Last October 3, inside the San Diego County jail visitors’ section at four in the afternoon, a bevy of nubile females, tottering on skinny four-inch heels, lined up at window number two and blew kisses to the youthful, baby-faced prisoner. Poured like wet plaster of Paris into size-five Sassoons, their classically pretty features pressed against the glass partition that separated them from Paul Robert Pitts. “I love you,” each said in turn, and for a few moments the dismal jail hallway became a sweet medley of sopranos.
My son Mark, nearly nineteen, was among the visitors that Sunday. Because it was Mark’s first visit and because the adoring girls were regulars on visiting days, they cheerfully invited him to line up ahead of them, though he was the last to arrive.
Leaning against a wall, I eavesdropped on rapid-fire laughter, the uneasy kind that speaks of nervousness. Small talk, glib remarks, black humor, and inane one-liners filled up space so that there was not a second of silence.
“Take care, love. See you next week, baby,” waved a pale, extremely slender, middle-aged woman. She was dressed in a bright-pink, cotton shirtwaist dress. Her face was immaculately done without being overdone; every shoulder-length platinum hair was in place. The ninety-five pounds distributed evenly throughout her narrow, five-foot-five-inch frame had not diminished her fine looks. On the contrary, Joyce Johnson is one of those women who, despite the now Biafra-thin body, had become handsome with age and adversity.
“He looks so thin,” she said in a wistful tone as she flashed a smile in her son’s direction. “He only gets three trays of food a day. Lunch is usually a bologna sandwich. Sometimes they forget to feed him. He didn’t have any soap or toilet paper for four days,” she continued. “He’s got to buy all his own supplies, you know. When the bishop called and said there wasn’t any money left in his account, we got some money down there right away,” she told me. “Conditions here are so inhumane. If you only knew . . .” Her voice trailed as she smilingly greeted another visitor who appeared in the hallway to visit her son. “This will be our first Christmas without him,” Joyce told the newcomer.
I spent a few minutes on the phone with him on the other side of the glass partition. Because I felt self-conscious about being there, rather than hushed, my voice was loud and high-pitched. Rob chuckled and said very politely that I didn’t have to talk quite that loud. I told him he looked terrific. He owed me a letter, I reminded him, a journal he had promised to write and send me. He said he’d try, but his mind was now on the sentencing that was to take place the following week. He said he was a little concerned about it. We both discreetly circumvented the subject foremost on our minds, the subject that put him on the other side of that glass wall, that enticed me to visit; the subject that turned an ordinary, unemployed occasional furniture mover into an overnight sensational headline.
We first learned of the murder on television. The lead story on Channel 8’s five o’ clock news one evening in February of last year was the arraignment. We heard and watched en famille in stunned disbelief. Appearing in handcuffs, Rob had already earned the media sobriquet ‘‘Toy Box Killer.” (As a child, had he pulled wings off butterflies? Had he teased the neighborhood dogs? Had he been abused? My kids said there were no indications. One of them remembered an isolated firecracker incident, though, and another mentioned something vague about his firing a gun during a card game to frighten a suspected cheater. When I pressed for details, they clammed up. Nobody remembered anything; there was no pattern.)
We turned off the TV even before the national news came on. Mark was late for his evening class. After he left, I started thinking about the summer of 1977, when we lived in Genesee Highlands, a 500-unit condominium development in University City swarming with kids, dogs, cats, and divorcees acting like nuclear-family types. Despite the pruned shrubbery and the swimming pool, to me it was a Lower East Side tenement, from which I remained aloof. I hated living there, and so I made no attempts to befriend the neighbors. Wendy, my youngest child, then nine years old, had groups of playmates scattered throughout the development. Lisa and Mark, both teen-agers then, had the family next door.
That family — mother Joyce and sons Rob and Greg — were San Diego stereotypes: blonde, blue-eyed, healthy, a single-parent female head-of-household with a steady job. That was Joyce. Paul Robert, known to us as Rob, was nearly twenty-three years old, divorced, and the father of a two-year-old daughter (who was soon legally adopted by her mother’s present husband). Rob’s half-brother Greg was eight or nine years younger than he. The family had lived in University City for nearly a dozen years; the two boys had grown up there and they had a strong sense of neighborhood. Other than family and work, Joyce’s main interest was being as devout a Mormon as she could; several times each week she attended activities at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Pacific Beach. After having been married unsuccessfully to two non-Mormon husbands, she now vowed to date Mormon men exclusively.
According to my children, who were highly critical of how our own family was living, the people next door were the ideal family, a paradigm of Americana — hot oatmeal for breakfast, Norman Rockwell in condominiumland. They were mainstream: steady job, traditional church, Reader's Digest. Lisa and Mark liked the shiny blue glass grapes that rested on the walnut table in our neighbor’s living room; they admired the Tupperware, the brand-name aluminum wrap, the color-coordinated Kleenex, and the huge refrigerator that didn’t leak and that bulged with fresh, wholesome food.
