All Things Crime Blog is pleased to post this excerpt from Nicholas Frank’s book, Destructive Justice, in which he tells the story of how his 17-year-old son, Nathan, received several life sentences for an armed robbery in which no one was injured.
by Nicholas Frank
He Should Have Been With Me
“That’s enough for one day,” I said to myself as I put up my tools. I hung the loppers and hedge clippers on nails that stuck out from a stud in the garage, put my shovel back with the others against the wall near the front and tossed my channel locks into the toolbox. Then I returned to the backyard to empty the cut grass from the mower bag into the yard waste cart, rolled the mower into the garage and kicked off my boots before going into the house. Once inside, I walked past the laundry room, through the dining room, my socks kind of sliding on the wood floor, and stepped into the kitchen to grab a beer from the “fridge.” I wasn’t really thinking about anything, except the work I had left undone and where I would start next weekend.
With a cold beer in hand, I went through the sliding glass door between the kitchen and the TV room and into the backyard again. I settled into one of the molded resin chairs by the pool, took a long, deep breath and just sorted floated into that state a person gets to after a good day’s work in the sun. I was looking at the pool and the row of shrubs that stretched along the back edge of our property while listening to the neighbor’s dog bark. Someone else’s mower was still going. All in all, it was quiet and peaceful there in Cliffview, our gated neighborhood in the high desert area of Southern California.
I rubbed my brow and my eyes for a while. I looked over at the basketball hoop that we set at the far edge of where the side driveway turned to patio, and then to lawn. My thoughts drifted then to my son Nathan. Half a smile crossed my face as I recalled playing some one-on-one with him. I remembered, too, how he and his brothers, Patrick and Darrick, grumbled and moaned as they worked alongside me in the yard: fixing sprinklers, digging trenches and planting trees and shrubs. The smile faded a little, though, when I thought about the workout routine I set up for him. In addition to push-ups, sit-ups, running and stretching, it included one-half hour a day of shooting hoops. I was trying to help him break a bad habit of getting high by establishing good habits of exercise. Then I stopped smiling altogether. Worry replaced memories. “Where the hell is he?”
It was February in 2003. Months had passed since Maddie or I had seen or heard from our second oldest.
Nathan should have been preparing to graduate from high school. He should have been thinking about his future, about college, or the military, or a trade. He should have been planning for a ski trip with friends, or Spring Break, or a summer of traveling here or abroad. He should have been trying to talk me into helping him buy a car, or inviting his friends to the house for pool parties, or complaining about having to do more yard work, or learning how to fix a sprinkler, or spackle a hole in the wall, or lay some sod. He should have been hiking in the mountains and deserts around southern California with his brothers and me, and we should have been talking about the world, our environment, life’s challenges, the Dodgers, football, the Lakers. At seventeen a boy needs his father as he prepares to become a man. In 2003, Nathan should have been with me. I am his father. And I should have been with him.
But Nathan could not be with me. As I was about to discover, Nathan was in the county juvenile jail awaiting trial for crimes that were unthinkable in the context of our family.
* * * * *
“Dad?” From his expression and nervous agitation, it was clear that our oldest son Patrick wanted to talk to me, but didn’t know if he wanted to tell me what he had to.
“Um, Dad, I was talking to Steve-o. He said his brother saw Nathan in Sylmar.”
“He saw Nathan in Sylmar? What does that mean?”
Sylmar is the common name for the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Detention Center. Like many detention facilities, it gets its common name from its location: Sylmar, California, a neighborhood in the northeastern part of the San Fernando Valley. Unfortunately, this was not our first experience with juvenile detention.
Patrick, looking worried, “Steve-o’s brother was in Sylmar for having a gun or something and Nathan was there.”
I called to my wife in the other room, “Maddie, come here, you gotta hear this.”
“What do you mean Steve’s brother saw Nathan’s in Sylmar?”
“Steve-o’s brother was just there and Nathan is there now,” said Patrick. “But I don’t know why he’s there.”
I shot Maddie a look that included confusion and exasperation as I asked the next question. “Why are you hanging around with kids who have guns? This is ridiculous!”
At the time, I did not see the irony in my own questions. My own son was in juvenile hall and I was asking Patrick about what was wrong with someone else’s kids.
I continued, “Patrick, this doesn’t make any sense. Why would Nathan be in Sylmar?” I was more than upset, now.
“I, I don’t know?” My frustration was making him nervous, but I was unable to ask the questions in a better tone.
