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:
- The time he pushed a high school senior down a flight of stairs
- The time his car broke down on the way to Woodstock in 1969
- The time he was convicted of having sex with his nine-year-old stepdaughter
Thomas on his couch
The small desert town where he lives is named Ocotillo. It’s perched nine miles north of Mexico in a valley California forgot. To the west, mountains feed water to San Diego. To the east, irrigation feeds life to El Centro. But in Ocotillo, there is almost no water and almost no life. Instead, there is sun. Its gaze unrelenting, flogging the desert’s bald back. And there is sand. It’s presence ubiquitous, scratching against scratched paint.
And if society has a fringe, Ocotillo is on it.
There are three businesses in town with regular hours. One is a gas station. Two are bars. I first met Thomas in one of these bars at 9am. He was sucking down a couple drafts and buying a six-pack.
“What can I do for you?” asked Ed, bartender at Old Highway Café.
“Cup of coffee please.”
I sat down next to Thomas. He was hunched over a pint, staring at the bottom of the glass and working quickly toward it.
“Big backpack,” he said.
There was a pause. I sipped coffee. Wind pushed sand through the open door.
Patricia Dunklee, M.D., 9/4/86
“There is evidence of genital trauma from digital penetration and history of penile/vaginal contact”
“Traveling?” Thomas asked.
I told him about my work, about interviewing parolees. There was another pause, another sip. Sun danced through gaps in the single planked walls.
Then the words poured out.
Court transcript, 9/11/86
The Court: “How long have you been married to the child’s mother?”
The Defendant: “Seven years.”
The Court: “Seven years, and what was it that you did to make you think you are guilty of the charge in count one?”
The Defendant: “Fondled her.”
The Court: “Put your hand on her vagina?”
The Defendant: “Yes.”
The fourth of six children, Thomas was born in 1945. He’s 66 today – lines carving up his face like scars from memories past.
Dad drank a lot. Dad hit mom a lot.
“I think that’s where most my anger came from,” he said.
As far as memory serves, Thomas was no older than four, watching his parents fight, when something inside snapped.
“I grabbed a bamboo spear I had and I stuck (Dad) in the back with it. It didn’t kill him, but only because I wasn’t strong enough to push it all the way through.”
The boy would never learn to read or write. A fact that the court-appointed psychiatrist later attributed to minor brain damage brought forth by “prenatal and perinatal malnutrition and protein deficiency.”
“They put me in special education classes and said I’d never learn anything because I was illiterate,” Thomas said. “That was wrong. They should never have said that to me.”
“Being picked on all the time for being slow,” Thomas said, “it made me want to hurt somebody.”
And he did.
As far as memory serves, Thomas was a freshman in high school, being teased by an older student, when something again snapped.
That’s how a senior ended up at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
Thomas on his couch
Forced from school, Thomas embraced a life on the road. He worked in restaurant kitchens, picked lettuce on farms and changed sheets in Midwestern motels.
“I love traveling,” he said. “There are so many beautiful places in this country.”
He met his first wife after his car broke down on the way to Woodstock. Nine years later, she left him for another man.
He met his second wife near San Diego in 1981. They had a little boy in 1984. She cheated on him in 1985. He took to booze soon after.
12 months, five DUIs and 60 days in jail later, it happened… well, something happened.
Paul U. Strauss, M.D., 10/15/86
“In my opinion, Thomas James Bergin is not a fixated pedophile. He has been married twice, has fathered at least one child, and does not appear to turn to minors as a preferred source of sexual gratification… I doubt very much that incarceration would be useful for Mr. Bergin.”
In Ocotillo, Thomas and I left Old Highway Cafe.
We sat down on the couch in his trailer. Bernard joined us. A couple of Budweisers were opened. Rocky III played on TV.
Thomas with Bernard
“You know, you change your kids, you clean them, whatever,” Thomas said. “And, uh, so you give them a little whack on the ass, but there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just being parents.”
“I was charged with fondling my stepdaughter,” he told Dr. Strauss. “They said it was eight times. It didn’t happen.”
“A long while back my stepdaughter picked up some books on sex. (She) and her friend, Beth, found the books while hiking.”
The books were pornography – graphic pornography.
“She would ask me a lot of things,” Thomas said. “I told her to ask her mother, but she kept asking me. I told her it was no good. She got really worked up out of curiosity and began fooling around with herself. I caught here a couple of times. That’s about all. She just got a little too curious and stuff like that.
“It’s hard to talk about. It’s not right.”
It was the stepdaughter that called the police, “which I understood,” Thomas said, “because I’d punished her that day and she didn’t want to do what she was told to do.”
“Has he ever hit you?” The police would ask.
Thomas on his trailer’s porch
Thomas pled guilty because, in his words, “They said that if they got my (step)daughter on the stand it would upset her and my family. I decided I’d do anything to protect my daughter, wife and family.”
Like most convicted sex offenders, he was placed in a prison special housing unit to keep the other inmates from killing him. Nonetheless, he’s got scars.
“There’s some really crazy people in those places,” he said, “screaming all night long, it’s like being in a goddamn insane asylum.”
Thomas spent less than two years behind bars. Of course, in or out of prison, anyone marked as a sex offender is no longer a “real”, free citizen. In most cases, they all but cease to exist.
In 1988, Thomas moved to Santa Ann to take care of his mother – Dad had suffocated to death after neglecting to care for a tracheotomy. He tried to find work but couldn’t – most people don’t hire 40-something convicted child molesters.
Mom passed away and Thomas moved to rural New Mexico, where he spent three years in prison for failing to register as a sex offender and possession of a rifle as a parolee.
He left custody and returned to California. Still unable to find work, he moved around, living out of a truck.
Cops would run his plates, push him around a little and then throw him in jail for the night out of disgust. Locals would talk and Thomas would move, like a subway rat scavenging to survive and hiding from our repulsion. Finally, he escaped to the only place left – the desert.
These days he wakes early and smokes a few cigarettes before heading to Ed’s for a couple of beers. The rest of the day he spends on that concave couch.
He watches TV. He paints. He hides from society’s revolted eyes.
Beer cases litter the floor. Beer cans fill up with cigarette butts. Dishes spill from the sink.
Thomas is alone. He is defeated.
“I’m just tired of it,” he said. “I’m ready to fight. I don’t care if I die doing it.”
But there is nothing to fight.
I finished my second beer, got up and left. I walked straight out of town into the open desert and watched the waning sun bend shadows across the sand.
I was sad.
Did he do it? I don’t know. But I do know that’s not what this story is about.
This story is about what it means to be broken, to be truly alone in the way only a man like Thomas – only a convicted sex offender – can be. Waiting to die, dog by his side, beneath the beautiful desert night sky.