About This Saturday Journal
A year after the Columbine school massacre, Americans still wonder how and why such tragedies occur. Seeking answers, The Times examines the lives of the Rouses, whose son committed one of the first school shootings -- a 1995 attack in Lynnville, Tenn.
About This Story
This story is drawn from interviews over the past 18 months and from court documents and other records. The interviews include 30 hours of discussions with Jamie Rouse over two weeks in prison. The families of the shooting victims declined to comment. Dialogue is based on the recollections of at least one participant and often more than one.
Chapter I is written from interviews with Elison and Cheryl Rouse and their sons, Jamie, Jeremy and Adam; Elison’s sister, Carol Rodgers, and her children Billy and Beth; Don and Donna Abbott and their son Roy; and Michael Chapman. It also is written from transcripts of legal proceedings against Jamie Rouse and Steve Abbott, as well as other court documents.
Chapter II is written from interviews with Elison and Cheryl Rouse and their sons; Cheryl’s brother Steve Woodard; Carol Rodgers; Don and Donna Abbott and their son Roy; Linda Fox; Ronnie Britton; Bob and Jane Vick; Charles and June Anderson; Paul Sain; Kelly Webb; Michael Chapman; Robert E. Lee Jr.; and Ray McConnell. It also is written from transcripts of legal proceedings against Jamie Rouse, Steve Abbott and Jeremy Rouse, as well as other court documents. The letter from the Rouses is quoted from the Giles Free Press.
Chapter III is written from interviews with Elison and Cheryl Rouse and their sons; Carol Rodgers; Don and Donna Abbott; Dena and Tommy Ray; Shara Flacy; Robert E. Lee Jr.; and Michael Chapman. It also is written from transcripts of legal proceedings against Jamie Rouse, Steve Abbott and Jeremy Rouse, as well as other court documents.
The telephone rings at the Rouse home in Tight Bark Hollow.
It is a small house, shingled and solitary, huddled among the oaks and the hickories. Cheryl Rouse sits at a desk in the living room. She turns from her computer and picks up the phone.
In this instant, her life divides into before and after.
“Aunt Cheryl, you’ve got to come to school right now!” It is her niece, a freshman. “Aunt Cheryl!” she says, loud and fast. “Either Jamie’s been shot, or he’s shot somebody!”
“Jamie has shot somebody, or he’s been shot.” The line is silent. “Jamie,” her niece repeats. “Jamie Rouse. Your son.”
Jamie is 17 and a senior. He and his brothers, Jeremy, 14, and Adam, 7, attend Richland, a regional elementary and secondary school in Lynnville, about 20 minutes away.
Cheryl is a wisp: 5 feet and 2 inches, 98 pounds. She is 40 years old and has dark hair, flecked with gray, and deep brown eyes. Her husband, Elison, has been on the road for two days driving an 18-wheeler somewhere in the South. In the half-hour since the boys have gone to school, she has taken a shower, put on jeans and a sweatshirt and sat at her Compaq 386 to work on an inventory of shock absorber parts for Gabriel Ride Control Inc. over in Pulaski. Her hair is still wet. She is barefoot.
She runs to the bedroom, grabs some socks and tennis shoes. She finds her purse, and she races out the door. It is getting colder, but she does not put on a coat. Jamie has the Chevy pickup, so she runs on. The chill air blows through her damp hair. Her tennis shoes crunch on the gravel. She turns an ankle and stumbles but regains her footing and keeps running. It is a short dash now to the home of her husband’s mother. Panting, Cheryl knocks. She feels a stab of guilt. She cannot look Jamie’s grandmother in the eye.
“Jamie shot someone at school, and he’s been shot,” Cheryl says. “Beth called and said. I don’t know any details. That’s all I know, is what she said.”
She takes her mother-in-law’s car and turns right on Tight Bark Road, then left onto Beech Hill Road, past the Church of Christ where she and Elison attend every Sunday and on Wednesdays as often as possible. Two more right turns, then a left onto Buford Station Road. Dozens of cars pass her going the other way. Kids, all of them, leaving the school. Something is definitely wrong. She grips the wheel. Her knuckles are white. She feels shaky, a little weak. She had felt her blood drain during the phone call, and it has not come back. A right turn on Highway 31, and she pulls into the driveway at school.
It is 8:30 a.m., a half-hour after classes usually start. Richland has 1,400 students and teachers. Hundreds are outside. Some are crying. She parks in the first space she can find and runs through the main doorway. It opens onto a lobby and the administrative offices. Students and teachers are milling about. Some are in tears. Straight ahead is a hallway. Its doors are closed. She looks to her left, up another hallway. It is sealed with yellow tape. The tape says: Police Crime Scene, Do Not Cross.
“Who are you?” someone demands.
Softly, Cheryl Rouse gives her name.
“This is the perpetrator’s mother,” a man says. Everyone looks. The significance of the word “perpetrator” does not sink in. Cheryl says her niece has called to say that Jamie has shot someone and that he has been shot.
Another man takes her to an office. “Somebody’ll come and talk to you in a little bit.”
“What about Jamie?” she asks.
Jamie Rouse: “It was too late for me. It was just too late. In order for me to change, I had to be broken. It got to the point where my mind wouldn’t be molded. It had to be broken.”
Like most mothers, Cheryl has a routine. She sets her alarm for 5:30 a.m., gets up, makes coffee and drinks a cup. Only then does she awaken her eldest, Jamie. Next she wakes up Jeremy and finally Adam. While she takes Adam to meet his bus, the two older boys get dressed. On this morning, Jamie puts on black jeans and a black T-shirt, emblazoned with a picture of the heavy metal band Pantera. As Jeremy leaves for school with a cousin, Jamie reaches for a Remington Viper .22-caliber rifle on his gun rack. He goes to his father’s closet and takes down a brick of cartridges. It holds 500 rounds. Jamie uses a lot of bullets squirrel hunting and target practicing, and Elison buys them by the brick because they are cheaper. There are 443 rounds left. They are Winchester long-rifle, high-velocity bullets. Jamie slips 10 into a clip. He takes the Viper, the clip and the rest of the bullets outside, and he tucks them out of sight near the house.
Cheryl returns from the bus stop and sits for a moment in her brown cloth recliner. She says goodbye to Jamie as she always does. “Have a good day. See you this afternoon.” This morning, however, he does not reply with his usual “Later!” Instead, he stops just inside the front door. With a hesitation that will haunt her forever, he turns to look at his mother. “Well,” he says, “I guess I’ll go now.”
As he steps onto the narrow porch and starts down the stairs, Steve Abbott calls. Steve is one of his best friends. Jamie is still in the yard. Cordless receiver in hand, Cheryl goes to the door. She shouts to wait. Her voice barely carries in the misty morning, through the sycamores and the dogwoods. Jamie takes the phone. Steve asks when he will be at his house to pick him up for school. A little early, Jamie replies. In fact, he is on his way. He returns the telephone to his mother, and she takes it back inside. With Cheryl out of sight, Jamie goes to where he has hidden the Viper.
“It was semiautomatic, but I liked the way it looked too. That was the one I wanted. It didn’t look like an old-timey [gun]. It looked like a modern gun. I mean, that’s the way it was. Black.”
