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Forgiving the Murderer

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Forgiving the Murderer

By Paul Solotaroff

Reprinted with permission from Rolling Stone, June 24, 2004
Rolling Stone LLC 2004
All Rights Reserved. Broadcast by Permission

Rev. Walt Everett Photo
Rev. Walt Everett

Walt Everett is the person some people conjure when they hear the phrase "man of God." Serene and heartful, without an ounce of bombast or secular self-promotion, he puts in seventy-hour weeks attending to the sick and elderly as the pastor of a working-poor congregation of the United Methodist Church in Hartford, Connecticut. At an age (sixty-nine) when many of his fellow clergy are lining up putts in Scottsdale, Arizona, he is awake at dawn for morning prayers and out of the house by eight, off on a ceaseless whirl of calls to shut-ins and hospitals.

In a shoestring parish, it's the reverend who often makes pickups of canned goods for the church's food pantry or piles used clothing into the trunk of his Pontiac for sale at charity drives. In what the less active would term "spare time," Everett travels to speak for social justice and is highly sought for his nuanced call to abolish executions. Such is his genial enactment of faith that even the most inveterate skeptic might consider, after an hour in his company, the existence of a higher calling, if not a higher power.

But on July 26th, 1987, while a pastor downstate, something so enraged this man of peace that he could barely serve his flock. For more than a year after the unprovoked murder of his oldest son, Scott, by a stranger, Everett spent his days inflamed, stunned into livid silence. He withdrew from his wife of thirty years and went through the motions with his other children, a college-age son and daughter. During a sermon or a church supper, he would burst into tears, prompting parishioners to shift in their seats and grouse about "getting over it." "I was just lost and saw no way out of the grief and powerlessness I felt," he says. "I couldn't believe that one individual could do so much harm to my family, and though I didn't stoop to violent thoughts about him, I wanted him punished for a long, long time."

Almost a year to the day after his son was killed, Everett attended the sentencing date of the man who had pulled the trigger. It was the first time the pastor had laid eyes on Mike Carlucci, a tattooed biker and lifelong bully who showed up four hours late to the hearing, spending his last morning of bail-bought freedom smoking crack in his father's basement. Though Carlucci was arrested within minutes of the murder, still covered with the dead boy's blood, he somehow struck a sweetheart deal and would have to serve only five years. Carlucci wasn't even made to stand in court and account for what he'd done. It wasn't until the reverend faced him down, describing, in a quietly chilling impact statement, the suffering that the crime inflicted on his loved ones, that the murderer rose, of his own accord, and apologized for his act. He didn't say much beyond "I'm sorry," and even that was dismissed, in summary fashion, by Everett's friends in court. But the reverend heard something ring authentic in Carlucci's gruff remorse. He detected, or thought he did, the stir of penance in a soul that had long since scabbed over.

Spare though it was, Carlucci's apology had a profound effect on Everett. His rage and horror leveled off, and for the first time in months his mind cleared. He resolved to write Carlucci a letter, and he sat down to settle matters with the killer. For a full couple of pages, he cited, again, the toll the crime exacted: his marriage in shambles, his children shattered. But having said all that, and weeping as he did so, he closed with the words he'd been weighing for days: "I forgive you, Mike."

Everett Family Photo
The Everett children in 1969 (L-R) Scott, age six; Wayne, age two; and Laura, age seven months. Photo: Walt Everett

Everett mailed the letter and went about his life, shoring up, by force of will, the fledgling peace he'd gained. Three weeks later, Carlucci replied, expressing, in crude diction, his deep regret and his gratitude for Everett's grace. A correspondence started and visits followed; the unlikeliest of friendships bloomed. In February 1991, Everett went before a parole board to push for Carlucci's freedom. That June, on the strength of the pastor's backing, Carlucci was awarded early release after just thirty-five months in jail. This development shocked even those closest to Everett. But almost four years later came the strangest twist of all: With TV cameras whirring in the narrow vestry of a Methodist church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Everett presided over the wedding of Mike and Sandie Carlucci.


