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What Becomes of the Resurrected? : Santiago Ventura Was a Poor Migrant, Convicted of Murder and Almost Cheated Out of His Life. After His Case Became a Chic <i> Cause Celebre, </i> He Got a New Life. But Whose?

<i> Peter Carlin's first book, "Brave New Bride," will be published by Warner Books in June. </i>

AFTER HE WAS CONVICTED OF MURDER, SANTIAGO VENTURA Morales met the right people. It was the way he screamed, say many of those who came to support him. The way he threw himself against the defense table and let loose a wail so chilling and anguished that it even seemed to shock the judge.

“No es posible! No es posible!” Ventura cried. It was the first time the jury had heard his voice. Sobbing uncontrollably, he was led from the courtroom.

Order restored, the judge polled the jury, asking each of the 12 members to restate the verdict. One by one, each pronounced that the state of Oregon had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Santiago Ventura Morales had, on July 13, 1986, twice rammed a knife into the heart of Ramiro Lopez Fidel.

But even after he was locked in a small cell in the Clackamas County Jail to await sentencing, shadows kept hovering over the case of Santiago Ventura Morales. And for some of his jurors, the shadows soon formed solid doubts.

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Why, they wondered, was Ventura’s knife free of even microscopic traces of blood? Other aspects of Ventura’s trial didn’t quite add up either. Like Ventura, all the farm-worker witnesses were Mixtec Indians who were in this country illegally and spoke little or no English. All seemed frightened and mystified by the proceedings. One witness refused to be sworn in. “How can I tell the truth,” he cried, “when I didn’t see anything?”

During deliberations, some of Ventura’s jurors argued that he was innocent. They were swayed in the end, but after the trial a few wondered what American justice had done to Ventura--and to themselves. One juror, Sherien Jaeger, couldn’t stop crying. Neither could Patricia Lee. When she called Jaeger to share her doubts, Lee mentioned that David Ralls had called her, admitting that he felt as bad as she did. “It was like a death in the family,” she recalls.

And so less than a week after they sent him to prison for the rest of his days, three of Ventura’s jurors believed they had convicted the wrong man. Soon they joined a group of activists and committed themselves to reclaiming the young migrant laborer’s life. And they succeeded, sort of. But after his case was turned into a chic cause celebre, supported by two Oregon governors and dozens of the state’s most powerful people, Ventura was handed a new life, a life not at all like the one he left in the berry fields.

THE MURDER BEGAN WITH A PARTY IN THE STRAWBERRY FIELDS of Sandy, Ore. In the farming town just east of Portland, worker housing for Mexican fruit pickers is little more than glorified shacks. But on that summer night in 1986, a young girl’s birthday turned the camp at Sandy Farms into a fiesta grande. Beer flowed, and more than 100 workers gathered. Eventually, many of them were drunk. An argument erupted, then a fistfight. At this point, recollections get hazy.

What’s certain, however, is that Ramiro Lopez Fidel jumped into a Monte Carlo sedan with a man named Margarito DeJesus Lopez. The two peeled out toward the strawberry fields. A pickup followed, loaded with six workers, including 18-year-old Ventura .

In the field, Ventura and the other men in the pickup truck found the Monte Carlo deserted. After a drunken discussion, they attacked the car, slashing the tires and shooting out the windows with a pistol. They stole the battery and left the car burning in the field. During the short drive home, police officers responding to a call about the fire pulled them over. After taking the gun, the police sent the workers home to bed.

Somewhere out in that field, someone had stabbed Ramiro Lopez Fidel twice in the heart. A field hand discovered Lopez’s body just after dawn. Later that morning, police officers and sheriff’s deputies went looking for suspects, including the men they’d pulled over on the highway. Among the seven arrested, handcuffed and hauled off to the Clackamas County sheriff’s office was Santiago Ventura Morales.

Tim Skipper, a Spanish-speaking police officer from the nearby town of Canby, questioned the suspects. An experienced investigator, Skipper figured he could pick out glimmers of guilt in just about any suspect. And Ventura glimmered. He refused to look Skipper in the eye. He trembled and turned pale. “I was convinced without a doubt that he was guilty,” Skipper later told a reporter. The next morning, Ventura was the one accused of murder.

