Friday, January 25, 2008

"Unburdened" - by Joe Eaton

Roanoke Times, The (VA) - May 27, 2007
Author: Joe Eaton The Roanoke Times

Halfway up the first flight at Patrick Henry High School, Shannon Burnette gasped for breath.

He tried to swallow it, tried not to make a spectacle of himself as other students rushed past on their way to class. His heart beat in his ears. Shannon lifted a size 17 adidas, set it down, pulled against the railing and rose.

A few more steps and the stairway began to swirl. Pain jabbed behind his kneecaps and into his lower back.

Shannon leaned against the wall and waited.

He started again, his wet T-shirt clinging to his chest.

Before Shannon reached the top, the class bell rang. He was late again.

"I felt messed up, like my whole life had fallen apart before my eyes. I couldn't take it anymore," Shannon said, remembering life at 430 pounds, remembering the stairs.

That life is gone.

Shannon, 17, now weighs about 250 pounds.

Gone are the size 60 pants, replaced with size 48. Gone are the 9XL shirts from the big and tall shop. Gone are the adidas, replaced by size 13 K-Swiss.

Shannon dropped more than 150 pounds in 18 months, 120 of it in one year. He lost weight the hard way, by swapping candy and cheese-covered spaghetti for tofu and greens, by replacing television with deep water aerobics and weightlifting.

He had to. He was afraid to die.

Big boy

Shannon is not an extreme example of childhood obesity in America.

About one-third of American children and adolescents are obese or at risk for obesity , according to a 2006 study by the Institute of Medicine.

In the past three decades, the obesity rate for children ages 12 to 19 has more than tripled from 5 percent to 17 percent.

A 2003 survey by the Department of Health and Human Resources found a similar number of overweight and obese children in Virginia, which it rated 25th among the states in prevalence of childhood obesity .

Doctors point to a variety of causes for the jump, including poor eating habits, access to high-calorie food at home and at school and a culture where children prefer television, video games and the Internet to physical activity.

Michael Hart, a gastroenterologist who runs an adolescent weight management clinic at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, is one of the doctors who treated Shannon during his weight loss.

Hart said he treats at least one child a day with weight problems like Shannon's. Walking around town, he sees many more.

The only thing uncommon about Shannon is that he lost weight, Hart said.

"At his age, it took a hell of a lot of determination and will to succeed."

Adolescent obesity is on the rise, but it hasn't gotten any easier to be the fat kid.

In grade school pictures, Shannon has chubby cheeks his teachers called cute.

At 11, he weighed 200. At 13 he broke 300. At 15, he weighed 426 pounds.

In middle school, Shannon worried about looking different.

In high school, he worried about girls. They danced with him at school dances, but they treated him like a teddy bear, not as someone to date.

He sat alone on the school bus.

"Nobody wanted to sit with me," he said. "Nobody could sit with me."

As Shannon gained weight, his mother, Brenda Burnette, said they both ignored the problem.

Burnette, a Roanoke bus aide, thought her 6-foot-4 son was just "big boned." She thought the weight would go away when he stopped growing.

"We just loved to eat and didn't think about nothing," she said.

For breakfast, Shannon often ate gummy worms and chocolate bars, pizza or spaghetti.

Lunch was hamburgers, pizza, french fries and nachos from the school cafeteria.

For dinner, it was more of the same. His favorite was the Golden Corral buffet, where he would devour five to 10 plates of steak and pot roast.

Between meals, Shannon snacked on Cheetos, candy and potato chips. He drank at least five 20-ounce bottles of Coke a day.

"Shannon ate constantly from morning to night," his mother said. "He didn't move, just looked at the TV and ate."

And he got bigger.

At 15, Shannon began waking up at night unable to catch his breath. He had sleep apnea, which is often caused by obesity .

In the morning, his mother often could not wake him up. He struggled to stand up off his mattress, which rests on the floor.

Walking became difficult. Shannon's joints screamed from the load. His flat feet hurt.

Eventually, Shannon began attending school for only a half day.

He worried he might not graduate.

Doctors told him his weight was sending his blood pressure and cholesterol soaring. He was borderline diabetic.

They told him he might not see 20 if he didn't lose weight.

"I was shocked at first. And scared," Shannon said, recalling the day a doctor told him he could die.

Losing it

At first, the lesson didn't sink in.

Shannon wanted liposuction and gastric bypass surgery. If surgeons shrunk the size of his stomach and bypassed part of his small intestine, Shannon figured he could lose weight without exercise and changing his diet.

Hart referred him to the University of Virginia Medical Center, one of the few hospitals that perform bariatric surgery on teens, but doctors there decided he was not a candidate.

Surgeons perform gastric bypass surgery on teens only in the most extreme circumstances, Hart said.

Shannon didn't start losing weight the hard way until he was 16. He had help.

Shannon's caseworker at Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare declined to be interviewed, but Shannon and his mother said the agency was one of the keys to his success.

The agency found funding for Shannon to attend Weight Watchers and set him up with a personal trainer. It helped Burnette cover the expense of healthy food.

The YMCA gave Shannon a scholarship.

Four or five days a week, Shannon began exercising at the Kirk Family YMCA. He walked the track, played basketball, lifted weights and took water aerobics classes.

Every other week he weighed in at Weight Watchers.

At night, Shannon complained about muscle spasms. Several times during the first few months, his mother took him to the emergency room for severe pain.

"The exercise tore him up," she recalled.

He was using muscles that had not been worked hard in years, Hart said.

Shannon also changed his diet. He followed the Weight Watchers system, which assigns points to food and gives members a target number of points to eat every day.

Shannon found the new food tasteless. He hated the exercise.

"Nobody likes anyone messing with their food," Burnette said about the change. "He had to learn what to eat."

For breakfast, Shannon ate bagels or shredded wheat. At school, he ate salad for lunch. A common dinner was baked chicken, a baked potato, salad and corn.

The family replaced whole milk with 2 percent. Shannon stopped drinking soda.

Slowly, his weight began to drop.

The more he lost, the more dedicated he became.

One day, he started to like his new food.

Burnette, whose mother also lives in the home, said Shannon's eating plan helped the entire family.

"When Shannon ate a salad, we all ate a salad," she said.

But Burnette, who is 41, said she is too old to totally change her eating and exercising habits. She said she feels lighter, but doubts that she lost much weight.

Sometimes, the change was also too much for Shannon. Phil Johns, one of his trainers, said Shannon often stayed the same weight for weeks or even gained a couple of pounds. At one point, Shannon lost only 9 pounds in six months.

When that happened, he slowed down, cut workouts short and moped.

Sometimes he ate a Whopper.

'A different person'

Johns, a 23-year-old who lost 60 pounds a few years before Shannon's weight loss, switched Shannon's exercises. They tried group classes including yoga and Pilates and increased his time on the treadmill.

Again Shannon's weight started to drop.

As the weight fell off, Shannon, who had always been a quiet kid, began to talk and joke.

Dave Amos, who teaches the water aerobics class Shannon attends twice a week at the YMCA, said Shannon rarely spoke when he started the class.

He was the youngest person in the pool by at least 10 years, Amos said.

Then one day, after several months in the class, Shannon sneaked up behind Amos in the pool and grabbed his foam floating "noodle" out from under him.

"I couldn't believe it was him," Amos said. "All of the sudden, he's just a different person."

Others also noticed the change.

Johns said the two had long planned to eat at the Golden Corral buffet to celebrate Shannon's 17th birthday.

When the day came, Shannon ate one plate of food. He didn't want to exercise harder than usual. And his appetite was gone.

"Shannon used to roll with the buffet," his mother said. "He can't roll with it no more."

Burnette now refuses to take him to Golden Corral. It's not worth $9.29 for one plate, she said.

A new life

At 11:15 a.m. on a recent day at Patrick Henry, students swarmed into the cafeteria for lunch.

Holding a plate, Shannon strolled past trays of pizza and cheese nachos steaming under heat lamps.

He picked up a salad with slices of ham on it, a side bowl of chicken salad and two packages of crackers.

He nibbled at his salad while the girls who surrounded him ate pizza and hot dogs.

"Shannon lost mad weight," said Monique Dudley, 17, who has known Shannon since they were 5. "He just looks better."

At 11:45 a.m. lunch finished.

Shannon dropped his plate in a trash can. He hurried down a long hallway toward choir class, where he sings bass.

At the end of the hallway, Shannon faced the stairs. His classroom was on the third floor.

He took the stairs at a trot, size 13s flying, his long legs skipping steps.

"Driven to Succeed" - by Beth Macy

Roanoke Times, The (VA) - July 24, 2006
Author: Beth Macy beth . macy 981-3435

Rocio Ortiz has a monster inside her.

It screams at the factory workers she supervises when they slack off or talk too much. It growls when her teenage son explains why he can come and go as he pleases, and when the high school principal calls -- again -- to say her son was skipping school.

We could have died just getting here from Mexico, Rocio tells him for the umpteenth time.

And: Forget about these cushy Roanoke County suburbs. When I was your age, I didn't have a house.

I didn't even have socks.

There was a time when the monster protected Rocio, when it pushed her as she scrambled across the border and away from a life dependent on cheap shoes sold from the back of her rickety bike.

It helped her shed the shameful "illegal immigrant" label, propelling her from factory worker to plant manager to business entrepreneur.

But sometimes, the monster still keeps her up at night.

A chicken all to yourself

To this day, Rocio can barely look at her childhood photos. She's 3 or 4 in one of them, wearing a frayed poncho and clutching an equally sad-looking mutt. By 12, she was a sixth-grade dropout, on the gang-infested streets of Mexico City. When her parents split earlier that year, her mother abandoned the kids, and her father started a second family of his own.

Ask her to explain what prompted her homelessness -- both her parents were alive; her father owned a small chair factory -- and she can't. She stares into space, speechless for a minute, then sobs.

"They ... didn't ... care about me," she says.

The only person she could rely on was herself. At 13, Rocio mounted a suitcase onto the back of her bicycle and filled it with shoes, which she sold door to door for the equivalent of $3. She collected parental figures the way most little girls collect dolls.

The first one was her mother-in-law. Rocio was 15 when she met Carlos and became pregnant before long. Rather than a "quinceanera" -- the elaborate coming-of-age ceremony held on a Hispanic girl's 15th birthday -- Rocio had a small wedding.

Carlos' family embraced the newlyweds, giving them a room in their house. The room was tiny but Rocio managed to pack in a bed, table, stove and kitchen sink. When Roberto was born in 1988, the couple made a child's seat out of an old cardboard box.

Rocio painted the walls to give the "apartment" a homey feel and complained when the in-laws in the next room crowded her space. She loved that she had a family now, especially a mother, but she wanted a house of her own and complained loudly to Carlos about it.

