Rich, over in the Walls Unit, is having his last meal and getting ready to make his phones calls. He calls the Hospitality House to speak with us, and let us know he is doing okay. He lets us know that he is going to start making his phone calls. His two calls from out of the country have been set up that they can call in, because they don’t allow him to make calls outside the country.
Rich starts by calling his investigator, Tina Church, and thanks her for all her hard work and efforts on his behalf. He also asks her to continue to help the guys on the row, and to tell them no clowning. I asked her what this means, because I didn’t know that term. She explains that he wants them to stand tall, and not act out when he is executed. I cry.
Rich also received calls from two wonderful ladies, one from Canada and one from Australia, that have been staunch supporters. They have both been there to make him laugh, cry with him, and support him. He calls the Hospitality House again and tells me his wonderful Australian friend made him laugh so hard he almost cried, and that it was a fantastic call. His Canadian call was a little harder, but she too shared her love and support with him.
He is deeply saddened that he is unable to contact his Father. There was no answer on his Dad’s home or cell phone, and Rich was not allowed to leave a message. He wants to tell his Dad that he loves him, and that he should not feel responsible or guilty in any way. He wants his Dad to know, as we all do, that he is truly at peace and going to a much better place. He has told us all week that he is not giving up and he wants to live, but that he is tired of fighting and living like he has for the past 8 years. He also wants to be sure that there is no 30 day stay, and then we all have to go through this drill again. His Dad never got to hear those words from Rich, but hopefully he will read this and know how much Rich loved and cared for him.
Finally, Rich makes two more calls to two special ladies in his life. He calls his daughter Ricki as she is getting off the school bus at 4 p.m. He tells me in a call back that she is a trip, bubbling over about everything that happened in school, and telling him that she loves him. He said the happiness and love she shared brightened his spirits, and put him even more at peace.
He also speaks with a childhood friend from Las Vegas that had a special visit with him on May 6th & 7th. She was his first love, and remains a true and special friend. They are able to smile and joke, and truly love and support each other.
Rich makes his last phone call to the Hospitality House and speaks to all his friends and family there. He thanks each one for their love and support, and tells them he is ready to go, at peace, and for them to be strong. Finally, it is my turn. Rich tells me he loves me, to take care of Ricki, and to always look to God. He tells me to remember him every time I looked at Lake Michigan, or see a beautiful sunrise or sunset. I tell him that I love him more than anything, and that he is a very, very special gift from God to me. And then he tells me he has to go, that they are ready for him.
At this point in time, we still do not know the status of his appeal. Tina Church calls my cell phone and tells me it is still pending, and that if she hears anything, she will call me immediately. But now it is time for us to go to the Administration Building. The five witnesses, Rich’s sister Diane, his cousin Layne, his friends Missy and Suzanne, and me, place our personal things in the trunk of the car, all except our cell phones. We want to know when his petition at the Supreme Court is ruled on. We are waiting and clinging to the hope that Tina will call and tell us that they are going to hear his cause.
Paul Colella’s wife, Paula, drives us to the Administration Building, that is located only about two or three blocks from the Hospitality House. We go inside, and are led into the office lunchroom. This is to be our “holding room” for the next hour. It is filled with TDCJ literature, work regulations, several vending machines, round tables with chairs around them, a magazine rack with People magazine and others, and a plastic couch. There are no cell phones allowed here, we are told. So Missy calls another supporter to come to the door of the building so we can give her our cell phones.
Finally, we are all searched. They take us into the Ladies Washroom, and they run a portable metal detector all over us, and then the guard pats us down. This all happens in a public washroom in the Administration building. After we are searched, we are taken back across the hallway to the lunchroom.
There are a couple of officers in street clothes sitting with us. I can’t remember their exact position titles, but they are some type of liaison officer. One of them has a tie on with a TABASCO sauce logo across it. I find it extremely disrespectful, but say nothing. They chat about work and their personal lives, as we struggle to retain our composure. I pace. I cannot sit quietly. Being in this lunchroom is not what we had expected, and that, along with the situation, causes our tensions to run high and our composure to run low.
