Please Kill Me!

Nick Yarris, 2018

Name: Nick Yarris

Born: 1961

Race: Caucasian

State: Pennsylvania 

Convicted: 1982

Exonerated: 2003

Sentence: Death

Nick had just arrived when Captain Ben Varner walked up to him and stared him right in the eyes while he quietly said:

“You are a dead man, everyone you love is dead, and in my prison, dead men do not speak. Without a warning, he smacked me right in the mouth. It was his way of welcoming me to Huntingdon Prison,” Nick recalls.

The assault was the first of many to come. If it wasn’t the guards beating the inmates, the officers would make sure the prisoners were fighting each other. The enthusiasm among the guards was especially great when white inmates were beating on black prisoners.

According to Nick, almost all guards were white men trying to suppress black inmates. The guards hated black people and they would do anything to punish them. One way was to force prisoners to fight, hoping that the white inmates would win. Meanwhile, the guards made bets as if they were at the horse races, Nick says, before turning silent once again.

The experiences in Huntingdon made him realize how evil people can be when they are forced into such circumstances, and the violence he witnessed in prison deeply affected Nick. The experiences made him an even colder and more cynical person than he was before entering the prison system.

“The guards would put me in an empty cell, and I would wait for the officers to force another prisoner in there with me. When both of us were in the cell, we reacted instinctively and jumped at each other. It could be your worst enemy or your best friend that they let in. If you did not beat him, he would beat you while the guards were cheering and calling the scene ‘the gladiator ring’,” Nick says, explaining that the fights would always end with an inmate lying lifeless on the floor.

The fights took a toll on Nick who was both stabbed and strangled by other prisoners. Other times, he would witness inmates being stabbed or even murdered in front of him when death row inmates were left alone in the shower room. Suddenly, an inmate would pull out a shank from underneath his tongue and start stabbing his enemy to death.

“And when the guards had cleaned up the blood, they told us to go have lunch. Right after someone had just died. That is how brutal and cold the environment was. And in prison, you learn to fight, so you are going to be a risk to everyone who crosses your path. Your fists are a means of survival and the people we let out of prisons are far worse than the ones we lock up,” Nick says.

ON THE RUN

The daily brutality destroyed all human care among the prisoners. Many chose to commit suicide in front of others, and afterward, guards or inmates had to remove the bodies. One time, Nick witnessed prison guards opening the door to a cell next to his, and like a rocket, an inmate came running out of the cell. The inmate threw himself over the handrail and landed several floors down. According to Nick, the inmate just could not take it anymore and he can still remember the sound of the inmate’s bones crushing when he hit the floor.

“I saw 11 inmates commit suicide before my eyes. Some swallowed razor blades or cut their own throats,” Nick recalls, before his mind wanders off to a place very dark and extremely lonely as he describes it.

At times, Nick thought he was becoming insane himself. And, eventually, he attempted to commit suicide as well.

“Normally, I would just hurt myself. I would knock my head into the wall until I tasted the blood. Because when I felt the pain, I would start to feel alive and be reminded that I was still human. But when that was not enough, I tried to commit suicide,” Nick says, telling that one of the reasons why he probably never succeeded in killing himself was because he could not disappoint his parents. He felt that he owed it to them to prove his innocence because they had already lost so much in life.

Not Worthy of Being a Dad

Name: Damon Thibodeaux

Name: Damon Thibodeaux

Born: 1974

Race: Caucasian

State: Louisiana

Convicted: 1997

Exonerated: 2012 

Sentence: Death

Damon felt happy. He finally had some money after drifting for years and he was eager to spend some of it to be with what he cherished the most, family.

After cashing his first work check, he went to purchase some Rollerblades so he could go skating with his step-cousin Crystal and her 12-year-old sister, Samantha.

Louisiana’s heat in July was unbearable and they quit the skating early. Instead, they went to Crystal and Samantha’s parents’ house to have a few cold drinks. But Crystal was not just thirsty, she was also hungry.

Crystal was slowly taking her first steps toward adulthood and her family would let her move freely around the local community with their blessing.

Crystal was a happy and reliable teenager who could always be trusted, but as she was walking to the Winn-Dixie supermarket on this hot, Friday afternoon to get Chinese noodles, she took one step too many.

“I need to get a cop to my house. My 14-year-old daughter is missing. She has been gone for the last two and a half hours and we can’t find her nowhere,” Crystal’s mom said in an anxious voice when she called 911 begging for help.

Throughout the night, the family searched for Crystal together with officers from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. The missing-person case soon became a murder investigation when Crystal’s body was found in a wooded area along the banks of the Mississippi River five miles from her home in Westwego, Louisiana.

