My niece Layne and I visit Rich, and later in the day we are joined by his friend Jennie from Michigan and his best friend, Missy Mouse, from Minnesota. We take turns at the window, because only two people at a time can talk. Rich is especially happy to see Missy. She has been a rock for him for many years now.
Missy brought a quilt with her to give to Ricki. Missy’s Mom back in Minnesota made it especially for Ricki, and on the back there is a letter written by Rich to Ricki, telling her how much he loves her. It says:
January 17, 1997 was the happiest day in my life. Ricki, you have brought so much love into my life, into my heart. Princess I love you so very much, please never doubt that. I know I have not been there for you like a Daddy should be for his little girl, but know this, you have been my first thought every morning upon waking & in my prayers every night as I lay down to sleep. Princess I will be watching over you, please keep me in your heart as you are eternally in mine.
She had sent pictures to Rich last week, but he has not yet received them. She desperately wants him to see it, to share her mother’s beautiful work with him, and to let him know that his daughter will always know how much he loves her. She goes out to her car and tries to bring it inside, saying that it is cold in the visitation room (very true) and we want to keep warm. That request is denied, and it goes back in the trunk.
We buy food for Rich twice, the second time only allowed because it is an all day visit, and we spend our precious minutes talking about Rich, hear his funny and sad stories about life on death row, share our trials and triumphs, and try to burn the image of his laughter and his smile into our hearts and minds. It is hard to comprehend that this wonderful man could be taken from us in just a few short days. Then soon, much too soon, our visit is over.
Leaving is always so very hard, but harder now knowing that there are not many more goodbyes to be said. We still have hope, however, because the Supreme Court has his case and has not turned down the petition that Jared Tyler of the Texas Innocence Project prepared. The longer the time, the more hope we have. We think that it means they are really deliberating the issue that has been raised, considering its merits. So there is that little ray of sunshine, bouncing off the walls of darkness, that keep us going.
Monday night, and I go back to the airport to pick up Richard’s sister Diane, arriving from Chicago. She hasn’t seen her brother in over a year, and is very much looking forward to seeing him tomorrow, and dreading it at the same time, knowing the reason for this visit.
Tuesday, and we are once again up early. This time when we get into the visitation room, Rich is waiting. He has a big smile on his face. He lets us know immediately that he started making a commotion and calling for rank about 7:45 a.m., and Bryan Wolfe did the same. They didn’t want to miss important time with their family again today! It worked. They are out on time, with no time lost. He also lets us know that he received Missy’s letter, and has pictures of the quilt. Not the same as seeing it in person, but he is very pleased anyway. Ricki will be able to wrap herself, literally, in his love.
Today is a good visitation day. Rich has some private time with his sister, and they get to share some special thoughts and speak from the heart. All during their childhood, they had a love hate relationship. They fought like a cat and a dog, but always stood together against others that tried to fight with either one of them. They are today fiercely loyal to each other.
Rich’s friends on the row made plans to support Rich this week by being called out for visits and be in the visitation room with him and his family. As they leave to go back to their cell, they head down to the cubicle where Rich is. They stop, and stick their fingers through the metal grate on the door behind Rich. They say things like “Stand tall,” “I love you Bro,” “Never quit,” and touch his hands and fingers. Sometimes, when one of them is going back to their cell, you can hear them telling the guard they are going down by Rich, and the guards say no. Next, you hear “Watch me,” and down them come. One guy said “What are you going to do, gas all the visitors?” and down he came. There are at least 15 men that do this. It warms my heart to see the love and respect in which they hold Richard. I know he appreciates their show of support as well.
We notice that not many stop by Bryan Wolfe’s cubicle, and it saddens us. Everyone needs support at a time like this. We try and support his family as best we can. They do the same for us.
I have to leave at 1:50 p.m. for a very special reason. I am going to pick up his special girl, his daughter, Ricki. She gets out of school at 3 p.m., and I have to pick up her Mom so we can pick her up from school at 3 and then take her back to visit her Daddy. It is a special treat for both of them. Ricki feels so very special visiting her Daddy, and being the center of attention. Little does she know, but she is the center of his whole world! Rich cherishes her visits more than anything, as it is a chance to be a part of her life, to let her know how much she is loved, and to share in the little girl things that she loves.
