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Mary Papenfuss Headshot

My Friend, the Killer

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I've been having an intense phone relationship with J, a man I met on the Internet. "He's the nicest guy," I tell my husband, Roland. "Probably not the nicest," Roland responds testily. That's Roland's attitude because he knows what J did. He used a kitchen knife to kill his 5-year-old stepdaughter during a family vacation in the midst of a vicious argument with his wife. I found Roland with tears in his eyes as he read a transcript I had given him of a 911 call made by J's wife as the young mom struggled desperately to save her child's life.

J is one of the five types of murderers I feature in my book, Killer Dads: The Twisted Drives That Compel Fathers to Murder Their Own Children. He's my example of a killer stepdad. Studies have found stepparents are responsible for a far higher rate of violence -- and more brutal violence -- against the children in their care than biological parents, a situation researchers have dubbed the "Cinderella effect."

After hearing the gut-wrenching tales of baffling child murders and sharing searing family pain during my research, it's weirdly J whom I can't get out of my head, and the person I continue to talk to the most. I emailed him out of the blue before starting the book because I found the murder he committed the most horrific of all. He agreed to talk, and even wrote a chapter. He'd do anything, he told me, "if it could help stop another murder." He's a friendly, funny, articulate, apparently compassionate killer who still seems stunned by what happened, and is serving the third year of a 55-year sentence. My neighbor calls him Albert Speer because she thinks J has completely snowed me. But he has confessed, makes no excuses, and wishes desperately he could turn back time. J murdered his stepdaughter in a white rage, and his voice shakes when he talks about it. "If I could trade my life for my stepdaughter's, I would," he tells me. "But I can't."

I wonder about him as I walk on the beach, imagining what it would be like to never see the ocean again. I thought of J, suddenly, when I was so deliciously in my own home again with a hot cup of tea after being caught in a rainstorm. But it's not this kind of liberty that J most desperately craves. What he wants more than anything is forgiveness. Yet he knows he can't have it. I think what he did is unforgivable. I would never tell him that because it would devastate him. But I can write it here because he'll never see it. He has no access to the Internet. There are no visitors who will tell him about it.

There's no hope of forgiveness where he is. He's being kept in a separate facility away from the main section of his prison because many inmates would kill him for what he did (he has asked me to only identify him as J, and not name his prison to help protect his life). J shares a 12-by-10-foot living space with his "cellie" (they never discuss their crimes) and he spends most of each day there. The face of his murdered stepdaughter haunts him, and he's seized with dread at night. J was moved by a prison chaplain's sermon that we must forgive others before we can be forgiven. So he forgives everyone he can -- anyone who "disrespects" him, or threatens him over a bar of soap or a cigarette -- but it's not working. He wants, at least, to try to make some small fraction of amends for his crime. But his life is arranged only for punishment and wasting time.

It's difficult to think of his stepdaughter's last minutes, attacked by the man she called daddy, staring, scared and uncomprehending, as she bled to death. But it's her killer who's on my mind. I don't understand how he could have taken a life. But he's a friend now and his terror has become mine.

J has a running buddy, another killer. They've come up with a plan to do a prison fundraiser run for a cancer organization. "It might help save a life," he explained to me. He has forwarded a request to a prison administrator to see if his idea is feasible. He writes letters to organizations to determine if one will work with him. He waits to hear.