Southwest Airlines Flight 251 from Phoenix to Portland, Oregon isn’t full. I have three seats all to myself. Chunks of salad cling to the back seam of the middle seat — a previous passenger’s lunch. When I sit down I smell Chinese food, and sure enough two rows back someone is cramming down Panda Express.
The plane takes off. Soon we fly over the red bluffs of the Colorado Plateau. The pilot says those of us seated on the left side of the plane will be able to see the rim of the Grand Canyon. The recycled air circulating inside the plane makes my eyes sting.
It’s my last spring break as an Arizona State University student. I’m going to graduate in a few months, and I should be celebrating by traveling to Mazatlan or Cancun or Rocky Point, the Mexican resorts that attract so many ASU spring breakers. Instead, I’m going to visit Wayne Williams, my father, a convicted child molester currently incarcerated in Oregon.
I haven’t seen Dad in nearly two years. I know I have to go through with this planned visit, but it bothers me that I am going to visit him at all. Why should I give him the privilege of seeing me? It’s like saying, “Hey, you haven’t been there for me in the past 21 years of my life, but I’m going to visit you in prison.”
Why do I feel this is a battle and I’m the one surrendering and he’s the one winning? I want to turn the plane back. It’s going to be awkward tomorrow.
I’m going to ask my father if he molested my 9-year-old stepsister.
I don’t even want to know the truth. Yet again, I need to know the truth. Something inside me tells me that if I just ask him, he will deny he’s a pedophile and it will all go away. So I will ask him and I will write a story about it for a journalism class. I have everything packed. I have my tape recorder, notebook and laptop; everything but the audio CD of his sentencing, which was sent to me a few weeks ago by the Deschutes County Circuit Court. I have not been able to bring myself to listen to it yet. I left the CD in Arizona
…You were the one in my life that made life worth living; when sometimes I wasn’t doing very well. I will always remember and cherish these special times between you and I. These are the few little years that made you and me who we are as father and daughter, that I will always thank our heavenly father for…
My father is one of about 234,000 sex offenders in America, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The bureau says one in four children fall victim to inappropriate touching by a sex offender. Eighty-five percent of the predators are known to the victim.
In November, 1994 — 10 years before my father was sent to prison — Oregon voters approved Measure 11 in the Oregon State Legislature. The measure boosted mandatory minimum sentences for serious sex crimes. In 2004, Dad was sentenced under Measure 11 to six years in prison with no chance of parole for sexually abusing my stepsister. For the past six months, he has been serving his 75-month prison sentence in Two Rivers Correctional Facility in northeastern Oregon, in the isolated town of Umatilla, which is just across the Columbia River from Washington.
…I’m finding that I have so many things I want to say and talk to you about, but I seem to get lost in all my thoughts and feelings. I pray that you and I still have time to spend together in this life. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do… so much unfinished business. So many things too, that we never had the opportunity to discuss, so we might have a better understanding of each other’s feelings. You and I have been robbed of times that can never be caught or relived again, but I am thankful that not all has been lost…
I was the first person in the family he wrote from prison. When I received that first letter in August, 2004, I felt as if it was the only time he’d ever tried to show me he cared about me. And yet he spelled my name wrong. Nicola instead of Nicole.
I don’t have very many memories of my dad. I remember times we went fishing. Rubber boots, hair in a pony tail, Levi jeans. I went fishing for the snacks; chips, jerky, sandwiches and candy. But I mostly went as an excuse to be with him; to be with my dad. I also remember a lot of time spent with our animals. One year Dad decided we were going to incubate chicken eggs; we put the incubator in my bedroom. Thirty-two baby chicks hatched in my room that year.
I remember Dad leaving for work in the mornings. He was a logger. He loved cutting timber in the Oregon forest; he was one of few fathers I knew who actually enjoyed what he did for a living. He would tiptoe into my bedroom just before he left and almost instantly I would wake up, but pretend I was still asleep. He would tuck the covers under my shoulders and all the way up to my chin so only my tiny face was peeking out. Then he would kiss my forehead and shut the door again. I would hear the rumble of his old Ford truck warming up while he packed his gear and power saws for work. He would pull the truck out of the carport and coast down our gravel lane. I would open my eyes just to watch his headlights dance across the top of my bedroom ceiling. Then the white lights faded into the early morning darkness. I would fall fast asleep after he left. I hadn’t thought of it until now, but this memory of my father leaving me is the most vivid of all.
…I wish for your sake that I wasn’t in here so that you wouldn’t be sad. I want to turn your sad into glad by saying I’m doing better in here than out there. What I’m experiencing in here is priceless for me. I will be a better person when I get out. I will know who I am again…
We lived in the country when I was little, in a small town called Marcola, Oregon. I loved our house. It was the last house on Railroad Lane. It was a large gray house with a weeping willow tree in the front yard and an old red barn near the back of the property. The tire swing in the large maple tree was my favorite place.