Joyce was soft-spoken. According to my kids, she was a model mom — sacrificing, understanding, supportive, undemanding. And she always wore nice, conservative clothes. (I shopped garage sales, swap meets, and day-old bakeries.) Thus, their household unit was sanctuary for Mark and Lisa, who hung out there to escape my demands, the embarrassment of my flea-market finds, my unconventional appliances, my books whose titles glared (The Student as Nigger, Naked Lunch, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Nympho and Other Maniacs, The Prisoner of Sex, and Cannibals and Christians), and by my companions, who were freelancers and, for the most part, marginal types.
We had wandered as a family all the way from New York City to New England to Florida to Central Mexico, and then we lived in three different San Diego locations. In the midst of those wanderings, we, too, had become a single-parent female head-of-household family, whose income from out-of-state child support payments was as precarious as my income from writing.
Joyce checked groceries at an independent grocery store in Ocean Beach. She supplemented that income by catering weddings on weekends from her tiny windowless condominium kitchen, the proceeds of which helped feed her sons. They ate like wolves all day and deep into the night, especially when they returned from surfing at La Jolla Shores. There was one firm rule, however: no swearing. If things went wrong, you could say “dam it.”
It was the summer of excesses, 1977, what with month-long Monopoly contests and card games. Next-door-neighbor Rob was at the helm as Peter Pan, Pied Piper, and Prank Player. In Rob’s yellow Maverick there were quick expeditions to one of Los Angeles’s outlying areas (Mark and other employed neighborhood teenagers chipped in for gas) to buy firecrackers for the Fourth of July. Conspicuous consumption went uncontrolled. Electric bills at Joyce’s place were well over a hundred dollars a month; in 1977 that was sky high. The washer and dryer hummed continually. Rob took three daily showers, sometimes all before sundown. And when the little yellow Maverick was out of whack, Joyce, the Great Provider, gave the boys her station wagon so they could get to the beach easily while she bused all the way to the cash register in Ocean Beach. And at the end of her work day, she bused back to University City.
Evenings were drive-in movies — horror films and beach boy-lifeguard films — followed by forays into Burger King, after which Rob led the troops into Marie Callender’s on Balboa and Genesee. There they’d order an entire pie, which they washed down after midnight with a gallon of milk from Joyce’s bursting refrigerator. Rob, this twenty-three-year-old teenager whose hair gleamed bright golden under neon, nearly towheaded in the sun, whose bright sunburned face, innocent blue eyes and flawless white teeth, the idol of the neighborhood teen-agers, the Crown Prince of La Jolla Shores Beach, had the authentic Southern California look. He should have been on a poster.
Soon Lisa started going along to the movies with Rob and the boys. After a while the boys were left to their own devices and it was just Rob and Lisa at the drive-ins, the fast-food hangouts, Marie Callender’s, and then back next door to listen to music. In a way I was relieved; Lisa was nearly seventeen and was pretty, and at least I knew where she was. There were times, though, at one or two in the morning, that I’d go next door in my bathrobe to pry Rob and Lisa apart, insisting that my daughter come home immediately, followed by an internal debate: Lisa was still in high school, dating a man who had been divorced and had already fathered a child. On the other hand, Rob’s wholesomeness impressed me - no nicotine, no alcohol, no caffeine. And all those showers. But how could my children be appropriate companions for a man nearly twenty-three years old, living under his mother's roof without independent income, without motivation?
Late in the spring of 1978, Rob escorted Lisa to the Clairemont High School senior-class boat ride. Both shiny-eyed and dressed to kill, they looked adorable together. “Have a wonderful time,” I waved as they drove off in the yellow Maverick. It bothered me, though, that Rob had agreed to attend a high school event, especially since he had dropped out of high school years earlier. The next morning Lisa said he had a great time.
That June Lisa graduated. When fall came, she left for the dorms at SDSU and we moved to a condominium development eight blocks away. Rob soon married a nineteen-year-old blonde who worked as a checker at Gemco. The newlyweds lived for a while in the two-bedroom condo with Joyce and her younger son, Greg. Unannounced, they roller-skated over to our new place one Saturday afternoon for an impromptu visit.
The magic between Rob and his second wife soon dissipated. After Rob and Dorothy split up, he was still living most of the time at the Genesee Highlands condo with his mother and half-brother. Occasionally he moved furniture for United Van Lines but everything else remained the same; expectations were still low. He was spending lots of time at La Jolla Shores Beach surfing, ogling nubiles, being ogled, body building, taking lots of showers, and washing down his life with gallons of milk.
A couple of years later, on December 17, 1981 Rob married again. Bride number three, Marta, was the twenty-year-old mother of a little boy from a former marriage. The pair had met a few months earlier at a Latter Day Saints church youth dance. Joyce met for the first time her third daughter-in-law and the baby, Jared David Cartwright, at the couple’s wedding, held at the home of Marta’s parents in El Cajon. They were all reunited on Saturday, January 23, 1982 at a party celebrating little Jared’s second birthday.