The charge against Ventura came as a shock back at Sandy Farms. Despite his carousing during the fiesta, Ventura had no criminal record, not even a history of adolescent troublemaking. Ventura is short, perhaps 5 feet, 3 inches, and his straight black hair, broad face and blunt features show a bond to this continent that exceeds recorded time. Ventura was dependable in the fields and quick to send his wages home to his family.

That was the fourth summer Ventura had worked the migrant labor circuit in California and Oregon. Once he’d been an eager student in school, but in San Miguel de Cuevas, a poor village in the province of Oaxaca, Mexico, the government provides only a sixth-grade education. Ancient tribes of Mixtecs have farmed in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains for centuries, but deforestation has depleted the soil and devastated the tribal economy. When Ventura’s family needed more money than their goats and crops could produce, 14-year-old Santiago joined a group of villagers setting off for the U.S. border.

Four years later, Ventura spent the summer in jail waiting to be tried for murder. The prosecutor offered a deal--if Ventura pleaded guilty to manslaughter, he would be out of prison in 36 months. Ventura refused. “I didn’t kill anyone,” he told his lawyers. “So how can I say I did?”

Still, all trials have some give and take, and Ventura’s lawyer, Public Defender Michael Curtis, made a few deals with the judge and prosecutor: In exchange for help in keeping his witnesses in town, he agreed not to ask to delay the trial. But Curtis couldn’t persuade the judge to pay an independent forensics expert to look at Ventura’s knife.

And as the case headed into court in September, Curtis, a stocky man with a shaved head and a wispy beard, decided not to risk using Ventura as a witness in his own defense.

So much seems odd about Ventura’s 10-day trial that it’s not really surprising the judge worked an ethnic gag about Mixtecs into his remarks. “I have a short witness,” said the prosecutor, referring to how long it would take to question him. “About 5-foot-1?” cracked Judge Patrick Gilroy. “Less than that,” the prosecutor answered, picking up on the joke.

Thigh-slappers aside, it was easy to understand why the Mixtec witnesses were terrified. Each knew they could face charges for illegal entry into the United States. But it was harder to understand why they seemed so bewildered during the trial. Despite the Spanish translation, the Mixtecs would frequently answer questions with blank faces or wild non sequiturs. At least one juror figured some sort of cover-up was going on. “They all acted kind of guilty,” he said later.

Two witnesses from the pickup truck connected Ventura with the killing. Juan Remigio Estrada said he had seen Ventura looking down at a “white bundle"--presumably Lopez’s corpse--in the strawberry field. Then prosecutor Johnathan S. Haub called on Epifanio Bautista Lopez, his one reputed eyewitness to the crime, to describe the murder. Curiously, Bautista first denied seeing anything more than a burning car in the field. Haub called for a recess; accompanied by another attorney, a detective and a translator, he escorted Bautista into the district attorney’s office. When they emerged for the afternoon session, Bautista’s story had changed. “Did you see that dead person?” Haub asked, holding up a picture of Lopez’s corpse.

“Yes,” Bautista replied.

“Who stabbed him?”

“Santiago. Well, Santiago.”

Haub’s physical evidence also seemed shaky. An enormous amount of blood had sprayed from Lopez’s body during the killing, yet Ventura’s clothes were spotless. A laboratory examination of his knife also came up blood-free. How was this possible? State Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Karen Gunson proffered the Fat Theory: As Ventura withdrew the knife, she explained, Lopez’s fat tissue simply wiped the blade clean. Curtis scoffed at this explanation but, unable to call his own expert to the stand, could offer no professional rebuttal.

As the trial drew to a close, Ventura sat silently next to Curtis, waiting for the attorney to clear his name. He didn’t. “Guilty,” said the jury foreman. “Culpable, " said Elisabeth Linder, the defense team’s translator. And Ventura’s screams echoed through the Clackamas County Courthouse.

JUST AS RAMIRO LOPEZ FIDEL’S DEATH BEGAN WITH A PARTY, SO DID Santiago Ventura Morales’ resurrection. Fortunately for Ventura, the fate of one beer-drinking migrant worker soon became an issue to people with a taste for a decent semi-dry Riesling.

Elisabeth Linder and her husband, David, were, in fact, sharing a nice Oregon Riesling over dinner with their friends Jerry and Donna Slepack the evening after the jury came in. Elisabeth was close to tears as she described Ventura’s wail to her dinner companions. The others were immediately sympathetic. David Linder, a pathology professor at Oregon Health Sciences University; Jerry Slepack, an emergency-room physician, and his wife, Donna, director of Antioch University’s psychology program in Portland, all tended to view the world through the same left-leaning political slant. They’re the sort of middle-aged intellectuals who obey the latest boycotts and have an abiding suspicion that their government doesn’t always have justice’s best interests at heart. Before the evening ended, Donna Slepack made an offer. “It there’s anything I can do for Santiago,” she told Elisabeth, “let me know.”

