When a judge sentenced then-17-year-old Brogan Rafferty to life without parole last year for aggravated murder, she allowed that he had been "dealt a lousy hand in life." Rafferty's mother, Yvette, was a crack addict. His father, Michael, worked the early shift as a machinist. Rafferty was basically left to raise himself, one school counselor said. Along the way, he got mixed up with Richard Beasley, a family friend--and, it was later revealed, a ruthless murderer who convinced the teenager to help him kill three men. To explain their unusual bond, Rafferty's attorneys dropped hints that maybe Beasley had molested Rafferty.
Like most biographies condensed for courtroom drama, this one turned out to leave out much of the nuance and texture of an actual life. I got my first hint of this when I visited Brogan Rafferty's father, Michael, in his small house in a suburb of Akron, Ohio. Michael's walls are decorated with framed pictures of his son--Brogan as a chubby baby holding a ring of plastic keys, as a 10-year-old with a bowl cut beaming under his father's touch.
I asked Michael about a detail from the trial: as young as 5, Brogan ate breakfast alone and got himself ready for school. Michael responded by explaining his single-father reality so tenderly that I figured Brogan's lawyers had painted their picture of an absentee father partly for effect. In my many interviews with him, Michael was honest even when that meant making himself look bad. It was true, he told me, that when Brogan was older and got in trouble at school, Michael would sometimes slam him against a wall, but he added, "I love that kid, and I'll love him as long as I'm on the planet. I love him more than I love myself."
So why had Brogan bonded with this second father figure, so tightly that he would help him commit murders?
Over the summer, I wrote a series of letters to Brogan in prison, asking him questions about his life, his relationship with Beasley, and what he was thinking and feeling during the four months the murders were taking place. His responses arrived after the story had already gone to press, but I have reprinted portions of them below. Some of the answers are drawn from multiple letters; taken together, they reinforce my belief that Brogan is a genuinely tragic figure, a 16-year-old boy dragged into a situation he could neither understand nor control.
How did you feel about your father when you were growing up?
I feared my father most of my life, almost as though he were God. My father cared very much, though he had trouble showing it, as all of the men in my family, including myself, do. He was impatient, angry, and sometimes violent, but he was a single parent who did his best with the limited means he was given. Now, where my mother was supposed to be the balance to the tension--my mother was instead caught in the mix of a drug addiction that destroyed her life and left her unreliable as a mother.
The year this all happened was when I began to appreciate my parents for who they were, faults and all. My mother and I had put the past behind us and were now best friends, and my father and I were getting there: he was mellowing with age and I was giving him fewer reasons to be angry with me. Life was turning out all right.
Then the murders began.
Did Rich Beasley feel like family to you?
Beasley was my father without the anger. He was calm, rational, and just, a family counselor of sorts to whom any of us could go for spiritual or worldly advice. He had a jolly laugh, a beard, a belly, and even carried candy in his pocket. There was a period when I was younger that I was convinced he was Santa Claus.
When he became involved in the street ministry, he was the first person I called when my mother disappeared on a drug binge. At that point, he would either go looking for her himself or bring me with him. He also kept me patient with my mother, for it was more than once I wanted to strike her like a child for leaving my younger sister alone while on a binge.
Beasley saw all these things in my life, and was there to see me through all of them. At the time, I thought he was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Even now, I can't say "I wish most of all I'd never met him.'" I guess I wish I had been able to see what was coming and stop it before it happened somehow.
During the trial, your attorneys hinted at a sexual relationship between you and Beasley. Can you comment on that?
I can't exactly take offense to such questions, because my prior relationship with Beasley was unusual, but it goes back to the uncle-nephew relationship we had. Another thing: I've always preferred the company of older people. The fact is, though, that there was nothing sexual about my relationship with Beasley whatsoever.
You spoke about how you and Beasley had an "I would do anything for you, you would do anything for me" kind of relationship. What did you mean?
Just as Beasley was an "uncle" to me and a "brother" to my father, he shared in the strict sense of loyalty we felt towards family and friends. We have a saying, and it is one I've personally quoted to friends before a big fight: "If I wake up in the hospital, you'd better be there in the next bed over, or come visit me every day." If you call me, I'll come running. That's how it is. I didn't say this meant that I'd like to help him murder innocent people. I meant it might be the reason that he got it in his twisted head to choose me for this.
How did you know when Beasley needed you?
Life revolved around going to meet Beasley, and the time in between. Beasley would call me about every other day, or call me to tell me to call him on a certain day and time. He would also have me meet him several times a week. I would never know if I would be coming home or not, or the details of what he had planned. I had a ritual before I had to go meet him. I'd empty my pockets, clean my room quickly, and make sure my chores were done and the house looked nice for my father. If he was home, I told him I loved him. If not, I left him a note saying so.
Stephen King once wrote that it's wrong to assume there's any limit to the horror one can experience; it's only a question of how much before you go insane. I was borderline. I was a shell of what I was. I seem relatively normal these days. But the fact is I will never be the same again.