Transcript

442:

Thugs
Transcript

Originally aired 07.29.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/442

Prologue.

Ira Glass

The town of Florencia de Benito Juarez was a typical little mountain town in Mexico, just 4,000 people. Quiet, until last Fall. Then a drug gang called the Zetas, affiliated with one of the big drug cartels, rolled into town. And people were pretty scared. The Zetas would stop people in the road and take their trucks. They walked the streets freely. The police were defenseless, or maybe they were just on the take, in the pockets of the gang.

I talked to a reporter who lives in the region, who asked as a precaution not to be named on the radio. The drug gangs are that powerful in the area. He's been talking to people in Florencia about this since the beginning, and he told me what happened. He said that in May, after months where people were terrified of these thugs, who'd more or less taken over, the Zetas went away for a few days. The reporter said this wasn't strange behavior for a Mexican drug gang. Everybody knew that they'd be back soon enough.

But while the Zetas were away, something really strange did happen. Another gang showed up, the Chapos, named, or nicknamed presumably, for Chapo Guzman, who runs one of the other big Mexican drug cartels.

Florencia Reporter

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

For a while they thought they were from the same group. But the next day, the group of people went to go visit each of the different business establishments. They told them that they were from the Gulf Cartel, and that they were coming to liberate the town, so that they can live with peace and tranquility.

Ira Glass

In fact, the leader this new group, the Chapos, told store owners that if any gang member did something as petty as taking food from a store without paying, please come let him know. It would not be tolerated.

Florencia Woman

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

"They were here to take out the garbage, meaning the Zetas," a woman from Florencia told this reporter. "They said they were good people. They weren't going to cause anybody in town any harm."

Florencia Woman

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

For the people of Florencia, they were protectors. The police fled town, as did the Mayor. And things were peaceful, with the Chapos in charge, for just a few days. And then, the Zetas returned. This was May 20 of this year, a Friday morning. Everybody expected and feared a big battle between the two.

Florencia Reporter

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

What occurred then was that the Chapos warned the population that this was going to occur. And so the people stayed indoors, in their houses.

Ira Glass

The fight started in town, and then continued in the mountains for a full day. And when it was over, authorities said that about a dozen were dead. The people in Florencia said it was a lot more, many dozens. The Chapos, the supposed protectors of Florencia, won the day. And as with anything heroic or sensational that happens in Mexico these days, of course, there are now corridos, folk ballads, about the battle. [SINGING] "Only 10 fallen men, reported the government, but I'm not stupid. I know what I'm saying. More than 60 idiots were left on the ground."

After that fight, people in town felt pretty safe.

Florencia Woman

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

"The truth is, people feel protected," this woman's saying. "When the gang isn't around, that's when people are fearful." This reporter has seen a lot of what drug gangs do in small towns in Mexico, and he says he has never heard of this, a gang coming to town and people feeling safer.

Florencia Reporter

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

It's surprising.

Ira Glass

Why is this one gang being so nice to this town?

Florencia Reporter

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

In truth, I don't really know what is occurring. I really don't know why. I know that they're fighting over territories.

Ira Glass

It's interesting to think that they would decide it would help them hold territory if they were simply nicer.

Florencia Reporter

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

It's a good strategy, no?

Ira Glass

The strategy seems to be winning people over. On Father's Day, just a few weeks after the shoot-out, the Chapos hung a banner in town that read, "Happy Father's Day. We know that the family is the most important thing. CDG." CDG stands for Cartel de Gulfo, the Gulf Cartel.

Florencia Woman

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

"I wasn't there, but my family told me about it," she's saying. "They told me that somebody went from street to street, handing out bottles of tequila to all the fathers, and wishing Happy Father's Day from the cartel, the Gulf Cartel."

Florencia Woman

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

The reporter says to her, "So they're the promoters of the family?" And she says, "Yes." And then he jokes, "At this rate, they'll be dating the local girls soon." "That's already happening," she says.

Florencia Woman

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

"These aren't older guys," she says. "They're boys, at the most 20, 22 years old. Young guys at the age where a woman wants to fall in love. The girls, they see a cute guy in a truck, and their eyes meet."

Florencia Woman

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

It's not all kittens and flowers, though. The Chapos have checkpoints at two entrances to the town, and keep a close eye on who can enter and exit. They issue orders. Like at the end of the school year, when people usually throw big parties, they told them not to, and everybody obeyed.

And just when the people of Florencia were feeling like things were fine, they were safe, this week, the mayor of the town, who apparently started cooperating with the Chapos, and the treasurer of the local ranchers association, both turned up dead, their bodies blindfolded and bound hand and foot, with a note, presumably from the Zetas, saying this will happen to everyone who supports and gives information to the Chapos.

But this reporter says that despite all that, as best as he can tell, people in town don't want the police and the traditional authorities to come back and run the place. They prefer the Chapos. The gangs are stronger than the authorities. They're better armed, better organized. And unlike the Mexican army, who sometimes breeze into town in a show of force for a couple days, the Chapos care enough to stick around.

Florencia Reporter

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

There's so many towns, so many places. So then a town that's not on an important highway, that's in the mountains, kind of lost, there. Unfortunately, that's of little importance to many people.