Early the following Friday morning Joyce took the bus from University City to the telephone company at the Union Bank Building downtown, where she was then employed as a secretary. There she received an urgent phone call from her new daughter-in-law’s mother, Jared’s maternal grandmother, summoning her to Grossmont Hospital. There had been an accident, it seemed. Two-year-old Jared was dead.
With the aid of a friend and the friend’s car, Joyce managed to get out to Grossmont Hospital, where that afternoon two officers from the El Cajon Police Department informed her that her son (after waiving his right to an attorney’s presence and being interviewed for nearly three hours) was being booked in connection with his new stepson’s death. There were two charges: murder and felony child abuse. “If I had known when I got the call at work that Rob was suspected of murder, I never would’ve come to that hospital without an attorney,” Joyce told me later.
She retained Robert May, a well-respected El Cajon criminal attorney who visited Rob in jail the day following Jared’s death. Rob’s elderly, infirm grandparents and other relatives chipped in nearly $25,000 as a retainer. (Joyce had been renting in University City at that time; thus, there was no property to use as collateral for a loan.) The balance of the costly defense was to be paid to attorney May in installments.
As a result of these huge and unexpected expenses, Joyce and her younger son, Greg, were forced to move from the neighborhood where they had lived for fifteen of Greg’s nineteen years. By the beginning of the summer, mother and younger son had temporarily moved in with sympathetic friends from the Mormon Church who offered to share their El Cajon home. Although Greg was in his final semester at Mission Bay High School, he dropped out. Rob’s father, who hadn’t been around for nearly a quarter of a century, was never notified of his son’s trouble.
On Mother’s Day, my kids — Mark, Lisa, and Lisa’s fiance — went to the beach early and then out to lunch. After drinking half a cup of bitter, reheated coffee from the previous night, I mowed the lawn with a manual lawnmower that needed sharpening. Daughter Wendy was the sole recipient of my crankiness only because she bothered to hang around. While I was wallowing in what I considered to be an inappropriate way to spend Mother’s Day, and angrily pushing the lawnmower, I began thinking about two other San Diego mothers and what they might be doing: What about Joyce and Marta? How were they coping? What were my former neighbor's thoughts as she entered the tawdry visitors’ section of the San Diego County jail that Sunday to comfort her first-born? What particular words were Rob’s gift to his mother during the brief moments they spent looking at each other through San Diego County glass?
Did little Jared’s blue eyes and straight, dark-blond hair invade Marta s dreams that same morning? Was she sorting out his toys? Caressing his favorite stuffed animal? Speaking to it? Fondling his first pair of shoes? Or had she already given his things to another mother of another two-year-old boy? If only Jared could’ve spoken. If only he could have warned his mother.
On June 12 Joyce made her now-routine weekly pilgrimage to the San Diego County jail to see her son for a few minutes, after which she drove immediately to University City, back to the old neighborhood, to my daughter Lisa’s wedding reception. After initial restrained hugs, after congratulating Lisa and her bridegroom, Joyce mingled with some of the wedding guests. The smile was still radiant but a little shaky; the fragility no longer stayed beneath the surface. “I’ve got to be brave for him,” she told us, speaking of Rob. ‘‘If it weren’t for my church, I would’ve jumped off a bridge a long time ago.” She mentioned Rob’s upcoming trial, which had been rescheduled for the following month. And then she repeated: She was being brave. She had to. She’d keep right on smiling. ‘‘After it’s all over, then I’ll have a good cry,” she said.
“Joyce doesn’t deserve this,” whispered Lisa.
A few weeks later, on a hot afternoon in the beginning of July, I drove downtown to the jail. Before I left my house, I changed clothes at least seven or eight times, finally choosing a conservative white blazer and tailored black pants, and to insure that authorities wouldn’t confuse me with the regulars, I took props with me — a steno pad in my hand and a bail-point pen behind an ear.
Visiting hours are from 4:00 to 4:30 p.m. I arrived before four, and when I dropped off some magazines for Rob at the official window, I was told that at four o’clock I could go directly to the hallway on the left, to window number two, where the prisoner would be waiting.
In the reception area, women of all ages, some wearing shorts and halter tops without bras, some carrying infants in their arms, interacted noisily with one another, congregating as informal support groups, bound to each other by the common denominators that were only yards away, behind bars. “I don’t got no more change on me. Gotta dime?” one of them asked me.
