Atonement

Autumn has always been my favorite time of the year: the crisp air, the vibrant colors, the beginning of school. To me, this is the season when the new year truly begins.

In Judaism, we celebrate our new year in the autumn with Rosh Hashana, followed ten days later with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The ten days between the two holy days are called t’shuvah, the days of repentance. It is a time for reflection and resolutions when necessary. It is a time to ask for and to offer forgiveness. At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, God makes the final judgement and seals the Book of Life, hopefully with your name written within its pages, granting forgiveness.

While I have never been truly religious, I am deeply spiritual. I do find the prayers and psalms of synagogue peaceful, beautiful, and full of sentimental memories from my childhood, yet I have always preferred one on one time in nature more helpful in providing clarity or allowing me to find a new path, previously unseen.

However, over the last six years, since the fire and subsequent issues that arose from the ashes, my path has been tumultuous, at best.

I have done my best to maintain my humor, my courage and strength, my integrity, my grace, my humanity, my sanity, and myself.

Some days were harder than others.  Some days I depended on others.  Many days I cried, wanting to give up.  Many days, I did give up.

There were a plethora of times when I faked it and even more when I maked it. I have shed so many tears while gaining so much weight, both figuratively and literally.  I have given up so many pieces of myself while fighting for every ounce of my being.

I begged silently for help, pleading aloud, screaming to no-one, hoping everyone would hear.

I deceitfully kept my most horrific thoughts about my reality to myself, afraid of unsolicited judgement that would undoubtedly break me beyond repair.

I provided detailed lists of how I might survive to only a few trusted souls, hoping someone, anyone would see that I was dying in the unforgiving reality that was forced upon me, handcuffing me into submission.

I have always found writing to be cathartic, and while I shared some of my story with you throughout the past six years, much has been intentionally kept private, known only to those whom I trust implicitly.

There has been talk of a potential tell-all book and jokes about a Lifetime movie, staring Demi Moore as me. I’m not sure that will ever come to fruition.  I’m not sure that I want it to.

But I do want to share the end of this chapter with you, so that I can move on, trusting that I was honest, if nothing else:

Dealing with the Devil: April 3, 2017

There’s an old saying in the legal world that I am all too familiar with now: You can indict a ham sandwich.

That phrase has been repeated to me by several attorneys over the last 5 years when everyone scratches their head in utter confusion and total disbelief at my reality. The point of the cliché is to show that our criminal justice system is severely lacking in actual justice.

Beyond a reasonable doubt is not something a prosecutor must prove before bringing a case to the grand jury, asking for an indictment. The grand jury process is merely a way for the prosecutor to ask whether or not there’s a chance, no matter how unreasonable, that the suspect possibly committed the crime in question.

The defense is not generally present during the hearing and the prosecutor selects what evidence he wants to present. Exculpatory evidence, evidence that casts doubt on the prosecutor’s case, must also be presented, if the prosecutor took the time to properly investigate its existence.

The grand jury may ask questions, often having no background or basic knowledge of the crime in question. They then have the task of handing down an indictment or not. If an indictment is handed down, the suspect is charged, and the process towards a trial begins.

Historically, prosecutors held themselves to a high standard, crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s to make sure a complete and thorough investigation took place before bringing the case to the grand jury. Not wanting to indict an innocent person was a high and moral standard.

However, in recent years, a more laissez faire attitude has become the norm and many prosecutors leave the decision making up to the grand jury, with a shrug of the shoulders, “Well, it was enough to get an indictment from the grand jury,” shirking all personal responsibility. It’s easy to understand, in today’s hyper-impulsive and judgmental media frenzy, how easily a jury can be persuaded. Hence why you can indict a ham sandwich. The whole process is quite unkosher.

May 20, 2011 was absolutely the most horrific day in my life.

It began like any other Friday morning, with me getting ready to host a weekly Mommy and Me. However, minutes before my friends and their children arrived, I heard an explosion and I grabbed Jordyn and Max, and ran like hell, stopping only when safely on my neighbor’s front yard to call 911 from my cell phone. From her kitchen, moments later, I witnessed the flames, already pouring out of our attic.

