A Mother's Tortured Journey Toward the Truth
Searching for Answers To a Painful Question

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008

HUNTSVILLE, Tex. -- Gilreatha Stoltzfus fussed with the bandanna in her hair while she zigzagged across a patch of dried grass. Fidgety, annoyed, towing her cluttered purse over her left shoulder as if it were a backpack, the hard-featured woman of 43 stopped suddenly and slithered her fingers through the chain-link fence of the visitors' area at Huntsville Unit, a maximum-security prison featuring 30-foot red-brick walls, where she had come to see her son. "Fuzzy, I need the keys to the car," she muttered to her husband in a tired rasp. "I left somethin' in there. "Fuzzy!" The ruckus made an armed guard motion for someone to control the woman. Sitting on a wooden picnic table in the prison yard 15 yards away, Carlton Dotson looked up. "Is Mom coming in today?" he asked his stepfather. "I don't think so," Elmer Stoltzfus said quietly, looking at the ground. "Mom's havin' a hard time getting herself together today. Maybe tomorrow, Carlton."

She keeps saying she will be there for her son.

Five years ago this month, Dotson shot Patrick Dennehy, his teammate on the Baylor University men's basketball team, the first known case of a player killing a teammate in the history of U.S. intercollegiate athletics. Dennehy's disappearance, Dotson's panicked drive home to Maryland, his confession to police and the subsequent discovery of Dennehy's body near a gravel pit just three miles from the Baylor campus in Waco, Tex., generated headlines across the country in the summer of 2003. The sordid tale was held up as an example of the moral free fall of big-time college sports in the United States.

This spring, Baylor returned to the NCAA men's basketball tournament for the first time since Dennehy's murder. As the school celebrated that milestone, Gilreatha Stoltzfus stood outside the Huntsville prison, wrestling with the internal demons that have confounded her life, unable to collect herself enough to walk inside to visit her son.

Heartsick that she persuaded Dotson to plead guilty to murder three years ago -- a deal that resulted in a 35-year prison sentence -- Gilreatha has a near manic obsession with visiting the site of the killing, having convinced herself that only then will she be able to square the stories her son has told her with what really happened.

She got her Amish-reared husband from Pennsylvania Dutch country to sell his home and antiques, buy a sputtering RV and move to East Texas last year. They live in poverty on a charitable man's front lawn in the town of Conroe, about 30 miles south of the prison, where she works scrubbing the impenetrable ring around the pots used to boil refried beans at a Taco Cabana fast-food restaurant.

She clings to the notion that Dotson, who showed signs of mental instability before and after the murder, should not be among the general prison population, and that he was done wrong by his attorneys, Baylor University and the college town of Waco, which had every reason to want the scandal surrounding the killing to go away.

"I've never been this busted in my life," said Gilreatha, whom people call Gail. "Anyone else would have turned around and went home. But I can't let him down again. I let him down once. I gave birth to this boy. That's the only thing that keeps me hanging."

The mother's guilt is layered, beginning with the pregnant girl of 16 from the tiny Maryland Eastern Shore community of Hurlock, who gave up her baby so that her grandmother could raise him and the girl could work and finish high school. The same addictions that made Gilreatha an apparition in Carlton's life -- here one day and then gone for months, sometimes years -- now gnaw at her daily.

Closure only will come in Waco. "I've been trying to put this off for . . . years," Gilreatha said. "I couldn't do it. But now I can't go home until I see it."

* * *

'It Had to Happen'

Unshackled, Carlton Dotson ambled slowly toward a group of picnic tables where inmates are allowed weekend visits with family and friends. The long, loping strides made through the gravel belonged to a 6-foot-7 former player, who in 1999 led North Dorchester High School to the Maryland 1A state basketball championship before ending up on scholarship at a Big 12 school in Texas.

His basketball now is played inside "Walls Unit," the nickname for the Huntsville prison and its ominous, towering brick walls. Seven Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisons dot the landscape in and around this East Texas town of about 35,000, about 75 minutes north of Houston. Noprison in the nation has performed more executions than the one that takes up two blocks downtown; 40 prisoners were put to death at the facility in 2000 alone.

