Episode 2 - Suspect / Witness - Transcript
In this garden called life…
for a long time dirt is only dirt.
If I stare long enough, I can’t be sure
if there was a hole at all. And how many
seeds are under there now, waking
or withering in the darkness?
- from the poem ‘a waste of a life’ written by me, k.b. marie.
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
I achieve absolutely nothing the day after my mother dies. It is a day spent on the sofa, Macbook open on my lap as I search the internet for answers it probably doesn’t have. And when my eyes begin to feel like they’re bleeding, my contacts fogging up, I take a break, but only from looking at the screen. Not from obsessing.
I talk first to my friend Katie.
“They arrested him,” I say, referring to my uncle Joe.
“For her murder?” she asks.
“For the outstanding strangulation warrant. I don’t think you can be officially charged with murder until they have conclusive evidence. I don’t think they have that yet.”
In fact, I must face the reality that they may never have enough to convict him.
If it really was drugs that killed her, and he was the only one there that night, it will be her word against his. And she’s dead. Nothing can stop him from saying that she took the drugs herself. From saying it’s her own fault—whatever happened.
I’m sure that when my uncle called to tell me my mother had died, there had been a reason he’d been reluctant to tell me the overdose story.
The police didn’t know her. They could take one look at her history and pin her as just another dead junkie. And I believe Joe was counting on that.
As for the evidence, we’re left with only three clues: “the condition of my mother’s body and how it was found,” “the state of her room” and lastly, my uncle’s changing story.
A story that didn’t hold under interrogation.
My uncle told me he went into her room Saturday morning and found her dead. That she was blue. That he has no idea what killed her, but he thinks she took something. That he “knows what an overdose looks like.”
What my uncle told the police is that he came home from work and found her on the floor. That he put her in her bedroom, hoping that she’d be better in the morning. That she’d sleep off whatever was happening. That he thinks she broke into his safe, took his heroin. That she had a history of heroin use, which was a lie. That they had fought about money, but that he hadn’t hurt her. He swears.
So where does that leave us?
Detective Barnes summed it up well: I think he did something to her, I just don’t know that I can prove it.
My mind wrestles with the two versions of my uncle’s story, as I try to decide which might be more true.
At first only two things are clear: My mother is dead. And my uncle lied to me about how it happened.
Katie, good friend that she is, helps me to tease apart his story.
“Assuming he’s not lying about finding her in the floor, why didn’t he call anyone when he found her?” I ask.
“Because he’s a bastard,” is Katie’s reply.
“It’s not like he doesn’t know what can happen.”
If my uncle can walk into my mother’s room and after one look claim it was an overdose, as he did on the day of her death then either 1) knows what she took and that it could kill her or 2) knows what an overdose looks like.
I suspect it’s both.
My aunt Renee, my mother’s and Joe’s older sister, died of an overdose in December of 2003. He claims that he was there that day, that he was the one desperately trying to put clothes on her, after finding her naked in her bathroom floor, before the police came. Whether or not this is true, I can’t say.
But my uncle had been an addict for a long time. On hard drugs alone, for at least twenty years. He would’ve known what an overdose looked like. He would’ve recognized the symptoms while it was happening, not just what a body looks like after death, because he would’ve been on the alert for those symptoms in himself.
And he would’ve also known solutions like naloxone (nah-lox-o-ne) exist, that overdoses can be reversed if someone gets treatment in time.
He had this knowledge when he found her unconscious. If he really came home and found her collapsed in the floor, he would’ve recognized it for the overdose that it was. He would’ve known—but he chose not to help.
If I found someone unresponsive anywhere, I would call for help.
Of course, here, being the over-rationalizer that I am, I assume there must be a good reason. “Why didn’t he try to take her to a hospital? Maybe he was too stoned to drive—”
“No.” Katie stops me. She isn’t having this. In fact, she much more of a no-bullshitter than I am. God bless her. “He just drove home.”
“Okay – he can drive but doesn’t want to.”
“There’s a thing called an ambulance,” she says.
“Right. But he didn’t call so maybe the phone—”
She interrupts me again. “The phone is working. You spoke to your mom that day. And he called you to tell you she was dead.”
“Maybe he was just scared to call the police? He doesn’t have a great record with them and there was the warrant.”
“He had no problem calling them to say she was dead,” she finishes.
I’ve nothing to add to this. She’s right.
The phone was working. The car was working. He was able-bodied enough to move her to the bedroom and brave enough to call the police to report her dead but not to get her the medical attention she needed?—even though he would’ve known exactly what was happening, what the dangers were.
