Chapter 1: What happened to Mary?
I'm sure some of you think you've had a hard life and the fates have dealt you a rotten hand. Well, consider this. When I was seventeen years of age, I was falsely accused of murdering my girlfriend. There was no evidence to support the accusation, but I was tried nonetheless. It was beyond reason that I was found guilty and sentenced from 10 to 25 years in prison. It was only through the relentless work of my lawyer and the support of my mother and sister that the conviction was overturned and I was set free. As it was, I spent almost two years in prison before I was released.
My name is Ruel Carter and at the time I'm writing this, I am twenty-nine years old. I stand six foot two and weigh two hundred pounds, most of it muscle. I have dark-brown hair and blue eyes, just like my dad used to have. I have a few scars from both prison and the army, but otherwise I'm in pretty good shape. I work in a helicopter leasing and maintenance facility in Bremerton, Washington, and I make a pretty good living. I'm writing this story for a reason. I need to settle some old scores.
I admit, I was a loner. My father was killed in a farm accident when I was six and my mother, Freda Carter, had to go to work to provide for me and my younger sister, Juliet. We moved from the farm to the town of Hazard in southern Nebraska, about sixty miles east of our former home near Stapleton. We couldn't sell the farm for over two years, and even then we took a loss on it. We ended up in a rented house on the outskirts of town. It was nothing like as nice as our old home, but it was all Mom could afford.
From the time my dad died until I was put in prison, I had chores to do. My sister did as well, since Mom was always working. If she wasn't working at the Five 'n Dime, she was taking in washing and ironing for a little extra cash. I don't think my mom had more than a few hours to herself in any one week. We never did go hungry or want for anything important, but none of us had what you'd call a social life.
Right from the beginning, when we moved to Hazard, I was thought of as being different. I'm not sure why, but I guessed it was because I didn't hang out with the other boys and I didn't participate in sports. I couldn't because I had to help Mom with the chores. I'd have loved to play baseball or football, but I never did have the time. I didn't even have time to stay around and watch the other kids play. So that's why they hung the loner tag on me. When I got older, some of the kids started to spread rumors about me being gay, or maybe have some kind of mental disease. The fact that I was one of the smartest kids in class didn't do anything to drive out those stories.
Sis used to gripe about having to do all the work and not having any fun, but I couldn't do that. I saw how hard my mom was working just to keep us fed and clothed and it just didn't seem right to complain. It wasn't until I was sixteen that Mom got a better job and made more money and both Sis and I had some free time. That's when I met Mary Simpson.
Mary was a farm girl too, from west of town. Her parents were real Bible thumpers and kept a tight rein on her. She wasn't allowed to date anyone at all. I guess we were drawn together because we were so much alike in that we were loners. Mary rode the bus from her home to school and so the only time I saw her was in class or at lunch in the cafeteria. She was really shy and it took me a while to get her to talk to me and then sit with me at lunch. Neither of us were what you'd call handsome or beautiful, but as far as I was concerned, Mary looked just fine to me. I guess she felt the same about me.
Mom had Dad's old Ford F-150 that she drove, and it was a big deal when she told me I could take driving lessons at the school and get my license. Since Mary wasn't allowed to date, I would drive to a place not far from her home and wait for her to come and meet me. We would drive off and do something together. Usually, we just walked along the river bank and talked about what we were going to do when school was done and we could be free to have our own life. In Nebraska, you were considered an adult when you were nineteen or when you were married. We talked about that a lot. We were both almost eighteen and seniors in high school, so we didn't have long to wait before Mary could be free from her parents. We talked a lot about what we would do then.
Mary and I hardly kissed, much less got involved sexually. We were both virgins and expected to remain that way until we were married. I was pretty sure she was the one for me and I got the feeling she felt I was the one for her. It was a good feeling after being without friends for most of my life. We shared our secrets, even though we didn't have very many. We shared our dreams, as crazy as they were at the time. We could see ourselves travelling the world and seeing all the sights we read about in our history books. Mary's parents didn't have a TV. They said it was the devil's instrument.
Early one Sunday morning I awoke to someone pounding on the door of our house. I was first up, so I went to the door and answered it. It was Sheriff Biggs. He was a big, angry-looking man with a red face, short gray hair, and about forty pounds of gut hanging out over his belt.
"You Ruel Carter?"