The two women had shared causes before. As prominent members of Oregon’s leftist gentry, both belonged to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and to the Assn. for a Free Chile. Slepack also had organized the 1985 Shadow Project, an international nuclear-weapons protest. In her spare time, she designed feminist postcards.

Slepack radiates slogans. Her T-shirt invokes “The Spirit of Crazy Horse.” The rear bumper of her Nissan station wagon offers opinions on a variety of issues. In conversation, even the simple fact that she and her husband are not Northwest natives comes out sounding politicized. “We’re Oregonians by choice,” Slepack told me. A petite woman with short brown hair and sparkling eyes, she projects the stubborn idealism of a college student, even 20 years after graduation.

When Linder introduced Slepack to Ventura in October, 1986, he was still waiting to be sentenced. Slepack agreed to spend a couple of hours a week teaching him English. She was struck by how fresh-faced the convicted murderer looked. “I don’t like to use the words ‘little boy,’ ” she says now. “But he was just very young.”

Soon Slepack was working with Ventura five hours a day, five days a week. She brought him gifts and let him cry on her shoulder. “He’s the best student I ever had,” Slepack says.

As Ventura picked up English, he told Slepack about the night in the strawberry field. He insisted he was innocent, and Slepack believed him. Her activist juices began to boil. Previously her issues had been grand and abstract--war, peace and freedom. But when Ventura was shipped to the Oregon State Correctional Institute to serve a life sentence, Slepack posted a photo of him over her desk and launched a campaign that would soon border on obsession.

Ventura’s procedural appeal was denied. Slepack learned that, because juror doubts have no legal significance after the trial, Ventura had only two avenues of action: either persuade the governor to grant a pardon or file a civil suit for post-conviction relief that would seek to prove that the state had violated his constitutional rights during the first trial. Both roads were steep--post-conviction relief petitions have a 99% failure rate--but Slepack was convinced she could break down the state’s case. Soon she would discover exactly where to start hammering.

John Haviland and Lourdes de Leon discovered one weak spot almost immediately. Approached by Slepack for their expertise on Mixtec culture, the two Reed College anthropologists were quick to identify a crucial problem in Ventura’s collision with the U.S. judicial system. Mixtecs, they explained, don’t speak Spanish. Ventura could conduct simple conversations in Spanish. But murder trials rarely involve simple ideas, and yet the state had provided only Spanish translators.

After spending a year studying Ventura’s case and searching for flaws, Slepack was ready to go public. Her first announcement was more perfunctory than strident. Addressed to more than 100 friends, political activists and community leaders, the three-paragraph note invited them to a Portland church to “assess the status” of efforts to help a migrant laborer convicted, she wrote, of “a murder he did not commit.” Almost as an afterthought, Slepack addressed a copy to the Oregonian, the state’s major newspaper.

That letter landed on Barnes Ellis’ desk. As Ellis admits now, a more experienced reporter might have taken a glance, sorted it into the white or colored pile and sent it off with the rest of the recycling. But less than a year out of Harvard, Ellis was eager enough to put in a call on almost any story.

Intrigued by the recanting jurors, Ellis spent small parts of the next few months pursuing Ventura’s story. His front-page article appeared in July, 1988, under the headline “With a Reasonable Doubt,” and focused mostly on the jurors. The acrid odor of racism shocked many readers. Officer Skipper, for instance, insisted Ventura’s lowered eyes during questioning were an obvious guilt reflex. But that interpretation ignored the fact that young Mixtecs never look their elders in the eye. Skipper also dismissed the distinction between the Mixtec and Spanish languages by saying, “They go hand-in-hand in Mexican country down there.” Elsewhere in the story, a juror who supported the guilty verdict--and went on to say he wished Ventura had been sentenced to death--told Ellis, “We don’t need so many of ‘em (Mexicans) running around here.”

Within weeks the national media had picked up the story. And Slepack’s telephone started ringing. One of the first calls came from a prominent local banker asking where he could send a $1,000 check.

