Facing the bad man
“And you, sir…”
The judge looked across Courtoom 2 and at the graying, tired guy in blue jeans and faded polo shirt. Five years ago, this courtroom–the whole of the courthouse, really–was his home. He’d seen murderers, rapists, robbers, and white collar thieves walk through the doors by the dozens. The building was his second home. Now, after five years, he was back. Instead of being an observer, he was–almost by accident–participating.
“I’ll assume you are one of the victims,” the judge continued. “Do you have anything you’d like to say?”
The man thought, “Do I really have anything to say? Is it worth my time? Should I even be standing here? This is ridiculous.”
And then he looked the judge in the eye and said, “Yes, your honor, very briefly.”
* * *
In 2007, my wife picked me up from the airport. I was tired and had just gotten off a transatlantic flight from Monte Carlo. I slipped into the passenger seat of her new car and dropped my Bose headphones into the console and promptly forgot about them.
A few weeks later, my wife walked out to her car and found a cranberry juice bottle full of a clear liquid in the passenger seat. The console and glove compartment had been tossed. My Bose headphones were gone. So was some change and the wireless headphones for the in-car DVD system.
Within a little while, the Sheriff’s Office had arrived. Then the forensics guys showed up. I was surprised at the amount of effort the cops were putting into the burglary, but simultaneously too mad to think about it for too long. The bastard had taken my headphones–my very expensive QC3 headphones, the very thing that kept me sane on every long plane ride. There was enough blame to go around. I was dumb for leaving my headphones in the car in the first place. My wife uncharacteristically left the car unlocked. It was our bad, but a crime nonetheless. More than anything, the thief had tweaked a very delicate balance on Mt. Otis.
We live in a very safe neighborhood where kids riding go-carts is about the worst thing that will happen in a given weekend. It’s a secure and comfortable place. Like I am now, I was on a the road a lot back then and left the wife home alone with the boy. Love her as I do, she’s a nervous Nelly in the best of situations. Put some guy in her car and you can imagine the paranoia. Cue the motion-sensing lights. Cue the home alarm system.
Imagine our surprise when a few months later the Sheriff’s investigator called and said he had made an arrest in the case. Remarkably, the forensics team was able to pull a fingerprint off my wife’s door handle and connect it to a string of break-ins and led back to a career criminal with a record dating back to 1994.
“Someone will call you when he goes to trial,” we were told.
After that, I was left with a son who asked years later about the “bad man who stole Daddy’s headphones” and a wife who sets the alarm when I leave the house for a few hours.
* * *
The phone rang at 8:30am this morning and knocked me out of a restless sleep that had only been real for a few hours. I’d been up late the night before and slept fitfully. Let’s be clear: the last thing I wanted to hear in that condition was, “Mr. Willis, this is the Greenville County Solicitor’s Office.”
My mind raced to catch up with the phone call. Immediately, I was sure that a recent communication I’d had with an old source who had run afoul with the law was the cause for the call. I struggled to make sense of how they’d worked so quickly, what the guy had done, and if I was suspected of doing anything wrong. Paranoia is a real bitch on no sleep.
“I’m calling regarding Richard Tervo,” the lady on the other end of the line said. She went on to explain that after more than two years, prosecutors had finally gotten around to cutting a deal with the man who had broken into our car and the cars of about nine other people (including, apparently, a judge). “He’s going to plead guilty today,” the lady finished and offered me the opportunity to be there.
I was wearing only an orange pair of boxers with sharks on them. I smelled bad, my eyes were bleary, and I had way too much work to do.
“Give me a 30 minute warning when his case comes up,” I said.
* * *
“What have you done that’s good today?” asked the man at the register. He’s an old black guy who is almost entirely blind. Over the course of my many years covering the courts, the old man had sold me more soda, gum, and mints than just about any single person I knew. He also almost always asked me a variation on the same question. What good have I done? Did I do anything nice for my family this morning?
That old man represents the best of the Greenville County Courthouse. In a building that sees the worst of the worst all the time, this man is only concerned with the good. I told him what I’d done so far today, paid him a few quarters for a pack of mints and walked up the echoing back staircase to the second floor.
I know that building like it was my childhood home. The layout hasn’t changed, the security staff is the same, the bailiffs haven’t retired. The only two changes I noticed was one of the security staff had lost a bunch of weight and one of the more prominent defense attorneys in town had grown a short white pony tail. At one point he announced to the people around him that he just bought a condo on James Island. Private practice is still apparently better than working in the public sector.
In the old days on a day like this, we’d set up our cameras in the jury box. Plea days are like a cattle call for the totally screwed. They parade in, plead guilty, and learn their sentence. It’s something that everybody should see at least once in their life. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. Today, I sat on the benches on the public side of the bar, a mere spectator rather than reporter. A bailiff I knew from the old days walked over to confirm it was really me–in blue jeans rather than a suit, with a graying goatee instead of a clean-shaven face, with messy short scrub instead of hairsprayed blown-dry helmet hair. It was as if I’d never left.
