The Five Deaths of Carmen McNeal
Her mutilated body was found
in the basement of a
Minneapolis apartment building.
Her killer was never brought to justice.
And a quarter century later,
the details of her life and death still
haunt five people she left behind.
This is her story in their words.
The case file tells this story: Just after midnight on Sunday, September 6, 1970, in the public housing projects off Olson Highway in North Minneapolis, the body of a 26-year-old woman named Carmen McNeal was discovered, face down and nude, in a pile of charred papers and trash on the basement floor of her apartment building.
She had been dead since early Saturday morning--nearly 24 hours. Her sternum was fractured. Her chest showed signs of hemorrhaging. Her left leg and hand had been burned to the bone. A pressurized aerosol can, a singed woman's wig, and an empty book of matches were found near the body. There was a laceration above her left eye, bruises and whip marks across her back, and a deep cut across the left side of her neck that suggested ligature strangulation--most likely done with a piece of lingerie that had been used to hang her from a ceiling pipe. It later broke under the weight of her 96-pound body, but a portion of the garment still hung there. The cement floor and a small furnace in the corner were smeared with blood, which was duly typed.
Upstairs on the kitchen table, police came across a handwritten letter that McNeal--the mother of two young children and the daughter of a sitting Minneapolis City Council member--had started and abandoned the night before. A man's comb lay just inside the front door, which was unlocked. The back door was locked, though the chain was not engaged. The door frame had been torn loose from the wall and a few small particles of plaster lay scattered across the tile floor that McNeal had scrubbed and waxed the night she died, suggesting a forced entry.
From there, the details turn sketchy. A neighbor reported hearing a knock on her door the night she died, but could not say exactly when. McNeal's 6-year-old daughter, Carrie, told the police she'd heard her mother crying in the middle of the night from her bed upstairs, but thought this might have been a dream. Several light bulbs that had been unscrewed from their basement fixtures were collected as evidence from the kitchen garbage along with two cigarette packs, but lab testing found no latent prints on any of the items. Detectives recovered a partial fingerprint at the scene, but it was never matched. A vaginal smear taken from her showed no trace of semen stains, but on August 31, just a week before her death, a warrant for "indecent conduct" had been issued at McNeal's request against a man who she claimed had broken into her basement window, come upstairs and raped her before molesting her daughter.
The evening before the murder, McNeal told her mother that, "I've gone too far--the last three months have been bad," and her mother later informed the police that "I'd never seen her so nervous as she was over [this man]." His criminal record showed an arrest the previous year for rape, and convictions for burglary, disorderly conduct, and assault. According to both the case file and the lead investigator at the time, the man in question had placed a call to the downtown police station from a pay phone not more than a block from McNeal's apartment just before dawn that Saturday, reporting that his wallet had been stolen. The same investigator also told the friend who found McNeal's body that this man's ID card was indeed found at the crime scene. He became the homicide unit's main suspect, but although he was arrested and taken in for questioning he was never charged with the killing. In fact, no one has ever been charged and the case remains open and unsolved to this day.
It's been said that memory plays tricks, on the dead and the living. That time fools the mind, mistaking fact for fiction and fiction for fact. What was once true is now remembered as a lie. What is now taken as accurate was once just a rumor. In the 26-year aftermath of Carmen McNeal's brutal murder, her friends, her daughter, her father, her husband, and the lead police investigator have turned what they know of the evidence and hearsay over time and again in their minds--puzzling at it, pressing it for meaning, trying to make from it a story that makes sense.
Detective Roger Montgomery, Minneapolis Police Department (retired 1991)
We had a suspect. You could say I knew who the killer was, if the suspicions and hunches of a detective who'd been doing homicides for several years means anything. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence, but maybe not enough to go to court and win. Plus, there were other factors--I can't really say what all, but they did bear on how we were able to conduct the case. I had some street information that this guy was going to give me an alibi--an alibi that I could break just like that. I went up to [the company where he worked]--a big corporation with what you might call a reputation to keep up around Minneapolis and even nationally. That's where we arrested him. The idea was to take him in for questioning, catch him off guard, shake him up. Unfortunately, that was my big mistake.