An elderly couple sat huddled on a bench across from the information window. They kept to themselves, sitting quietly, comforting each other with silence. Although we had never met during the years Joyce and I had been neighbors, I knew they were her parents, that they had been comforting each other for more than half a century. I sat down next to them and we began, delicately, talking about what had brought us all together at this particular place, at this particular time. Rob’s grandmother, whose cancer was then in remission, wore an auburn wig which covered the ravages of chemotherapy treatments. She focused moist eyes on the concrete floor of the reception area as she spoke quietly of the Lord, the Devil, and Endurance, and how her husband wants her to return to her people in South Carolina before Robby’s trial starts, and when Robby gets sent away how she’ll visit him if it isn’t too very far and bring him home-cooked food because he misses it, poor darlin’. “And I’ll bring him orange juice. Robby hasn’t had his orange juice in such a long time and he really misses his orange juice,” her wistfulness turning into incipient hysteria as she spoke more rapidly. Robby was twenty-seven years old.
The grandfather’s white hair and hollowed eyes were dulled. This was the worst thing that could ever happen to a family, he said. “It’s a terrible nightmare. Sometimes I think it really hasn’t happened at all, but each time I come here, I know it has. After I visit this place, I don’t sleep for a few nights afterwards — sometimes not for a week,” said the old man.
“He has a bad heart,” his wife offered.
Within minutes the hallway was filled: Joyce, her brother Marvin who lives in Lakeside, and some relatives who had arrived that day from Arizona. There were nine of us. Thirty minutes divided among nine people came to a little more than three minutes per person. I felt guilty using more than three minutes in view of the fact that these relatives had traveled hundreds of miles, and I wasn’t even sure what I was going to say to him. Nevertheless, at the stroke of four, I walked right over to window two, picked up the phone, and announced that I planned to attend his trial, that I wanted to start a correspondence with him, that my visit had a dual purpose — I had come as a former neighbor and family friend and also as a member of the media. Then, disregarding tact, I commented on how different he looked. “Your hair’s brown. You’re pale.” “No beach here,” he grinned quickly. He had been locked up nearly six months.
Rob’s mood was jovial; it was a Sunday picnic and he was guest of honor, and host — under glass. The conversation was ordinary, the participants ordinary, the circumstances extraordinary. We exchanged more words in those three and a half minutes than we had in all the next-door-neighbor years of “How’re ya doin’?” and “Where’s Mark and Lisa at?”
I talked about my kids; he sent them his regards and thanked me for coming to see him. He said he felt embarrassed about the whole thing, “just a dumb thing,” he called it. I didn’t dare discuss what I wanted to. Three and a half minutes wasn’t time enough to find out what it’s like being locked up, what it’s like to have killed someone, killed a baby. Even if there had been more time, I wouldn’t have had the courage to ask him. It was bizarre. Rob was behind glass, grinning.
As I relinquished the phone to an Arizona relative, I smiled and waved good-bye. He waved back to me and said, “I love you.” The inappropriateness of that remark after so many years of merely “How’re ya doin’?” caught me off guard. My eyes were wet when I walked over to the wall where Joyce was standing. Were my tears for Rob? For his mother? For the dead child? Or were they tears of relief that it was not my son behind the glass, caged? Or that it wasn't my son who had been stuffed into a toy box? “He doesn’t sleep at night,” said Joyce. “He has nightmares thinking about what’ll happen to him in prison. He cries all night.” Cries for whom?
After three continuances and after nearly three days of jury selection, Rob’s trial began at nine o’clock in the morning on August 10 (six and a half months after the killing occurred) in department sixteen, superior court. The docket read, “The People versus Paul Robert Pitts — in violation of P.C. 187, etc.” Several minutes before nine, Joyce appeared in the hallway outside the courtroom, flanked by Rob’s attorney, Robert May; by one of Rob’s La Jolla Shores Beach admirers; and by Joyce’s friend Nadine, in whose El Cajon home she and Greg were living. Joyce’s brother Marvin was the only other family member present. “Greg and my parents weren’t up to it,” she explained quietly. It would be too painful for Greg to be around while his idol’s character was being impugned. “This isn't the way he knew his brother,” she said. As her son, in handcuffs, was led into the courtroom by armed marshals, she said evenly, “He’s never walked through that door without seeing me standing here. I was here during the preliminary hearings, the arraignment, the jury selection, everything.”
Judge Raul Rosado immediately set a friendly, folksy, almost lighthearted tone for the proceedings, in which murder by torture was to be explicitly described and attested to by twenty-two prosecution witnesses (paramedics, firefighters, doctors, detectives, evidence technicians, public health specialists), and where more than sixty exhibits were to be produced. Never having attended a murder trial before, and considering the gravity of the charges, I had expected a harsh, formal courtroom environment.
But this particular chamber of judgment was polite compared even to the innocuous small-claims court, where adversaries argue viscerally and viciously over the replacement of a twenty-dollar sweater from a dry cleaning establishment, where the tone is much more intense than anything in Raul Rosado’s domain.
Despite the defense attorney’s objections, Rosado welcomed the media, made special accommodations for television cameras, and offered up didactic discourse on the value and propriety of an open courtroom, of which he was clearly an advocate. He explained that a trial is a mixture of facts and law, and he cautioned the jury to observe carefully the demeanor of each witness. “Some will be lying,” he warned, “others will be telling the truth.
