Breakfast in the desert with a convicted child molester

Thomas Bergin lives in a small mobile home in a small desert town. It smells moldy inside, like stagnant beer mixing with dried sweat.

He sleeps on a slightly stained, heavily concave couch, enjoys painting landscapes onto chunks of desert rock and overfeeds his only friend in the world – a dog named Bernard.

Like most people, Thomas’ life was largely shaped by just a handful of events. Here are three of them:

  1. The time he pushed a high school senior down a flight of stairs
  2. The time his car broke down on the way to Woodstock in 1969
  3. The time he was convicted of having sex with his nine-year-old stepdaughter … more
Posted on by Luke Whyte | 10 Comments

Waiting to die: A tale of modern American justice

This is a love story about a quadriplegic woman named Sarah and a heroin addict named Rick.

Rick and Sarah

It begins on a sunny afternoon in 1968 as a Ford Mustang GT Fastback headed to Muir Woods in California slips across the yellow line and into oncoming traffic.

There is a very brief pause. And then it happens.

It’s possible that the sun – listing over the Pacific and bending the day’s light – might have blinded the driver’s view of the oncoming car.

But we’ll never know for sure because memories spilled like blood and the Mustang was too mangled to provide clues.

Sarah Ward was in the passenger seat.

An 18-year-old freshman at Harvey Mudd College, all she remembers from the incident is that seven days later she awoke in a hospital bed unable to move her arms or feet.

“The driver broke both his legs,” she said. “The only bone I broke was in my neck.”

Time had stopped. Life had happened.

At first, she said, “there’s always hope that your nerves will reconnect.”

But hers never did. And instead, Sarah built a new life.

She got a degree in software engineering followed by a job at IBM. And, slowly, she settled into a stable new routine.

That is, of course, until she met Rick … More

(Note: Clicking this link will take you to my blog on HuffingtonPost.com, where the rest of this story is stored. ~ Luke)

Posted on by Luke Whyte | 2 Comments

Penetration with a foreign object

A story of methamphetamine and molestation

The city of Red Bluff is fading.

Not the whole city, but big chunks of it. The chunks the Chamber of Commerce would prefer you didn’t see.

It’s the sun that does it.

Beating year after year against the side of businesses where profit margins fell short of paint buckets, where money moves like syrup sits, where neon signs flicker and fail.

Peter Singer grew up here, in the far north of California’s central valley.

Here is a picture of his back tattoo:

“Death is only the beginning”

Red Bluff was a mining town and then a railroad town before Peter was born. Today it’s a Wal-Mart warehouse and a window installation town.

And for its poorest residents, it’s a methamphetamine town.

They call it crank, or dope. And it’s not just a drug; it’s an industry for those without an industry.

It’s born into bathtubs and it dies on construction sites.

It stares through wild eyes perched above forearms wringed like dishcloths.

It sleeps under the freeway bridge in shanties set up next to the river.

Shopping carts litter the long grass.

I’ve slept down there. And so has Peter.

But that’s not where we met. We met at a Denny’s restaurant in Red Bluff.

And it’s not where this story begins.

It begins with a felony charge the state gave Peter when he was 19.

Something they call, “Penetration with a foreign object” … more

Posted on by Luke Whyte | 7 Comments

A night spent camping with a murderer

If you travel east on Rt. 299 from the Northern California coast, the wet winds will be suffocated by the mountains’ meticulous calm.

Somewhere out there (I’d say about a tank of gas east of the beach), a dirt road breaks off to the left and ascends through 20 miles of hairpin turns. Where it ends – next to a picnic table in a vacant campground – you’ll find a Ford Bronco inhabited by a 65-year-old bearded man who murdered his twin brother by strangling him to death.

Barry smokes a cigarette beside the Bronco

What follows is that man’s story, told to me in his words, when we shared that campground together on a cold evening in December of 2010.1

***

Barry Thornton was born roughly 600,000 cigarettes ago in rural Wisconsin.

This is his picture:

Barry poses behind the Bronco

Barry has a temper. He was expelled from one high school and struggled through the next. His fists split many lips.

His white beard cascades to his belly in straggled knots. His eyes dart wild through their sockets. His swollen hands speak of cold nights.

He was driving back from a grocery store when he spotted me hitchhiking … more

Posted on by Luke Whyte | 14 Comments