Jamie places the rifle, the clip and the bullets onto the seat of the family pickup, and he drives out of Tight Bark Hollow. Seventy-five miles south of Nashville, the hollow is named for an early settler so stingy that people said he was tight as the bark on a tree. Jamie stops in the nearest town, Frankewing, population 300, where Steve Abbott is waiting. Jamie puts a Morbid Angel CD into his new Sony Discman and turns it up:
Hatework . . .
Hatework . . . and the Earth’s left burning
I call death . . . death is answering me.
Steve Abbott sees the gun, the clip and the ammunition on the seat. The night before, he remembers, Jamie had told him he was going to kill a girl at school, the principal, a coach and a state trooper who had given him two speeding tickets. Steve eyes the rifle. “Who is that for?” he asks. Jamie replies, “It’s going to happen today.” Steve has heard Jamie make threats before, even against a girlfriend and his own brother Jeremy. But Jamie has never done anything. Besides, Steve knows him: They have worked together on cars, hiked in the woods, played Super Nintendo. Gun or no gun, he thinks, Jamie is a friend--not a killer.
On their way out of Frankewing, they stop at a BP station. Jamie stocks up on Marlboros. With the rifle across his lap, he drives toward Lynnville, population 357. He turns on Abernathy Road and stops at the hillside home of another friend, Stephen Ray. The radio is turned up loud. Stephen walks up and rags them about it. Then he sees the gun and the bullets. The day before, he remembers, Jamie had said something about getting a cop and stealing his car. Stephen thought Jamie was kidding. He poked him and said, “I’ll help, if I can drive.” Now Stephen asks, “Who are you going after?” Either Jamie or Steve--the music is too loud to tell--laughs and replies: “Hobbs and whoever gets in the way.” Wayne Hobbs is the high school principal. Stephen Ray does not believe it. He replies: “You’re crazy.”
Jamie suggests to Steve Abbott that they switch places. Steve drives the Chevy pickup back down Abernathy Road. With Stephen Ray trailing in his car, Steve turns right on Buford Station Road. Jamie holds the rifle in his lap. Steve hears him say that now he can shoot the trooper, who usually parks in front of the Richland campus. Steve starts to wonder, even to worry. Jamie has to be joking, just acting big. When they turn right on Highway 31, they will be able to see the school. It is a collection of single-story tan brick buildings with gray trim and covered walkways, sprawled alongside the road. Steve will later say that if there was a cop, he would have turned south away from school. The trooper is not there. So he turns north, toward campus. Maybe now, Steve thinks, Jamie will drop whatever is bothering him and forget about it.
Steve pulls the pickup into the main entrance for students. He turns left to park where he usually does, up by the football field. “No, wait,” Jamie says. “Park over here in the front.” It is Jamie’s truck, so Steve leaves it, nose out, alongside several cars on a strip of grass in front of two portable classrooms, near the north doors to the school. Jamie grabs the rifle and jumps out. The clip is in. Only now, Steve will testify later, does he believe that Jamie is going to do something.
Steve hurls his door open and climbs out.
“Jamie!” he yells.
But Jamie keeps walking.
“Jamie!” he yells again and again.
Jamie does not stop.
Steve gives chase, but he gets scared. He freezes up, slows down. He tries to run. Jamie is more than 20 feet ahead of him.
At 7:55 a.m., on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 1995, James Elison Rouse walks into the north hall at Richland School. He has brown eyes, black hair. It is cropped in back and on the sides, but it is a foot long on top and tied in a ponytail. He has a high-average IQ of 115. He is 5 feet and 7 inches, and he weighs 122 pounds. He has a deep voice, short strides and a hunched-over gait. He is carrying his Remington Viper .22-caliber rifle with the cartridges in its clip.
“I don’t remember feeling angry. I wasn’t feeling nothing. Like I said, I don’t remember feeling anything. Period. Empty. Hollow. I guess that ‘empty’ would be probably the best word. I was just--I wasn’t the same. I wasn’t feeling anything, that’s the point. All day. I mean, you know, I was empty the whole day. Just nothing.”
He walks through double doors and down the hallway. It is noisy. He walks to the right, a foot or two from the cinder-block wall. It is lined with steel lockers. He walks by four classrooms. They have students and teachers inside. He walks with his head up. The pace is normal. He walks with the butt of the rifle tucked up under his right arm, like a hunter carrying a gun through a field. Some students walk in front of him, others walk behind, still others pass him going the other way. Some notice his gun. They think it is a joke. One of them notices his face. It is blank. Jamie does not speak.
Carolyn Foster and Carol Yancey, teachers with classrooms diagonally across from each other, are talking about cooking. It is Carolyn’s turn to host Thanksgiving dinner for her extended family. She has asked Carol for a recipe. ‘I have [it] this morning,’ Carol tells her, and they go into Carolyn’s classroom to make a copy. They step back into the hall and are going over the directions when Jamie walks by. They are the first teachers he sees. Both look up. Carol Yancey thinks, “What are you doing with that gun?” A student hears Carolyn Foster ask: “Jamie, what are you doing?”
Jamie does not say anything. He lifts the rifle to his shoulder, and he aims. He tries to fire, but the safety is on. So he flicks it off, and he shoots. Because the Viper is semiautomatic, he does not have to recock it. He aims again and pulls the trigger once more. One bullet hits Carol Yancey on the left side of her forehead, below the hairline. It makes a small hole and explodes fragments of her skull into her brain. The bullet expands and blows a larger hole in her skull above her left ear as it leaves. It tears off a big patch of scalp. The other bullet hits Carolyn Foster in her left upper lip. It knocks out two teeth, shreds her tongue and severs her right carotid artery and her right jugular vein. It lodges in the right side of her neck. Both teachers fall. Carol Yancey strikes her head hard. Blood flows from Carolyn Foster’s mouth, and pink froth bubbles from her nose. She looks up. She tries to get up, but she cannot. Some students look at Jamie. He wears an empty grin.
Carol Yancey, 50, has taught for four years, then stayed home to raise three children, then taught for eight more years: math and science, mainly--up to seven classes in one year. Many students call her their favorite teacher. Doctors will decide it is too dangerous to try to remove bone fragments from her brain. She will carry them forever. Much of her head will be numb for years, maybe forever. She will have no desire to return to teaching, mostly because she will be afraid to turn her back on a classroom of students. Jamie had been in one of her classes. They never had a cross word.
Carolyn Foster, 58, is a favorite among the students too. She has taught at Richland for 17 years: typing, computer keyboarding and other business skills. She and her husband own a wholesale flower shop in Pulaski and are well connected in the community. She has survived a tornado. She has survived cancer. She will bleed to death on the hallway floor. Her husband will be so bereft that their daughter will spend the night worrying that he might kill himself. He will tell his grandchildren where their Granny has gone, and it will be the hardest thing he has ever done. One grandson will turn 4 within days, worried that he is somehow to blame for his grandmother’s death. Another grandson will take his first steps, and her son will weep because she is not there to see it. A sister’s husband will die of a stroke, and the sister will think that the slaying hastened his death.
