Episode 3 - The Autopsy Results
Imagine wide boulevards, empty.
Birds, if there are
still birds, will darken the sky.
They will be the ones who remember
our songs, our stories.
When the world has ended,
when the world has moved on,
what will be left of us?
--from the poem “cloud gate” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
I can’t bear to wait anymore. I decide to call Detective Barnes myself and ask about the results of the autopsy.
As the phone rings—seemingly for an eternity, my heart starts pounding. My palms are sweating.
I want him to answer and tell me it’s a mistake.
I want him to say that my mother’s death something simple and unproblematic. Covid-19, or a heart attack or anything but a tragic end to my mother’s tragic life.
Anything but one of the awful scenarios I’ve concocted in my dark mind.
I’m praying, not for the last time, that my uncle is innocent.
Despite the evidence, it isn’t like my uncle is incapable of kindness. Sometimes when my mother’s delusions were particularly intense and she would spin lies for hours, he would sit with her. Listen to her. Show her tremendous patience in the face of her maddening psychosis.
Once, when my grandfather wrongfully blamed me for breaking a window in the garage, slapped me hard across the face for asserting I didn’t do it. It was Joe who stopped the second slap from coming down.
Joe whose face had pinched, pained and embarrassed on my behalf, putting himself between me and the hand.
And another time when he, my mother, grandmother and I got lost on the backroads of Missouri, and the whole car devolved into a chaos of frustration as the gas tank whittled its way toward empty—he saw that I was upset by the shouting and pulled the van over to the side of the road until everyone cooled off.
He picked wildflowers with me, putting into my hands a beautiful bouquet of purple blooms.
He could be kind man. Or a very dangerous man.
I just don’t know which one was with my mother the night she died.
I may never know.
The ringing stops. A voice says, “Detective Barnes.”
“Hi, it’s me. Kory. Leitha’s daughter. I’m sorry to bother you, I’m sure you’re really busy, but I’m hoping you have my mother’s autopsy results.”
“Oh hi, Kory, yes. I was just about to call you.”
I finally have the detective on the phone and I can barely hear him. The pounding in my ears drowns out his words. My heart is that crazy little drummer kid from all the Christmas songs rum-pa-pumming along.
“I’m sorry,” I tell the detective. “Can you say that again?”
“We didn’t find anything.”
“What do you mean you didn’t find anything?”
“There’s no damage to her body. Well, she has a scratch on her right arm but it isn’t considerable. Maybe he pushed her down. There are a few bruises, but it’s hard to tell how old bruises are. And there’s a place on her scalp that was bleeding underneath but that could’ve happened if she’d collapsed. There’s nothing that points to a clear cause of death.”
A wave of relief washes through me.
I didn’t realize until this moment how afraid I’d been that he’d beaten her to death. That her final moments were full of terror and pain.
But that isn’t what happened. He didn’t do it with his fists and for some reason, I’m comforted by this.
“So…it wasn’t a violent death?” I ask, knowing my disbelief must be showing.
But the detective sounds like a good guy. At the very least, he’s incredibly patient with me. “No ma’am. There’s nothing to suggest he strangled her, or hit her. Even the bruises are of varying ages, so it’s hard to say if a struggle caused those or if she just collapsed.”
My mother and I are the same in that we perpetually mis-measure the width of doorways. All my life she’d clipped frames with an elbow or shoulder and would have a bruise dark enough to have you believing someone took a bat to her.
The detective goes on, “The x-ray found no evidence of an air bubble. There were no needle marks anywhere on her body.”
I stop him here. “No needle marks at all?”
Of course it’s possible that they missed something small, like a puncture between the toes, but he assures me they checked everywhere and were very thorough.
If there are no track marks, then she wasn’t a secret heroin addict. It means my mom was probably telling the truth about being clean.
I remind the detective of this. “She wasn’t doing heroin. He lied when he said she’d used heroin.”
“Yes ma’am seems so.”
“So do you think he gave her drugs? Or poisoned her?”
“Unfortunately, we won’t know that until the tox screen comes back.”
“How long will that take?”
“At least eight weeks.”
But he’s wrong about this. It will take over fourteen.
I’m dreading the wait. How do I endure months of not knowing whether he killed her? The fact I may not know even then.
I realize instantly that if there’s no proof from her body that he killed her, the only thing holding him in jail is the warrant.