My parents split up in the summer of 1992. My father slammed my mom against the refrigerator, and she left him. She moved my brother and me into a two bedroom apartment in town. I shared a bed with my mom. I was 8 years old. I felt my world had flipped upside down, right on top of me. I wanted my parents to stay together and I couldn’t understand why they were apart. I felt punished.
After my parents divorced, my father lived alone in the gray house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. After my mother, brother and I left, the house was completely empty, only a bed in the master bedroom. No other furniture. My father sold most of the animals and so he had all the property to himself.
There wasn’t much to do around our father’s house during our weekend visits. My father usually slept most of the day. My brother Garrett and I entertained ourselves and created adventures on the unkempt property. Our favorite game was searching for buried treasure with homemade pirate maps. I was always Captain Hook and Garrett was Smee.
Dad kept his change in a large glass beer pitcher in his saw shop around the back of the house. The shop smelled of gasoline and wood; sawdust was scattered on the floor. One weekend my brother and I decided to have a treasure hunt with my father’s coins. We stole the pitcher and buried it near the back of the abandoned chicken coop. We drew a treasure map of the riches; an “X” marked the spot in the back of the coop where the treasures lay.
It wasn’t until a few weekends later we re-discovered the money. We were playing around in the overgrown chicken coop once again when we spotted a shiny quarter in the back of the coop and remembered our adventure from before. We uncovered the loot and never told Dad. He never questioned where we found the funds to pay for our smorgasbord of candy that day, he just slept.
In 1994, my father married a woman named Rhonda who already had two children from an earlier marriage. I suddenly had a 3-year-old stepbrother and a 1-year-old stepsister. I was 10, Garrett was 6. Then three years later, when I was 13, my half brother was born. I was never close with my father’s other family. I never felt welcome in their home.
March 11, 2005 8:10 a.m.
My mother, Dawn, and my stepfather Doug take me to Two Rivers Correctional Facility. The drive to the prison seems long and boring. Train tracks run parallel with the highway for almost 10 miles. The Columbia River flows along the highway too. The river is murky and still.
Doug has been in our lives for the past nine years. He’s been more of a father to me then my real dad ever was. Doug was there for the dance recitals, the plays and the swim meets. Doug was there to help me with my homework. Doug checked under the hood of my ’91 Honda Accord my freshman year when he and Mom dropped me off at college. Doug handed over the “in case of an emergency” credit card. If it were up to me, Doug would be my dad.
But he isn’t.
I have a sick feeling in my stomach. I don’t want to see my father. I just want to leave it all inside for no one else to know about. But I have to do this. I have all the questions written down; I know exactly what I want out of this visit with my father: ANSWERS. I’m sick of having a loser father. I’m tired of being ashamed. Didn’t he think for a minute that sexually assaulting my stepsister had consequences for my brother and me?
My mom asks me what I might talk about with him.
“I don’t know.” I say, looking out the window.
“Once you’re in there you’ll know what to say. He’s your dad; conversation should come natural. You both have plenty to talk about,” Doug says.
“I think you’ll feel a lot better when this is all over.” Mom says. “I remember the day you were born.I was sick, so I didn’t get to hold you right after birth. The nurse was cleaning your newborn body and you were screaming. Your dad always said you were the loudest baby in that hospital. The nurse handed you over to him in a neatly wrapped bundle. You were still screaming at the top of your little lungs. Then he said your name. ‘Nicole.’ He started talking to you and suddenly the screaming stopped and the tears disappeared. He says he thinks this happened because he used to talk to you through my belly. You knew the voice in that hospital room was the same voice you’d heard in my womb. Your dad and you have always had a connection, whether each of you has seen it or not.”
March 11, 2005 9:23 a.m.
We’re nearly at the prison. I can’t find a place to rest my hands and the orange juice I had an hour ago has gone sour in my stomach. My eyes burn and my head pounds. I wonder what the room will look like. How will I gather the courage to ask my father if he hurt my stepsister? Will he deny it? Was he wrongly convicted? Will we make up for lost time?
I think about the CD back home and what it might say.
I realize I’ve never had a one-on-one conversation alone with my father before. My brother, Garrett, has always been right there with us, he always cleared the dead air of silence. My father and brother have always been close; joined at the hip, working on some odd job together, going hunting, talking football… anything as long as they were together. When I first tell Garrett I’m going to visit Dad in prison, it surprises him. The first thing he asks is if he can come along.
I tell Garrett he can’t come with me, because Garrett is 17 and a minor and Dad had committed a crime against a minor, so Garrett isn’t allowed to visit him. Garrett is angry and jealous.