One student screams. Another drops her books and runs. Others shout. Jamie walks on. With one hand, he holds the Viper in the air. Near the administrative offices are two elementary classrooms. One is for second-graders, including Jamie’s brother Adam, and the other is for kindergartners. Some of the youngest are returning from breakfast in the cafeteria, and others are being dropped off by their parents and are walking through the main entrance to the school, near the offices. One 6-year-old is standing outside his classroom. He does not understand. A teacher’s aide sees him. “Let’s go in here,” she suggests and gives him a gentle push through his classroom doorway.
Jamie keeps walking. He turns east toward the cafeteria. It contains 200 students, and the doors are open. The hall is packed. As many as 100 students and teachers are hurrying to their classes. Jamie walks on. He raises the rifle to his shoulder, aims and shoots. A bullet strikes Diane Collins, a freshman. She is standing 15 feet away, next to a friend. The bullet cuts into the right side of Diane’s neck just above her collarbone. It tears through her right carotid artery and her right jugular vein and rips a large hole in the back of her neck. It ricochets off a cinder-block wall, and it burrows into the ceiling. Diane turns in a circle, spurting blood with every beat of her heart. She places both hands on her throat, then stares at them. They are covered with her blood. Her knees buckle. She breaks her fall and leaves two bloody handprints on the floor. She sits, then gazes across the hall at a boy and girl, who are petrified.
Ron Shirey, a coach, hears the shot. He thinks it is a firecracker, and he takes five steps toward the noise. He sees Diane, the blood gushing from her throat. He reaches toward her, puts one hand on her neck to stop it and another around her waist. He looks over her shoulder. He sees Jamie with his rifle. Ron Shirey lifts Diane and carries her away. Some students begin to scream. Others pour out of their classrooms. “Get out of the hall!” he shouts. “Get out of the hall!” Gently he lays Diane on the floor in a teacher’s work area near the Language Arts Department. He fears that Jamie will walk around the corner and shoot her again. In desperation, he tries to close the wound in her throat. A teacher brings paper towels to compress it. The school has a nurse. He asks someone to find her. In his mind, he sees Jamie’s face. It is without expression.
Diane Collins is barely 14 years old. She sings. She writes poetry. She is the best friend of Jamie’s brother Jeremy. Along with Steve Abbott, her brother, Bill, is one of Jamie’s two best friends. Her little sister, Chrissy, is in the second grade with Jamie’s brother Adam. They ride the school bus together, and they are good friends. Jamie is at the Collins home a lot. Bill is at Jamie’s house so much he calls Jamie’s parents Mom and Dad. Diane Collins will be taken by ambulance to a hospital in nearby Columbia and then by helicopter to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, where she will die at 10:54 a.m. Her parents cannot hold her, comfort her, look in her eyes and say they love her. All they can do is wonder how scared she must have been. They cannot even tell her goodbye. All they can do is claim her body, blue-purple and swollen. Her parents feel as if they were killed along with her. Jamie, they say, “will never suffer enough.”
James Nichols, who teaches agriculture, is standing no more than three feet from Jamie. When Diane is shot, he sees Jamie out of the corner of an eye. With his right hand, he reaches out and grabs the rifle. “Give me that, Jamie,” he says. They struggle. He spins Jamie against a wall. Jamie goes down. They wrestle into the center of the hall. They grapple for the rifle. It goes off. A bullet hits a wall and careens into the ceiling. He flattens Jamie onto the floor, face up, and yells for help. Two students pile on top of Jamie’s head and shoulders. In the north hall, Ralph Johnson, who teaches biology and chemistry, is cradling Carolyn Foster’s head in his lap. She is struggling and bleeding heavily. She tries again to get up. He comforts her but realizes that he cannot do much. He hears one of the gunshots near the cafeteria, then the other. He has only one thought: Get that gun. Reluctantly, he leaves Carolyn Foster and runs toward the sound. He turns the corner in time to see the fray. He falls on Jamie’s chest and slips one hand over the trigger guard on the rifle so it cannot be fired again. He tries to remove the clip. It will not come out.
“Jamie,” James Nichols says, “give me that gun.”
“I can’t,” Jamie replies. “I’ve went too far.”
Johnson pushes on the rifle. At the same time, Nichols pulls. It takes them both, but they tear the Viper out of Jamie’s hands.
Nichols carries it to the principal’s office and unloads it.
Johnson, still pinning Jamie to the floor, feels a tap on his shoulder.
“We have him,” someone says.
He looks up to see a deputy sheriff who teaches an anti-drug abuse class to fifth-graders. The deputy takes Jamie into custody, stands him against a wall and asks if he has any more weapons.
“No,” Jamie says.
The deputy handcuffs him and pats him down to be sure. He turns Jamie over to a second deputy, who marches him out of the school and drives him in his patrol car into Pulaski, the county seat.
“What bothers me the most is that the teachers--you know, they didn’t cross my mind. I just don’t understand why it was them. They were there, I guess. Let’s change the subject. Let’s get onto something different. Those people, the victims, hadn’t ever done nothing to me. It would have been one thing if they had picked on me, but they never picked on me or nothing.”
It is Jeremy who learns first whom Jamie has shot. His teacher pulls him into a classroom, away from the horror. Jeremy wants to know, so she tells him what his brother has done. When Jeremy hears that one of Jamie’s victims is Diane Collins, he wants to beat Jamie, to choke him. The teacher brings Jeremy to his mother. She tells Cheryl that Jamie has shot two teachers, Carolyn Foster and Carol Yancey, as well as a student, Diane Collins. She says that Mrs. Foster is dying. But she adds that Mrs. Yancey and Diane are still alive.
“Diane?” Cheryl says.
“Diane Collins!” Jeremy replies, trying to make it sink in.
“Diane Collins?” Cheryl asks. “My gosh. Jamie shot Diane?” Cheryl knows that Jamie would not hurt Diane for anything. Jeremy begins to cry. He hugs his mother, and she holds him, and they weep. “What has Jamie done,” Cheryl asks, “to these families?”
Jeremy’s teacher holds both of them. Go ahead, she says, and cry.
“This is a nightmare,” Cheryl says. “This is not happening. It’s like a nightmare, and I can’t wake up.”
“I know,” the teacher says. “I know what you mean.”
Silently, Cheryl prays for Diane. “Please, God,” she pleads, “don’t let her die.” Then she prays for Carol Yancey.
Adam’s teacher takes him to an office away from the blood. His only comfort is that his friend Chrissy Collins, Diane’s little sister, has been brought to the office too. They sit together. Adam has seen the yellow tape, but he and Chrissy are not sure what is happening. Adam’s teacher is with them, but she does not say anything. Adam is growing scared. Finally, Jeremy walks in.
“Where’s Mom?” Adam asks.
“It was kind of a dream. I think another way to describe it is like watching a movie. I mean, it wasn’t an out-of-body experience. But it was just like I was there to observe. I was just observing things, not an active participant, I guess. That’s the best way to put it.”
