By Karen Brode
When I heard that my nephew, Don Michael, had gotten out of prison I immediately thought of the unfortunate Clutter Family who were massacred back in the 1960’s by psychopathic ex-convicts.
Truman Capote wrote a book about the Clutters called “In Cold Blood.” If I remember the story correctly–my memory is not what it used to be–the ex-convicts traveled cross country to access the Clutter family safe sheerly on information told to them in prison by another inmate who had worked at the Clutter Farm before he went to prison. The inmate had told them there was a safe inside the house with lots of money in it–there was no such safe. The Clutters all died for nothing.
All of the television crime channel stories start out the same. It’s a sleepy little town where nothing ever happens; people don’t even lock their doors!
I have always been a locked door enthusiast. Sometimes when I am almost asleep, I get up to check all the doors, just one more time.
In those dreamy moments after I’ve checked the doors “just once more,” I imagine Don Michael bragging in prison about his Uncle Barry’s gun collection. If Don Michael began to really think about things, he could probably even be able to tell the convicts where the guns were kept.
Don Michael’s father was my brother. His name was Don. Sure, he was a con man and a crooked used car salesman, but I don’t think he was ever involved in any big crimes. His son, on the other hand, started his criminal career not long after my brother and his first wife divorced. Sharon got the kids, but neither she nor Don were equipped to handle children.
I remember all the times I rode in the car with Sharon and the children. There were two older boys from a previous marriage and I don’t think they were ever in control. Sharon screamed and screamed and then tried to spank legs in the backseat while she drove. If I had a nickel for every time she threatened to stop the car…. Let’s just say, I really wanted her to stop the car and do whatever she might’ve done but she never did. The boys thought she was funny.
This made Don’s job as a stepdad so much harder because her total lack of discipline made Don have to be in charge of all disciplinary measures. I tried not to laugh when I saw him sitting in his recliner with a belt in his hands. I never saw him use the belt, but it was there to remind the boys that it could be used, if needed.
Don Michael was my brother’s long awaited dream son. He had daughters but daughters were not sons. He longed for a son and when Don Michael was born it was a happy day for everyone.
I was at the hospital the night Don Michael was born. Sharon and Don has asked me to come, and I wanted to be helpful. Just as Don Michael was beginning to be born I had to leave the room. I had to sit in a chair in the hallway and tremble in fear at my own ineptitude. Why on earth had I thought I could witness a birth? I was out there only a few minutes, though, when Don ran out of the delivery room looking happier than he ever had.
It was a boy! Don gave his son his own name and vowed to put checkered pants on him and have him selling cars the following week. It was a good time for the family.
Don Michael was thirteen when he went to juvie for the first time. Each of the boys had a turn in some sort of correctional facility by the time they were teenagers.
When Don Michael was fifteen, Sharon sent him to live with Don because she could no longer control him. Don lived in Tulsa at that time and Don Michael fell into a gang of other boys bent on criminal behavior. Don Michael held up a convenience store with a knife and the clerk later identified him as the boy who had threatened her. Don was so disappointed.
Don and Sharon went to his court days and listened to lawyers talk about his youth, his impressionability, the belief that with the right kind of help, Don Michael could turn his life around. In the end, they decided not to give him a harsh sentence.
I received letters from Don Michael while he was in the youth facility. He swore he wanted to go to church with me, start a new and better life, and make his parents happy. It made me happy to think we could be a big happy family again, like when he was first born. But then he got out and I never heard from him. It turns out, church was the last thing on his mind by then. He and his girlfriend were pregnant.
Don Michael was sixteen when his first child was born. By then he had other girlfriends and I tried not to think of him. I heard bits and pieces of information about him, and I really didn’t want to know anything about him. Still, you live in a family and you’re bound to hear about your brother’s kids.
Don Michael was rounded up in a meth-cooking mess. He had run and tried to get away but the cops were smart enough to surround the place where the meth was being manufactured. He faced serious jail time.
Don Michael and his family lived in a tent down by the river when all of this happened. He called a lawyer while he was in the county jail and told him that he had a box of money buried at the river. He promised he would go get the box and bring it back if the lawyer would get him out of jail.
I really have to wonder about the intelligence of this lawyer. He did as Don Michael asked and waited for the money. That kid was halfway to Las Vegas by the time the lawyer realized he had been played.
All of these stories make me tired when I think of it. There were so many more arrests, so many more years in jail, so much more heartache for my brother. Don Michael moved among the upper echelon of criminals in Las Vegas, and the last time he was arrested he went to the Clark County jail in Las Vegas.
By then, I don’t think anyone expected Don Michael to be anything but a criminal. I watched my brother cry and finally admit his son wasn’t a good person. I never thought my brother could be broken, but he was. Don Michael was his waterloo.
Don moved back to Texas near to where we grew up. I think a part of me knew he was dying. He had lost his will to live then and stopped taking all of his medications. He had diabetes but he said he felt better when he didn’t take the medication. I look back now and wonder how I could have been so blind. My brother killed himself in plain sight with all of us watching.
It was a sunny day in September when we gathered to remember my brother. No part of Don was at that funeral. There was a box of something in the front of the funeral chapel, but it wasn’t him. The funeral director assured us that people did this all the time. It wasn’t necessary to have the actual body or remains at the funeral.
I glanced around the crowd of attendees and saw so many people that I didn’t expect to be there. May Felton from my church was there. It surprised me to see her there. She didn’t know Don and we weren’t that close. But then it hit me. She thought she would get the scoop before anyone else. She thought she’d be able to take something back to the ladies tea hour at church.
When my brother died, his son was back where it all started, the Mason County jail. We had been told that Don Michael could be given special permission to attend his father’s funeral if the family was willing to pay for two deputies to escort him in chains and shackles to and from his father’s funeral.
This is why May Felton attended my brother’s funeral. I looked around the chapel some more and wondered if maybe that was the reasons others had, too. There was not usually such drama and excitement in our little town.
In the end, I refused to pay two cents for Don Michael to attend his father’s funeral. I didn’t want to see him or hear about him ever again. He had killed my brother. There was no doubt in my mind.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.