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Al Martinez

On the Verge of Tears

October 06, 1995|Al Martinez

Catherine Gallion is a tense and edgy woman, driven to tears and anger at the memories she simultaneously seeks and rejects.

She paces and chain-smokes as she talks about the scars left on her life by a father who beat and raped her throughout a childhood of nightmares.

"How could he have done that to a baby?" she asks, thrusting forward a wrinkled black-and-white photograph of herself as a 6-year-old.

The little girl in the picture, blond and beautiful, smiles innocently into the camera lens, nothing like the distraught and anguished woman who holds the picture in trembling hands 40 years later.

I make no effort to answer her question. Who could?

It's a soft and sunshiny day in Southern California, in deep contrast to the darkness of the story I'm hearing. And while Gallion's memories are heavy thunderclouds of pain, they're only part of the trauma that cloaks her.

A little over a year ago, she was the key witness in a trial that sent her father to prison for the murder of her grandmother 23 years earlier.

Gallion lived with knowledge of the crime for two decades out of fear that he would kill her too, and still believes that the man who began molesting her as a child, who stripped and beat her, who forced her to play Russian roulette with a loaded gun, who passed her around to other men at a poker party, could reach out from behind prison bars and take her life.

"Sometimes I dream he is standing over me," she says, caught up in the intensity of the memory. "He is holding a gun at my head. He pulls the trigger and . . . bam!"

She throws her head back, eyes closed, and her lips form the words "Oh, God . . . "

*

I have never seen such terror embodied in one person.

I could hear its trembling presence over the telephone when Gallion first called to say she had to speak to someone to rid herself of the ghosts that were pursing her.

She has moved 13 times in the past years to escape the dark spirits. She has tried suicide twice and committed herself to mental hospitals twice.

Allowing me into the gloomy areas of her memory, she first demanded a promise that I would not use her married name and would not indicate where in Southern California she lived.

She exists on welfare, has no telephone and rarely ventures beyond the yard of her ramshackle house.

The man who turned the soft and smiling child in the photograph into a woman on the edge is Harland Gallion, 67, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Catherine Halgren in North Hollywood.

A suspect from the very beginning, he was exonerated by the testimony of a brother, Marven Gallion, who said they were together at the time of the killing.

Then, 20 years later, the brother heard of the brutality endured by Catherine and two sisters at the hands of Harland and confided to the sisters that the brothers weren't together the day their grandmother was murdered.

The information came to the attention of LAPD homicide Detective Oscar Carballo, who spent almost three years rebuilding the case against Harland. When he was able to finally track down Catherine Gallion, she told him that her father had confessed to her that he had strangled her grandmother.

Her testimony, delivered with tears and anguish, was a key factor in sending the man to prison.

*

There should have been satisfaction in that, a sense of vengeance achieved, but instead there was only an intensity of the terror Gallion had always felt toward the father who had brutalized her.

He could escape, he could hire someone to track her down or he could somehow emerge taloned and vicious from her restless dreams, the way Freddy sprang from a teen-ager's nightmare in Wes Craven's horror movies.

She sleeps now in total darkness, because it was in the total darkness of her bedroom she hid as a child to escape her father.

"I used to pile stuff in front of the door so he wouldn't get me," she says, crying softly in the buttery sunlight near her home. "But he would stand outside the door and laugh and say, 'That won't stop me!' It never did."

Through all of this, Gallion says, her mother, now dead, did nothing. Nor did a minister in whom she confided. She was left--that smiling little girl in the picture--to be savaged by a man who was the embodiment of evil.

Catherine Gallion lives with the haunting notion that her father could return and do her harm, but even if he doesn't, his shadowy presence will always be a part of her tortured life.

And to me it will always be a painful reminder of what we do to little girls crouched in dark corners of our world, waiting for help that never comes.

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