On Interstate 65 near Franklin, a few miles south of Nashville, a telephone rings in the cab of a Kenworth. It is pulling a flatbed trailer carrying 40,000 pounds of coiled steel. Cheryl’s husband, Elison, picks up the receiver.
The night before, he had loaded lumber in southern Alabama and driven up to Clarksville, Tenn., northwest of Nashville. He had napped for three hours in the sleeper behind his cab. Then he had driven into Nashville and loaded the steel. Now he is heading south, bound for the Gabriel shock absorber plant in Pulaski. The telephone call is from Elison’s boss, who says his son will meet him at Exit 46, behind a small truck stop cafe called Stan’s. Drivers do this now and then to swap trucks, trailers or loads. But when Elison sees the son pull up in a pickup along with another driver, he knows something is wrong.
His first thought is that his mother has died. Or there has been an accident. “Elison, I can’t tell you,” the boss’s son says, “because all I have heard is hearsay. But there has been some trouble at Richland School, and you need to come with me.” Elison’s next thought is Jeremy. Elison has been to school many times because his middle son gets into a lot of fistfights. At least once, he was in the principal’s office promising that Jeremy would never fight again, when at that moment Jeremy was at the far end of the school in still another fight. With Jeremy and fighting on his mind, he talks all the way to school about a telephone hotline and several other programs that he would like to begin as a community service for all the teenagers who need help.
As the pickup approaches the school, Elison sees a platoon of TV news trucks. The police are everywhere: sheriff’s deputies, patrolmen from Pulaski, state troopers, even detectives from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Elison’s fears turn to Jamie. Maybe Jamie has been in a fight. He is not much of a fighter. Maybe he is hurt. Perhaps dead. A deputy stops Elison at the door.
It is 10:30 a.m. “I’m Elison Rouse,” he says. “I understand something is happening with my son here.”
The deputy steps aside.
Elison sees a teacher who is a friend of the family. Elison holds out his hand. Awkwardly, the teacher does not shake.
“What’s going on?” Elison asks. “What’s happening?”
The teacher stares. He is pale and looks ill.
Elison tries to speak to two other people. Then he sees the yellow tape. Finally, he spots his nephew, also a senior. “Uncle Elison, Jamie has shot some people and killed some people. Aunt Cheryl is in the coach’s office, in here.”
Michael Chapman, the sheriff’s chief investigator, stands at the door. He lets Elison in and says he will be back to ask some more questions. Elison goes straight to Cheryl. He holds her, and they both cry. Cheryl tells him that Jamie has shot Diane Collins and the two teachers. Diane and Carol Yancey are still alive, but Carolyn Foster is dead. Cheryl does not recall, but Elison vividly remembers that she looks at him and says: “Our son’s a murderer.”
Elison Rouse is 38 years old, 6 feet and an inch tall and weighs 220 pounds, much of it muscle. He kneels and puts his elbows on the seat of a chair. He buries his face in his hands, and he weeps. In his grief, it does not penetrate who Diane is. “Please,” he prays, “let the girl live. Please let the girl live, and please let Mrs. Yancey live.”
Cheryl’s pain is so great that it seems physical. If only she could trade places with his victims. “Why didn’t he do it to me, instead of them? It wouldn’t be as hard.” She wants more than anything to tell the families how sorry she is. If only she could trade places with Jamie. Then she thinks of Jeremy and Adam. Jamie is not her only son, she tells herself. She tries in vain to stop crying. She repeats: “I’ve got two other kids.”
Jeremy brings Adam to their parents. He tells him that their big brother has shot somebody. “Whoa!” Adam replies. He cannot believe it. The two boys walk in to find their mother and father crying. “Jamie has done something very bad,” their mother says, “and he might not ever come home.” Their father is more direct: Jamie has shot three people. Both Elison and Cheryl hold their boys as tightly as they can. Adam has never seen his parents weep like this.
Investigator Chapman returns to the room, along with Sheriff Eddie Bass. They want to know why Jamie had refused to give up the gun. Several people in the melee say they pleaded: “Jamie, we need the gun. There ain’t no sense to this. Give me the gun.”
“My God,” Cheryl replies. “He was going to kill himself.”
Did he have some reason to shoot Diane Collins?
Cheryl is numb. “No, no way. He cared about Diane.”
Why did he shoot the others?
To Elison and Cheryl, none of this makes any sense. Carolyn Foster was not even one of his teachers. For a moment, Cheryl gets confused, disoriented. Where is she? What is going to happen? Is this a dream?
Jeremy cannot bear to hear what Jamie has done. He steps outside. Chapman brings him back into the room and accuses him of riding to school with Jamie and walking into the north hall right behind him, laughing and cutting up.
Jeremy is astonished. “I didn’t!”
Chapman claims to have witnesses who say he did.
“That ain’t true! That’s not true. You’ve got to believe me. I did not. I was not with him. I didn’t know what was going on.” Jeremy begins to cry. “Mom and Daddy, you believe me, don’t you?”
Cheryl steps in. She had witnessed Jeremy’s departure this morning with his cousin. “I don’t care what you think,” she tells Chapman, angrily. “Jeremy did not ride to school with Jamie this morning because Jeremy left at least 10 minutes before Jamie did.” Elison knows his two sons do not get along and that Jamie would not give Jeremy a ride to school even if his father bought the gasoline. Elison’s eyes blur with tears. “We know for a fact that he didn’t ride with Jamie,” Elison says, flatly. “He didn’t know anything about it.”
Chapman leaves. Elison and Cheryl take Adam and Jeremy into their arms. All are crying. “The four of us will get through this,” Elison says. “We will make it through this, with God’s help.”
Elison’s sister Carol arrives. The door to the coach’s office is open, so she walks in. Elison and Cheryl are still weeping. Jeremy’s face is raw. Adam sits quietly. My God, Carol realizes, what an awesome horror to face at age 7. Carol, a nurse at Vanderbilt, describes how badly Diane is hurt. Cheryl sees the wounds in her mind and grows nauseated. Jamie has caused this. She knows. But she cannot bring her heart to believe it. She thinks of Diane’s parents, but she cannot imagine how they feel. She thinks about Diane’s brother, Bill, and her little sister, Chrissy. She hopes their father and mother will not be angry with them for being her children’s friends.
Elison is glassy-eyed, Carol notices, in shock. He is disgraced. Angry. He is angry at himself, as a father. He is angry at Jamie for what he has done to his victims, to his own family and to himself. Elison does not recall, but Cheryl and Carol vividly remember that he says: “I wish it was Jamie dead instead.”
“No. No. Don’t say that,” Carol responds. “As long as there’s a breath in his body, there’s hope for his soul.”
“You’re right,” Elison replies. Her words remind him that Carolyn Foster is a Christian--indeed, a Christian of his own denomination, the Church of Christ. She will go to heaven. But Jamie has yet to be saved.
Despite her pain for Jamie’s victims and their families, Cheryl does not share Elison’s anger at their son. She knows that others will think she should, and she suffers guilt for it. But she is not going to live according to what other people think. “I’m his mother,” she says to herself. “He is my son. I love him. I will be there for him. If other people don’t like it, then that is their problem.”
She asks herself over and over how her son could have done such a thing, and she begins to suspect: “He had to have been really hurting badly himself to do something like that.”
