Life Without Possibility -- A Young Teen's Life Sentence For Murder Raises The Questions: Could Intervention Have Helped? Would Rehabilitation Help Now?
How do you learn, at age 16, to spend the rest of your life in prison?
What happens if you realize that a horrible thing you've done at age 14 - killed another human being - is the most colossal mistake you ever could have made, that it has cost you your life, and there is no way, no way, to turn back?
How do you grow up behind locked doors?
And what meaning does your life have for a society so terribly frightened of youth violence, and so at odds about what to do about it?
Those were some of the questions we had when we went to Green Hill School in Chehalis, a maximum-security prison for juveniles, to meet Jeremiah J. Bourgeois. At the time of his conviction in 1993 for murdering a witness to his older brother's crime, "J.J." was believed to be the youngest child ever sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
He probably will remain at Green Hill until he's 18, then move to adult prison. Already he has been joined at Green Hill by Jeremiah Gilbert, sentenced to "life without possibility" for a double homicide he committed in Kittitas County when he was 15. Green Hill Superintendent Bob Williams expects more.
As this state grapples with what to do about youth crime, it's easy to talk, in the abstract, about "policy." Should it be harsher punishment for first-time offenders? Better prevention? More kids in adult prison? There is anguish on all sides. If someone you love is killed by a youth, do you care that he still is forming his identity, is mixed up and has been dealt a lousy hand by life?
But then, try meeting some of the young killers. Watch J.J. do a ballet plie; overhear him tell his sister he loves her; wonder when a counselor says he reads a book a day, and when a teacher says he startles her with questions such as: "Do you think NAFTA is a good deal for the U.S.?"
Hear J.J. say - and maybe you're naive but you believe him - that what he's learned most of all is: "Listen to your mother."
Hear Jeremiah Gilbert say he doesn't understand how he could have killed, even drunk as he was on three bottles of Mad Dog and half a case of Rainier - he, whose nickname is "Jer-Bear," because "I'm a Gentle Ben type."
You ask them why they don't deserve their punishment. To give their best defense.
"I'm not someone like Manson who can kill and laugh about it. It tore me up and still does that I could do something like that. I don't have the heart of a criminal," says Jeremiah.
J.J., who claims innocence and still has hope for an appeal, says: "I don't hate nobody. I'm not a hater."
And then, it's not so easy.
Echoing in your mind is the anguish of judge after judge you hear in juvenile court, who say juvenile system services are so inadequate that even though someone could be rehabilitated, they can't trust he will be. So they have to err on the side of protecting society.
You suspect teenagers like these two could be rehabilitated, if we spent the money and put the best talents to the task.
You wonder whether the societal ills that contribute to filling the cells of Green Hill and other juvenile prisons will ever be fixed.
Green Hill is today's reality.
Here, they have a program for prisoners "without possibility" to, as supervisor Alan Stajduhar says, "make good inmates out of them." The gist, he says, is to teach them to follow rules, to "know your frustrations and how to deal with being locked up the rest of your life."
It's a chilling thought. A chilling visit.
To meet Jeremiah J. Bourgeois, we must gain entrance through a locked perimeter gate; then a locked door to "Fir Cottage," a cavelike fortress that is the highest-security wing of Green Hill, the state's highest-security juvenile prison. Descend a flight of stairs, to a control room with a camera trained to the hallway of the main living quarters. Have a staff member inside the control room trigger a release to another locked door, into a hallway. Have him trigger still another lock to gain us entrance to the living quarters. Every time we are "popped through," the sharp sound is like a bullet firing.
Inside, what dominates is the row of grim-looking locked cells with thick doors. There are 16 cells (euphemistically called "rooms"); at the moment, nine are occupied.
Just beyond the control booth is Jeremiah, nicknamed "J.J."
He's a slip of a kid. When he was arrested two years ago at age 14, he was about 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds. Since then, he estimates he's grown by 3 inches and 15 pounds, but he still looks small.
Over lunch we talk about how he got here, his family and his childhood. He considers the questions carefully and weighs his words.