At one point, as I wait, I am fighting with all my might to hold back my panic and my tears. I say out loud, “I don’t want to cry, and if I hold my breath, it helps.” The man with the Tobasco sauce tie says, “Well, breathing is kind of important.” Rich’s sister says, “Well, apparently they don’t believe that’s true in Texas!” She didn’t says it to be funny, as she was really furious at this point, but we all, every one of us, kind of laughed hysterically, then cried. It is strange how that happens to us in the most inappropriate times, isn’t it? Diane just couldn’t believe that he would respond that way, but most likely, he simply wasn’t thinking.
My niece Layne is trying with all her might to be our advocate. She goes to the guard at the door and questions her about Rich’s petition with the Supreme Court. We want to know what is happening and if there has been a ruling. We still cling to that hope that we will all be told to go home, that nothing is going to take place here today. Finally, as my niece appeals to the guard’s compassion and her motherhood, the guard states, “I wouldn’t be here if it was not going to go ahead.” My niece says, “So you’re saying that they denied the petition? Is that what you are telling me?” The guard says, “I cannot say. All I can tell you is that I would not be here if it was not going to go forward.” My niece is panicky, and says, through her tears, “Thank you for your compassion. I know it is not you. But we needed to know.” There is no one that doesn’t take notice, and the tears are in everyone’s eyes. We now know that they are definitely going to execute my Richard. It is a done deal. We are devastated.
I find out later, that at 5:45 p.m., Tina called my cell phone to deliver this terrible news as well. I also find out that they delivered this news to Rich at 5:30 p.m. We never had the chance to talk to him after that. I am sure it was a very bitter piece of news for him, as it was for us. We were together, but he was all alone.
Finally, we are told once again that since there are no victim witnesses, the press will not be in the same room with us. They will be separate. I am relieved, as I think everyone else is as well. While we don’t anticipate saying anything inappropriate, it is a private time for us and the less people present with us, the better. It is not something we want to share with strangers that don’t care about Richard.
We walk single file out of the building. Jack Wilcox had hip replacement surgery recently, and must take the elevator. We cross the street, and as we do, we see the small band of anti-death penalty supporters on the corner. As they explained to us yesterday, when the witnesses are lead in, you know it is going to happen. When they come out, you know it is over. They now know that IT is going to happen.
The Walls Unit is an old building, and there is a high, steep set of stairs to ascend on the outside. Jack takes the winding ramp, while we trudge upward to the top of the stairs to end the Walls Unit. After entering the building, we go through another door or doors, I don’t really know how many, and then we are outside again, walking through an outside court yard that is not very well maintained. Finally, we are at the viewing room.
As we enter, I am struck by many thoughts, but my eyes go straight to my son, lying on a gurney, looking at us as we enter. My eyes will remain fixed there the entire time I am in this room. In the back of my mind, I have the impression that the room is not well built, there is no air conditioning (it is muggy and oppressive inside), and the glass is really Plexiglas and it is not all that clear. It is also a very small space. The five of us cannot fit across in front of the window, even with our shoulders turned, as we were told to get up close to the glass. One of us has to be in the second row.
I notice my son’s eyes are red. There are no tears visible now, but I know he has been crying. It breaks my heart that he was alone. But I am here now. The Warden is at the head of the gurney, and the Chaplain is at the end of the gurney, with one hand under the cover on Rich’s ankle. Rich is covered up to his chest. His arms are extended on boards of some sort, and there are needles and lines taped to both arms with clear tape. My son’s hands are not visible, but are wrapped up in elastic bandaging like the type that is wrapped around a sprained ankle. They are wrapped up as big as a boxing glove, and I wonder why? What is wrong with is beautiful hands? Why are they covered like that? I still don’t know the answer to that question.
Finally, the Warden gives the order to begin. He asks Rich if he has any final words. When I talked to Rich last, he still wasn’t sure if he was going to say anything or not. Rich responds, “Yes.” A suspended mike is pushed closer to him mouth, and he first apologizes to the victim’s family for the pain and suffering he caused them, then he thanks his family and friends for their support, and finally he tells the men back on the “row” to stand tall. Then he says he is done. The Warden orders the execution to begin.
