Friday, November 13, 1964
The shoe dropped today. The juvenile judge announced his decision in the morning, though we didn't get the word until the afternoon break when Eli showed up with the news.
"It's the best he could have hoped for," Eli said. "Detention in a juvenile home until his eighteenth birthday, then release."
"Not bad for a murderer," Brother Rufus said. Funny, I thought Rufus wanted Bernie gone.
Eli looked at him, a slight stare. "The judge was convinced that Father Fox's death was unintentional, the result of a prank."
"So he gets off?" Rufus said.
"Let it go, Rufe," Hank said.
"He's not being let go," Eli said. "He's being punished for what amounts to involuntary manslaughter—and in a way that takes into account his status of a juvenile and the possibility of rehabilitation."
"Like you said, the best he could have hoped for," Hank said.
"I think so," said Eli. "Basically, the judge followed the recommendation of the DA, who had no doubts about the young man's guilt but seemed equally certain that Mr. Johnson did not intend to kill your colleague."
"So we're done," Hank said. "We can tell the seminarians."
"Up to you. One more thing," Eli said. "The DA released a press release, reporting the judge's decision."
"How much did it say?" I wanted to know.
"It said what I just told you."
"Any details about how it happened."
"The kind of poison?"
"Yes, it said it was something unusual," Eli said. "Yew. Y-E-W."
"Oh, oh," I said.
I had been tempted to indulge in the campus pep rally. Normally, I hated them, but this one had some juice. Notre Dame was undefeated and they were playing Michigan State, their chief rival in my opinion. It would have been something to see, but I needed a meeting. More important, I needed to talk to my sponsor, which we did at a late night diner on South Bend Avenue.
"You told him that that Father Fox died of Yew poisoning," Rick said.
The DA had gone public, and I felt at liberty to fill in my sponsor on my role in the incident, including my conversation with Butch before dinner. When I sat Butch down at the dining room table and told him about the judge's decision, he said nothing. This was in character. Generally, Butch didn't show anger directly. If he couldn't use humor, he'd say nothing, stifling even a mild sulk. However, when I told him the identify of the poison, he jumped up, grabbed his chair by the backrest flung it to the floor, and ran upstairs to the room. He still said nothing, but he spoke volumes.
"I didn't want to," I told Rick. "I had to. If he heard it on the news, his reaction would have been worse."
"You know, that's progress. A few months ago, you wouldn't have had the balls to face him."
"Cold comfort," I said. "A few months ago, Butch wouldn't have had the balls to break a dining-room chair."
"We all grow," Rick said.
"You know, you are a helluva lot of help sometimes."
"We all grow."
"Stop it! Tell me what to do."
"Easy does it."
"If that works for you."
"C'mon," I said. "I need some help here."
"You c'mon," he said. "You're not even a year sober, and you're still on step what-is-it?"
"Six, I guess."
"So you're son suddenly looks a lot like you, and you panic. Welcome to parenthood. From what you tell me, you don't have a lot of experience at it."
"Got that right, I never got the memo."
Sunday, November 15, 1964Yesterday could have been worse. Butch and Sissy got to go to the football game, thanks to the generosity of the Holy Cross Fathers. The game, which Notre Dame won thanks to Alan Page and the defense, took the edge off of Butch's anger at me and his historical disappointment about football. The year before he had cried when Notre Dame lost to Michigan State. Beating the Spartans 28-zip was sweet revenge.
Sissy was less excited, the victory having taken her place at center stage. She found her footing at the after-game soiree, though. I thought there might be talk about Dingo Dave, but both Sissy and Butch reported that the seminarians were focused on the victory. Dingo Dave seemed to have been forgotten.
Sarah said little when I dropped the kids off, but she did give me a parting kiss, a peck on the lips. I left for another meeting, savoring and wondering at the small but clear display of affection.
