“It was ten years before I could cry,” he says gently. “I got her home, I got her buried, and then I pushed it to the back of my mind. I had to. I had to hold it in, otherwise, I would have lost my job.”
His voice is soft and I can tell he is weeping. We are talking on the phone. I’ve never met Charles, but I would trust him with my life. That’s the way it is with loss parents – there’s a remarkable connection.
And when your child has been murdered, it’s a profoundly strong bond.
Charles Erwin is over in Oklahoma, and I’m in Zurich, Switzerland, at my desk. Thousands of miles separate us, yet it’s as if he’s sitting right next to me.
How I wish I could hug this gentle man who’s been to hell and back, and yet remains hopeful, trusting, kind. A Vietnam veteran, a man who brought up his three kids alone following his wife’s mental health breakdown, a man who has lost two of his children.
He’s agreed to be interviewed. He wants to talk about his grief journey following the loss of his sweet daughter, Tammie, who was killed by a serial killer in April 1989 in Palm Springs at just 18 years old.
And also to speak of his son, Michael, who died from a drugs overdose three years ago, aged 50.
“What would you tell your younger self?” I ask, writing as fast as I can to keep up with his words.
We’ve been talking for over an hour, and Charles is opening up. The memories are bubbling up now, his description of what happened, his feelings, the memories over an entire lifetime spent grieving for a daughter whose killer it took 29 years to bring to justice.
He hesitates for a moment, then he answers forcefully: “I don’t suggest anyone push away their pain! You have to get it out! Don’t hold it in. Get grief out!”
He takes a breath: “I had two boys to raise, and I had to work. I had no one to help me, I had no support group, I couldn’t do it in front of the boys, I didn’t have time to grieve. I just had to hold it in…”
Charles tells me how different it is today. Coming from a family that didn’t express emotions, parents who didn’t hug him, from a time when ‘men had to be men’, he had to learn a different way to be.
He now has found connection with others on the internet, through various online forums that he logs into every day. He used to think it wrong to cry; he had no one to talk to at work and once home had to ensure – in as much as he could – that the children had a ‘normal’ upbringing.
I ask him what changed. How did he realize he needed help? How long was it before he sought therapy?
“It was over 10 years,” he admits. “I didn’t do ‘touchy-feely’, that wasn’t how I’d been brought up. But then, it kinda built up.”
He pauses, I can hear him clear his throat. Even after all these years, it’s hard for him to speak openly about emotions. He’s aware that people will read the article, that this interview is very different from opening up in the privacy of a therapist’s room.
Yet it’s precisely his desire to tell his story, and in so doing perhaps help other loss parents, that gives him the strength to continue.
“It was stress. That was it. I was at the point where I was going to have to be admitted to hospital. My anxiety was off the charts. My boss noticed that my work was suffering and she suggested I go see a counselor. She even set up the appointment. I could feel it come up like I was having a heart attack.”
So, after a decade of silent, suppressed grief, Charles went to a doctor. He was told he could say anything in complete confidentiality. This was a revelation. “I was able to bring stuff up… in all that time, I’d not even cried. In the first sessions, all I did was cry. All those emotions… it was overloading my brain.”
What happened to his daughter Tammie now forms part of news items, articles, TV reports. It’s ‘out there’, the killer’s name, the failures in the investigation, the trial, the sentencing.
But that’s not why I’m talking to Charles, I don’t want to write about the killer.
The reason I’ve phoned him is so he can speak his truth as a homicide loss parent. I know from first-hand experience how important it is to do so, without fear of being misquoted or of having our story distorted in this age of clickbait journalism.
We’re so wary, us, the co-victims of homicide. We’re exhausted by police questioning, pre-trial hearings, witness statements, autopsy reports, trials, appeals, a judicial system that often fails us – the list goes on.
We are re-traumatized by events after the death of our child, again and again, year upon year. And in that whirlpool of nightmarish reliving of our child’s last moments, we also have the media to contend with, their reporting, or often, misreporting.
We’re worn out.
It’s a tough one, telling your story as a homicide loss parent. That’s because, even we as we do so, we know that people may feel alienated on hearing about what happened to our children, or worse, may want to feast on our suffering like vultures.
We’re often fearful of being exposed or of having our grief belittled as a result of journalists having been intrusive and disrespectful in the past. It’s an act of faith, to speak publicly with the ensuing erosion of privacy that inevitably follows at a time when we are at our most vulnerable.
“The counsellor was my saviour,” Charles adds by way of explanation. “She got me to open up. She said it was OK to cry. Men don’t cry – I thought that for a long time. But men DO cry, they have to. Otherwise, it will tear you up.”