And it just about killed me. I didn't have the physical evidence--or it wasn't available for some reason--and no witnesses. But I didn't need a straight-out confession either. All I needed to do was break down the lies. What happened was that [this corporation] immediately put a lawyer on him. So I never was allowed to interrogate this guy. I can't say exactly why the company hired him a lawyer, but I don't believe it was normal policy. In similar situations, both before and after this case, I'd never heard of anything like it. Maybe there was some kind of back-channel dealing, who knows? I guess we'll never know.
But I did drop the ball. If I could go back, with 20-20 hindsight now, I'd have done it all different and maybe this guy--if he did do it--would be behind bars, Carmen's murder would be solved, and there would be some peace for her family and friends. You know, sometimes there are cases where the perpetrator just gets lucky. Sure, it could've been somebody else who killed Carmen--a stranger, somebody just traveling through town. But I think this guy I suspected would've talked to me. Word I got was that he was preparing to do that. I was ready to nail him. And seemed like he was ready to get nailed.
Maybe I've made all this up over the years. You know how the mind goes--imagining what you could've done better, being the hero, making the violence make sense, all that. Every once in a while I go back in frustration. Working homicide is a miserable job. Quite frankly, I don't know why I even did it. We had just come out of the race riots, there were women dying from illegal abortions, murders for no good reason. Some of those things you could, as a cop, do something about. But even when you solve a homicide as gruesome as Carmen's was, you're not happy. It's such a rotten situation--you've got a person dead and a family that just goes on suffering. Guys on the force can go kind of nuts, frustrated, their hands tied, maybe drinking too much from all the pressure. It's not like on these TV cop shows where they go one case at a time, figuring it out slow. In 1970, just like now, it was a conveyor belt full of bodies.
But this one I brooded over--I carried that case around with me for a long time. I've been retired for five years now, but I can say it's haunted me. There may be no chance of ever quite getting your right mind back. Father in jail, mother murdered, everything about those kids' lives just fractured to pieces. I vaguely remember this guy ending up a few months later going to prison on some other charge, maybe burglary. But that doesn't make it better. Not for Carmen's family and friends. And really, not for me as a detective on the case.
Even now I say to myself, What if I'd done it this way? What if I'd handled it different? Hadn't rushed, pushed harder? What if I was more careful? I guess, for all of us, there's no fixing what happened. But still--still, I go back.
Alice Dillon, Carmen's friend
Carmen and I met at a girls' reform school in Sauk Centre. I was kind of wild at the time, but that wasn't true of Carmen. Her parents divorced when she was 10 or so, and she'd been living with her mom--with not much money in that house. Carmen told me she'd owned only one dress, and she had to wear that same dress to school every day, which mortified her. Also, her mom was kind of a religious fanatic--she made Carmen hand out these Bible tracts on the playground to the other kids. You can imagine how that felt--like a freak by age 14, ashamed in that one cotton dress of hers out on the sidewalk with those pamphlets just trying to turn invisible. So she started skipping school. The authorities got worried, called up her dad and said the family didn't have enough money and his daughter was getting in trouble. His answer was to buy her another dress. So she had two.
That's how she ended up at Sauk Centre. It was a place girls got shipped to when they acted up, or had babies, or were doing some minor crimes. A couple were in there for murder--I think one killed her father who'd been abusing her. There were some black girls, some Indian girls from the reservations, and white girls from the Cities. It could be a pretty tough place. I remember the school officials would take away any albums of black music--you know, funk stuff or soul--from the white girls when they came in. Said it was a bad influence. But Carmen wasn't like most of the other girls. She was pretty innocent. A virgin, I'm sure, and not too sophisticated.
When we got older and out of there, we settled up in the projects on the North Side, around where I grew up. Things were still real segregated in the city, but in the projects there was white and black together, lots of working families. It was maybe an easier place than, say, the suburbs for interracial couples. My kids were mixed. Carmen's kids were mixed. We were on welfare, trying to get by, trying to make a life cut off from our families. But I still remember this: It had so horrified Carmen to be without decent clothes when she was young that she swore her kids would be well-dressed. She'd go downtown to a little shop called the Velvet Coach--very elegant--and buy her daughter, Carrie, the fanciest dress, even if it meant eating macaroni and cheese the rest of the month. Sometimes when she ran out of money, Carmen would go by her dad's office at City Hall and he might leave a little something in an envelope with his secretary. Most of the time Carmen just stayed home and baby-sat all our kids. So that was the scene in 1970.
