by Larkin Vonalt

Redemption in Real Life


It’s late, I’m tired. There’s a long list of things that need my attention before bed. Outside, it’s quite warm for December in Ohio, though its been raining all day. I hear the swish of car tires on wet pavement beyond the front door. It would be easiest to just let the dog, a Boston Terrier named Holly, out the backdoor into the fenced yard. She looks up, earnest and hopeful and I relent: we’ll go on a jaunt around the neighborhood, in the rain.

Holly isn’t our dog. She’s just staying here until someone sees her on Petfinder and decides on the basis of a charming photograph and 50-word paragraph that she’s just the right dog for them. I tell her regularly that we are just one long layover on the adventure of her life, that her “real” home is somewhere out there in the murky future. She just looks at me and tilts her head.

She is an entirely elegant little dog, with a confident strut and a “take-no-prisoners” attitude. She is affectionate, but she never fawns.  I’ve named her after Holly Golightly, Truman Capote’s offbeat heroine in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Just like the other Holly, we can’t be sure exactly what her past is, or her future. We watch her manipulate situations and people, sometimes to her own detriment. We wonder exactly how she has survived and although I do love her I know that she will never, ever be mine.

The email was like so many others that arrive each week. An urgent situation, a dog that was going to be euthanized if not sprung from the shelter. Becky, at Midwest Boston Terrier Rescue, described the dog as a two-year-old alpha female, needing a strong human presence. Somewhere along the way “snarky” became the primary descriptor for this dog, stuck in a kennel 85 miles away.

I’d had some success with another quirky customer, Roscoe the Wonder Dog, who had recently been adopted.  I just didn’t see how I could swing it for this one. That was a Tuesday. On Wednesday night I had to leave for Knoxville, Tennessee and though I would be home in Dayton overnight on Friday, I had to  leave Saturday morning for another two days.

More information trickled through. Apparently the “Little Snarky Girl” had a problem with brooms and mops. She’d had two failed adoptions and there was some thought that she might have bitten the elderly woman who most recently returned her. For a dog that’s a crime punishable by death.

What makes us say yes after saying no time after time? I told Becky I could take her, but not until Monday. “For God’s sake,” one of the directors wrote in a mass email “someone get this girl and put her in a crate, and keep all mops and brooms away from her. At least she’ll be alive.”

There’s a vet in Columbus I’ve worked with before on rescue cases, and I called them. Did they have room to board her until Monday? They did. I gave them my credit card number and cautioned them about mops and brooms and said I’d be in to get her.  A disagreement erupted at the shelter and there was some question about whether or not they’d let us have her, someone there felt so strongly that she needed to be destroyed.

Since I’m clipping the leash to the pink and white houndstooth collar and going out the door with Holly, clearly she did make it out of the shelter alive. When I first saw her in the hallway at Whitehall Animal Hospital, she took my breath away. Boston Terriers are not generally “beautiful” dogs. They are winsome and charming and handsome despite themselves. No one would ever describe Holly as beautiful in the way they might if they were talking about an Irish setter or an Italian greyhound or a Malamute. But she has incredible presence. In the email to say I had her I described her as “the Audrey Hepburn of Boston Terriers.”

Though, of course, we would find out that she didn’t quite have the good manners of Audrey Hepburn. It only took a day or two to realize that brooms are not her only hang-up. She also hates cats. Hates them. Maybe I should have seen the foreshadowing in the way she attacked a small stuffed dog toy– tossing it in the air, pouncing on it, shaking it hard. She was having such a great time with that toy we just laughed. What we were so slow to recognize is that she has incredible prey drive, and it was that same prey drive that sent her careening after one of the cats, with my husband shouting and climbing over the furniture after them. She caught the cat, but I was right there, and lifted her away with a yank. My husband was mad and a momentary tug of war ensued over the dog.

“I’ll deal with it,” I told him and he stomped off. He does love dogs, but really he is also a cat person and he has an almost child-like expectation of fairness in the animal world, where reality is usually brutal. I took the struggling, ki-yi-yi-ying dog and folded her into her crate.

“No. Bad girl.” I said firmly. “No cats. Bad girl. I. Am. So. Disappointed.”

So she must be constantly supervised, or in her crate, or in the yard. Which is not exactly ideal for Holly, but we are managing and there have been no further incidents with cats even though at times we have to pick her up to carry her through the kitchen because the cats come out to tease her.

She is not a well-bred dog– by the American Kennel Club standard , she is too long almost everywhere: muzzle, body, legs. Her head is dainty, yet her overall appearance is powerful. Unlike some of her better-bred distant relations, she never snores and rarely farts. Her intense focus, drive, speed and ability to breathe freely could make her seriously competitive in agility, and if she didn’t hate cats so much, I’d be tempted to keep her, start training. But no, she is not to be my dog– she is just here for a little while, until her real life begins again.