Since its spike during the early Nineties, when the homicide rate threatened to break records each year, the number of people slain annually in America has receded to between 15,000 and 16,000. That's a greater than thirty percent drop in the last ten years, though far, still, from an occasion for glee; we remain the most murderous of the developed nations by a factor of three. Nor is the dip in the casualty count of much comfort to the relatives of those victims. Each year, upward of 15,000 families are shattered by a savage act, dealt a blow so final and thoroughgoing that life for all involved is forever changed. These are the other sufferers of murder: the children, siblings, parents and spouses who've been forced, through no fault or act of their own, to bear up under a brutal load, grappling with the kind of rage and grief that most of us encounter only in Greek tragedy.

"There are many, many survivors who identify themselves as victims for years," says Linda White, an authority on grief and an adjunct professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. "They get obsessed with the killer's trial, assuming he's caught, and push the DA for a capital charge, then find it doesn't bring them much peace. Or they join a support group with other survivors but remain bitter at the judge or the police, who a lot of them feel let down by. And instead of healing, they get stuck in the rage and never work through to the sadness."

White has compelling credentials on the subject. With a master's in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in education, she teaches a popular course on death and dying to upperclassmen at Sam Houston State and has taught the class to inmates at the Huntsville Correctional Facility. (Huntsville, it bears noting, is justly notorious as the world's most prolific death house, with 268 executions in the past ten years, or more than the total killed by forty states combined.) More pointedly, White is a mother whose daughter was murdered, then dumped in a field south of Houston. In 1986, Cathy O'Daniel, 26, gave a ride to two teens whose stolen car had stalled. The boys, fifteen at the time, produced a gun and proceeded, during the course of the next few hours, to rape and kill her, then burn her face, postmortem. When Cathy's remains turned up after five days, Linda, her husband and their two adult sons were "just crushed to bits" by sorrow.

"It was probably worst on the guys, especially my sons, who, being men, felt responsible for their sister," says White. "But for me, once the shock and denial wore off, I was bound and determined to grieve for Cathy and not be dragged down by rage. I cried and cried for about ten months straight, and then decided to go back to college and become a counselor." White had adopted Cathy's daughter, Ami. "It was strange for sure, being a forty-seven-year-old grandma in class with all these kiddies, but I had my mind set on honoring Cathy and was darned if I was going to let my vanity trip me up."

Everett Family Photo
Walt and his sons, Wayne (left), and Scott (right), celebrating Christmas in 1985. Photo: Walt Everett

In her passage from sorrowing parent to an expert on sorrow, White was changed in ways she couldn't foresee. Initially in favor of capital punishment -- she was videotaped at a Parents of Murdered Children meeting saying she wished the minimum age could be lowered for execution so that the boys who killed her daughter might be put to death -- she came to the view that it was unjust and counterproductive, an incendiary act of state violence. She also made her peace, in extraordinary fashion, with one of the two boys who did the crime. Three years ago, a crew from Court TV documented her six-hour, face-to-face sit-down with a penitent Gary Brown, then thirty. It made for one of the most white-knuckled hours of television aired in recent memory, as killer and survivor sat feet apart, bridging the divide. "I got to hear, through Gary, Cathy's final words, forgiving him and the other boy for what they'd done to her," she says. "I also learned that he was deeply sorry, and that he'd been through hell on earth as a boy, beaten and sexually abused so badly that he'd tried suicide by the age of eight."

In her travels in and around the survivors' circuit, White got connected to a group called MVFR (Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation). Founded in 1976 by Marie Deans, a South Carolina woman and Amnesty International member whose mother-in-law was murdered by an escaped convict, it had grown from a sparse collection of names to a broad coalition of survivors and supporters brought together to oppose the death penalty. With more than 5,000 vocal, activist members and a national headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it had become a key player in the death-penalty abolition movement as well as a force for the dignity of victims' rights. White, who had bravely refashioned herself by renouncing the claims of rage, was drawn to MVFR's central tenet, which is that murder isn't solved by more death. She was further moved by the group's other theme: that survivors must come to terms with the killing, if not with the killer himself.

