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.

The Bronco’s passenger seat has been replaced with a wooden supply chest, but I guess Barry figured I’d just sit atop the plywood. I did.

Nice shot of the Bronco

I noticed the engine struggled when she dropped into gear. Wind whistled through holes in her rusted frame.

“So, what’s in Redding?” Barry asked after I told him my destination, his words like mucus.

I explained the Voices of Justice project.

“Well, shit, you should talk to me! I spent eleven years in San Quentin.”

I should have asked, “What for?”

Instead, I agreed to hear his story up at his “camp”, which I assumed was some kind of log cabin. It wasn’t.

Darkness fell as we climbed the switchbacks into the mountains. Fog clotted the headlights.

It took over an hour to get to the damp plot near a picnic table where Barry parks his Bronco and sleeps. The night was quiet, save the hiss of the cooling engine

It was then that Barry mentioned he’d killed a man.

I said nothing. Silence clung to the air.

Barry made instant coffee. We drank it in the Bronco while listening to Journey on a boom box shock-corded to the dashboard.

And we talked.

It was after he left the army in ’71 that Barry’s thirst for booze really got its hold.

He worked as a welder and at a lumber mill, yet, “couldn’t seem to stay at any place too long.”

Marriage led to divorce and he set out to clean the slate in Eureka, California.

There, he reunited with his twin brother, Jerry.

The twins lived in Eureka’s streets and flophouses. They mainlined crank and sucked liquor. They careened through perpetual darkness on trips from the bottle to the courthouse.

Sharp pains swelled in Barry’s liver.

He once had his face stomped in while sleeping in the street but doesn’t remember the incident.

He once found his heroin-addicted roommate pale on the floor with a needle still hanging from his vein.

By the mid-1990s, both twins were up to two liters of vodka a day.

“I don’t remember when we started blacking out from drinking,” Barry said, “but I do remember when the seizures started.”

Barry began to show what would later be diagnosed as manic tendencies. Relations between the twins were deteriorating.

Some nights, angry voices would become wild fists, the only memory of which would be tomorrow’s swollen eyes and busted lips.

And late into one evening in 1998, it happened.

Like many other nights, this one saw meth-filled veins push blood into booze-soaked brains.

Recalling the story, Barry turned to face me in the Bronco’s front seat.

Jerry, he said, had had this look of disgust on his face. It was a look that Barry had seen many times before; this purse-lipped idiosyncrasy that always drove him nuts.

In the Bronco, Barry imitated Jerry’s expression – twisting his mouth and scrunching his brow for several seconds.

Barry swung a punch. Jerry retaliated. Flesh split flesh.

In the Bronco, Barry swung his arms around and made smashing noises. He shouted at me, gargling out the threats he’d spit at Jerry. Then he looked me in the eye.

“I’d had him on the ground and he was still hitting me,” he said. “So I grabbed his neck and started to shake.”

Barry stretched his calloused hands across the Bronco to show me how he’d choked his brother.

“Stop it!” He’d said to Jerry.

“STOP IT!” Louder this time.

But Jerry kept fighting. So Barry kept squeezing… squeezing… squeezing….

Suddenly, the resistance stopped.

Barry let go. He backed away and then he came close. He checked the pulse… nothing. But what did he know about checking pulses?

He waited. Jerry must have passed out, he thought; they were both very drunk.

Again, he waited. Nerves led to more alcohol. Alcohol led to sleep.

When he awoke, it was clear he had killed his brother.

I’d explain what happened next, but Barry does a better job:

 
I don’t think Barry slept that night. I’d hear him tinkering in the Bronco, talking to himself, sometimes cackling out loud, while I lay vulnerable in my sleeping bag and hammock.

There would be silence and I would imagine him standing right behind me with a knife.

After an hour and a half, I saw his flashlight brightening. His footsteps got louder. The cigarette smoke drifted closer. It became apparent that he was, in fact, standing right behind me. My fingers twitched and my whole body seized.

But he just spoke.

Barry told me about minutes that turn into hours and hours that turn to days while looking at your feet in prison.

He spoke of a large-fisted cellmate he befriended that had used his hands to pull a man’s tonsils from his throat.

He explained how other white inmates had forced him to beat the shit out of a child molester to protect the race’s image.

He talked about “the hole”, where some inmates scream and others flush toilets until water pools on the floors.

His silhouette shifted in the moonlight above my hammock.