Ira Glass

So for peace, and peace of mind, Florencia has the cartel. Thugs keeping order. And they keep out the Zetas better than the authorities ever did. It's a very romantic idea, that thugs aren't just killers, that they can be protectors, good guys. Lots of great movie characters are based on this very idea.

Today on our show we have stories of people who look like thugs. They're accused of being thugs. Some of them act like thugs. But are they thugs? From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our show in two acts today. The first takes place in a city that, you could argue, for decades has been plagued by thugs. The second is about a woman who's stuck asking this very question I'm raising right here, is this guy a thug or not, about somebody who she's close to. Stay with us.

Act One. Thug Me? No. Thug You.

Ira Glass

Act One. Thug me? No, Thug you.

Thug is an imprecise word, used to describe so many kinds of people. And it's subjective. One man's thug is another man's friendly neighborhood drug cartel. And the imprecision of the subjectivity of the word has been very apparent recently, during a massive world-changing drama, the revolution in Egypt that ousted president Hosni Mubarak, and during the months since then. Nancy Updike explains.

Nancy Updike

The word thug has exploded in Egypt since the revolution. Street violence and crime are up. Muggings and break-ins and car theft. Who's to blame? Thugs. Churches have been attacked and burned, and deadly battles followed. Not just Christians versus Salafi Muslims. Also thugs, according to witnesses. Convicts have escaped in several jail and prison breaks, freeing up thugs. Rumors are constantly circulating that elements of the former regime are paying thugs to create mayhem and unravel the revolution. Thugs-- the word in Arabic is bultigiya-- can be anywhere. They are capable of anything, and everyone is against thugs.

Which means that just about any person, if they're unlucky enough, can now be called a thug, and wind up in prison for it. I'll get to that in a minute. Because the word thug has a particular history in Egypt. For almost 30 years, during the dictatorship, "thugs" meant street criminals, yes, but it also meant men hired by the regime to intimidate and beat up citizens, alongside the police, or on their own.

Some of them were trained employees of the state security forces. Others were freelance thugs, drawn from a pool of criminals, informants, men who needed money. Both groups, the trained men and the freelancers, wore ordinary clothes, no uniform. And they would show up at rallies, and protests, in voting stations, any place where citizens might need to be reminded that they could be beaten anytime.

During the revolution, the regime sent thugs into Tahrir Square, on foot and on horseback, and on camel back. It was one of the craziest images of the entire uprising, these men galloping through the crowd and hitting people with sticks and whips as they rode. But that was the old Egypt. The new Egypt is being run by the government force that famously, crucially, did not attack the protesters on Tahrir Square, refused to shoot civilians, the military. The army is one of the few national institutions that many Egyptians trust. It's a conscript army. So lots of Egyptians have either served themselves or know a family member who's serving. A popular chant during the uprising was, "The army and the people are one," or "The army and the people or one hand." This is in contrast to the police, who killed over 800 people and injured thousands. They were the villains of the revolution. The army, for many Egyptians, was the revolution's protectors.

One of the people who was on Tahrir Square during the revolution was the protagonist of this story, Ali Sobhi, a 28-year old actor I met in Cairo. Not a famous actor, just a working actor. While I was waiting to interview him, I watched him rehearse with a friend for a kid's performance, juggling these buckets back and forth in a small room in one of Cairo's grand old buildings.

During the revolution, Ali was on Tahrir Square every day, except for two days, he said, when he went to check on his parents, because their neighborhood was being attacked by thugs. After the regime fell, Ali was one of the thousands of Egyptians walking the streets of Cairo giddy with freedom. One chant that took off during this period was, "Hold your head high, you're Egyptian." People would break into it spontaneously on the street, just this shout of pure joy and pride in the new Egypt. Ali says it was incredible how quickly people got used to not living in a police state, not being afraid.

Ali Sobhi

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Yes, I felt I had nothing to worry about. Even this whole idea of curfew. All over Egypt, no one felt that there was a curfew. The cafes were open. People were on the street. There are two chants that came out, like "What curfew? The Egyptians are here." "What is this curfew that you're speaking about," and actually both rhyme in Arabic. The entire country was alive.

Nancy Updike

Even in the midst of this euphoria after the dictatorship ended, Tahrir Square didn't fully empty out. Some people, including friends of Ali's, stayed, living in tents, cooking on butane stoves. Because to them, the revolution wasn't finished. The new Egypt was still being constructed. The country's hated emergency laws were still in effect. And they were going to keep up the pressure for reform.

Almost a month, to the day, after the old regime fell, on March 9, Ali was walking by Tahrir Square on his way to somewhere else, and he saw a wild scene. The army was there, and they were arresting people. And along with the army, there were also men in ordinary clothes with sticks, beating protesters. In the old Egypt, it would have been immediately clear what was going on. The men with sticks were thugs, working with the authorities. But Ali wasn't used to seeing thugs with the army. The army that had sided with the people, and refused to attack them during the revolution. He was used to seeing thugs with the police. This was new and disturbing.

Ali is slight, maybe 5'7, 120 pounds. And he had long hair then, so he figured he would be spotted and arrested if he stayed. But he wanted to help his friends, so he pulled out his cell phone to let others know what was happening. He decided he was fine with being afraid and sticking around anyway.