He doesn't speak of the crime he's here for, on his lawyers' orders. They say J.J. is innocent, and are appealing.
But a jury has found J.J. guilty of killing an immigrant store owner who just hours earlier had testified against his brother. A witness said J.J opened the door to the High Point Market and began shooting; one bullet pierced the heart of grocer Tecle Ghebremichale.
J.J.'s brother, Bernard ("B.B."), then 16, had shot the grocer earlier and was sentenced to a juvenile institution until his 21st birthday.
If J.J. had been tried as a juvenile, the harshest sentence also would have been incarceration until he was 21. But a judge ruled J.J. should be tried as an adult.
J.J.'s charge was the state's most serious: aggravated first-degree murder, carrying a minimum sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. Killing a witness is considered striking at the heart of the criminal-justice system. In the aftermath of the grocer's slaying, prosecutors found potential witnesses in other cases fearful. Even months later, no witness would admit to hearing or seeing another murder that took place steps away from the High Point Market - though plenty of people had been nearby.
A charming child
J.J.'s schoolteachers and family friends say he was a sunny, happy, charming child, extremely bright. He was the youngest of three children of Emily Kyewalabye, a Ugandan immigrant, now an account executive in the marketing division of a major health organization, and Leonard Bourgeois, now a retired machinist.
They lived in a home they owned a block from the High Point low-income housing project.
Counselors and family friends tell various stories about problems within the family. But things really fell apart, some friends say, about the time the parents divorced.
All who know her describe Kyewalabye as a dedicated and concerned parent. But she worked long hours, and after the divorce the children were on their own a lot. Friends remember J.J. saying he hated coming home to an empty house.
Now, he says, "I don't like to pin it on my dad or mom. It's a whole society thing."
But it was his move from Catholic to public school, J.J. says, more than the divorce, that changed his life.
"It was a whole world I hadn't seen before," he recalls. "I'd never seen a 14-year-old drive to school. People's older brothers were coming by in new cars, music so loud you could hear them coming down the street. You just got caught up.
"Skipping school - I had never even thought about doing that before."
About this time, Shirlye Pitts recalls that J.J. was struggling with his direction in life.
Talented at dance
Pitts ran the office at Seattle Civic Dance Theatre, where J.J. was a ballet and tap-dance star. School director Randie Baker says J.J. could easily have been a professional dancer. Both he and his sister beat out 400 contestants to win a spot dancing on a national toothpaste commercial.
J.J. was "as lovable as can be, and so good to the little kids in the school," Pitts recalls. A studio photo of him in his costume for the ballet "The Russian" still hangs in the office at the school.
J.J. told Pitts that he was upset and baffled over the angry conflicts between his brother, sister and mother, and knew he shouldn't follow in the same path.
Today, J.J. downplays this. He was a "mama's boy," he says. He didn't like his brother, thought he was a bully. Besides, "we were opposites." A counselor who worked with both B.B. and J.J. would later call B.B. "the angriest kid I ever met."
Within a year of his parents' divorce, J.J. told Pitts that, without his dad to take him to ballet or anyone to prod him, it seemed easier to hang around the house.
He began to get into trouble. He lived away from home, sleeping in cars and with friends. He stole cars and trespassed. His record included two minor assaults. He began selling marijuana.
The lure of the streets
Street life beckoned. "Some of these things looked cool and fun - look at this man here, $2,000 in his pocket and he hasn't worked a day in his life," J.J. explains.
"It wasn't fun. It seemed like the only thing. In reality it wasn't the case. . . . Nothing's cool about staying outside, out in the rain, the cold, selling marijuana or sitting around. Nothing beats home."
So why didn't he stop?
Looking back, J.J. thinks he could have benefited both by harsher punishment and more counseling after his first crime. "I was 12 when I did my first auto theft. I was in (juvenile detention) for three days and released. They sent me home in a cab. I thought, `This is corny, this is nothin.'
"I did the second one, I did a week and was released." In detention, "all we did was sit around and play Nintendo."