"Make no mistake: We're not soft on crime, and we're certainly not soft on murderers," says Kate Lowenstein, MVFR's thirty-three-year-old national organizer and a lawyer with a master's in social work, sitting in her office in Cambridge. "But we know firsthand that you can't proceed from feelings on something as crucial as taking a life. There are thousands and thousands of murders a year in America, and if we operated on our outrage, all those killers would be killed. But only two percent of those convicted actually face the death penalty, and our point is, why them? Why the black teenager who killed a white girl in Texas but not the couple who locked seventeen immigrants in a truck and left them there to die?" Lowenstein argues that the most heinous crimes are aptly punished by a life sentence -- and notes that it costs millions more to put a man to death than imprison him through old age, money that might be better spent on therapy for survivors.

There are statistics that prove the death penalty's uselessness as a deterrent to violent crime (though Southern states have performed more than eighty percent of the executions since 1976, the murder rate in that region is twenty percent higher than the national average and more than fifty percent greater than in Northeastern states, which account for one percent of executions). There are also studies that show a brutalizing effect on communities after an execution (reports in Arizona, Oklahoma and elsewhere suggest that the local murder rate actually increases when a prisoner is put to death), as well as the shocking number of men proved innocent while sitting on death row (twenty-one alone since 2001).

But somehow, none of the numbers have the power of Lowenstein's own story. She is the youngest child of the late Allard Lowenstein, an iconic and much-beloved New York congressman who was shot five times, at point-blank range, by a psychotic ex-student of his in 1980. The slaying of her father -- she was nine at the time -- left Lowenstein "flooded with pain and heartbreak," unable to begin unpacking her grief till she was in her late twenties. By then she was in Washington, D.C., working with girls in the juvenile-justice system, when a horrific event put her in touch with MVFR.

"A ten-year-old boy was raped and killed by two pedophiles in a suburb of Boston, and it raised a huge rallying cry for the reinstatement of the death penalty in Massachusetts," she says. "What helped defeat it -- by one vote -- was the testimony of survivors, going as a group before the legislature and urging it not to kill in their name. I met some of those people and for the first time started to sort out my feelings about the politics of murder. There's a whole crowd out there -- certain prosecutors and demagogues -- that presumes to speak for the survivors in murder cases. They trot us out as the almighty victim and tout the death penalty as our path to 'closure.' But they can't even begin to know what heals us. No one can, till they've been in our shoes and had their soul split open."

Some advocates say that survivors largely fall into two types. There are people who present themselves as lifelong victims and carry the murder as "a badge of honor," nursing their rage and grievance. And then there are those who are "distilled" by loss, forced by the heat and pressure it wields to become richer, deeper versions of who they were. "A broken heart is an avenue, a crack for life to come in through," Lowenstein says. "If you're the kind of person who carries a grudge, then the murder just proves your point. But if you're open at all to the world out there, then the killing becomes a conduit, a thing that makes you stronger and more engaged."

No one is supposed to die at the age of twenty-four for the crime of misplacing his house keys. Nor is anyone supposed to spend his last moments on earth bleeding out in a third-floor stairwell, fighting to staunch a hole in his neck. But if anyone least deserved that end, it would be a young man like Scott Everett. Having met more hardship in his first two years than most people do in fifty, he was surely entitled to some dispensation from any of life's further cruelties. But in a country where firearms outnumber people and can be bought and sold as freely as gas grills at Wal-Mart, no one is beyond the reach of stray violence or the whims of a well-armed crackhead.

Everett was born in 1963 on a grim reservation in South Dakota. His mother, a full Sioux who drank while pregnant, was so unfit to render care that the state removed Scott before he was six months old. (His birth father, an ailing Caucasian man, died shortly after Scott's arrival.) Sent first to live with an aging uncle, Scott was put up for adoption around the time of his first birthday and packed off to a family in Alaska. But weeks before the process was final, the couple returned him to his uncle, citing jealousy on the part of their other children. It was his fourth placement in fifteen months.

