The Voice of Charles
My name is Charles Conrad. I am 47 years old and this is my story.
August 23rd of 1977 was the first day I had ever walked into a funeral home. As a seven year old boy, it was frightening. I had wished it was only a nightmare and I would wake up safe in my mother's arms. Nearly forty years later, I still remember that distinct funeral home smell...the strong fragrance of flower arrangements lined up at the side of the casket, and that undeniable, yet hard to describe musty scent which fills the room.
Someone, I cannot remember who, lifted me up to see my mother, Rose. This was more than a nightmare…it was harsh reality. She could not reach out to hold me in her arms anymore. I touched her hand, and it was cold. I kissed her cheek, but she could not kiss me back or even open her eyes to look at me. It was beyond heartbreaking to see the woman who was my greatest treasure laying there all alone, unable to give or receive my love anymore.
Why was my beautiful mother in a funeral home casket at 29 years old?
At the time, I was unsure as all the details were not yet known and family members were trying to protect me from what little information they knew. The only thing I knew at the time was that my father had killed her. I didn't know how or why. Rose was a gentle soul, often quiet and rarely outspoken. In her high school year book from 1966, many of her friends referred to her as bright and shy. She was a drum majorette in her school's marching band and sang in the chorus.
She was in the "A" class, the top academic class in the school. According to those who knew her, she was a decent girl with no vices who never ran with a wild crowd. Her home life was sheltered and a bit tumultuous when her parents would argue, and she grew up with two older brothers. Her father died when she was 12 years old.
She wanted to meet a man who would love her, but often got down on herself and felt it would never happen.
She was not only my mother, but my best friend. Don't get me wrong, she would discipline me when I needed it, and there were times it was needed indeed! But I knew she cared for me deeply. There were many evenings we spent drawing pictures or coloring at the kitchen table. She was quite proud when I would impress others with my thorough knowledge of dinosaurs. She taught me to read when I was just three years old. She attended my school functions and took an active role in my young life. My mother loved music and would sometimes turn on the record player or eight-track and sing to her favorite songs while doing housework. She would share dances with me, holding me while she spun around the floor gracefully. One common love we shared was the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Ironically, Cher was my first celebrity crush because she resembled my mother's features and long black hair. Hey, I was a four-year old boy the first time I noticed Cher. To me, my mom was the prettiest of them all. It all added up in my young mind.
As I began to grow a little older, I realized there was a thing called evil. The first time I knew of the existence of evil was a night when I was awakened to the sounds of screaming, crying and loud thuds coming from downstairs. My mother was being beaten by my father. She was pleading with him to stop, but he didn't, and his enraged voice was frightful. I was frozen in fear in my bed and could only cry until it was over. Similarly, another night of beatings came later. This time I could not contain my fear. I cried and screamed out loudly from my bed because I wanted it to stop. My father came upstairs and assured me nothing was wrong, that he and my mom were just wrestling. At the time, I still believed in Santa Claus, but I did not believe the lie I was just told by my father.
My father was 12 years older than mom and more "worldly" in his life experiences.
He was a brilliant man, highly intelligent, and was the founding Director of a successful EMT service at a nearby city hospital. He was a good manager and organizer, well respected in his profession. However, his temper and tendency toward violence was his Jekyll and Hyde. He could be a charming man, playing guitar and singing to my mother on the back porch while I laid in the grass looking at the stars. Then, there was the dark side, especially unleashed under the influence of alcohol. My father grew up in a broken home with no real direction in his life. I understand the source of his anger, but he never sought the true help he needed to overcome his violent behavior. He had visited a psychiatrist for alcoholism, but was not appalled enough by his behavior to find the will to change.
Rose became increasingly lonely and afraid. On a weekend night we were watching television on the sofa when she asked me to stay awake with her that night. She said that my dad was out drinking at a bar and she was afraid he would come home and beat her. I sensed real fear in her voice, and so I sat there with her, trying to comfort her by rubbing her feet as she requested. Being so young I was unable to stay awake until after midnight, but I don't remember any abuse that night. However, I sensed that mom's fear was very real. Over time my mother was slowly losing her identity. She was drinking alcohol more often and none of the friends that visited our home were direct friends of hers...they were all associates and family of my father. Only my mother's brother, a good Christian man, visited a few times, but there seemed to be animosity in the air. During one visit, my uncle and dad were discussing something at the front door and my dad ordered mom to get a shotgun from the cabinet. She obeyed him, to my shock, and I was sitting on the living room sofa thinking my uncle was going to be murdered by my dad. Thankfully it didn't happen, but I then knew evil at an even deeper level.