It's not, he says, that harsher punishment will deter kids. "I don't think they (kids) think about stuff before they do it." But, he says, when a kid steals a car, it shouldn't be treated lightly. "People should really see it's a cry for help."
"It's not a matter of cracking down - but taking you out of the environment, and giving you skills to turn you away to something else."
`My mom don't care'
Repeatedly, his mother tried to help. J.J. admits that. But he misinterpreted her efforts when she kept asking judges to lock him up so he could get treatment. "I thought, `My mom don't care.' "
(Today, says Green Hill superintendent Bob Williams, J.J. makes no substantive decision without consulting his mother. She calls J.J. every day.)
The more his petty crimes mounted, the more Kyewalabye tried to get J.J. counseling to turn him around. At first, J.J. wouldn't cooperate. But by late 1990, he had volunteered for a strict, locked treatment center in Utah, because "I knew where I was heading. I wanted an escape route."
J.J. spelled out his fears with a social worker, John Hutchens, whom he met before leaving for Utah.
Hutchens had J.J. draw "a lifeline," marking milestones of his past and his future. J.J. drew two competing futures - one route to medical school, the other to prison.
`I want the better life'
"Two days later," recalls Hutchens, "he said, `If I stay here, I'll end up in prison. I want to be the doctor. I want the better life. I need to leave.' "
After a time of evaluation in an Oregon locked treatment center, he joined B.B. at Utah's private Provo Canyon School, where adolescents are locked up, treated and schooled. Tuition is $70,000 and up a year.
Their sister was at a similar school nearby. J.J. says "she was resistant at first," but having a full year there, had enough time to get help. (She's now in college, J.J. says, and calls him every day.)
Larry Winn, J.J.'s supervising therapist, says that in the 4 1/2 months J.J. was at Provo he thrived in the structured environment and began to turn around.
"We're talking about a very bright young man," Winn says, "a kid who could charm the socks off you. B.B. was more involved with gangs, more cool, reserved, the tough kid. J.J. was not the tough kid. He hadn't been hardened or calloused."
But J.J. hadn't "internalized" the message, Winn says - he hadn't taken the values to heart yet. That usually takes six months or longer, Winn explains, and a tough case like J.J. could have used a year.
But against medical advice by Provo therapists, Kyewalabye's insurance company cut him off, saying J.J. didn't fit their requirement that he be actively suicidal or homicidal.
If only he hadn't been sent back to Seattle, J.J. says . . . "I can only make an analogy. It's like taking an ex-dope fiend and putting him into a crack house." If you're trying to change, he says, "you don't hang around with the same people or try to see them."
And in some ways, he says, he felt it was too late for him to come home. His mother had remarried. "Everything had changed. I didn't know him (the stepfather). When I did go home, it wasn't that my mom didn't want me, but it seemed alien. His domain. I was the outsider."
Expelled from school
Once home, a setback sent him spinning again. Starting Madison Middle School, J.J couldn't find a class. A security person "said something foul" to him ("that's where I could have used some anger management"). He started to leave, but J.J. says the woman snatched him and spun him around; he threw her off. He was expelled.
"I was so frustrated. My mom was saying, `I thought you were changed.' It seemed hopeless." So he gave up? "Yeah. To a certain extent, yeah."
Later, he tried to enroll as a full-time regular student at Tyee High School. But, he says, the school instead sent him, part time, to an alternative school. "Who's in an alternative school? Kids who go out to their cars and smoke weed at lunch. . . . I wanted to be in school seven, eight periods, to be around kids doing positive things . . ."
Court records show J.J. returned to Seattle in April 1991, and within three months was referred to the court for taking a car; in February of the next year, for trespassing; in May, for murder.
Why would he kill a witness for a brother he had been so different from, and to whom, others said, he was not close? Hutchens says such a shooting would follow a gang code of values; he speculates that, as the brother of the offended gang member, it would have fallen to J.J. to do the deed. J.J. denied gang involvement, but there was no question he hung around with gang members.