“It’s hot out there today so be sure to walk in the shade and drink plenty of fluids,” he benignly instructed, after which he implored the jury not to be out sick. “Have a nice lunch,” he said as the first lunch recess was called. Even Joyce chuckled.
The deputy district attorney, Lisa Guy-Schall, a cool-looking, statuesque blonde with an All-American Cheryl Tiegs face, wore red. Her forty-minute opening statement, delivered in a crisp, well-organized manner, exuded confidence. She said the state would present evidence through a series of documents, photographs, and witnesses to prove that the defendant committed unlawful deeds that caused the death of Jared David Cartwright.
In his twenty-minute opening statement, defense attorney Robert May said that he intended to show the love relationship between the defendant and the deceased, that his client may have been guilty of immaturity and poor judgment, but not malice, not murder.
Judge Rosado said that the lawyers’ statements were not to be considered as evidence.
The audience of friends and relatives of both victim and accused, plus a few court watchers and law students, sat anesthetized during the proceedings, stationary models for an oil painting. Was procedure, and not the crime, the focus?
Late that afternoon, after court had adjourned, I rode in the elevator down to the lobby with Joyce. She was on her way to the county jail to retrieve her son’s soiled clothing and to drop off a freshly laundered outfit for the following day’s court appearance. “It’s a long, complicated process involving lots of paperwork,” she told me with a sigh, “because only one outfit at a time is allowed in his cell. Everything needs to be ticketed, signed in, and signed out.” Then she would bus back to Nadine’s place in El Cajon, where she would wash and iron her son’s clothing. Early the next morning she would bus from Parkway Plaza down to the Union Bank Building. Arriving at seven in the morning, she’d perform her secretarial duties until eight-thirty and then head over to the courthouse to her son’s murder trial, looking immaculate. The process continued throughout the trial, day after day. Yet she always looked unruffled as she waited for Rob, watching him being escorted through the back door of the courtroom in cuffs, flashing a confident smile at him. Then it was the long bus ride back to El Cajon. One day she found a penciled scrawling on one of the requisition slips attached to his soiled clothing. It said, “I love you, Mom.”
When the trial was well underway, on the fourth or fifth day, Joyce confided to me that it was hard for her to restrain herself from greeting the jury who waited during recesses as she did in the hallway outside the courtroom. “I’m normally warm and friendly, and when I see the same faces every day, I want to say hello to them, but I can’t because I’d be accused of trying to influence them,” she said. “They’ve got a job to do, and so do I.”
By the time the prosecution had rested, twenty-two witnesses had established that Jared David Cartwright, age two, died on January 29, 1982 at approximately 11:30 a.m. from asphyxiation and heat exposure by being placed inside a wooden toy box that measured ten and one-half inches deep, thirty and one-half inches long, and fourteen inches wide. Jared’s naked thirty-six-inch body had been placed in the box along with an electric hair dryer turned to the hottest position. The grim specter of that maple-colored wooden toy box, referred to by the prosecutor as the “torture chamber,” was made melodramatic by its constant presence, center stage, throughout the prosecution’s presentation. In addition, coroner’s photographs indicated first-, second-, and third-degree burns on Jared’s fingers, scrotum, and calf. Rob listened to the macabre proceedings placidly, patiently, and politely as photos of Jared’s corpse were circulated among the jury. No one’s expression changed.
As part of the state’s evidence, a three-hour-long tape was played of Rob’s initial interrogation on the day of Jared’s death. His hysterical voice, repeating over and over again “I didn’t mean to kill the guy!” produced hallway speculation that the motive was standard stepfather stuff. The guy? The guy was barely two years old, still in diapers. He shared the same bedroom with the newlyweds, sleeping in the next bed, separated from them by only a bookcase. “Rob was immature,” conjectured a spectator. “He viewed the baby as a rival who had to be destroyed.” Dr. Wait R. Griswold testified that Rob said he “wanted to get even with the baby,” a statement that was made while Rob was cuffed and chained to a chair in the psychiatrist’s office while two armed police officers were within hearing distance. During the course of a dinner conversation, one of Griswold’s colleagues glibly pronounced that Rob was getting even with his own father for disappearing from his life when he was about Jared’s age.
Marta Bills Cartwright Pitts, Jared’s youthful mother, who had since annulled her marriage to Rob, testified without invective that under Rob’s care, her son had been left alone in a bathtub and had been tied up prior to the day of his death as a method of discipline. Because Jared was a slow talker, when Marta would return home from her job at an El Cajon accounting firm, Jared pointed to his little fingers, saying, “Hurt! Hurt!” When Marta had questioned her new husband about the marks and minor bruises on her son’s body, Rob said that the child was accident prone.
The first witness defense attorney May called to the stand was his client. The initial examination was brief. During nearly two hours of cross-examination, Rob’s story varied, though there was an incremental repetition of his idee fixe — “just a dumb thing I did.”