“I just don’t understand—” I say. Because clearly I’m still looking for a reason for this not to be true.
“There’s nothing to understand. He’s. A bastard,” Katie says patiently. “Obviously.”
And there’s the last piece of his story to consider. The bit about the broken safe.
When he first mentioned the possibility of an overdose, I’d said, “You told me that everything was locked in your safe.”
“It is—it was!” he insisted.
“Then how could she have gotten in?”
“I don’t know, maybe she broke in.”
Broke in. Despite being physically weak and blind as a bat in both eyes.
Katie is ready to dissect this too.
“Okay,” she says. “Let’s assume he’s telling the truth about locking everything in the safe. And I’m sure his paranoid ass did. Are we to believe that the safe worked for four months at least since your grandma died and then … just stopped working? The safe is faulty now?”
No. It doesn’t make sense. If the story is that all the drugs in the house—even my mother’s prescriptions—were locked up in the safe—how did she get ahold of something that could kill her?
It makes much more sense that any drug she came into contact with—would’ve been a drug that he’d given her.
And if he’d given it to her, he would’ve been the one to buy it, to know what it was. Which leads me back to wondering why—how—he could watch her overdose without helping her.
How cold. Cruel does one have to be for that.
Of course, the only living person there that night, the only person who knows the truth of what happened is my uncle.
But he’s a liar.
How does one find the truth when the only witness is a master of deceit.
I need something concrete. Something I can understand. Like an autopsy.
There are three parts to the autopsy: an external examination of the body, an internal examination of the body, and the toxicology report.
The external examination, as the name suggests, is a review of the exterior of the body. If he beat her to death. If he wrapped his hands around her throat, or stabbed her, anything violent, the cause of death could be determined with the external examination alone.
The internal examination covers the organs like the heart, lungs, everything else, anything that happened under the skin.
If her Hepatitis C caught up with her at last, if it was cirrhosis or liver disease, or lung disease from her chronic smoking. Maybe even a stroke or heart attack…any of that could be determined from the internal examination.
This part of the autopsy also checks for non-pathological causes.
“I want the medical examiner to look for air bubbles,” the detective tells me. “In case he shot her up with an empty syringe.”
I imagine my uncle chasing my terrified mother through the house with an empty syringe, threatening to kill her. I imagine her trying to shove the bedroom door closed before he busts through.
And how long between the moment of injection and when the air reached her heart? How long would she have known what was coming? Unable to stop it.
Would she have tried to call me? Maybe collapsing before she could fully type my number?
I’m shaking. I have to stop doing this to myself.
My wild mind, though often useful, is a horrible creature when turned against myself.
Letting possible scenarios spin unchecked is wrecking me.
Stop. Please, just stop. Don’t do this now.
I’ll have the results for the external and internal examinations by the end of the day Monday.
I’ll know more then.
In the meantime, I just have to control what I think about.
And my mind isn’t ready to give up so easily. I think, You might not know anything by Monday You might never know anything.
It’s not wrong.
If heroin really is the cause of death, it will only show on the toxicology report, the third part of the autopsy. Unlike the external and internal examinations of the autopsy, the toxicology report can take months to come back. I have to prepare myself for that.
Of course if the report shows heroin as the cause of death, I’ll know he killed her. My mother had never done heroin in her life. If it was in her veins, he used it to make her death look like an overdose.
He was counting on the system’s apathy toward addicts as a mask for the perfect crime.
I think it’s telling that while he brought up the possibility of an overdose, he never once mentioned to me that the suspected drug was heroin.
Is that because he knew I wouldn’t believe him?
Who knew my mother’s addictions better than I did. I’ve been given an intensive education for more than thirty years.
My uncle couldn’t have fooled me, but he could tell the police anything, probably believing that I would have no reason to speak to them.
I suppose there’s the possibility that my mother was secretly a heroin addict.
But my mother told me she was clean and I believe her. I even have this statement in writing.
I know that it’s weird that anyone would send good-old fashioned letters in the world of texting and cell phones and internet, but sometimes there’s no other way.
My mother sent me a letter just eleven days before she died. It’s postmarked June 23rd.
I should probably back up and explain why she wrote me a letter.
You may be shocked to know that my mother never had a smartphone. She did have my old laptop for awhile, but spilt diet coke on it, and it broke. I’d yet to cycle through another one that I could pass down. Buying her own was out of the question. Her budget simply wouldn’t allow such luxuries.
Before my grandmother’s death, their income consisted of my grandmother’s $1200 social security check, and my mother’s $795 disability check. With those two monthly checks they could pay the mortgage and utilities. Buy a bit of groceries and supplies to handroll their cigarettes. Little else.