Standing before Judge Scott, Kyewalabye made an impassioned but ultimately fruitless plea for J.J. to be treated as a juvenile, telling how she had repeatedly asked for the courts' help. Each time, she was told J.J.'s crimes weren't serious enough. But Scott said he couldn't be confident the juvenile institutions could do better than all the private services she'd obtained. Sympathetic, he said it was a tragedy that J.J. couldn't have stayed in Provo: "It may well be he wouldn't be here."
Scott said he was "reluctant to send a 15-year-old boy into a . . . severely underfunded and overcrowded" adult system, but whether the juvenile system is better "becomes less clear as both systems suffer more and more from lack of resources."
At trial's end, recalled King County deputy prosecuting attorney Tami Perdue, "we all cried. It's difficult to know you are not responsible but a participant in putting a 15-year-old in prison for the rest of his life. I think he deserves it. But it's still difficult."
Perdue recalls feeling intimidated by J.J. "I looked into his eyes and saw nothing . . . I feel something is missing."
Hearing this, J.J. is initially upset. "I can't go for that," he says. The next day, he brings it up: "What keeps ringing in my mind is that Tami said she'd looked in my eyes and seen nothing.
"What she perceived as nothing was such depression, loneliness . . . there was nothing I wanted them to see. It wasn't a smiling contest. It was a trial for my life."
J.J. is glad - given the alternative - to be at Green Hill. He could have been sent directly to adult prison. In fact, he spent two months at the adult prison in Shelton (where all prisoners are sent for processing) before being transferred to Green Hill, where he'll probably stay until he's 18.
Being allowed to serve the first two years of his sentence in a juvenile facility is not an automatic privilege; the major consideration is whether a juvenile is judged able to survive in an adult prison.
Before J.J.'s sentencing, the judge received 75 letters begging that J.J. not be sent to adult prison until he's older; J.J.'s father, himself imprisoned in the 1960s for rape, argued the same.
At Shelton, J.J. remembers, most of his cell mates were "sympathetic . . . they tried to tell me the do's and don'ts (of prison life): Don't hang around with gang members. Try to get as much education as you can."
Shelton wasn't his first time in adult prison. At King County Jail before and during his trial, he was knocked out by a big man he describes as a skinhead.
"It's not all physical," he says of his fears. "It's more mental. Half of everything about this is a mental game. Being able to block things out, deal with stressful situations."
What's a stressful situation? "Being locked up. The realization of my life. I can't even think that far. I've lived 16 years."
Green Hill took some adjustment. He was depressed. He wanted to sleep away the time; that isn't allowed. He mouthed off.
But that soon changed. For one thing, his parents made it clear to him that such behavior would get him sent to adult prison. Nowadays, the staff say they have no problems with him. He's polite, well-mannered, well-spoken.
The Fir Cottage routine
Life at Green Hill's Fir Cottage: Breakfast, detail (the boys take turns cleaning the cottage), room inspection, PE, school, lunch, detail, school, quiet time, recreation, dinner, detail, "group" (evening discussion) on certain days, restricted to their rooms at 9 p.m., lights out at 11 p.m. Get up and do it again.
It is a big deal that J.J. and Jeremiah Gilbert, the other boy here sentenced to life without parole, go to school.
At first they weren't allowed, but more than a month after school began this fall, the policy was changed. Roland Brown, a counselor-guard (they do double duty, a strange therapeutic approach), remembers he thought it was too risky at first. He was wrong, he says; it's been the best thing, not only for the two Jeremiahs, but for the morale and atmosphere at Fir Cottage.
As one counselor says, just the opportunity to see a little bit of sky, to spend a little time outside "the cave," mellows the boys.
J.J. calls the classes "adequate," and several boys describe the program as mostly "self-study." "Adequate" would probably be a generous assessment.
In computer/typing class, they work quietly. J.J. writes a letter to his father. A PC program teaches the boys to type; the teacher is available to deal with questions.
Social studies is actually six different courses going on at once. The students silently read different textbooks and answer the questions in the back of their books. J.J. is studying Washington state history.