“I just wanted to make him hot and sweaty.”
“I was trying to make him uncomfortable so he’d behave.”
“He climbed into the toy box by himself.”
“I knew he didn’t like being in the toy box,” he later admitted.
“I didn’t tell them what I did because I was ashamed. I was embarrassed.”
“Some statements were true; others were false,” he said when asked if he had lied. He confessed that he had been tying the baby’s hands as punishment for touching the stereo.
When asked to describe his present emotional state, he said he felt emotionally stable.
The language of the court and of the cross-examination was that of extreme politeness characterized by double nouns used as softening agents — bedroom area, crotch area, babysitting chores, prison facility, at this point in time.
It was eleven in the morning that Friday when Jared was put in the toy box. He had been fed no breakfast nor been given any liquid. When the prosecutor asked Rob to demonstrate with a thirty-six-inch rag dummy (constructed to simulate Jared) what the baby’s last moments alive were like, Rob tied the hands of the rag dummy with the same yellow necktie he used on Jared, placed the rag dummy in the box, taped the mouth with duct tape, put the blow dryer on the hottest position and propped it, and closed the lid. “Then I went to take a shower. I didn’t want him to get out. I didn’t want the neighbors to hear him scream,” he said calmly, with an absence of mannerism and eye contact.
“He was mad at me. I hit him ’n’ stuff,’’ said Rob. "When I came out of the shower for the First time, I opened the lid and looked inside. Then I closed it again and put lead body-building weights on top of it,” he finally admitted after this fact was culled from a letter he had written to Marta in February, which was intercepted by county jail authorities and subsequently turned over to the district attorney’s office.
“Are you all right, sir?” asked the prosecutor.
“Do you need any water?” she asked him.
“Please,” he replied. “Thank you.”
The testimony continued. After he placed the lead weights on top of the toy box, Rob went back to the bathroom to finish one of his famous, interminably long showers. He re-emerged ten minutes later, removed the lead weights, opened the lid, found Jared unconscious, pupils dilated, lying in his own excrement in an airless box whose heat had reached an estimated 160 degrees. In a state of panic, he called Marta at the office where she worked (while he babysat and did the laundry and shopping) and then, following her instructions, he called the paramedics. When they arrived, they found Jared on the floor covered with a blanket which hid the burns on his body. Rob changed his own clothes twice, then drove to Grossmont Hospital, where Jared had been taken. Marta, other relatives, Jared’s pediatrician Dr. Zlotnick, elders from the Mormon Church, and the police were there, too. Rob sat on the floor and avoided looking at anyone, they testified.
Even recess didn’t break the tension. It was America’s Finest City Week and down in the street below, a Dixieland band was playing and people were dancing informally in the square facing the Federal Building. Others stood by eating sandwiches from brown paper sacks. The jazz was loud enough, but it didn’t drown out the muffled screams, the lost struggle inside the toy box, whose very presence had filled the courtroom.
Back in the hallway outside department sixteen, Joyce mentioned that Rob was worried about the church trial he was about to undergo. “He won’t even be able to be there to defend himself,” she said sadly. If Rob were excommunicated from the Mormon Church, Joyce and her first-born son would be separated for all eternity.
The defense presented four other witnesses for the purpose of giving character evidence: Joyce, a friend of Rob’s who is a criminal justice major at SDSU, the manager of the El Cajon apartments on Estes Street where the tragedy occurred, and the woman at Marta’s office who had answered the phone that Friday last January when Rob called to say Jared was unconscious. All four witnesses said that Rob was a nice guy.
“It’s a sad commentary that the last eulogy for Jared David Cartwright should take place in a court of law,” began the prosecutor’s closing arguments. She described the toy box as a torture chamber and in an effectively dramatic gesture, she slammed the lid down hard. She didn’t look like Cheryl Tiegs anymore. Then she proceeded to instruct the jury that premeditation, the intention to kill, is not a necessary element for a first-degree murder verdict in a murder-by-torture case. Malice aforethought, doing a forbidden act despite awareness of its wrong, the act done for antisocial purpose and with wanton disregard for human life, an act which involves a high degree of probability of death — this is enough, she explained.
In his closing, the defense attorney argued that Rob wasn’t intentionally responsible for Jared’s death. Rob loved the boy and was in the shower at the time and therefore didn’t hear the screams. Attorney May then cited the death of Gus Grissom and two other astronauts, ignoring the fact that they were consenting adults who were not bound and gagged. “We didn’t intend for them to die but they did,” he said. “My client didn’t intend for Jared to die either. If he had heard the baby scream,” May addressed the jury, “do you think he would have let him stay in that toy box?” May’s closing argument lasted nearly three hours. He made intent an issue and asked the jury to bring in a verdict of involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor child abuse.