The entire day is on a constant loop in my nightmares as it plays out in slow motion: The boom, the flash of heat, the carpet flying back, smoke detectors blaring, Jordyn running towards me, screaming in fear.  Where’s the phone? I need to call 911.  Grab your cell on the dining room table.  Grab the kids. Run. Run! RUUUUUUN!!!!!!

The hours, days, weeks, and months that followed were no less harrowing, beginning with that night, when Brian and I met with the detectives who were investigating the fire. We both voluntarily went to the station to answer questions and help out as best as we could.  After 2 hours of questioning Brian about the layout and contents of our basement, I was called in for questioning. For 3 hours I answered questions, hardly having anything to do with the events of the day. By the end, I was silently wondering what the hell was going on and if I needed an attorney.

The statements Brian and I signed are mere fractions of the actual conversation/interrogation that took place.

My fear was then realized when the detectives brought Brian back in to tell him, “Your wife did this.  See if you can get her to confess.”  After that, we immediately “lawyered up.”

That was the exact moment I stopped trusting the police to serve and protect. That was also the only day, to our knowledge, the detective stepped foot in our home to investigate anything.

Over the next few weeks, as my belly grew full with Kennedy, we tried to deal with insurance and get to the bottom of what happened:

We learned that immediately after the fire, the gas company had dug up our entire street and had found 2 gas leaks on our neighbor’s lines, one of whom had been complaining to them about the smell of natural gas for over a year.

My phone records did not show the call to 911, though the police had a record of me calling in the explosion. We later learned that 911 calls do not appear on a regular cellular statement and must be subpoenaed.

Our attorney hired a fire investigator and his findings were that the cause and origin could not be determined based on the lack of investigation from the detective. Basic protocol was ignored and experts were not called in to rule out possible causes. He hadn’t even obtained a record from the gas company. We examined pictures from the aftermath and were left with more questions about the detective’s lack of investigation and common sense.

Insurance was less than helpful and by August, it was clear that they were no longer even attempting to itemize our loss, or handle our claim.  Other than placing us in an apartment, they were of no assistance and in September we were interviewed in an Evaluation Under Oath and waited some more.

In December, seven months after the fire, the insurance company offered Brian a deal: If I confess to arson, they will cover the claim for Brian and the kids. We had until January to decide, but we immediately refused. Our claim was denied, based on the falsehood that insurance believed I never made the 911 call, thereby committing insurance fraud.

We filed a complaint with the insurance commissioner and hired a civil attorney to assist us in a lawsuit against insurance.

Approximately three weeks after we filed suit, which was almost a year after the fire, I was indicted for second degree, aggravated arson.

The timing of the indictment, in comparison to the law suit is beyond suspicious, and due to the indictment, the civil suit was postponed, pending the outcome of the criminal case.

The prosecutor offered a plea at the time, which stayed on the table for the past 5 years: 3rd degree arson, non-custodial, mandatory counseling.  In the legal world, that’s known as a sweetheart deal, and it is, if you are guilty.

If I took that deal it would mean freedom from jail, yet it would also mean that I would be a convicted felon not to mention that it could allow insurance to pursue a case against me for fraud. No deal.

I was subsequently arraigned, where upon I posted bail, and have been enjoying the presumption of innocence ever since; another legal cliché that I could do without.

Over the next 5 years, my case switched judges 5 times, went through at least 7 prosecutors, and a trial date has been set and postponed no less than 4 times.

And that brings us to today, April 3, 2017.

Today, I will state under oath, that I started that fire, even though I did not.

I am an innocent victim yet I will knowingly and purposefully make this statement in order to clear my name of a crime I didn’t commit.

Today, I am making a deal with the devil.

After becoming the oldest case on the docket, for a myriad of reasons, the court has decided that my case needs to go away. So a new deal was brokered:

The term in New Jersey is PTI, pre-trial-intervention.  The basic deal is that I plea to the crime and in 18 months, with good behavior, the case is dismissed and I can file to have the record expunged, as though it never happened. In addition to this, insurance will also be signing off on this deal, so that they cannot pursue me, and we can never recoup our loss.