"Y-yes," I answered nervously, wondering what this was about.
"You know a Mary Simpson?" he snarled.
"Yes ... I know her. We're in the same class."
"Where were you on Friday night?" He wasn't wasting any effort trying to be pleasant.
"Uh ... I was out."
"Uh ... down near Pleasanton. I was walking with Mary along the river."
"What time was that?"
"Uh ... about seven o'clock to maybe eight. Mary had to be in by eight."
"Did her parents know you were with her?"
"Uh ... no. Mary isn't supposed to be with any boys."
"So you decided that her parents' rules didn't apply to you, huh?"
"No ... I mean ... we just went for a walk. It's something Mary does all the time."
"When was the last time you saw her?" he demanded, edging his way into the house.
By this time, my mother and sister had awoken and were aware of the sheriff's presence.
"What's this about?" my mother asked.
"It's about a girl who's gone missing," the sheriff spat, not toning down his voice at all. "Your son was the last person to see her. I want some answers about what happened to her."
"Nothing happened to her," I said. "I left her by the river and went back to my truck and headed home. I swear, she was fine and waved goodbye to me just like she did every time."
"You better come with me, boy. You got some explaining to do."
"Are you arresting him?" my mother asked with a horrified look.
"Not yet, but he's wanted for questioning in the disappearance of Mary Simpson on Friday night."
"But ... he already told you, she was fine when he left her," my mother pleaded.
"Don't mean nothin'," he said. "Most killers don't confess right away."
"HE'S NOT A KILLER!" my mother screamed, signs of panic now setting in.
"We'll see about that. Right now, he's our prime suspect. You better get yourself a lawyer."
At that, the sheriff grabbed my arm and roughly twisted it behind my back. The next thing I knew, I was handcuffed and marched out to his patrol car and shoved into the back seat. I couldn't believe this was happening to me. I was innocent. Mary was happy and smiling when she walked toward her home on Friday night. What could have happened to her?
That was the beginning of a two year nightmare. On the advice of a family friend, Mom hired Calvin McDermott to defend me. He went over my story many times, but it never changed. It didn't need to. It was the truth. I was sure Calvin believed me, but he was worried about both the sheriff and the state prosecutor. Randall Bufflin was an ambitious and hard-nosed type from Lincoln, who was out to make a name for himself. He was a state prosecutor rather than the Sherman County prosecutor. Mr. McDermott explained that major crimes occurring in Nebraska were assigned to the state prosecutor, since anyone convicted would be sent to state prison.
"Based on disclosure," Calvin told me just before my trial started, "they have no evidence that you did anything. The witnesses they've called are various townsfolk and I want you to go over the names and tell me what you know about them."
He showed me the list of names and I didn't recognize many of them.
"I don't know if these people even live in Hazard. If they're from outside, I won't know any of them."
Calvin nodded. "One of them is the storekeeper where you used to park your truck when you went walking with Mary. What can he tell the court?"
I shook my head. "Nothing. We were real careful not to do anything that might get back to Mary's parents."
"Another is the lady who runs the post office. Do you know her?"
"Only when we pick up our mail or have to post something," I answered.
Mr. McDermott sat back and looked puzzled at the list of witnesses. He knew a couple of them by name and from an occasional contact, but none of them personally.
The trial was a nightmare within a nightmare. People came forth and said they'd seen Mary and me swimming naked in the river. That was a lie! Others said we used to sneak off for hours at a time. Another lie! Why were they lying? I could see Calvin was getting very frustrated. He was beginning to wonder what was going on. If I was telling the truth, why were these people lying about me?
When the prosecutor made his closing statement to the jury, he all but made me out to be a homicidal maniac. He said the evidence given in court was enough to convict me of murder, even though no body had been found. I thought I was going to be sick to my stomach listening to him talk about me like I was the lowest form of life on the planet.
Calvin did his best. He pointed out that there was no evidence to support the charges, and he had serious doubts about the veracity of some of the witnesses, since a couple of our defense witnesses could account for my whereabouts later Friday night and Saturday. He didn't raise his voice and he didn't make me out to be a saint. He simply told them that in a court of law, it was evidence that should be the determining factor in deciding guilt, and in the absence of evidence I should be found not guilty.