In the prosecutor’s brief rebuttal, she reasserted that intent was not the issue. Then, after weeks of forensic testimony, with expert witnesses imported from L.A., after months of research and points of law made by a judge and two attorneys, twelve jurors and three alternates got a crash course in the law, were instructed on how to examine the evidence, and were given as much time as they needed to decide Rob’s fate.
The jury was out for almost three days, a sign that encouraged the defense. On Wednesday morning, August 25, they delivered the verdict. Rob was found guilty of murder in the first degree and guilty of felony child abuse. “Oh my God!” gasped Joyce. May’s jaw dropped. Rob sat frozen to the chair, expressionless. The television cameras panned to his face and got a blank stare. My son Mark watched television in his room that evening and emerged twenty minutes after the news program was over. “I assume you heard the news,” was all he said to me. I asked Mark if he wanted to talk about it. He said no.
Rob sent me a letter dated August 29, four days after the verdict was announced. He wrote, “I felt that even through all the terrible things of the trial, that you could see somehow that I acted foolishly and rash, but not maliciously toward Jared. I guess because of all the factors involved it may have seemed that way to them. Yet I know I never thought to hurting him ever. I think you know me enough that I don’t have to go into it more, but it does hurt me that I could be judged as that type of atrocious behavior.
“As for me I guess I made a mistake, which admittedly was wrong, but now the price paid is very severe. But as I didn’t believe any danger in my actions, I guess the jury didn’t feel any wrong in the judgment. I don’t hold any grudge, I just wish they could have know the truth other than circumstances.”
Because it has always been awkward for me to write condolence notes to survivors, I sometimes rely on conventional greeting cards to convey an appropriate expression, as long as the message isn’t overly saccharine or mystic. But not even Hallmark has produced words that simultaneously acknowledge a son’s murder conviction and express sympathy for the parent without condoning the crime. My typewritten message of comfort, which I sent the following week, commended Joyce on her grace under pressure. I ended the note by expressing my view that as a humanist, I can despise the deed, not the doer. I’m not sure that’s how I really felt, though. The connection between Rob and his heinous crime was beginning to take shape.
A response arrived the third week in September in the form of a typewritten, Xeroxed letter, one of more than forty that were mailed, thanking all of us for our love and support during the family’s ordeal. It requested (stamped, addressed envelope enclosed) that we immediately write letters to Judge Rosado suggesting that Rob be placed in a medium facility rather than a maximum facility so that he could better endure his sentence, which was to be pronounced on October 12. I did.
Joyce didn’t allude to the daily life-threatening situation for Rob if he were placed among a prison population in a place like Folsom or San Quentin, but in my note to the judge, to be forwarded to a team of evaluators, I did.
On the bottom of Joyce’s form letter, she penned a personal message to me that she was moving to an apartment in Chula Vista with a girlfriend, that she was still working at the phone company downtown, and that she hoped we’d “do better about keeping in touch.’’ I did. I called her at the office a few days later. Her younger son, Greg, had a job, she said, and he was living in the old neighborhood (University City) with a friend and the friend’s mother.
After my son Mark and I made our October 3 visit to jail to see Rob, we both received letters written the following day. Rob wrote Mark that he plans to study Chinese while he is in prison. He wrote me that the whole thing had been a sort of growth experience for him, and although the path toward the Heavenly Father isn’t an easy one, with God's guidance, he’s finding the way. There were six pages of psychobabble and holybabble and a poem he wrote about love. “Life behind bars can actually be a blessing in a person’s life if the person can understand their situation and grow from it,” he wrote. “Speaking for myself, I have been surprised at how well I have accepted the way I must live now. Of course it didn’t just happen overnight. It seems that day by day, especially when I really need that extra boost of strength to endure, I find it somewhere deep within me. I must give the glory for my abilities to God, though, because without his help and constant blessings I wouldn’t ever be able to cope. In fact, one of the best things that has transpired lately is my strength and more complete faith in God and his plans for us. By trusting in the Lord, we will be assured things will work out for the best. . . .
“So often, and unfortunately, it takes an experience in heartache, pain, grief, or loss of something to truly relate to it. I look at all the many people who are going in circles, not knowing what they really want or what real purpose there is in life. Although I’m physically confined, mentally and spiritually I have grown so much that by the time I’m released, if I continue to grow at even one-half this rate, I’ll be further ahead than I ever would have otherwise. There are many times of loneliness and depression here. But in going through these experiences my heart becomes more and more loving and compassionate for all mankind.”
I never answered his letter. I never went to see him again. On the morning of October 12, I called superior court and the clerk told me that the sentencing would take place at four that afternoon. I arrived early, taking the escalator up to the third floor in order to avoid the possibility of being trapped in an elevator with Joyce. I wasn’t in the mood for polite conversation or for feeling pity or for offering comfort. I had nothing to say. I just wanted to observe.
The hallway outside department sixteen was loaded with familiar faces.