We are back and it is now around 3:40 p.m. Pastor John, the youth Pastor at Church on the Rock and the announcer on of the SHOUTOUT show is there. I had previously asked Warden Hirsch if Pastor John could visit Rich. His radio ministry has touched Rich, and he welcomed the opportunity to meet him, especially when he found out that Pastor John has long hair and rides a motorcycle. When Pastor John sees me, he gets up and gives me a big hug. His support means a lot to all of us. He spent the last two hours visiting with Rich. Rich tells me later that Pastor John taught him about WWJD – What Would Jesus Do – and told Rich that this helps guide him in the right way to live his life. Rich really likes that.
As I greeted Pastor John, Ricki went front and center at the window. No one takes her spot. We all take turns visiting with her and Rich, but mostly we let her visit with her Dad. It is fun to watch and see the joy in both their faces. They smile, they laugh, they hold hands to the glass, they talk like there is no tomorrow…
Finally, the guard comes by and says, “10 more minutes.” This means our visitation time is almost up. Rich is suddenly stricken with the thought that he will most likely never see his lovely little girl again in this world. It is written starkly across his face. I have never before seen such a look of such sheer terror and pain on his face. He tells her how much he loves her and asks, “Do you love me Ricki?” “Yes, Daddy. I love you,” she answers with a big smile. He tells her to always be good and listen to her Mommy. She says, “Yes Daddy, I always do.” He asks her, “Will you always love me Ricki, always and forever?” She says again, “Yes Daddy. I love you, always and forever.” The tears are deep in his soul and now show in his eyes. He asks, “Will you always remember me Ricki, even if I am not here?” Ricki says, “Yes Daddy. You will be here, and I will always remember you.” She then announces she has to go to the bathroom, and does so.
We sit there, stunned. Too awful for words, too much pain, too much to comprehend.
Ricki returns, and the guard says “Time is up.” Ricki runs to the window, and I tell her to say good bye. The guard says again, time to leave. I put Ricki to the glass, and she gives her Daddy a kiss. She says, “Butterfly kisses Daddy. I love you.” She then blows him kisses. Now we really do have to leave.
As we are walking out, Ricki turns and continues to wave and blow kisses to her Daddy. As we wait for the doors to open, she continues to wave and blow kisses. All the way down the glass hallway, she blows and waves, blows and waves. The knot in my throat is huge. I can barely speak. Everyone else feels the same. Only Ricki, in her innocence, is happily walking and talking, looking at the roses, and looking forward towards the next adventure in her young life. Innocence, with no idea that her life could change dramatically in the next two days.
We head out, and I take Ricki home to be with her Mommy, Stepfather, and her little brother. She is fine. I am not. Her mother is also not fine, and bursts into tears. We know that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Our sadness is almost overwhelming.
Wednesday we are permitted a special visit, my daughter, my niece and myself. It is not supposed to be, but Warden Hirsch and Major Nelson approved it. So we are fortunate to be here. The sad part of today is knowing that it is last day for Bryan Wolfe. It is his execution date. Our family has an incredible visit, mostly due to Rich and his wonderful, loving spirit and strength. He tells us funny stories, and reminds of good times we shared together. He and I talk about fights between him and his sister, fishing on Lake Michigan, and his beloved golden retriever Madison. We talk about my gardening, his favorite foods, and the joke he played when asked what he wanted for his last meal. He told them he wanted his Mom’s meatloaf. They apologized, telling him it was not possible and that they were sorry. He smiled, knowing that he would rather not eat than to have my meatloaf. He always hated it!
We also talk about Ricki today. It was so hard for him to say good bye yesterday. He says that he was going to ask me to see if she could come again today or on Thursday, but now does not want her to. He says that he could not say good bye to her again. It was too hard. I say that I understand. You see, I am facing the time when I have to say good bye forever to my child as well. He nods, because he knows how I feel.
All too soon, our four hours is almost over. On Wednesday, it is media day, so all visitation ends at Noon. For Bryan Wolfe, it is his last visitation with his family that is ending. The last hour, we watch as each member of Bryan’s family takes a turn at the window saying good bye, then leaves. Finally it is just his girlfriend, Marguerite. Each one leaves with tears freely flowing, and we watch silently, get up and hug them when they need it, give them tissues, share their pain and sorrow, knowing our day is tomorrow. So sad, so many victims.