Slepack made the Santiago Freedom Committee her full-time job. She produced a blizzard of letters and press releases, spoke to churches and community groups, and beat the bushes for money. She also spent her own cash--a sum she doesn’t like to talk about, but certainly much more than $10,000. When Slepack faced the camera, she commanded attention. Rejecting radical histrionics, she made Ventura’s case in a logical yet unyielding tone. She was fighting for a young man’s life, and mothers all over Oregon knew exactly how she felt. So did Ventura, and it wasn’t long before the letters he sent to her began, “Dear Mom.”

If Ventura needed a surrogate father, Paul J. DeMuniz was the right candidate. Raised poor, DeMuniz attended Portland State University on the GI Bill. Starting college after a tour of duty in Vietnam, DeMuniz made up for lost time by finishing a four-year program in 30 months and had his law degree three years later. His outsized energy and sharp mind soon won DeMuniz a reputation as one of Oregon’s best criminal litigators.

A few months after Ellis’ story ran in the Oregonian, Slepack called DeMuniz asking if he would represent Ventura. DeMuniz agreed to meet with Slepack and Haviland, and a few days afterward, he visited Ventura. Ventura is slow to extend himself to strangers, but DeMuniz liked his quiet, thoughtful manner--particularly after he approached Ventura with an offer from the district attorney. “Plead to manslaughter, and you’ll walk tomorrow,” DeMuniz promised. But Ventura proclaimed his innocence and refused to cop the plea. Impressed by Ventura’s vehemence, DeMuniz took his case for free.

To build a new defense for Ventura, DeMuniz hired Richard H. Fox, a respected private criminologist who had worked for the government for 15 years. Examining Ventura’s knife and the other physical evidence, Fox ripped apart the prosecution’s Fat Theory, pronouncing it “contradictory, misleading, incomplete and incorrect.” DeMuniz’s investigator contacted the state’s witnesses, and both quickly retracted their incrimination of Ventura, claiming their testimony had been coerced by police officers and the prosecution. Both Haub and Skipper denied the charges, but DeMuniz speculates that, with the language and cultural barriers, the witnesses may have misinterpreted their conversations with the police and prosecution.

Most important, DeMuniz found a witness who had never testified. Pedro Guzman, also a Mixtec worker, said he’d ridden in another car that had chased Ramiro Lopez Fidel into the strawberry field. In a videotaped interview, Guzman recounted that before Ventura even arrived in the field he’d watched a man named Herminio Luna Hernandez chase Lopez into the darkness. According to Guzman, Luna returned alone and was quite candid about what had just happened. “I killed him,” Luna told Guzman. Later that night, Luna vanished, abandoning his wife, child and mother-in-law.

Armed with the new evidence, DeMuniz challenged the Clackamas County district attorney to admit he had prosecuted the wrong man and to vacate Ventura’s conviction. But the D.A. would only agree to reopen the official investigation, and DeMuniz announced plans to file Ventura’s suit for post-conviction relief.

The more Ventura’s case came to light, the more it seemed like a hideous miscarriage of justice--particularly because it had happened to Ventura. More than a model prisoner, the convict seemed a model citizen. After taking advantage of the prison’s education programs for more than two years, he was now fluent in English, had earned a high school equivalency diploma and then moved on to college-level classes in philosophy, political science and Thai. He played guitar and sang in the church choir. He had even won a prison poetry competition.

Inflated by Slepack’s bonfire of public outrage and given ballast by DeMuniz’s sterling credentials, Ventura’s case ballooned into a statewide cause celebre. Local television news shows greeted every public statement by Slepack or DeMuniz with a ring of video cameras and microphones. Ventura’s face became a familiar sight on the evening news. His humble pleas for justice made for stirring TV.

Word soon drifted up to the networks, and one devoted five minutes of its nightly news to Ventura’s story. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey spent most of an hour discussing the case with the jurors in her studio and chatting with Ventura, who appeared via satellite from prison.

Public support for Ventura kept growing. The president of the University of Portland, a private Catholic college, awarded him a full scholarship if and when he was released. Letters asking then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt to pardon Ventura arrived from state legislators, big-money developers and even bigger-money philanthropists.

DeMuniz reluctantly left the case when Goldschmidt appointed him to the appeals court in May, 1990. Before he left, however, DeMuniz handpicked his replacement and gave him explicit instructions. “You must win this case,” Walter Todd remembers DeMuniz saying.