The night Carmen died, I went out and she watched my kids. When I came by to pick them up, it must have been one in the morning. She was staying up all night then--I'll get to why in a minute, but she was wide awake. I mean, she'd waxed all her floors while the kids were sleeping! She was dressed with the lights on full blast. Carmen said her son, Ernie, was sick, maybe had a temperature. Could I bring a thermometer by in the morning? I said yes, but you've got to come right out and get it quick when I honk. That's the last time I saw my friend alive.
The next morning, early, I get a call from our friend Nancy. She said, "Is Carmen over there?" I said no. She said, "Her kids are over at my house. They walked across Olson Highway looking for their mom." Well, I thought maybe Carmen ran down to the grocery store before her kids woke up. I went by her place and honked. I got out and knocked, no answer. The door was locked. Right then I had what I guess was a premonition--something was wrong.
That same night, I'd just put the kids to bed when another friend, Sharon, called--she'd been in with us at Sauk Centre and we were all very tight, like sisters. She said, "Have you seen Carmen?" Now Carmen had what're called petit mal seizures, so I thought maybe she'd had one at the store, maybe she had one on the street, maybe somebody found her on the ground with no ID. So I called the hospital. Not there. I even called the morgue. Not there.
It was after dark then. Sharon and I went over to Nancy's place. Nancy told me she'd gone over to Carmen's earlier to get clothes for the kids, that the maintenance guy opened the door for her with some master keys. I said we'd better get over there, maybe there's a note. I asked Eddie Lee, Nancy's man, if he'd come over and help us break in. But he said, "No way, no way am I going over there. You better call the police!" Well, that was the last resort around the projects--especially if you were a black man like him with a record as long as your arm. And remember, we're on welfare: We can't let the police know we've left our kids unattended or there might be trouble. We're living lives where some official could intervene and it would be very bad for us. Remember too, these guys--Eddie Lee, my kids' father, Carmen's husband--they were burglars. They shouldn't have thought twice about helping us break in, you know?
We got a flashlight, went over, and busted in the window. We went upstairs, and there was a clothes basket tipped on the floor. I can't recall if the bed was slept in. But we didn't see any real sign of a struggle. Then we went back down and Sharon opened up the basement door. And it smelled smoky.
The light bulb was out at the top of the basement stairs, so we put in a new one. The staircase was open so you could sort of see through the back of the steps. We felt our way down the banister to the landing, it was still pretty dark and I went down first about a third of the way and all I remember, I don't know why, or what really, was that I saw something in the shadows, something white, kind of crumpled down there and I just turned around and ran.
All I remember then is asking Sharon if that was Carmen down there and she said yes. Everything was slow motion. We are now operating on pure instinct. I asked if it was an accident and Sharon said no. I said please, not another word or I'll lose my mind. We called the police and they came over fast and went into the basement and, oh--the horror of it I can't describe. We drove to Sharon's and she took a sleeping pill. I just stayed up all night with the radio on and it kept saying the time every five minutes, over and over until dawn. When my brother came over to get me, he asked if I was okay and I said no, it's Carmen.
I never went home again after that. I stayed up nights, all alone, for a long time, crashing on friends' couches, not sleeping, just haunted, with this loaded gun I bought. A lot of that time is in a dream, or like a Salvador Dali film with some images so clear, so precise, and some just a blur. Almost by accident I learned the details--a word here, a phrase there, but it was like if you didn't say it out loud it didn't happen, you know?
It was a warm day when we went to see Carmen at the funeral home. Two guys in suits came out and said, "We're sorry, but the family doesn't wish to have anyone else here." What an outrage--I said, "We are her family, and we will see her." I remember she had a scarf tied around her neck, a little chiffon kind of thing. Oh God, she was so tiny dead, with that pretty scarf hiding the marks where she was strangled. She was wearing a nice dress--probably nicer than any dress she ever had. And she had gloves on too, since I think her fingers were burned off.
Now I'll tell you this: The reason Carmen was staying up those nights before she was murdered was because she saw it coming. This was not just her imagination. Her husband Mike was in jail, down at Stillwater, at the time, and Carmen had something to do with this guy she met through Nancy and Eddie Lee. But pretty quick she quit him. She told me, "There's just something about him that's not right." She didn't have a phone then, but he kept coming by, hanging around. Then one night, like a week before she died, he broke in her basement window. She woke up in bed with his hands on her throat. She told me he raped her, and suggested that he did something to her daughter too.
