Monday, May 19, 2008

Families of two boys -- one slain, one accused -- share grief

Two couples who feel each other's pain are grieving for sons -- one for their slain boy, the other for the youth who will soon be tried for killing him.


Twice a week, Kathy and Manny Hernandez trek to a jail in western Miami-Dade County. They wait in the grim green lobby to go through a metal detector and two sets of locked doors. Then, for just an hour, they talk with their son through a plexiglass divider.

Four years after Michael Hernandez confessed to killing a schoolmate, Jaime Gough, in a bathroom at Southwood Middle School, the Hernandezes know that gates and guards may keep them apart from their only son for the rest of their lives.

Maria and Jorge Gough make a different pilgrimage to visit their son, heading to the cemetery where Jaime is buried. Maria goes almost daily. She has found comfort there, as she and Jorge cope with the grief in their lives.

Michael's trial is set to begin later this month, and as the date nears, each family grieves for the other.

''I've cried for her,'' Maria said of Kathy. ``I have tried to understand the magnitude of her suffering, but I can't because I've never had a child in jail. And she can't understand the magnitude of my suffering because she's never had a child die.

``We are both suffering, just differently.''

Said Kathy:

``I cried all day Mother's Day for both of us. I'm sure she didn't have a good day, just like I didn't have a good day. I know they're good people. Nobody deserves to have their child go to school and not come home.

``We both lost a son that day.''

Not in dispute is the horror that happened the morning of Feb. 3, 2004. Michael, then 14, lured his buddy and classmate Jaime Gough, also 14, into a bathroom stall in the Palmetto Bay school and stabbed him 40 times.

Michael's attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, will argue that the boy was insane at the time and blame the crime on his mental illness. Prosecutors say Michael, 18, knew that what he had done was wrong and should be punished with a life sentence.

For the Goughs, the trial is an epilogue, the final chance to see justice for Jaime. For the Hernandezes, frustrated that their child is being treated like a monster, it is a final chance to save their son.


Maria Gough often goes to the cemetery in the early evening, after the gates are locked. She slips her petite body through a split-rail fence to reach her son's grave.

''I like to come this time of day,'' she said one evening as the setting sun bathed the grave markers in soft light. ``It's not so hot.''

She sat on the grass and patted the bronze marker. She closed her eyes.

The peaceful moment belies the turmoil that Maria and Jorge have gone through since Jaime's death.

Jaime was a gentle boy who loved butterflies and the Marlins, played the violin, drew pictures of angels, and collected Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. His violent death left the Goughs so overwhelmed by anger and grief that they retreated into their own pain and couldn't support each other.

''When you are feeling that kind of grief, you have no patience,'' said Jorge, 45. ``We were both hurting so much, we almost got divorced.''

Maria began to attend support groups for grieving parents. Jorge couldn't understand how surrounding themselves with suffering could possibly help.

They disagreed about when to give Jaime's clothes away. Jorge thought six months was the right time. Maria wanted to keep the clothes and hang on to Jaime's lingering scent.

''I could go in his room and hug his things and smell him,'' said Maria, 44. ``. . . It was my son, right there, and I could hold on to him.''

Even sleep became an issue.

''I didn't sleep for a year -- more -- afterwards,'' Maria said.

Jorge slept through the night. It made Maria crazy. ''She thought I wasn't suffering enough,'' Jorge said.

Jorge considered leaving. But he had to think of Brenda, Jaime's younger sister, who had always been daddy's little girl.

''She looks up to me,'' Jorge said.

His resolve to stay was tested when Maria told him she wanted to visit the bathroom where Jaime died.

''It was the last place my son had life,'' Maria said, beginning to cry. ``I needed to see it.''

Jorge resisted.

'I thought, `My God, Maria, who would want to go to such a place?' '' he said. ``But my pastor told me I should go with her and support her. I had to learn people grieve differently. I didn't know that.''

And so they went. Jorge said his head felt as though it would explode on the walk up to the bathroom. When they got inside and saw the cramped stall where Jaime had fought for his life, they fell into each other's arms and broke down.

''We cried and cried,'' Jorge said.

The moment was a turning point.

''Everything changed after that,'' Jorge said.

He began to go to support groups with Maria, even though he remained skeptical. Eventually, he admitted finding solace and strength through the groups.

When Maria told him she wanted to start her own group with a friend whose son had died, Jorge supported her.

Oasis, a bereavement group for parents who have lost children, marked its first anniversary on May 1. The Goughs held a celebration at their church, The Miami Temple, in Kendall. The service featured testimony from several people helped by the group, including a man whose son had died just a month earlier.

''I don't know what I would have done without Jorge's help to make it this far,'' the man said, his voice cracking.

Jorge and Maria don't know where they would be without having the group to pour their grief into.

''I didn't look for this,'' Maria said. 'God put this in front of me and said, `You can do this, and help others, or you can decide not to.' ''

They want to expand the group in the coming year, spreading Oasis' work to other churches in South Florida. Their other hope is to secure grant money so they can help families pay for funeral costs.

When Jaime died, they had no money for a funeral.

''I was at the funeral home the day after, and they told me how much it would be,'' Jorge recalled, his eyes welling up with tears and his face grimacing as all the pain flashed through his mind. ``I said I don't have that money.''

Their friends, family and the community rallied around them.

Now they want to give back.

''We want to make sure no family faces that moment without knowing there is Oasis to help them,'' Jorge said.