Behind me: “I did eight months in the County Detention Center. They gave me a year, but I got time served. Then they caught me with Lortab. They said I was trying to distribute.”
Beside me, a shaking mother with a bandage on her wrist. Her daughter is pretty, but ragged. Her attorney is another well known defense lawyer. He is all smiles as he helps the young girl navigate through the process.
“She got a big inheritance,” the attorney tells the judge. “She spent it all on a Denali and cocaine. She has since worked to get her life back on track.”
The end of the road for the girl is when she sells $150 worth of blow to a CI and is subsequently busted with weed and coke in her big ol’ SUV. She forfeited her Denali, went broke, and started seeing a shrink. After a few bureaucratic snafus, the judge gives her 18 months suspended to probation. Beside me, the girl’s mother breaks down in heaving sobs. Her daughter, the wayward and lost coke fiend, will not be going to jail.
Next up is a Hispanic guy who made the mistake of stealing a rental car from the wrong guy. An eleventh grade education and flat brimmed Yankees cap actually makes him one of the more educated and intelligent guys in the room. The judge must see it the same way. The thief gets three years suspended to probation.
And on it went. The cattle moved in, the cattle moved out.
Then Richard Tervo came in wearing a white South Carolina Department of Corrections jumpsuit, handcuffs, and ankle chains. Before I could register everything that was happening, a lady from the Solicitor’s Office was leading me up to the bar.
I, the judge correctly assumed, was the victim.
* * * *
Richard Tervo started getting in trouble when he was in his early 20s. Crimes in Florida put him in jail. Life took him to South Carolina where burglaries spawned more burglaries. Break-ins became more break-ins. Other petty crimes just rounded out his resume. He was a criminal, a con, and bad at both.
At 39 and with an education that took him through one year in college, Tervo describes himself as a machinist, but if his criminal record is any indication, he’s spent more time in a cell than at work, and the time he did spend free was largely spent stealing. Within a few weeks of taking us for a few hundred bucks in stuff, he hit at least nine other vehicles. He made the mistake of trying to pawn a ring he stole and give his real address to the pawn shop. With fingerprints and list of crimes a page long, Tervo was as busted as busted could be.
He’s so far from criminal genius, I almost felt sorry for him. I am close to people who have let themselves make very bad decisions that have landed them in jail and prison. It’s not pretty. Those people eventually learned, though, and got their lives together. Tervo has not shown much indication he’s ready to be rehabilitated. And yet, today he was prepared to plead guilty. He said as much today during the standard plea hearing in circuit court.
When the judge asked me if I had anything to say, I had a moment in which I wondered what in the world I was even doing there. This was a petty crime, albeit part of serial burglar’s spree. Why was I taking an hour out of my day to even be in the courtroom, let alone actually open my mouth?
And yet, there I stood. And there was my mouth opening. And there was Tervo looking at me–the guy from whom he stole–for the first time.
“Yes, your honor, very briefly. It occurs to me that this is a petty and rather ridiculous crime. Still, I felt like I should let the court and Mr. Tervo know that what bothers me is not the few hundred bucks worth of stuff he stole from me. It’s the fact that my son still asks me two years later about the bad man who stole from us, that I had to explain to my son why there were Sheriff’s investigators in our driveway, that I had to install motion sensing lights and an alarm system. But more than anything, it bothers me that when I leave the country for work and leave my wife and children at home alone, I’ve lost that little bit of comfort that they feel safe when I’m gone.”
The judge nodded like I’ve seen judges do a hundred times before and thanked me for taking the time to come in.
Tervo was set to plead to all the crimes and had accepted a deal that would earn him ten years in prison to run concurrently with the eight year sentence he was serving for another burglary charge.
The judge looked at the papers in front of him and shook his head a couple of times like he was struggling to understand a hard book. “Ten years is ten years, but he’s going to be out in six.”
The judge shook his head a couple of more times, then stacked the papers up. It was clear what the judge was thinking. He wanted to give Tervo more than ten years. Because he couldn’t do that, he simply said, “I cannot accept the plea,” and called for the next case.
And just like that, it was over. Tervo was led back to the holding cell. He would be taken back to Allendale later in the day. What will become of the charges against him is anybody’s guess, now. More than likely, prosecutors will work out another deal with him at some point. In the end, it was irrelevant.
I thought about the spontaneous trip to the courthouse and why I went. There’s a part of me that misses sitting in on trials and the criminal process. There’s a part of me that misses the look at that part of society. Beyond that though, I just wanted to see the guy who stole from me. And more than that, I wanted him to see me. It’s a petty and ridiculous crime, but you did it to me, buddy, and I’m going to show up to watch you go away for being an idiot.
I don’t know if my little monologue did anything to convince the judge that the sentence was too light or if he would’ve done the same thing if I’d just stayed in bed all day. But, like anybody, I like to think what I do and what I say matters. So I’ll go to bed tonight thinking of Richard Tervo. Because, like me, he has no idea whether me showing up in court played any role in scuttling the deal he made with the prosecutors.
And that makes me happy.