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SATURDAY JOURNAL

When The Shooting Stops

After Jamie Rouse killed a teacher and a student at his school, the questions began. Why did he do it? Could his parents have prevented it? A family faces the truth of what their son has done.

April 22, 2000|RICHARD E. MEYER | Times Staff Writer

Why has he done it? What could she have done to stop him? What has she missed, and how has she missed it?

Guilt, shame. Humiliation, disgrace. Remorse and mortification. There is nothing she can do to make up for it.

She prays. "Tell me what to do. Give me the strength to get through this. Help me to make sense out of it."

Silence. From God.

Silence. Between her and Elison.

They discern their own faults differently. Cheryl blames herself for what she did not do. She had not understood that Jamie was in such pain. She had not stepped in. On the other hand, Elison blames himself for what he did do. For years, he had drunk too much and abused drugs. For years, he had flown into rages. For years, he had hit his sons with a belt or a paddle cut from a board. He had taught Jamie how to shoot the rifle. He had argued him out of selling it. He had vowed to lock up his weapons in a gun cabinet and never did.

Elison and Cheryl each conceal some of the things they are thinking because each does not want to hurt the other. Elison knows that Cheryl is closer to Jamie, and he knows that Cheryl wants her son back. But Elison thinks that everyone needs to be punished for doing wrong, and he does not want Jamie let out of jail scot-free. Cheryl is not angry with Jamie, but Elison is. He is mad because his son has killed two people, wounded a third, humiliated his family and destroyed his own life. Besides, Elison is scared of Jamie. He senses that Jamie hates him. He does not understand why Jamie did not kill him instead of the people at school. An uneasy quiet settles in the house. Elison and Cheryl argue. They hug. Sometimes they argue and hug at once. They spend a lot of time holding each other. Sometimes they cannot hold each other at all.

On Nov. 23, Thanksgiving, the Rouses do not celebrate. As each day goes by, a certainty sinks in: They cannot hide forever. Besides, taking cover is too much like defeat. They will not allow whatever people might be thinking to ruin their lives, for Jamie's sake and their own. They will avoid offending anyone on purpose, and they would prefer it if people do not view them as monsters. "But you know," Cheryl resolves, "some things, if they cannot accept them, then that's their problem; there's nothing I can do about it. Like the way I feel religiously, if that offends somebody, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to change how I feel about God. And the same way with how I feel about Jamie. If they don't like it, I'm sorry. He's my son, I love him, I will be there for him. If they don't like it, that's their problem."

As a starter, the family needs groceries. For the first time in almost two weeks, Cheryl and Elison decide to face other people. They take Highway 64, avoiding Richland Creek and a span that officials will come to name the Carolyn Foster and Diane Collins Memorial Bridge. On the eastern outskirts of Pulaski is a market where the Rouses have shopped for years. Cheryl knows everybody who works there. "What'll they think?" she asks herself. She will get just what she needs, then leave.

At the video counter, Linda Fox, who has known Cheryl and her boys for 14 years, sees the Rouses pushing their cart as fast as they can, never raising an eye, stopping only long enough to drop something inside. Cheryl's hair is streaked with gray. She looks even tinier than usual. To Linda, she seems like a wounded child. Cheryl rushes by without looking up. Everyone is standing back and staring. Cheryl is nearly crying.

"Should I do this?" For a moment, Linda debates with herself. The Fosters are her neighbors, and her heart goes out to them. Besides, what would people think? Linda, though, is a mother too. She walks up to the checkout stand and wraps Cheryl in her arms. "I have been thinking about you. How are you? I have been thinking about you."

"I appreciate it." Cheryl's face is wet.

"Are you doin' OK?" Linda can feel her shaking.

"Yeah."

"Well, if you ever need to talk, day or night, don't be afraid to call. I have got big ears, and I don't talk."

"I appreciate it."

Ronnie Britton, a clerk, is bagging their groceries. He helps Elison carry them out. Ronnie belongs to Carolyn Foster's church, and he likes the Fosters. But he knows not to judge, lest he be judged. He pats Cheryl on the back and asks about her family. How is Jamie doing?

Elison is touched. Not many people will ask about Jamie, ever.

------

"There's an older lady that comes [to the jail]. She more or less helps with Bible study. She asked me if I wanted to be forgiven for my sins. I said, 'Yes. Yes, I do.' Then she said, 'Well, say this prayer with me.' It was like a new hope."

Still, Jamie knew where he would end up: "Probably hell."

------

At 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, two sheriff's cars roll up the gravel road to the Rouses' front porch. Cheryl is on the brown cloth recliner. She is watching TV. Adam is curled up in her lap asleep.

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