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THE NATION

Mom Resolves to Save a Son From Himself

September 22, 2002|ANGIE WAGNER | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Mary Lou Gordon wasn't able to save her four marriages. Or her first son. But this son would be different. There was hope for Keith.

He was handsome, artistic, a natural at landscape design. He liked animals, cooked meals for his mother and tried hard to be a good son.

Mary Lou, now 71, tried hard to be a good mother, always bailing him out of trouble and trying to get him off drugs.

When he was a boy, his blond hair and eager grin always attracted attention.

"He was adorable. He was so beautiful. I'd go to the market and the clerk would say: 'He's too pretty to be a boy.' "

That was long ago. In recent years, he was a shell of the man he used to be. His teeth were rotting and his good looks had faded. He was dirty, used up at age 39. Drugs made him say things that he didn't mean and turned him into a thief and a liar.

Mary Lou lived in fear, never knowing what her son would do.

But she knew what she would do.

She would save him.

*

Mary Lou always chose the wrong husbands. They would drink, just as her father had, and they were often violent.

She had married her first husband to get out of the house where she grew up in North Hollywood. She didn't love him, but they had gone to junior high together and she thought that he was nice enough.

In 1952, their blue-eyed, brown-haired son was born, John Carl Burns Jr.

The marriage ended and Mary Lou met husband No. 2. It was the same story -- drinking and arguing -- and the couple came to Las Vegas in 1960 to get a quickie divorce.

Mary Lou stayed and bought a small house.

She got a job as a hostess at the old Hacienda hotel-casino and soon fell in love with a pit boss. They married and, nine months later in 1963, Keith Fletchall Jr. was born. His father left three months later.

For a time, it was just the three of them. She worked two jobs, as a secretary and at a golf course, so she could put Keith in a private preschool and John in braces. She joined the Mormon church, taught Sunday school and was a Cub Scout den mother. The boys struggled in school, so she got them tutors.

She tried marriage No. 4, but it ended after five years.

Keith won perfect-attendance awards and sports honors, and was president of the weightlifting club. Friends nicknamed him "007" because he was handsome and liked to imitate James Bond. He spent his free time working on his faded olive green 1967 Mustang.

Lora Susca, his high school girlfriend, remembers his charm. "He could schmooze his way into anything."

"Keith was so animated when you met him," said family friend Julie Gialketsis, who attended junior high and part of high school with Keith. "And his brother was like a better-looking Dennis Quaid."

Mary Lou's marriages hadn't worked, but her sons were a different story. She could do this, rear them on her own. Get a good education and you'll have a nice job, she told them.

But something happened to John.

When he returned from a three-year stint in the Navy after high school, he was drinking a quart of vodka a day and had turned to drugs. Mary Lou wrote him a letter when he checked himself into a rehabilitation center.

"You come from a long line of alcoholics," she wrote, remembering her father's and grandfather's troubles. "It's the road to destruction. It's in your genes and you're going to have to really fight it."

In 1985, John overdosed on morphine. He was 32. His younger brother was a pallbearer at the military funeral.

Mary Lou blamed herself, just as she had for the failure of her marriages.

She told Keith then: "Be careful. Look what can happen to you."

Keith drank and took drugs in high school. But he was just experimenting. Wasn't he?

His mother told herself that life would be better. Keith was different. He was the son she spoiled rotten and doted on, always giving him everything he wanted. Cars, trucks, stereos.

When his brother died, Keith was already running with a fast crowd in Beverly Hills, where he had moved after graduating from high school in 1981. He worked various jobs -- landscaping, construction, security -- and told his mother that he and his friends would drink, do cocaine and carouse into the early morning.

With Keith gone, Mary Lou decided that she needed a gun. There might be a break-in and she wanted to be prepared. She took a shooting course at the North Las Vegas Police Department and bought a .25-caliber pistol.

Then she got a phone call from Keith. Could he come home? He needed to dry out.

Mary Lou, knowing that she could save him, of course said yes.

But Keith soon was using cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine. His new friends were drug dealers and users.

It was happening again. Another son. Another life slipping away.

He couldn't hold a job and had a string of driving problems -- citations and wrecks. His mother made his car payments, paid his fines and hired an attorney to get drug possession charges dropped.

She wrote him a letter, like the one she had written her first son. Please get help, she told him.

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