"If I hadn't screamed, I'd still be there," she says, looking at photographs. In one, precocious Roberto is sitting on an airplane he'd fashioned out of scrap wood, a rusty table and cinder blocks. "My brother-in-law is still in his room with his family, still living in his mother's house."

Then, as now, jobs were scarce: Carlos was lucky to make the equivalent of $5 a day. Roberto still has scars on his legs -- from riding around the city on the back of his mom's bike.

When Rocio dreamed of the United States, it was an unattainable place, somewhere past the end of a gleaming white street and over the top of a hill. In her dreams, she never made it to the other side.

In reality, a friend told her, he knew a way she could. He had made the trip himself with the help of a smuggler, returning home with stories of lip-smacking meals. And cash.

He told the couple, "In America, you can have a whole chicken, and you don't even have to share. In America, you make more in one day than you make here in a week."

Only 'temporary'

The first time Carlos Ortiz tried to sneak into the country, the plan was to go to Roanoke. He had a sister, already working for the El Rodeo Mexican restaurant chain, who could set him up. Once he saved enough money, he'd hire a coyote -- a guide, essentially a human smuggler -- to bring Rocio and Roberto to "El Norte," as they called the United States. The North.

Many Hispanic immigrants who migrated in the early and mid-'90s came to work just long enough to save money -- for a house, a needed surgery, a daughter's quinceanera -- then returned home. More than anything, Rocio wanted her own house in Mexico.

But U.S. immigration officials caught Carlos near Tijuana and sent him back. When Rocio found him on the doorstep -- pale, dirty and dehydrated -- they both burst into tears.

The second time around, in 1993, the plan worked. Carlos found himself in Virginia, living 10 restaurant workers to a house. He borrowed $2,000 from a co-worker and hired a coyote from Colombia.

To avoid being raped by corrupt Mexican police or gangsters, Rocio wore multiple shirts and dressed like a man, hiding her hair under a cap. The coyote helped her carry 4-year-old Roberto across the desert.

Eight hours and several prearranged car rides later, she was staring at the strangely clean streets of San Diego and clutching Roberto's hand.

In Roanoke, Rocio bused tables at El Rodeo while Carlos cooked in the back. When a bout of strep throat landed her at an area hospital, it took an hour just to explain, using hand gestures, what was wrong.

Roberto would not feel that shame, she vowed, enrolling him in a free Baptist-run preschool on Elm Avenue. She rode the bus with him from her sister-in-law's house. For three hours every morning, she waited outside while teachers taught him his colors and how to count to 10.

When a teacher spotted Rocio on the porch, she invited her in and gently asked: "Does your boy need socks?"

He had socks, albeit holey ones, and only a single pair. But that was OK, Rocio tried to explain, because she washed them out in the sink every night when he went to bed.

The next day, the teachers gave the boy a bag full of stuffed animals, clothes and several brand-new pairs of socks.

"They even had tennis shoes for me," she recalls. "In Mexico, nobody gave me anything. In Mexico, if you have one pair of socks, even holey ones, you have enough. If you have two, that's plenty."

Rocio was grateful for the gifts. But, she adds, "I was so ashamed."

'Never seen someone so driven'

In two years, the couple saved $23,000 -- enough to buy a three-room bungalow on the outskirts of Mexico City. They thought they were returning for good.

Rocio fancied the house up, installing kitchen cabinets as she could afford them and nailing boards over cinder block walls.

But like many Mexicans who have tasted America, the lure of El Norte began to tug. Rocio took sewing classes and had hopes of opening a small sewing factory, but she couldn't raise the funds. The chair factory where Carlos worked was constantly laying people off.

"In Mexico, if you are 30, they will fire you to hire somebody younger," she says. "At 35, you're considered old."

In 1994, they had another son, Daniel, and little money for milk, fruit or meat. Carlos pleaded with his wife to quit wasting money on things like kitchen cabinets. "I want big pieces of meat," he said.

Rocio worried about Roberto, now 12, a ripe age for being targeted by gangs. "They will hurt you if you don't join their gangs," explained Carlos' sister, Isabel Booth, who came to Roanoke for the same reason Rocio and Carlos returned in 1999: to educate her kids.

This time, the family crossed the border together. Daniel, 4 at the time, remembers crawling under barbed-wire fences, his elbows rough from burrowing through the sand.

Back in Roanoke, fake documentation was easily acquired. Friends advised the couple to mail away for Social Security and green cards -- for $100 -- and restaurant managers jump-started the process of applying for legitimate documentation, finally acquired in 2003.

Rocio found work at a meat packaging plant and, because they had no car, she bummed rides from a co-worker. She bought her first car, a 1987 Mercury, for $1,700.

Determined this time to learn English, she took night classes at Patrick Henry High School. Before long, when the boss wanted to tell the other Hispanic workers something, he relied on Rocio to translate.

"You have never seen someone so driven," recalls Rocio's English teacher, Shari Conley-Edwards. Out of the hundreds of foreign students she's taught over the years, "I can't think of anyone I'd hold up higher than Rocio. She still comes to my classes every now and then, just to review."

The public library became her refuge. Rocio bought books at yard sales and, at the suggestion of a librarian, checked the same books out on CD so she could follow along.

The first novel she read all the way through was "Before I Say Good-bye," a romantic thriller by Mary Higgins Clark. It took nine months.

In 2001, word came down that the meat plant was closing, but another factory would be taking its place. The new owner needed employees, and it was his opinion, based on experience, that Hispanics worked the hardest

Of the 24 Mexicans and Hondurans this man currently employs, he said, "They work so hard and so fast, sometimes they run from one workstation to the next. It would take 50 Americans to replace them."

There was just one problem: The man didn't speak Spanish.

Not only was Rocio bilingual, but she also worked harder for him than anyone else -- 65-hour workweeks were routine during the busy season. When she was promoted to manager, the authority gave her a rush.

Her boss, a father figure right away, encouraged her to set goals. He even let her leave work to take English classes without clocking out.

"He knew right away I had a monster inside me," Rocio says. "He had the experience, but I had the drive."

The downside of driven

The factory owner agreed to be interviewed several times, under the condition that his name and the name of his business not be published. Like many area employers, he fears the attention could prompt an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid.

But he will say this: Rocio was as instrumental in making his business a success as he was. Promoted to plant manager in 2001, the woman who was once homeless bought her first American house -- she now owns two, including one she rents out for extra income -- and invested in a 401(k).

"She feels, and I do, too, that we built what we have here together," her boss says. "She's very proud of the company and what it's done, and she blames me for being the way she is."

Still, Rocio found herself wanting more -- especially for Carlos, who seemed to have no ambition beyond restaurant cooking and playing in his band. Why don't you learn English? Why don't you have a monster, too?

The monster caught up with Rocio last year, when there were one too many production orders at work and one too many arguments with employees. She and her boss were routinely putting in 70-hour weeks.

After Rocio fired a Honduran woman who couldn't get along with another employee, the woman's brother showed up, threatening to beat Rocio. Another time, after a bad storm, Rocio climbed atop the leaking roof, tacked down a tarpaulin and told her workers: We have a deadline to meet. Get back to work.

"In retrospect, I probably worked her too hard," the plant owner says.

After not missing a day of work in five years -- not even when she had the flu -- Rocio finally crashed. She was exhausted, depressed, wracked with back and stomach pains.

Why am I doing this?

And: How much more do I need?

Then she remembered Roberto's holey socks and thought: Maybe Carlos is right. Maybe we have enough.

'I am so scary'

Rocio quit the plant manager job. At 35, she now works 20 hours a week as a consultant, doing inventory spreadsheets and moderating employer-worker disputes.

Though the workers have a love-hate relationship with her, it's Rocio they call when they land in jail or need to borrow money.

In late April, the week before the national Day Without Immigrants protest, she held a staff meeting, asking for input and interpreting for the boss. After intense debate, a consensus was reached:

Though the employees had considered joining a public protest, they changed their minds, fearful of attracting attention, and took the day off to stay at home, without pay. (Plant employees receive free individual health insurance, and the average wage is $10 an hour.)

"They decided that it's better to be 'please' and 'thank you' with the country," Rocio said. "If immigration officials are not bothering us here now, why make protest?"

She tries to funnel most of her energy into the business she and Carlos opened last year, a grocery/restaurant/money-wiring business on Melrose Avenue called El Charly and Family.

When you enter the store, "You are in Mexico," she says. It's an all-Spanish oasis where construction workers come to wire money home, shoot pool and watch soccer and Spanish-language soap operas.

After doing paperwork at the plant and delivering lunch from her restaurant to the plant workers, who preorder and pay for the food, she works most afternoons at El Charly.

She's still hard on people, she admits. She gets mad when the plant workers refuse to stay after work for free English classes. "The boss will even pay them for taking the class!" she rants. "But they complain they are too tired!"

To confirm her suspicion that they were not studying on Saturday mornings as promised, she even drove by one of the worker's houses and, as expected, there were no extra cars there. Thus setting off another rant.

Worst of all: A few weeks before graduation, Rocio was in daily contact with administrators at Hidden Valley High School. Roberto, now 18, still aced his tests, but he was routinely skipping classes, and there was a chance he wouldn't graduate.

Rocio threatened to station herself in a lawn chair outside his classroom door.

It's her goal one day to be buried with a college diploma in her hands, and she can't understand why that's not her son's goal, too.

"He is so brilliant and people love him," she says. "He can be a lawyer if he wants to, but he is too lazy."

In the weeks leading up to graduation, she said repeatedly that she was so "scary" that he wouldn't graduate -- one of the few English words she still messes up.

And yet she praised Roberto for avoiding drugs and alcohol, for translating for his dad and other Hispanics at the store.

It's hard to be the son of the woman with the monster, she knows, although she is trying her best now to chill: She put an old recliner in her store office. She tries to nap there every afternoon, with her blanket and a pile of stuffed animals.

"I try to relax, but I still feel like Rocio the Illegal Immigrant who has to do more, more, more," she says.

"I have too much energy on my soul."


June 9 was more than graduation day. It was all the graduations Rocio herself had forgone, the quinceanera, the elaborate wedding, the fancy clothes.

Between her two job shifts, she managed to buy new suits for the sons and husband, decorate the ranch-style house with balloons and streamers, and cook enough Mexican food to feed 30.

In fact, she was so busy playing drill sergeant beforehand -- The snapshot collage goes here, the food table there -- that they were late for the ceremony.

During commencement, Roberto walked to the stage with a Mexican flag tacked to his gown. It was the proudest moment of Rocio's life, she said later, proof that she had "made him to be a nice person and to be a man."