The judge gave his instructions to the jury. I could not be found guilty of first degree murder since there was no motive, no body nor any weapon produced at trial. I could not be found guilty of manslaughter for the same reason. Therefore, I could only be found guilty or not guilty of second degree murder. No other decision could be rendered.
I was almost paralytic with fear. If they found me guilty, they could sentence me to life in prison. I didn't think I could handle that. I sat in my cell while the jury deliberated for four days before I was called back into the courtroom.
"Has the jury decided on a verdict?" the judge asked the foreman.
"We have your honor."
"Please read the verdict to the court."
"We find the defendant, Ruel William Carter, guilty of second degree murder in the matter of Mary Elizabeth Simpson."
At that point, I fainted. The next thing I knew, I could feel a cold cloth on my face and an uproar in the courtroom. Calvin virtually had to drag me to my feet to hear the sentencing.
"Ruel William Carter, you have been found guilty of the second degree murder of Mary Elizabeth Simpson. Since no tangible or forensic evidence was entered by the prosecution, and since you have no criminal record, I am reluctant to issue this sentence. However, you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers. I therefore have no choice in the matter and sentence you to no less than ten years to a maximum of life in state prison. Take the prisoner away," the judge said, slamming his gavel.
My last vision in the courtroom was of my mother and sister holding each other in tears, while the prosecutor and Sheriff Biggs were slapping each other on the shoulder in congratulations. Calvin was beside me, saying something about an appeal.
"I'm going to appeal this, Ruel. This verdict is wrong and I think there's been some underhanded things going on here. Don't lose hope, son. I'll do everything I can to get it overturned.
I nodded, but couldn't speak. I wanted to throw up, but couldn't. I hadn't eaten anything in a couple of days as I waited for the jury to come back. Calvin told me that they would be taking me to the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. I couldn't get my mind to grasp how I would survive. I was on the brink of giving up. Maybe I could kill myself. Or get myself killed. That would be best for everyone, wouldn't it?
I was the only prisoner in the van that took me from Hazard to Lincoln. I don't know how long it took, but it wasn't long enough. I was processed, stripped, searched, handed my prison outfit, read the rules, assigned a cell, and roughly pushed inside. I was numb, both with fear and despair. I didn't deserve this. I did nothing wrong. Someone somewhere has to believe that and set me free.
My cellmate showed up two hours later.
"Who the fuck are you?" he asked in an offhanded sort of tone. He didn't seem threatening, just curious.
"Ruel Carter," I answered.
"Ruel? What kind of a name is Ruel?"
"Family name. My father's middle name."
He nodded. "Whatcha in here for?"
"A murder I didn't commit."
"Oh yeah," he said in a resigned voice. "Do you have any idea of how many of the inmates in this place didn't commit the crimes they're here for?"
I shook my head. "Don't know and don't care. I only care about myself. I didn't kill anyone but I can't prove it."
"Sure kid. How old are you, anyway?"
"This is going to be rough education for you, boy. You listen to me and I'll try and keep the worst of these bastards off you."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I mean, don't go into the showers alone and don't drop the soap."
I couldn't figure out what he was talking about until it dawned on me.
"That doesn't really happen here, does it?" I said, hoping I was right.
"All the time, kid, especially with new little boys like you. Fresh meat for the bulls. It's going to happen, kid, and the guards won't do a damn thing to stop it."
I hung my head in my hands and wondered if it could get any worse. Maybe killing myself was the answer. My cellmate was practically guaranteeing I'd be raped. Maybe they'd kill me then and it would be all over. Maybe I could get them to kill me.
The next morning, I got my first lesson in protecting myself. My cellmate, Darrel Chernoski, was right beside me when we were marched to the showers. I was vibrating with fear as I walked in with the other inmates and stripped. I had a couple of guys feel my ass as I stuck close to Darrel, but did everything I could not to react. That's was Darrel's advice, along with a few other words of wisdom. I made it out of there without being attacked, but I could hear the comments and the whistles of approval from some of the inmates.
I made it four days before I was cornered in the shower by three hard-looking men, covered in tattoos. Two of them held me while the third did things to my ass I didn't think I would ever forget. The pain was incredible and I was screaming for them to stop. They just laughed and changed places as the second guy assaulted me. When the third was finished with me, they just turned a left, leaving me on the tile floor, blood running out of my ass, pain worse than I could ever remember and now something new. Something that I hadn't felt before. Anger and hate. I was no long thinking of suicide. I was going to survive this ... however long "this" was.