“This isn’t fair,” Garrett shouts. “Dad never once tried anything with me! He didn’t even think about it! Why am I the one being punished? I want to see my dad and he wants to see me. This whole thing is stupid.”
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“Tell him ‘Hi’ for me; tell him that I love him,” he says, fiddling with the TV remote.
I can tell Garrett is bothered and jealous he can’t come with me. To make him feel better I ask him to help me recall memories about our dad growing up.
“Remember how Dad always walked around the house only in this underwear?” I ask.
“Remember that time you wanted a drink of Dad’s Squirt and you took a drink out of his spit bottle instead?” he asks.
“Ugh, yeah, he always wore jeans with a Skoal ring in the back pocket.”
“With Budweiser suspenders,” my brother adds.
I don’t mention the memories I have of Dad missing every dance recital of mine and making every football game of Garrett’s. I leave out the part about Dad never helping me with my swim stroke but always showing Garrett what went on under the hood of a truck.
…I miss you Nicola and I have for a long time. I hope from the things I have written to you, you can understand how much. I just hope, now that you’re older, we can talk about things that are already molded…
March 11, 2005 9:30 a.m.
We arrive at the prison. I walk across the empty visitor’s parking lot, leaving Doug and my mom back at the truck. I’m doing this alone. I worry I will not keep my composure. I worry I will not confront him about the crime.
I walk into a red brick building with low vaulted ceilings. There are green holding lockers to my right where I must leave my tape recorder and list of questions. I’m not allowed to bring anything with me, but it’s OK because I know what to ask. I pass through a metal detector three different times before the two correctional officers take me over to get my hand stamped. I walk down a hallway to an outside door. I’m held in a retaining cell until the next door opens and I follow a breezeway toward a much larger building that smells of fish. The officer tells me it’s Fish Friday.
I’m led into a visiting room with white walls and 10 rows of chairs lined up on the black floor. Couples face each other in some of the chairs. There are makeshift coffee tables made from wooden boxes painted black. Artwork created by prisoners is tacked on the walls. The names of the artists are tagged under each work of art – the drawing of the American flag, the sketch of a lion, the painting of a mountain landscape.
The officer tells me I may hug and kiss my father, but only when I first see him and when I’m about to leave. I can only hold his hand, no other touching is permitted. He says I may purchase a snack or a soda from the vending machines but I’m not allowed to share them with my father. He says I can buy a separate snack for my father, but once I’ve handed it to him I can’t take it back. He emphasizes again I may not share. I feel guilty I didn’t bring any change.
I start crying.
The officer hands me a square of tissue torn off a roll of toilet paper. He says to sit tight and wait for my father. I wait 10 minutes. I want to bolt out of this room and never look back. Then my father enters through the back door of the visitor’s dayroom. I break down to another level. I sob.
My father has lost some weight and I can tell he’s been working out. He has a well-kept, trimmed beard. I remember that in the summers, he would always have a dark tan, which he attributed to his Indian roots. He would shave his full beard off, to keep cool and he would always slim down. In the winters he would grow the full Grizzly Adams beard back, and gain weight in his gut.
I’m surprised to see how old he looks. His hair has been receding since he was in his early 30s, and now it has thinned to a peppered black and white fluff of hair above the forehead and sideburns. Behind his ’70s looking glasses, his dark brown eyes seem foreign. I really don’t know this man is sitting in front of me. I just know he’s my father. He wears dark blue jeans with orange letters ‘TRCI’ patched on the left thigh and a blue collar shirt, and worn-out brown shoes.
“You’re the last person in the world I ever thought I’d see in here,” he says.
I can’t believe it either. This time the officer brings me the entire roll of toilet paper. My father asks about Garrett. He asks about Mom. I chat. I smile. I cry. But I can’t bring myself to ask if he hurt my stepsister.
My father tells me that as a child, he grew up with an alcoholic father and a working mother. He took care of himself. Sure, he always had a warm bed to sleep in at night, a hot meal and Christian discipline, but he never had any emotional support or love. This relationship has happened between us too. I tell the bearded stranger in front of me that I hate seeing him in here. He needs fresh air in his lungs, the breeze on his cheek; wide-open space. He doesn’t belong in an isolated prison in Oregon.
Now I have to share the toilet paper roll with my father. We only have 10 minutes left to our visit, I know because I keep looking at the clock above my father’s head. I feel sorry for my father. I didn’t expect this, but I hope that time will stop just this once and we can stay in this place forever using this time to catch up. But I need to ask him the question that’s been burning a hole in my mind since the day I found out. I need to ask him if whatever is recorded on the CD from his sentencing is true.
My throat constricts. Then the guard says visiting hours are over. Dad tells me not to worry about all the little things in my life right now. He tells me to live in the moment and never take life for granted. He tells me to forgive and forget. He tells me to talk to God every day.