Outside afterwards, Roberto thanked his parents and hugged them.

"This is mine," Rocio said of his diploma, in all seriousness, and yanked it from his hands.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"People in the Gulf" - by Peter Fimrite

Sunday, September 25, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
I saw people on the Gulf picking up the pieces, not weeping
By Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer

The question surprised me, coming as it did from a colleague in the
normally hard-bitten culture of the newsroom, where gallows humor is
more the norm.
"Did you cry?" she asked, after we discussed the chaos, heartbreak
and ruin I had observed during my 10 days walking and wading through the
tragedy that is the Gulf Coast and New Orleans.
I knew that television reporters had cried during interviews with
victims of Hurricane Katrina, boosting at least one network career. But
me? Cry?
"I couldn't write if I didn't feel for the people I was talking to
or understand in some way their pain," I replied. "But it takes a lot to
make me cry."
One might think that seeing people picking through the remnants of
their flattened homes and shattered lives or fleeing, perhaps forever,
their flooded neighborhoods would immediately elicit tears. The
out-of-place items of home and hearth -- a filthy teddy bear on top of a
splintered roof in Waveland, Miss., or the Spider-Man lunch box floating in
the ruined city of New Orleans -- were disturbing, no doubt.
But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was emotional, at least for
me, in a deeper way. Maybe it was because I was reporting the tragedy,
and concentrating more than the average person on what was in front of
me, but life seemed more vivid amid the rubble of the Mississippi coast,
in the crowded Houston Astrodome and in the vacant city of New
We have all heard how tragedy makes a person realize what's
important in life. But, more than that, a calamity like Hurricane Katrina
brings into plain view the delicate balance of nature, and humanity.
There, amid the stench of death, I did not see many people crying.
Instead, I saw them trying to pick up the pieces. I saw them hugging
their children tight, cherishing a friendly gesture, savoring the taste of
a donated apple.
I saw Dennis Dickinson slogging around Bay St. Louis, Miss., trying
to figure out how to remove his friend's van, trailer and boat, which
had been blown off the road and were now buried in mud. Never mind that
his own home, where he had raised two children and was raising a third,
had been destroyed.
"I'm just thankful I have a job," said Dickinson, 46, a construction
Even when forced to confront all they had lost, most of the victims
still found something to be thankful for. Tony Lewis, 50, pulled a
muddy pot out of the remnants of the 3,000-square-foot Victorian-style home
he bought four months before in Waveland.
"I worked as a health and safety officer for an oil rig and saved up
money to get my dream home," said Lewis, who was collecting things to
bring back to his wife and seven children. "It's disbelief that we're
starting over again, but we're just glad we're alive and we still have
our health. I'll let my family remember it like it was, and we'll
regroup and go at it again."
The devastation from the hurricane along the Gulf Coast was nearly
complete, with whole towns reduced to splinters of wood and debris. The
force of the winds snapped large pine trees in half, blew off roofs and
turned anything not fastened down into twisted roadside sculptures.
The vast, dirty lake that covered New Orleans was shocking and surreal,
like creeping liquid death.
It was, nevertheless, with both optimism and a sense of humor unique
to the South that people confronted the ruins of their former lives.
"My friend asked, 'What are we going to do now for entertainment?' "
quipped Celeste McInnis, 59, of Gulfport, Miss., as she stood in the
now-ruined gambling mecca of Biloxi. "I said, 'Entertainment? What are
we going to do for basic services?'
"You've got to laugh and just go with it or else you can't get
through it," said McInnis, who had six relatives whose homes were flattened.
Her sister had to be rescued from her attic. "This area has a
wonderful, united spirit and they will come together."
Many confronted their uncertain futures not with grief, but with
seeming nonchalance. Bob Burns chuckled at the craziness of it all and
acted as a tour guide through the mound of lumber that was his Waveland
"This was Dr. Lee's house here. It was a mansion," said Burns, 47,
pointing out the expansive lawn leading to a giant pile of debris.
"And this," he said, smiling and gesturing proudly at an
unrecognizable mass of splintered wood and material amid mud-caked stumps, "is my
Steve Kinney, whose house was one of the only homes left standing in
Waveland, looked around when he first arrived after the storm.
"This is interesting," he said, dryly. "I guess I'm not going to
have any neighbors for a while."
And there were wild tales of survival told, as often as not, with
whimsy and a glint in the eye.
Brian Mollere puffed a cigarette and stroked his scraggly pet
Chihuahua, Rocky, as he told how the two of them were swept from his home by
the storm surge and carried down the street. The incredible tale took
on an absurdist flavor as he described his urgent attempts to put his
shorts back on after they had slipped off. His curious decision to wave
at neighbors on rooftops as he and his dog rushed by them in the torrent
seemed preposterous, yet true to his nature.
People gleefully told about a seal found on a street in Gulfport, a
sea lion in a pool in Long Beach, deer swept off an island and planted
on the mainland, a person in Biloxi forced to swim 13 hours before
being rescued. They are tales that will be told to future generations,
until the next Katrina comes along.
Beth Fiorello, 37, of Waveland, was moved to tears, not by the sight
of her destroyed house, but by the discovery of her daughter's
communion dress in the rubble.
"That makes it a little better," she said.
Everywhere I looked there was the search, not only for remnants of
the past, but for something inspiring, positive, that would serve as a
vehicle for renewal.
Frankie Cade, 62, put up 33 evacuees in her Houston rental
apartments free of charge, then gave them the clothes off her back.
"I just emptied my closet," said Cade, who has had her share of
grief, losing a son in a car accident and a daughter to meningitis. "I can
always buy more clothes."
Even among the homeless and destitute, who endured the foul
indignities wrought by the slow federal response to the flooding in New
Orleans, there were signs of a new dawn.
"That shower felt like a million dollars," marveled Adrian Ory, 57,
after washing up for the first time at the Houston Astrodome.
She and her deaf daughter, "Peppy," and disabled granddaughter were
rescued from their flooded New Orleans home. Her first call after the
ordeal was to her niece on a borrowed cell phone.
"We're in the big ol' Astrodome, girl," she yelled to her relieved
relative. "Call everybody and tell them me and Peppy are safe!"
Tears did mingle with the floodwaters in Louisiana and the wreckage
in Mississippi and Alabama, but not as many as one might think.
I did not shed any, but I did notice the bright red sunset over New
Orleans, the powdery white sand on the beach in Biloxi and the smell of
pine along the highway in Mississippi. The reflections in the water
seemed more acute. The blue sky took on a brilliant hue.
I noticed a 3-foot-tall Santa Claus doll wearing glasses standing in
a parking lot, surrounded by the calamity that was Biloxi, seemingly
watching over the town.
I saw an amusement-park bumper car sitting there on Highway 90 as if
it had broken away from its confines and was preparing to flee the
whirlwind of debris that was once a resort town.
The bow of the schooner-shaped Treasure Bay Casino was beached in a
strange parody of what might have happened to a real pirate ship 300
years ago on the same coastline.
Bourbon Street was empty, silent and dry. Three things it had never
Life in the path of destruction was a surreal curiosity, abstract
yet oddly poignant. I took it all in, like a good reporter, and spat much
of it out on the page.
But there was something I could not put into words, something the
experience did, not only to my senses, but to my soul.
I told my sensitive colleague that the calamity of Katrina had not
made me cry. And it had not. But as I was writing one night near the end
of my assignment covering the hurricane aftermath, I opened an e-mail
from my wife.
"We love you and miss you," it said. "Kids want to know when you're
coming home. Please stay safe and don't let the mosquitoes bite you."
It came from a place that seemed so far away from the terrible
destruction I had witnessed. Many on the Gulf Coast had lost their homes,
their families, their feelings of safety. I still had those things. The
hurricane and its aftermath made me realize how much they all meant to
The tears just came, as much a surprise as the note. I missed my
family, my little children, but my emotions were more a realization of
just how thin the thread is that holds our lives together, that bonds us
with our loved ones, that tethers us to a world filled with wonder and
I stood up, walked outside and looked up into the Southern night
sky. Through the clouds I saw the brilliant, magnificent stars.

E-mail Peter Fimrite at

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"The Case of a Lifetime" - by Stacy Finz

Stacy Finz, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, December 15, 2002

The call was damned inconvenient.
FBI agent Jeff Rinek was used to getting pulled away from home on Saturdays. But this weekend the boys were away. He and Lori had the house to themselves. For 15 years, she had put up with him working odd hours on cases too horrible to imagine.

Now the bureau wanted him to pick up some guy named Cary Stayner -- a possible material witness to a murder -- at a nudist resort in Wilton. It wasn't Rinek's case. His office just needed a driver.

All he knew was that three days earlier, on July 21, 1999, a young Yosemite nature guide had been killed. Yosemite was a sore spot for Rinek. In February, he was removed as lead agent on an investigation involving three slain Yosemite tourists. It had been a humiliating experience -- one that had deeply shaken Rinek's faith in the bureau.

As Rinek showered, put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, it didn't seem possible that the earlier case and this recent killing could be related. He kissed Lori goodbye. He was amazed his wife tolerated all the extra hours he put in. Yet she always did.

He had missed countless special occasions -- anniversaries, family parties. When a chase through Sacramento kept him from making his wife's 37th birthday party, Rinek dialed Lori on his cell phone and made the suspect apologize to her for interfering with their plans.

Stunts like that made Rinek popular among the other agents, but not among his bosses. He was a little too coarse for the bureau's buttoned-down supervisors. He used profanity and had once been written up for using sexually explicit language in the office. He was dinged for insubordination, and got into a few too many faces a few too many times.

At 47, he was a little more than two years away from early retirement. He figured the top brass would be happy if he took it. And he wouldn't miss them a bit. It was a shame, though. He liked the work.

Winding down his narrow driveway in his FBI-issued Ford, he wondered whether there was any way he could get this over with quickly and salvage the rest of the day.

Rinek chose the back roads, not the highway, from his house, 40 miles east of Sacramento. Some might call it poetic that the town he lived in was called Rescue. Rinek's specialty was rescuing children.

He kept a heavy foot on the gas pedal during the 50-mile drive to Wilton. When he got to Laguna Del Sol, the resort's manager was waiting for him at the gate. Two other agents and two Sacramento sheriff's deputies also had arrived. Rinek had never been to a nudist camp. He scanned the gathering naked crowd, but was disappointed with what he saw. The women were mostly out of shape.

He and John Boles, a cocky young agent, were directed to the resort's restaurant. Stayner was inside eating breakfast. Rinek, like most people in the area, knew of the Stayner family. Stayner's younger brother, Steven, made national headlines in 1980, after he escaped from his abductor, Kenneth Parnell, a convicted child molester.