The post-conviction relief hearing in August was nothing less than a full-blown epic. Reporters and other observers jammed the courtroom or listened on press-room loudspeakers. Called by Todd as an expert witness, Judge DeMuniz dramatically enumerated the weaknesses in the state’s original case and the information his investigation had uncovered. Ventura, wearing leg irons, explained how he had wanted to defend himself, but Curtis had never told him of his right to do so.

Despite the excitement generated by the hearing, Ventura still had to return to his cell to await the judge’s ruling, which wasn’t due for at least two months. That stretched into five months before the judge’s clerk called Walter Todd’s office.

On the night of Jan. 4, 1991, a camera crew and a handful of reporters were jostling for space in Todd’s living room when Ventura called collect from prison. “You haven’t heard?” Todd asked, a broad grin on his face. “Oh my God. You won, Santiago. The judge overturned the verdict. It’s over.”

Well, almost. The judge had ruled in Ventura’s favor because no expert witnesses were called in his defense and because he had been denied his constitutional right to testify. According to the ruling, the state would either have to try Ventura again or let him go. Of course, the state could also appeal the decision, thus keeping Ventura in prison while the case dragged through the post-conviction courts one more time. But within a few days, Gov. Goldschmidt promised a conditional pardon to block that move. Now Ventura was free and clear unless the Clackamas County district attorney had enough evidence to retry him. Dist. Atty. Jim O’Leary hasn’t given up hope. “Everyone seems to forget a jury convicted Mr. Morales. The court didn’t send it back because he wasn’t guilty; it was because of his attorney’s competence,” he says. Lopez’s murder, like any other unsolved homicide, is still under investigation and, at least theoretically, Ventura could be retried if new evidence were to implicate him.

But on the morning of Jan. 9, Ventura let out a whoop, pushed open a chain-link gate and walked out of prison. He told reporters that he had never given up hope. He thanked his friends and attorneys. Taking a few steps away from the cameras, he craned his neck. Where was Donna? Suddenly he seemed lost in the open air. Seeing him shiver, someone loaned him a parka to ward off the chill. Then a Volvo roared up and Slepack jumped out. “You’re not going to believe this,” she shouted. “I had a flat tire!” She ran into Ventura’s arms, and they stood together for a long moment, weeping.

FOR THE NEXT 48 HOURS, VENTURA WAS A STAR. AFTER LEAVING prison, he bought some new clothes, then went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch, and it was all on the evening news. The next morning, the Oregonian found Ventura at Slepack’s house, enjoying a plate of huevos rancheros. Then two camera crews followed him to a neighborhood grocery store, where shoppers pushed their carts over to say hello. “I saw you on TV last night and I cried!” exclaimed a woman in the dairy section. “Can I give you a hug?” She did, and that was on TV, too.

After a few days relaxing on the Oregon coast with the Slepacks, Ventura returned to Portland to complete his first order of post-prison business: signing an option agreement with Primetime Entertainment, a New York production company that wanted to buy the movie rights to his story. A few weeks later, Ventura drove back to Salem, where he urged the Oregon Senate’s Judiciary Committee to support a bill that would make it easier for convicts to get another trial when new evidence arises. After testifying, Ventura paid a visit to the new governor, Barbara Roberts, who interrupted a meeting to give him a hug.

Oregon’s criminal justice system had taken Ventura’s life from him. Now that he had it back again, it seemed to belong to someone else. Moving into the Slepacks’ airy wooden A-frame, Ventura made his home in Portland’s tony West Hills. After five years in prison, Ventura liked the luxury, and he loved the solitude. He just wasn’t sure how he felt living among the rich and the powerful. “It’s hard to feel at home,” Ventura observed, “after they send you to prison.”

He tried visiting friends at the migrant labor camps but felt crushed by the poverty and hopelessness. A visit to San Miguel didn’t feel right, either. It was comforting to sleep under his mother’s roof, he said, “but I felt out of place there.” Eight years in America--and four months in the West Hills--had swept him into the modern world.

But as he examined the line of heroes and villains connecting his old life to his new one, Ventura couldn’t always decide who fit where. One night jurors Lee, Ralls and Jaeger treated him to a celebratory dinner. En route to the restaurant, Lee mentioned that she’d received offers from movie producers eager to buy her version of Ventura’s story. She turned the offers down, but Ventura is still angry she even considered them. “These people convict you,” he says incredulously, “and then they try to make money off it?”