Ali Sobhi

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

The feeling was, I got rid of a president that had been in power for 30 years in 18 days, a prime minister that he appointed for us in seven days, or actually in five days. We could certainly overcome those thugs.

Nancy Updike

Ali wrote about what happened to him next in a 4,000 word Facebook post, a detailed inside account that stunned a lot of Egyptians when they read it. Ali's Facebook post is full of amazement at everything he saw the army do during the four days they held him. He's not afraid to be funny about something that is absolutely terrible. But mostly, he's just a careful observer. He gave us permission to have an actor read an English translation of what he wrote. In this excerpt, Ali's just been arrested by the army, along with almost 200 other people, and taken into the grounds of the Egyptian Museum, which the army had taken over and was using as an outpost in the area.

Ali Sobhi

First thing was a nice head-butt from a short soldier kid who couldn't reach my head. And I was telling him, "What's up, my cousin? Relax. What did I do?" By the way, I call all soldiers my cousin. So my cousin says, "You screwed up the country, you dirty sons of bitches." Another soldier was hitting me on the back of the neck, and I could see in the background an uneven battle between people hitting, and people getting hit.

Suddenly an officer, who looked like he'd had special forces training, super tough, was flying with his legs in the air like Bruce Lee right towards me. The soldier kids were holding me by the arms and pushing me forward for him, and he slammed me in the chest with those army issued boots. You know, the army that's with the people? The army that people used to see and chant "The people and the army are one"? I took the blow square in the chest, in precisely in the spot where I had my lung surgery two years ago.

I fell on the ground, and they dragged me by the hair. And they stood me up and tied me by the hair from a horizontal pole. And they kept hitting me in the knees and shins, and I would fall towards the ground and my hair would pull me back up. Then one soldier was holding a razor and hacking away at my hair. And an officer was doing his Kung Fu moves on me. And another soldier's hitting me with a wooden staff across my back, and another soldier's electrocuting me. My cousin says, "Lie down, you son of a bitch." He tied my hands behind my back and blindfolded me with this silly thing I could see everything through. And then he dragged me into a place he made me feel certain I would die in.

There were a lot of us there. We looked like piles of meat thrown on the ground. And soldiers were on top of us, raining down all kinds of beatings, electrocution, sticks, wooden staffs, electric cables, their boots.

And after a bit, they got this great idea, because we were refusing to die. So they thought instead they would kill the thing inside us, that if it were to die, we would die. All the soldiers together, military style, "Raise your head high, boy, you're Egyptian." Us, the people on the ground, all of us, "Wow, they laid off and finally got it. Thank you, God."

And as we raised our heads up, because we're Egyptian, they kicked us in the head with their boots. Shock of a lifetime. This happened to everyone, which proved to me that it happened in a collective way, and that I'd really heard right when they all said together, "Raise your head high, boy, you're Egyptian," and then bang in your face. Long live Egypt.

Nancy Updike

This was just the first of many beatings, and threats of worse beatings. Ali had been hassled, and arrested, and beaten up, by the police since he was a teenager. And he figured he would probably be roughed up this time, too. But he hadn't counted on systematic, sustained, brutality. Not from the army. Then he started to figure out that the beatings were just a preamble to being framed as a thug. The whole experience went from terrifying to bizarre. As an actor, Ali's been in movies. He's worked on location. And he knew what was happening, as he watched the soldiers setting the scene for the frame up.

Ali Sobhi

They started taking closeup shots of our faces, one by one. Three hand-held cameras, and one B2 camera, and a senior officer behind the B2 camera telling the soldiers with the other cameras what to do, like a movie director talking to a cinematographer. So they filmed us, and documented the state we were in. And we stood in rows, like in the army, and one by one we were searched, and then got on the bus. The bus drove us to the next scene in the movie, which was the military prosecution where the set was prepared, so that our arrests could be broadcast on television. An interior decoration officer was fixing up the set with two soldier assistants under him. There was a director of photography officer, with three or four light crew guys, and one cameraman, all soldiers.

Anyway, they brought out the kids who looked dodgy, which included me because my front teeth are gone and my hair was a mess, and put us in the front. There was a soldier fixing the lighting. "The lighting is ready, sir." The director. "Get me their seized weapons." So the soldiers got knives and molotov cocktails, and what they said were bombs, which were the butane stoves we used to make tea, and laid them out on the table. And the interior decorator started adding his personal touch to the display, this next to that, this butane stove next to that knife.

And this, I have to be fair, was indeed the fine touch of a master film industry decorator. Anyway. "All ready, sir." And the director of photography gave his order to the cameraman. And the man took his word, and started to take closeups, and medium shots, and wide angles, and everything any director's heart would desire.

Egyptian Reporter

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nancy Updike

This is the news report where Ali appeared. The entire broadcast is on YouTube. You'll hear the announcer say bultigiya, thugs, right here.

Egyptian Reporter

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nancy Updike

And the scene is exactly as Ali described it. There are several rows of men, kneeling, with their hands behind their backs, in front of a long, low table with a table cloth, where weapons have been laid out, like a banquet. The camera shifts from panning shots, to wide angles, to closeups. And a spotlight is playing over the group. It's night time, so the spotlight is especially harsh. And about one minute in, the spotlight lands on Ali's face, right there in the front row. He thought they did a pretty good job of making him look like a thug.