She and Elison ask to see him. Just before they leave for Pulaski, where he is behind bars, they hug Carol and say another prayer. It is for Carol Yancey and Diane Collins.
“The first time that I felt anything was in the holding cell. When they first arrested me they had me in a little juvenile holding cell, and the TV was on in a back room somewhere. I could hear it. That’s when I first felt anything. When they explained what happened at the school, I was just--'My God, what have I done?’ It was unbelievable. Sorrow--I don’t know the words to describe it. It was a horrible feeling. ‘Oh, my God, what have I done?’
“I just broke down crying. I remember saying, ‘Please, God, don’t let them die.’ That was the most horrible feeling I’ve ever had. I had pure pain and sorrow. That’s when I actually caved in. That’s when it just--I guess that was the break. It was a tainted, kind of dirty feeling, a sick feeling. I sat there and bawled for no telling how long. I mean, it just all came out in a constant flood.
“I remember when they were taking me in to see my parents, I saw my dad crying. There was only one time I’d seen my dad cry before, and that was when his dad had died. He was a different person when I saw him cry. This was the first time I’d seen him cry for me.”
Cheryl and Elison leave Jeremy and Adam in a foyer at the Giles County youth services office. Jamie enters in handcuffs. Cheryl takes his face in her hands. She strokes his hair out of his eyes and tells him, “Jamie, I still love you.” His parents sit with him through an interrogation by Michael Chapman. They think there is no harm in letting Chapman ask their son why he did this. They want to know themselves. So they waive his right to the presence of a lawyer.
Chapman announces that Diane Collins has died, along with Carolyn Foster. He says Jamie will be charged with their murders.
Jamie cries. The reason for what he has done? “I don’t know,” he says. He offers no more than an unlikely smattering of car troubles, a restriction on his driver’s license, a mistaken accusation that he has been truant, an argument with a student about a fender bender and difficulties with an English teacher the year before. “Is there something I done, Jamie?” Elison asks. “No,” Jamie says. “Nothing y’all have done.”
Chapman asks not only about motive but premeditation. Through tears and a clutter of inaudible responses, Jamie offers these replies:
Q. As you walked in, what were you thinking?
A. Kill all the teachers.
Q. How did the thing with Diane happen, then? Just something that you didn’t mean to do?
A. Didn’t mean to.
Q. Did you mistake her for somebody else? Or, see, I--OK, let me just ask you, Coach Shirey was standing behind her. Did you miss?
THE FATHER: Are you nodding your head yes, that you meant to shoot the coach instead of Diane?
CHAPMAN: If you can, answer the question of where you were when you made up your mind that you were going to do it.
A. Yesterday evening. . . . It was almost 12 o’clock.
Q. At night?
A. At school.
Q. Is there anything you want to say about it?
A. I’m sorry.
Q. I’m going to ask you if you can think of anything that could have been done differently, to keep this from happening.
A. Kill me.
Mike Chapman will use Jamie’s response to his father’s question for an indictment that will include the attempted murders of Carol Yancey and Ron Shirey.
“They all kept hounding me. I mean, you know, I just tried to give them something. I don’t know why I said, ‘Kill all the teachers.’ I didn’t believe it. I was already in bad shape, and just, ‘Why? Why did you do it?’ I said that more or less so they would leave me alone.”
After the interrogation, the youth services officer telephones Shara Flacy, the public defender. Elison and Cheryl do not know there is such a person. They do not have the money for a private lawyer. Shara Flacy takes Jamie’s case. Tennessee law, she says, does not allow the death penalty for a juvenile offender, even if he is tried as an adult. But, she says, being transferred into adult court is almost a certainty. This, she says, means Jamie faces life in prison.
Cheryl is red-eyed and trembling. How could she have prevented this? How could she have missed such pain? “I have failed,” she tells herself. “I failed him.” Jamie must have wanted to provoke someone into killing him. That one of her children wants to die makes her feel worse than she ever has. She is sure that she heard Jamie say not once but three times that he is sorry. She regrets letting him face Chapman without a lawyer. But it is too late.
Silence falls between her and Elison. Neither can reach the other. “How can Jamie have done it?” Elison asks himself. Elison’s family is full of schoolteachers: his mother, his father, his sister and his brother-in-law. “Why did he want to kill teachers?” Tears come again. Elison blames himself. Sons, he is mindful, turn out the way their fathers raise them. He, too, wishes he had not waived Jamie’s rights. He is angry--at himself, at Chapman, at the system and at Jamie. “My boy did this. How could he?”
Deputies bring Jamie to his mother, father and two brothers to say goodbye. He wears orange coveralls. He is shackled and handcuffed. Cheryl cries but tries hard not to let it show. She hugs him, kisses him on the cheek and says she loves him and that they will see him as soon as possible. Silently, she hopes that he will still be alive. Elison hugs him. His dreams for Jamie are over--school, a career, marriage. Jamie will be locked up for the rest of his life.
They watch him hobble away.
“I remember surrendering to God [on the way to jail]. Most of my teenage years, you know, I didn’t want nothing to do with God. There was a point where I outright hated God. I wasn’t a devil worshiper. But I didn’t like God. I remember we had just went past the Delta Express [truck stop] where I worked, and right then I surrendered to God. There was no fight in me anymore. Now there was no more hatred. You can get in front of God, you can stand there and defy God, you can curse him, you can do your best to blaspheme his name, and it’s going to come back to you. You might get away with it for a little while, but in the end--at that particular point, I was broken.’
It is 5 p.m. Elison and Cheryl Rouse and their other two sons drive back to Tight Bark Hollow. Elison corrects himself about the vow he had made back at Richland School. “The five of us will get through this. The five of us.”
One caller threatens to torch the house. The other says, “You’re going to die.”
A friend at the fire insurance company warns them to keep their premiums paid; they are now a high risk, and the firm will drop them if it can. Cheryl couldn’t care less if the house burns, but she cannot bear the thought of losing photos of Jamie. She can take new pictures of Jeremy and Adam, but Jamie will probably be locked up forever.
Elison notices that Sheriff Eddie Bass decides to take Jamie to Murfreesboro right away, out of the county. “Are Cheryl and I going to have to worry about him making it up to Murfreesboro alive?” he asks the sheriff, in front of his deputies. Elison sees some of the deputies flush blood red. The sheriff looks straight at Elison and guarantees that nobody will hurt Jamie. Elison realizes some people want his whole family to die. He fears that someone will shoot Cheryl, Jeremy, Adam or him. He sees that there is not much the sheriff can do to prevent it.
Elison also fears that some people here in Giles County--probably including some of the victims’ kin--would like to see him, maybe even Cheryl, go to jail. Elison knows he is the one who bought Jamie’s rifle for his birthday. He knows the gun is registered in his name. He knows he purchased the bullets. He knows Jamie used his truck. He knows it is Cheryl’s word against anybody’s that she did not know that Jamie took the gun to school. As sure as Elison cannot afford a lawyer for Jamie, he cannot hire one for Cheryl or for himself. The only attorney he can find in Tennessee who will take Jamie’s case wants $50,000 up front. So Jamie will have to stick with Public Defender Shara Flacy. She warns Cheryl and Elison not to ask Jamie any questions about what he did or why. While spouses cannot be forced to testify against each other, parents can be forced to testify against their children and vice versa. If the Rouses find out anything that can be used against Jamie and refuse to testify, then they can go to jail. If that happens, what will become of Jeremy and Adam?
