It’s a long story here.
—MINERVA PEREZ, NEIGHBOR
Midway through my first year as a newspaper reporter, I walked through a two-story apartment building in Brownsville, Texas, where a poor young couple had murdered their three children. My assignment was to write about the local debate as to whether the decrepit but historic building should be demolished. It sat on a corner on the outskirts of Brownsville’s downtown, just a handful of city blocks from Mexico. There, tropical birds effortlessly crossed into the United States from points south, while human travelers traversed international bridges or paid coyotes to hustle them surreptitiously across the Rio Grande. Yet, even among the quotidian dramas of the border, the deaths of Julissa, John Stephan, and Mary Jane were not merely reported—they were communally grieved.
When I interviewed people about the murders, some cautioned that the crime was a black hole that held nothing within. Heinous crimes are like that, people said. They do not teach lessons, they only confirm the worst suspicions about what can happen in our world. To venture close to an entity so dark and try to wrest value from its depths was not only foolish, it was dangerous: a black hole withholds and mangles all it consumes and devours anything wandering too close to its invisible mouth. Yet, the same people who compassionately issued this warning also told me, often at length, of all the crime had come to mean in their lives, how it had challenged their beliefs or fortified them. How it continued to flicker as a figure on the edge of their peripheral vision, moving out of range when they turned to see it head-on.
That the victims were children, that the father was from Brownsville, that an explanation seemed always out of reach, had caused people to question their understanding of their community, their spirituality, the values they held as universal. As they reckoned with these questions, they necessarily reconfigured the world around the shape of the crime in its wake.
As I began to visit the building with increasing frequency, I noted a cloud hovering overhead—an accumulation of meaning more dense and persistent than I’d ever intuited. It signaled that there was more to this story than the simple details, the dates and quotes and analysis that a reporter usually assembles. The cloud was heavy with palpable ambivalence, an existential dread about what had happened here and how it had burrowed through and ruptured the landscape, leaving damage that had yet to be completely measured. I began to realize that, if I wanted to comprehend this city, a place layered with unwritten history that seemed to lie naked and obscured in the same instant, this story was key.
I had never before been drawn to tragic crimes. Like many people, I pushed them out of mind when I could. It was easier to box them up and store them on a mental shelf of humanity’s worst moments. Media cover these stories for a while, until the case is closed and the criminal is punished. Then, more often than not, the stories retreat into the background, at least on a national level. For the cities that survive them, what changes? Something must change, even if the difference is unnoticeable on the surface. People continue with their lives, having families and teaching their kids. They fall in love and break up. They get degrees and jobs and build new homes. As for the criminals, I figured they still eat and sleep and talk and think.
John Allen Rubio, the father of the children, had become an infamous figure in Brownsville, known by all three of his names. He was both a product of the city, born and raised, and seemingly its communal enemy, guilty of an act almost too terrible to make sense of. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, lost, and was sentenced to die. After winning an appeal, his second trial took place seven years after the crime. Again, he was convicted and was given the death penalty.
When I started writing to John, I didn’t expect him to respond. But he wrote to me for years. He told me about his childhood, his depression, and the three children who died that night and early morning. I never fully got used to those envelopes from the Polunsky Unit, sitting alongside the bills and catalogs in our mailbox. John’s answers to my questions were candid and conversational in a way I found captivating. He was a confessed killer, but his personality leaped from the pages, undeniably human, full of ideas and memories. In my mind’s eye, I could see the curtain at the edge of the proscenium being tugged away. A construct of this man’s life had been built by headlines and court documents, but it was complicated, predictably, by his reflections, his language, his version of that life.
After that first tour, I fell into the building’s orbit. I’d drive by on my way home from work and pause for a long moment at the stop sign out front. Later, I would park and walk around the perimeter slowly, cataloging its every corner and blemish and frailty. The cloud lingered here, whether the sky was dense with fog or crisp and blue. Someday, John and the building would be banished from the earth. It felt as if everything were disappearing, or about to, until all that would be left was a sad story with no meaning.
There had to be meaning; it hung morosely overhead. I could feel it following me, leaving a damp film on my skin when I got home.
I began to compile evidence about what had happened on East Tyler Street and its aftermath and sort through it. The collection came to include more than just the testimony and confessions from the murder case. Much of what I considered evidence was tangential: a house where John lived as a boy, the moral claims of the district attorney who prosecuted the case, the arguments made by people in the neighborhood for why the building should be destroyed. Confounding questions emerged, ones I’d never before considered, which couldn’t be resolved by searching a database or conducting a few interviews. Like the algorithm marked in chalk on a mathemati-cian’s blackboard, or the brew in a cauldron, it seemed that if the correct elements were fused, they would deliver the answers.