The last 15 minutes is customarily given over to free reading. The students read magazines, and the teacher, J.J. and John Hoelzle (assault, robbery, escape) discuss the respective merits of the books "The Pelican Brief," "Jurassic Park" and J.J.'s current book, "Shogun."
A love of cars and music
J.J.'s room is decorated with posters of bikini-clad women, cars and the Sonics.
In this place and in this life, what else, we ask him, remains of the 16-year-old boy? Love of cars. Love of music: "I can listen to everything from Kenny G, to Ice Cube, Jodeci, Boys II Men, Babyface. Slow songs, jazz, instrumentals."
There is photo after photo of his mother in an album he keeps in his room. Lots of his sister. A few of B.B. and his father ("Daddy Pops"). Two baby photos of himself. One of their West Seattle house, one of his mom's new Des Moines house. Several of his former girlfriend's child (not his). He seems too young to have a girlfriend with a child. "This is the '90s," he says.
A ledge along the room's wall is lined with birthday cards, well-wishers' cards.
He also has a newspaper cartoon tacked up. "The City View from High Point" it's labeled, portraying guns, shootings, mayhem. "They say Seattle's the `livable city' - I just hope I survive!" it reads.
During "quiet time," Alan Stajduhar, Fir Cottage's supervisor, talks more about his new mission: to create a program to help prepare teens like the Jeremiahs to spend their lives in prison.
Stajduhar has been working 13-plus years in the system; he has bachelor's degrees in social science and education. His goal has always been rehabilitation.
"If we can't rehabilitate, what can we do? Make good inmates out of them. Get them to accept their situation." That, he says, will allow a smoother transition to the more intimidating adult prisons.
Does he talk to them about things like prison rape? "There are a lot of TV movies made about it. It's overrated. Does it happen? Yeah, it happens some."
Do they talk about it? No. "It could change. Maybe later we'll get someone from the Department of Corrections here, talking about `don't pick up the soap.' "
A double homicide - at 15
The teens are sitting at their eating tables, playing board games with gusto.
J.J. and a 19-year-old he knew from High Point - in Fir Cottage for assaulting two Green Hill staff members - are deep into a game of dominos. Jeremiah Gilbert is gloating over beating counselor Mark Cho, a social-worker graduate student, at Scrabble. John Hoelzle interferes: "You can't use I.Q. as a word; it's an abbreviation!" Jeremiah protests: "It's in the dictionary!"
John, who a counselor says is college material, carries a bound book of love poetry he's written. Surprisingly, he's not embarrassed to have the other boys see.
Gilbert - sometimes known as big Jeremiah, since he's almost 6 feet 4 inches tall - is in for a double homicide in Kittitas County. "September 20, 1992," he says, without being asked. He was 15.
"I can't remember too much. I was too drunk. . . . I started drinking at 12 to fit in. I was always so big. I started hanging out with older people."
He's from Buckley, son of a couple who run a group home for disabled persons.
The fateful day, he and a friend hitched a ride to Eastern Washington and broke into a cabin. He says his friend wanted to steal a Bronco. When someone on a motorcycle interrupted the theft, Jeremiah shot. "I was just going to intimidate him."
Another man came by in a truck. His friend says Gilbert shot that guy, too, but when they met up again in prison at Shelton, Jeremiah says, his friend changed his story and said he had shot the second victim. "The main reason I got life was that it was a double homicide," he says; he sounds sorrowful, but doesn't dwell. His previous crimes: criminal trespass, malicious mischief.
Does he think he deserves life in prison? "I feel strongly I don't deserve to be locked up for eternity. I evidently did a pretty harsh crime and I should pay for it somehow."
How should that be? "I really don't know."
"One of the hardest things for me is that I hurt somebody," he says. "Not only them, but the family of them, and family of mine, friends of theirs, friends of mine."
He is coming to terms, he says, with his life sentence. "The Bible says, rejoice in all things." He glances around at his surroundings. "It's hard. But I try.
"I still got youngster feelings. To run, to do things . . ."
Jeremiah and J.J. could not be more different, J.J. says.