“What will happen to Joe?” I ask.
“Yes, ma’am when we arrested him we found heroin and meth inside his body.”
“Inside his body,” Katie would later repeat back to me. “He’s a guy, so we’re talking about the butt right?”
Never one to mince words, my friend.
The fact that Joe was arrested with heroin and meth “inside his body” and that my mother had not so much as a single puncture wound, tells me that his story about her breaking into the safe and stealing his heroin is bogus. It was a lie and he knew it was a lie.
But why tell it?
Why insist that it was heroin when it could’ve been any of the drugs he had in the safe? We know he had at least my mother’s prescriptions, heroin and meth. Probably others. He could’ve told them anything. That she took meth. That took too many pills. But he’d said heroin.
Why had he insisted that it was the least likely of all? Unless he knew what the tox screen would say. Unless he knew because he’d given it to her..
“If it comes back that she has heroin in her system,” I tell the detective. “You know this means he used it to kill her. He was the user with track marks. Not her.”
Detective Barnes placates me with a respectful “Yes, ma’am.”
And the fact that there is no fatal damage to her body tells me that he didn’t lose control of himself. It wasn’t like he lost his patience and struck her. This isn’t the ashtray incident of 2005.
If he killed her, it was a calculated decision. Maybe even something he planned in advance.
I tell the detective about the insurance policy. Tell him, “On the morning he called to tell me she was dead, he asked if I had an insurance policy on her. He said you can take $50,000 out on someone without them even knowing which I thought was a very specific amount of money. Is there a way for you to check and see if there’s a policy?”
“Yes, ma’am, I could check.”
Good, I think. Because if there is a policy, and Joe is named as the beneficiary, that would explain some things. For better or worse.
Of course, there might not be a policy and if there isn’t, there’s still my grandmother’s estate.
Zillow says her house is worth $283,000. And the Nashville real estate market is booming.
When I check Joe’s booking that afternoon I see that he had a court date for August 5th, the day after his fifty-second birthday.
There’s the strangulation charge and the two new drug charges.
I wonder how much time he’ll get for the drug charges or the strangulation. I’m not confident, given his track record that he’ll get much at all.
“Why don’t you think the drug charges will stick? ” My wife asks when I fill her in on the autopsy report and the long, uncertain wait stretching before me. “Has he gotten out of jail time before?”
“Yes.” I laugh. “A lot.”
When I look more closely at his booking, I see the three pending charges: the outstanding strangulation charge. And also two drugs charges: the first Contraband in a penal institution. Intoxicant/Contraband substance, listed as a Felony.
And second, a Contraband substance possession or casual exchange, listed as a misdemeanor.
Between the heroin and meth, I don’t know which is a felony and which is a misdemeanor, so who knows what the authorities think is worse.
I don’t stop at the recent charges though. I search the archives as well.
Including the three new pending offenses, I find that my uncle has 117 charges in Davidson County alone.
One hundred and seventeen.
It seems his extensive life of crime began—on record anyway—in 1987 when he was found guilty of burglary, forced entry of a non-residential property. He would’ve been nineteen at the time. He certainly didn’t slow down between then and now in 2020.
Upon closer inspection, it looks like of the 117 charges, several of them have the same dates and judge, so I assume they are incidents that occurred at the same time.
Regardless, the arrest record is 32 pages long when I print it from my computer.
And as I comb the information, trying to decipher and organize it, one thing becomes abundantly clear:
My uncle Joe is one lucky guy.
Outright, over sixty of the charges have been dismissed, retired, closed, or nolle prosequi’d (nah-ley pross-eh-quay) which turns out, is a fancy way of saying the court decided to abandon the case.
The times where he was found guilty of crime, in nearly every instance, the worst offense was dismissed and substituted for a lesser charge.
For example, in April 2001, when he attempted to choke me, he was charged with domestic violence/assault with bodily injury. But this was thrown out and he was convicted instead of harassment. This misdemeanor came with a sentence of 11 months and 29 days in jail.
Did he go to jail?
No, not for long. Only for thirty days. The rest of his sentence was suspended.
That is the pattern I see over and over again in his record: Dismissed or reduced crime. Suspended or shortened sentence.