Losing school lunch tickets in first grade might upset most parents, but it shouldn't send them into a rage. One particular day, I came home and told my mom I couldn't eat lunch that day because I had lost them. Again to my shock, she lost her temper and spanked me with a ferocity I had never experienced before. That was the first time I had ever truly feared my mother as I thought she was going to hurt me badly. Oddly enough, this was also the moment where I felt the most loved by my mother. As soon as she realized she had gone too far, she picked me up and begged me to forgive her, crying with remorse. She held me in her lap soon afterward as she was cutting the grass with the riding lawnmower. She explained to me that she was going through a very hard time and was feeling stress, although she didn't give me details. I knew it had something to do with the abuse, but I wasn't aware of the extent of her difficulties. There was something about the way mom held me that day that made me realize she wasn't angry with me nearly as much as she hated her own life, and that she certainly loved me.
Oftentimes, I would stay with Rose's brother and mother on weekends, which I enjoyed because I got spoiled with soda pop and junk food. I don't even remember the last time mom dropped me off at their house because to me it was just another day to visit my uncle and grandma. How wrong I was!
The date was August 20, 1977. In the darkness of the night, as we were all in bed, I was sleeping with my grandma in her room. There was a loud knock on the door which woke us up. My uncle answered the door and a policeman was standing there. He spoke to my uncle outside briefly, and they came back to announce that Rose was dead. I grabbed onto my grandma and instantly screamed in horror. Even with knowledge of my dad's prior abuse, I never imagined my mother would die so young. My innocence was shattered. Everyone was broken and bewildered at the house that night. Grandma lost her daughter, my uncle lost his sister, and I lost the love of my life, my dear mother Rose. The nights following her death, I was afraid to sleep at night fearing my dad would come to kill me also. He was even worse than I imagined. I didn't understand why he would take my mother's life.
In March of 1978 my dad faced a first degree murder charge at the onset of his trial. I was not permitted to attend the trial due to the trauma I had experienced. By this time I was in a foster home because of my grandma's ill health and the decision of the county child welfare agency.
He ultimately served only two years in prison on an involuntary manslaughter conviction.
His attorneys used the "consent" defense to convince the jury my mother's death was not intentional. The coroner's report found over 60 bruise and cut marks all over her body. There had been a fire in our home several months earlier which gutted the home. During the early remodeling process my parents were cleaning up that day on August 20th. According to testimony, while Rose was at the local market my dad found a letter she had written to another man. He confronted her when she arrived home, knocked her to the floor and began kicking her and whipping her with a lamp cord. Mom explained it was written to someone who worked at a store, but he rejected her advance and returned the letter. No matter that my father was an adulterer, in his mind any attempt by my mom to stray was intolerable.
The coroner's exam also reported marks around her wrists, ankles and neck, indicating she had been tied up. The explanation was that those marks were indicators of sexual bondage. The conclusion was that my mother died of strangulation with a neck injury equaling the severity of a car accident. She had also consumed a large amount of alcohol that day in the hours between the beating and her death. The defense attorneys and my father explained that Rose had felt guilt about writing the letter and punished herself by cutting her hair and slicing her fingers with a knife, all while dad tried to calm her down. The raging man had suddenly become the voice of reason, or so they said.
Then they explained my mother wanted to make up for her bad deed by asking my father to tie her up in their special love practice, wanting to appease him. So, being the sympathetic man he was, or so they said, my father agreed to her wishes and bound her hands, feet and neck. He left her alone for a brief time to engage in erotic stimulation. When he came back into the bedroom she was not breathing but still had a pulse. Dad allegedly tried to revive her for at least half an hour but failed. He went to a bar nearby and called some friends to meet him there. He told them what happened and they convinced him to turn himself in to the police. When the police arrived at the home they found my mother's dead body on the floor, fully clothed. One of my mother's best high school friends recently told me that she remembers seeing my mom's neck at the viewing in the funeral home. She said the bruising was so severe the makeup couldn't even conceal it entirely.