This is one of the reasons my mother hated Joe’s heroin addiction so much. It was already difficult supporting the three of them on these two checks alone. It was harder when Joe’s addiction kept him from working, and he would steal their cash to buy his drugs.
Not having money exacerbated her anxiety and kept her mental health in poor shape.
This dire financial situation got worse when my grandmother died on March 1st, and the $1200 check stopped coming. The mortgage payments were abandoned immediately. Then the utilities. I’d paid my mom’s water bill, but couldn’t cover the overdue cable bill, which had somehow, ballooned to over five hundred dollars after months of going unpaid.
Then their cell phone was cut off—severing my one way of getting ahold of her.
When I called the number and found it disconnected, I was terrified.
I’d already been worried about Joe and her alone in that house without my grandmother as a buffer. With her gone, I feared it was only a matter of time before something terrible happened.
Without a way to call her, I did the only thing I could think to do.
I wrote her a letter and included five self-addressed stamped envelopes.
I begged her to write me back and tell me she was okay. I also wrote about a lot of mundane useless things like what I was painting and the state of my (failing) garden. I was trying not to let me panic show.
When a letter finally came with my handwritten scrawl on the envelope, I tore it open with great relief.
She was alive.
After telling me that she loved me, that it was good to hear from me, she outlined the situation in the house:
She was stressed about money and didn’t know how she was going to make ends meet. And for her, Joe was the cause and source of that stress.
In her letter she said,
“I’m just praying Joe gets off his ass and gets a damn job quick. If he doesn’t get his shit together, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m so stressed out, I feel like I can hardly breathe. Pray for me honey. I need it really really badly. I need God to work a miracle in my life. I don’t drink or do anything anymore and I need Joe to do the same.”
She knew they couldn’t pay their bills on her disability check, let alone feed his addiction. Nor could she work. The easiest solution for their problems would be for Joe to get a job.
How hard was he trying, I don’t know.
From the letter, it sounded like Joe hadn’t found a job yet
So what was this job that he told the police about—that he’d come home from to find her unconscious in the floor?
Had he finally gotten a job between June 23rd and July 3rd? Or was this another lie?
All this talk about their dire finances makes me think of Joe’s comment about the insurance policy.
You can take a $50,000 insurance policy out on someone without them even knowing, he’d said, minutes after informing me that my mother was dead.
How did he know this specific number? Why so much emphasis on without them knowing?
Did he see their dire financial situation and think—I could get a job, or I could murder my sister for insurance money?
If his access to dangerous drugs were his means for murder, was money his motive?
The idea that murder is a viable option for money isn’t a new one.
The infamous American serial killer H.H. Holmes was an insurance fraudster. It’s speculated that Holmes killed as many as 200 people in his Chicago Murder Castle in the late 1800s.
Despite his confessions and abundance of evidence against him, he was only convicted of one murder: that of his business partner Benjamin Pitezel.
Together, Pitezel and Holmes planned to fake Pitezel’s death and the collect $10,000 from Fidelty Mutual for Pitezel’s death.
So Pitezel took out the policy and named Holmes the beneficiary. However, instead of using a substitute corpse as agreed upon, Holmes murdered Pitezel and tried to make it look like an accident instead.
Surely paying off the enormous cable bill can’t be motivation enough for murder?
Was there more at stake?
The clue may be hiding in a phone call I had with my mother not long before she died.
To be honest, I don’t remember the exact day or time that we had the following conversation.
I do remember that was after my grandmother died, because my mother’s memory loss was a topic of conversation, and because I was calling my mother two or three times a week, just to check in. It would’ve also been, presumably, before the cell phone’s minutes were ran out in June.
Whenever it happened, during the call, she whispered:
“Joe looks like he got the shit beat out of him.”
I was familiar with the whisper tactic. It meant he was close, within earshot and she had to watch what she said less it trigger an argument. When she’d called to tell me he’d strangled her, she’d also whispered.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“His face is black and blue.”
“Did he say what happened?”
“I don’t want to ask,” she tells me. “It’ll just piss him off. But it looks like he got the shit beat out of him.”
Joe must run in rough circles. Buying or selling drugs doesn’t bring you into contact with kumbaya people.
But what had happened? Was it simply a matter of a drug deal gone wrong? Or was it more than that.
Was it possible, that in addition to the unpaid utilities and mortgage, did my uncle owe someone money? A bad someone.
Did they threaten to end his life if he didn’t pay up?
Did they give him a little taste of that threat maybe?
