Sunday, April 22, 2007

Seth Anderson's Last Message

Although this event took place seven years ago, it seems apropos of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. So many people are looking for answers. People demand an explanation like it was some kind of consumer product – or an apology, which changes nothing. The story that follows is true in every respect, but it’s just what happened -- there is no message.

ANACORTES, WASHINGTON. In September, 2000, Seth Anderson pleaded guilty to the murder of Scott Kinkele. He was sentenced to 38 years in prison, to be served at Walla Walla State Prison. On January 2, 2001, three months into his sentence, he hung himself in his cell and died two days later.

He was brain dead when the guards found him. They took him to the hospital, put him on life support, and then notified his next-of-kin, his mother, Eva Anderson, in Anacortes.

Eva and her best friend, Harriet, drove over the Cascade Mountains the next day, six hours to the eastern part of Washington, to the town of Walla Walla and went straight to the hospital where the doctors and the prison officials were awaiting her. She said she was very grateful for the kindness and patience they showed her. The doctors told Eva there was nothing more they could do for Seth. Eva was able to spend a bit of time with her son. She said he looked peaceful and beautiful. Then it was her decision to terminate the life support.

Seth's body was cremated. On Saturday, January 20, his friends and family held a brief ceremony at the tip of Washington Park in Anacortes, and then scattered his ashes into the water. After the ceremony, I asked Eva if Seth had left a note. She said yes and she showed it to me:

"Hi guys, my last letter here:
I want you to know it's been a helluva ride, but it's time to shoot the horse. Don't think I was distraught cause I wasn't. I fold. I'm through playing cards. I believe we all go somewhere....I love you. I love you all. Mom, you raised good kids, you really did and nothing you did caused this, you are a good, strong woman. And I want you to know I'll see you again. We all need to face facts that this is like a terminal cancer and I'm just speeding it up. I know what I'm doing, and I love you all. Listen for me in the wind.

Your son, your brother, your nephew, friend, and lover,

I have been good friends with Seth's parents since before he was born. His father, Tom Anderson, died 15 years ago. His mother, Eva, works as a gardener, and has four other children, all grown up, two girls and two boys.

Seth was a big fellow, like his father, and had a cheerful disposition. When he was a teenager he dropped out of high school and got into drinking and drugs. He was arrested for burglary at that time and served a small amount of time in the county jail. After that episode he came to his senses, joined AA, and quit drinking. Things started going well. He got a decent job in Sedro-Woolley taking care of an elderly man, and he also learned to work with horses and mules at a ranch, which he truly loved.

A few years later he traveled to Alaska and had some success as a commercial fisherman. He was able to buy his mother a good pickup truck for her gardening business. That was a surprise present, his mother told me. He just drove it up to the house and gave it to her. Seth was inclined to that kind of romantic gesture.
So it seemed that his troubles were behind him, but then he started drinking again. He came home to Anacortes in July of 2001, and that's when he went out drinking with his older brother, Eben Berriault, and a mutual friend. The rest of the story about that awful day has been in the local newspapers, but I will summarize:
After a few hours at the tavern, they set out for Mount Baker with a shotgun and a .22 rifle to poach a deer out of season. That kind of low-rent crime is the worst I would have expected from the two brothers, and even so I thought they would have known better then to go off carousing like that.

And there it might have ended -- I've thought many times -- if they had gotten a deer, or if they had been stopped for drunk driving on the way home. But they didn't get a deer and they kept on drinking. They began shooting at road signs. Then, driving back to Anacortes, they fired at some passing cars, hitting at least one.
Finally, around midnight, on Highway 20 near the Swinomish Channel Bridge, either Eben or Adam Moore, the friend, shot at the car driven by Scott Kinkele and the bullet hit him in the back of his head. It was a lucky or an incredibly unlucky shot, the driver and the shooter both being drunk, and both cars going at highway speed.
Scott Kinkele died instantly. His car slowed and swerved to the other side of the highway where it was discovered shortly afterward.

Kinkele was a blameless and admirable young man, a naval officer, a graduate of Annapolis, who was only driving back to the naval air base on Whidbey Island -- with nothing on his mind, but his life and his future, who knows?

The prosecuting attorney termed it a thrill killing. The public reacted with horror. I felt the same way. Two days later Eben and Seth were arrested for the murder -- that's when I found out it was them. It scared the hell out of me. I didn't want to admit to anybody that I knew the family. I felt awful.

How could they do it? What got into them? It was evil. I think even an experienced criminologist or social worker, if they had interviewed those two young men before the crime, would not have expected that kind of mayhem.

Eben, the older brother, had been convicted of manslaughter in 1983 when he was 18. It was some kind of drunken brawl around a campfire in the woods where one man smashed the skull of another man with a rock. Eben testified for the prosecution to describe the actual killing and was given five years in protective custody as a plea bargain.

When he got out of prison in 1988, at the age of 23, I worried about whether he was going to make himself whole again, but 13 years passed and he never got into any trouble. He worked, he married, he had two children -- it seemed like it was all behind him.

It happened anyway -- the passive tense. Eben and Seth and Adam Moore killed Scott Kinkele for no reason.

Moore, the third man in the car, gave all the details to the police. Moore was given a 27-month sentence in return for his cooperation.

But there was no trial. Eben and Seth pleaded guilty to the murder charge before the prosecutor's office could organize an aggravated murder charge that would have carried the death penalty. The victim's family wanted the death penalty. I was relieved that it was over so quickly and that there would be no trial.

That trial, with attendant newspaper headlines day after day, would have been most difficult for many people. Maybe the boys just wanted to get it over with. I don't know, but I was disturbed by Seth's claim that it wasn't his brother who fired the fatal shot, but that it was Adam Moore, the third man, who killed Scott Kinkele.

Adam Moore clearly had motive for lying, and Seth may have wanted to lie to protect his brother by accusing Adam Moore. Eben got a sentence of 55 years, but I didn't hear a confession from him, only a fatal resignation and a guilty plea. A trial may have established more certainty.

But Seth was driving the car regardless and he made no excuses and had no explanation either.

They sent him to Walla Walla prison for 38 years, but he didn't want to be there. As a child I was taught that suicide is wrong. When I was older I learned that despair is the root of many sins. Seth had no despair in him at the end. He made a calm and deliberate decision for atonement and peace. And he got lucky -- he got out of prison alive and spent his last moments in the arms of his loving mother.

Recent events at Virginia Tech reminded me of Seth’s crime seven years ago. So I dug in my archives to read again his final note – no apology, no explanation, no excuses, and no blame except to himself. He committed the c rime and he paid for it. There’s really nothing more to say.

* Eben Berriault, Seth’s older brother, has 48 more years to serve on his sentence. He is in Monroe State Prison in Washington. His mother, his wife, and his two children visit him every two weeks.
*Scott Kinkele’s mother died a few years after the crime, her life shortened by the tragedy of her son’s death.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

in Seattle

I am in Seattle now. It's raining.