“After you escaped from jail, how did you get your new identity?”
Tom Henry and I were talking over breakfast in the chow hall.
“Easy,” he said. “I jammed a .357 magnum in some driver’s face, so he was my taxi to Chicago. I went to a library, found a story in an old paper about a couple who died in a car crash and left a son about my age. I figure he got adopted with another name, so I sent in for a social security card. It come in the mail and now I’m Tom Elliott. Got my driver’s license the same way.”
“How’d you know to look up old newspaper articles?” I said.
“Asked a bunch of questions. Once I got to the library, the lady there showed me how to use that machine where you scroll through old newspapers. When I found some things I was interested in, she made copies for me.”
I believed he felt terrible about the murders, but he was clearly pleased with himself for the escape and his cleverness in getting a new identity.
“I’ve got an interview today in Voc School for the clerk job,” I said when we finished eating. “Thanks again for hooking me up with that guy.”
Strickler, the neo-Nazi, glanced toward the black side of the chow hall. “What a waste, giving those guys milk. They can’t even digest it!”
“Why don’t you collect their cartons and explain how they can’t digest it?” Tom Henry said, then turned back to me. “Just tell me if it’s none of my business, but I saw news about your case on the TV—never thought you’d get convicted. Nobody here did. What happened?”
I took a second to compose my thoughts. I hadn’t talked about my case, the pain was too raw. But my new friend had told me candidly about his. So I began with the crime-scene tape and the devastating news I got when I returned home from that trip.
“The cops thought I didn’t show enough emotion—affect, they call it––so they suspected me immediately and arrested me soon after. At trial, the state hired a doctor who said my kids were killed before Susie came home, and I was at home then. My lawyers got doctors to say there’s no way their doctor could know that, but the jury believed him.”
“Can’t be that simple,” Strickler said. “Got to be more to it than that.”
“Well, yes and no. The trial lasted ten weeks, so of course there’s more. But really, that doctor’s testimony was basically their case against me.” I hesitated, then said, “There were models I worked with that testified I messed with them sexually.”
“How many models did you sleep with?”
“None. I measured them for a back brace I was developing. I had several of them take off their tops and I touched the breasts of a couple of them.”
“Did you need to do that?”
“Not really,” I said. What a show it had been in the courtroom when the prosecution paraded model after model to testify I’d measured them, palpated for bony landmarks, then told them they needed to remove more clothing. The testimony—in front of my family, Susie’s family, the whole world—convinced the jury that I’d used my position of trust to exploit those models.
“I was measuring them for a legitimate purpose, but having them disrobe wasn’t legitimate. Of course, the models had nothing to do with the murders. They were just there to make me look bad. It’s easier to convict a defendant you don’t like.”
“But they must of had some kind of proof,” Strickler said.
“Only what I told you before. The doctor who looked at the children’s stomach contents said my children died two hours after eating. But he was way wrong—I know, I was there. I didn’t leave until after Susie came home, so I know they were alive until after eleven o’clock.”
“What do you mean, the doc looked at the contents?” Tom Henry said.
“Used his eyes—period. He didn’t use a microscope or a magnifying glass, didn’t do a single test. He just looked at the jars they showed him.
“The thing is, the idea that our children were killed before my wife came home doesn’t pass the common sense test. It goes against human nature. To believe it you have to believe she came home and went to bed without checking on her children two doors down the hall. Susie was in bed, peacefully asleep, when she was killed. No defensive wounds. But that’s the prosecution’s theory, and my lawyers weren’t clever enough to show how unlikely it was.”
“Man, you got screwed!” Strickler said.
Inelegant but accurate.
It was lunchtime, and Tom Henry was doing his thing.
“Old man Pitts had a dump with a great big Dutch elm tree right in the middle of it, with trash all around it. I used to shoot crows out of that tree. Several times I saw this big old chicken hawk in it, but he’d spot me and fly away ’fore I could get in range with my .22 rifle.
“This time I snuck around real quiet till I was near enough to shoot. He was perched on a branch facing me and that spotted white breast with dark brown feathers around it made a good target. I shot him, he fell, then he spins around a few times in the trash. I walk up to get him, but my foot gets tangled in the hog wire and I can’t find him—it’s summertime and there was green briar bushes all around.
“I wanted to get a closer look—I was real proud I shot him. I did a little more hunting around before I finally saw him. He’d come up out of there and was standing on this board sticking out of the dump pile, so I went in after him. Well, he snaps his beak at me, real mad, and ruffles his feathers, and I see he’s got a broken wing ‘cause only one is stretched out.