As the Goughs arranged Jaime's funeral, Kathy and Manny Hernandez arranged to visit their son behind bars for the first time.

''At that point, we didn't know if he hated us, if we had done something. . . . Did he think we didn't love him?'' Kathy recalled.

Both parents cried. Michael didn't.

''We were trying to find out the reasons why, why did this happen,'' Manny said.

Michael didn't offer his parents an explanation.

''Initially, he was so out of touch with reality, I think he thought this was a big adventure, being in jail,'' Kathy said. ``He was just fascinated with being handcuffed.''

They have visited him hundreds of times.

''It's awful. To see your child growing up in prison, it's heartbreaking,'' said Kathy, who is horrified that her son could spend life in prison.

''Life in prison for a child means until he dies,'' she said.

They've appealed -- without success -- to juvenile justice groups, mental health advocates and civil rights organizations to help Michael.

The couple have spent the past four years trying to comprehend the horrific thing their son had done, reexamining every moment of the weeks and months before the killing.

Court documents and statements to police by teachers, neighbors and friends confirm his parents' impression that Michael appeared to be a typical, albeit quirky, adolescent. He was a whiz at school and popular with the other kids. The only trouble he had in class was talking too much, pestering girls, not always paying attention.

In October 2003, his parents noticed that Michael was becoming fixated on certain things. Much of it seemed harmless, even normal for his age, like watching horror movies, collecting knives and making sure that his older sister hadn't swiped his CDs.

Others were bizarre, however. He would stare at the grandfather clock at certain times of day. He started to count the items daily in the refrigerator and freezer, and open and close the garage door a specific number of times before going to bed.

Kathy wondered if Michael had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the couple considered taking him to a therapist. They say friends talked them out of it, assuring them that Michael was going through a phase.

If his mind was spiraling out of his control, Michael concealed it from everyone.

Until his arrest on a charge of murder.

His journal and information found on his computer after Jaime's death suggest that Michael was deeply disturbed, and even he sensed it.

The journal included odd to-do lists with tasks running the gamut from ''do homework projects perfectly'' and ''read bible every day'' to ''learn to be a pimp'' and ``switch pens every two weeks.''

He set goals for himself and went back and checked them off, or wrote ''fail'' and ''failure'' in big letters next to the ones he felt he hadn't accomplished.

Then there was the hit list, a list of people he planned to kill -- Jaime Gough; his older sister, Christina; and another classmate, A.D.M, who is expected to testify at the trial. One journal page detailed The Plan, a step-by-step scheme to lure the boys into a bathroom at school and kill them, and then pose their bodies on the toilet.

''I thought that he was very sick and he must have been suffering so much and . . . we didn't know it,'' Kathy said of the couple's reaction to reading the journal after his arrest.

''He had none of the classic signs you read about -- cruelty to animals, setting fires, wetting his bed,'' Kathy said.

His parents would later learn that their son was also cutting himself as punishment for not completing tasks.

It didn't stop there. Michael downloaded descriptions of serial killers, bomb-making manuals and pictures of decapitated bodies.

But Michael sensed that something was wrong, diagnosing himself with mental illness after researching bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsiveness and self-mutilation on the Internet.

A defense psychologist who diagnosed Michael with paranoid schizophrenia said he was insane at the time of the killing. Miami-Dade jail officials recently put him on psychotropic medication designed to quiet the voices in a schizophrenic person's head.

Prosecution experts say Michael has a personality disorder but doesn't meet the criteria for being legally insane.

None of the psychologists who have examined Michael found any evidence that he was ever abused by his parents or anyone else, or that he suffered any trauma, emotional or physical.

On the day of the killing, after first denying any involvement, Michael concocted a strange story about an older kid killing Jaime while Michael helped. Then he admitted he had made that up and confessed.

Michael sounds calm in a taped confession, matter-of-factly admitting he knew that what he had done was wrong and saying he had no regrets.

The lengthy interrogation outraged Michael's parents.

''He should have had one or both of us there,'' Manny said. ``A child is not in a position to waive their rights, a mentally ill child.''

The Hernandezes' only hope now is that Michael is found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a mental health institution for treatment.

''I think Michael deserves a second chance,'' Manny said. ``I think he can be helped. To me, he's a good boy that did something horrific. He's still our child. We still love him.''

He and his wife know that even a not-guilty verdict won't end their nightmare. Michael will still be mentally ill, and he will still need help.

''It's just never going to be over,'' Kathy said. ``This is our life sentence.''


The Hernandezes and the Goughs -- who had met Michael and his parents only once before the incident -- plan to attend the trial. Both couples are steeling themselves for a painful experience.

The Hernandezes are angry that their son wasn't offered some sort of plea deal that would have avoided a trial.

''I don't know what anybody's going to gain from this,'' Kathy Hernandez said. ``To put both families through this, to open all those wounds again, what is that accomplishing?''

The Goughs say they want to let the system do its job. The Miami-Dade School Board agreed to a $1.7 million wrongful-death settlement, but money doesn't equal justice. They've both forgiven Michael, they said. There is no hatred toward him, but they say that for Jaime's sake, he has to pay for what he did.

''We know it will be hard to sit through this,'' Jorge Gough said. ``I don't say I want Michael to die in jail. But he has to pay for what he did. But it is not for me to judge. What happens is up to God and the jury.''

''I don't know who it will be more difficult for, me or her,'' Maria Gough said, referring to Kathy. ``I know that both families are going to suffer a lot.''

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