I look at my son, and he is looking back at me. I mouth the words, “I love you,” knowing he cannot hear me if I say it out loud. He mouths it back to me. We say this to each other at least three times, and then his beautiful, loving blue eyes close forever. My eyes are still glued to his face. Now his chest rises and falls deeply, and his lips flutter, much like can happen when you have been holding your breath and let it all out at once. This happens a couple of times. Then his chest rises and falls no more. I do not know how much time has elapsed. It seems like an eternity, and yet it is all happening much too fast. I keep thinking it will stop, but it does not. And now, it is the waiting time. We simply stand there and wait. While we wait, I say "I'm so proud of you. A mother could not be more proud of a son. I love you so much.” After his eyes close, I say “They don't know they killed a good man, an excellent man."
Again, time more or less stands still. It is forever, and it is a matter of seconds. Finally, a doctor enters and checks Rich’s neck for a pulse, then places a stethoscope on his chest and listens to several locations. He looks up, and calls the time of death as 6:16 p.m. It is done. Richard Michael Cartwright, my warrior child, is dead. I say, "Thank you, God, for taking him away from all this. Thy will be done."
We are then immediately led from the viewing room. I am determined not to cry or break down. I look straight ahead and keep my head high. Surprisingly, I don’t want to cry. I want to fight. I want to stop this from ever happening to another family. I never want any other mother, who did no wrong, to have to suffer and bear this horrible pain and desolation as she watches her son die in front of her, helpless to stop it. I feel God’s hand, and know that He has indeed lifted Richard out of the injustice in Texas, to peace and love, into the arms of a loving Father. In doing so, God has passed Richard’s peace to me. I am now a most committed anti-death penalty fighter, dedicated to ending this barbaric practice forever, everywhere. In addition, I want to work to end the cruel and unusual laws applied in Texas that expedite the process and keep valid information from being review by the courts. I want inmates treated humanely, and guard abuses and disrespect to be abolished. And I want to educate the other victims, the families of men and women that are at the start of the process to know their rights and to demand that their loved ones’ cases get the attention and resources they are entitled to and deserve. I know in my heart, if I had known at Rich’s trial what I know now, Richard would not be dead.
So this is the mind set I have as I leave the Walls Unit. Once again we go down the long, steep staircase in front of the Walls Unit, across the street, and then back into the Administration Building. They tell us that we should meet back at the Hospitality House and we will be given Richard’s personal property. We are then literally “shown the door” to leave the Administration Building.
Outside the sun is still shining, the trees are still green and waving in the wind, and everything looks the same, but it is not. My son is dead. We encounter a reporter from the Huntsville Item. My niece wants to know who he works for, then takes him on the side and asks him if he “has the balls” to print a real story. He says he does, but tomorrow we will find out he does not when we read the paper. He only reprints the AP version of the story, and not what she shares with him.
I am greeted by Christa Kunkle, widow of Troy Kunkle, executed in January of this year. She hugs me, and gives me flowers. She tells me to stay strong. I assure her I will. I know pain is still raw inside her for Troy, and brought back in memory as she has walked this path to the execution chamber with me. My heart breaks as much for her, as for me and my family.
I march across the street to the corner where the anti-death penalty supporters are still standing. I thank each and every one of them for coming out and supporting us. They tell me that no one has ever done that before. I am, honestly, surprised. Dear Marguerite, Bryan Wolfe’s girlfriend, is there to support us also.
We then gather and go back to the Hospitality House. In the parking lot, the Chaplain hands me Rich’s Bible. He said that the last thing Richard asked was that he hand it to me personally. He also gives me a ragged sack containing all of Rich’s possessions. My son, my beautiful son, has left his worldly possessions to me. I want to scream and say, no, give me back my son instead. But I know it is done. I just don’t want it to be like this. I need him to tell me it is okay. I say a silent prayers, asking God for strength. He grants me that strength, and this long day continues.
Paula asks me if I have Paul’s cross. I don’t but perhaps it is in the property bag. I open it, and there it is inside, tangled together with Rich’s cross, looking almost as if it were thrown in the bag without thought. It strikes me as strange, knowing how much both crosses meant to Rich. Later, in a letter from Robert Shields, I will learn that a guard carried Rich’s cross out of 12 Building while he was being strip searched and readied for the death van ride to the Walls Unit. Seems he wasn’t supposed to have them, so the guard took them away. At least they got put in the bag for us. I untangle the two crosses, and give Paul’s cross to Paula. She will give it to him when she visits him on Saturday, along with the news that his friend and brother has been executed.
