Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Reading an old story

I am a people person and a people watcher. Given the choice of going to see a movie or heading to an outside coffee shop to strike up a conversation with anyone and everyone, I'd probably skip the theater.

Everyone has a story and I am always willing to listen. It was what I enjoyed most in my prior life as a sportswriter. While co-workers were fighting over the opportunity to cover an NBA or MLB game, I was content heading out to talk to a local athlete or coach to hear and then write their story.

While looking for a book in my garage this afternoon, I found a box of some of my old articles and began to reconnect with some of my favorite people that I interviewed. I loved hearing their stories, and rereading them made me feel like we were sitting down and talking all over again.

One story always stood out as my favorite and it had nothing to do with me being the author. It was a story the wrote itself. It was one that would make anyone have the utmost respect for the story teller.

It is a long, but his story is one worth hearing. I changed the names and places, but it remains the same.
Bill Jones remembers exactly what caused him to turn his back on his mother. It wasn't the death threats he was receiving on a regular basis. It wasn't the fact his name was in the paper every time there was a story about his mother.

It wasn't that he was routinely on the news, seen opening and shutting the front door of his home with television camera crews parked in his front yard. It wasn't the constant questions he got from friends, or anybody else he ran into, that ultimately caused him to seclude himself in his house.

And lastly, it wasn't a suicide attempt by his mother that caused him to leave.

Jones had no problem handling all that. He handled it just like he did when he took on an offensive lineman as an All-Silver League linebacker at AB High in 1986. He handled it head-on. But what Jones couldn't handle, still can't, and never will be able to handle is that his mom thought she was right.

"My mother never seemed to accept the fact that what she did was wrong," Jones said. "It was a mess and I didn't want to be a part of it."

Jones remembers the night it happened as if it was yesterday, but tells the story as if he was talking about someone else. Facts followed by more facts, with little or no emotion.

It was a warm night on Aug. 30, 1989, when Jones got a phone call from his younger sister, Christy. He rolled out of bed at 12:33 a.m., picked up the phone and heard his sister say, "Mom shot Keith. You have to get over there. You have to see what happened. You gotta see what is going on," Christy told him.

Jones had no idea who `Keith' was. Never saw or met him.

He quickly dressed, jumped in his car, and followed the directions his sister gave him to the house of the shooting.

Jones didn't have far to drive. After a couple of miles, he remembers driving over a hill and looking down at the house that already had "like 15 Sheriffs" parked in front.

He saw his mom sitting outside the house. Then, shortly afterward, he saw the body of Keith Farmer, who was just 23, being wheeled out of the house.

"After that, and from that point on, everything was really not knowing what was going on," Jones said.

What went on was his mother, Belinda Johnson, was facing murder charges. She posted a $100,000 bail and spent all her free time trying to convince anyone who would listen - including Jones - that she shot Farmer to protect her daughter.

Christy Jones had dated Farmer briefly, and even stayed with Farmer a short time before the killing. Johnson thought Christy was using drugs that she believed were provided by Farmer.

Christy had suffered from a heart murmur since she was a child. It was a disorder that - coupled with the drug use - Johnson believed would lead to her teenage daughter's death.

When it came time for the jury to decide her fate, they returned a verdict of first-degree murder. The sentence was 27 years-to-life - a sentence Johnson is still serving.

Bill Jones already had left his mother's house when she went to trial. He left, went out on his own - his father died when he was 3 - and never looked back. At first, he tried to believe the stories. He tried to support his mother. But the more he looked at the case and thought about it, Jones knew it wasn't right.

"I tried for a time to think that what she did was legitimate or something because these were people, and not that anyone deserves to die or anything like that, they were just trouble," Jones said. "I found out later that my mother was the same way. She was with those people. She took drugs and she was in all that stuff. That was her lifestyle. It wasn't mine. It's not what I did. I totally didn't identify with that. The fact that my mother seemed to think that it was everybody else's fault. I had a real big problem with that."

He remembers hearing about the verdict on the news. A verdict that Jones, to this day, thinks was fair.

"She doesn't deserve to get out," Jones said. "If you are going to believe in something, you gotta believe in it all the way. I think if you take somebody's life, you should have to give up yours. It doesn't matter who it is. It's not like all of a sudden it changes. Blood is not thicker than water. It doesn't represent so much more. For some people it does, but it is more like an excuse."