Steven was held and sexually abused by Parnell for seven years after his kidnapping in 1972. His story had been chronicled in a book and dramatized in a television miniseries. And after surviving a hellish childhood of abuse, Steven died in a motorcycle crash in 1989.

Rinek wanted to talk to Stayner about his brother. The bureau wanted to talk to him about the Yosemite murder. Rinek thought Stayner might have been a former boyfriend of the victim.

When he and the other investigators walked into the restaurant, Stayner stood and raised his hands above his head. They thought it was a little strange. So Boles handcuffed him as a precaution.

Some of the patrons in the restaurant were nude, but Stayner was wearing shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and baseball cap. At 37, he was a good-looking guy: tall, well-built, rugged.

"You ever see the movie 'Billy Jack'?" Rinek asked him as they walked toward his car. "You look just like him."

Stayner said he'd never seen the 1971 film, and they kept walking.

"No kidding," Rinek said. "I don't know why we're here. They want us to interview you. Would you be willing to be interviewed here or back at the office?"

"Back at the office," Stayner responded.

Rinek opened the car door and Stayner got in. The two men sat there for a while in silence. The crowd of gapers was moving closer, so Rinek figured he had better follow strict procedure just in case Stayner turned out to be more than a witness.

"I'm going to read you your rights now," Rinek told him.

To the agent, it was just routine.

It would turn out that Rinek had spent his whole life preparing for this day, this case, this man.

Rinek turned the key in the ignition and with Stayner's guidance left the nudist camp, found his way to Highway 99 and headed north. Boles followed in another car.

The 40-minute drive to FBI headquarters in Sacramento turned into 90 minutes because of road construction. But the delay was fortuitous. There was something about Rinek that made Stayner relax -- and talk. People were often caught off guard by the agent. He had the body of a wrestler, the bushy mustache of the Marlboro man, but the spirituality of a clergyman. He took confessions, and people seemed to want to give them to him.

So when the agent said, "Tell me about your brother," Stayner suddenly wanted to talk about the ordeal that started 27 years ago.

His little brother, Steven, then 7, had been walking home from Charles Wright Elementary School in Merced just a few weeks before Christmas. Parnell, posing as a church minister, offered to give Stevie a ride home and the second-grader accepted.

But Parnell would never stop at the Stayner home. Instead, he drove all the way to Cathy's Valley, about 40 miles away. There, Parnell, accomplice Ervin Edward Murphy and Stevie holed up in a little red cabin. Parnell renamed Steven "Dennis," and for the next seven years he passed the boy off as his son by day and used him for sex at night.

When Stevie was 14, Parnell kidnapped and brought home 5-year-old Timmy White. Steven wanted to save Timmy, so he summoned up enough courage to escape. The two hitchhiked from Manchester, a tiny coastal town in Mendocino County, into Ukiah, where they walked to the police station.

Cary Stayner was 18 when his brother came home. He was returning from a camping trip at Yosemite when he heard the news of Stevie's escape on the radio. By the time he got to Merced, news crews had taken over the small town.

Rinek asked him how he felt about the investigation into his brother's disappearance. "Did law enforcement treat you and your family OK, and was there anything we could have done better?"

Stayner got emotional and said he thought Parnell got off easy -- he was only sentenced to seven years in prison for the kidnappings. He also voiced anger at the driver who killed his brother during the hit-and-run accident in 1989.

Rinek listened to Stayner as he talked. He watched as his passenger's eyes welled up with tears. He had seen that kind of sadness countless times in the family members of victims. And it still ripped his guts out.

For almost as long as he could remember, Rinek dreamed of being an FBI agent. He remembered when agents showed up at his father's funeral home in Philadelphia one summer. Some mobbed-up guy was getting buried. The agents watched people coming and going and took pictures of license plates on parked cars. Rinek was drawn to the good guys in the bad suits, not the bad guys in the good suits.

After graduating from a small liberal arts school in Reading, Pa., with a degree in history, Rinek was accepted into law school. But he couldn't afford to go. So he took a job working as a clerk for the FBI in Washington, D.C., and attended accounting classes at night. The FBI liked agents to be lawyers or accountants.

When he was 26, the bureau offered him a job as a special agent. By 1980, Rinek was transferred to New York City, where he worked on white-collar crime and foreign counterintelligence.

But the job was turning out to be a disappointment -- a lot of tedious paperwork and not enough time in the field.

One good thing had happened, though. Rinek had met a young, pretty woman. Her name was Lori Firman and she was getting over a divorce. The pair started spending a lot of time together and married in 1984 on the back porch of the vintage farm house they had lovingly restored.

Three years later, their first son was born and they named him Joe. When Lori gave birth to their second boy, Jordan, life should have been wonderful for the couple. But Rinek was suffocating in the FBI's New York office and Joe was very sick.

He was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a complex set of symptoms caused by renal diseases. The doctors prescribed medication that didn't help and the 3-year-old got worse.

About that time, Rinek was informed that he would finally be getting out of New York -- a commitment of five years that had become 11. There was an opening at the FBI's Sacramento office.

So the Rineks packed up a moving truck, loaded the kids, three dogs and six cats in the car and drove west. They got as far as Omaha, Neb., when Joe was rushed to an emergency room. For the next week, they sat by Joe's bedside and prayed he wouldn't die.

He pulled through and the family made it to Sacramento. But Joe's health was still fragile and would be for several years to come. It made Rinek painfully aware that the young were so vulnerable, and their hold on life so tenuous.


Rinek found his true calling in 1993.

That year two armed men pushed their way into Frankie Proctor's Sacramento home, southeast of the Capitol. They locked Frankie's parents in the bathroom, snatched the 7-month-old off the couch and fled.

Rinek and Sacramento police Detective Greg Stewart worked night and day on leads. As the hours passed, investigators held little hope of finding Frankie alive. Then they got a strange tip. It was from a less-than-reliable informant. The snitch said he knew a woman who had miscarried and desperately wanted a child of her own. He believed she stole Frankie.

Although it seemed remote, Rinek and the other investigators had a gut feeling -- the kind that comes from years on the street. The lead panned out, and a day later, Rinek clutched Frankie close to his heart. He could feel the baby's strong pulse and hear his steady breathing. Surrounded by an army of cops with enough firepower to take down an entire city block, Rinek cried. First, the tears came for finding Frankie.

"We passed that baby around and around the room," Rinek said. "We couldn't stop holding him."

Then he cried for his son Joe, who like Frankie seemed to be out of danger.

Rinek's success in helping to solve the Proctor case elevated his status in the office. Soon he was specializing in child abduction cases. But finding Frankie was bigger than a promotion. He knew what he was meant to do -- save children.

And sometimes he could. But not Michael Lyons.

The 8-year-old was found face down along the shore of the Feather River clutching a silver bracelet in his tiny hand. It was May 17, 1996. His Batman shirt was covered in blood. Rinek thought Michael could just as easily be Joe or Jordan, his own young sons.

Michael had probably been dead for just a few hours when Rinek and investigators got there. A news helicopter buzzed overhead and a camera man tried to get footage of the scene. Rinek, a police detective and the county coroner all carried Michael under a canopy of trees in hopes of camouflaging him.

He remembered thinking: "Oh, God, don't let this be the last image Michael's mother has of her son."

A half-mile away, authorities arrested Robert Boyd Rhoades, a repeat sex offender. The day before, Rhoades had grabbed Michael as he was walking home from Bridge Street Elementary School in Yuba City. He sodomized the boy and then stabbed him multiple times with a fishing knife.

Rinek had seen so much, and still he couldn't imagine how someone could do this to a child. He didn't believe in Satan, but he believed that man was capable of great evil. And the Old Testament provided an antidote: an eye for an eye. He wanted Rhoades to die -- to suffer the way Michael had.

Stayner and Rinek continued to talk much of the way to FBI headquarters. Rinek found his passenger to be likable and intelligent. As they drove up to the FBI complex, Rinek noticed that the parking lot was nearly empty. Many of the agents were still at the murder scene in Yosemite, interviewing friends and family members of the victim. Before Rinek could put on his emergency brake, a smirking Stayner turned to him.

"You know what I think I'm gonna do then?" said Stayner, reciting exactly from 'Billy Jack." "Just for the hell of it? I'm gonna take this right foot, and I'm gonna whop you on the side of your face and you wanna know something? There's not a damn thing you're gonna be able to do about it."

"Well, I'll be damned," Rinek said. "You did see the movie."

It was 84 degrees in Sacramento that day -- cooler than usual for July. But the office felt like a sauna. Rinek was sweating and he had to use the bathroom. He left Stayner alone in a small office, while he relieved himself. Then he went to the lounge, where he rummaged through the candy bowl looking for chocolate. After devouring a candy bar, he and Boles prepared for the interview: setting up fingerprinting, mug shots, a lie detector test.

Before the polygrapher had time to set up his equipment, Stayner asked Rinek whether he could speak to him alone. Just the two of them.

With Boles out of the room, Stayner confided that he had been a bad person. He told the agent that he had been sexually abused at the hands of a relative when he was 11 years old. Stayner said his uncle had showed him pictures of naked 10-year-old girls and had fondled him. He also confessed to Rinek that he'd never had a normal relationship with a woman. And then Stayner dropped a bomb.

"I can give you closure," he told the agent.

Rinek felt like someone had just poured ice cold water over his head. Unsure about what Stayner was talking about, Rinek waded in slowly.

"Closure about what?" he asked. "You mean about what happened in Yosemite?"

"And more," Stayner responded.

"Like what more?" Rinek continued.

Stayner answered, "Everything."

Rinek couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"Are you talking about the three women traveling in Yosemite -- the Sund-Pelosso case?"

Stayner nodded yes.

Suddenly Rinek needed air.

He left the interrogation room. He needed to clear his head and call Lori. He wanted to let her know that he would be late -- very late.

When he heard her voice on the other end of the line, he whispered that he would never have to wear a jacket and tie again. He told her he was about to solve the biggest case of his career or completely screw it up. And he was scared. She didn't hear a word he said, but in verbal shorthand -- the kind that goes on between couples -- she said, "That's great, honey."

Meanwhile, Boles slipped back into the interrogation room and kept Stayner company.

"I guess you've dealt with some really sick people in your day," Stayner remarked to Boles as they waited for Rinek. A pepperoni pizza they had ordered sat on the table.

"I gotta eat, I'm starved," Rinek said to Boles and Stayner as he walked back into the room.

"This is gonna be my last pizza," Stayner said.

"Stop that. Stop that," Rinek chastised. He knew it was a risk to feed a suspect who was already eager to talk, but Rinek and Boles felt Stayner needed to eat.