Dotson tugged down on the waist of his white prison jumpsuit, sat on the wooden bench and, in his first interview since his 2005 sentencing -- the most extended public comments since the killing -- tried to explain why he shot his friend and teammate twice in the head.

"Have you ever felt fear?" Dotson said. "Not the fear when someone is waiting after school for you to fight. I mean, real fear?"

Other inmates were engrossed in conversations with visitors at tables nearby, but Dotson largely ignored them as he went back to the beginning of the story, back to when he and Dennehy first met in August 2002. Dave Bliss, Baylor's basketball coach, brought the two rangy, 21-year-old transfers to Waco that summer to help fix a slumping basketball program.

Dotson began the 2002-03 season as a key player, but his playing time decreased dramatically as the season wore on. After he tested positive for marijuana in the spring of 2003, Bliss informed him he would not be returning to the team, in effect rescinding his scholarship.

Dotson's estranged wife at the time, Melissa Kethley, had left Waco and returned home, so he asked Dennehy whether he could stay at Dennehy's apartment until he found another school where he could play basketball.

He and Dennehy purchased two pistols and a rifle because they felt some teammates were out to get them, Dotson said. He said he also believed Dennehy was using crystal methamphetamine in addition to marijuana -- a combination that can lead to aggressive and psychotic behavior. (One of Dotson's attorneys, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was evidence to suggest both players were using meth-laced marijuana.)

It was during this time, Dotson said, that he began to distrust his teammate. Nearly a week before the murder, somewhere between five and eight days, Dotson recalled, Dennehy pointed a gun at him. He said he was unsure if his friend was joking.

As he recounted what took place, Dotson frequently lowered his voice to a whisper -- often interrupting his comments by saying, "I already told you too much." He frequently looked over his shoulder, as if fearful someone would overhear the conversation, yet he spoke with an eerie certainty of his version of the events.

"The day it happened, Patrick said, 'Hey, let's go get some weed,' " Dotson said, recalling that Dennehy pulled up to their apartment in his 1996 dark blue Chevrolet Tahoe sport-utility vehicle. "Suddenly he takes all these turns. I don't know where we are. Then, while he's driving with his right hand, he points a gun at me with his left hand, like this," he said, mimicking a person positioning a pistol with his left hand underneath his right arm, which held the steering wheel.

They pulled off the road and made their way toward the gravel pit to shoot at some targets. Dennehy, Dotson said, was a good five to seven feet behind him as they walked into a clearing near a creek. They were both high on marijuana.

Dennehy fired two or three shots behind him, Dotson said, then he heard his teammate reload his pistol. That's when he panicked, he said. The next shot, he believed, was meant for him.

Dotson said he turned and fired a 9mm handgun, shooting his teammate in the head at close range, from maybe two to three feet. But Dennehy's 6-10, 230-pound frame would not go down. Dotson said he was making disturbing noises.

So he fired again.

"It was like slow motion," he said. "And he still had the gun in his hand."

"It had to happen," Dotson added solemnly. "That's the only thing I could think of when you ask if I have a regret about that day. It had to happen. My only regret is getting in the car. I wished I hadn't gotten in the car that day. I wish I'd said no."

Prosecutors were determined to sink Dotson's self-defense claim with evidence that the second shot was fired from behind Dennehy's ear -- proof, they contended, of premeditated intent.

"They don't want to hear what really happened," Dotson said.

Afterward, he tried to drag Dennehy by his pant legs out of the open area and toward the creek. But Dennehy's shoes came off in his hands before he pulled him into the tall grass and out of view. He said he got the car keys out of Dennehy's pocket because he knew that was the only way he could get back to Waco. That afternoon, he would set out in the car on a panicked, 1,500-mile trip back home to the Eastern Shore, tossing the murder weapon in a lake along the way.

"I could understand tampering with evidence," Dotson said. "I moved the body. I got the car cleaned. I didn't call the police right away. I didn't stay at the scene of the crime. I realized I was trying to invent an alibi. And then I just started panicking. But I didn't plan this. It had to happen.

"I just don't want to be looked at as a bad guy. That's what everybody thinks I am, but that's not who I am."