Today featured a meeting with Eli at his house, in mid-afternoon. It wasn't a meal, but his wife served up some Moroccan mint tea and some kind of honey-based sweet.
"So what have you got to tell me?" I asked.
"First, I'll reiterate what I told the staff on Friday," he said. "This was a good outcome, about as good as could be expected. It's a light sentence, considering that his behavior—or so everyone thinks—resulted in the death of another human being."
"Or so everyone thinks?"
"All of the authorities—the detectives, the DA, the juvenile judge—are convinced that he poisoned your colleague. They have no doubts."
"I have some doubts," Eli said.
"You think he didn't do it?"
"I said I have doubts," he said. "I have no certainty that he either did the deed or didn't do it."
"Back up a second," he said. "The circumstantial case against him is strong, very strong."
"But it's circumstantial."
"Most convictions are based on circumstantial evidence. You know that."
"Detectives look for motive, means, and opportunity. When they find that one guy has motive, means, and opportunity, they tend to stop looking. Dave had access to the sister's chapel. You saw him there the previous evening. He knew about the toxic properties of yew needles, he had easy access to them on the island—even I gather on the seminary grounds—and he had issues with Father Fox. Dave Johnson is their guy. I hardly blame them."
"I get it," I said. "So where do your doubts come from."
"From my client," he said. "Keep in mind that clients lie, especially in cases like this. But Dave hasn't come across to me as a liar. He seems upset, understandably so, confused maybe, trapped by some things he said and recanted."
"For example, when the detectives showed him the threatening note, he denied any involvement. After more questions, he said he "might have" put it the mailbox. Then he admitted he put an envelope in the mailbox but he didn't know what was in it."
"Interesting," I said. "Who gave him the note?"
"He wouldn't say, which made the detectives think he was protecting someone."
"Like maybe his brother?"
"They pressed him on that, but by then he wasn't talking. Dan denied knowing anything about a threatening note or an envelope."
"So Dave admitted what exactly about the note?"
"He said someone gave him the envelope, but he wouldn't say who."
"He's protecting someone."
"Maybe," Eli said. "It's a problem."
"So what makes you think he might not be guilty?"
"Something he shared with me," Eli said. "The detectives think he hated Father Fox because the priest was sympathetic to homosexuals and might be one himself."
"The detectives think," I said. "But you don't buy it."
"I have my doubts," Eli said. "He knew I was Jewish—from my kippah, er yamulke. He knows a bit of Hebrew. Apparently you have a group of students who go to a synagogue, mine in fact, to learn Hebrew. He asked me some questions about that, curious in part because I'm black and he thought that was odd, which it is, a little bit. Then he started to talk about Father Fox, who he thinks wasn't sufficiently sensitive to the extermination of six million Jews during World War II."
"Interesting," I said, "but he would have only known that from his brother, who was in Fox's history class." I told him about his brother's request for information about the persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich.
"I didn't have a private conversation with Dave's brother, so I can't speak to that. I can tell you that Dave seemed to be more upset about Father Fox's lack of interest—perceived anyway—in Hitler's extermination of Jews than in his passion about the persecution of homosexuals."
"Really, what gave you that impression?"
"Maybe it's because I'm a Jew," Eli said, "but that's what he wanted to talk about. The six million Jews. He didn't deny Hitler's persecution of homosexuals—and gypsies, he pointed out—but he said this paled compared to the persecution of Jews. He thought Father Fox just didn't care."
"Did he say his views changed when he found out about Father Fox's background ..."
"As a Nazi, you mean."
"A member of the SS, yes."
"It made him think, especially his desertion, but he didn't think more kindly of him as a result. He thought it might be evidence that he was an anti-semite."
"Okay, maybe," I said. "But what was the deal with the collage on his door. That was all about homosexuality."
"Again, I'm not sure," Eli said. "He admitted doing it, but I suspect his brother might have done that and he's covering for him."
"But Dave had a similar collage in his locker."
"There's that," Eli said.