"If everything goes OK, we're going to be here for a while," Rinek told Stayner. "My goal would be to keep you here as long as I can and help you feel better."

"And nothing does that like a pepperoni pizza," Boles chimed in.

The three men ate and chatted about trivialities -- rock climbing, movies, cars. Then Stayner got serious.

"Well, it is so weird, Jeff," he said. "I love life so much. I can breathe, I can wake up and see the sun. I like my friends. I can't tell you why this happened. One minute I'm thinking great thoughts and world peace and the next minute it is like I could kill every person on the face of the earth."

Rinek could clearly see the dichotomy that was Cary Stayner. He believed he was in the presence of great evil. But he was also convinced that Stayner was the victim of great evil. Now Rinek knew that Stayner had committed unspeakable acts against women. But he was persuaded that the man had a conscience -- he could cry for his victimized brother and recoil at his own inner demons.

Rinek decided to channel the man who had sat in his car just hours earlier -- not the bloodthirsty killer -- to get Stayner's confession.

"Today is the beginning of the rest of your life," Rinek told him. "You are controlling you, probably for the first time since you were 11. Do you know what the greatest harm to a child is when a child is abused? That child tries to figure out what they did to cause this. . . .

"When you were 11 years old, something bad happened to you, and you've been spending your life trying to live with it. Does your family know you have these tremendous internal issues?"

"I have no idea," Stayner answered.

"Have you told anyone in your life about them other than me?"


"Well, don't you think it's time that we dealt with it now? . . . Doesn't mean you're a bad person, it just means you're a troubled person."

Stayner appeared ready to confess, but then he waffled. He would tell Rinek things, but only if three conditions were met: He wanted to be housed in a federal penitentiary near his home town, to see his parents receive the reward money put up by the victims' families. Then the doozy -- he wanted a "good-size stack" of photographs and videotapes of child pornography.

"It's very sick, I realize that," Stayner said. "Maybe because I never got to see it, these (killings) happened."

Rinek and Boles stalled him for a while, but in the end, they would say no to everything he wanted. Rinek could offer him only one thing: an opportunity to repent.

"You know what's really gonna happen when we're done?" Rinek asked. "You are gonna feel a lot of relief . . . you're gonna feel peaceful, a feeling you haven't had in a long time."

'Always ready to go'

But Rinek was not about to rush things. The three men sat in the FBI interrogation room and finished their pizza. Stayner sketched small caricatures of Rinek and Boles, and Rinek thought the drawings were good.

Stayner made an offhanded remark that sheriff's deputies and park rangers had interviewed him a day after the murder of the 26-year-old nature guide, Joie Ruth Armstrong.

They had seen his International Scout parked near the scene that day and apparently thought he might know something. But after questioning him and searching his truck, they had let him go.

No one will ever know for sure why Stayner decided to tell his story on this particular day. Stayner told Boles that the bureau owed his confession to Rinek.

And when the time came, Rinek got right to the point.

"First of all, are you the one -- I don't even know her name -- who murdered what's her name?" Rinek asked.

The agent felt ashamed as he shuffled through the police reports he had been given. He prayed that later, when this was all over, the victim's family wouldn't be offended that he didn't even know her name.

"I think I have her name somewhere here. Joie Ruth, is that the girl that you murdered?"

"Yes, it is."

"How did you come about her?"

"I was driving up to Foresta and went down to a bridge that was washed out and closed down. I was walking around just checking it out 'cause I'd seen Bigfoot in the area back in the early '80s . . . And there was this house on the edge of the meadow. I guess that's where she lived.

"I just noticed her. She is a fairly attractive girl."

"Uh-huh," Rinek said, encouraging him to go on.

"I had a small green backpack. In the backpack I had a .22 revolver . . . and a large knife and duct tape.

"I walked back by the house and she was out front, and we started talking -- actually about Bigfoot. I asked her if she'd ever seen or heard anything, and she said no.

"She stepped up on the porch and then she turned around," Stayner continued. "That's when I pulled out the gun and put it to her head. She freaked out. I told her to go inside . . . where I duct-taped her and gagged her."

"You're doing fine," Rinek assured him. "This is hard, you're being good, brave. Go ahead."

"She resisted quite a bit," Stayner said. "I took her down to my truck and put her in the back seat. She was fighting all the way . . . and as I was driving, she started going crazy, just jumping all over the place. And she fell out through the window onto the road."

"So she was trying to get away from you?"

"She did a very good job of it," Stayner said. "I kinda freaked out. I had the knife in my back pocket. I tried to subdue her, but she was fighting very hard."

"What did you do next?"

"Took the knife from my back pocket and I slit her throat. She didn't die right away."

"How long did it take her to die?"

"(I) drug her another 10, 15 feet . . . I finished the job. I parked my truck in a parking area next to an asphalt road. I went back . . . and I cut her head off."

"Let me ask you a question," Rinek said. "It's a hard one, and I don't want you to think I'm angry at you. When did you put the duct tape, the knife and the gun in your backpack?"

"It's been there for a long time."

"It's because you're always ready to go?"

"Right," Stayner answered.

"You had these items, not because it hit you on the moment?"

"No, it was something I was looking forward to."

"You said to me at one point you were obsessive-compulsive," Rinek continued. "Is it something that you feel occupied most of your thought process?"

"Every waking moment," Stayner responded.

"What was your intent?"

"To sexually molest her."

Rinek needed another break. He needed emotionally to prepare himself to hear the rest of Stayner's confession. The Sund-Pelosso case had been his. And he would have to live with the knowledge that a fourth woman had to die before they caught the killer.

The Sund-Pelosso case had turned Rinek's career upside down.

More than five months earlier, on Feb. 16, 1999, Carole Sund, her 15-year-old daughter, Juli, and their Argentine friend failed to show up in San Francisco after a visit to Yosemite National Park. The three women, who had traveled from the Sunds' home in Eureka, were supposed to meet Carole's husband, Jens, and continue on to the Grand Canyon. They wanted to show 16-year-old Silvina Pelosso as many sights as possible before she returned to South America.

Carole Sund had been an exchange student in Argentina when she was a teenager and lived with Silvina's mother and her family. Sund and Silvina's mother, both in their 40s, continued their friendship and wanted the same for their daughters.

But they and their red rental car seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. Investigators believed they had stayed the night of Feb. 15 at the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, a rustic motel located just outside the park near the Merced River. Numerous witnesses saw them there that evening. But the rest was a mystery.

Then a clue -- Carole Sund's wallet was found on a Modesto street three days after the three disappeared. It was turned over to authorities the next day.

The Mariposa County Sheriff's Department combed El Portal for leads. They found some curious inconsistencies in the motel room where the three stayed. One of the beds was missing a top sheet and a blanket was gone. They didn't know it at the time, but shreds of Juli's pajamas were matted in the carpet.

James Maddock, the special agent in charge of the Sacramento FBI office, felt sure the three had been the victims of a crime. Maybe they were attacked in their motel room or in the parking lot as they packed up their car to leave the lodge early on Feb. 16. There was also a chance that they were carjacked in Modesto.

But FBI profilers, sent from Quantico, Va., found there was just as much evidence to indicate that Carole Sund's car had skidded off an icy road in the winding Sierra. If the three had survived such a crash, time was running out for them. Temperatures were at freezing.

Rinek was called to Modesto on Feb. 22 and was made case agent. It was one of those investigations that the whole world was watching. His career could soar. Or it could crash and burn.

After Rinek was put in charge of the Sund-Pelosso case, he spent weeks trying to hunt down bank records. Suspicious calls had been made to Carole Sund's bank by one or more women claiming to be Sund. They had Sund's Social Security number and were requesting financial information.

So Rinek and a banking specialist tried to trace the origins of the calls. It was no easy job, and Rinek feared that his boss, Maddock, thought it was a waste of time. But Rinek believed it was the best lead they had and continued the tedious work.

As the days passed, FBI agents and sheriff's detectives began looking closely at the staff at the Cedar Lodge. One employee in particular piqued their interest. The man had been seen changing the locks on the Sunds and Pelosso's motel room on the day they vanished. He had a criminal record and his brother was a registered sex offender.

Maddock was excited. The top supervisors were sure this was their guy. Rinek advised Maddock that it was still too early to focus on any one person. Not long after their conversation, Rinek sensed a chill between them.

Rinek was right not to get his hopes too high, because their suspect passed a polygraph test. So he and the other investigators quickly moved on. They started investigating a second employee at the Cedar Lodge.

The worker agreed to take a polygraph and failed. Maddock's hopes soared. Rinek was cautious. After all, lots of innocent people fail lie detector tests.

They were unable to link him to the Sunds and Pelosso's disappearance, so over the next couple of weeks, agents broadened their investigation by looking at sex offenders in the area.

They also continued to interview lodge employees, including a handyman named Cary Stayner.


On March 18, 1999, a man target shooting about 100 yards north of Highway 108, between Long Barn and Sierra Village, discovered Carole Sund's red Pontiac Grand Prix.

The rental car was badly burned and clothing, purses and other items were found strewn across the area. Agents waited until the following morning, when they would have more light, to search the trunk. It was there that they found the charred remains of Carol Sund and Silvina Pelosso.

The case, which the FBI had dubbed "Tournap," for tourist kidnapping, immediately switched gears from a missing persons search to a homicide investigation. And authorities were focusing on a pair of ex-cons living in Modesto. They had pretty much ruled out Cedar Lodge employees. Stayner, who lived at the motel, was questioned for a short time and never looked at again.

Eugene "Rufus" Dykes and Michael "Mick" Larwick, half-brothers with long criminal records, lived near the area where Carole Sund's wallet had been recovered. Both men had been arrested for unrelated crimes shortly after the three tourists vanished. A retired Modesto police officer received a tip from an informant that the two, now in custody, may have been involved in the women's disappearance. The retired cop told an FBI agent, who in turn told her supervisor.

Soon, she and Rinek were on their way to Modesto. They and other investigators interviewed Dykes' and Larwick's neighbors and searched apartments and cars. Sixty-seven miles away, an evidence response team combed the Pontiac and the surrounding areas, looking for clues -- anything that would lead them to the killers or to Juli Sund.

During the next couple of days, Rinek worked hard with the other members of the Tournap task force to link Larwick and Dykes to the Sunds and Pelosso. But he found himself disagreeing more and more with his supervisors over the direction of the investigation. And he felt that he was somehow being edged out.

Suddenly, Maddock announced that Nick Rossi, an agent with only four years' experience, would take over the case. Rossi, a Harvard-educated lawyer, served as a spokesman for the Sacramento FBI office. He was well-liked by reporters and considered to be a close confidant to Maddock.

