Seeking release from a prison of pain.
by Morgan Hahn as told to Penny Smith
I studied the return address on the letter, then turned to my wife, Mary. She clasped my hand as I pulled her onto the sofa beside me. We had been married less than five months, yet she seemed to understand my deepest moods – almost as though she shared my loss.
The letter was from my nephew Johnny, serving a 20-year prison sentence. Mary squeezed my trembling hand as I read.
“Uncle Morgan, I know you can never forgive me for what I have done to your family.”
I shuddered, remembering once again the agony of that night nearly three years earlier and the nightmare that followed.
The warmth of the holidays was still with me as I drove up to the house.
“Lana, I’m home,” I called, stomping my snow-covered boots on the mat outside the door of our mountainside home. I carried the groceries inside and placed them on the kitchen table. “Honey, I’m home!” I repeated.
A little shiver went through me as I shrugged out of my heavy jacket. The house seemed chilly. I wondered if the fire in the wood-burning stove had gone out.
Smiling to myself, I thought that Lana and little “Peeper,” not quite three, were probably playing tricks on Daddy again. I went stealthily down the basement stairs, looked around, and then checked the stove. A log was there, but not burning. I opened the draft and poked the coals. The house was so quiet.
Back upstairs, I wandered from room to room, expecting the two clowns to come jumping out at me from their hiding place. As I stood at the doorway of our bedroom, the empty wall nagged at the back of my mind. The missing shotgun didn’t register with me at the time.
As I looked into my son’s room again, an uneasy feeling came over me. Maybe Peeper got hurt, I mused, and Lana had to take him to a doctor. I didn’t notice the scrapes on the newly painted wall as I closed the door behind me.
Once again, a chill went through me. I went into the living room and turned on the television to break the quiet. I sat down but was too restless to sit still. Where was Lana? She always left a note when she went away. A deep loneliness settled upon me, evolving into a smothering panic.
Trembling, I snatched the telephone and began the endless calling to family and friends, neighbors, hospitals, and finally the police. Then a thought about my 16-year-old nephew interrupted my turmoil. He often popped in. Lana objected to his untimely visits because he gave her “the creeps.” I had insisted he visit only when I was home.
Released from probation not long before, Johnny had spent time in a juvenile detention facility for arson. He now lived with his grandmother in a trailer, next to my sister.
When I arrived, Johnny was lying on his bed. As soon as he saw me, he bolted upright and whined, “I didn’t do anything, Uncle Morgan.”
“Johnny, did you see Lana and Peeper today?” I questioned.
“I saw them at noon. They were OK then.”
Somehow, I felt he knew where they were. “Johnny, can I help them?” I pressed.
“I didn’t do nothin’! I didn’t do nothin’!” he snapped. He began to cry.
The light in the room was dim, so I stepped over to his bed and flipped his hair back from his face. He went white, accentuating several livid, claw-like scratches on his cheek. The turmoil mushroomed inside me.
“Why won’t anyone believe me?” Johnny pleaded. Confused and dazed, I stumbled out of the trailer.
The police questioned me for several hours as others searched the area. Long after nightfall, the search was called off until daylight because of the extreme weather.
I thought the night would never end. I spent the long hours waiting for the telephone to ring, for any news, some reasonable explanation. I prayed my wife and son were safe. Deep inside, though, I knew something was terribly wrong. I also knew Johnny was somehow responsible, but I refused to let myself think that Lana and little Morgan wouldn’t return. God was on my side, wasn’t He? He knew I loved Him, didn’t He?
Drawn by love
I had accepted Christ as my Savior when I was 20. I credited the love I had felt and seen in a church youth group for drawing me to Christ. That kind of love was new to me.
I had been on my own since I was 15, when my dad died. I attended school during the day and pumped gas at night. I lived alone for a while, then shifted from relative to relative — whoever would have me.
After I accepted Christ, His Spirit continued to work with me for the next seven years, when I fully surrendered to God. Since that time, Lana and I had experienced the sweetness of God’s abiding presence in our marriage. I counted on that same Presence now when I faced only darkness.
At dawn, officers resumed the search with the help of search dogs. My pastor and others arrived several hours later. We sat in silence, muted by the impending tragedy that we sensed but would not accept. Helicopters steadily droned overhead.
At mid-morning, a police officer entered the house. “The dogs found them,” he said. “They are both . . . deceased . . . I’m sorry.” Officers had found my wife and son in the woods behind our house.
Cruel anguish surged through my body like volts of electricity and exploded into white-hot fury. “No! No! No!” I cried. I bolted out of my seat, but someone grabbed me. My mind went spinning off into torment as I struggled to get free.
“I’ll kill him!” I raved, “I’ll kill him!” I didn’t realize that it took six men, including my father-in-law, to hold me down as unleashed rage consumed me.
“Morgan, you’re hurting your father-in-law,” one of the officers pleaded.
When I heard that, I collapsed sobbing, “No! No! No, God, no! Lana wouldn’t go without me! She wouldn’t leave me all alone! No! It isn’t true. Please God, no!” The thoughts reeled through my mind with searing pain as I screamed my protests.
Later, I learned that Johnny had entered our home and tried to force himself on Lana. When she refused to have anything to do with him, he became infuriated. He took my shotgun from the wall and led Lana and Peeper at gunpoint up the mountain, where he shot them through the chest. When police located the bodies, they found our family dog guarding them.
The funeral and the following days passed in a blur. Death would have been a welcomed guest. The question echoed inside me: Why God – why? Why did You take them and not me? The only thing that kept me from suicide was knowing that Lana wouldn’t have wanted me to handle my pain that way.
Desire for revenge
Police arrested Johnny and charged him with two counts of criminal homicide. Because of his age, he was given a 20-year prison sentence.
I still longed for revenge. I wanted to kill Johnny, and it didn’t matter to me who got hurt in the process. I dreamed of blowing up the prison or poisoning all the prisoners.
I’m not certain when I realized my hatred for Johnny had consumed me. One night, in desperation, I held a loaded shotgun to my temple, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. I collapsed to the floor, crying, “Lord, I can’t handle this any longer.”
As I wept before God, His power settled upon me with a peace I’d never known. I realized suicide was not the solution. God had stopped me.
Later, the Lord’s Prayer became special to me in my private times with God, and I saw my desire for revenge as sin. I stumbled over the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Conviction gripped me because forgiveness was an issue I hadn’t faced. Now I realized I was no better than Johnny; I had wanted to destroy him. But God would not forgive me unless I forgave my nephew. Consoling myself that God would deal with Johnny in His own way was not forgiveness.
Each day, as I read the Lord’s Prayer, I felt conviction. I began to pray for the power of God’s forgiveness in my heart. I gradually realized that a deep peace had overtaken the bitterness within. Only God could have done that.
Now, almost three years had passed, and God had blessed me with another family. He had not forsaken me for one moment.
I turned again to Mary, the letter still in my hand. I ruffled her hair as I went for the paper and a pen. Already the words were forming in my mind that I would write to Johnny, and I knew God’s work of forgiveness was complete.
Johnny’s letter tested me, taking me back to that awful day, but God used it to show me His greater work of grace. This senseless tragedy had turned into the greatest spiritual triumph of my life.
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