The next morning she walked to the highway and called the police on a pay phone. They told her since she didn't report it right away they couldn't do a thing. Remember this is the projects--we're cut off, poor, so forget any civil rights. There was no legal help you could afford. I said to Carmen, "It's a crock of shit. Girl, go down there and tell the police that your dad's an alderman." And she did. They got busy then. They phoned this guy up at [the company where he worked] and he of course said he didn't do it. And that was the end of that.
Turned out this guy had a friend in Public Housing maintenance--so I'm thinking he had access to master keys. Carmen was very frightened. She got a restraining order I think, and maybe that's what triggered his rage. I told her to come stay with me, but like a lot of women in danger she had a hard time taking help. You know, I should've insisted. I should've forced it--I have to live with the fact that I should've protected my friend better.
I was told later by a Detective Montgomery that they found this guy's work ID card in the basement, right where Carmen was tortured and strung up. He also told me that that very night, around 4 a.m., this guy called the police from a telephone call box on Olson Highway, less than a half block from Carmen's house. He reported that his wallet had been stolen at Cassius's Bar downtown earlier that night. Now, if you got robbed downtown, why wouldn't you call from there, right when it happened? Or walk down the street to the police station? What was he doing 100 yards from Carmen's house reporting his lost ID at that time of night?
God, I don't even know how we live with ourselves in the end. I always thought her death would be solved. But it never was. It's surprising how fast people just wanted to forget, just wanted the whole horror erased. There was maybe three inches in the paper about it, plus an obituary. I kept wondering if, what with the City Council elections coming up, her dad didn't pursue the case because of politics. Didn't want it to come out that his daughter was murdered in the projects. Didn't push harder for that reason, or maybe even stepped in and stopped it. The people who run this city can be a pretty cozy family sometimes, from the DA to the City Council to the newspaper on down. Maybe it was just kind of understood. Or maybe I like to think that because the other explanation is worse--that no one even gave a damn.
I remember waking up in the morning. That morning. I remember waking up and my mother wasn't there. I got out of bed and checked her room and she wasn't there. I went downstairs and she wasn't there. I waited for her, but she never came. We had a SuperValu less than a block away--you went under a fence, across the highway, and there it was. I figured maybe she went over there, but after a while she didn't come back. So I went up and got my brother, Ernie, out of his crib. I was just 6 then and he was 3--born premature, maybe just two pounds, and always small. I put him in a blanket and carried him outside. There was one of those old paper boy baskets in the yard--a yellow one with two wheels. I put Ernie in that and rolled him down the block to somebody's house. It might have been Alice's, I'm not sure. But my mom wasn't there. So I pushed my brother across Olson Highway and went to another house. And that's where we stayed all day. The lady said my mom hadn't been there either, and she took care of us. I remember spending the night and waking up the next morning and--this part is kind of a dream--being in a big field and this lady coming out and telling me that my mom was dead.
I remember Ruby, my foster mother, coming for us in a station wagon. She put all our clothes and toys in the back and we went to stay with her for a long time, over a year, until my dad came out from prison. I have a baby book that my mother kept: In this book it says my first question about life was, "Where's my mommy?" And Ruby wrote, "She's in heaven. God needed another angel."
At the funeral I remember some detectives talking to me. They asked me what I had to eat that night, what my mom had to eat. Someone lifted me up to the casket and I said, "That's not my mom. That's a doll." She was so stiff and so still. I remember going somewhere for ice cream then. And I remember being at Lakewood Cemetery when she was buried. This is the oddest thing, but I can still see me and my brother rolling down a hill. I think I wasn't laughing. It was not like playing. It was a long, green hill of grass and I was in my fancy dress and there were people all over and maybe the police and Alice and Ruby and it might have been raining and I was just rolling down, over and over, getting dizzy and sick.
She had a very soft voice. My mother's hair was blonde, almost white, and she was very thin. I think she cooked us eggs and maybe tater tots. I remember sitting in the chair and watching a soap opera with her--As The World Turns--and smelling her and her breathing against me. I remember one time telling my mom I was going to run away and she said, "Okay, if you don't like it here." She helped me pack a garbage bag with clothes and maybe some bread. I went out the door, pulling my things, and I started crying and she brought me back in. I remember going to Loring Park and riding with my mom on the paddle boats, walking around in the sun, feeding the ducks. Just like normal. Sometimes we'd take the bus to my grandmother's house, her mom's, but never to her father's. I remember learning at an early age that we weren't allowed to be around him. Then I didn't know about his being prejudiced; we were mixed kids, and he didn't approve of my mother being involved with a black man. Since I've gotten older, I've come to know him. He's told me he made a lot of mistakes in the past--I don't know, but maybe he drinks so much because of the past. Like he wants to forget. It's hard for me to be around that, because what I really want is to remember.