What will happen to them anyway? Jeremy is afraid that his parents--or worse still, Adam--will be hated, even harassed. Like most 14-year-olds, Jeremy figures he can brave this kind of thing himself. If the harassment is aimed at anyone else in his family, however, then it will be more than he can stand. Especially if anything happens to Adam. Jeremy knows this will anger him quickest of all, and he fears that he might do something stupid. So he steels himself and resolves not to get mad. He tells other kids to just shut up about it.
Perhaps Jeremy and Adam should go away for a while. Cheryl packs them up and sends them home with her parents, in Wayne County, an hour and a half away. Her biggest fear, however, is that Jamie will kill himself. Cheryl can feel it. It is a mother’s intuition: Her son wants to die.
On Nov. 16, 1995, one day after the shooting, Elison and Cheryl drive to Murfreesboro. A young woman at the jail says Jamie is on suicide watch. She opens two locked doors and leads them to a gray-painted room barely large enough for two metal folding chairs. The chairs face a wall with a patch of foggy plexiglass a half-inch thick. At the center of the plexiglass is a circle of small holes. The tiny room is hot and stuffy. It stinks of sweat. On the walls, some of the Rouses’ predecessors have scratched their names. Cheryl and Elison look through the circle of holes. Jamie is on the other side. He is pale, shaking. His watchers have taken away the rubber band that holds his ponytail, so his hair covers his face. It is uncombed, straggly. He hides behind it, and he will not look up.
“How are you?” Cheryl asks. It is hard to hear through the holes. She puts an ear up closer.
“I’m OK.” He sounds muffled.
“Look at us,” she pleads, nearly in tears.
Jamie glances up. His eyes are red from crying. He drops his head and hunches his shoulders.
“I love you,” his mother says. Elison says it. Cheryl longs to tear down the wall. She and Elison need to hug their son. They have not done so nearly enough, and they need to do it now more than ever. Cheryl wants to hold him and tell him that it will be all right, that she will make it all go away. She cannot. She remembers how Jamie would fall when he was a child and how she would kiss his hurt and make it better. She cannot make this any better, and Elison cannot either. They cannot even touch him. It is not right, she thinks, for a youngster to be locked up and denied contact with his family. Youngsters need reassurance, they need to know they are loved, they need to feel it. She does not want Jamie to see that she has been crying. He looks up again, and she thinks that he can tell.
He lowers his head.
“Look at us,” she begs, “so we can see that you are OK.”
Jamie lifts his chin, but he will not look his parents in the eye. He says not a word. They do not know what to tell him, so each says again, “I love you.”
Cheryl is torn. The visit lasts 30 minutes. It seems like a long time, but she does not want it to end.
Finally, a jailer knocks, and Jamie says it means he has to go.
“Bye,” his parents say. “I love you. See you next time.”
Jamie walks away without a word.
“I remember feeling ashamed--ashamed. I remember Mama crying and Daddy crying. I remember asking Daddy for a Bible. He said he’d get me one. I don’t remember a whole lot of what we said, but just having that wall, that little plexiglass separating us--it was very painful.”
What did he think was going to happen to him?
“I didn’t know.”
Outside, where no one can see them, Elison and Cheryl weep. The next day, they hear that investigators have arrested Jamie’s friend Steve Abbott. The district attorney already is charging Jamie with 1) the premeditated murder of teacher Carolyn Foster; 2) the murder of student Diane Collins, while trying to shoot at coach Ron Shirey; 3) the attempted murder of teacher Carol Yancey and 4) the attempted murder of the coach. Now the district attorney is charging Steve Abbott with criminal responsibility for each of Jamie’s actions. Steve, the district attorney alleges, intentionally, knowingly, willfully solicited, directed, aided or attempted to aid him.
Four days after the shooting, the Rouses encounter the Abbotts at the Murfreesboro jail. The Abbotts are quiet. They seem to be uncomprehending. Cheryl knows how they must feel: To the Abbotts, this must be like their first visit with Jamie. Cheryl and Donna Abbott reach for each other. “I’m so sorry,” Cheryl says. How can this be? Both she and Elison recall Jamie telling investigator Michael Chapman that he did not think Steve had taken him seriously. How could Steve have taken part knowingly, willfully or intentionally? The Abbotts say nothing. Jamie has messed up his life, Cheryl thinks, and now somebody else is going to have to pay. The Abbotts probably resent them.
Cheryl does not want to leave Tight Bark Hollow ever again. She does not want to leave her house, she does not want to see anyone, she does not want to talk to anybody. She is afraid of what people must be thinking. No one, she is sure, wants to have anything to do with them.
The Rouses do not go to the Foster and Collins funerals. Mostly family and friends attend services for Diane Collins. A minister reads a letter from her older sister, who tells how badly she will miss Diane’s laughter and her beautiful smile. More than 1,000 people attend services for Carolyn Foster. Six television stations send camera crews. Elison is afraid to cause the families more hurt. “We’re the last people that they want to see,” Cheryl agrees. She and Elison are afraid to send flowers. They wish they could do something--anything--to tell the families of Jamie’s victims how sorry they are. What about telephoning? No, Cheryl says, “they wouldn’t want to hear from us.” In the end, they decide on the flowers. To avoid a stir, though, they ask people at Elison’s job to call in the order for them. The Fosters send a thank-you note.
For days, they hole up. Jeremy and Adam return from their grandparents and hide in the hollow with them. The only people Elison wants around are Cheryl, the two boys, his sisters, his mother and his in-laws. Cheryl is afraid that people will see them and say, “Yeah, their son is a murderer. What kind of a parent. . . ? They must be awful parents.” Cheryl and Elison quit reading newspapers. When they hear Jamie’s name on the radio, they turn it off. They do the same to the TV when they see his picture, taken from a school yearbook. They leave Tight Bark Hollow only to go to the jail and to the public defender’s office. Elison removes the camper shell from his pickup, hoping that nobody will recognize the truck. They avoid both the Texaco and BP service stations in Frankewing and buy their gasoline where no one knows who they are.
Elison has a dozen guns. All are rifles or shotguns; he does not believe in pistols. Most of his weapons are heirlooms from his grandfathers, his father, his uncles or his great-uncles. But now the sight of guns nauseates him. He takes them out of the house in the hollow and brings them to someone for safekeeping. He tells nobody who has them. He keeps one: a Japanese rifle his daddy brought home from World War II. It has not been shot in 50 years; it does not have a firing pin.
Jail, the victims, Jamie in shackles--everything is making Cheryl sick. She cannot eat. The thought of it makes her gag. Two days go by. Three days. Four. She tries potato chips. “If I start out with something salty. . . .” But all she can get down is half a small bag. She cannot sleep. Everything reels through her mind. All she wants to do is sleep. She looks at the clock. How much longer until she can get up? She listens for the phone.