“So I put my gun down—he couldn’t go anywhere, just bounce around in there—and I reach for him, but he snaps his beak again and bristles like a cat and raises his wing but can’t fly off. That chicken hawk is in one tight spot.”
“So what’d you do?” I said.
“Took off my shirt, threw it over him, and carried him home. Most of the time you carry birds by putting their wings straight up above them—that way they can’t peck you or claw you, and it don’t hurt them. But I couldn’t do that ‘cause of his busted wing. I carried him behind the house with my shirt still over him, put rocks around the edge of the shirt to hold him in.
“I run up to the house with my gun and got an old cardboard box with holes in the side of it from the basement, put the box upside down over the hawk, set rocks on top of the box. The next morning I took some lunch meat out there to feed him but he wouldn’t eat it. I took a bunch of clothes that weren’t any good out there for bedding.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t have permission?” I said.
“Didn’t have no permission for what I did the next morning, neither. When my mom went shopping, I got pieces of wood from the shed and nailed together a real nice box with slots and holes in it. I knew my dad couldn’t find out about my hawk. He didn’t want me to shoot things—didn’t mind too bad if I shot a snake or a rat, but shoot a hawk and put it in a cage? No way.
“He always said, ‘Don’t cage up those little animals God meant to be free. How would you like someone to put you in a cage?’
“To patch up that wing I raided my dad’s tool caddy for a roll of electrical tape and a small pair of wire cutters. I put a little piece of a rag over the wing and wrapped it up best I could. There’s a real thick bone on top and I opened up the pinion feathers on the bottom to wrap the tape, had to bust one off with my dad’s side cutters. He didn’t like that one bit—the hawk, I mean—but I had to do it to open up the feathers wide enough to wrap the tape.
“Wasn’t no easy thing, let me tell you. They’re vicious, them chicken hawks. I put water out there in this little sardine can, and what he’d do is dump it over hopping around. So the second day I punched two holes in the sardine can and tied it with wire to the side of the cage.
“Third day I noticed the meat’s gone. He started eating and drinking. I kept changing the meat each day, ‘cause I didn’t know hawks can eat any old spoiled meat. Nothing bothers them.”
I felt as if I was right in that yard with the hawk. Could I get Tom Henry to tell me his life story like this? It would take forever to write it, but forever was what I had.
“So my hawk got to doing real good, peppy and all, but he never got over ruffling his feathers and snapping his beak at me. I peeked in at him through the holes, sweet-talked him, but he always remembered who I was and wouldn’t never get friendly and I wanted to be his friend now, ‘cause I really liked him. But even though I’m the one who bandaged him, no matter how much I feed him and take care of him, he knows I’m the one that shot him and we can’t make friends.
“He stopped eating the lunch meat, so I took my mom’s mousetraps out to the woods and brought him a dead mouse. He walks over to it real slow, gets it in his beak, shakes it, drops it, picks it up again. So I’m watching this, thinking he’s used to killing his own stuff—this bird ain’t no scavenger.
“So I stripped bark off old rotting logs to look for grub worms and I found me some pink baby mice and I put ‘em in my cap to bring to him. And let me tell you, they’re like dessert for my hawk. He clamps his talons on their little bodies and tears into them with his hook-shaped beak and never once stops to look up at me. Which I didn’t expect, I just got a kick out of watching him gorge hisself.
“So after I’ve had him for maybe four weeks I go out there one morning to bring him some food and he’s lying on his side. Of course I know he’s dead. I could tell he’d been dead for some time, ‘cause his wings and legs was stiff.
“What did he die of?” I said.
“I think he just died from a broken heart, corny as it sounds. I know he didn’t die from my shot, ‘cause I’ve shot birds in the wing and kept them alive a lot longer than him. I reckon he just gave up ‘cause he couldn’t be free.”
This guy could really tell a story. The question was, could I write one? With all the time on my hands during my year in jail awaiting trial, I’d read fiction, biography, history, textbooks, religious and philosophical works—and books on writing, from Joseph Trimmer’s Writing with a Purpose to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style to William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well.
The idea of writing Tom Henry’s story was slowly taking root. I had a unique opportunity to write an amazing true crime story with a twist. Tom Henry: A True Story of Murder, Jailbreak, and Life on the Lam, as Told to His Prison Cellmate, David Hendricks. Could I do it? Could I complete such a work?
Could I at least make it longer than the title?