The step-cousin Damon Thibodeaux was devastated by the news. Just before leaving the house, Crystal had asked him to give her a ride to the mall, but the 22-year-old man had refused as he was too busy mending a watch.

His refusal would come back to haunt him for decades. Had he only joined Crystal on that July day in 1996, she might still be alive.

After searching for hours, Damon went back to his mom’s house. Damon was so focused on finding his cousin that he did not allow himself to sleep or eat until she was found. Now he laid exhausted in his bed while a thousand thoughts ran through his mind.

Damon could not believe how happiness turned to sadness in a heartbeat. He just moved back to New Orleans a few weeks earlier and secured a job with the Callie Towing Company working as a deckhand on Mississippi River barges. For the first time in a long time, things were moving in the right direction. He was living close to his mother and family after spending some time in Texas. But the positive directions he was heading toward in life shattered when Crystal was finally found, and police came knocking on the door.

First, the officers were doing a routine missing-persons interview with Damon, but eight minutes after the interview began, it turned into a homicide interrogation.

“Some people just walked over here a minute ago and said they found a little girl dead by the river,” a police officer at the crime scene transmitted to the detectives just as they began questioning Damon.

Crystal’s body was found by a friend of the Champagne family. When he discovered Crystal lying lifeless on the ground, maggots and ants had already invaded her body and a piece of red extension cord was wrapped around her neck. Her underwear was pulled down around her ankles and her bra pulled up to her shoulders. It looked as though she was sexually assaulted, and the detectives wanted to know if Damon was involved in the crime.

“They brought me down to the station where they placed me in a small chair. The moment I sat down, they began beating me mentally. I was threatened, I was manipulated, and they went on attacking me for hours. They were questioning me in a brutal way and they were gonna do whatever it took to get a confession out of me. It felt like torture,” Damon says.

He denied any involvement and when the detectives asked him to take a polygraph, he agreed without hesitation. Afterward, detectives interrogated him for more than nine hours though only 54 minutes were recorded on tape. The investigators were hard on him. By the time they were done, he had not slept or eaten for almost two days. Damon cracked the minute he was informed that he had failed the polygraph.

They Killed My Mom

Name: Derrick Jamison

Name: Derrick Jamison

Born: 1961

Race: Black

State: Ohio

Convicted: 1985

Exonerated: 2005 

Sentence: Death

The silence on death row was deadly. The inmates could almost hear tears fall to the ground as they sadly awaited the inevitable.

Waiting felt like eternity. Yet time passed too quickly when determined footsteps broke the silence. As the guards approached the cell, everyone knew that it was time to say goodbye.

“I love you. You’re not alone, brother,” Derrick shouted, hoping for a miracle to happen as the prisoner passed by his cell a few minutes later.

When the sound of the rattling shackles died out and the door slammed at the end of the prison hallway, Derrick knew all hope was gone.

Shortly after his friend was strapped to the gurney in the execution chamber and despite Derrick’s promise, no one was there to hold his hand as the poison ran through his veins.

Derrick is a robust man, 6’3” tall and hardened from two decades on death row. Still, he cannot help breaking down as he tells the story of his friend who was silenced by a lethal injection.

Wilford Berry was the first inmate to be executed on death row since Derrick had been put there. During the following years from 1999 to 2005, Derrick would lose another 17 friends. All executed by the state of Ohio.

“On death row, inmates only have each other. Inmates become family. And every execution of my brothers feels like yesterday. I miss them so much,” Derrick tells while he tries to catch his breath, but the sadness is overwhelming and he has to let go of the tears.

Although death row at Lucasville was populated by people who had shown no compassion for their victims, the cell block was full of affection. No prisoner could get through without the support and care of other inmates.

“Some sit on death row and languish for decades. At some point, everyone needs to be comforted,” Derrick says.

Especially when an inmate was scheduled to be executed, the prisoners would support each other, knowing they were tied together by the same destiny. Eventually, they would all face death in the same chamber.

Therefore, Derrick was not afraid of expressing his feelings as he watched dead men walking by his cell.


“The media called them monsters, but I saw human beings despite the horrible things some of them had done. I would tell them that I loved and cared for them as they walked by. I tried to be their family in their final hour. It is unbearable walking alone to the death chamber,” Derrick says.

After an execution, the following days on death row were always marked by sadness. Cynical killers would react with the same fear as their victims had when it became obvious that their execution could be next.

“You could, literally, smell death and fear after an execution,” Derrick says.

Slowly, life would return. The prisoners would continue their daily routines, and most of them hoped to have a long life ahead even though it would be spent behind bars. In this way, the cycle of life reminded much of the one outside the walls, except that when a life ended in prison, it was not necessarily due to the course of nature, but decisions made by mankind. One day, Derrick’s name was called.