Five days. She asks Elison’s sister, Carol, to call a doctor. Can he prescribe something over the phone? The doctor agrees: Lorazepam, 0.5 milligrams. She takes the minimum; Jamie might need her.
Why has he done it? What could she have done to stop him? What has she missed, and how has she missed it?
Guilt, shame. Humiliation, disgrace. Remorse and mortification. There is nothing she can do to make up for it.
She prays. “Tell me what to do. Give me the strength to get through this. Help me to make sense out of it.”
Silence. From God.
Silence. Between her and Elison.
They discern their own faults differently. Cheryl blames herself for what she did not do. She had not understood that Jamie was in such pain. She had not stepped in. On the other hand, Elison blames himself for what he did do. For years, he had drunk too much and abused drugs. For years, he had flown into rages. For years, he had hit his sons with a belt or a paddle cut from a board. He had taught Jamie how to shoot the rifle. He had argued him out of selling it. He had vowed to lock up his weapons in a gun cabinet and never did.
Elison and Cheryl each conceal some of the things they are thinking because each does not want to hurt the other. Elison knows that Cheryl is closer to Jamie, and he knows that Cheryl wants her son back. But Elison thinks that everyone needs to be punished for doing wrong, and he does not want Jamie let out of jail scot-free. Cheryl is not angry with Jamie, but Elison is. He is mad because his son has killed two people, wounded a third, humiliated his family and destroyed his own life. Besides, Elison is scared of Jamie. He senses that Jamie hates him. He does not understand why Jamie did not kill him instead of the people at school. An uneasy quiet settles in the house. Elison and Cheryl argue. They hug. Sometimes they argue and hug at once. They spend a lot of time holding each other. Sometimes they cannot hold each other at all.
On Nov. 23, Thanksgiving, the Rouses do not celebrate. As each day goes by, a certainty sinks in: They cannot hide forever. Besides, taking cover is too much like defeat. They will not allow whatever people might be thinking to ruin their lives, for Jamie’s sake and their own. They will avoid offending anyone on purpose, and they would prefer it if people do not view them as monsters. “But you know,” Cheryl resolves, “some things, if they cannot accept them, then that’s their problem; there’s nothing I can do about it. Like the way I feel religiously, if that offends somebody, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to change how I feel about God. And the same way with how I feel about Jamie. If they don’t like it, I’m sorry. He’s my son, I love him, I will be there for him. If they don’t like it, that’s their problem.”
As a starter, the family needs groceries. For the first time in almost two weeks, Cheryl and Elison decide to face other people. They take Highway 64, avoiding Richland Creek and a span that officials will come to name the Carolyn Foster and Diane Collins Memorial Bridge. On the eastern outskirts of Pulaski is a market where the Rouses have shopped for years. Cheryl knows everybody who works there. “What’ll they think?” she asks herself. She will get just what she needs, then leave.
At the video counter, Linda Fox, who has known Cheryl and her boys for 14 years, sees the Rouses pushing their cart as fast as they can, never raising an eye, stopping only long enough to drop something inside. Cheryl’s hair is streaked with gray. She looks even tinier than usual. To Linda, she seems like a wounded child. Cheryl rushes by without looking up. Everyone is standing back and staring. Cheryl is nearly crying.
“Should I do this?” For a moment, Linda debates with herself. The Fosters are her neighbors, and her heart goes out to them. Besides, what would people think? Linda, though, is a mother too. She walks up to the checkout stand and wraps Cheryl in her arms. “I have been thinking about you. How are you? I have been thinking about you.”
“I appreciate it.” Cheryl’s face is wet.
“Are you doin’ OK?” Linda can feel her shaking.
“Well, if you ever need to talk, day or night, don’t be afraid to call. I have got big ears, and I don’t talk.”
“I appreciate it.”
Ronnie Britton, a clerk, is bagging their groceries. He helps Elison carry them out. Ronnie belongs to Carolyn Foster’s church, and he likes the Fosters. But he knows not to judge, lest he be judged. He pats Cheryl on the back and asks about her family. How is Jamie doing?
Elison is touched. Not many people will ask about Jamie, ever.
“There’s an older lady that comes [to the jail]. She more or less helps with Bible study. She asked me if I wanted to be forgiven for my sins. I said, ‘Yes. Yes, I do.’ Then she said, ‘Well, say this prayer with me.’ It was like a new hope.”
Still, Jamie knew where he would end up: “Probably hell.”
At 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, two sheriff’s cars roll up the gravel road to the Rouses’ front porch. Cheryl is on the brown cloth recliner. She is watching TV. Adam is curled up in her lap asleep.
“Go see who it is,” her brother Steve says to Jeremy. Steve has moved in to stay with Adam and Jeremy while Cheryl and Elison meet with the public defender, attend hearings and visit Jamie.
Jeremy is almost ready to go to bed. He opens the front door. He sees the sheriff’s cars. Two deputies are moving to the sides of the house with their hands on their guns. Two more are going to the back door. Sheriff Eddie Bass, Investigator Michael Chapman and two more deputies approach the porch. They ask if he is Jeremy Rouse.
“Could you step out here for a second?”
“Turn around and put your hands on the house.”
They tell Jeremy that he is under arrest for soliciting first-degree murder.
Cheryl, about to doze off, looks up to see Sheriff Bass standing in front of her. He is asking questions. “Wait a minute,” she says, trying to wake up. “Let me get my husband. He’s in bed.” Gently, she places Adam, still asleep, on the couch and goes over to the bedroom door. One of the deputies, a woman, starts to go in with her. “Lady,” Cheryl warns, “he don’t sleep in pajamas.”
Elison puts on his pants, but he does not take time to find a shirt, shoes or socks. He and Cheryl stand in the front doorway. Jeremy is on the porch in handcuffs. Cheryl has brought his shoes. They are halfway on. He cannot tie them.
“What’s going on, sheriff?” Elison asks.
They are arresting Jeremy for solicitation of first-degree murder. They have him on tape talking to another boy about it.
“Why all the guns? Why all these deputies?”
Jeremy might have tried to run or come out shooting.
“Sheriff,” Elison declares, “you’ve been watching too much TV. . . .” He interrupts his own thought. “Where are you taking him?”
He hears someone out in the darkness say juvenile detention. That makes sense; it is where they took Jamie.
“We’ll be right there as soon as I can get dressed.”
The sheriff leaves with Jeremy in the back of his car. Elison finishes dressing. On the way to Pulaski, he worries that Chapman might start interrogating Jeremy before they arrive. “I wish,” he mutters, “I had told him not to say anything.”
When they arrive at the detention center, nobody is there. Jeremy has been taken to the sheriff’s office in another building. Somebody finally comes out a back door of the jail, sees Cheryl and Elison and asks, “Can we help you?”
“Yes. I’m Elison Rouse. This is Cheryl. We’re Jeremy Rouse’s parents.”
“Come around front, and someone will be with you.” They go, but no one comes out for another 20 minutes.