"He's white, I'm black. I'm from the inner city, he's from the country. He's big, I'm little. I like rap, he likes country music."
They get along, though. Sometimes, J.J. says, the two talk about "just learning how to deal with it." "It" being their prison terms.
J.J. has forbidden himself to reminisce about the past - "that's a no-no" - and advises the same to Jeremiah, but Jeremiah doesn't listen.
Instead, says J.J., Jeremiah will sit in his room, reminiscing about home: about milking a cow, baling hay. J.J. tells him: "The old times are over. That's going to do nothing for him."
After dinner, the boys attend a kind of group rap. Several had been in institutions before; that didn't stop them from committing more crimes.
They say the treatment, such as for drug and alcohol abuse, was minimal (John: "They don't tell you this is how you change"), the education poor, jobs and skills training almost nonexistent, the counseling shallow.
For a victim-awareness class, "they'll bring in someone from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, when most of us are in here for drive-by shootings and drugs," says Carlos Hunter, 18 (assault with a deadly weapon, burglary).
Once they leave the institution, parole officers don't really help; "you just check in, tell them what you're doing," says Hunter. "Like you're going to tell the truth."
At Green Hill, the ones who will get out talk about how they're afraid they'll never get a job, given their prison records.
Hunter brings up his gang-ridden high school and a mom he says would advise, "If someone looks like they're about to get you, hit them with a chair."
To an outsider it may sound like a lot of excuses. But it's also true the boys sound not so much glib as glum. The pervading feeling is hopelessness.
`The system is for show'
Later, as J.J. talks about crime and tougher sentencing, he is cynical.
"The system is for show . . . They want to lock everybody up, throw away the key, not think about them, `get them out of our hair.' It's like a weed garden. Instead of getting to the root, they just take pieces of the weed out and it keeps growing.
"I figure they don't want to help. By now they'd have to be total idiots not to see these programs aren't working and we need some new ones."
Does that mean he thinks juveniles should never be treated as adults in the court system? "I can't think of juveniles as adults. No matter what they've done. They shouldn't be sent to adult prisons.
"If someone at 16 did a drive-by shooting (for instance)," he says, "I think he'd be, and society would be, a whole lot better off if he spent some time in intensive treatment, so he won't do it again, than being put in the pen for 20 years and then being released."
He adds that one difficulty is that juveniles who commit serious crimes serve only a few years in a juvenile institution, or many years if sentenced as adults. "It's too little or too much," he says.
But what about the idea that society wants retribution - a statement that life is worth something, and if someone takes a life he must pay a price?
"Who is benefiting from one person being dead and one person being locked up the rest of their life? Who is benefiting?"
The next day, after breakfast and detail, the boys troop to the pool for P.E.
Watching them is Zelma Russell, who is assigned as counselor to both Jeremiahs. Russell, who has a sociology degree, came here more than three years ago from the adult prison system in Mississippi.
Are these, we ask her, kids or adults? In size, she says, they're kids. In their criminal minds, they're adults. In their behavior, they're kids.
"There are very few kids in (juvenile prison) as cunning and slick as adult prisoners," she says. "They're not as hardened. They think they are."
Of J.J., she says, "I like him. He's a pretty good kid. Sometimes he tries to impress the other kids. He's smarter than the other kids."
What does she think of kids doing life in prison? "If you do the crime, you should do the time. They're not 2- and 3-year-olds. They understand right and wrong."
"But," she adds, "then I say `16 years old. They're missing everything in life.' I'm mixed up on that one."
Afternoon classes. In "social enhancement," the teacher lectures from a book on effective habits. In language arts, they watch a movie, "The Distinguished Gentleman." (The teacher says his solution to motivating students is to have them write essays about movies.)
After lunch and detail, we ask J.J. what he would do if he were free.
Besides school, he says, he would be at all the community meetings about youth violence, with his mom. "Try to help people in the same position I'm in, or heading there."
And what if he never is free? What is his plan?
"Get as much education as I can. Every book, every teacher. Suck it all up. Just expand my knowledge. You can never stop learning."
Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.