found her collapsed in the floor, as was told in one version of the tale, maybe he wouldn’t have been able to see the patio if it was dark outside.
But wouldn’t he have checked his safe at least once before the police came in the morning?
Yet maybe he’s telling the truth. Maybe now, as we talk, his safe is dashed open on the patio, it’s contents spread wide in the hot July sun. But if so, the vandalism still would’ve happened after my mother died.
“I was in there for twenty-one nights,” he tells me.
“It must’ve been hard,” I say . And I mean this. To go cold turkey when struggling with an addiction can’t be easy.
It must’ve been hell.
“Oh it was nothing,” he says.
“Really? I thought you were still addicted to heroin,” I say.
“No I was down to taking almost nothing. I’d almost weaned myself completely.”
He makes no mention of the new drug charges, nor the fact he was found guilty of a misdemeanor possession charge.
And I find it hard to believe that a non-addict would be motivated enough to hide meth and heroin inside himself for any reason. Again, I realize he has no idea that I’ve been following him so closely.
And since he’s hasn’t brought up the charges I don’t press him.
“I took care of Mom,” I tell him.
“Good, good.” He says. He has something in his mouth. The chewing is as manic as his words. “When I’d called down there and they told me she was still in the freezer that’d pissed me off.”
And he does sound pissed, though with concern for my mom or another reason I can’t tell.
“There was a delay with the paperwork, but it’s done. They’re just waiting for the funeral home to pick her up. They told me if might take a minute.”
“Yes, ma’am. It took me ten days to get my momma back.”
God, I wish he’s stop eating.
“Do you some of them?” he asks.
“What?” I ask.
“I mean, not to be morbid, but I could send you some of them.”
Them, it turns out is ashes from the family urn. He describes like he has legions of family members in a single urn. But I do a quick calculation and realize he must mean my aunt and grandmother. My grandfather was buried.
“I had to dump some of them out to get the rest in,” he tells me.
Yet the idea of him collecting all of the family in a single urn disturbs me. I do not offer to send him some of my mother.
“Kory, listen. Things between your mom and I weren’t perfect, but we loved each other.”
Quite a reversal, I thought from the your mother didn’t love anyone, but she loved you line he fed me on the morning she’d died.
“Like the time she hit me with the glass ashtray, that wasn’t fun!”
Hit him with the glass ashtray? Is he delusional! Or does he really think I forgot what happened. That my memory could simply be rewritten if he told me enough lies. That he could confuse and manipulate me into trusting him.
As if the medical examiner wouldn’t ask me what the hardware in her skull had been for.
“If you come down here to get your momma, come by and see me,” Joe says. “Even if you yell at me from the end of the drive, I’d love to see you.”
I could never do this.
What a slap in my mother’s face if I did. I’d used his presence in her life, in that house as an reason to not see her or my grandmother for years.
I don’t know that I could forgive myself if I saw him once she was gone.
In this emotional whirlwind of a conversation, I’ve almost forgotten why I called.
“Joe, we need to talk about the house,” I say.
“What about the house?” he asks.
“What do you want to do with it?” I ask.
“Sell it,” he says without pause. “There’s too many bad memories in this place.”
And here I think we might have common ground. If he wants to sell it great. We can do that, split the money, and move on with our lives.
“Well, first we need to sort the mortgage. The mortgage company keeps calling me, asking me for a payment, but they won’t tell me how much it’s for.”
“They shouldn’t be doing that. I’ll call them, and tell them to stop.”
“But the mortgage—” I begin.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “I’m about to handle it.
“With what money?” I ask. Drug money?
Or a pending life insurance policy.
“That’s irrelevant,” he says. “I’ll have that paid off here in a few days.”
“Joe, my mother’s name is on this house. Which means now it’s half mine. I don’t want the house and you want to sell it, so let’s just do that.” I say, hope to make it clear that I just want to resolve this as peacefully and quickly as possible.
There’s a long pause and then he says,
“Right. Okay, well, I’d prepared for this. I’ll have the lawyers get in touch with you, show you a copy of the will and all that. I hate that it has to be like this, but it is what it is.”
And he ends the conversation.
The call lasted twenty-seven minutes.
Sometimes I forget that my uncle was only fifteen when I was born. That when he was living at Nana’s with us during my childhood, he would’ve been in his early twenties.