November 1995 – Assault Bodily Injury – Dismissed
June 1997 – Aggravated Assault – Intentionally/ Knowingly – Nolle Prosequi (nah-ley pross-eh-quay)
March 1999 – Assault, Aggravated – Intentionally / Knowingly – Dismissed
February 2006 – Assault Domestic Bodily Injury – dismissed
June 2007 – Assault Domestic Bodily Injury – dismissed
May 2016 – Assault Domestic Bodily Injury – dismissed
A few times the system half-heartedly pursued justice. In September 2004, he was convicted guilty after trial of assault domestic bodily injury and sentenced nine months, though he served only 90 days.
In August 2015 – he was convicted of assault domestic bodily injury for the second time, but this 11 month 29 day sentence was suspended all but 60 days. He was convicted of assault domestic bodily injury for a third time and given another nine months in May 2017.
Do I even need to tell you this nine-month sentence was suspended in lieu of probation?
Assuming I’m reading this record correctly—and it’s a shame they don’t teach us how to read criminal records in school—I can find only one exception to this pattern where the felony charge stuck.
In October 2008, he was convicted of Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon – Intentionally / Knowingly.
He was sentenced to four years in the Davidson County Sheriff’s Facility. However, there is a “yes” beside suspended so we might assume he was only given the supervised probation for these four years never actually served any actual jail time.
These are only the assault charges.
Over the years he was also charged with theft, burglary, robbery, and carjacking. There were DUIs in August 1993, February 1995, June 1995, September 1998 and July 1998. Public Intoxication in 2003. Criminal Impersonation in July 2001 and November 2007.
We’re not even to page ten of thirty-two.
He’s also been charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, child abuse, child endangerment, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, stalking and harassment.
His favorite crimes—or at least the crimes he repeated the most—is driving on a revoked or suspended license, criminal trespassing, evading or resisting arrest, and leaving the scene of an accident, with or without injured persons present.
Evading arrest is something he’s particularly good at, in my opinion. He’s an expert at disappearing before the police show up.
He disappeared when he bashed her head in with the ashtray. And again when he strangled her.
I don’t bother counting up all the drug charges: possession, possession with intent to sell, contraband in a penal institution, legend drug possession and habitual offender.
The drug charges paint a more complete picture of his chronic addiction problems, but it doesn’t tell me if he’s capable of murder.
It does however suggest that he might not have feared consequences for his actions.
Why would he? If every time he was up for a felony charge, it was reduced to a misdemeanor, or dropped altogether?
If every time he should’ve gone to jail for years, he instead, got probation, how in the world would he have thought his actions would have lasting consequences?
And given the overlapping in the charges, he must’ve defaulted on his probation several times. Is there no penalty for violating probation?
If so, why were they so willing to cut him so much slack?
Because he’s white?
Is he a narc for their drug department?
Or could he really be so charismatic in a courtroom?
My uncle would’ve learned the value of such a facade my grandmother’s knee. As a traveling pastor, she taught him how to present himself as a good Christian man whenever it suited the situation, regardless of whether or not his actions supported such ideologies.
And frankly, this is typical behavior for sociopaths.
Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer was a regular church go-er. And he murdered 49 women in Washington state in the 80s and 90s.
Peter Sutcliffe, apprehended in 1981 for the murder of thirteen women and for trying to murder seven others, claimed that the voice of God had instructed him kill these women and that he was on a mission from God to do this work.
Had my uncle stood in front of judge after judge and painted himself as a harmless addict with a problem. A misunderstood, but ultimately good Christian man?
Let’s say we overlook the drug charges altogether. I personally have issues with the criminalization of drugs, I think it only upholds the school-to-prison pipeline used to incarcerate and enslave black Americans. And there are good people who suffer from addiction. For good reasons as I’ll outline later.
But even without the drug charges, I don’t understand why, no one has taken his history of violence seriously.
How in the world can this system expect a man like him to stop putting his hands on people, when he receives little to no consequences for repeatedly doing so?
Notably, there was no arrest record for the ashtray incident in 2005.
I’m sorry, but if a man fracture’s someone’s skull and causes internal brain bleeding so bad that emergency surgery is needed to keep that blood from flooding the victim’s brain and causing death, he’s merited some serious jail time.
But there wasn’t a charge for that assault.
I know that police went to the house to investigate. That an ambulance was called to collect my mother’s unconscious body. It wasn’t like no one was informed.
So why weren’t charges pressed?
Why did they leave that burden of defending herself to my mother?
My mother was in the hospital with sixty-plus staples in the shape of a fishhook on the left side of her head.