On this drizzly night, we are walking down the street to W.S. McIntosh park, a wide expanse of green where Wolf Creek feeds into the Great Miami River. There’s a playground there, and a picnic shelter, basketball and tennis courts. Often it is full of Canada geese. Tonight it is empty — no children or geese or boys shooting hoops. Just me and Holly strolling along. She stops occasionally to see if she can get away with eating goose droppings, but she cannot.

McIntosh Park was named for a Dayton Civil Rights leader, William Sumpter “Mac” McIntosh, who led the first major civil rights protests in Dayton in February 1961, challenging segregation long before the movement gained national attention. When negotiation failed, he encouraged nonviolent methods to fight for the employment rights for minorities at local department stores, supermarkets and other businesses, organizing picketing, occupation and boycotts when necessary.

In March of 1974,  “Mac” McIntosh was shot point blank trying to stop the robbery of a jewelry store, across the river from this park, half a mile away, downtown. He was simply walking down Main Street when two young black men ran out of the store with bags of jewelry. He raised his hands and told the boys to stop. One of them did, but the other shot Mr. McIntosh in the heart.

Later that night, Derek Farmer, 16 and his nephew, Calvin Farmer, 18 were apprehended by police at a Dayton housing project. The younger boy dropped the bag of stolen jewelry and money when he raised his hands to surrender. But Calvin Farmer opened fire, killing Dayton Police Sgt. William K. Mortimer.

Though only 16, Derek Farmer had an extensive juvenile record for car theft and armed robbery. He was convicted of two counts of  murders for the deaths of  Mr. McIntosh and Sgt. Mortimer and the jury recommended the death penalty, even though Derek Farmer never pulled a trigger. The judge disagreed and Derek Farmer was sentenced in 1975 to life in prison for murdering Mr. McIntosh, 15 years to life for murdering Sgt. Mortimer and 5 to 25 years for the armed robbery.

The jury was persuaded by Calvin Farmer’s defense attorneys that a similar-looking relative had killed W.S. McIntosh, even though the same jury did convict him of murdering Sgt. Mortimer. Convicted of just a single count of murder,  Calvin Farmer was sentenced to life in prison, but  served only an eight-year minimum sentence before being paroled in 1983.

While in prison, Derek Farmer earned his high school diploma and a college degree. He began a letter writing campaign that helped to bring about reform to a prison system plagued with racial tension, poor health care and substandard living conditions. Those conditions were acknowledged to be the worst at Lucasville, where Derek Farmer was incarcerated for 14 years.

After serving 18 years of his multiple sentences, he was paroled in 1993 and admitted to the Law School at Akron University.  He clerked for District Court Judge Walter Rice. He had to seek dispensation from the Ohio State Supreme Court, who allowed Farmer to take sit the bar exam because of his age (16) at the time of the murders and that he had fired no shots in the commission of the murders, in addition to the prison reforms he sought and his demonstration of true remorse. He passed the bar in 1999, and has had a checkered career as attorney, having been set down for probation at least once.

It’s hard to know what to think about W.S. McIntosh and the Farmer boys. Clearly, Mr. McIntosh must have thought that he could persuade them to do the right thing.  He must have believed that they would see the error of their ways. He pleaded with them to abandon the robbery, and died for his trouble. And what of Derek Farmer’s redemption? If life were scripted by Hollywood, the grown-up Farmer would be played by Laurence Fishburne and he’d be the kind of Noble Attorney, active in civil rights and the defense of the unjustly accused.

But this isn’t Hollywood. This is life, and Derek Farmer, like all of us, has feet of clay. I don’t know if he’s a good attorney or a terrible one, though having one’s license  to practice law stripped for a year because you are accused of having misappropriated clients’ fees might be a bellwether of some sort. On the other hand, there was all of that business with prison reform. We can only guess what W.S. McIntosh might have thought of Derek Farmer’s ability to turn his life around. We can say that Derek Farmer’s redemption has not been celebrated by many, and remains an issue for some officers on the Dayton Police Department.

The dog and I turn west along Wolf Creek. Holly is racing back and forth on the end of her flexi-lead, always slowing before she reaches its limit. She frolics in the drizzle, enthusiastic to be out on a walk. I don’t mean to be glib in comparing the second chance given to a dog to that of a second chance given to a man, but the parallels are striking. Derek Farmer didn’t actually pull the trigger that killed those two men. He was involved in the commission of the crime, and in our judicial system that makes him culpable. He was very young, and yet the jury recommended that he be sentenced to die.

Holly, too, faced a death sentence. I don’t believe for a minute that this dog ever bit a human being.  Never once has she so much as curled a lip at any of us, not even when I was wresting her from her prize, the terrified cat.  But I can see that someone might have been intimidated by her, someone might have thought that she was going to bite them eventually. Even though she was very young, someone at the shelter recommended that she die.

Up the street our house looks warm and inviting, each window lit up on this rainy night. My husband will be concerned that we were out so long. Holly turns to look back at me a moment as she bounds up the steps to the front door.  This is home, for now. This is her redemption.