When Derrick’s execution was announced, he had already spent more than 15 years on death row living in despair, but as he now sat alone in the cell knowing that his ordeal was about to come to an end, he found no comfort for himself.

When he ate his last meal, he had one more wish—that his execution would be quick and painless. Not all of the 18 men who had been executed prior to Derrick were that lucky.

“They were forced out of their cells, strapped down on a gurney, and had poison shot into their blood. Many suffered physically when killed. They had to have injections again and again. Knowing that death could be painful really scared me,” Derrick shares.

The inmates were always given three different drugs when executed. Sodium pentothal would put the inmate to sleep, pancuronium bromide would stop the breathing, and, finally, potassium chloride would stop the heart beating—at least theoretically.

A Kiss Goodbye

 

Name: Marietta Jaeger

Born: 1938

Founder of Journey to Hope and Mother of Susie Jaeger

Daughter: 

Name: Susie Jaeger

Age: 7

Crime: Abducted and murdered

Year: 1973

State: Montana

A cool breeze awoke Heidi. Confused, she looked around and realized that the cold came from a big hole cut in the tent. She quickly went from surprised to scared when she discovered that her little sister Susie was missing next to her.

Heidi rushed through the night to a nearby caravan where her parents were sleeping.

“Wake up, wake up,” she screamed.

Marietta tried to calm down the upset daughter, explaining that she was sure the youngest of her five children had just gone to the bathroom, but when the mother saw the hole that had been sliced in the tent, her confusion turned to fear. When she found the two stuffed lambs that Susie always slept with in the grass a few feet away, she had no doubt.

“I knew it was real and that Susie was not just wandering around. Clearly, something terrible had happened. I just prayed that someone had not taken her,” Marietta tells about the moment when she realized that her seven-year-old daughter had been abducted.

The Jaeger family arrived at the Missouri Headwaters State Park in Montana three nights earlier after driving for a week through eight states since leaving their home in Michigan.

For the next month, Bill and Marietta Jaeger were going to spend what they hoped to be a once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation that they would talk about for the rest of their lives.

“When we got there, I was just so happy. I felt I could not have been blessed with a better life than the one I had. Our trip had turned out to be the best time our family had ever had together. But the dream soon became a nightmare,” Marietta says.

The mother awoke all kids and told them that Susie was gone while her husband drove off to find a phone and call the police. Shortly after 4:00 a.m., the dispatcher received the call at the sheriff’s department in Gallatin County.

In the beginning, officers thought it was a false alarm as the area was known to be quiet and safe, but when the investigators saw the hole in the tent, they also began to worry. A violent crime had taken place and FBI agents from the Bozeman field office quickly joined the search for the missing girl.

There were only a few clues at the campsite. Among them were footprints that investigators found in the morning dew of the grass.

The footprints led to a nearby parking area, but the driver had taken off and one of the biggest missing persons searches in Montana was launched. A few hours later, the park was swarming with officers and members of the National Guard searching for the missing girl from horseback, helicopters, and boats.

While searching Headwaters State Park, some of the officers had a flashback to five years earlier when they had been going through the same scenic landscape searching for evidence in another case. During a troop outing, a 12-year-old boy was stabbed and beaten to death in the middle of the night while he was sleeping in a tent. Police never solved the case and the investigators worried that the killer was back.

The FBI and local authorities immediately set up a command post next to the Jaeger family’s caravan while searching the area with Marietta as an onlooker.

“There were helicopters in the air and they also searched the nearby river. Every time the boat stopped, my heart stopped. I was so scared that they were gonna pull up the net and that Susie would be in it,” Marietta tells.

Meanwhile, hundreds of citizens called in with tips and police investigated all of them. One of the callers was a man who urged police to investigate his 24-year-old neighbor whom he described as acting weird and showing an unusual interest in his children. Police knew the neighbor, but when they investigated David Meirhofer, nothing seemed suspicious and when another call came in, it changed the focus of the investigators.

One week after the kidnapping, a man called a deputy sheriff at home. The man claimed to be the kidnapper and he demanded $50,000 in ransom to be delivered to a bus station. To confirm that he was not a prank caller, the kidnapper described a minor deformity on the missing girl’s index fingers.

“When Susie was taken, I had to describe every little detail of her body to the FBI. Every little mark and every little scar, but we had over the years gotten so used to her most unique feature, the index fingers, that I completely forgot to mention it to the investigators. Therefore, nobody knew of them and I immediately knew he was the kidnapper. He could not have obtained these facts from any documents, but only by looking at my little girl,” Marietta tells.