Walt Everett, then a thirty-year-old married pastor posted to a church in Staten Island, New York, got a call from his twin brother, Arthur, in South Dakota. Arthur, a pastor serving American Indians, told him about a toddler who'd been bounced around and was badly in need of a good home. Five days later, Walt and his first wife, Isabel, touched down in an airport north of Pierre. He remembers meeting a boy with huge black eyes and a sly, almost knowing grin. That night, after dinner, they played hide-and-seek, and Scott chirped while his new father bathed him. But each time Walt made a move for the door, the small boy gave him a stricken look, clutching at his arm or leg.

"Scott was terrified I'd leave him, even to go to another room," says Walt, sitting in the day room of his church. "He'd been neglected for so long that he would start to cry if he saw us with other people, thinking we were going to hand him off and be on about our way. He got over it after a while - at least the worst of the fear - but you could tell it had left a deep mark."

In the warmth and plenitude of, first, his New York home, then the manse the family moved to in Easton, Connecticut, where Everett transferred in 1977, Scott settled in and flourished. He grew to be a tall kid who ate like a horse and had a passion for Little League ball, able to throw strikes with either arm and to hit for average and power. But in school, a global learning disorder made him tense, then miserable, in class. Unable to focus or follow instruction, he fell badly behind while still in grade school, and by high school he had begun to ditch class. Heartsick, his parents sought help, taking him initially to a private counselor, then for tutoring after school. But this was the Seventies, a decade before Ritalin or the discovery of fetal alcohol syndrome. At sixteen, Scott was drinking heavily - the other bequest from his toxic mother -- and cutting out with his stoner friends to get high at someone's house.

When he dropped out of high school in his junior year, it prompted several loud exchanges with Walt, who feared he was losing his son. But Scott got a job at a nursing home, and a couple of years later he caught on with a firm that built pools in high-end Westport. He joined AA, met a lovely girl and at twenty-two finally hit his stride, finding an apartment and earning a promotion to crew foreman. "He was deeply proud of getting sober and was happier than he'd been in a long time," says Walt. "He had bought an old boat that he parked in our drive and dropped by to work on at nights. He'd come in and sit and chat with us for a while -- in fact, the last time I saw him, he was fixing that boat when a friend showed up to meet him."

Ten miles west of Easton, meanwhile, in an apartment in Bridgeport, Mike Carlucci was fixing his head. He'd been up, as best he recalls now, four nights straight, shooting coke and pounding Percodans by the dozen. His arms were a spiderwork of needle spikes, he saw people in his closet who weren't there and would run to the roof in his stocking feet to chase phantoms with a .38. A former bear of a man at five feet eleven and 265 pounds, he had drugged his way down to 150 and would only leave the house to resupply. Three or four times a day, friends would stop by to cop from him, then leave just as quickly as they'd come. No one wanted to get high with Carlucci, who was, by his own lights, "a miserable son of a bitch."

He was twenty-seven then and, though a skilled mechanic, had never worked a day in his life. Since twelve, he had plied at his chosen vocation, which was selling dope and punching people senseless. Abandoned by his mother soon after his birth and raised by a father who worked two jobs -- "He was around enough to give me a beating," Carlucci says -- he was the bully of his block in hard-knock Stratford by the time he hit sixth grade. Such tending as he got came from his father's mother, who died when Mike was ten. After that, he pretty much did as he liked, and what he seemed to like best was fighting. He pushed his school principal down a flight of stairs, shoved a kid's head into a crap-filled toilet and soon earned a sizable rep with the cops, who arrested him countless times. Booze was an early accelerant for him -- he started getting drunk at the age of twelve - then pot, which in turn led him to coke. To the relief of school officials, he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade to deal drugs out of his father's house, where he also stashed his guns. When police raided the place after one of his epic brawls, they found a stack of crack rocks, a drawer full of cash and a "whole bunch" of firearms under the bed, including the M-1 machine gun with which, for drunken fun, he'd shoot out Bridgeport's streetlights.