Ali Sobhi

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

I had broken teeth, and my hair was all over the place, and I had mud on my face. And the people next to me also. Their hair was cut with razors, and they were beaten in the face, so they had bloody face. In our culture, a thug has a scarred face. So yes we all looked like thugs, and when I saw the recording of the video that they had broadcast, yes, of course I looked like a thug. I did look like a thug.

Nancy Updike

The governing body that the military set up to run Egypt after the revolution is called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF, some Egyptians call it. One of the first things SCAF did was set up a Facebook page. This is a way they communicate with the country. And in one Facebook posting after another, SCAF has promised to protect the country from thugs and thuggery. They even added a new crime, called thuggery, to the penal code. And they made demonstrations illegal, if the demonstrations, quote, "harm national unity, societal peace, or public order." That's on top of the country's emergency laws.

So, thugs are public enemy number one in these SCAF postings. And the opposite of thuggery and thugs? The noble youth of the revolution. That's a phrase that comes up a lot. It means people who helped topple the former regime. People like Ali.

The military council, SCAF, wants stability. Egyptians want stability. They are tired of crime and uncertainty, and plenty of people are tired of the protests, too. I noticed that right before the report on Ali and the others' arrest-- this is the state TV newscast, by the way-- there was a story that combined the issues of thugs and stability, and seemed perfectly placed to tee up their report on Ali and the other supposed thugs the army had arrested. In the story, against the backdrop of the newly cleared Tahrir Square, people said they were glad to see some police were back. The news anchor said the police were there, quote, "to protect citizens, passers-by, and employees of governmental entities from troublemakers and outlaws."

Ali was charged with thuggery, among other things. But he was too well known as an activist from the revolution. After four days he was freed, and he was acquitted of the charges. Other people arrested at that time, and in later months, were tried in military tribunals, often charged with thuggery, and sometimes getting a sentence of three or five or seven years, after a 20-minute trial. More than 7,000 civilians since February.

The military council, SCAF, denies that the army has tortured anyone in custody, although what Ali described was corroborated by many others. And SCAF basically admitted, after months of pressure, that its arrest of Ali and others on March 9, and the quickie trials that followed, were a serious overreach. This is from their Facebook page. "The head of SCAF has ordered a retrial, especially those arrested in the events of the months of March and April, in order to take the necessary action and immediately release all the noble youth of the revolution."

The army is still very popular among the majority of Egyptians. But arrests and clashes keep happening, along with military trials. Ali never idealized the army. He wasn't one of the people chanting "The army and the people are one" during the revolution. But even a realist can be shocked.

Ali Sobhi

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

They would order us to say, "The people and the army are one hand," and whoever wouldn't say it would be beaten up.

Nancy Updike

As a joke, they made you say it? I don't understand.

Ali Sobhi

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

They were playing. They were playing. They were having a good laugh. They were making light of the revolution. They would say, "What, you want to get rid of Mubarak. We're going to get rid of all of you, God willing." And I'd say, "Mubarak's gone. He left." And they'd say, "No, he didn't."

Nancy Updike

There are new protests on Tahrir Square. And just last week, according to the Egyptian newspaper, Almasry Alyoum, a military committee said that the sit-in on Tahrir Square should end, because there are thugs on the square, who could harm the cause of the revolution. It could be true. But who's going to trust the military now, to decide who's a thug, and who's a noble youth?

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our show. Ali's Facebook posting was translated into English by Moataz Atallah and Wiam el-Tamimi. The actor reading the translation was Michael Chernus.

Coming up, Hugs, not Thugs. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Lifers.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose some theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, thugs, the many forms of them, and the many forms of thuggery. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Lifers.

This is a story of a kid, named Kenneth Williams, and it's the story of an adult, named Ton'Nea Williams. And just so you don't get tripped up here, Ton'nea and Kenneth have the same last name, but they are not related. And for most of Kenneth's life, Ton'Nea has had all kinds of ideas about Kenneth, and his thuggishness, that Kenneth may or may not have shared. Reporter Laura Beil spoke to Ton'Nea about this.

Laura Beil

Ton'Nea Williams and I are moms at the same elementary school. Until recently, I didn't know much about her, beyond the basics. I knew she was an assistant principal at the high school. She's the one in charge of discipline, and she looks the part. She's poised, commanding, meticulously put together, and beautiful.

We forged a friendship last December, during a trip abroad with the school choir. On one long bus ride, I learned about how she got into education, and about how she'd been affected, deeply affected, by her relationship with one of the kids she had tried to mentor. She started in 1992 when she was fresh out of college. "I was going to save the world," she said. She took a job at the Alexander Youth Services Center, the juvenile detention facility outside of Little Rock, Arkansas.

She had been on the job exactly one day when she was assigned an intake interview on a kid named Kenneth. He had escaped from prison and had just been recaptured a couple of miles away in the woods of central Arkansas. He was to be her first assignment. She wasn't sure what to expect.