The thing is, I've heard so many stories, but I was just a little girl then. My grandfather has talked about the night they came and told him she was dead. He said he got up, got dressed, and went over to my grandmother's and told her. I don't know if that's true. He talks about how my mom used to come down to his office at City Council and get money from him. I don't know if that's true either. I believe in my heart that he may have gotten this case dropped somehow. Maybe he thought it would make him look bad, you know--he's a sitting alderman and his daughter's on welfare down in what he'd call the slums with all the blacks nearly starving. Is that true? Is it true that my father was brought to the funeral from prison in handcuffs and ankle chains? Or that the man who killed my mom broke in the week before and raped her? And that he did something to me too? Sometimes I get the idea of going to one of those therapists who can help recover lost memories, the kind you bury, but then I don't go. It's odd, but seems like something in me doesn't want all that weight.
When my stepfather got out of jail he came and took us. We left Ruby's and moved down south, in an Indian territory in Phillips. We moved around a lot with this remarkable man who raised up his son and a daughter who wasn't even his own. Still, I remember crying all the time. Always crying. At school, they'd tease me--you know the term "yo mama"? I'd just take it to heart and cry all day.
When I got older I went into the Army. It seemed like the right thing. I was stationed in Louisiana for a while. There were times when I got really down, just kind of blue without explanation. I'd call up to an investigator here in Minneapolis and leave messages but no one ever got back to me. I started to think this thing had taken over me and was making me crazy. I settled for the belief that one day the man who killed my mother will meet his maker and God will hold him accountable. Because I just never saw that coming--just never could believe that this man who's walking around free now would ever answer for it in this life.
It's been 26 years since my mom died, and it's like her life meant nothing to anybody. It just got dropped. Seems like if you have some money, the police are more apt to do something if you're murdered. Not just the police, I mean even your family. For many years, until us kids bought her a headstone in 1989, there wasn't even a marker on her grave. I guess her family never wanted to pay for one. The plot was just grass, all grown in over her. When I'd visit the cemetery, I had to find her grave by the woman she was buried next to. I'd find this Amanda Youngren's grave and my mom would be right next to this woman who was a stranger to me. That's how I remembered.
And I do remember this one other thing: I remember one day right before my mom died. I was watching TV while she ran down to the store. I picked up the phone and called the operator. For some reason, I just hit the zero. I told her that our refrigerator was on fire. And the operator kept calling back, calling back. I'd pick up the phone and say everything's okay and hang up. But she just kept calling back thinking we were all on fire until my mom got home.
I suppose I can talk about that time, but you won't learn much from me. See, I was so busy in those days, you know--I was on the City Council, working steady. I didn't really have the time to go by and check on the kids much. Carmen was the oldest, maybe 10 when her mother and I divorced. It's a long time ago now. A long time's passed. Yeah, I'd send them a little money now and again, got them set up in a house and so on. But I was working, first hard at the plumbing and heating business I had with my brother and another guy, then in politics. I was conservative--still am. But then it meant something like it doesn't now. I was all for pinching the penny and not doing those free hand-outs to any loafer wanting one. That's not what government's supposed to do, is it? Not in my book. It's just plain wrong and you might say makes for a wrong-headed nation.
The day it happened, well, I got a call from my ex-wife down at the office. She said Carmen's [been] killed. I was pretty shook up. Shook up for most of the day if I remember it right. I may have even missed a meeting or two.
Look here, I was a pretty good alderman. Or so I hear. I had lots of support--although the first time I got elected, you know, it was a pinch. Just made it in by a handful of votes. I guess we had a betting public then, down in the 10th Ward they got together and took a chance on me. I had no experience in politics, but I'd been in the service, Army, for a couple years and then heading up the VFW around the state. So I did know how to get folks behind me when I had an idea. And I had some good ones--those sidewalks you can roll wheelchairs up over the curb? That was my doing. Thought it was a good idea to help crippled people get around easier.
