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A Mother's Tortured Journey Toward the Truth

Searching for Answers To a Painful Question

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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."

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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'


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