by Karen Cleeton
January 27, 1978. A normal day at my nurse’s job; no hint of calamity. Separated from my first husband at the time, I had left my 22-month-old son, David, with my sister-in-law, Evelyn, that morning. But when I left work to pick up David later in the day, my whole life changed.
I turned the car onto Evelyn’s block and saw crowds of people, cars, and news vans. When I came closer, I noticed a police blockade obstructing the end of the street where Evelyn’s house sat. My heart quickened its pace. Something must be going on at the mall, I thought, looking at the shopping center just beyond the blockade. Surely nothing is wrong at Evelyn’s house. Though I tried to tell myself to not worry, my heart pounded and my stomach churned.
I hurriedly parked my car half way out in the street and forced my tense body to walk up to a sheriff. “What happened?” I asked.
“Some people have been shot,” he replied.
He pointed to Evelyn’s house. No! It can’t be! My thoughts raced faster than my mouth could move. “My baby’s in there!” I stammered. “Where’s my baby?” I must be dreaming. This can’t be happening!
I was led to a neighbor’s house and questioned by a lady detective. She told me that Evelyn, her son Jason (aged six), and a friend, Danny, had been murdered. Evelyn’s body had been horribly mutilated. The bodies were found lying in the house with blood splattered everywhere.
The detectives said David’s coat and shoes were still in the house. From the amount of blood in his sleep area, they were reasonably sure David had been murdered along with the rest, but they couldn’t find his body. Until the time I spoke with the detective, no one knew David had been in Evelyn’s house that day.
Shock and prayers
My mind reeled; I wanted to vomit. Evelyn — murdered? And the children? I remembered waving goodbye to her and the kids that morning. I remembered kissing my son, wishing I could care for him myself. Had I kissed him for the last time?
That night I didn’t cry or sleep; I was too stunned for tears and too stressed to relax. I called a grief support hotline and gushed some of my heartache to a volunteer. Though she listened patiently and compassionately, I wasn’t satisfied. I should be doing something for David, I told myself. Someone must have kidnapped him. Who could kill a sweet baby like him? My thoughts and prayers echoed down a dark tunnel. I felt empty and lost — and in need of divine answers.
But I got none. “How could You let this happen?” I snapped at God. “Don’t You care that I’m suffering?”
I gained no peace, so I prayed all night that David would be all right. When the sun rose the next morning, I felt better. It will be warmer during the day, I consoled myself. David won’t be so cold.
Comfort and anger
Friends and family stopped by my house all day the next day, helping me be more optimistic. One man from church said I must be a special person, since God had allowed this to happen to me, but this didn’t make sense. The only real help came through people’s expressions of love and their prayers for me.
Beneath the surface of my grief, anger smoldered against the murderer. How could someone be so evil? I felt somewhat better when he was found that afternoon. Richard Chase had had a history of mental illness and had been killing animals and drinking their blood, thinking he could cure imaginary illnesses.
Still, the police couldn’t find David, and psychiatrists couldn’t get any true information from Chase as to his whereabouts.
Police dogs combed the neighborhood looking for my son. A pond at a country club across from Chase’s apartment was drained in hopes of finding David’s body. Nothing.
Newspapers and TV reports suggested that Chase had chopped David up in pieces and eaten part of him. The thought made me want to vomit. Surely no one is that sick, I told myself. Fortunately, a sheriff friend of mine explained that such reports end up being a lot of hype.
He was right. Chopped up meat in Chase’s refrigerator later proved to be part of a dog he had killed.
Until his body would be found, I refused to believe David was dead. I steadfastly clung to the hope that he was still alive somewhere.
Two months later, however, my hope sank: David’s body was found inside a box in an abandoned storage area not far from Chase’s apartment. The body had been badly mutilated and decapitated.
Mercifully, I didn’t have to identify David. The sheriffs matched fingerprints, hair, and clothing. Though I was relieved that David had been found, the thought of my precious baby being hideously killed pulled me from suspense and plunged me into grief. I would never see my son again in this life.
In addition to dealing with my grief, I had to contend with Chase’s trial, which stretched for the next year-and-a-half in another city. I appeared twice in the courtroom, the second time with Chase present. He appeared detached, as if he was in another world. I could hardly look at him. I wish you were dead, I thought.
Punishment from God
Throughout the entire trial, my mind spun with questions. I had been raised to believe that everyone — especially little children — had a guardian angel to protect them. Where was David’s angel at the time of the shootings?
I thought God was punishing me for something. But what had I done to deserve my son’s brutal murder? Though I continued to pray and go to church, anger at God crept in. When someone pointed out bitterness growing in me, I knew I needed to change. I spent hours in prayer releasing the bitterness to God and forgiving anyone who came to mind.
I searched the Bible and found help in the book of Job. I began to understand why people go through tragedies and that you don’t have to be a bad person for bad things to happen to you. I also saw in Job that Satan could do only what God allowed; there were limits to suffering.
I read books — Mourning Song and If I Can, You Can. I had long conversations with my sister, Sondra, and church friends. In time God helped me to put the pieces together.
I realized that though God chose not to protect David, He was present when the murder took place; I hadn’t done anything to cause it. For the next two years I imagined what happened that day and became satisfied that none of the victims suffered. They were killed instantly by a shot in the head before they were mutilated. David was taking a nap and never moved after the bullet entered his temple.
I realized too that God had prepared me for this tragedy. I lost my mother when I was 17 and my father when I was 26 (the year before David died). Also, I had seen much sorrow during my nursing career. I had watched patients suffer and die. Of course, nothing was as devastating as David’s death, but I believe I was better able to accept the loss because of these experiences. I eventually concluded that life and death are in God’s hands.
Besides giving me these insights, God took charge of the court proceedings. Chase was accused of killing two other people before he killed David and the others. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, which could have been reduced to life in prison without chance of parole by California’s Supreme Court. Without God, Richard Chase would have been declared insane and could have been freed sometime in the future. As it turned out, Chase committed suicide in prison shortly after his conviction.
I strongly believe that my son’s murder happened for a purpose — perhaps many purposes. One purpose is that I depend more on God. My sorrow forced me to run to Him and learn more about Him.
When I look back on that period in my life, the pain tells me it was real, but most of the sting is gone. God has healed and comforted me through the Bible and through the caring touch of His people.
I see too that we are in God’s hands and that He sometimes allows bad things to happen to us for our good, as Romans 8:28 says. Tragedies can help shape our character if we allow God to change us. We can also help others in similar circumstances when God brings them across our path (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
As He did with Job, God has given back much more than I lost through my suffering. I now have two sons, Bryan (15) and Noah (14), and a wonderful husband, Jack. I also have a better appreciation for eternity. And I know that though I won’t see David again in this life, I will be reunited with him if I am faithful in my walk with God.