Reliving Their Pain for Others
Wearing yellow visitors badges and an air of resignation, the couple make their way through locked gates at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier, past lines of denim-clad young men and on to the prison’s library.
Inside, Ruett Foster tries to meet each set of eyes, as 20 inmates file in and take their seats around the library tables. His wife, Rhonda, busies herself rummaging through her canvas bag stuffed with pictures, poems and newspaper stories about the life and death of their boy.
They wait until the room is quiet, then begin their story in voices so soft and measured that the inmates have to strain to hear.
“We’re here because someone else’s impulsive decision ... devastated our family,” Ruett tells them. “We’re begging you to consider your ways.... We don’t want to have to be afraid of you.”
Four years ago, the Fosters’ 7-year-old son, Evan, was shot to death by gang members as he sat with his mother and baby brother in their car at Inglewood’s Darby Park. The family was there to pick up Evan’s soccer trophy and sign him up for basketball.
Rhonda spares no detail in her recitation. She begins with Evan’s birth and how she quit her job so he would have a stay-at-home mom. She tells about his soccer team, his piano lessons, his flair for poetry, his love of God.
She pulls his photograph out of the canvas bag and walks it up and down each aisle. She plays news clips of the hunt for his killers and a video of his funeral.
Her steady voice breaks only once, when she recalls the moment she realized her son was dead, buckled in the back seat of her car, his T-shirt soaked with blood. She pauses for a moment and soundlessly sobs, and the silent room resonates with the raw pain of loss.
Around the tables, many of the teenage killers, gangbangers, rapists and robbers shift in their seats uncomfortably. Some stare, noses red, eyes watering. Others turn away, unwilling to be moved. “It was a devastating thing for us, young men,” Ruett Foster tells them, his voice calm but heavy with understatement. “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t hurt.”
And yet almost every month, the Fosters choose to relive their son’s death, resurrecting painful memories for the sake of young men much like the ones who took Evan’s life.
As part of the California Youth Authority’s Impact of Crime on Victims Program, they venture into some of the state’s toughest juvenile prisons to speak to inmates in classes aimed at cultivating a sense of empathy and personal accountability in young offenders.
The program, required by the state for most CYA inmates, is part therapy, part penance, part education. Crime victims, police, prosecutors and former inmates come in to talk to the wards, most of them boys and men ranging from 12 to 25 who have been convicted of serious crimes but are considered amenable to rehabilitation.
Instructors say the Fosters bring a rare mix of compassion and reproach to the classes they lead at Nelles and the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino. Although most visitors abide by an unspoken agreement not to pry into the inmates’ lives, the grieving couple do not settle for that.
“I want to know your age and what you did,” Ruett announces to the class at Nelles. The young men look around and the shifting resumes. He asks again. “Each of you, please tell me your age and what you did.” Silence.
He nods toward Lee Adams, a strapping 19-year-old from Watts who is serving his fifth term in jail. “Would you start us off, please.”
“Nineteen,” Adams says. “Possession of PCP.”
The rest offer up their criminal credentials: Fifteen, assault and battery. Sixteen, murder. Seventeen, sexual assault. Sixteen, accessory to second-degree murder. Sixteen, armed robbery. Eighteen, sex crime. Twenty, murder. Sixteen, assault with a deadly weapon. Seventeen, sex assault on an individual while already in custody.
A social worker and minister, Ruett nods at each confession, staring squarely at each inmate with eyes that betray nothing behind his glasses.
“We’re not trying to humiliate you,” he says. “We know we all make mistakes. We don’t come here to make you feel any more ashamed.” But it’s important, he tells them, to own up to what they have done, to be accountable for the pain they have caused.
Two of the three men who killed his son were gang members released from Stark and Nelles not long before the shooting. At their sentencing four years ago -- one got 26 years to life; the other two, 21 years to life -- Rhonda read a poem urging them to repent, and Ruett gave such a stirring account of his son’s short life that he had sheriff’s deputies in tears. The triggerman, who had once taunted the family and flashed gang signs in court, even rose to apologize.
The killers were not aiming for Evan. They were just trying to even a score, to retaliate against a rival gang for a shooting a few hours before.
And when they couldn’t find any gang members as they cruised through Darby Park, “they fired a MAC 90 assault weapon ... at the man parked next to us,” Ruett Foster tells the inmates. “Because the color of his car was their rival’s color.”
He says it with a sense of incredulity, as if he still cannot understand such a cavalier display of firepower, such disregard for innocent lives.
A slight, soft-spoken youth -- serving time for murder -- raises his hand and tries to explain.
“Where I stay at, the next two blocks is where the enemy is at,” he says, blinking hard behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “He comes from this ‘hood; I come from that ‘hood. So he’s automatically the enemy.”
