Most of us have seen it on television or in a movie. A young kid on the verge of puberty riding along on his bike when suddenly the clouds part and a ray of sunshine falls upon the form of a girl emerging from her new home. The boy, who has never noticed such things before, is suddenly awestruck by her femininity and stares – utterly transfixed… right up until he plows into a tree in her front yard and goes flying head over rump into the ground. The thing is, this was not a movie or a sitcom. Not for me. I have the dubious honor of having actually ridden into a tree the day I first noticed man’s bane – the girl.
It was 1983, and I was eleven years old. Her name was Charla Wheat and she had just moved into the place two doors down from me. The house had been recently vacated by the family of my friend Tina, and I was still somewhat upset about the move. I think that is what made me look over in the first place… chasing some old ghosts. Whatever made me look over, my life would never be the same again.
I was not popular (or particularly attractive) as a kid, so I think that slowed my social development. Before Charla I had never really had the need to meet new people, but as I lay there in the grass bleeding from various points of sudden flora impact, the only thing I could ponder was how I was going to get up the nerve to talk to this girl. Charla took care of that for me as suddenly I was looking up into the face of an angel, asking me if I was ok. I will save you the suspense, she was never interested in me that way; but we did become very good friends. Six years later Charla moved away so her father could take over a new ministry in Texas. You know, I never have forgiven that house for sending away all the women in my life.
In 1991, just a year and-a-half after moving, Charla was stabbed to death. There was a knock on the door of her apartment. She opened it and found Billy Ray Nelson, a neighbor, asking if he could use her phone. Once inside he cut the phone lines to prevent her from calling for help and then started stabbing her. He then forced Carol Maynard, Charla’s five month pregnant roommate, out of bed and into the front room where Charla was bleeding from her wounds. Nelson threatened to kill the women unless they undressed, and he then forced them to perform various depraved sexual acts on him and with each other. Then he stabbed Maynard in the neck and beat Charla. Nelson then left but returned when Charla started screaming for help. While Maynard pretended to be dead, Nelson struck and stabbed Wheat thirteen times until my young, beautiful, sweet, talented friend finally died. He then left the apartment and went back to his place to shower and change. That was the day my compassion for criminals died too.
I found out about it after the man had been arrested. That is quite probably the only reason he is still alive. He has no idea how lucky he is. There was never any question of his guilt, since he openly confessed to the entire gruesome act. It was an easy vote for the jury to sentence him to die. Sadly, last I checked, his death sentence had been commuted by a ruling of the court. What angers me most about it is that his appeals cases have become central to the capital punishment debate, especially with regards to Texas law. So instead of remembering Charla when his name is brought up, people will remember him and how he is to praise and thank for his part in getting people ‘justice’, or civilizing our treatment of criminals. Maybe some day some slick lawyer will find a way to get him released completely on some bleeding heart technicality. Hahahahaha, bleeding heart…oh the irony.
Well, should that day ever come I will rejoice. On that day Billy Ray Nelson will lose the protection of our failed criminal justice system, and be finally susceptible to the same sort of fairness and personal justice he visited upon my dear friend and others. People who question the morality or compassion of the death penalty should remember that the deaths the State offers to criminals are far quicker and more civilized than those sought by the friends and family of the wrongfully deceased. Indeed, they are nicer than the deaths those criminals caused to be so sentenced. They are, in short, more merciful by far than monsters like Billy Ray Nelson deserve.
I still have the picture Charla gave me in my wallet. It is right on top of her obituary from our local paper. I miss you Charla.