Ton'nea Williams

I remember looking at this four foot eleven kid that weighed no more than 98 pounds, with twigs in his hair, and scratches on his arm from running through the woods. And I thought to myself, how does a kid get into this place at 11 or 12? What do you do? What did he do? And it wasn't until I finished the intake interview that I realized what he was sent to Youth Services for in the beginning. He was stealing vehicles from a dealership in Pine Bluff.

Laura Beil

He was stealing, but he was so young, more boy than criminal, even as she was questioning him.

Ton'nea Williams

He's this polite kid. I'm not even expecting him to be, you know, nice. He's in a correctional facility for youth. And he's yes, ma'am and he's no, ma'am. And I expressed to the lady that was training me, "Oh, my God." She basically told me not to open my heart too wide, because I would be let down. But I just didn't see that. I said, "Well, if you love on kids enough, if you provide them with opportunity at this young age, they won't come here." But she told me, "Guard your heart and get used to it."

Laura Beil

She didn't guard her heart. It just didn't seem right. Instead, Ton'Nea made a promise to herself. She would find a way to connect with Kenneth, and set him on a better path. It's important to understand that Ton'Nea was not just a naive 22-year old who wanted to change the world one kid at the time. She'd had a hard time coming up herself.

When Ton'Nea was nine, her mother sent her and her five brothers and sisters to live in foster care. All six stayed in a state-run home until families took them in, one by one. Ton'Nea and her sister were the last two to be placed. After more than a year, parentless and adrift, her father showed up and claimed her. She remembers thinking, if only I could get someone to love me and care about me, I'll be OK.

And in her case, she was right. She survived those years because of mentors she met, mostly through school, who saw her potential and kept encouraging her. So when Ton'Nea met Kenneth, she looked to her own life as a blueprint for what to do. She counseled him around the clock about the importance of staying in school and setting long term goals. She paid Kenneth to babysit her children, to teach him responsibility. Ton'Nea got her husband involved, too, as a male role model, since Kenneth's dad was long gone. She helped Kenneth's mom get a better job and moved his family to a safer neighborhood, right around the corner from her own. And for all of her efforts, she could see him becoming more accountable.

Ton'nea Williams

He was going to school. He was meeting curfew. It sounds simple to say he went to school, and it's not a big accomplishment. But considering what I was working with, in terms of his past, that was huge. It was also huge that he would volunteer his time, and that he would go to church. One morning he shows up, no prior notice. "I'd like to go to church with you." So it was signs like that, that I felt there was progress being made.

I felt like we were on the right track. It was a really good feeling. And the naysayers that said, "Once the kids get caught up in the juvenile correctional system, they never change." I wanted to say, "See? It can be done. It can be done. We can change these kids. See, here's an example." He was to be my poster child for change.

Laura Beil

He was like family. He would drop in from time to time to say hello, or grab a burger at a weekend barbecue. Things with kids at the detention center, and especially with Kenneth, were going so well that she decided to move beyond her nine-to-five job as a government caseworker, and become an activist. She and her husband started youth basketball camps outside Little Rock.

In 1997, Ton'nea capitalized on the fact that she is a towering beauty to run for and win the title of Mrs. Arkansas America. You need a cause to be in a pageant, of course, and hers was juvenile crime prevention. Her slogan? Helping all youth see their potential through education and extracurricular activities. Not catchy, but sincere. She'd give speeches to churches and youth groups throughout the state about the importance of staying in school and keeping out of trouble.

But the next year, things changed. In Pine Bluff, where she lived, two University of Arkansas students were robbed at gunpoint outside a local restaurant, kidnapped, and shot in a nearby field. The girl, a cheerleader at the university, died. But the other student survived, remaining conscious enough to crawl to a road and flag down help. After a three-day manhunt, the police found their suspect.

Reporter 1

This afternoon, Jefferson County Sheriff's deputies arrested 19 year old Kenneth Williams. He is now charged with capital murder and attempted capital murder.

Ton'nea Williams

I heard it on television, and I sat. It's like, the wind was knocked out of me. And I got on the phone, and I called a friend of mine, and I asked them had they heard anything about him being arrested? And they told me yes. And I just held the phone, and I could hear them saying hello, hello. And I was just sitting there.

Laura Beil

And what did you think? What were you thinking?

Ton'nea Williams

You've made a mistake. This is not possible. It's not possible. Prior to Kenneth being arrested, as a suspect, I remember hearing about a gold tooth. This person had a gold tooth. He doesn't have one.

Laura Beil

Kenneth had a cousin who did have a gold tooth, and the police sketches Ton'Nea had seen looked just like this cousin. She was sure police had gotten the wrong guy. Ton'Nea says everyone around her-- friends, coworkers-- washed their hands of Kenneth. When Kenneth's defense attorneys asked Ton'Nea to be a character witness on his behalf, even her husband, Shawn, tried to talk her out of it. She took the stand anyway.

Ton'nea Williams

What I remember most is sharing with them, this is not the person that I know. I don't know someone that would repeatedly shoot a female and kill her. And I don't know anyone that would leave another person for dead. I don't know anyone like that.

Laura Beil

And was Kenneth-- tell me his reaction.

Ton'nea Williams

I remember him sitting at the table with his attorneys. And after I testified, he looked over at the area of the courtroom that I was sitting in, and he smiled at me. I took his smile as-- I saw pain in it. I saw a smile but I saw a pain in it, that he was going through this process, that he was innocent of something that he would now spend the rest of his life in prison for. But it was of gratitude. Thank you. Thank you for caring enough to be here. Thank you for caring enough to share the person that I am.

