Mennonite at a Murder Trial

I did something on Friday that I’ve never done before. I went to a murder trial. On one hand, it wasn’t exactly an item on my bucket list. On the other hand, considering what happened to Barbara, it’s still on it. This trial has no legal link to Barbara Struncova or to Bill Ulmer, BUT it does have a personal link to them for me. I consider it to be one of the places Barbara has lead me. It happened like this:

Barbara disappeared, so I can’t very well ask her my questions in person. On my search for answers about what happened to her, I’ve had to follow in the footsteps of Bill. Those footsteps lead, as we all know, onto a plane with his brother Wayne’s passport in hand, and back to the USA. December 2010. Within months, those footsteps climbed into a semi and drove into the chaos of the oil boom in North Dakota. And there they stayed, more or less, hauling water back and forth to fracking sites, until the end of 2013.

I didn’t know anything about fracking and oil drilling. It’s never been a subject of interest for me. I find it all sort of violent, horrible, and terrifying—even minus the actual violent and terrifying human beings that seem drawn to it. So I called up my good friend Google with his sidekick Google Maps and we started chatting. Mother of God, did I get schooled. And meet some interesting folks.

Enter Lissa Yellowbird Chase. Click on her name and look at the link about what she does.  I don’t want to re-write the article when you can read the original. Lissa looks for missing people—passionately, furiously, even somewhat madly. So I wrote to her. What did I have to lose? She answered me back. I didn’t expect she was going to tell me what happened to Barbara, but I reached out to her anyway. Some days I feel like I’m spitting into the wind with this, and I guess I hoped for a little hand-holding from a real bad-ass body-searcher.

I’m getting my hand held alright. Turns out that the case she’s worked on for the last 4 years, regarding the disappearance of Kristopher “KC” Clarke in 2012, is coming to trial NOW and only a few hours from where I live. So on Friday, I went with her to the first day of the murder-for-hire trial of James Henrikson. Click that link. This is the first time I’ve ever even entered a courtroom. I had no idea what to expect.

The defendant, James Henrikson, was unrecognizable. Did you see the picture of him on the link? Looking all buff and competent? The guy sitting at the table between two dark-suited lawyers was gaunt and yellow. I have never seen a human being that color. I swear. It was frightening. Terrifying.  Sick.  He kept his clearly-calculated demeanor calm and interested. Never flinched or demonstrated any reaction whatsoever during the entire court session. Smiled at his lawyers. Looked at Lissa and at me. I don’t have a word for that that glance felt like. “Chilling” is what I’m tempted to say, but that’s not quite right. It made me want to put my clothes in the washer and take a shower.  I met KC Clarke’s mom.  What do you say to a woman who has to sit there and listen to the story of how her son’s head was beaten soft with the handle of a floor jack?  I came up with, “Nice to meet you.”

It was all quite a lot like courtroom scenes on tv, but with no glitz and no drama. Tom Cruise was nowhere to be found. No shouting, no crying, or anything like that. Lawyers on both sides mispronounced things that even I knew were wrong, and demonstrated a disappointing lack of basic acting skills. The judge, who was much less somber and intimidating than tv judges, gently scolded one of the jurors for nodding off.

Then they called in the first witness, a man named Timothy Suckow, who murdered Clarke (allegedly) at the bidding of Henrikson for 20,000$. I’m still trying to get my head around the experience of sitting in the same room with a man who is forced to admit out loud that, essentially, he knows he is going to die in prison no matter what the jury’s verdict is. He wasn’t the least bit surly, like you’d expect the burly tattooed guy in his mugshot to be. He had the high voice of a boy, the demeanor of an old man, the expression of something mortally wounded.  He told us he has two teen-aged children.

I won’t be going back for the rest of the trial. I’ll be going to work as usual, learning about the proceedings from Lissa and from the media. Part of me is sorry to miss the intrigue. Most of me is relieved to have an excuse not to sit in the room with so much pain, sorrow and injury. Justice is so terribly painful. So necessary and so gut-wrenching.

It took me back to my History of Theatre class at Goshen College in the 1990s.  I could hear Dr. Lauren Friesen’s voice explain to us the difference between modern melodrama and classical tragedy.  In modern melodrama, when bad people get the bad things they deserve, we feel relief and even delight.  In classical tragedy, the execution of justice fills us with fear and pity.

Those are the right words.

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