As I was compiling this collection, a letter from John arrived. It contained a request—for a comic book. His birthday was coming up, he said. He would be thirty-two, nearly ten of those years spent in prison as he went through the appeals process. I imagined him, as I often had over the previous year, sitting in a cell I conjured from Hollywood, wishing for a simple gift, a fleck of life as the days dimmed to black.
The comic was called Rosario+Vampire, Season II, Issue 9. It would be easy and inexpensive to send, and John told me he’d continue writing and answering my questions either way. The phrasing of the request, “Would it be wrong for me to ask you a favor?” struck a chord. Yes, I wanted to reply, this is not how the journalist-subject relationship works. But I’d never interviewed a person on death row before. I might be one of his only connections to the world beyond his cell.
I often felt grateful to John during the time we corresponded. I had hundreds of questions, and he did his best to answer them, sometimes breaking responses down into several letters to get to the whole list. I imagined he got something out of the exchange; there wasn’t much else to occupy the twenty-two hours he spent alone in his cell each day. Maybe it made him feel important to know someone was interested in the intricacies of his life story, his opinions, feelings, and memories. Still, he remained justifiably cautious as he wrote to me.
I have never spoken to any media member since this thing all happened and I will be frank and say that the reason that I have not is because it would not matter what I say be it true or false it will always be printed in a way that will make me look like more of a monster taht I already look as. I do not trust any media at all but I will give you a chance to show me if I have been wrong about my view on this because I can not blaim you for what others have done and said about me.
Beyond the implicit terms he was laying out—I won’t prejudge you, don’t prejudge me—John also made two explicit requests in that first letter. He asked me to convey his words the way he meant them. He also told me to ask no questions about the crime itself, though in later letters he began to volunteer that information as well. Maria Angela Camacho, his common-law wife, who was also convicted for her part in committing the murders, was serving three concurrent life sentences and would be eligible for parole in 2045. She did not respond to my letters.
My correspondence to John was businesslike. I asked him lists of questions and thanked him for writing back. I didn’t talk about myself or try to create a meaningful relationship. I didn’t want to give John the impression that I was trying to get him released or get his sentence changed. False hope seemed the cruelest currency.
But when he asked for the comic book, I wondered if I wasn’t being cruel in a different way. When I spoke to people outside the world of journalism, I watched their expressions change when I mentioned it. They regarded journalism’s ethical rules skeptically, like the intolerant and rigid laws of a fundamentalist religious sect. The comic book might not be a symbol of manipulation. Instead, giving this gift to John could be an act of uncomplicated compassion. Maybe it didn’t merit so much debate.
A month passed and another letter arrived. This one was filled with newspaper clippings—puzzles and articles with little cartoons in the margins. One article showed a picture of a baby beluga whale being fed from a bottle. Above the headline John wrote, “So sweet dinner time yum yum. Just a baby. Jesus is great.”
In the letter, John said the comic book had arrived and he didn’t know whom it was from: “I really did not want to ask you for anything it is just that I reeeaally wanted this book and now I do. If it was not you this is acquered!? Well, who ever did send it I am very happy.”
It wasn’t from me. I’d never made my decision.
Rosario+Vampire, which I then ordered to see what John was reading, is a Japanese comic book series about a boy named Tsu-kune, who, because of his poor test scores, transfers to a private school and soon learns his new classmates are monsters hiding in human bodies. He becomes the force of good in a dangerous place, despite his trouble in school.
Japanese manga is not my genre of choice, and I had trouble getting through it, with its dozens of characters to keep track of and constant fight sequences. I don’t get the adolescent boy’s thrill of seeing a curvaceous anime succubus inked on the page. But it quickly became clear why John might feel a kinship with Tsukune. John, too, had struggled through school. He wanted to join the army after graduation, but couldn’t pass the exam. Instead he was cast out into the unpredictable world of adulthood in a poor neighborhood in the poorest area of the country. In March 2003, just a few years after he graduated from high school, he killed his children and those of his common-law wife, claiming they were possessed by demons at the time of their death. In his narrative, he’s the good guy thrust into a world where evil can inhabit any form, even children. While his actions seem sinister to us, he knew that he had no choice.