As Charles learned to trust that it was all right for him to express his emotions, he began to work through his grief. “It’s not the way I was brought up but she said I had to get it off my chest. I was able to spill my guts, to talk about Tammie, about how I didn’t have enough money to pay for the funeral. I had to fly to California to identify Tammie… that was the worse thing I’ve ever had to do.”
He goes quiet for a moment and then says, “It shocked me that it was OK to talk about it!”
We take a break and he tells me about Vietnam where he was a munitions expert. He’d only just turned 21 when he arrived in the country. They were attacked as they were landing: “We didn’t have any guns, nothing. We ended up in a bunker.”
It’s been a long life, filled with struggle and loss, all the while doing his duty, doing right by his loved ones.
Charles then tells me about what he’s been up to these last few weeks. He says that his health has suffered as a result of the endless grief. This comes as no surprise. The statistics on health-related issues suffered by co-victims of homicide are well documented.
I know he’s not well, and that he also has financial worries. Sadly, that’s often the case with homicide loss – there can be sizeable financial costs that the victim’s family must cover.
When Tammie’s killer was finally arrested and tried, a series of judicial postponements and numerous hearings meant that the case was eventually transferred from Chicago to California.
Charles travelled to the Court hearings, not only to talk about Tammie, about her being a baby, her life, to show photos to the jurors but also to see her killer, to look him in the eye, to face him in Court at last.
“He just sat there,” he says. “He played with a pencil, talking to his lawyers like nothing was happening.”
As he says this, I think back to my son’s murder trial. There are similarities.
I ask Charles what it was like to finally see Tammie’s killer, a man who’d also taken seven other women’s lives and almost killed another.
“I was sitting there making a fist. People were worried I was going to lose it. The killer never acknowledged me, nor looked at me. All this anger came out. How could he do this?”
During the hearings that lasted several months, Charles stayed in California with the additional financial burden this entailed.
He felt he had no choice, he had to be there for Tammie, he had to be her voice and somehow also speak up for the other victims. “Emotions were so high. I didn’t eat, I was so drained. Day after day, I’d go back to the hotel room utterly exhausted.”
Then, Charles explains the scene in the Courtroom on the day of sentencing:
“The killer was brought into the Court in handcuffs. He got the death penalty and we were sent home. And I was told, ‘You’re done, for now, Sir’, and I was like ‘Is that it?’ because I wasn’t done. I had so much anger.”
It had taken 29 years to get Tammie’s killer convicted. Charles felt overwhelmed with relief at the sentence yet all the feelings were mixed up, the anger with the sadness.
He adds, almost in a whisper. “After what he did to all those girls, he deserved to be in jail for the rest of his life.”
Yet, less than two weeks later, the murderer was found dead in his cell.
“I felt cheated. After everything, I went through, all this time, and now he’s dead? I wanted him to suffer. It was for the eight girls, I wanted to make sure he paid for all of them.”
Since then he’s obtained the Court files, big boxes containing the Court reports. “I’d like to write about Tammie one day,” he says. “I’d like to somehow pay it forward, for the grief I went through, to help others.”
I then ask about Michael, his son who died from an overdose in 2016. He was 50.
“It affected me a lot. Why had he gotten into drugs? I was hurt, mad, so frustrated. He had a wife, a daughter. I felt so much guilt.”
And was it different, I wonder? Can we, as parents, compare the loss of our children?
“It wasn’t the same at all,” Charles explains. “We would argue. It was complicated. My son and his family had lived with me for some time, then they moved out. I helped them find a place, and yet he still died. I keep asking, why didn’t I do more to stop the drugs? I felt I had failed.”
We talk about the difficulties of drug addiction. Charles’ experience of dealing with his son echoes so many other drug loss parents’. He has one still-living child, Jimmy.
“I was so scared I would lose my other son. I blame myself somehow, for not making up with Michael before he died. It’s complicated. Drugs do that. It’s almost as if I missed him already, even before he died.”
We’ve been talking for over two hours. It’s early morning here in Zurich and Charles’ voice is a little croaky. I change the subject and we chat about the summer, the weather, the tornadoes in his part of the world, the heatwave here in Europe. We say goodnight.
In the next few days, we’ll catch up on Facebook, on The Compassionate Friends – Loss Through Homicide group. It’s our ‘go-to’ safe space. As I tell him this, I can sense his smile:
“Oh yes, it’s our place to connect! And it’s where I get to help others. You know, it’s so important to let people know it’s OK to grieve”.