Jeremy hates the murders. Diane Collins was his girlfriend, then his best friend. He is not sure whether he loves or hates Jamie. The conflict makes it especially hard to listen to others bad-mouth his brother. In the days after the killings, Jeremy lashes back and sounds menacing. One parent complains that Jeremy has threatened to shoot his daughter. Two students tell Chapman that Jeremy wants to finish what his brother started by killing more teachers, and they say he wants them to help. Chapman asks the two to speak with Jeremy on the phone while he surreptitiously tapes their conversations. During one call, Jeremy denies ever threatening the girl. But when the conversation turns to school, he is ambiguous.
Q. Are you going to wait?
Q. Are you going to wait until the 18th?
A. Yeah, I might do it after that.
In another of the conversations, however, Jeremy says he is not going to do anything at all.
Q. Are you still thinking about doing that at Richland now?
A. Hell no.
Q. You’re not?
Q. Well, did you still want me to help you with this stuff, though?
Q. Did you still want me to help you with this stuff?
A. I ain’t gonna do it.
A. I ain’t gonna do it.
As Elison and Cheryl wait outside the sheriff’s office, Chapman is inside asking Jeremy about these taped conversations. He has read Jeremy his rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer present. Will he talk about this?
“A little bit.”
Jeremy concedes he has said things “close to” what the students have reported. But Jeremy says that he was not serious about any of it. “I was just mad. I don’t say what I mean when I’m mad.”
Q. What were you mad at, Jeremy?
A. Everybody talking about my brother.
Q. What are they saying?
A. You know, people--I heard that people said that, you know, they wished he’d rot in hell, and things like that.
Then, after 35 minutes:
Q. All right. Bottom line, you did what this [charge] accuses you of doing. Right?
Q. Right? You nod your head, yes?
Q. You were going to do that, or talking about doing that, and was going to have [someone] help you?
Q. The whole thing?
Q. But what you’re saying is, you weren’t serious?
Q. Well, it’s not up to us to decide whether you were or not. That’s what judges are for. That’s what will happen here.
By the time Elison and Cheryl are invited into the sheriff’s office, it is over. Jeremy is formally charged with “a solicitation to commit first-degree murder.”
Because the public defender is representing his brother, the Rouses borrow money and hire a lawyer. On Feb. 22, 1996, Judge Robert E. Lee Jr. finds Jeremy guilty. Judge Lee has a reputation for being tough; he once used a bamboo cane to whip a 14-year-old boy in his office and gave the cane to a mother and father so they could whip their 15-year-old daughter. With Jeremy still in custody, his lawyer takes the case to circuit court, where a jury finds him guilty again, and Judge William B. Cain sentences him to Wilder, a juvenile facility, until he is 18 years old or earns a high school diploma.
Jeremy will be a model prisoner at Wilder, will earn his diploma in two years and come home. But Judge Lee will issue a restraining order banning him from approaching his accusers, the families of his brother’s victims, Richland School or any of its teachers. It effectively will keep Jeremy from finding a job, because businesses throughout the county know that any of the more than 50 teachers from Richland might trade with them at any time.
After authorities take their second son, Elison and Cheryl grow suspicious. Chapman’s eavesdropping on the phone worries them. They begin driving to pay telephones to make important calls. They are careful not to talk to anyone about their discussions with the public defender and not to talk to each other about such things over the phone at all. They buy everything with cash so there will be no record of their transactions. They take notice of every police car that follows them. They grow especially careful with officials of every kind. They keep still when the Fosters, alone among the families of Jamie’s victims, attend Jeremy’s hearings--an effort, the Rouses think, to pressure his judges and the district attorney. “I don’t know if this is something personal with Dallas Foster,” Elison tells himself, “but I can’t put myself in his shoes. If somebody killed my wife, I would probably want the whole family.” One of Elison’s biggest dreads is that the authorities will find out about the drunkenness and drug use in his past and take away Adam on grounds that he is an unfit father. He resolves to divorce Cheryl if necessary and give her sole custody of Adam to keep that from happening.
Before the arrests, Adam is the center of his family’s attention. Both big brothers tease him, but they dote on him: Jamie fixes his toys, Jeremy teaches him computer games. Now they are gone. He falls asleep one night on Cheryl’s lap with Jeremy lying on the floor next to them, and the next morning Jeremy is in jail. It scares him. Adam refuses to leave his father or mother, even to go to the bathroom. He wants Cheryl to hold the door partly open, stand just outside and talk to him so he knows she is still there. He sleeps in his parents’ room. When Elison goes back to work and drives all night, Adam will not sleep unless Cheryl lets him crawl into bed with her. “Mama, put your arm around me,” he pleads, and she holds him until he finally closes his eyes. When Elison is home, Adam has to sleep in his own bed. Sometimes he cries, and they let him climb into bed with them until he falls asleep. He wakes up often with nightmares. A few months after Jeremy’s arrest, Adam turns 8, and they offer him Jamie and Jeremy’s room, but he refuses. He will not go inside that room, even with his parents along. They put him in therapy, and he refuses his counselor’s request to draw a picture of his family.
He returns to school at Richland, but his name is a reminder of what Jamie has done. Kids on the bus say that Jamie should be shot. Cheryl waits a week after Jeremy’s arrest before trying to send Adam to school again. This time he throws up on the bus, and Cheryl brings him home. His therapist decides it would be better if Adam stayed out of school for a while. Cheryl tries to enroll him in Homebound, a program that would send a teacher out to the hollow to tutor him twice a week. The county refuses to make an exception to its rule that the program is only for children with physical problems. So she enrolls Adam in Home Schooling, a program that certifies she has a high school diploma and can teach him herself.
Home schooling leaves Adam isolated. He tries to call Chrissy Collins to see if she can come over, but Chrissy’s family, grieving for Diane, does not pick up the phone. Another youngster does come out to the hollow, but Cheryl hears that the boy’s mother gets a scolding from her friends.
“I remember seeing Steve Abbott once. They brought him down to go outside, and I saw him. I felt guilty for getting him involved. They shouldn’t have arrested him. He sent me a note, though, that had Bible verses on it. It said, ‘Jesus forgives us all for our sins.”
“Somebody said that my brother was there. I thought they were joking. I mean, I just didn’t know what happened. I knew that he didn’t have nothing to do with it. It was ridiculous. It was stupid. It was a political move is what it was. It was another way of punishing me. It wasn’t enough just for me and Steve to be locked up. They had to go after my family too.”
People often do not know how to act in Elison’s presence; some offer to pray for him, but then they stay away. Maybe, he thinks, they are worried about their own kids and cannot handle being around him. But others are steadfast. On the night of the shooting, Ray McConnell, a fellow driver for Ronnie Bledsoe Trucking Inc. and one of his best friends, brings his wife to Tight Bark Hollow. They struggle past reporters and family, and the two truckers hug. Not long afterward, Elison walks into Wal-Mart. He hears somebody yell, “Bledsoe!” Elison does not want any trouble, so he keeps on walking. Then he hears it again: “Bledsoe!” A driver comes up. Elison knows him by his radio handle: Too Tall.
“How y’ doin?” Too Tall asks.
“I’m doing OK.”
“Hang in there.” Too Tall, towering over E