As I learned more from John about his life, I also researched the horrific act he committed once he nailed the door to the apartment shut. Over time, I became accustomed to the account of the murders and started to believe I could analyze them impartially. Then I’d learn a new detail—something small and seemingly insignifi-cant—and suddenly the scenario would be brought back into sharp, sickening reality. It became, again, not simply a generic story of horror, but a living, breathing scene, crawling up my back, insinuating itself in my brain. Another letter from John would arrive in the mail. I’d look at it skeptically and hold it at a distance.
I wrote back to John and told him that, no, I was not the one who’d bought him the comic book. But in the following letter, he asked for the next installment in the series. “I would be soooo grateful to you, indebted to you even.” The word “indebted” grated. I didn’t want to be in John’s debt, and I didn’t want him to be in mine, answering my questions with the hope of gaining something material. I told him I’d never given a source anything before and didn’t want to start now.
It would have been easier to make this decision with any other subject before John. There would have been no conflict. The rules of journalism, though often requiring thought, are fairly clear and defined. But if the point of learning about this story was to allow it to breathe, I could not seal this man in a box on that shelf of unimaginable things.
John and I were caught together in the same constellation. I’d sought it out; I’d crowded close to a story to which I had no innate right. It was his family, his trial, his town. It was his life and his death. But, as I began to learn how the crime continued to affect those around me, I realized that this was not an isolated act, but a wave moving out in all directions, pushing on those in its path. I’d always believed that I was stuck in the same celestial soup as every other living soul. Until then, I’d never had proof.
It seemed especially unkind to deny John a comic book, after he’d told me about the only new thing his father had ever given him—a bicycle: “It had a banana seat that had gold glitter, a little girly but it was a beautiful bike. I hugged and kisse dmy dad alot that day.”
Even that memory turned into a chronicle of unhappiness. John wrote that his grandmother had demanded he keep the bike outside during the night, even though he insisted it would be stolen. In the morning, the bike was gone: “Never did get anything new again nor ever saw that bike again.”
Two decades later, kids continue to bike the streets where John grew up, and through alleys where papaya trees grow. When the sun rises, many eat nopalitos, a paddle-shaped cactus, sliced from a twisting plant and scrambled into eggs. Or, they wait until school for the tamales or biscuits provided by the district.
Downtown, prostitutes wait to be picked up on street corners after dark, the Immaculate Conception Cathedral observing them from above, near warehouses stuffed with mountains of used clothes discarded by residents in New York or Louisiana. When the piles are sorted, the clothes are displayed in the windows of Brownsville shops, or on front lawns across the city at permanent garage sales, or carried across the bridge by the kilo to be resold in Mexico. For many children in Brownsville, the appearance of a new thing in their lives, such as a bicycle flecked with gold glitter, is a moment not soon forgotten.
Much has changed here since John’s youth, and with people coming across the border constantly, the population is always in flux. But some things have held, and the tight grip of poverty is chief among them. Kids here still wake up to find that something has been taken from them, be it a bike or a parent who has been detained.
As I sought to understand what this case meant to the city, people began to reveal what they cared deeply about—the precious gems of insight, history, love, and hate usually kept from strangers like me. Murder and bloodshed were not included on the list, though at times these traumas obscured what was most important. But the aftermath—a fluttering vision of what the world would look like next—contained multitudes. There I encountered the questions, many of them unwieldy, that drove me into conversations I’d never before had with myself. I began to realize that this pursuit would not produce ready answers, ones that were clean and could quickly be filed away. But this murkiness, while troubling, made me even more committed to continuing these conversations, as they led into surprising and difficult territory.
In time, I sent John money for the supplies he needed to write to me, but I never mailed him a comic book, or any other gifts. I am not sure if this is what fairness looks like precisely, or if such a thing exists.
I continued sifting through the landscape, excavating bits of the architecture left behind, like an archeologist at some not-so-ancient dig site. I pushed the pieces I found into the sunlight, holding them against everything else, allowing them to exist as part of a single picture. Then I tried to dismantle the frame of that picture, so that the story stopped being an account, a report, a myth, and started to mingle with the texture of reality.
Laura Tillman is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and Pacific Standard, among other publications. Originally from Maplewood, New Jersey, she began her career at The Brownsville Herald in South Texas. She holds a BA in International Studies from Vassar College and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts is her first book.
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts is available from Scribner on April 5th, 2016.