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My Friend the Murderer

In 10th grade I was sitting in Geometry class between two young guys named Matt and Torey.  Matt sat in front of me and Torey behind me.  I was 15, Matt was 16, and Torey was 17.  Torey wasn’t doing too well in school and by 12th grade was only in 10th grade Geometry.

I really liked Torey.  He was this huge guy, probably 6’4”, muscular build, he was even sporting facial hair, which back then made him look much older than a high school student.  Many people in school called him a Dumb Giant and referred to him often as The Beast, but I saw a gentleness in Torey that belied his size.  We would talk often during class and pass notes to each other, and I remember sensing a great deal of sadness in Torey.  When I asked him what was wrong he never told me, but I knew he was haunted emotionally in some way.  Torey came to really like me and was really protective of me. If I ever had a problem with someone, Torey would go tell that person to leave me alone and I never had a problem with that person again.  He always had my back.  I felt completely safe around Torey.

Matt was a different story.  He was thin, wiry, and exuded a sleazy energy.  I didn’t like talking to him, sitting next to him, or interacting with him in any way.  He was arrogant, aggressive, and conniving.  Just a bad vibe all the way around.  I was glad he didn’t sit behind me because he gave me the creeps and I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate knowing he was staring at me during class.

What I didn’t know about either of these guys, however, was that by the end of 10th grade, both of them would be on trial for pre-meditated, first degree murder.

It happened a few months before the end of the school term.  Both Torey and Matt were absent for 5 days in a row.  I knew they sometimes ditched class, but not that many in a row.  Then I started hearing rumors that Torey and Matt had murdered someone and were evading police.  No.  Just a silly rumor started by stupid high school kids with nothing better to do than gossip.  Then I saw it on the news and couldn’t deny it was real any longer.  Torey and Matt had been arrested for the murder of Torey’s mother.  I was in shock.  Complete and utter shock!  It didn’t seem possible.  It took a while, but I eventually got the entire story.

During his entire childhood, Torey was the victim of physical and emotional abuse by his mother.  His mom was single, abused drugs and alcohol, and often sold herself to men for money.  Sometimes when Torey was a little boy, his mother would lock him in the car while she went into bars to pick up men who would pay her for sex, or who would accept sex in exchange for drugs.  Torey sometimes sat in the backseat while his mom had sex in the front seat with her men.  Even though Torey grew to a great size, he was completely cowed by his mother’s power over him. 

Torey had a little brother who was 8 years old at the time of the murder.  Torey loved his little brother desperately and often took beatings for him so the kid wouldn’t have to suffer like he had at that age.  There was no question that Torey was wrecked emotionally.  It didn’t matter that he could easily overpower his mother.  She had his spirit licked and broken.

Matt apparently knew about all the abuse and told Torey he should take matters into his own hands.  Torey revealed that his mother was planning to kick him out of the house when he turned 18, and that scared him because he would then be unable to protect his little brother.  Matt suggested to Torey that they kill Torey’s mom and try to make it look like an accident.  In desperation, Torey went along with the idea.  Their plan was to choke Torey’s mom in the middle of the night, put her in her car, send it down an embankment, and make sure it caught on fire, so the body would show no evidence of how she really died.  But they ran into some difficulty.

The night of the murder, Matt and Torey went into his mother’s room in the middle of the night.  Matt held a pillow over her face, while Torey climbed on top of her and wrapped his big hands around her neck and started choking her.  They did this for a while before she went limp.  Unbeknownst to them, she was only unconscious, not dead.  While they were preparing to get the body into the car, she woke up and started screaming bloody murder.  This woke Torey’s little brother who came to see what was going on.  Matt subdued the 8-year-old boy and tied him up with ropes and gagged him.  Meanwhile, Torey tackled his mother.  Matt ran and got a shovel from the fireplace and they used it to club her over the head until she was dead.  Brutal!