There was Uncle Marvin (from Lakeside) and his wife cordially greeting Dave Cartwright (Jared’s father), as though they were good buddies. Jurors greeted me and although it was the first time we had ever spoken (to them I was the mystery lady — they had been speculating about me, figuring I was from the Mormon Church), we formed a tight fraternity of shared experiences. We exchanged feelings and phone numbers freely. Inside the courtroom. Judge Rosado greeted us warmly, thanked us for coming, for our involvement and interest in the case, and informed us that at the very last minute the defense attorney had requested a continuance until the following week, October 19, same time, and that he hoped to see us all then. “It won’t be postponed any more,” he promised.
The jurors and I continued to chat in the street outside the courthouse. They confided the effects of this trial on their families. One of the alternates, a woman who also works for the telephone company, asked the question, “Would Rob be vengeful after his prison release?” The family was concerned about it, she said. “Not to worry,” I assured them all. “He’s harmless. He’s really a nice guy.” Each one of them looked at me for a long time.
At four o’clock on October 19, there was a full house in department sixteen. All the August characters were assembled, plus a few extras. The very pregnant wife of one of the detectives, John Locke, who testified for the prosecution, came for the sentencing even though she was never present at the trial. “I have a two-year-old son,” she explained, “and this case has affected me a lot.” It seemed as though every individual present had a stake in the outcome. Eight jurors and one alternate were present, Jared’s father, his paternal grandparents, maternal grandmother, and other relatives. Marta, the victim’s mother, was not to be seen. Accompanying Joyce was her father, her brother and sister-in-law, one of the La Jolla Shores groupies who had attended the trial, plus a man I had never seen before. Joyce’s mother and her younger son, Greg, were not present.
I started to take my usual seat behind Joyce’s entourage in the spectators’ gallery on the right-hand side of the courtroom. Before I sat down, I quickly changed my mind and joined the nine other media members who occupied the jury box along with TV cameras from the three major local channels. Through his attorney, Rob formally asked for a new trial on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The motion was denied. Then Rob’s attorney motioned for a reduction from first-degree murder to second-degree murder, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to uphold a first-degree conviction. Judge Rosado commented that there’s no instrument that goes into the mind to determine intent but that all the elements to cause cruel pain and suffering were there. Attorney May continued to argue that it was Rob’s poor judgment and immaturity, not malice. “This was an easy case for me to decide,” said Rosado. “The jury hit it right on the head, Mr. May, and I concur with their decision.” Joyce began shaking her head back and forth, mouthing, “No! No!” while Rosado explained that he would listen to May even though he had already heard all the arguments. Her make-up was wearing off; her face ashen with despair, no longer frozen in smile, she began crying quietly. Rob’s face looked waxen, yellowish. He was leaner than ever. He wasn’t the person who took my daughter to the senior boat ride. He was different.
“Motion denied!” Rosado finally said. The sentence determined by law was passed. Twenty-five years to life. Rob’s face was stone, emotionless. Joyce and her father were suddenly pale. Attorney May told the court that his client was filing an appeal. (Where was the money coming from?)
It was not all over. A discussion ensued between the two lawyers and the judge in the presence of a packed courtroom of friends, relatives, strangers, and reporters regarding the possibility of Rob being killed in state prison. Judge Rosado acknowledged the inmates’ grim code of ethics regarding crimes against children. If Rob were placed in a general prison population, his life wouldn’t be worth much, and if he were in lock-up, he’d come out a monster. Here we sat, ordinary people, discussing what to do with the surfer boy who would never ride another wave. Another exercise in social control. We sat and listened, some of us taking notes, some of us shuddering silently in a paroxysm of horror, all of us avoiding Joyce’s eyes. Rosado agreed that a life sentence, not a death sentence, had been imposed, and although he felt it was improper for him to interfere, if it met with the prosecutor’s approval, he would honor the defense attorney’s request to recommend that Rob not be placed in a facility with hardened criminals. The deputy district attorney consented.
Rob was taken back to his cell. In the hallway, the media pounced on the two lawyers. Before she gave her statement to a reporter from Channel 8, the prosecutor, Lisa Guy-Schall, and Dave Cartwright, the dead baby’s father, embraced. “This case hit me the hardest of any case I’ve ever prosecuted,” Guy-Schall told me. Then she thanked the jury for coming and for doing a good job.
Dave’s parents, Jared's grandparents, said they felt justice was done. Dave said, on camera, he didn’t want to see Rob out on parole in sixteen or seventeen years.
Robert May said on TV that he was frustrated with the decision.
Joyce disappeared from my view.
It was over.
I didn’t sleep much that night. Joyce’s pleading eyes kept invading my dreams — the overpowering, ongoing umbilical relationship from which there was no exit — then, the toy box from which there was no exit, the uncharted perils that had uprooted all the established complacencies in my life kept invading throughout the night. The most oppressive invader of my sleep was the silent echo from inside the toy box, the screams frozen in midair. And from my dreams there was no exit.