We go back inside the Hospitality House, and say good bye. Paula gives them a donation and thanks them for their kindness. It is time for us to go to the funeral home, where we have pre-arranged a small service. The Chaplain says that he will lead us to the funeral home, but takes off without doing so. I am unable to locate it, and finally a member of our group calls, we tell them where we are, and they have the funeral home personnel give us directions. We were almost there anyway.
We arrive, and Rich is at the front of the room, still on a gurney. The funeral director tells us that we can go up and say goodbye to him, and when we are ready, the service will start. I go up and look at my son. I peek under the cover at the end of the gurney, because Rich had told his Australian friend that he wanted to go with his boots on. He did. I stroke his lovely hands, now folded across his chest, and completely unwrapped. They are cold already, and I have to resist the motherly urge to pull the covers up higher to warm them. The clear tape is still on his arms, but the lines and needles are gone. I am finally able to stroke his cheek, touch his head, hold his hand, things I was denied for the last 8 years. I reach down and kiss his still warm lips, and hug him. I tell him again, “I love you so much.”
The rest of our group does the same, each one going up to him to say their good byes, touching him, hugging him, kissing him. He is finally at peace, and while we know he is in a better place, but we grieve for our loss. Many cry. I sit down and open the Bible he left to me. Inside the front cover, I read a very special message he left for me. It both breaks my heart, and restores by spirit, all at once.
The service begins. Jack Wilcox comforts us with God’s words, and his rich message. His love and respect for Rich is apparent, and very much appreciated. He says that he doesn’t think he ever knew a prisoner that was more respected or liked by other prisoners that Rich was. He was loyal, honest, and always stood up for the underdog, no matter what the consequences. We know this already, but it is something we want and need to hear again. Our son, brother, cousin, and friend was loved, not just by us, but by almost everyone he met.
At the end of the service, Jack asks if anyone has any words to say. I ask if I can read what Rich wrote in the front cover of his Bible that he gave to me. Jack says yes. I walk to the podium and speak. It is harder to read it out loud, than it was to read it to myself, but I get through it. Everyone is crying. My son, my very, very special son, still reaching out and touching those he loved with his words and love. Here is what he wrote:
Dear Mama Sunshine 05-11-05 4:26 PM
Well, if you are reading this, I am in heaven right now. *Smile* Mom, I could not think of a more personal gift to give you than my Bible. Do not put it in storage, it is now your Bible Mom. Anytime you read it, see it, or touch it, I will know & you will think of me. I’m most likely looking over your shoulder as you read this right now, no, no, .. Mom look up some, your boy got some wings don’t you know?!!? Free from my box & the inhumane & cruel treatment of TDCJ!! Mom the sun will still rise & set for you & you must go on & not miss a beat. You have so much to offer to so many. You are a “tool of God” & you must never forget to praise God’s name to all!! Stay strong & faithful in your walk with Jesus. Let others see his love & peace through your continued faith through troubled times. I could not of made it through these past 8 years without your love & support. It gives me so much peace to know that Ricki Marie has you in her life to love her as you have loved me. Mom you truly are the Sunshine of my life. Proverbs 31 – read it all, but 25 thru 31 is all you. Stay strong, I’m watching over you & will be waiting for you patiently.
Love, Your Son, Rich
It is now time to say good bye to Rich again. The service is over. It is time to leave him behind, once again. Everyone files to the front of the room again, to say their final good byes. My daughter Diane and I are the last ones there. Once again we hug him, stroke his face, kiss his lips, and hold his cold, beautiful hands in ours. And then we leave.
I go next door to take care of the payment for the transportation of my son’s body, the preparation necessary for the service, and the use of the facilities for our service, as well as the future cremation and shipping of his ashes home to me. Initially, we had scheduled our flights to leave late the evening of the 20th in anticipation of taking his ashes with us. We are informed that it is not possible. Seems Texas has a law that states it is illegal to cremate a body without waiting 48 hours, because there might be a criminal investigation. We can only hope. But alas, the law is the law. Richard is not eligible to be cremated until 6 p.m. on Saturday, which means that he won’t be cremated until Monday morning since the crematory is closed on the weekend. We cannot stay, so we all know we are leaving him behind one more time.