Maddock thought that Rinek was bad with paperwork and that Rossi's organizational skills were more suited for such a complicated case.

It was a slap in the face to Rinek, who in addition to feeling belittled, thought it inappropriate to put an inexperienced agent whose official duty was to deal with the media in charge of a high-profile case. His resentment nearly caused him to walk out on the job. Pride and a sense of responsibility made him stay.

On March 25, authorities found Juli's badly decomposed body near a lookout point at Lake Don Pedro, northeast of Merced. An anonymous letter and crude map had been mailed to the FBI's Modesto office, tipping them to the third victim's whereabouts.

And Dykes was talking. He was telling investigators that he was involved in the tourists' killings. A grand jury in Fresno began investigating, and soon confidential aspects of the case were leaked to the press. Though no charges had been filed, the media was only too happy to gobble up every morsel and feed it to the public.

After weeks of failing to corroborate Dykes' confession, Rinek and other members of the task force feared they were going in the wrong direction. They advised Maddock to move on. But their supervisor felt that there was some physical evidence -- fibers found near Juli's body matched fibers found in one of the brother's trucks -- linking them to the killings. And Larwick and Dykes had no alibi at the time of the murders.

In June, Maddock made a public declaration that the killers of the Sunds and Pelosso were safely behind bars. Charges, he said, would be filed imminently.

There was a sense of relief. Tourists returned to Yosemite in droves, and residents felt it was safe to again walk in the woods.

Joie Armstrong's father, Frank, would later tell agents that after the Sunds and Pelosso went missing, he warned his daughter to be careful. She told him not to worry, that the FBI had announced that the killers were in jail.

Rinek's role in the case had become tertiary, and, frankly, he was glad. He feared the investigation was turning into a debacle.

The whole experience was taking a horrible toll -- emotionally and physically -- on the agent. Chronic pain in his knees, which he had been trying to ignore for years, became unbearable that summer and doctors recommended knee replacement surgery.

The case had so worn him down and Rinek was depressed. He was no longer the confident and capable man he once was.

Now, as he listened to Stayner's chilling confession, Rinek knew he had been right all along.

There would be vindication, but no consolation. Rinek and Boles would hand Maddock his case on a platter. But four women were dead, and Rinek no longer felt good about the agency he had been proud to serve for 22 years.

As Stayner started talking about the Sund and Pelosso killings, Rinek paid close attention. The handyman said he first spied the trio in room 509, in a secluded wing of the Cedar Lodge. They had settled down for the night and were watching "Jerry Maguire" on the VCR.

"I didn't see a man in the room, so they were vulnerable. Easy prey," Stayner said. "I went back to my room and got my backpack with my kit."

Then he returned to their room.

"I knock on their door. (Carole Sund) opened up the curtain and looked out."

"OK," Rinek said, encouraging him.

"I told her we have a water leak problem. She didn't wanna let me in. I said, 'OK, no problem, ma'am, I'll just get the manager.' Then she agreed to let me in."

"As soon as she opens the door, do you force it open to go in?" Rinek asked.

"No. I walked in there, stood on the toilet, pulled the fan down, made it look authentic. I was walking out of the bathroom. That's when I pulled the gun out.

"I told them I was a desperate man. I needed out of the county, I needed the keys to their car and all their money."

"What did they do when you pulled the gun out?"

"The mother's eyes got real big and she went for her purse. I told her to get on the bed . . . And I tied them up."

"OK," Rinek said.

"I led both (girls) into the bathroom," Stayner continued.

"And you go out and mom was lying on the bed where you left her?" Rinek asked. "What'd you do next?"

"Went to my backpack and got some rope. . . . I stepped on the bed and stepped over and kinda sat on her back and wrapped the rope around her neck and nonchalantly strangled her to death."

Stayner said he dumped Carole's body in the trunk of her rental car and came back into the room. He retrieved the teenagers from the bathroom.

"I put Juli on the bed and the Pelosso girl on the other bed and cut their clothes off," he told the agents. "There was a lot of little pieces of cloth on the carpet."

He told the girls that Carole was in another room and proceeded to sexually assault them. When Silvina's incessant crying became too much for Stayner, he led her into the bathroom and strangled her, too. Later, he would stash her body next to Carole's in the car. Stayner abused Juli for seven hours, but he had been impotent much of his life and could not sustain an erection. Frustrated and worried that it would soon be light, he wrapped Juli in a blanket and drove her to Lake Don Pedro. There, he slashed her throat.

"I wished I could keep her," Stayner said. "I told her she had a good chance to get away (back) in the room. I took the knife out of my back pocket. I bunched her hair up in a ponytail on top of her head and pulled her head back and told her I loved her and I slit her throat."

Juli didn't die immediately, and Stayner said she motioned for him to finish the job.

Rinek asked him whether he felt anything during the killings.

"There really wasn't any -- very little feeling," he said while sighing. "I had no feeling."

"So you felt in control?" Rinek asked.

"Very much so. . . . I just felt like I had a little more power for once."

Throughout the confession, Rinek encouraged Stayner to come clean, to take responsibility for his actions.

Stayner admitted that he was the one who had sent the map directing searchers to Juli's body. He said he paid a kid $5 to spit in a container so he could use the saliva to seal the envelope.

Stayner said he tossed Carole Sund's wallet in Modesto to throw off investigators. Someone else, he said, must have gotten her Social Security number and called the bank.

In the end, he provided all the details necessary to get a conviction against him. While he was in the interrogation room, Stayner voiced resignation that his crimes would probably cost him his life.

"I know they are gonna give me the death penalty," he said.

Rinek thought there was a good chance that prosecutors would seek capital punishment. He should have felt proud. But Rinek just felt pity.

Stayner was a sick man. Maybe it was because he himself had been a victim, or maybe he just didn't work right. Rinek would never know. What he could see is the man across from him was articulate, handsome and artistic. There were four victims here, but five lives had been laid to waste.

"You helped a lot of people today, including us," Rinek told Stayner. "And the closure is just worth a lot. And you know what? I think your nightmares will start dissipating."

In the end, Stayner had done the right thing. Now it was Rinek's turn. "I'll be there for you as long as it goes, as far as it goes, because I believe in you."

Then he promised Stayner that as soon as the interview concluded, he would drive the more than 110 miles to the Stayner family home in Atwater. He wanted to be the one to tell Cary Stayner's story. He did not want his parents getting it from the evening news.

"The one thing I don't want them to see you as is the type of person that would take Steven and hold him for those years," he told Stayner. "You are not like those people. Those people had no conscience -- they didn't do what you are doing."

E-mail Stacy Finz at

"College Crunch" - by Erinn Hutkin


Date: Sunday, June 11, 2006
Section: EXTRA
Edition: METRO
Page: 1
Byline: By Erinn Hutkin 981-3138
Summary: Zach Zimmerman was first in his high-school class, with a 4.6
GPA, 1410 on the SAT and a loaded resume. Did he sail into the college
of his choice? You might be surprised.

The e-mail was waiting in his inbox when he got home.

He didn't tell anyone. He wanted to be alone.

There it was -- from Harvard University. The subject line: "Admissions

Acceptance letters already came from Virginia Tech, the College of
William and Mary and University of Virginia.

Thick envelopes mean you're in -- this much Zach Zimmerman knew. But
there is no certainty when the letter comes in the form of an e-mail.

Harvard was the college the William Fleming High School senior really
wanted, something prestigious to put on his resume.

He was, after all, first in his senior class of 273, holding a 4.6 GPA,
and scoring 1410 of 1600 on the SAT.

He is one of nine Fleming students at the prestigious Roanoke Valley
Governor's School, taking Advanced Placement statistics, mathematics
research and physics.

At 17, Zach Zimmerman has a resume longer than some business
filled with theater productions and research projects. His science fair
entry this year, "The Impact of Initial Ratio of the Convergence to Phi
by a Fibonacci Sequence," was named the most significant contribution
the field of math by the Virginia Junior Academy of Science.

He plays Fleming's mascot, the Colonel -- a 6-foot cross between
Yosemite Sam and a bobblehead -- who snaps his fingers and shakes his
rump. He was nominated for homecoming king at the Roanoke school,
clapping for the young man who won the title and a gold scepter. This,
all while working at Denny's, where this Ivy League hopeful serves
burgers and breakfast during the midnight shift.

But when the Harvard e-mail came, it was too much. He couldn't open it
right away. Instead, he played around online, trying to pretend the
message wasn't there.

Curiosity wore him down after an hour.

Zach clicked on the e-mail. He began reading the words on the screen.

Quest of the best

Certain grades, certain test scores, holding an office in certain
In the past, they were passports into the nation's top colleges.

Now, being the best is often not good enough anymore.

"There is no GPA or SAT combo that guarantees admission to this place,"
said Henry Broaddus, dean of admissions at the College of William and

Valedictorians are no longer handed a ticket to the Ivy League. The
University of Pennsylvania turned away nearly 400 of 1,000
first-in-their class students this year.

The situation means today's students must make themselves stand out
among standouts. Not just students like Zach, but the 272 others in his
class with hopes of going to college.

This is a year colleges saw record numbers of applicants while places
such as Dartmouth, Penn and Brown accepted fewer students than ever.

But to ensure they get in somewhere, teens often apply to at least six
colleges. Zach followed the trend by trying for seven.

Many schools also now decide who is admitted based on holistic review,
looking not only at grades and test scores, but student service,
and interests.

The fall class at William and Mary, for instance, includes a freshman
who raised $180,000 for cystic fibrosis; a research assistant at the
world's only underwater lab; a competitive clogger and someone who
listed "belching on command" on his resume.

Zach was accepted to William and Mary. He also applied to Virginia Tech
-- his "safety school" -- and to Ivy League institutions Cornell,
Harvard and Princeton.

Who's this superstudent?

Zechariah Tyler Zimmerman was born in Roanoke on July 15, 1988, to
and Frank Zimmerman. He is the second of four children in a family
Dad, 47, is service manager at Duncan Acura and Mom, 42, waits tables
Red Lobster while selling anti-aging products on the Internet.

Zach was home-schooled for kindergarten and first grade. By the time he
moved to William Fleming as a freshman, Zach was taking pre-calculus.
He's been first in his class ever since.

So when it came to colleges his senior year, Zach tried getting into

So did others just like him.

Harvard University's director of admissions, Marilyn McGrath Lewis,
nearly 90 percent of this year's applicants were capable of doing the

Today's parents and students, she said, are more sophisticated about
what it takes to get into college, knowledge she attributes to
guidebooks and counseling services.

Zach may not know that Harvard accepted only 9 percent of this year's
22,700 applicants.

He may not know that in the past three years, only 26 to 38 Virginians
enrolled annually.