Laura Beil

The jury was not so sympathetic. Kenneth was convicted of capital murder, attempted capital murder, and seven other counts, including kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and theft. He was sentenced to life without parole. Still, prosecutors told Ton'Nea that because of her, Kenneth had probably been spared the death penalty.

Even as Kenneth sat behind bars, Ton'Nea couldn't let him go. She had spent most of her adult life with one eye on Kenneth, trying to keep him out of prison. And now, that's exactly where he was.

Kenneth called every so often. Ton'Nea tried to keep his spirits up. She told him to put his faith in God and in the truth. Her life was changing by then. She'd quit her job at the juvenile detention center where she'd first met Kenneth, and became a teacher. Instead of trying to rescue kids who were already in trouble with the law, she wanted to keep them out of jail altogether. She threw herself into her new job. She focused on raising her family. And she tried not to be preoccupied with Kenneth.

Ton'nea Williams

One night, I saw the caller ID, and I knew that it was a call coming through from Kenneth, and I did not answer. I got up the next morning, as usual. I stopped by the corner convenience store, and I remember the clerk telling me that she heard my address, or my street, over the scanner, that someone had escaped from prison. I was taken back by it, but I continued on to work. And the state trooper came to my job and shared what had happened. Kenneth had escaped, and they were looking for him.

I was scared for him. State troopers use real guns. And he may have the mindset of, I will not go back to prison. You're going to have to kill me.

Laura Beil

News reports announced round-the-clock updates on the manhunt. But also, stories asked, how on earth does an inmate escape a maximum security prison after being there less than a month?

Reporter 2

The prison says it conducts five mandatory head counts each day, but somewhere in between two of those counts yesterday, Williams mysteriously disappeared.

Ton'nea Williams

Here's what happened. He was able to get on a slop truck, and slip into a bucket of slop.

Laura Beil

A bucket of slop.

Ton'nea Williams

It just is like hog slop, what you feed the hogs. And he was able to survive in a bucket of slop long enough to escape.

Laura Beil

Kenneth was captured, but not without casualties. In making his escape, he stole a truck near the prison. He shot the owner of the truck, with the man's own gun, seven times before fleeing, killing him. A day later, trying to outrun police in Missouri, Kenneth slammed head-on into a delivery truck, and the driver died in the crash. Kenneth was caught and sentenced to death row.

Ton'Nea couldn't help feeling responsible for the people who died during Kenneth's escape. Why didn't she just pick up the phone that night? To her it was, quite literally, a call for help. Maybe she could have talked him down from his desperation.

Laura Beil

So the prison break, and the murder, and everything that happened, did that raise doubts for you about his innocence?

Ton'nea Williams

When I heard about the murder, I immediately thought, well he probably was trying to steal or rob to get away. I never thought that he maliciously went to the location to kill this person. I felt like, you have a person incarcerated, and they've just made a desperate attempt, because they are innocent.

Laura Beil

This surprised me. Even though she knew Kenneth shot the truck owner, she was still certain he was innocent?

Years went by. Ton'Nea thought about Kenneth almost every day. Then in 2005, two things happened that changed Ton'Nea's life.

One of Ton'Nea's sisters lost custody of her four sons, all of them under 10. She could not bear the idea of seeing more young boys surrendered to foster care, especially after losing Kenneth. Already with three of their own, she and her husband adopted her four nephews, suddenly giving her a household of seven children.

One more thing happened. That summer, Pine Bluff's local newspaper, The Pine Bluff Commercial, published an article announcing Kenneth's confession to the original crime. He'd found God, he said, in a six-page letter to the paper, and needed to atone for what he'd done. He also admitted to another murder that he was never even suspected of committing. The gold tooth, the thing Ton'Nea had clung to all these years, was just a cap that he could put on and take off.

Ton'nea Williams

A friend of mine called me, from Pine Bluff, and actually read most of the article to me. And I said, "I need a copy. I need a copy. I need to read it for myself. No, no, no. I need to read it for myself. Oh my God. Oh my God. All this time."

Laura Beil

For days she would read the story again and again, then retrace all of her steps, trying to pinpoint where she'd gone wrong.

Ton'nea Williams

You know, I don't cry. I'm mad, because I'm thinking, dude, I stood by you, and believed, and had faith in you that you were innocent. And I really believed that you were not the one that committed these crimes. I felt foolish. I don't think tears were a part of that. I'm, like, really pissed off. I'm pissed off that I testified, and you actually killed this girl.

Laura Beil

The confession forced Ton'Nea to face some disturbing truths about Kenneth. Clearly she never really knew who he was, or what he needed. She just couldn't see it. And if that was the case, what did that mean for the kids she works with every day at her job? What did it mean for her own kids at home? What if she was getting it wrong with them, too? So when I ask her about regrets over Kenneth, she doesn't write him off. All these years later, she's still problem solving.

Ton'nea Williams

I'm not convinced I did everything that I could have. I still wish there was something that I could have done to change the whole trajectory of his life. Even now. Obviously, he needed something different. What else could have been done with Kenneth? I would like to ask him that question. And I would like for that question to be a face-to-face question. What else did you need? What else could have been done to prevent these events from happening?