The general feeling by attendees was that Rose had been murdered. The prosecutor believed my father used the opportunity of bondage to strangle my mother in a rage of jealousy over the letter. The jury decided my father was negligent in leaving my mother alone in a vulnerable position of being tied up instead of staying with her, and for that reason only, they convicted him of involuntary manslaughter. It was the least possible charge they could have given him.
Do I believe my mother's death was intentional? Do I believe it was a habit gone wrong? I was not there to witness what happened. I am not personally aware of what my parents did in their lives away from my presence. Some trusted family members on my father's side have said they heard rumors of things happening at my home, but that my father had always had deviant sexual habits long before he met my mother, and that he had a history of domestic violence in his first marriage. When he was in the military in Germany as a young man, he was discharged for assaulting his girlfriend. As a teenager he was sent to a juvenile detention home for slashing another man with a razor.
Although I was not at the scene the day my mother died, I completely disagree with those who say my father would not intentionally kill anyone even though he had a violent temper. I am not a homicide investigator, but it's hard for me to believe that suddenly, after supposedly practicing a sexual habit many times before, my mother dies accidentally on the same day she is severely beaten after my dad finds a letter addressed to another man.
From what I have learned about autoerotic asphyxiation and strangulation, consciousness is lost very quickly if someone's neck is bound tight enough to strangle. Suffocation is different from strangling. In an attempt to achieve an erotic high, someone may suffocate themselves to the point of arousal with safeguards in place. The loss of oxygen takes longer because the desired outcome is erotic stimulation, not death. In strangulation, great pressure is placed on the neck and is an intent to injure or kill. The sudden loss of oxygen happens so fast there is no time for erotica. Considering the coroner's testimony that my mother's neck injuries were comparable to those sustained in a car accident, strangulation fits that description. The coroner also testified he did not believe her death was caused by sexual practice. There are cases of this sort of sexual bondage where participants die accidentally. Cutting off your oxygen is always a gamble. Nevertheless, I would like to know how many people who die while practicing autoerotic asphyxiation were badly beaten by their jealous husband on the same day the sex accidentally "oops" went wrong?
To further validate my doubts about my father's explanation, one witness testified she had been present on various occasions in the home when this practice took place. It was his former wife. She testified that my dad would tie up Rose and leave them both in the room together. On the day my mother died, my father testified to leaving my mother alone to please herself, then returned 10 minutes later to find her in a fatal state. Last year I spoke with my dad's former psychiatrist who testified at the trial. As we were speaking on the phone, he told me that sometime after the trial, a woman who worked at the same hospital as my father had told the psychiatrist's mother that dad's ex-wife was lying in her testimony. He did not recall how the woman came to that conclusion, but the story was told to him by his mother.
As the years have gone by, I learned that my father liked to shift blame. He admitted beating her at times, but told me she enjoyed the beatings as a sadomasochistic experience. All I know is that I heard her crying in agony those nights I mentioned earlier, and she expressed her fear of him the night she asked me to stay up with her because she thought my dad wouldn't beat her if I was awake. My dad also said he wished he would not have given in so easily to my mother's desires. All I know is that I have since learned my dad showed signs of sexual perversion since his teenage years and carried them out well into his adult years, even beyond the death of my mother. His testimony of my mother asking him for bondage on the day she died is tainted due to his history of shifting blame.
My dad testified he was devastated by Rose's death. However, as he was testifying in court...only six months after my mother's death...he was already in a relationship with another woman who later bore a child to him. God's eye sees all. There is nothing hidden from Him. He is the final judge. Only two human beings were present at the time of my mother's death, and they are both now gone from this world, my dad having passed away several years ago. Only they know what exactly transpired on that day. There were three witnesses to the crime, and only one testified in court....the one who was fighting to save his own neck. God does not take the witness stand in a human court of law. He wants us to use our common sense and proper investigative methods to produce justice.