The man called "an instrument of the devil" by Dennehy's stepfather at his sentencing hearing, who showed no emotion as he accepted the plea, said he now realizes the pain he caused.

"I'm starting to understand what his family meant to him, how his family loved him and cared about him," Dotson said. "This is the first time I've really known what family means."

* * *

'When We Get to Waco'

Dotson's mother has spent much of the past three years convinced that her son's lead attorney had no interest in proceeding to trial because of the further avalanche of negative publicity it would bring Waco and Baylor University.

In hindsight, she said, she never would have influenced Dotson to plead guilty; he must serve at least half his sentence under Texas law. "At the time I thought I was doing the right thing," Gilreatha said. "Now I realize he shouldn't be in a regular prison."

She has spent more than 18 months trying futilely to get someone to listen to the conspiracies eating away at her gut: that one of her son's attorneys was stunned the case didn't proceed to trial; that Dotson's mental state warrants psychiatric care, not imprisonment in Huntsville; and that her son is behind bars because Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university, wanted to cover up the truth, which may have included a drug-dealing network within the basketball team. Why else, she asked, would Dotson's lead attorney have two Baylor pre-law interns taking notes during conversations between Dotson and his legal representative?

"You'll see when we get to Waco," Gilreatha said.

Before the sentencing, part of the prosecution's report to District Judge Ralph Strother included FBI documents detailing Dotson's confession, in which he said "a higher power told him to talk to the FBI" and where to find Dennehy's body. Dotson told FBI agents that he thought people were trying to kill him because "he is Jesus, the son of God."

After initially being declared incompetent to stand trial, he was deemed competent by a state hospital psychologist who found his claim of hearing voices "suspect." But the psychiatrist also concluded that Dotson must continue taking anti-psychotic medication.

Dotson, now 26, sought mental-health care late last year and had to be transferred from Huntsville to Rusk, Tex., where he was housed at Skyview Unit, a psychiatric facility, from Nov. 27, 2007, until Feb. 29, 2008.

Five years after the killing, his two court-appointed defense attorneys believe he received fair representation.

"I think that Carlton was in a paranoid state," said Russ Hunt Sr., who recommended Dotson plea to the court. "He thought there was a group of people trying to kill him. And he thought Dennehy had joined those people. He figured, 'I better eliminate him.' "

Under Texas law, differing states of paranoia do not meet the threshold for insanity defenses. "Being paranoid does not make you insane for criminal purposes," Hunt said.

The recent campus shootings by deranged gunmen at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois added urgency to Gilreatha's decision to move to Texas from Pennsylvania, she said. She saw disturbing echoes of her son and his time at Baylor in what took place at the two schools.

"I want to get a law passed, where a college has to act like a guardian when they see a problem with a student like Carlton," she said. "If they didn't call the family, then they should have notified someone and had him see a professional. How many more kids are going to die because none of the schools know how to deal with this?"

Baylor claimed Dotson had seen a therapist while enrolled, but only attended two sessions.

Gilreatha bit her lip and shook her head. "I think back to when I had Carlton. If I ever knew I would bring a child into the world that could be in prison for killing another person, I would have . . ."

* * *

'It's Killing Her'

As a teenager, Gilreatha Waters got out of North Dorchester High School in Hurlock every day at 3 p.m. and by 4 p.m. had started her shift at the ConAgra chicken plant, where she cut wings and thighs and made boneless breasts until midnight. She usually fell asleep in school the next day from the exhaustion of a full-time job.

She never met her father, Nathaniel Thomas Jones, seeing him for the first time in a casket when she was 13. He died at age 42 from sickle cell anemia in back seat of his Cadillac Coupe de Ville somewhere in California. She copes with the blood disorder herself.

She married her first husband, a Haitian national, who gave her three sons. But he was violently abusive, Gilreatha said. He left her with deep, crisscrossing scars on her back, still visible today, after he cut the cord from the television and whipped her because he thought she had been with another man.