That night, in the summer of 1987, after knocking back rounds of straight tequila with a cousin who'd come to visit, Carlucci heard a scream across the way. Grabbing a gun, he peeked out the door and heard the woman who lived next to him cry for help. She was saying she'd been attacked and was pointing down the hall to the security door that led to the stairs. Someone on the landing was banging the door with his fists, yelling very loudly to be let in. Carlucci opened it and aimed his pistol at a tall, thin kid he didn't know. Though Carlucci and Scott Everett were neighbors in the building -- and though Everett was pounding because he'd locked himself out after returning to find his own place burgled -- Carlucci calmly fired away, then walked back down the hall to await the cops.

I had the gun to his head and said to myself, 'If I pull this trigger, he's going to die and I'm going to jail for the rest of my life' -- and it didn't even matter to me. My life was so bad then, I didn't care, so I pulled it and stepped over him and went in the house."

Carlucci, 44, pauses a moment to saw at his twenty-ounce steak. He is sitting across the table from Walter Everett in a half-empty chophouse in Berlin, Connecticut, discussing the act that joined their lives together. A huge, jowly man who's now a divorced father of one and the manager of a trucking firm, he chews his food with deliberate care, grunting as he spears the next bite. "When the cops came in, I had his guts all over me, but they wouldn't let me go wash up. They put a shirt around my shoulders and took me in, but I kept nodding out while they asked me questions. Next morning, they told me they had good news and bad. The bad news was Scott was dead and I was being charged with first-degree manslaughter. The good news was my bond was only $50,000, so I called my daughter's godfather to put up his cabin."

Everett says nothing, studying his poached salmon. Through most of three courses, he has eaten in silence, giving Carlucci the floor. Now and again, he put in a phrase as Carlucci recounted the jailhouse conversion that Everett's letter, forgiving him, inspired. He talked about getting on his knees that night to ask for God's forgiveness, and being answered, in a loud and cryptic phrase, by a voice from out of the dark. He further described, with manifest pride, his hard-fought triumph over drugs and alcohol, and his path to literacy and spiritual attainment through a Bible course in prison. But at Carlucci's matter-of-fact mention of the murder itself, Everett's neck colors and his jaw line stiffens; I all but hear the blood jump in his ears.

"So I'm up in this cabin in Indian Wells awaiting trial and shooting so much coke I almost died a bunch of times," Carlucci goes on. "I'd be begging God, 'Please don't let me die, I'll never do this again' -- then forty minutes later, I'm feeling better, I stick another needle in my arm. It's like I always tell people: 'I didn't get arrested, I got rescued. God wasn't done with me yet.' " He stops here to carve himself a hunk of sweet potato pie. Everett has gone as pink as his entree.

"And during that time," I ask, "were you thinking about the damage you had done to this man and his family?"

Carlucci lowers his fork and sits up tall, fastening me with a glare. "Well, not just his family -- my family, too," he says. "My family was just as important as his. I needed to make amends with them, too."

"How did you go about doing that?" I ask.

Carlucci turns to Everett, who meets his stare with a steady, neutral gaze. This further serves to pique Carlucci's quick-start ire, which looms, suddenly, in the air between us.

"I feel that every time I do these interviews, I'm [making amends]," he says with a grunt. "I don't like talking about it, and for you to get that personal and not even know me, I should tell you to fucking take a hike. I don't owe you nothing -- I owe it to myself and my recovery."

"And to Walter?"

"Well, of course," he snaps. "This is the man who taught me how to be human, gave me the opportunity to get my life back. What he did was unconditional love."

I try asking it another way. "Did being forgiven open you up to what you'd done that night?"

Again, Carlucci bristles at the allusion to murder. During the dozens of appearances he has made with Everett (they speak several times a year in schools and churches), he takes pains to stress that he's not a killer but rather a man who once, long ago, killed. "Asking God to forgive me opened me up," he says. "I'm a very spiritual person and know God saved me for a reason. God put Walter in my life, and maybe someday I'll find out why."

Having tried now, and failed, a half-dozen times to elicit rue from Carlucci, I repair to higher ground. "If someone came along and killed your daughter, do you think you'd be able to forgive him?"

He allows himself a jaded nod, having seen the question march up Main Street. "I'd like to think I'd have the courage to subside that anger, but to be honest with you, I don't know. I don't understand how Walt was able to, and I was suspicious in the beginning. But he kept showing up as a genuine person, and he's been there every minute, steady and constant. And, meanwhile, I killed his son, but yet he saved my life -- how many people would do that?"

