In 2011, a girl adopted by a family in Skagit County, Washington, died of hypothermia. Two years later, her adoptive parents were tried in court in connection with her death.
The adopted girl came to this family from Ethiopia. The adoptive parents were devoutly religious and had strong convictions about child-rearing.
I attended the trial, and conducted research and interviews in both the U.S. and Ethiopia, but—to be clear—this book is a work of fiction. Certainly there are parallels here to what happened in the real world, but they are only parallels, not reality itself.
My father was a criminal attorney. In his office, case files filled cabinets on all four walls. A few years ago, those files got transferred into boxes, and the boxes got stacked floor-to-ceiling in the room where I wrote novels. Chronologically arranged, and tagged both with dates and the surnames of clients, they formed a bulwark counterpointed by my windows; outdoor light, then, had to run through tunnels constructed of my father's files before illuminating the pages I was working on.
One morning, sitting in an uncushioned Windsor chair while, outside my recessed windows, wind swiveled leaves so that their hidden sides showed, I opened a file and began to read. It was titled WILTON, THERESA, and the first thing I found there was a letter written on November 6, 1955, by a Mrs. James Lovell to the superintendent of Western State Hospital in Steilacoom, Washington, about her sister, Theresa Wilton, who'd been a mental patient at Western State earlier that year but had since returned to her family. Mrs. Lovell's letter offered background: Theresa had four children; Theresa had left her husband, Frank, many times over the years; Theresa had attempted suicide two years earlier; Theresa had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic; Theresa currently had two sons at home, Sean and Marcus, ages seven and nine, she was incapable of caring for. At the moment, Mrs. Lovell said, Theresa was in the throes of mental illness, and firm in her belief that Frank planned to kill her and all their children—planned, even, to kill their son Kenneth, who was serving with the army in Korea.
The next day—I found this in a document entitled State of Washington v. Wilton, Theresa—Theresa Wilton took a .38-caliber revolver out of Frank's suitcase, waited in a bedroom doorway as he came upstairs after breakfast, and shot him in the back. After stumbling downstairs, Frank died, facedown, on his kitchen floor, while Sean and Marcus looked on.
A judge asked my father to represent Theresa Wilton. There were not yet public defenders in Seattle, which in 1955 had no freeway or skyscrapers. My father was twenty-five at that point, and this was his first case. His initial move was to write to the King County Juvenile Court commissioner to say that Sean and Marcus were in jeopardy now that their father was dead and their mother in jail. They were in the care of an aunt, he explained, but that was temporary. Sean and Marcus had to go somewhere permanently— specifically, to the home of an older brother, Lee, in Fairbanks, Alaska, whom my father had contacted and who was not averse to trying. Could the commissioner sign an order to that effect?
Proceedings were cursory. Theresa Wilton was sent back to Western State Hospital because she was incapable of standing trial. She wouldn't eat while being held, so my father went to Western State to see what he could do about it. Shortly afterward, Kenneth Wilton, on furlough from Korea, came to see my father. With the right court order, Kenneth explained, he could request an allotment from the Armed Services for the welfare of his younger brothers. My father sought the court order. Meanwhile, it seemed to him that if Sean and Marcus were going to Fairbanks, they ought to travel at the winter school recess, so he wrote again to the Juvenile Court about them, as well as to a Miss Witzak at the Washington State Department of Public Assistance.
In April of 1956, Mrs. Lovell wrote my father with two questions: where should she send Theresa's 1955 tax return, and why was Theresa's psychiatrist not seeing her more often? My father asked her to send him the tax forms, and went to see the psychiatrist. At about the same time, an attorney in Fairbanks—a Miss Kleeble—wrote my father about a life- insurance policy in which Frank had named Theresa as beneficiary. Alaska Statute 13.10.130, Miss Kleeble pointed out, was entitled PERSON CONVICTED OF MURDER OF DECEDENT NOT TO INHERIT FROM DECEDENT. Since Theresa's trial was pending, there could be a delay, or contention, about payout. My father wrote to R. N. Fenstrom, the regional claim-and-service supervisor for the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, and enclosed Frank's death certificate, but Fenstrom wrote back to say, "A felonious killing by a beneficiary usually disqualifies them from obtaining the proceeds."
"To date," my father reminded Fenstrom, "Mrs. Wilton has been convicted of nothing and is at Western State Hospital until such time as she is determined to be capable of assisting in her defense." In late April, the Lincoln cut a check.
By May, my father had a trust account set up in a Seattle bank. He had the Lincoln's payout of twelve thousand dollars. He had means of support procured for Sean and Marcus, who then moved to Fairbanks. In June, Mrs. Lovell wrote with a new set of concerns—reimbursement of funeral expenses, Social Security, a monthly allowance for Theresa at Western State, insurance money. The stream of correspondence ran all summer, at the end of which things fell apart for Marcus in Fairbanks and he was sent to the Griffin Home for Boys, near Seattle. My father became his guardian.