Well, sure, I kind of wondered whatever happened to the investigation. I never got much word about it. You could say I waited for it to be all sorted out, but not really--I was busy, you know. Circulating around. Meetings. Keeping the business afloat. But I did pay for the funeral. Carmen's buried right down the street from here, on the edge of Lakewood where they found her a place.
Carmen, I remember, had got mixed up in the wrong crowd. She started running around with blacks. That was too much. They say maybe Carmen was ahead of her time, getting friendly with them like that, but I just saw it as asking for trouble. I think she had two kids, mixed ones. And some girl friends--I don't know but I think the whole bunch of them were in about the same condition. Maybe she was living with her mom when she died. They found her in a basement, somewhere up in those welfare units. For all I know it could've been her husband did it. Whatever happened to those kids of hers, who knows. I met the daughter a few times, got her into the Ladies' Auxiliary one Christmas and introduced her around. Seemed like a nice enough lady. So it turned out fine from that end of things.
I blame what happened to Carmen on her mother. Maybe if she'd just laid off all that religious stuff she wouldn't have driven Carmen to her death. I've heard my ex-wife has been up in a rest home, sort of gone out of her mind and all. It's so long ago I figure it might be best forgotten. I got out of politics, worked a while more and then retired. They got young ones on the council now, with ideas from outer space. Values, well, I'd say just about shot, city's gone to the dogs, crime all over, hell, I haven't been outside for days. I just hobble around here with my cane trying to make it to the bathroom in time.
But you know what? The reason I left that family was like this. One night, my wife was just going on and on with all her Bible talk and the kids beside her there. Oh, it got to me. That night I just about lost it. I got up out of my chair and went over to where she was sitting, carrying on like she did, making me just sick with all that noise, and I put my hands around her neck and I just starting squeezing trying to make her shut up. I just leaned over into her face and she got real quiet. Then something pulled me back and I let go. I saw my prints on her throat there and I'd come near strangling her. That's when I thought if I don't get out of here and fast, I'm going to end up killing this woman. See, that's how it happens--just one day out of the blue. Now this isn't saying I approve of such things, but I can see how they happen, even to the best of us.
The day we met was in 1964--I remember it clear. I'd just got out of doing some short time in St. Cloud and I was back at my folks' place down on the South Side. That day I was going up to the bus stop and Carmen happened to be walking by. I said, "Hey, what's going on? Where're you going? What's your name?" She told me her name, this and that, and we walked on together, friendly, real easy like. Well, I went by her place that night, about a block from where I was staying. You might call it a coincidence--some kind of fate even, our lines crossing like that, right time, right place.
Carmen already had Carrie then, who was maybe six months old. I saw this cute little baby and I just held her all that first night. Soon after, we just fell in with each other--got a place, then another, moving around town a lot and things were good. It's right that being a black-white couple was what you might call unusual then, but the trouble was never between us. Pretty soon she got pregnant with our son, Ernie. And shortly after that I got in some more trouble and that's when I went up to Stillwater. Carmen used to visit me regular. I got out after about 10 months and we were back together. That's when we got married down to City Hall. And then, man, I got violated and went back down.
While I was locked up that last time, Carmen would take the bus over to see me. We'd sit there, her just an ordinary, plain girl who loved her kids and me, the husband, coming out from behind bars for a visit. We were always making plans for when I got out. You know--what we were gonna do, how I was gonna straighten my act up and start taking care of business. She was up in the projects, around friends and all, but I was feeling like it was no way to live and even dangerous. She never hardly went out. She stayed home with the babies, always cleaning the house. But I thought it was not too safe there alone, inside or out. Or maybe I thought that later, after she was gone.
Well, my mind goes crazy when that day comes up. It happened like this: That afternoon I'm in my cell, just killing time, and this runner comes by with a note. Says the captain and the chaplain want to see me. First I think something bad's come to my mom or dad. So I go down to customs. Door's open and I go in. Captain says have a seat. Says I got some bad news for you. I guess the police department notified the prison once they found out who she was and that her husband's up in Stillwater. Says they found your wife dead this morning. Says that's all we know. When there's more details we'll be in touch.
I go back to my cell and just lay down. Just lay down there for hours not knowing any facts, just that somebody told somebody who told me Carmen's dead and maybe murdered. So it's the grapevine, like a rumor, and my head spins out in that cage with no evidence, just the official word and then all that silence. Pretty soon some friends are coming by saying, "Hey, man, we heard on the radio that your wife's dead."