What I remember most clearly from those days were his love of aviator sunglasses, and his resemblance to Jim Morrison. He had the same thick curly brown hair, and my uncle played a wild rift on the guitar.
“I was really into it,” My aunt Lana would tell me later, as she described how she met and married Joe before birthing him two sons. “The rock and roll bad boy vibe was sexy as hell.”
I admit I didn’t see it. I remember my uncle standing shirtless on the side of the house, a little drunk and pissing against the brick with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, the gold chain around his neck catching the light.
Of course that was thirty years ago since I lived in my grandmother’s house. And twenty since the funeral.
To update my memory, I search facebook for a photograph, and find one from 2013. His hair is still curly, but even longer. Trailing past his shoulders in wiry ringlets. His eyes are still dark brown like my grandfather’s. A sparse goatee and mustache surrounds his mouth.
The acne pockmarks on his face haven’t lessened with time. And he’s still tall. Still lean.
But there is a deep sadness to his eyes that I don’t remember. Joe from long ago had fire in his eyes. An anger that was palpable even when contained beneath the surface of his skin, his words.
I don’t see the anger now. In this photo, he looks like a man haunted.
My resolve wavers. My mind tries to reconcile the possibility that this man who has caused so much pain, is also a deeply wounded man. It’s not a comfortable position to occupy.
And it isn’t like I can just forget what he’s done.
You might be wondering if my uncle ever put his hands on me or if my mother was his only target.
No, she wasn’t. He’s put his hands on my mother, his mother, and the women he’s dated. He’s put his hands on his kids. I was told later that he’d broken his oldest son’s collarbone by slamming him against the wall when he was twelve or thirteen.
And yes, he put his hands on me. Once, when I was seventeen.
It was when I’d driven to Nashville for my grandfather’s funeral in March 2001.
When I’d arrived, I found a house I didn’t recognize.
Things were much worse than when I’d lived there as a child. My aunt Renee who I’d only known to ever smoke weed and have a beer, was smoking a crack pipe in the bathroom.
My uncle was yelling at everyone, opening and slamming cabinets. Shoving people—me included—out of his way.
I’d known that my grandfather had been the strong arm of the family. That he’d kept everyone in line with his will alone.
I just hadn’t realized how quickly things would devolve without him.
I wonder if it began before his slow painful death of emphysema. Probably as soon as he was too sick, too breathless to put up a fight.
When I found my aunt Renee smoking crack in the bathroom on the day of grandfather’s funeral—and told her that I thought she shouldn’t be doing this in front of the kids—Joe’s kids had both been under ten at the time—Joe had come to her defense. He’d called me a fucking dike who needed to watch her mouth before he minded it for me.
I responded with a similar expletive and he reacted.
He tried to wrap his hands around my throat, but I blocked this attempt, barely, breaking my sunglasses in the process. But this was hardly the worst casualty possible.
I followed with a hard shove that toppled him just long enough to give me a chance to run out of the house before he could attack himself.
I made it through the neighbor’s back door about four seconds before he did.
He was arrested soon after. I watched through the neighbor’s window as he was shoved into the back of the police car, cuffed. I was told it was Nana who’d called the police.
Of course, as we’ve already discussed, it isn’t like he stayed in jail.
“Didn’t you say there was a rumor Joe poisoned your grandfather and that’s why he died?” Katie asks.
“That’s what his wife had said, that Joe had “helped him along” with rat poison or something.”
“If he’s found guilty of murdering your mom, maybe they’ll exhume his body and find out he killed him too. Then you’ll be related to an actual serial killer.”
I think of my grandfather’s unmarked grave in Mt. Olivet’s cemetery. Of the fact that even though each of them, my grandmother, my uncle, and my mother, received money when he died, none of them bothered to purchase a headstone.
“Don’t joke,” I tell her. “I want to write crime novels. Not live in one.”
I call my lawyer that afternoon and tell him that Joe made mention of a will. That he should reach out to the Joe’s lawyer and see if a will for my grandmother does in fact exist.
Kim, Katie and I all expect this to be just another lie. Another ploy to buy time or form another scheme. And I hate the idea that he is going to make this difficult. That if he resists, probate is definitely going to stretch on for years.
So imagine my surprise when I get a call from my lawyer the next day.
And in a sympathetic voice, he says, “I’m sorry, but I have some bad news.”