The inmate killed a gang rival at 16. “I didn’t understand that he’s a person, just like me,” he says. “You just think, ‘I can’t wait to put a hit on this fool.’ So you get him. Or you get the person he kicks it with.”
Ruett’s presence reminds them silently: Or you kill an innocent child.
“We’re trying to get them to recognize right and wrong,” says Shelly Wood, who teaches the class at Nelles. “As basic as this is to you and me, it’s not to them. We’ve got ... kids who grow up in a culture of violence and guns and drugs.
“When we bring survivors in to talk to them, it makes it more personal ... helps them understand that there are real people suffering, hurting because of what they’ve done.”
Still, the inmates filter the story through their own standards. One young man asks the couple whether Evan’s baby brother, who was blinded in one eye in the attack, will “take revenge on the guys that killed his brother when he’s older.”
Another marvels that the Fosters have forgiven the killers. “You guys amaze me,” he tells them. “I know the parents of the guy I killed don’t feel that way about me.”
For many inmates, these classes represent the first time they have given much thought to the victims whose lives their crimes ended, ruined or derailed.
“It took me getting locked up to see it,” says the bespectacled murderer. “When you’re in the streets, nobody talks to you about this. Here, you have the time to think, you can be real with yourself. You don’t have to ‘front’ in front of your homies.”
Most seem to have slid into crime with a sense of inevitability. Like the 20-year-old whose five older brothers were all shot in gang wars. He killed a rival at 15 “because if I didn’t, he would have killed me.”
Or 18-year-old Jose Erazo, who realizes now that he might have been able to stop his buddies from killing a rival in a drive-by shooting, “but it just never occurred to me.”
“On the streets you have tunnel vision,” says Adams, the 19-year-old from Watts. “Just seeing directly ahead, you don’t pay attention to the whole picture.”
Adams grew up watching his older brother cook cocaine into rocks on the kitchen stove, drift in and out of prison and die in a drug-related shooting. At 13, Lee began carrying a gun and selling drugs “because my brother was a drug dealer, my mother was a drug dealer.” His younger brother is following in their footsteps.
He sits stoically in class as the Fosters recount their ordeal. But afterward, he clips Evan’s picture from a newspaper story the couple pass out and posts it inside his dorm locker.
“I look at him now and think about my life, how I keep getting all these chances,” Adams says weeks later, as he prepares for his parole from Nelles. “How he never did anything wrong and all he got was one time, and that was it. How my life is really a blessing, and it’s my fault I haven’t done more with it.”
Until he took the victim impact class, he rationalized that his was a victimless crime. “They wanted drugs, I sold them,” he says. “It was all about the money.”
Now he thinks about the ripples from each rock he sold -- the burglaries and broken families, crack-damaged babies and drug overdoses -- and realizes “some of that was my fault too.”
“We try not to think about stuff like that,” says Adams. “It’s like, ‘If I don’t see it, it didn’t happen.’ But when you listen [to the Fosters], you can’t avoid it.”
Some sessions with inmates are better than others. While some young men cry, confess, promise reform, others sit in stony silence, unmoved by the death of a boy whose life was fuller in seven years than theirs have ever been.
The Fosters began their visits four years ago, at the invitation of Starks instructor Joanna Gallagher. She’d read a letter Rhonda had written to The Times, urging the community to embrace troubled young men like those who had just killed her son.
Their visits, and the close relationships they’ve developed with some young wards, serve sometimes as a salve for their pain, and at other times simply as a sore reminder.
This summer, they watched 100 inmates receive high school diplomas during a graduation ceremony at Starks.
“I was glad for the young men,” Rhonda says later, “but I also found myself feeling hurt and that it was unfair, as I thought about Evan and other young people whose lives were cut short by some of these young men.
“I know we’re doing what God wants us to do, but that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle.”
And the inmates struggle, as well, to reconcile the selflessness of the Fosters’ mission with the lives they’ve led.
In the penitentiary-like atmosphere of Nelles, the crackle of a loudspeaker signals the session’s end, summoning inmates back to their “cottages,” locked dorms named after presidents -- Nixon, Taylor, Wilson, Taft.
As the boys file out, Ruett reaches out to each one. Some stand awkwardly in his embrace, arms pinned stiffly to their sides. But others lean in, let him wrap them in his arms, clap them on the back and whisper words of encouragement.
A few lag behind to thank the couple privately.
“I’m really going to change my life,” a 20-year-old murderer tells them.
“Because if I don’t, I’m going to be killed. And I don’t want to die. Because I don’t want my family to go through what you guys have gone through.”
Rhonda smiles weakly. She glances at a picture of her murdered son, then slides it back inside her canvas bag, follows the inmates out and heads for home.