With prison behind him, Ventura erected another kind of wall. Although increasingly American in his social habits--he looks visitors squarely in the eye now--Ventura keeps an almost visible distance from new acquaintances and the media, preferring to spend time with his friends from the freedom committee and his university classes. Around the Slepacks, his face brightens, and his tongue loosens. He mimics Jerry’s expressions and greets Donna with a jaunty high-five. The Slepacks don’t have children, but when Ventura moved in, they slipped easily into parental roles. Jerry worries when Ventura stays out too late. Donna keeps track of his public life and makes a point of apologizing for his occasional reticence.

Others are also anxious to see him fulfill their own visions for him. Jerry Slepack noticed it when Ventura decided to delay college for a term and spend the fall in San Miguel. As the news got out, friends approached Slepack with consternation knit deeply into their brows. “You mean he’s not taking the scholarship?” they’d ask.

Still, Judge DeMuniz doesn’t stay up late worrying that Ventura won’t go to college. “Santiago does not belong to us,” he says. “The story does not require him to go to college and get on the honor roll. He should live his life.”

But Ventura’s life will never be the same. Nor will the lives of those who played roles in his story. DeMuniz, for instance, is working on a book about the case. And Slepack has become one of the best-known liberal activists in Oregon, extending the Santiago Freedom Committee into an ongoing lobby for judicial reform.

The teen-ager who went to prison emerged a man. At 24, Ventura’s cheekbones define his face more clearly, and his eyes are recessed into deeper hollows. Transformed by the prison weight room, Ventura’s chest and shoulders ripple and bulge. When he worked as a legal assistant for a Portland attorney last fall, Ventura wore affluent casuals--a blue Lacoste shirt and pressed khakis. Not as formal as the suits and ties most paralegals sport, but Ventura still looked a bit stiff. Something in his posture tells you he wasn’t born with an alligator over his heart. By the time I meet him after dinner for a beer one fall evening, he’s peeled down to a plain sleeveless T-shirt and khakis.

As the dueling wardrobes would attest, it’s hard to tell where the Santiago Freedom Committee ends and Santiago Ventura Morales begins.

“I feel displaced,” he says. “I need to make sure I’m the same person I was five years ago. I need to get a sense of being a Mixtec.” Ventura can’t wait to go home to his people but is equally excited about returning to Portland. Ventura has a green card now, thanks to an Immigration and Naturalization Service deal for agricultural workers, and can stay as long as he likes. Law school could come next, he says. And armed with a law degree, he could either return to help his people in Mexico or work to reform the American judicial system. “I feel I’m destined to do a lot with my life now,” he says, sounding as fiery as Donna Slepack. “Like maybe this is an opportunity for me to help others. My dream is to get political and help my people.”

Anything can happen to Ventura, it seems, because everything already has. “I can see him marrying someone in San Miguel and never coming back,” says Jerry Slepack. “I can see him going to school and becoming a lawyer here. I can see him going back to Mexico and becoming a political figure. I can also see him flunking out of college and getting lost.”

Ventura came back to Portland in January and is now a sophomore at the University of Portland, thanks to the college credits he earned in prison. But living on campus is still new to him. He would have preferred to stay with the Slepacks, but they’re spending most of the year on sabbatical in Chile. When he looks around the cafeteria, Ventura knows he’s probably the only one in the room who has been a migrant laborer or has been convicted of murder or currently has several motion picture studios negotiating to produce a movie about him.

When we meet for the last time on campus, Ventura shows up late and clearly wants to leave early. He has to study for his classes--theology, environmental science and political science. I ask about his new life: the classes, the dorms, the other students, but Ventura shrugs away the questions. “That’s too personal,” he says. Ventura is tired of questions and the fawning looks, the TV reporters who want him to play guitar for the camera. He just wants to get on with college like anyone else.

But those words are barely out of his mouth when, as if on cue, a student approaches our bench. “Haven’t I seen you on TV?” he asks shyly. Ventura stiffens, nods, smiles. He can’t believe it’s happening again.

“I’m so sorry about what happened,” the guy says.

Ventura shrugs. “Thanks.”

“I’m glad you’re here now.”

When the other student leaves, Ventura shakes his head. Won’t it ever be over? Can’t he ever be normal again? Of course not. But he understands this, maybe even appreciates it. The best he can do is try to control it. “I’m going to write my own book,” he says, his own story about what happened. “And I’m going to do it,” he says, “by myself.”


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