All Zach Zimmerman knew was that he wanted to be among them.

Deadlines loom

At 11:20 on a January night, Zach sat with his laptop in his kitchen --
his Denny's nameplate still on his shirt -- finishing his online
application to New York University, which was due at midnight.

Everyone in the darkened house was sleeping, except for his mother,
Patty, who threatened to "beat his butt" for procrastinating.

"How long do I have," Zach asked, gazing at the clock from the edge of
his chair.

Forty minutes to finish four short essays. Ten minutes per question.

He began typing, writing answers that could determine his future as
easily as most people compile grocery lists.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 75 percent of today's college
applications are completed online, making it convenient for students to
apply to more colleges.

Meanwhile, the Journal reported, the number of high school graduates is
expected to rise by 2012, while the number of students admitted to
colleges has stayed roughly the same.

Zach typed as the clock ticked, the tap-dance of computer keys the only
sound in the room.

Question No. 2: What did he do last Sunday?

"Not only did I put off completing this application, I also managed not
to complete several other urgent homework assignments," he wrote.
"Unimportant acts are quickly forgotten in the mind, while
memories are forever stained in our consciousness."

Zach moved to question No. 3: Apart from location, what attracts you to

He began writing about an upbringing with conservative teachers,
Republican parents and "good ol' fashioned" values.

"I have not been exposed to a variety of people and ideas." He paused.
"Whether the school will alter me completely, to the point of being
disowned by my parents, or reaffirm the traditional values of my heart,
I do not know. ... The excitement from the prospect of change enflames

It was 11:52 p.m. when Zach began question No. 4.

It was 11:59 p.m. when he finished and clicked "submit."

"Your supplement has been successfully submitted," said a pop-up on

"Sweet," Zach declared. His tense face broke into a grin.

A setback

Zach was on his cellphone with his mother when his father tried calling

"I'll call you back, Patty," Zach said, referring to his mom by first

"I don't want to be holding a phone in my hand."

It was the Monday in March after Zach returned from the University of
Virginia, spending the weekend on campus as a Jefferson Scholar

"Oooh, there it is," Zach winced as he sat at the computer in his
parents' room.

There it was: An e-mail telling him whether he would go to college for

Zach was among 800 teens nationwide nominated by their high schools for
the scholarship. Thirty to 35 winners each year receive a stipend for
tuition, housing and books -- a four-year package totaling $66,000 for
Virginians and $130,000 for those out-of-state.

Ninety-six finalists visited Charlottesville for interviews, exams and
panel discussions coupled with bacon-wrapped steak in the campus
and parties every night.

There, Zach sat with finalists from San Francisco to Pittsburgh at
lunch, eating stir-fry from china plates and cracking a fortune cookie
reading, "A good start is only the beginning."

A committee of university faculty and alumni choose winners based on
leadership and scholarship.

"Part of what makes it so hard to pick these kids is that they're all
great," explained Alex Inman, an associate director of the program.
talent level is so high, you could easily make a case for everyone in
the room."

Among this year's finalists, 43 percent were projected valedictorians
salutatorians. One was published in the Journal of Molecular Structure.

There was a professional playwright, a national karate champion, the
winner of an "Iron Chef" competition.

Zach thought his interview went well, but the e-mail would tell him for

Zach opened the message.

"I especially regret to inform you ..." it read.

His mom called again.

"I didn't get it, Patty," Zach said. "I'll talk to you later."

He re-read the e-mail, highlighting words, forwarding it to friends. He
clicked on the computer's calculator and did the math -- he was among
percent who did not win.

"I'm not really used to losing anything," he sighed.

His father arrived home a few minutes later, asking Zach if there was a
chance he was an alternate.

"It's over. Just drop it," Zach said. He walked into his room and lay
the bed.

April 1 was days away, the date colleges send infamous thick or thin

Zach could still attend UVa -- just not on full scholarship. An
acceptance letter to William and Mary also arrived that same day.

But what did this mean for Harvard?

Decision time

Zach's friend Mason is headed to Rochester Institute of Technology. Pal
Samantha is going to a Christian school; buddy Lewis to a Bible

Sitting at dinner at Applebee's -- where these future graduates passed
time by blowing straw wrappers at one another -- Zach was the only one
in his group of friends who did not know where he was going to college.

But he did have options. Letters were trickling in with words printed
bold, "Welcome," and "Congratulations!"

On March 30, Zach came home and found the e-mail from Harvard.

"Dear Mr. Zimmerman," it began. "I am very sorry to inform you that it
is not possible to offer you admission to the class of 2010."

The wording made Zach feel like "an evil disease that can't go on
campus." But he was not as upset as he expected. Losing the Jefferson
Scholarship cushioned the news.

McGrath Lewis, Harvard's admissions director, said those accepted
included published novelists to mathematicians, talented musicians and
shepherd who taught himself astronomy while tending sheep in the field.

Many of those turned away, she said, were as strong as those admitted.

In the following days, more acceptance letters came, from Cornell, NYU
and Princeton.

NYU offered Zach $7,000, and he traveled to Princeton during spring

Before the May 1 deadline, Zach made up his mind about college.

He will major in math at the fourth-oldest university in the United
States, an hour outside New York City. A campus of castles whose alumni
include James Madison, Jimmy Stewart and John Nash -- subject of the
movie "A Beautiful Mind."

Everything he needs is right there -- a post office, a Foot Locker, a
train he can ride south to Lynchburg.

He's getting a grant -- $36,735 -- each year, slightly short of the
university's $42,200 tuition.

On the afternoon of May 1, Zach waited in line at Cloverdale's post
office, holding a stack of letters telling colleges he would not attend
next year.

Sending the slips was not required, but it was polite.

With postage paid, off they went: Letters to Virginia Tech, NYU,
and Mary, Cornell and University of Virginia.

One was missing -- a postcard reading "Class of 2010 Admission
to Princeton.

Zach turned the card into the admissions office weeks before when he
visited campus.

There were yes or no boxes after the sentence, "I plan to enroll at

Zach checked the box marked "yes."

"Quinceanera" - by Erinn Hutkin


Date: Monday, August 15, 2005
Section: EXTRA
Edition: METRO
Page: 1
Byline: By Erinn Hutkin 981-3138
Summary: Forget the Sweet Sixteen -- in Hispanic tradition, it's a
girl's 15th birthday that marks her arrival at womanhood

Jeffrey Stritesky wears gold Ray-Ban aviator glasses and blows into a
harmonica as he guides sister Ashley through dance steps in their
Daleville living room. After he threatens to muss her salon-created
curls and receives a couple of "don't even's" in return, the teen-agers
play nice and dance ballroom.

The moment is interrupted when their dad, "Big Jeff" Stritesky, hollers
from upstairs for 17 year-old Jeffrey to get in the shower.

It's 7 p.m. on Saturday. In one hour, Ashley will arrive at her

It is a custom that many of her friends and Virginia relatives never
knew existed. But as the daughter of a Cuban woman, Ashley Stritesky
will be continuing a tradition that in Hispanic cultures signals the
transition from girl to young woman.

All on her 15th birthday.

Over 20 relatives are visiting from Miami for the event. Her
grandparents made the 16-hour-drive hauling a custom-made cake.

Her mother did this when she turned 15. Now Ashley will do it too.

With an hour to go, Ashley's nails are shiny pink from the salon. Her
make-up, by Clinique, is in place. Her dance is unrehearsed. Her cell
phone has been ringing all day.

Her nerves are frazzled. She worries about falling down stairs. Or that
none of her 150 guests will show up.

But before any of that can happen, the family has to get out the door
dressed and on time.

Big Jeff saunters into the master bedroom, buttoning his blue dress
shirt, which falls untucked over cotton shorts and dark socks.

Ashley clouds the room with another layer of aerosol hairspray.

A hair dryer hums in the bathroom, where her mother, Irma, and
grandmother talk auctioneer-fast in Spanish, cleaning a make-up stain
from Irma's aquamarine skirt.

"My dress has lost its pleats," Irma moans.

"That's my signal to leave," Jeffrey, fresh from the shower, concludes.
He walks out of the room wearing only a towel and his Ray Bans.

In the distance, Ashley's cell phone rings again.

Feathery clouds are painted on the ceiling of Ashley's bedroom. Posters
of Orlando Bloom and the Olsen twins hang on pastel walls. Ashley
still as her grandma, Irma Cerda, zips her dress.

It's a sheath the color of butter, with sparkly shoulder straps.
Glittery beads form flowers and leaves on sheer material, and a train
rustles behind her.

"Are you excited, Jeffrey?," Ashley asks her brother as her grandmother
clasps pearls around her wrist and neck.

"No," he answers, monotone.

Ashley is nervous. Her shoulder straps keep falling. She doesn't want a
Janet Jackson moment.

This event celebrating her 15th birthday almost did not happen. Ashley
canceled her quinceanera earlier this year, deciding to make a trip to
New York City instead. But when her Miami relatives said they would
visit her anyway, the party was re-planned. That was in late July.

Her quinceanera is not entirely traditional. There is no pre-party
No court of 14 people in ball gowns and tuxedos with choreographed

But she is carrying on a tradition that may be the last of its kind in
her family. Unless Ashley marries a Latino, her own daughter may not
have a quinceanera.

Ashley does not turn 15 until Thursday, when there will be more
celebrating. But this may be biggest event in her life until her

When it is time to leave, father and daughter walk out of the house
toward a Ford Explorer parked in the driveway.

"I think you should open the door for me," Big Jeff jokes as they
approach the car.

A cousin slides a rose corsage onto Ashley's wrist as she walks into
Greenfield Educational Center for the celebration. She walks past a
table stacked with gifts and waits at the top of the steps.

Her brother is on one arm. Her cousin, 20-year-old Alex Delgado, is on
the other.

Downstairs, a priest concludes a blessing.

"Christo. Amen."

The crowd claps as Ashley is led downstairs. She responds with giggles.

She sits in a chair as Big Jeff slides off her white flip-flops and
replaces them with gold heels, signifying in quinceanera tradition that
Ashley is now a young woman.

The DJ plays a slow song by Julio Iglesias. Ashley flashes a smile as
she dances with her dad, stepping from side to side to the sound of

Big Jeff's father, Edward Stritesky, cuts in. Then her Cuban grandpa,
Alfred Cerda.

"Awww," girls in the crowd coo as Jeffrey, her brother, finishes the
dance. His yellow silk tie and the rose on his gray jacket lapel match
Ashley's dress.

"Hi," Ashley squeaks when the song ends. She thanks her grandparents
driving from Miami. She thanks her friends and relatives for being

"It means the world to me," she says.