She’d forgotten how to speak. How to walk.
How, exactly, did anyone expect her to press charges?
Yes, 117 offenses is a lot—but I know for a fact, that these are only the ones the system caught. Who knows how many they missed?
Let’s not forget that the most recent act of violence against my mother was the February 2019 strangulation.
Why does this matter?
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine says that 43% of women who were murdered by domestic assault and 45% of victims of attempted murder had been strangled by their assailant within the year before.
Domestic violence strangulation has become such a significant predictor of attempted and successful murder, that police departments across the country have begun to take it more seriously.
According to the Training Institute of Strangulation Prevention, even non-deadly strangulation shows that the assailant isn’t against the idea of killing their victim.
There’s one fact about all of this that I find the most infuriating.
Had the police department committed to arresting and charging Joe with strangulation in February 2019, committed to having him serve the minimum two years for that charge, just the minimum without substituting it for a shorter sentence or probation—my uncle would’ve still been in jail come July 2020.
And my mother might still be alive.
I blame myself too. I tell myself I’m as responsible for her death as anyone.
There were things I could have done, and didn’t.
There’s the most obvious. I chose to protect my hard-earned life, my marriage, and my own mental health rather than move her in with me and assume full responsibility of her care.
And the day I called the police to report that my mother was in the bathroom, terrified and strangled, is also the day I let Joe convince me it didn’t happen.
There were hours between the phone call and the gaslighting, of course. He had to evade the police, come back. But when did he had my mother call me.
In this call he explained that I’d gotten it all wrong. That my mother, in the throes of her psychosis had attacked him first.
It didn’t help that my mother no longer sounded cogent on the phone.
She wasn’t consumed by the fear that gripped her earlier in the day. Her focus was gone.
To him I said, “She told me that you strangled her.”
When he repeated this to her, she said, “She’s lying. Joe, she’s lying.”
And began to cry.
She spoke about my father, all the abuse she’d endured from him on my behalf. “I went through hell for her,” she tells him. “I went through hell so she would have a dad.”
Joe says, “That happened a long time ago.”
But she doesn’t seem to hear this. She’s slipping away from us.
Into the silence, Joe says, “She isn’t well Kory. Surely you can hear that.”
He says, “Don’t call the police no more. We handle our business in the family.”
It wasn’t like I didn’t know my mother was far from innocent. She’d put me through hell more times than I could count.
When she was drunk, she could be mean. Even violent. She could slap and kick and bite. Though she’d never hurt me—I’d been witness to plenty of spats. Her first line of defense was always a good shove, her way of telling someone to back off.
This was the mother he wanted me to remember. He was counting on twenty-five years of trauma to overshadow what was happening now. He wanted me to forget that now my mom was too sick for anything.
Now my mother was no longer the feisty drunk of her twenties who could kick and scream if the police tried to shove her in the back of the police car. By 2015 she was in her fifties, and the Hep C she’d contracted decades earlier had left her body ravaged with chronic fatigue, muscle weakness, and constant nausea. She got winded easily, just walking down to the mailbox or when taking her dogs outside.
She didn’t drink anymore. She hadn’t for years.
This is what he does, you see.
He twists a story, takes a litany of half-truths, and turns them first in the light, then in the darkness, until you can’t be sure what you’re looking at. For someone like me, who makes sense out of the insane world by clinging to facts like flotsam, it’s a hell of a mind game.
But here are the facts:
Keeping things in the family only ever serves to protect the abuser—never the abused.
That’s a fact.
He is the abuser.
He is much bigger than my mother. At least six or seven inches taller. And far stronger. He doesn’t have her health problems, or her physical weakness.
He could’ve pushed her back or restrained her for her safety. He could’ve tried talking to her, or asking me to calm her down.
He could’ve locked her in a room.
No matter how angry she might have made him, he could’ve done a dozen other things in that moment to stop her from hitting him or hurting herself.
I know because I’ve been him.
I’ve had to make these choices. My mother has been as feisty as a banshee from hell, and I’ve never had to put my hands on her.
If I could manage it, at half his size, so could he.
Yet he strangled her. Intense and sustained compression of her throat until she had dark, visible bruising.
The police saw this. Recorded it down. Had enough evidence to issue the warrant for his arrest.
These are the facts.
I shouldn’t have let him convince me otherwise.