Finally the Warden, Major Nelson, and several guards come for Bryan. His time at Polunsky is over. He is headed to the death van, and the trip to the Walls Unit. We watch it take place. It seems like slow motion. I know my heart beat slowed to almost nothing. I hold his girlfriend once he is gone. Everything around us keeps on happening with a terrible normalcy. I want to shout, “Don’t you know what is happening? Can’t you see?” but I don’t. Everyone knows, it is just their way of dealing with it, pretending it is not happening. If it is not happening to Bryan, it can’t happen to anyone else either.
And finally it is our time to go. One good bye after this, and we will follow Bryan’s family to the Walls Unit, only 24 hours later. So needless. So sad. So awful.
We leave and head over to Huntsville, to the Walls Unit. We know that there is always a small band of protestors for every execution and it is our intent to join them today and support Bryan’s family. We find the corner between the Administration Building and the Walls Unit where they stand. When we arrive there is only one person. This grows to a group of about 20, including us. We watch as Bryan’s family is lead from the Administration building, across the street to the Walls Unit. The veteran protestors explain to me that this means the execution is going to proceed. I am deeply saddened as I watch them march up the steep stairs to the execution chamber.
It is only about 20 minutes later, and they come back down the stairs. It is over. Bryan has left this world, and gone to another. Never again will his family hear his voice or be comforted by him. There is no longer any hope that he will ever come home again. His girlfriend Marguerite comes across the street to find her friend, and gives me a big hug. She is heartbroken. She tells me she will pray for me and my family tonight. I tell we will do the same for her and her family.
I ask the protestors how people can live so close to here and not go insane. They tell me that they don’t even see the unit, or recognize what goes on inside. They go about their daily business, ignoring the protestors on the corner, and go home and make dinner and feed their families. I guess if you pretend something doesn’t exist, eventually it slips from your mind entirely.
Finally it is over, and everyone goes home. We go by KDOL, the radio station, and give another message to Rich. You see, those wonderful people at this station have been doing a special SHOUTOUT show just for Rick tonight while we were at the protest. It started at 4:30 p.m., and was supposed to go for an hour. However, because so many people are writing and calling in, it is still going on. We had recorded a message for him earlier, and those got played as well, including one from Ricki, his beloved daughter. When we stop by, they make a copy of the program that they have recorded so far to give us so we can play it back anytime. It is something I will always treasure.
Finally, it is time to sleep. My daughter, niece and I are sharing a room. We fall asleep listening to the SHOUTOUT show play on my laptop. I am glad that Rich has been comforted tonight by the love and support of literally hundreds of people, from all over the world. Their words and the music comfort us as well as we fall asleep.
At 1:20 a.m. a lovely lady from South Africa rings me on my cell phone. She just wants to tell me to be strong and that she is praying for us all. I tell her thank you, and to please continue to pray for us and to hold Rich up to God for comfort. She promises to do so.
Sleep eluded me from this point on. I can only lay here and silently cry out to God, begging him to spare my son, but telling Him that I know He has a plan that I can’t understand, and that I accept His will above my own prayer. I tell Him that I know He loves Rich even more that I, even though I don’t think anyone could possibly love Rich more than I do. So crying and praying, the night passes slowly to the dawn. As the black of night turns to gray, I find myself looking out the window at the sunrise, Rich’s last sunrise. My heart is breaking, but I need to be strong. Rich is waiting for us.
We once again go to Polunsky Unit. Today we are joined by two more friends, Suzanne and Paula. Paula is the wife of Rich’s dear friend, Paul. Rich and Paul were cell mates at Ellis unit. Paul’s death penalty sentence was set aside a couple of years ago. Rich was so happy for Paul. Rich and Paul continue to have a strong, brotherly bond of love and respect. Rich wears two crosses, one he made himself, and one Paul made and has loaned to Rich.
Today Rich is out on time again. Rich is concerned with getting the phone numbers he needs to call people once he is at the Walls Unit. You see, when our visitation is ended at noon and they take him to the Walls Unit, we can’t see him again until the execution. However, we have been told that between 2 and 5 p.m. he will be allowed to call people and talk to them on the phone, including us. I have typed out the phone numbers, but they cannot give him the paper. He asks a guard to borrow his pen, then rips the lunch bag they gave him with the food we had purchased for him earlier in our visit. He writes down all the important numbers to call.