“Did he talk to Nathan? What did Nathan say?”
“Yea, I don’t know what he said.”
“Pat, you need to call Steve and his brother and ask him what Nathan said. Ask him if he knows what is going on.”
“And ask your other friends if they know anything. Somebody has to know what happened.”
* * * * *
By that point in our lives I was “up to here” with Nathan and his trouble making. He had been getting into trouble of one kind or another for the better part of four years. Somewhere between the ages of 14 and 15, my son – my upper middle class, intelligent, privileged son- walked out our front door, out of our world, and into an antisocial, criminal culture. That terrible decision at 14 led to worse decisions at 15, 16 and finally at 17. Somewhere in that timeline he joined a gang, a group of morons who were affiliated with the CRIPS. The CRIPS had established a presence in our middle class community, as they and other gangs have done in many towns over the past decade.
When Patrick informed us of Nathan’s location, he had already been in juvenile hall for nearly a month. No one contacted me about it – not his attorney, not the sheriffs, not the court, the district attorney, not Nathan’s mother (my ex-wife), or even Nathan. Only random luck brought us the information.
On that day, none of us realized yet how far down a dark path our son and brother had gone, or how serious the situation was for him and the rest of us. I assumed that once again he had done something stupid, something definitely delinquent but not truly criminal that would end up costing me more money, energy and time. But it was different this time.
* * * * *
How different? Nathan was 17 years old when he was arrested. I was 44. He is 28 years old, as I write these lines. I am 55, now. Today, he lives in a maximum-security block of one of California’s state prisons, where he is serving what the courts call a “determinate sentence” of not less than 32 years, followed by two consecutive life sentences. His first opportunity for parole was set for the year 2061. The experts say that prison takes at least 10 years off your life by the age of 50. And that effect applies to those who first arrive in prison as adults, not as a kid. The judge that sentenced him tried to make sure that the day Nathan got his first glimpse at the chance for parole would not come during his expected life span. Obviously, odds are he will not live to see that day. It is a sure bet that I will be dead by then.
What happened? What happened to my boy? Well, that is the question that led me to write down our story for you to read.
* * * * *
As I begin, I must caution you against something to which we are all vulnerable: jumping to conclusions. Doing so puts one on a slippery slope that can lead to misunderstanding. As you will see in the pages that follow, for young people who have run off the rails, the result of adults jumping to conclusions can and does lead to catastrophe.
For example, you would think that anyone who is serving a prison term of 32 years plus two consecutive life sentences with effectively no chance at parole during his lifetime must have killed, raped, or otherwise severely damaged someone else, maybe many people. What other reason would there be for locking a person up with no hope? Hell, even Charles Manson has received more than twelve opportunities at parole during his incarceration. My son’s crimes must have been beyond heinous for him to get less of a chance for parole than Charles Manson. Right?
No, not right. All of his convictions were the result of his participation in a single botched robbery attempt when he was a thoroughly confused seventeen-year old boy under the influence and direction of adult gang members. I will describe the facts of his crimes in more detail later in the book. For now, the reader should know that not one person was harmed in any way, no weapons were discharged and no money was taken during the crime. The entire episode lasted approximately ten to fifteen minutes. When it was over, all of the victims went back to work immediately.
How could the court sentence a kid to such a ruinous term in prison for a botched robbery attempt in which no one was harmed? In pages that follow, I am going to show how it could. And, I am going to show you much more than that.
The fact is prior to running off the rails in epic fashion Nathan was one of the most fun, most sensitive and all around terrific kids you would ever meet. In the span of a few years he went from being that kid to a criminal with a gun. But he is not the only one in this story who ran off the rails.
In various ways, we all did. That includes his parents, other adults in his life and most definitely the various authorities, institutions and systems we have that deal with kids who run into trouble for a period in their lives.
That is my opinion. As I cautioned earlier, however, please do not jump to conclusions. Our story is laid out before you in this book. If you choose to go with me as I retrace the path of our lives that led to Nathan’s current status as a “lifer,” there will be plenty of information to help you form your own opinions about “the system,” us, and my son.
* * * * *
So, here is Nathan’s story. It begins in light. Into a deep darkness it dives. And miraculously, now he finds him now lifting himself back into the light. Somehow, in one of the worst places on earth, Nathan has found the best parts of himself.
What happened to my boy? Much.
Click below to read Nicholas Frank’s Introduction to “Destructive Justice”:
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