They put the mother’s body into her car, wrapped in the bloody sheets from the bed.  Their plan was for one of them to drive to the embankment while the other followed in another car.  Then they would push the car over the side, make sure it caught fire, and go home in the other car.  That was the plan before, but they quickly realized they had a little problem.  What to do with the little brother?  Matt said they had to kill him too since he was a witness.  That’s when Torey put his foot down and said that no way was he going to allow his little brother to be killed.  But Matt insisted it was the only way to keep them out of jail.  Torey put his protesting little brother into the trunk while Matt prepared the mother’s body.  Torey loosened the ropes that bound his kid brother and made sure the trunk wasn’t closed all the way.  He explained to the frightened child to wait until they pushed the car over the edge of the hill, then to climb out before it caught fire and hide in the brush until they were gone.  Thankfully, the terrified child somehow managed to escape and do just that.

Torey and Matt were caught by the police when the little brother told the cops everything he knew.  Torey and Matt were arrested quickly.  Torey was 17 but it was decided that since it was a pre-meditated murder, he would be tried as an adult.  Matt was 16 and was tried as a minor.  Matt turned on Torey and gave evidence against him in exchange for a much lighter sentence of 2 years in a Juvenile Detention Center.  It was found out later that Matt wasn’t even who he said he was.  He was already a wanted criminal in other states and had adopted an entirely new identity when he came to my high school.  After a lengthy trial where Torey’s little brother testified to the abuse and also testified to the fact that Torey killed his mother, Torey was given a sentence of 25 years to life in a maximum security prison.  He escaped the death penalty only because he saved his little brother from certain death.

I remember feeling like all of this was terribly wrong.  Yeah, he brutally murdered his mother and deserved to go to jail for that.  But Matt got off way too easy.  Torey wasn’t some hardened violent criminal who needed to be locked up for the good of society.  He was trying to rescue his little brother from an abusive life.  But he made a deal with the devil, and made a really bad choice, all because of Matt’s encouragement and planning.  If Torey had opened up to someone else, things could have gone differently.  I was sad for Torey.

After his arrest, Torey was spurned by everyone at school.  Only I and one other friend felt Torey didn’t deserve the severity of his punishment.  They just didn’t know him like we knew him.  My friend told me we were allowed to write to Torey and send him gifts, so we immediately sent him letters, books, and sweet treats to help him endure jail.  He wrote back to us often and told us the entire story of what happened, which is why I know so many of the details. He told us he was getting along okay in jail because he was a pretty big guy and most people assumed he was tough because he was in jail for pre-meditated murder so they left him alone.

The oddest thing about Torey was how happy he was.  He told us he finally felt free (ironically), because his mother couldn’t hurt him anymore.  And he was extremely happy that his brother had gotten away from the car and wouldn’t have to endure the abuse he suffered as a child.  To protect his brother, he killed his mother.  It was a sad story all the way around.

My friend and I continued to write to Torey and send him anything and everything we could think of to make his incarceration more bearable.  Torey was grateful for every communication and gift we sent him.  I remember him joking that he was glad he wouldn’t have to take the Geometry final. 

In class there were two empty seats: one in front of me and one behind me.  I remember people asking me questions like, “Are you freaked out that you were sitting between two murders for months?  Torey could have stabbed you in the back just for the hell of it!”

No.  They didn’t understand Torey.  But I did.  A lost, broken soul, doing everything he could to protect his baby brother from harm.  The murder was the decision of a desperate person.  I don’t think he deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail.  I believe true justice was lost in the letter of the law in Torey’s case.

I sometimes think of Torey and wonder how he’s getting along, if being in jail has hardened his gentle soul.  While I’ve gone on to have a wonderful life full of blessings and kindness and love, he’s been locked up, staring at gray walls and prison bars.  My mother made me stop writing to Torey when she found out I was regularly corresponding with a murderer.  Even she didn’t understand that I would never see Torey as a murderer.  He was my friend.  He was kind to me.  And he had my back.

That happened 25 years ago.  I wonder if Torey is free now.  I hope so.

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