Gilreatha has five children -- four boys and one girl -- from three different men. She had a brief marriage to another man annulled before she met Elmer, who often weeps for his wife's past as she speaks and finishes much of her life story as if he lived it with her, including the night she said she conceived Carlton in September 1981, when she was 16.

Carlton was born nine months after Gilreatha and three teenage friends, all between 16 and 17 years old, finished a night of bowling in Eastern Maryland -- a night that led to an unplanned pregnancy. "I don't want Carlton to think that's why I didn't raise him," she said.

She began drinking heavily as an adult, and by age 24, Gilreatha said, alcohol had escalated to heroin and then cocaine. She said she broke her addictions five years ago.

"I hated the smell of hard alcohol, but it was the only thing that killed the pain so I could go through the day," she said. "I'm a stuffer. I stuff everything I'm feeling."

In Hurlock, Mildred Waters, Gilreatha's grandmother and the woman who raised Carlton, still worries for Gilreatha. One of her fears is that she has again revived hope for Carlton, hope that Gilreatha and her demons have yet to deliver.

"She got him thinkin' things are looking good and I don't know if that's a good idea," Waters said. "Gilreatha made a whole lot of promises to him that she didn't keep."

Elmer and Gilreatha met at an antiques show in Chestertown, Md., soon after Dotson's arrest -- a white, Amish man from Pennsylvania Dutch country, who swore off his strict religious and cultural upbringing years ago, and a black woman from a country hamlet in Eastern Maryland.

After some conversation, Elmer asked Gilreatha whether she would take a paid job arranging antiques at his home. "Will you meet me here next week and help me clean up my place?"

She agreed, brought her clothes and moved in with Elmer for a week.

"That was it," he said, as an instrumental of the Carpenters' rendition of "Close to You" played in the background of the Dairy Palace in Canton, Tex.

"We need to open this thing up because it's killing her," Elmer said. "With his mental state, we don't want him out. But the goal is to get him out of a regular prison."

They long ago ran out of cash. They have no health insurance. Among the 11 medications Gilreatha said she takes are the anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants Zoloft, Xanax and Trazadone. They recently spent $400 on prescription drugs, which "flat busted us," Elmer said.

They gave up a home, and the antiques they sold for income in Pennsylvania Amish country nearly a year ago, paying off the mortgage and debts and using the remaining cash to purchase an RV with a broken water pump.

"I told her, 'So what if this kills us?' " Elmer said. " 'Right now we're not living anyhow.' "

* * *

'Somethin' Bad'

Gilreatha gazed vacantly past the tall grass, the tumbleweed and the creek bed, beyond the Texas prairie, maybe 20 yards from where her son took another man's life. She had finally made it back to Waco.

She pulled an orange bandanna tightly across her hair, and her satin gold jacket and yellow capri pants provided the only splashes of color amid the leaden mid-March sky and the grass just emerging from its winter dormancy.

Maybe 500 yards off the main road, where the tracks from four-wheel drive vehicles led the way through the thicket, she knelt down not far from the gravel pit, clasped her hands and wept.

"I could understand bein' upset, bein' angry," she said. "But there's no way in the world you shoot somebody. Make me sick the way I feel right now. Somethin' got into Carlton's mind, somethin' bad."

For the better part of five years, she was convinced her son was telling her the truth about what happened that day, that Dotson had to shoot Dennehy to prevent his own death. Conspiracies tumbled about in her brain and she internalized the guilt that comes from a mother telling her son to accept a plea bargain that would result in a 35-year prison sentence.

Baylor must be behind it, she thought. "Take this school out of here and what you got? Nothin'. A ghost town."

But the more she walked near the creek bed, to the spot where Patrick Dennehy's body was found, the more Gilreatha had doubts.

"This isn't how Carlton told us it went down," she said to Elmer, who nodded. "Next time I see him he better answer me some questions about what really happened that day. 'Cause none of this looks the same from what he told us."

Carlton Dotson's mother suddenly spun around, seething. Her son had put her through hell for more than four years, and she came to a realization: He wasn't well in the head, and hadn't been for a long time. Dotson's body was here that day, but his mind wasn't.

"You know what I think? I think Carlton lured him out here. I bet Carlton brought that boy out here to kill him."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company