Robyn Semien

So I'm going to follow the signs for--

Ton'nea Williams

West.

Robyn Semien

Oh, there's Pine Bluff.

Laura Beil

It's a rainy, freakishly cold day this May, when Ton'Nea, my producer, Robyn, and I, drive from the airport in Little Rock to the Varner Supermax Unit south of Pine Bluff, to ask him those questions. We're running late. Its a little nerve-wracking. A weird kind of nerve-wracking, being late for a reunion between two people who will never see each other again. As we drive south on Highway 65, Robyn checks in with Ton'Nea.

Robyn Semien

Ton'Nea, I wanted to ask you before we get there, should we stay as long as we can?

Ton'nea Williams

I'm kind of nervous. I don't know. If that's something that we can kind of gauge as we go? You know, you think you know, going into a situation, how you're going to respond, and the emotions that you will feel. But in actuality, until you get there, you really don't know. And because I've held onto a lot of this for awhile, I really don't know what that's going to look like for me.

Laura Beil

We stay for the whole visitation time, two hours. But the prison officials won't let us record the visit. Here's what happens.

We meet him in a bare, drab, low ceiling room, with a lineup of glass booths that jut out from one of the walls. To have a conversation through the glass, you have to practically shout. We are the only visitors this day, and Kenneth waits alone. Ton'Nea reaches him first, and cries. She has a hard time catching her breath.

Kenneth is not expecting us. The prison told him he had visitors coming, but not who. So he's startled at first, and then seeing Ton'Nea, pleased, he tries to comfort her. "I'm OK," he keeps saying. He brings his hand up to the window, and she brings hers up to meet it. Around his neck hangs an oversize cross.

They spend the first few moments catching up, volunteering the kind of details that old friends would after a long separation. She's moved to Texas. His parents have gotten back together. Her daughter's getting ready for prom. She introduces Robyn and me, explaining that we are with her because we are telling her story for a radio show, but that we couldn't bring recording equipment. He mentions other inmates who have gotten on television. "This is radio," she repeats.

For the first half hour or so, Kenneth's charming. He's friendly and easygoing, relaxed. Then Ton'Nea gets to why she came. She tells him that she can't shake the idea that she could somehow have prevented his crimes. "I've carried this burden for years," she tells him. "What else could I have done? What else did you need?"

Kenneth doesn't hesitate. He doesn't even seem to think about his answer. "Oh, there's nothing you could have done," he says. "No one could have helped me. I knew what I wanted to do, and I was going to do it." He goes on. "I was a bad kid, and I wanted to do right by you, but I just couldn't." I can't help but notice that during this, Ton'Nea both nods and looks unconvinced.

She asks about that day in court, when she testified, which was monumental for her. He breezes past it. He remembers being happy to see her, and hating the people testifying against him.

And then, maybe because it was the only thing really to talk about, a monologue about killings. Kenneth says that for years after his conviction, he was dark and resentful, even suicidal. One day blurring with the next, waiting for a date to die, never admitting to anyone, even himself, what he had done to be on death row.

He began to change, he says, one day while flipping through the trial documents. He looked at the photo of his victim, the girl he killed, alive and beautiful. Then he held it side-by-side with her autopsy photo and thought, I did that. He pauses and puts a hand over his face, as if he's collecting himself enough to continue. But watching Kenneth relive this is like watching a bad play. The words are disconnected from his gestures. He makes a show of weeping, lowering his eyes, shaking his head, and covering his face with his arms. When he looks up again, I don't see any tears.

With the university students, he'd wanted money, initially. But once Kenneth had gotten his cash, he let the two go. Then he drove a block down the road and then stopped, realizing they'd seen his face, and could identify him. He tells us he was fascinated with the idea of killing someone. Wonder what it would be like, he recalls thinking, and trails off. He went back, let them beg for their lives, and shot them, over and over.

Then the victims of his prison break. A farmer, the one with the truck, was trying to run away when Kenneth gunned him down. And finally, this. After the car chase in Missouri, state troopers made Kenneth walk over and look at the lifeless body of the delivery driver, thinking Kenneth would be remorseful. Instead, Kenneth says all he saw was the man who got in the way of his escape, and he spit on the body.

This doesn't look or sound like bragging. It's something else altogether. Kenneth looks at us, sees Ton'Nea crying and looks down again, this time moving his shoulders up and down unconvincingly.

Here's what doesn't happen at the prison. He doesn't tell Ton'Nea he's sorry for the pain he caused her, or for letting her take the stand on his behalf, knowing his innocence was a farce. He doesn't ask about her life, or how she's been doing all these years. He does ask one thing. If we come back again, are we bringing cameras?

At 4:30 we head back to the car, all of us trying to make sense of what just happened.

Laura Beil

You told me once that you think about Kenneth a lot, like just, what happened, this whole episode. Do you think after today, you'll be able to think about him less?

