I Kissed a Killer

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Ramon (not his real name) was a guy I’d seen around work when I was in my 20’s and I thought he was cute, in a lost soul kind of way, even though he was several years younger than me. Some friends and I were scooping the loop one Friday night when I saw him hanging out with his buddies, smoking their cigarettes and listening to music from a parked car. I instructed the driver to stop so I could say hello to him. I recall that he seemed a little distracted but seemed to vaguely know who I was. Our encounter was ever so brief – maybe just a minute at most – and before I got back into the car, I reached up and kissed him on the lips. Embarrassed, I quickly made my exit and that was it.

It was a few months later, back in 1982, that our small northern Iowa town was rocked by the news that a tavern owner in a neighboring burg had been murdered – rumor was he’d been beaten to death with a pool cue – in an apparent robbery gone (very) wrong. A suspect had been apprehended, was later tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. I’d locked lips with the young man who’d committed the crime and until now, I’ve never so much as breathed a word of this story to anyone.

All I knew about him personally was his name. He had blond hair, was slight of build and just 19 years old at the time of his conviction. I remember thinking how tough life in prison would be for him and shuddered at the thought. Not so much out of any endearing thoughts toward him – kiss or no kiss – but rather more pragmatically. For perhaps the first time, I contemplated how horrendous a life of incarceration must be. His victim was 65 years old and by all accounts, well thought of in his community. We all felt bad for him and the family he left behind. I knew of Ramon’s mother, too, from work and my heart ached for her. My son was a small boy when this took place and I could not help but imagine the pain and anguish she was experiencing.

What is it about watching the news or reading the paper about any kind of tragedy that, while sad and compelling, becomes exponentially more so when it hits close to home even in some tangential way such as a brief, flirtatious kiss with someone you don’t even know? I see now that Ramon is in his early 50’s and was denied parole in 2013. The photo accompanying the article shows an older, sadder, hardened individual who has, no doubt, been (rightfully so) paying a hefty price for his murderous crime, having killed another human being and in the process, destroyed not just his own life but that of so many others.

Several years ago I served on a jury for a federal drug trial. As the defense witnesses made their orange-clad way past the juror’s box to take the stand to offer their testimony, I was jolted into a new reality. One of these witnesses was a young female, already apparently hardened herself and serving time for drug-related crimes. It was a sobering experience seeing these human beings whose lives had been lost, wasted, destroyed because of the choices they’d made. As the woman spoke, I remember thinking that at one time she’d been someone’s little girl, their pride and joy, perhaps running through a water sprinkler on a hot, summer day with pig-tails in her hair, shrieking with joy. And then, sadly, I thought next – or maybe not. Perhaps years of neglect and abuse had created a life of despair and hopelessness and pain and that is what had, ultimately, led to what she’d now become.

And so with Ramon, I wondered those same thoughts. There is no joy in some people’s lives, sometimes from the very get-go. It makes my heart heavy to realize the very truth of such a consideration. We must, ultimately, strive to make good choices knowing that there is always a price to be paid. The lesson? Choose very, very carefully.

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