When all was said and done, Jones was alone, left with no family at the age of 20. He and his sisters were divided over the question of their mother's motives. Jones, meanwhile, was left wondering what to do.

He started by taking odd jobs, working long hours while living with friends, then on his own. College was never something that was brought up when he was younger. Jones' one semester in college in 1988 was only a way to continue his football career. As soon as the season ended, Jones dropped out.

Growing up the way Jones did helped in many ways. He was very independent. He remembers having to cook his own meals, starting when he was 6. It wasn't unusual for his mother to sleep all day, while Jones and the girls were left to fend for themselves.

"Above all, the thing that hurt me the most was not having direction and guidance," Jones said. "We were always alone, my mother always left me by myself. So now, I am just kinda fine being by myself. As much as I would like to be close to other people, I am not."

After all the odd jobs, Jones began to do one of the few things he loves. In 1992, he went back to his high school and began coaching the freshman football team. It didn't take long for Jones to have an impact at his school - or for coaching to have an impact on him. He called the defense on a team that went 9-1, with a perfect 5-0 record in the Silver League.

"I think a person has to grow up real fast when something like that happens, and he did," Head coach Burt Coleman said. "I admire him for what he has done for himself and in the coaching profession. He has worked hard to get where he is in coaching."

That year of coaching lit a fire in Jones - a fire that still burns with him today as the Lincoln High defensive coordinator. Jones' defense is the best in the Valley and second-best in the Southern Section. The Eagles have given up just over 170 yards a game.

Football always has been Jones' escape. It always has been something he could rely on for success. The only people Jones calls friends are former teammates and coaches with which he has worked. Even during the bleakest, most isolated moments, there's been football.

"There are always tough times," he said. "One thing that has always been an escape is on Thanksgiving morning when you're at football practice and you don't have to worry about it."

Jones clearly has moved on. He has gone back to school and is just over a year away from graduating from Cal State Bakersfield with a degree in Criminology. He now has a future, one that includes teaching and coaching.

"The things I feel good about are football matters," Jones said. "That is what keeps me going. That, and looking forward to finishing my degree and getting all those things for myself. Football is the one thing that has kept me balanced, kept me happy. It is the one thing I could find success in. Everything else could fall apart around me, even with the family."

Since Jones left before his mother's conviction, he has seen her just once. He received a letter from her during the 1996 football season, asking him to visit. After battling with himself, he finally went in March of 1997 in the hopes of relieving some of the built-up anger. To say the least, Jones was disappointed.

"Basically for the couple of hours I was there, all she did was tell me how everything was against her," Jones said. "I wanted to hear that what she did was wrong. How bad she felt for hurting all of us, and destroying all of us kids. And the separation that it occurred, dividing us up so bad. She didn't accept any kind of accountability for that whatsoever."

If Jones is sorry about anything, it is that his future children will not have grandparents from his side of the family.

"I miss the fact that I can't love her," Jones said. "I miss the fact that she is not there and I will never have a grandmother for my kids, or a grandfather. That bothers me."

That was more than ten years ago and I still get goose bumps reading his story. He is now a husband, father and a successful contractor.

One can't help but think that if he can overcome his obstacles, we should be able to overcome ours.


  1. My heart broke for him... then it soared. And I was thinking at the end that I ought to be able to get my ass in gear and do some of the things that I've been telling myself are 'too hard'. Thanks for sharing the story.

  2. His story makes all my excuses look really lame.

  3. Incredible story, movie material. You ever take a day off from this Coach? Not that I want you to, I enjoy reading your blog very much.

  4. Loved this story, and feel bad for him still. I hope he does have a loving family of his own that he can learn to be close, and be a great dad.

  5. Perspective, it's a good thing.

    The best part of this story is knowing that he has shed those things that could have kept him chained and is happy and successful today.

    Nice writing, too, Coach. :)

  6. Yes a story that should give all of us who have been blessed a good kick in the pants to not sweat the little things.

  7. Its always good to hear a story of someone thats had to go thru some really hard times but they were able to make a better life for themself. Its a story that everyone should read and realize that no matter how bad things are in your life, each one of us is capable of making things in our life better!! Thank you for sharing this with all of us!!