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.
What was your state of mind in August through November as the murders were going on?
I tried to keep it together, but I've learned since that my family and friends saw just how disturbed I truly was. I drank enormously. My friends saw it as high-school partying at first, but later realized it was something much colder. I ate much less and lost a lot of weight, and when I did eat I would often go out by myself so as not to be with my father. At school, I walked the halls with hundreds of people, but my eyes would just see through them as if they weren't there. After school I'd come home and sit in the dark. When my father came home, I'd turn the television on and continue to stare at the wall.
I remember my girlfriend calling me the day before school started to break up with me. She said she no longer felt a connection with me. I was no longer "there." I couldn't blame her; I hadn't called her in weeks. It was the middle of the day and when she called I was already drunk.
I thought I was going insane. I was estranged from society. I started having nightmares, insomnia, and cold night sweats. I started shaking violently at random times. My car was without power steering, causing me to pull extra hard turning the wheel while executing a sharp turn. Once while turning the wheel, my hand started shaking so violently that the wheel slipped from my hand, nearly sending my friend and me into traffic. I could sleep only with medication.
What happened on homecoming night?
After the dance, I was driving my friend back to his house to change clothes for a party when "House of the Rising Sun" came over the radio. I told him I wanted that song to sync up with my death. When I left him at his house while I got gas, I remembered Dead Man's Hill in our city, a very steep and winding hill infamous for car accidents. The thought occurred to me to get drunk with the whiskey I had in the trunk for the party and drive my car down the road at high speeds with the radio blaring, smoking a cigarette. When I hit the guardrails at the first sharp turn, my car would flip over into the deep, heavily wooded ravine below. To survive would be a miracle.
But I didn't do it. I don't know why. I often dream about it, but the song on the radio is "Free Bird."
What's the closest you ever came to telling anyone what was going on?
When my father came home from work the day Mr. Geiger died, I was sitting in the living room in the dark. [Editor's note: Ralph Geiger was Beasley's first victim.] I had never wanted anything more than I wanted to tell him what had happened. But I couldn't. I wasn't even sure it had happened. It was unreal and my mind couldn't comprehend it.
I gave my grandmother a call, as I did from time to time during the period of these murders. I never said much during these calls, preferring to listen to her talk, but this time when I called she could sense that something was wrong, and I wanted to talk to her about it but couldn't. She has a true grandmother's "sixth sense" for these things. She lives out of state yet was able to figure out on her own, before my parents, when I first started smoking cigarettes, without even hearing me cough or anything. It's scary sometimes.
Why do you think you stayed loyal to Beasley as the crimes were going on?
It wasn't that I was loyal to him--loyalty went out the window with the murder of innocents. I was conflicted. He'd turned evil. I was mentally unfit to consider these matters, but the only time the "old Rich" came to mind was once when the opportunity presented itself to kill Beasley. What if my old friend was still in there? Besides not wanting to become a murderer myself, I thought about having to look his mother, Carol, in the eye and tell her I'd killed her son.
There was also the possibility that something would go wrong and he'd live--and go after my family. After Mr. Geiger was murdered, Beasley told me he would murder my mother and sister if I told anyone about it. He never mentioned my father specifically, but I assumed he would kill him as well, especially after a surprise visit Beasley paid my father and me at home, which left me white as a sheet.
Over the next few months he stayed in touch with me constantly and I would see him in public. At one point my mother described someone who looked like Beasley driving around the neighborhood. As this went on, I began to feel that it was best to wait for him to decide he was done with me and murder me. At that point it sounded nice. An unmarked grave in a quiet, peaceful, heavily wooded area sounded like a good end to this horror story.
As long as I kept him pleased and didn't give him any trouble, there was a chance he wouldn't go out of his way to kill my family after I was gone. I chose them over me. Even now I can't really complain about spending my entire life in prison. I'm supposed to be dead anyway.
What did you do at school the day the cops picked you up?
That school day started off bad. I had no ride to school, no gas in my car, and no money for gas. All the same, I coasted to school not knowing how my car would get home. I was living moment to moment a lot in those days.
When the police came to see me at school they left a little uncertain as to the exact nature of my involvement. I left school feeling that the end was near. On my way out the door, I saw a girl friend of mine. We had dated briefly before, but our relationship was so close that we were beyond intimacy. I took her aside and explained that I would be going away for a long time. She understood and I gave her a small kiss. As I walked away, her boyfriend gave me a look. To this day I hope that goodbye means as much to her as it does to me.
What do you think Beasley's motivation was? Why did he kill Tim Kern even though he did not seem to have many possessions?
The state believes that this was robbery/identity theft with murder attached--that Beasley would simply do whatever he needed to get the identity/items he wanted. I think it was the opposite, personally--murder disguised as robbery. I believe he was out killing people just to do it.
Did you feel you had anything in common with the victims?
I learned most of what I know about these men from my attorneys and from the trial. I saw similarities between myself and Mr. Geiger. When he became homeless, he stood on his own two feet instead of accepting help from friends, something I can relate to. All these men wanted was honest work, and that's something I can appreciate.
Did you identify with Tim Kern's sons?
Mr. Kern mentioned to Beasley before his death that he had two sons. They were grown, but they were still his "grown babies." It was early in the morning, and he was among strangers. Mr. Kern loved his sons, didn't care who knew it, and was ready and willing to profess it anytime, anywhere. I sincerely hope his sons realize how very much he loved them. When I read in court and in an article the last text Mr. Kern sent one of his sons, it broke my heart.
In your letters, you write about wishing to live up to the Rafferty name. What do you mean by that?
Family is everything to me now. It is where I've been and where I'm going. It is my ultimate goal to be as much like my father and grandfather as possible.
If you could ever have a family, how would you imagine it?
It would be beautiful. I would be loyal to my wife and love her unconditionally. We'd work our problems out together--I'd never let our children endure a divorce. We'd have a house somewhere, probably in Kent, where my family is from. We would raise the children as best we could, never letting them doubt for a moment how much we loved them. We'd help them with schoolwork--I'd be more patient with them than my father had been with me. After dinner we'd play cards or otherwise spend time together. I'd give them a hug and kiss every night before bed. We'd have a dog and a cat or two. We'd all spend time together on the weekends, and go to church together on Sundays every week.
Is there anything else you want to say about yourself?
I'm an artist, which means among other things that I feel everything more deeply than most individuals but simply can't show it because of my upbringing. Someday I'll have to sit down and make sense of these murders for what they were. As of now, it is beyond me. Someday I'll be able to put the pieces together in my own mind and understand the meaning behind such horror, such evil, such unnecessary pain. Someday I will do this, and it shall kill me.