I struggled to my feet and washed myself off as best I could. I shoved some toilet paper in my ass to stop the bleeding, dried myself and headed back to my cell. As I walked stiffly toward my cell at the tail end of the group, I swore I would find a way to survive and wreak havoc on those who had done this to me. Not just the inmates in that shower room, but the sheriff, the prosecutor and anyone who lied about me in the courtroom. They would all pay, one way or another.
I began spending time in the weight room during my free periods out of the cell. When I was convicted, I wasn't in the best of condition. I had lost weight, and while I was still over six feet I barely weighed a hundred fifty pounds. I was also weak. I had little arm strength and my legs were like bean poles. At Darrel's suggestion, I began spending time on an exercise program that featured both weight and endurance conditioning. I didn't like the look of some of the guys in the weight room. They were pretty nasty looking cases, but they left me alone, although they did make fun of me at first. Yeah, I was pretty puny and probably good for a laugh for a while. But I stuck with it.
My mother and sister came to visit me every month. At first I told them not to. It was too hard on them and me. Mom and Sis had tears in their eyes whenever they came, and it broke my heart that I was the cause of it. I was even more upset when I heard how the townspeople were treating them. My sister had to change schools because of the harassment she was taking. My mother almost lost her job, but Calvin McDermott intervened and promised a healthy lawsuit if they tried to force her out for any reason other than competence. They had just promoted her again when my trial began, so lack of competence would be hard to prove.
But none of that really helped them. They were outcasts. They were in their own prison, one they no more deserved than the one I was in. I wanted them to move away. Move some place where no one knew them and they could be free to have a better life. My mother refused, saying she wouldn't move anywhere that kept her from visiting me. Sis was just as single-minded. If there was anything that kept me determined to survive, it was them.
As the year wore on, I was given some vocational opportunities. I began working in the machine shop and did okay. All those hours of trying to fix things around our home when we couldn't afford to have someone else do it for us had given me a pretty good idea of how things worked. When I got some professional advice, I listened and learned. It turned out to be a good decision. In the meantime, my exercise efforts were paying off. Within six months, my weight had increased to near one-eighty and I could feel the difference in my strength. I got to test that strength one day when a couple of the hard cases tried me on for size again in the showers.
"Hey, look at the muscles on pretty boy," one of them said. "I'll bet he's a much better fuck now than before."
"There's only one way to find out," the other said.
I ignored them, but prepared myself if they tried anything. Darrel and I had been sparring in the gym and he had taught me a few tricks of self-defense. You wouldn't see them in any boxing ring, but he was brought up in the back streets of Omaha and knew how to look after himself. In here, you had to look after yourself. No one else would.
I had my back turned to them, but I was aware they were approaching. I saw the hand reach for my arm out of the corner of my eye and batted it away with my elbow. I turned quickly and without a second thought, I kicked the nearest one in the balls with my foot. He hollered in pain and dropped to his knees. The other guy looked at him in shock before turning back to me with a very angry look. I didn't give him a chance. I punched him in the throat as hard as I could, knowing it might kill him, but deciding I had to use all the force necessary to protect myself.
I gave the first guy another kick in the sack then turned to the other writhing on the floor, gasping for breath. He wouldn't be bothering me for now. I dried myself off, dressed, and walked out of the shower and back to my cell. I was amazingly calm considering what I'd just done. I was also well aware that there were cameras in all the general gathering areas, so my assault on the two would be noticed and I could expect some discipline from the guards or administration. I thought about it and put it out of my mind. After all, I was here for at least ten years. How much more damage could someone do to me?
Darrel returned to our cell an hour later and grinned at me as he entered.
"I hear there was an accident in the showers this afternoon. One guy fell and pulled a groin muscle and the other guy slipped and hit his throat on the shower tap. You sure have to be careful on those slippery tiles."
He was damn near laughing and I smiled without saying anything. It might have been the first time I'd smiled in over a year.
I waited for one of the guards to come and get me and haul me up before the assistant warden, but it never happened. Darrel was of the opinion that the two toughs who tried to take me on were not among the favorites of the staff; maybe the guards thought they only got what they deserved. I wasn't about to argue with anyone about that. In fact, I think my actions really toned down any more attempts on me. I wasn't considered defenseless, although I tried to avoid being anywhere by myself.