“Thugs [Act Two: Lifers]”

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The Story

“Thugs [Act Two: Lifers]”
by Laura Beil
This American Life, July 29, 2011

The Pitch

I want to tell the story about a woman who tried to make a difference, and she did, in the life of one young, very disturbed boy. She found him a new home, found his mom a new job, and she got him into a good school. He was going to be one of the success stories, a kid rescued from a cycle of poverty and neglect. But then, the boy let her down in the most horrible way imaginable. Now, the universe has given her another chance.

Here is her story:

Kenneth Williams was not a killer, at least not yet, when Ton’Nea met him for the first time. The boy was 12, brought to her on the second day of her first job. She saw a wisp of a kid, no more than 5 feet tall, with twigs caught in his hair and scratches streaking his face and forearms. Kenneth had just been captured in the woods of Central Arkansas after escaping from juvenile prison. Ton’Nea Williams (with a coincidental last name) was a fresh college graduate, eager to save the world one kid at a time.

Newly hired at the Alexander Youth Services Center near Little Rock, Ton’Nea was to make Kenneth her first project. She had good reason to believe in the kids everyone else gave up on. She herself had been born to a teenage mother who would eventually leave Ton’Nea and her eight siblings in foster care. Unbelievably, she had emerged as an elegant, university-educated young woman, dedicated to helping the most troubled of troubled kids. With the state’s assistance, Ton’Nea felt she could give Kenneth the mooring she never had: a stable home, a consistent education, a trusted mentor.

At their first meeting in 1993, she joked with him about whether he was a distant relative, since they shared the same last name. She found him endearing, the way he answered her questions with “Yes, ma’am” and “No ma’am.” They talked about his mom, who was away from home most nights working two jobs to support him and his sisters. In the years that followed, she put him on a path to productive citizenry, to make him the icon for everything that worked about the beleaguered juvenile justice system in Arkansas. She helped his mother find a better job so she spend more time at
home. With state funds, she relocated the family to an affluent neighborhood with a decent school, just around the corner from her own home. She taught him to trust in himself, even paying him on occasion to babysit her children, just to get him used to the feel of responsibility. Maybe she didn’t love him like a son, but she felt she understood him in a way no one else could.

So no one was more surprised than she when, on a Sunday afternoon in 1998, Kenneth shot and murdered a college cheerleader outside in Pine Bluff, and left her boyfriend for dead. (The boyfriend survived, and was able to crawl to a road and flag down help.)

Ton’Nea Williams has the kind of story This American Life was made for. It is the narrative of one woman’s failure to stop a murderer, despite applying everything she and social psychology tells us we need to do. It raises questions that we are uncomfortable asking, but ultimately must: Are some children simply beyond redemption, despite all we do for them? And if we believe that no child is a lost cause— as we all want to—what’s the way to reach them? If Ton’Nea could not save Kenneth, could anyone have?

He was convicted of the Pine Bluff slaying, but spared the death penalty, largely because Ton’Nea testified on his behalf. She thought the police must have arrested the wrong boy, so steeped was she in denial, even as he taunted the victim’s family in the courtroom. The witness stand was the last time they saw one another face-to-face. Less than a month after Kenneth began his sentence, he broke out of prison again, killing a farmer and fleeing in the dead man’s pickup. He had tried to call Ton’Nea just hours before his escape, perhaps feeling the welling of his own desperation and fury, trying to contact the one person who might throw him a lifeline. He was caught after a high- speed chase in Missouri, a chase that left yet another person dead, and is now awaiting execution in Arkansas.

His story ends there, but Ton’Nea’s goes on. For years, the failed mentorship to Kenneth left her, as she says now, an emotional cripple. Even still, she couldn’t let go of the hope that the police had arrested the wrong boy – until recently, when he wrote a 5-page letter to the Pine Bluff newspaper, admitting to the two murders, and even a third he was never arrested for. When she learned of the confession, she could hardly breathe.

The thing is, she hasn’t given up on saving the world. She quit her job at the state corrections department and began a career in education, believing that kids must be reached before they become entrenched in the justice system. Just after Kenneth’s confession, Ton’Nea’s sister, who had given birth to her first baby in the 8th grade, and had three more in rapid succession, lost custody of her four sons. At the time, they were all under 10. With a mother who had been mentally and physically absent, the boys were three grades behind in school. Ton’Nea saw four African-American boys on the brink of becoming wards of the state, boys just like Kenneth the first time she met him—and she’s trying again. She and her husband legally adopted the four nephews she barely knew, even though they already had three of their own children.

She has not spoken to Kenneth since his second conviction, but has written him a letter. Mostly, she wants to know what went wrong with his life. Did she fail him? Was there
something else she could have done? Why did he hide his rage from her? The letter sits at home, unsent. She’s still not sure she wants to know the answer.

Today, Ton’Nea is an assistant principal of a high school in Texas, a school with a student body of largely low income, minority children. She searches for Kenneth everyday, in all their faces, haunted by feelings of regret, despair and hope. The redemption she seeks most is her own. Since the day she told me her story, it has stayed with me, and it will stay with everyone who hears it.

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