After taking care of the paperwork, I ask if we can go back inside again. The answer, kindly, is yes. So once again, my daughter and I go back to my son, and say good bye one more time. I know he is not inside his body any longer, but rather he is watching over us from above. I am so very sad and miss him so much, but on the outside I remain strong and steadfast, knowing that I have to for everyone else, and to continue my son’s fight.
Finally, it is over, and we head back to our lodging. Sleep amazingly, comes pretty easy. We are all very, very tired and emotionally exhausted. While it comes easily, no one sleeps late or long. We all want to leave Texas far behind. We are anxious to get out of town. Missy and Charity stop by with copies of the Houston Chronicle and the Huntsville Item the next morning. The Huntsville Item does not contain the information Layne shared with them yesterday, and she is disappointed that the reporter didn’t get it right. The Houston Chronicle does a more factual job, but still it is obvious that they all copied the AP report.
Pastor John arrives to take Jennie to the airport, and I give him his last letter from Rich. He reads it out loud. It is Rich’s heartfelt testimony. He wants Pastor John to use it to keep the kids he works with from traveling with the wrong crowd, getting into the wrong things, and ending up where he did. Again, a good man reaching out to make a difference, even from the grave.
Pastor John and Jennie leave for the airport. We sit around and talk for a while. Things have moved so fast. I give Missy Mouse, Rich’s dear friend, his coffee cup. It is an old white, plastic cup, covered with pictures of cars that he has taped on it. I remember him telling me about it years ago, but I didn’t know he still had it. I also give her one of his socks. You see, his underwear that he had been wearing was in his property bag. Everything else, he had given away to others on the row.
I show them his hot pot. His sense of humor intact, he left a note on it that reads:
May 19, 2005
Just poured me a cup of coffee & decided since I worked so hard for this pot that I wanted to send it to you! *Smile* I love you!!!
P.S. Lots of tickle bugs for Ricki (each I in Ricki was dotted with a heart instead on an I)
Other than that, the bag is filled with letters from family, friends and supporters. And there are many pictures. It also contains his prison ID card, or at least a copy of it, and the other items he carried with him at all times, in with the ID card. There are two pictures of Ricki, one of her with the Easter bunny at age 3, and one taken on his birthday this year as she lay sleeping. There is also a picture of his Las Vegas friend. There is a picture of a little family I don’t know, and there is the folded up piece of lunch bag with all his precious phone numbers from his calls yesterday. My son, my son, I miss you so much.
I am surprised to find the words I said during the execution in the paper. My daughter tells us that the reporters were right behind us throughout the execution. She saw them, but no one else did. Obviously, we were lied to by the guard. I think I remember her apologizing, but I am not sure. Many things are very vivid, and other things not.
Missy and Charity leave, and it is just Diane, Layne and I. We pack everything up, and head for the airport. Finally we are leaving Texas. The last week of my son’s life is over. It is now the first day of the rest of our lives, the first day of a life without Richard, his love, his humor, his smile. God has a new angel, and he is watching over us all. Even as the jet takes off from the ground, my mind is sad. They killed my beautiful boy, and I will never again see his smile. I pray to God for strength to go on.
There is a cruel twist of fate that awaits us when we land. As the plane lands, my daughter checks her voice mail. On it is a message from her Dad. He says that he wants to talk to Rich, and to please have him call. He doesn’t know or understand what happened yesterday. He doesn’t know that his beautiful son is dead. Diane hands me the phone to listen to his message, as she chokes back her tears. She asks me what to do. I tell her gently that she needs to call him. In the car on the way home, she calls her Dad in Florida, He tells her again that he wants to talk to Rich, and she has to say those very hard words, “Dad, Rich is dead. They executed him yesterday.” They both cry. And another victim is created. It never stops.
About 10 days later, I open the mail box to find three copies of Rich’s death certificate, which I had requested through the funeral home. As I read it, I have the strange feeling that they have executed the wrong man. Richard’s birthdate reads February 11, 1974, when he was actually born February 11, 1970. Also, my maiden name is listed as Irene Iado Kabunsek. It is actually Irene Aida Kubancek. You would think the State of Texas could at least get this information correct. Finally, instead of the cause of death reading “justifiable homicide,” per recent legislation in the State of Texas, the cause of death reads “Court ordered lethal injection,” and Approximate Interval Between Onset and Death is listed as “10 Min.” It is now official. My son is gone forever, but will never leave my heart.
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