This is the Keyser Söze of all deals.

So why am I telling you this if it can all just go away?

I am telling you this because, while I am eager to end this unimaginable nightmare, I honestly believe that it is my civic duty to let you know how unjust our system is. This is why innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit. This is how the system is rigged to protect big business.

This is what I honestly believe happened:

I think the detective was lazy and never did his job thoroughly. He then told the insurance company that I did it and they tooled us around for a while wondering when the police would arrest me. Insurance waited as long as they could, also never completing a thorough investigation, and wrongfully denied our claim.

Once we sued them, they put pressure on the police to indict, claiming to be the innocent victim of fraud, knowing that once I was indicted they would be free and clear to never pay a dime to us because all of our finances and attention were now turned towards my defense. And they were right.

If I do not accept this deal, I am faced with the conundrum of going to trial and any remaining finances will be used to defend me. If I am convicted, I stand to receive a harsher sentence and longer jail time, after not accepting this deal, and appeals can cost two to three times the initial trial.

Even if we win at trial, all of our finances would be depleted and there is no way we could ever afford to sue insurance, not to mention the additional years it would take to get through civil court, plus longer to see any money, should we win against them.

The irony is that as a middle class white woman, I am the least likely to get convicted, a privilege and statistic I am well aware of and do not take for granted.

I am also well aware that we can pursue my defense and prepare for trial, knowing that a better deal or even a complete dismissal will likely occur as the trial date nears. However, by that point, we will have used up our savings and retirement and will again, be left with nothing to pursue insurance or rebuild our life with…

But it’s not really just about money. Family has always been the single most important aspect of our lives.

We do our best to shield our children from our living hell by providing them with a sense of normalcy, routine, and consistency in their daily lives. We try not to discuss the details of my case when little ears can hear, but sometimes it’s just not possible.

Last week, Jordyn overheard a conversation and as I was tucking her into bed she asked me, “Momma? Is this going to be done soon?  Can you really just be done without having a trial or going to jail?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly, “Our attorneys are trying to find out all of the rules on the new deal to see if it’s something we can agree to, but it might mean that I have to lie and say that I did something that I didn’t do.”

“But if you won’t go to jail, then isn’t it ok to lie this one time?”

“Well, that is something I need to consider.  But how do you feel when I think that you did something wrong, even though you know you didn’t?”

“Not good. Like when I get blamed for a mess in the playroom but I didn’t make it.”

“Exactly. I didn’t do this, but I’ll have to say that it was somehow my fault.”

“Momma? I won’t tell anyone if you have to lie. I just don’t want you to go to jail. Who would take care of us?”

The tears streamed down her cheeks, and that’s when my decision was solidified…

The risk of not accepting this injustice is just too great.

So today, I am accepting a deal with the devil. God forgive me.

Please understand that the decision I made was what was best for my family.  However, it was not what was best for me.  I have been grappling with the dishonesty for several months, and it is an immense burden to carry.

I have blamed others for their perceived weakness in not continuing to fight by my side for what is right, feeling as though they rolled over, allowing the bully to win. I have been so angry that there were days when I frightened even myself, not knowing if I could ever accept such undue punishment: monthly check-ins with my probation officer, a mandated psychological evaluation to ensure that I am not a pyromaniac, the inability to go back to teaching for a minimum of 2 years, until my probation ends and my record is expunged.

I have felt betrayed by the silence of those who know or learn of my situation, not knowing how to respond, leaving me lonely, surrounded by a village seemingly filled with strangers.  I shook my fists at those who offered nothing more than unanswered prayers….

I have done a lot of soul-searching these last six years, none more-so than the last six months.  I have lost faith, friends, trust in a system I once believed to be just, and I came very close to losing myself.

But all of that ends now.

This week, during these holy days of reflection and repentance, I am learning acceptance and slowly moving forward, one moment, one step, one day at a time.  Today, as the sun sets and the holy day of atonement begins, I am recognizing those who stood by my side with gratitude and forgiving those who could not, would not, or did not.

But most of all, today I am writing my own name in the book of life because today I forgive myself, and that is all the forgiveness I need.

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