It is one thing, after being horribly wronged, to forswear vengeance against the offender and sue, instead, for peace. We have all been harmed, in greater and lesser measure, by the transgressive act of another and know how wasteful rage can be in its militant call to arms. But it is another thing entirely to bridge the gap and cultivate the person who did us harm, to insist upon his full humanity as a creature of moral worth. And it is yet a third thing when the recipient of that gesture doesn't seem too terribly sorry or in any great rush to bow and scrape.

"What I'd say," says Everett, in defense of Carlucci, "is that we all do penance our own way. Mike's is giving public accounts [of his crime], and I know it pains him to do so. It takes him back to a stage in his life that he doesn't want to remember -- yet he's said he'll go anywhere, at any time, to keep someone from going down that path."

We are talking over lunch at a regrettable Greek diner not far from Everett's church in West Hartford. In his spare, even cadence, the pastor has spent much of the hour explaining that forgiveness is an act of will, not an epiphanic favor from on high. It is sourced in the victim's wish to heal and has little or nothing to do with his faith in God or his political orientation. Indeed, in some cases, it even omits the offender, who either spurns the survivor's offer or who was never brought to justice in the first place.

"If I do something to harm you and say I'm sorry, but you say, 'Sorry, that doesn't cut it,' then I begin to heal and you're stuck," says Everett. "By the same token, if you say I forgive you and I say, 'I don't need it,' then I'm the one who's stuck and you can heal. But if both things happen, then you can have a reconciliation: the coming together of two people after a terrible event."

Though he is speaking, in broad terms, about rapprochement, not just about the link between murderer and survivor, what comes to mind chiefly is his bond with Carlucci. They have what Everett calls a "deep-going friendship," though they see each other mainly now at speaking gigs and the occasional lunch or dinner. Asked what the basis of that friendship is and which of them has more at stake in it, Everett waves the question off, saying that he and Carlucci saved each other's lives. "I've done some things for Mike, as I'm sure he'd tell you, but what I did was in the spirit of my own healing. As I told you before, I was very badly lost once, and it was only through his penance that I healed."

He backs up a moment, stipulating that these are his views, not ones I should ascribe to MVFR. Many of its members want no part of the killer or have found the killer hostile to their plea. Everett joined the organization, in 1998, because of its respect for "human life, even the life of someone who has killed." It gave his "grief and struggle" a purpose, he says - the elimination of the death penalty in his lifetime. Other groups play their part in that cause: the defense attorneys who focus on trial errors; the church groups arguing the sanctity of life. But alone among its comrades, MVFR has the bona fides to speak out for survivors, saying that their burden is freighted, not eased, by the state's enactment of vengeance.

"And where," I ask, "does Mike fit in there?"

Everett beams like a Christian with four aces. "I was speaking at a local high school recently and listing some of the reasons I oppose the death penalty. Someone said, 'Well, that's fine and good, but what if it happened to someone in your family?' I said, 'I'm glad you asked that question. Let me tell you my story.' "

Carlucci joins Everett on a lot of school visits, and it's easy to imagine the impression Mike makes on a bunch of jaded kids. There is a power that murderers wield over the imaginations of others that isn't strictly measurable in words. Linda White, the housewife turned professor in Texas, talked about the "negative reach" of killers, their ability, for instance, to haunt survivors' dreams. Kate Lowenstein, the daughter of the New York congressman, described to me the terror in which she'd lived as a child, though the man who had shot her father was locked away. What I'd heard, in each of their vivid stories, was an effort to take back power from death and vest it where it belonged, with the living. Determined to turn suffering to account -- to wrest from it something of lasting value and make it available to others -- Everett, White and Lowenstein had somehow rebuilt themselves in the process and were now stronger, truer versions of who they'd been. For most people, murder is the end of the story; for these three, it was just the beginning.

Reprinted with permission from Rolling Stone, June 24, 2004
Rolling Stone LLC 2004 - All Rights Reserved. Broadcast by Permission

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