Morning of the service they suit me up nice, load me in with the cuffs on, and we drive over to the Albin Chapel there on Nicollet. When I get to the funeral, nobody's there. Seems for some reason her family just cleared the place out. Maybe giving the husband some time alone with his wife. They had their time, and now it's mine. Thing is, Carmen's brother and sister used to be regular at our place, coming by all the time, eating, playing with the kids--in tight, you might say. But at the service and afterwards they wanted nothing to do with the kids or me, like I was the one who killed her! Makes no kind of sense. Well, she looked tinier than ever in that box. I just saw her maybe two weeks before with those pretty eyes. I reach down there in the casket to kiss her goodbye and she looks so good with this kind of lacy dress on my mom bought her.
I go back to Stillwater for another year then. Alice and Sharon come down and fill me all in with the facts. Alice says the name of the man who did it. So I turn that name around in my mind. It's a strange thing, like he's loose in my head, and it's a bitter kind of thought. I'm locked up and he's just choked and burned up Carmen and is out there free. I'm thinking when I get out I'm gonna get him. I'm gonna find that man and have justice. All those months, I just can't figure it: maybe the guy broke in. Maybe he knocked in the middle of the night and Carmen was scared the kids'd wake up so she let him in. She must've told him to get out. Leave her alone. He must've got mad and grabbed her. He must've choked her there, in the bedroom, maybe in the kitchen, and dragged her to the basement. He must've tried to cover it up by setting her on fire. Listen, he could've burned the whole place down and killed the kids with her. I got all this rage. Things going on in my brain. Like it would never have happened if I'd have been home with her taking care.
The day I got out I went right down to the courthouse and asked for the file. When I saw the pictures my stomach just turned. See, I had her all pretty in my head. Those photographs blocked that right out. I got crazy inside, and my friend with me says, "Put it down, forget this and go get your kids. Carmen would want it. Go take care of your kids." Good thing too, 'cause it seems like I just turned into a different person then. All at once, see, I felt like I had a mission--something I had to do for my kids. Seemed like it just straightened me out. I had no desire to do any more burglaries, any stuff I'd been fooling with before, and I never had any trouble with the law after that. I went by the foster home and I got my kids. I moved us all in to my mother's old house down in Phillips. I cooked all the time, I cleaned, I dropped them off and picked them up from school--man, it's weird but I could never seem to let those children out of my sight for a minute after that. Of course I was their father, but it's like I was their mother then too. You could say I did for Carmen what she couldn't. Some nights it even felt like I was Carmen, like Carmen was in me, like she was me. Like I let go my life and lived hers.
Then there was this: Several years ago, I has a small apartment down in Richfield. One night, late, I drove way down Lyndale Avenue to this Holiday station. I was in there getting a few groceries, just stocking up, you know. So I'm there and I turn around and there he was--this man who strangled my wife. I tell you, I damn near shit. I started shaking, and I even went down a couple aisles spying to make sure. I dropped all my groceries and ran out of there, I was so shook up. I just sat in my car a while with the motor going, hoping he'd come out. I didn't know if I was gonna say anything or what--I must've sat there a half hour just waiting for a chance. But then, nothing. I drove home and I was up all night just thinking with it all coming back. The chaplain talking. Her in the box. Those photographs. The kids. This guy's name. Oh man, all those memories just lit up my head.
But then, there's no going back. There's no fixing things so death don't happen. It just happens, when it wants. I'm 58 now. This life, it's less crazy now. I'm settled down and settled in. I hear about all the killings now, which makes it seem like no hope for solving Carmen's case after all this time--there's too many fresh victims. Thing is, I heard about killings when I was coming up as a kid, in the projects there, but 1970 was nothing like now. Murdering was rare then. So I can't figure why more didn't get done on Carmen. Except she was a poor woman, living with black people, raising mixed kids, which turns into whatever prayer you might've had is gone. Plus she was in the projects--which I hear are getting torn down any day now. Seems kind of funny, I guess--since Carmen just got torn down and swept away too.
I still get over to the cemetery every year. I never miss that day at the beginning of September, just when the leaves start to go. I got to say one thing, though, which is Carmen's screaming in her grave today. That's what I hear.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.