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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

"Somebody said that my brother was there. I thought they were joking. I mean, I just didn't know what happened. I knew that he didn't have nothing to do with it. It was ridiculous. It was stupid. It was a political move is what it was. It was another way of punishing me. It wasn't enough just for me and Steve to be locked up. They had to go after my family too."

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People often do not know how to act in Elison's presence; some offer to pray for him, but then they stay away. Maybe, he thinks, they are worried about their own kids and cannot handle being around him. But others are steadfast. On the night of the shooting, Ray McConnell, a fellow driver for Ronnie Bledsoe Trucking Inc. and one of his best friends, brings his wife to Tight Bark Hollow. They struggle past reporters and family, and the two truckers hug. Not long afterward, Elison walks into Wal-Mart. He hears somebody yell, "Bledsoe!" Elison does not want any trouble, so he keeps on walking. Then he hears it again: "Bledsoe!" A driver comes up. Elison knows him by his radio handle: Too Tall.

"How y' doin?" Too Tall asks.

"I'm doing OK."

"Hang in there." Too Tall, towering over Elison by a foot, gives him a hug.

Elison decides to quit trucking; he is too distracted to drive. But his boss will not hear of it. He tells Elison that he will hold his job for him and keep his insurance paid, and whenever he feels up to driving again, just to let him know. Every now and then, Ronnie Bledsoe or someone else from the trucking company calls to see how Elison is doing, but no one pressures him or smothers him with curiosity. Elison and Cheryl dread Christmas. But just before the holiday, they are invited to a truckers' dinner. Bledsoe staff, drivers and owner-operators present them with $600 for their bills, many of which are going unpaid. The gift brings Elison to tears. Now, he says, Adam will get presents. A few days later, Ray McConnell drops by with money from more drivers. Friends at church offer Adam gifts. So do strangers in the mail. To the Rouses, it seems like a miracle.

So does $300 from their church and $200 from one of Cheryl's brothers. The Rouses' credit is gone, but this money will see them through January. Gabriel, the shock absorber company, says it will hold Cheryl's work-at-home job for her as well. She has been worried that Gabriel will not want to have anything more to do with her. But Gary Parsons, her boss, sends a card, and then he calls. "Just want to know how you've been." He treats her no differently, and this alone pleases Cheryl as much as anything. "Well," he says, "a lot of them out here have been asking about you. But they was afraid to call. So I said that I'd call." Just let him know, he says, if she needs anything--and holler whenever she gets ready for him to send some more inventory to do.

One man says in Elison's presence that Jamie's parents must be awful, and he ought to be hanged. Someone takes the man aside and tells him who Elison is, and the man returns and says he is sorry. On another occasion, a truck driver declares within earshot: "I'm glad he's not my son." When the driver is told who Elison is, he walks away. But the Rouses receive almost 100 notes and cards in the mail, saying in various ways: "We don't know how you feel, we can only imagine. But you have our sympathies, and we're praying for you." Some include small amounts of money. One note haunts them. "We know exactly what you are going through," it says. "You have our sympathy and our prayers." The note is unsigned. At the peak of their shame, Elison considers unlisting their telephone number, but he and Cheryl get so many encouraging calls that he hooks up an answering machine instead. They get caller ID, so they will know right away if the Murfreesboro jail phones about Jamie.

One of their preachers suggests counseling from Paul Sain at the biggest Church of Christ in Pulaski. They visit him for about two hours every week for two months. It is Carolyn Foster's church, and he preached at her funeral. It might be a good idea, he tells the Rouses, to meet with the Fosters and say: "We care, and we're sorry." Elison and Cheryl agree. "I know they're going to want to know why Jamie did it," Cheryl says, "but we can't tell them why." Still, they will be glad to see the Fosters and to talk to them. For weeks, Cheryl has been planning what to say to them or to the Collins family, should she run into them. It would be: "I'm sorry, and I wish I could undo what was done. Jamie's sorry." At the same time, she would ask the Collinses not to let their son Bill's friendship with Jamie affect the way they treat him, nor let their daughter Chrissy's friendship with Adam affect the way they treat her. "And if they could possibly see their way, maybe someday could [they] forgive?"

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