I reach across the black box and hug my father. I tell him for the first time in 10 years that I love him. As I line up to leave the room, my father blows me a kiss.
In the breezeway I smell Fish Friday and I know that my father is on his way to eat lunch and I wish I were joining him.
As I make my way across the empty parking lot once again, I notice just how nice of a day it is outside. The light wind is crisp and the sun is warm on my arms and face.
I need the safety of my mother’s arms. I melt into her shoulder. We laugh because I’ve smeared mascara all over her shirt. She tucks my hair behind my ear. I tell her I never asked my father if he is a pedophile.
My mother says she knew I couldn’t do it.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“I wasn’t a reporter in there. I couldn’t ask my question, I was just his daughter. I don’t even know who that man is in there, Mom.”
“I know,” she says. “I knew when I asked you earlier that it was going to turn out like this, I’m just glad you came all this way to see him. This is good for you.”
My father never molested me.
How could he be a pedophile?
March 18, 2005 9:51 p.m.
I am back at ASU. I don’t talk about my spring break. I still dread listening to the CD from the court. I need to hear my father’s confession. But I can’t push the play button.
I wonder if he had wanted to abuse me, and that’s the reason he stayed away from me when I was little. I need answers still, and the CD is all I have left, since I couldn’t bring myself to ask my father anything during our visit. Finally, I ask my roommate to help me out by pushing the play button.
The prosecutor states the facts.
“The victim in this case, was the stepdaughter of the defendant… It was reported that on approximately five or six occasions the defendant had the victim rub lotion on his penis and at least one occasion it was reported that he licked her breasts.”
I hear my father’s voice.
“Everything written on this paper is true but one thing,” my father tells the judge.
“I have to admit being a sinful, malicious, piece of dirt is not a good thing when you find out that’s what you’ve been. I’m a very sinful man. I’ve caused a great sin towards my whole family, not just to the family I can’t go back to. I have a lot of people in this world who love me. I’m thankful there are some who are able to forgive me… I never once threatened my daughter; I never once terrorized my daughter. There was never any verbal abuse, there never was any physical abuse, and there definitely was sexual abuse.”
My father’s voice breaks, he sounds remorseful. But then in a roundabout way, he blames my stepsister for what had happened. “She was curious about me,” he said, “and I didn’t realize what was going on. I never realized my sexual feelings for her until she was 7 years old. I treated her as my first daughter Nicole… I helped with her bath, helped her go to the bathroom.”
He had fallen in love with my stepsister.
“I never once went against her will,” my father tells the judge. “I never once made her do anything. We had a very loving precious relationship… I don’t feel good at all about what I’ve done. I miss my daughter, and I know she misses me… Sexual abuse is nothing I am proud of. It’s hard to explain the relationship that we had for a few years.”
Then my father feels sorry for himself. “My depression comes to a point where you don’t feel anything any more. You just want to die. You want to commit suicide; you want to end you life… You get so wrapped up in your depression. Where it comes from I don’t know… When you get depressed you lose your feeling about anything, the only thing that made me feel alive in these depressive states of mind was pain. Why I don’t know, I just didn’t feel anything else. And it’s not in my heart, but in my in my mind. If I could give my heart out there and show it to every body in this world, you might be surprised what’s really in my heart. I never wanted to hurt anybody. Never.”
The judge pronounces sentence in a monotone.
“You’ll be sentenced to 75 months. The post prison supervision is 120 months… You’ll be required to submit to DNA testing. You’re also going to have to register as a sex offender that will be for the rest of your life. I recommend that as conditions of post prison supervision you’ll have no contact with the victim or her immediate family. I recommend that you have the standard sex offender conditions, no contact with minor females.”
March 19, 2005 11:20 p.m.
I cannot explain why I still love my distant father, but somehow, under the roof of the medium security prison, I felt as if we finally understood we needed each other as father and daughter. But how do we sustain a normal relationship?
My father’s confession to the judge plays over and over in my head. I’d put off listening to the CD because on some level I knew I couldn’t have visited him if I’d heard the confession before.
My father did unspeakable things to a defenseless child, and yet I feel I need to be strong and love him for who he is. He has to live the rest of his life knowing what he did was a sin. He’ll also have to live the rest of his life knowing that I will never fully trust him, and will never leave him alone with my children when I have them.
After the prison visit, I receive another letter. He spells my name right this time.
…I am here to help you find truth and understanding. I will never tell you what to believe, that is between you and God alone. I will tell you what is in my heart and how I feel and all I know about my relationship with God. I will give you things to think about but will never tell you what to believe! I love you Nicole Marie. Thank you so much for your letter. Thank you too for coming so far to see me. Love you forever…
I know the answer now.
My father is a pedophile.