Rich shows Paula his crosses. He wears two, one he made, and one given to him by his friend and spiritual brother, Paul. Rich tells Paula that if he is executed, she has to take Paul’s cross back to him. It is something Rich and Paula agreed to a long time ago. Rich tells Paula about his own cross. The socks they sell in commissary are white, with a black top. It is made from threads gotten by unraveling his socks. It is on a long, black and white cord, and at the end is a black and white cross. It is painstaking work, and he is very proud of it.
His cousin and friend Missy speak to Warden Hirsch and try to arrange to get a phone call set up for him to speak with his friend Paul at the Durrington Unit. This request is made to the Warden through the Chaplain. In the end, Warden Briscoe at Polunsky agrees, and the Warden at Durrington Unit agrees, but Warden O’Reilly at the Walls Unit does not. Later I will call him and ask why, and he will tell me three times that the reason is, “Because I say so.” One time he even added, “Don’t you understand English?” Isn’t that a great reason to deny a last request? Profound even, right?
His phone numbers in hand, Rich settles in and visits with us. He tells us not to get too much food, because he is planning on enjoying his last meal – fried chicken and a cheese burger. He really wanted smoked pork chops with mushroom gravy, but forgot to order it when asked. But he is still looking forward to what he ordered.
Besides that, he tells me that he packed up his property and that they will give it to me at the Walls Unit. Rich says that he gave his clothes and commissary stuff away, saving only personal things for me. He wants to share with everyone on the row that has always shared with him. The men take care of each other. When one has, and the other doesn’t, no one goes without.
He tells me that they didn’t mail his last letters, so I will get them as well. I have to mail them out for him. He talks about Ricki again today, asking me to please, please set up the trust fund as soon as possible. People have written and asked him what he needs and what they can do for him. He tells them that Tina Church is doing everything possible. He tells me that he wants to be sure Ricki is taken care of and gets a good education, because he won’t be there to provide for her. He hopes his supporters will help with Ricki’s trust fund in his memory. It is breaking my heart, but I listen and promise to make it happen. His cousin is a lawyer, and she has been working on it through a friend of hers.
We talk about his final resting place. I already know what he wants, but again he tells me that he wants to be cremated, then have his ashes spread on Lake Michigan. He says he never wants anyone to go to a garden of stones and mourn for him, but rather to go to the beautiful Lake Michigan, and celebrate his life and remember him there, looking at the power of the water and the beauty of the sun reflecting off of it. He continues to love the water, as he always has. Fishing with his Dad on Lake Michigan is one of his fondest memories.
Finally, the countdown begins. We are close to Noon. Each friend in turn takes their time at the window to say their final, face to face, goodbye. I am last. We sit there, my son and I, and smile at each other. There is great sadness, but complete understanding between us. We have said it all so often. I know he loves me and Ricki more than anything in the world. He knows that I love him and his sister in exactly the same way. And that is what we say again, how much we love each other, and always will.
Then the Warden comes, along with Major Nelson and the guards. Our time is done. I want to scream and cry out, but instead, before he gives them his hands to cuff through the door, I stand at the window and put both my hands on the glass. He does the same. I kiss his lips, and he does the same. The glass between us seems to fade a little, but it is still cold. I so desperately want to hold his hand, touch his face, hug him and feel his warmth, but I am denied this. It is against the rules. We cannot touch until he is dead. How very, very sad.
I find it hard to walk and to talk. Rich’s friend and relatives surround me, and we leave. Others around us stay, continuing their visitation, seemingly unaware that a dear life is about to be snatched away from us. I am heartbroken. But I hold my head up high, and leave the building, tears held in. There is still a ray of hope, however dim.
I want to add here that Warden Alford, who is over population, Warden Hirsch, the new death row warden, and Major Nelson who works directly under Warden Hirsch, were all very accommodating and generous to us during our last week of visitation. They helped us in any way they could, and extended every courtesy possible, even when we most likely didn’t deserve it. What they could not do was let us touch Rich and say good bye to him. No final hug, no kiss, not even the ability to hold his hand. It broke our hearts, again.
We stop and have lunch on the way to Huntsville, even though no one is hungry. You see, our visitation at Polunsky Unit in Livingston TX on the final day is over at Noon, and we are not supposed to be at the Hospitality House in Huntsville until 3 p.m. That gives us 3 hours to make a 45 mile trip. Way too much time with nothing to do at a time like this. Seems to me that this would have been a little more time we could spend with Richard.