Human beings often fail at this challenging task due to various reasons, including distractions and rabbit trails which lead us away from our sensibilities. There is an old adage which says, "If it looks like a rat, and smells like a rat, then by golly it must be a rat." My mother was not able to speak for herself at the trial. She was afraid to speak up about the abuse she was experiencing while she was alive. She feared for her life if she would actually leave him, as I was told by one of the only people she confided in at that time. Fear is real for the one who feels it. Fear is paralyzing. So many domestic abuse victims become paralyzed and just try to survive, hoping their abuser will change. For the few fortunate victims, this wish comes true...but a happy ending is rare.
Many women manage to escape alive. Many others end up on the coroner's examination table, just like my mother, Rose. I pray my mother's death will not be in vain. I want nothing more than to be with her again. I visit her grave when I travel back home. I feel her presence there in my heart even though I know she cannot come back. But it didn't need to end like this. She lost her life due to senseless violence caused by abuse...physical, mental, and sexual...the consequence of being in a relationship with a disturbed man.
I am her son, and I am her voice. Where she cannot speak, I speak for her.
My hope is that her tragic ending will save the lives of other domestic abuse victims who are fearing for their lives, and that they will be inspired to find the support they need in order to leave their abuser. I also hope to teach men who abuse that they don't need to take their anger out on others. They need to take a look in the mirror and be disgusted at what they have become. They can choose a better life. They need to feel true remorse and seek God's forgiveness and the forgiveness of those they have hurt....not only by words, but by deeds. When I was a young child I promised myself I would never grow up to be an abuser like my father. I made that choice in my heart as a six-year old boy while my mother was still alive. I have kept that promise and want to maintain that promise to honor my mother, Rose, who departed from the lives of those who loved her much too soon.
Charles is a staff writer for a Newspaper in Appomattox, Virginia.
Rose was born in 1947 and died August 20th, 1977.
"I heard Rose's story during a recent training with Ms. McKay. Your words are powerful and inspirational. Your words spoke loudly of your love, longing and devotion for Rose. I enjoyed seeing the photos! The compassion you have for your father is also evident through your words. Thank you for sharing and helping to personalize this difficult topic. May you find peace and healing through your tribute to Rose." - Melissa
"I'm sorry you lost your mother at such a young age! I also admire your bravery for speaking out on behalf of your mother and sharing your story! " - Debbie
"Amazing story and great tribute to you mom. In your own way, you have given her the justice she was initially denied." - Camille
"I just listened to your story at Kelsey's training it brought back memories of my childhood. I have 2 sisters and 2 brothers. And of course I am the middle child. As I was saying listening to you tell your story I can still hear the cries of pain of my mother as my dad would beat her from his drunken rage as well. I was always the protector of my mother since i can remember trying to pull him off of her; I would get thrown across the room while the others were hiding. Luckily my mother walked away I wish things would have ended differently. Thank you for sharing..." - Pauline
"Thank you for sharing. I am forever touched." - Sally
"I hate that your mother in death had to try to prove her innocence. She was a victim and your father was a horrible man. Your mother did not receive justice. Your mother was a sweet n strong mother who obviously tried to protect you from her horrible life. I'm sorry you lost your momma. I hope you have found peace in your life now." - Elaine
"Thank you Charles for sharing your story, I'm sure it was not easy to tell but it made a huge impact on me when I heard it during a training. Rose will not be forgotten as advocate like myself fight to protect victims. Thank you." - Anonymous
"Charles, I heard you tell the story of your mother's murder at Kelsey McKay's most recent training. I know her passion for prosecuting Intimate Partner Violence cases and have worked closely with her on cases before. Listening to your voice tell your story was so very powerful. Even after all these years, the hurt and grief is audible. Your story, reminds me of the reason I worked so long and hard to realize my dream of becoming a Homicide Detective. There are many, many stories similar to yours and Rose. There are too many "Roses" out there. The work can be gut wrenching and often truly heart-breaking...but we, I, work for the families left behind. It is my sincerest hope that those families, like you, may find some sense of closure. I know that there is never a good answer to the question "Why?" but I hope you continue to heal. I congratulate you and encourage you to continue speaking out and reminding other detectives why they made the career choices they made. For those of us in this field, we are strictly charged to "Remember, we work for God!" - Darrell Gibson