Barry discussed AA and how it saved his life – how, in many ways, he believes his brother’s death saved him. He spoke of guilt, of loneliness and of the pain that comes from being forcibly forgotten by one’s entire family.

Tears and cigarette ash took turns tumbling onto my rain fly.

Sticker on the bronco’s window

Finally, the sun peaked and I got my first look at the surrounding beauty.

Barry’s spent most of his days out here since leaving prison. And I suppose he could have done worse.

He’s an old man, and a visibly tired man. This last thanksgiving, he didn’t receive a single phone call from his mother, sister or ex-wife.

Among his belongings, Barry carries a flower potted in a bean can that he’s named Rose. When we packed up the Bronco in the morning, he lifted her delicately into the front seat.

Rose in her bean can

He also has a teddy bear that he straps carefully in next to the driver’s seat.

Barry's teddy bear in the Bronco

The Bronco itself is named Lucy. She struggled to start in the morning but Barry talked her through it.

We headed back to the junction of Rt. 299, shook hands and parted ways.

I was very sad.

Barry Thornton is a man who has killed another man, but he is a man nonetheless. He is an elderly man living alone in guilt, listening to Journey on a boom box shock-corded to the dashboard of a Ford Bronco in which he lives, caring for a rose and teddy bear, twenty miles deep into a remote corner of the Trinity Mountain Forest.

I hope someone gave him a call on Christmas.

 
1After many hours spent listening to my notes, I’ve done as best a job as I could here to recreate Barry’s story accurately. However, he has a habit of speaking in a very non-linear fashion, jumping from topic to topic and year to year. As you read, keep in mind that large chunks of the story may have never hit my ears. Also, Barry isn’t this guy’s real name. I changed it because I felt compelled to do so.
Posted on by Luke Whyte |

14 Responses to A night spent camping with a murderer

  1. Vermin says:

    This story is very interesting, and once you got warmed in it’s telling your imagery and flow really pulled me right in. I thought it was really ironic that when you met you were the hitchhiker and he was the one getting you down the road. Im sure he was just lonely and it seems he couldn’t have happened across a more receptive pair of ears. You may be the first person he has gotten to tell his story to since getting out of prison. Hopefully it did him some good. Good luck out there.

  2. Nicki says:

    This story left a tear in my eye. The fact that Barry shared his story with you is amazing and I imagine it was a hard story for you to write. I think you did a excellent job of shedding light on his circumstances. I hope Barry did get that call on Christmas.

  3. Annie says:

    You are very brave. And the way you tell this story is compassionate and cohesive. Keep it up Luke, you have a gift for this.

  4. Travis says:

    “Glad that chair was there.” This a great piece. I can’t think of a more terrible or heartbreaking story to accompany you on your journey, though I imagine you’ll run into many more. Way to handle this professionally and kindly. I imagine that allowing Barry to tell his story gave him some small measure of peace. It humanizes an inhumane act, which I think is what you’re after with Voices of Justice. Nice work overall.

  5. Bianca says:

    it’s rare you meet someone who’s actually trying to do something interesting.
    keep writing.

  6. Amazing Luke….keep these stories coming; the world needs to know….

  7. There are lots of Barry Thorntons in the mountains of Humboldt and Trinity Counties (and everywhere else, too, I’m sure). I live in Hayfork, a Trinity County town, and I think I’ve seen Barry around. I really feel for these guys. The women are even less able to survive out here — and have a harder time getting out of prison.

  8. Farran says:

    Wow, Luke. Incredible first story, how lucky you were to stumble across him…you were very brave and did an excellent job sharing his story. My eyes started to well up…excellent work!

  9. Mar says:

    capturing the human side
    vividly
    just as i remember your work from years and years ago

  10. Isaac says:

    Luke, A way to go. Keep it up, you’re on the right track. Thanks!

  11. Tony Fantano says:

    Riveting. That is how you inform the world and give someone a sense of catharsis.

  12. Troy says:

    Hi, just discovered your site. These stories are amazing. I wish you could spend even more time with these people and get deeply into their minds. I’m much more interested in the stories of the ex-cons with destroyed lives yet somehow manage to hang on then stories from prison officials. These are the people that Jesus would have been hanging with and yet they are totally forgotten today.

  13. Dave says:

    wow. i’m jealous and i’m not. you’re doing good and important work. thanks for doing it, so can just read it. props bud. you always got a couch to crash.

  14. Callie says:

    You have such fluidity in your writing and I’m drawn in by your vivid descriptions. You are an awesome story teller.

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