Anyway, we arrive at the Hospitality House a little before three. Soon, the other friends join us. The people at the Hospitality House are nice, showing us around, telling us there are drinks in the refrigerator, and soup on the stove, just for us, and a small chapel to be alone or to pray. They make us feel welcome, or at least as welcome as anyone can feel when they are waiting for a loved one to be executed. Chaplain Hart comes in and introduces himself. He tells us that he will gather the witnesses together shortly, to explain what will happen in the next three hours. He is just waiting for Chaplain Drum to join us. Chaplain Drum is late because another inmate’s father died, and he had to deliver the sad news. Finally, he decides to tell us what is going to happen without the other Chaplain.
We go to one end of the room, and sit on comfortable couches as he explains. He tells us that they have given Rich his orientation, and that Rich is meeting with his spiritual advisor, Jack Wilcox. He says that Rich can call us or anyone he so chooses, up until 5 p.m. Then they have to get him ready for the execution. He says that Rich will also eat his last meal during that time up to 5 p.m.
He tells us that at 5 p.m., we will be taken to the Administration Building, across from the Walls Unit, and there we will wait until 6 p.m., when we will proceed together across the street to the Walls Unit execution chamber. He tells us that the press will be in the same room with us, behind us, viewing the execution. He tells us we will be protected from the press, unless we want to speak with them.
He tells us that we will see Rich through glass, but not to lean on the glass. He says that if the prisoner requests it, he will put his hand on the prisoners ankle to give him human contact as he is killed. Honestly, the Chaplain did not use the word “killed,” but it is my word. The other words are just nice ways of saying the same thing. It did not sound nice to me, and it certainly proved not to be nice as the event unfolded. But I am getting ahead of myself here. The Chaplain tells us they will then administer the three drugs, one at a time. The first one will put him to sleep, the second one will collapse his lungs, and the third will stop his heart.
He asks us if we have any questions. At this point, I don’t think any of us could have found our voice if we tried. So we shook our heads no. Even having been through it, from the other side, it is simply to hard to even comprehend. He then says that once the final drug is administered, it will be several minutes until they pronounce him dead. It will seem like a very long time, but will actually be less than 10 minutes. After that, he says, we will be led out of the room and back to the Administration Building.
We then go back to sit in our own areas, talking to one another, and just waiting. Rich finally calls. He tells me he is about to call everyone he has on his list. I remind him of the timing on two of the calls, one being the call to his daughter. She doesn’t get off the school bus until 4 p.m. He speaks to everyone, then hangs up to place his other calls, saying he will call back soon.
Later, Chaplain Drum arrived. I have to say that while Chaplain Hart was somewhat matter of fact (How could he not be?), he still conveyed concern and compassion for us and what we were going through. This was not the case with Chaplain Drum. He sits with us, and proceeds to talk about himself. Three times he referred to Richard by an incorrect name. He has not even done his homework in order to know the name of the person that was being executed. Needless to say, this is very disconcerting to us as we were already emotionally charged. I, along with others in the party, leave the room a couple of times, and then try to avoid the area where he is sitting.
Chaplain Drum shares with us that there definitely would not be a phone call allowed to Paul Colella at the Durrington Unit. It is at this time that I call Warden O’Reilly from my cell phone, and he tells me three times that the reason the call cannot be made is “because I say so.” Very articulate, don’t you think? Compassionate too…
Jack Wilcox, Rich’s choice for his spiritual advisor, comes over around 4 p.m. He tells us that Rich is in good spirits, at peace, and doing well. He said Rich is making his phone calls and getting ready for his last meal. Rich’s only concern is for us, and he asked Jack to take good care of us. If you know Jack Wilcox, you know that with Jack and Irene, there should never be any doubt about that.
Jack prays with us, and asks God to grant strength to both Richard and to us. He then explains that when we go into the Walls Unit, once we are in the “viewing area” that we should immediately go up to the glass. All the guards, Jack, and the press will be behind us. He also cautions us to be careful, and not say anything that we don’t want to see in the papers the next day. The press will be taking notes. We share with him that we have been told the press will not be with our group on this day, and he says that is good.