The DJ switches to Gwen Stefani's "Holla Back." Ashley hugs her
girls in spaghetti straps and black heels.

"You look so pretty," one of them tells her.

"She thinks my tractor's sexx-ee," Ashley and her girlfriends sing
to a country song.

They sing along to rap.

"Baby-got-back!" they shout.

They sing along to "American Idol" Kelly Clarkson.

"Since you've been gone ..."

Cousins from Virginia dance with kids from Miami. Relatives flop on the
floor in breakdances and the worm. Ashley's escort, 17 year-old Tim
Wright, dances a jig so fast one of his sandals flies into the crowd.

The most potent drink at the party is sherbert mixed with 7-Up, so
there's nothing to blame for loose inhibitions.

The merengue plays. Cela Cruz sings. A conga line snakes around the
room, a little girl with a full skirt and a big bow in her hair serving
as its caboose.

Ashley's Cuban grandma, whom she calls Mimi, high-fives each person as
the human train passes.

Girls dance barefoot, their kicked-off heels abandoned at the edge of
the floor. Boys' shirts become increasingly untucked throughout the
night. Brother Jeffrey's dark bangs drop into his brooding teen-age

"Go Irma! Go Irma!" a circle of cousins chanted as Ashley's mother
twists on the dance floor.

Big Jeff stands against a railing with a fist pressed to his chin. He
grins the whole time.

Her birthday cake is pale yellow, decorated to look like a present with
a three-dimensional icing bow.

"Happy Birthday" blares from the sound system as the crowd sings along.

"I don't know what to wish for," Ashley admits with a giggle.

The party is near perfect. Everyone shows up, despite Ashley's fears.
All that hairspray holds her curls in place. Not once does she fall.

The only glitch is that the pleat never quite returns to Irma's dress.

Ashley waits for her mom to light the cake candle. She makes a silent
wish. She leans over and knocks down the flame with a single puff.

She may have to wait to see if her wish comes true. But for one night,
surrounded by friends and family from far away, Ashley Stritesky feels
very blessed.

"The Bull School" - by Erinn Hutkin


Date: Sunday, May 07, 2006
Section: EXTRA
Edition: METRO
Page: 1
Byline: By Erinn Hutkin e rinn.hutkin 981-3138
Summary: At David and Dan Gaither's school in Bedford, aspiring rodeo
cowboys learn the art of hanging onto a 2,000 pound beast for dear life
--and prize money.

It is 9 o'clock on Friday night, and school is in session inside David
Gaither's living room.

Cowboy hats hang on the wall and the smell of Marlboros wafts through
the air. Gaither points to his blanket-draped recliner and says he
to sit there one day and watch the boys in this room win big on TV.

Six boys sit on folding chairs or the plaid couch, a cowboy hat on each
head, belt buckles as big as their hands at each skinny waist.

Two days from now, they hope to be bull riders.

Three times each year, the 45-year-old Gaither teaches bull riding
school with his younger brother Dan Gaither -- look-alikes in denim and

The elder Gaither began teaching in the 1980s, hired by a rodeo

They moved the school to their down-the-road Bedford homes in the early
'90s, charging tuition of $300.

Here in the classroom, David's lecture is unrehearsed, sprinkled with
"ain'ts," long tangents and plenty of four-letter words. He speaks with
gravel in his voice, between gulps of iced tea and drags on a

Often, Dan pipes in from his folding chair at the back of the room,
their loud voices wrestling so it's tough to hear much of anything --
except when they repeat the same words.

This is one of the best schools in the country, David tells his
students. His degree comes from life -- three decades of bull riding
starting when he was 14. He qualified for the International Pro Rodeo
Association -- meant for the world's top 15 riders -- not once but 12

His classroom lecture covers a little of everything, from an
that it takes five years to get good at the sport to a stand-up,
squat-down demonstration of how to tape the groin for protection. But
his overall message is this: Bull riding is simple, and it's less about
ability than heart.

He can guarantee that during the next two days these young men will
fear in their gut and a shake in their knees before straddling that
first bull. He promises each one will be sore. He's pretty sure he
even tick every one of them off -- not that he cares -- but he's going
to teach them how to ride and to ride right.

And at the end of it all, when the gate opens with a clang, the bull
charges and they get thrown, they should hop up feeling a high better
than any drink or drug can provide.

And if they feel that way at the end of this dance between a man and a
2,000-pound beast, by the time Sunday comes around, they will ride five
or six times.

And they will look like dang bull riders.

Riders' prayer

It is 10 o'clock Saturday morning. David Gaither leads a prayer as the
students kneel in just-tilled bullpen dirt under the warm spring sun.

He launches into a brief, shouted history of the devil, of Adam and Eve
and the resurrection -- a cowboy's Cliff Notes to "Paradise Lost."

And when his sermon -- including the declaration that anyone who
disbelieves is a dumb SOB -- comes to an end, everyone bows their heads
and prays.

"I pray that no harm come to these boys ... or these bulls buckin',"
David calls like an evangelist. "I love ya and I thank ya and in Jesus'
name, all right."

There are as many helpers here as there are students. Most are alumni
who ride at nearby Boonsboro on Friday nights. The indoor rodeo packs
1,200 spectators each week during the winter and turns countless more
away from seeing 30 pros and 10 amateurs fight to hang on for eight
seconds, cash and glory.

Fifteen-year-old Winston Quesenberry, David's nephew and a Boonsboro
amateur star, hops on the first bull to demonstrate: hand on the rope,
free hand in the air, back arched, knees in, toes out and most
important, hips square.

A bull hoof smacks Winston's head when he falls. He's examined by EMTs
from a standby ambulance. It does little to dissuade the school boys.

There is a Marine from Norfolk, 20 years old; a fella who moved south
from Northern Virginia; a 23-year-old commercial worker with a neck

There is Michael Turner, 16, Winston's classmate at Staunton River High
School and a horse-riding buddy; Cody Grogg, a lanky, 18-year-old

There is Judge Charlton, a 31-year-old construction worker from
who came to the school last year. He called in sick the Monday after
because he couldn't move.

One by one, they take a turn, nerves transforming into adrenaline in
seconds between mounting the bull and landing in the dirt. Then, they
what bull riders do: hop right back up again.

They wear plaid shirts unbuttoned to there and Wranglers with round
Copenhagen tins poking through back pockets. They use the bullpen fence
as bleachers, watching from railings with peeling paint in three
different colors. They spit on the ground, shout encouragement, tell
another to rock and roll.

The bulls wear flies on their backs that don't scatter when ropes are
tied around their middles, cowbells clanging. They charge into this
red-dirt arena that's surrounded by grass and peaked hills that block
the horizon, leaving behind a haze of kicked-up dust.

After lunch, the young men gather in Dan Gaither's trailer to watch
videotape of their morning rides.

David mutters that he can't find his glasses, that the VCR remote is
complicated. "I'm a simple man," he mumbles. "Got a simple life ...
simple dog ... simple horse."

He uses the tape to show what each rider did wrong. Winston twisted his
hips, which is why he got bucked. Some guys dropped their free hand,
moving their weight to their pockets. A bull rider carries his weight
the groin, David says, as he and Dan start talking at once.

"That free hand is what keeps you square ..." David begins.

"You'll program that mind so it's second nature to you ..." Dan chimes

And as they continue, their voices jumble.

Hurtin's certain

It is 10 o'clock Sunday morning. Dan is behind the wheel of a
tilling the bullpen soil. The young men linger outside the fence,
one another, "how you feeling," a reference to last night's beer buzz
this morning's neck kinks, sore wrists and side pains.

The ambulance rolls to a stop in the grass, just like the day before.
Only today, it will be needed.

The second rider, 17-year-old C.J. McPhee, a Boonsboro rider and one of
the weekend's helpers, is carried out of the arena, one leg dragging
behind him. The EMTs huddle over the teenager after placing him on a

David wanders over to see what the fuss is about. "What in the hell is
wrong?" he asks in his twang.

The ambulance will take C.J. to the hospital; it could be a broken hip.

C.J. doesn't put up a fight -- and these riders don't go easy.

"Hell," David tells C.J., who lies weak and limp. "I didn't think it
hurt you that bad."

This is a sport where getting hurt is not a question of if, but when.
the first thing a cowboy thinks when he's injured is, "how long will I
be out," he just might be a bull rider.

Grogg, the young welder, is next. When his ride ends, he pulls off his
shirt, exposing a bloody scrape on one bicep, oozing red near a bucking
bull tattoo copied from a belt buckle.

He doesn't wince when the cut is dabbed with peroxide by an EMT.

"I appreciate it," Grogg says. "Y'all ain't going to send a bill?
what I thought."

By lunchtime, Michael Turner has gashed his Wranglers in one leg and
rump. By midafternoon, he has ruined a second pair.

"Broke another pair of pants," he tells Winston, seating himself on the
bull ring fence.

The jeans were a casualty when Michael got stepped on by a bull.

"I ain't never been stepped on," Winston says.

"Well, you got hit in the head, so what's the difference?" Michael jabs

They watch the ring, where wind kicks up rust-red tornadoes and the
are becoming bull riders.

"Hey Judge," Winston calls, leaning to shake hands as Judge moseys
through the ring. "Good job man, good ride."

From his spot on the fence, David Gaither throws both hands in the air
after watching Grogg ride.

"See," he shouts. "When you do right here, you ride four, five jumps!"

Back in the ring, Michael stays on the bull through a series of bucks.
He knocks knuckles with bullfighter Bobby Sims as he limps out of the
arena. Sims' job is to divert the bulls from the dismounted riders, a
rodeo clown without the costume.

Winston stays on the fence all the while, shouting encouragement before
the chute opens each time.

"Ride bulls, now."

At the end of the day, in sunglasses and a Stetson, Judge sits with an
open Budweiser at his side and bag full of ice against his inner thigh,
wishing he could close his eyes and wake up at home tomorrow.

Grogg eases into the chair next to him and crosses his dusty cowboy

Dan Gaither claps his hands as he saunters from the bullpen, ready to
thaw out a steak.

And Michael leans against the fence, still jawing with Winston about
ripped pants.

They all have bandages, braces and bags of ice as they stand here under
the late afternoon sun with hat-matted hair and dust-smudged jeans.
will hop into trucks that lumber down the road to Dan Gaither's place,
where they will watch the tape and David Gaither will stick around till
10 o'clock, if that's what the riders want.

It was a good school, David concludes. Everyone learned something, and
no student got hurt. He decides well ahead of time to hand the belt
buckle for "most improved" -- silver and shiny-nickel new in its blue
velvet box -- to Grogg.

They will filter home, the older ones offered a beer for the road as
they go, most planning to meet at Boonsboro on Friday.

They are dang bull riders.