Ton'nea Williams

I think I will be able to let those things, those burdens that I carried, of did you do everything you could have done? Is there something else you could have said. Is there something else you could have done? I don't know. I think that I can lay that to rest. And that was what was keeping me up at night. Because I just felt like there was more we could have done. But he gave confirmation that short of God coming to Earth and standing in front of him, he was going to do what he wanted to do. He was very clear about that. You were not going to stop me, and I loved you. I loved my mama. She wasn't going to stop me. I love my sister. She wasn't going to stop me. This is what I was going to do.

Laura Beil

She says she hopes he's remorseful, and has gotten right with God, but she just can't tell. She doesn't buy it, when he said he was in denial himself for years, about having killed anyone. The more she talks, the more she finds things to discredit, including the biggest thing, that there was nothing she could have done.

Ton'nea Williams

You know, he said that, but let's go back to his start. He said that we couldn't do anything to help him. But when, in actuality, as a nine and ten year old, you can provide Little League. You can provide activities. Now, this is the start of it.

Laura Beil

I wasn't with her on this one. From what I saw, all the Little League in the world was not going to stop Kenneth.

Ton'nea Williams

It's still hard to say it. I don't think you'll ever get me to say--

Laura Beil

Never get you to say what?

Ton'nea Williams

That we did everything we could. Because I still, even with him where he is, I'm still going to search for what I could have done.

Laura Beil

Two weeks later, I visit Ton'Nea and her husband, Shawn, at their house. I'm curious how the trip to visit Kenneth has affected the rest of Ton'Nea's family. Shawn tells me Ton'Nea's been keeping the kids on an even shorter leash than usual.

Shawn Williams

With her visiting Kenneth, talking to Kenneth, I knew probably for the next six months, around here at the house, everything going to be a boot camp, with the kids.

Laura Beil

So you knew she was going to come back more-- no matter what happened-- that she was going to come back from this more determined.

Shawn Williams

Oh, I know my wife. I kind of felt for the kids. I really know she was going to-- In a good way. In a good way. I find myself defending them a little more, probably, than what I should.

Laura Beil

Shawn said that even before we went to Arkansas, he knew that his wife would never come home and accept the idea that there was nothing to be done for Kenneth.

Shawn Williams

Sometimes she'd put blinders on. And I don't think she always look at the possibility of the other side. And in Kenneth's situation, there was a possibility that he did do it. She'll get something that she believe in, she will put her all and all into it. For me, she get too passionate sometimes. She's pretty headstrong. And I don't know if that's a good or bad thing.

Laura Beil

Ton'Nea told me later that she had never heard him say that before, and sitting next to him that day, she couldn't let this go by.

Ton'nea Williams

You know that I've spent my life being passionate. And I have a true, true respect for people that need to be connected with. I think a lot of it has to do with, if somebody hadn't seen the good in me, I don't know where I would be right now. And if sometime there's someone that I'm wrong about, I'll accept that. But it'll never change, me wanting to help people, because I've been helped my whole life by people blessing me, believing in me when I didn't believe in myself. So I know the power of that. And I don't think I'm ever going to give up trying.

Laura Beil

Especially now, with a house full of children, the youngest going into first grade.

Ton'nea Williams

I think, coming back, there was a lot of anxiety that I was still working through after the visit. And being sluggish at work, and it's like, OK, what's going on? I'm waking up at 3 o'clock, I'm waking up at 4 o'clock. I was having moments of just waking up and restlessness.

Shawn Williams

I sleep light. And I'm always up in the middle of the night, watching TV, and she was-- I found her taking the remote from me at 3:00 in the morning. I mean, she usually, when she goes to sleep, she'll sleep through the night. But for about a week, there were several times that she was waking up during the night.

Ton'nea Williams

I was waking up, because it was a nightmare. And I'm in prison, sitting across from one of my children. And I just-- the anxiety came from just thinking about my family, and how can I prevent this from happening? And making sure that I don't ever have to look through a glass and talk to them from a prison cell.

Laura Beil

Lately, Ton'Nea is worried about one of her kids in particular. A few months ago, when the whole family was having dinner at a neighbor's house, one of her nephews, now her son, stole a wallet from the neighbor's purse. Ton'Nea and Shawn found it, and made him take the wallet back and apologize. But it's not lost on her that this nephew is about the same age as Kenneth was when she first met him all those years ago, when he was arrested for stealing. Ton'Nea had wanted to come home from Arkansas and leave Kenneth behind. Instead he's still here, in a way he hasn't been before.

Ira Glass

Laura Beil lives in Cedar Hill, Texas.

[MUSIC-- BAD INTENTIONS BY SHONA FOSTER]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar, with Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Eric Mennel, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from [? Mickey Meek ?]. Music help from [? Damien Grafe, ?] Seth Linde is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Special thanks to Jesse Hardman. The Spanish interpreter for the opening story in today's show was Juan Carlos Correo from the Cross-Cultural Interpreting Services of the Heartland Alliance.

Today's show is our last show with Eric Mennel as our intern. He did all of the mixes for Act One of today's show, which was par for the course for him. He's been mixing stories for us for months, and has been super capable at everything else we have thrown at him. He's on the job market. If you are looking to hire somebody like that, drop us a line. Thank me later, Eric.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, God knows, he's always loved table scraps, which perhaps explains his lifelong dream.

Ton'nea Williams

--to get on a slop truck, and slip into a bucket of slop. It just is like hog slop.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week, with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.