If a drug lord says give me X amount of money, or I’ll tear one of your eyes out, would you knock off your mentally unwell sister and collect the insurance policy post haste?
Worse – would you knock off your mother first, and when that didn’t produce enough money, go after the sister too?
Because this idea as crossed my mind—that it might not be a coincidence that they died so close together.
I know it sounds ridiculous.
It sounds like something I’d write 80,000 words about, slap a cover on, and sell for $4.99 on Amazon.
But stranger things have happened, even before this blackhole of a year called 2020.
Please god. Please don’t let it be that he killed them for money. I think, praying to no one in particular. Just the whole universe I guess. Maybe to benevolent, interdimensional aliens. Whoever’s listening really.
Let it be a mistake. Let it be that he really did get a job. That he really was trying to do better, and one night came home and found her and maybe even that he got high after work, having waited all day, and so when he showed up, he was scared to scared to call for help.
Maybe his story about heroin was just a panicked lie in the face of law enforcement.
Let it be COVID or her health. Let it be whatever was giving her seizures and memory loss.
To Katie I say, “He told me she was worse off than I knew. That she was setting pans on fire on the stove and stuffing things in the freezer.”
If he did kill her for money…was this what he told himself?
Is this how he justified it in in mind? Did he tell himself he were doing her a favor, putting her out of her misery. That that was the real reason she needed to go.
“What was she putting in the freezer?” Katie asks.
“Like the remote or something.”
“Sounds like Tony’s grandma.” Her husband’s grandmother had lived with them during the last stages of her dementia. “Why didn’t he tell you about the fires?”
“He said she didn’t want me to worry.”
“Why the heck wasn’t he worried? Better question,” she adds. “Why the heck was he leaving her alone if she was setting fires? That’s some negligence there.”
And he might have simply been tired of trying to take care of her and wanted to be rid of her.
But wanting to do something, and being capable of it, isn’t the same.
So do I think it’s possible that my uncle could kill someone?
Accidentally, yes. He’s a violent person with little self-control. If he loses his temper, all bets are off. If he’d lost his temper with my mother that night, if they’re really had a fight about money, it’s possible that he lost control and caused enough damage with his fists to end her life.
But cold, premeditated murder?
There are things to consider. Did he move her body out of panic or fear, or was it done according to a plan?
Was he home the entire time, watching the scene unfold? Or did he really come home and find her collapsed.
Then there’s the rumor.
Whispered at my grandfather’s funeral, that Joe had helped my grandfather along. That he’d taken it upon himself to end his suffering.
What did he stand to inherit? Property and money of course.
There is a term for this. Not necessarily for a greedy bastard, but for a person who believes they are doing someone a favor by ending their life.
This sort of serial killer is called an angel of mercy.
Could Joe be an angel of mercy?
Does he view himself as the dutiful son and brother, willing to make the hard decisions no one else in the family can?
Verbally he often paints himself that way. When he talks about rescuing my mom from the hospital. When he talks about taking care of my grandmother, which such pride, as if he’d never put his hands on her before.
Is my uncle the sort of cold-blooded man who could let my mother lay unconscious on the floor as he tore her room apart looking for money?
If so, it might explain the “condition of the room” that led the detective to believe something malicious had happened.
Or perhaps there is a more damning piece of information.
A bizarre phone call.
On Friday July 3rd, at 10:10 a.m. almost exactly 24 hours before he would call and say he found my mother dead, I get a call. Mom New Cell, it said.
When I answer, it’s Joe.
I’m surprised. Joe has never ever called me.
“Here, talk to your momma,” he says in a slow, drawl.
There’s a shuffle and she says hello.
“Are you okay?” I ask her, trying to take measure of the situation.
She laughs. “I’m fine. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Joe called me so I thought something was going on.”
“No,” she says. She sounds as confused as I am. “I’m fine, honey. Are you okay?”
No confusion. She’s crystal clear. Absolutely lucid.
We go on like this for five minutes, trying to figure out why the call has been orchestrated. Finally we give up and I ask her what she has planned for the day. I ask about her health, her dogs. Fat, sassy, and spoiled she tells me.
She asks how my squash are growing. Terrible, I tell her. I think I have bugs.
And then the call ends without fanfare.
This might not seem weird to you, I know.
But I keep turning this piece over in my mind, again and again.
Why would he call me when he never had before? Not even to tell me my grandmother was dead and my mother hospitalized.
And why, of all the times that this one anomaly of a call could happen, it happens hours before her death?
Could it really just be coincidence?
Or did he know what he had planned for that night, and wanted to make sure we had one last chance to say goodbye.