photo: Freddy Garcia speaks on the phone with his wife, Marina Luevano, from inside the California Medical Facility. Their relationship had become strained, and he was contemplating a divorce less than two months after his prison wedding. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
My name, he wrote, is John Paul Madrona. “I just want to say I am sorry for the pain I have brought to you…”
He sat at an old computer in a prison clerk’s office. He took a deep breath. “I had no right to do what I did. I am not sure if you can forgive me for taking Tracy’s life…”
He stopped. Not good enough.
He clicked on “print,” read the words again, then crumpled the letter into a wastebasket. Would he ever find the right way to apologize? It didn’t feel like it.
Eighteen years earlier, he had killed a well-loved environmental chemist, Tracy Takahashi, mistakenly thinking he was in a rival gang. Now Madrona, serving 30 years to life, needed Takahashi’s family to know how sorry he was.
He needed redemption.
The letter was only part of his effort to atone. Well before dawn every day, he rose from his metal bunk, read the Bible and meditated. At sunrise he walked through the penitentiary where he lived — the California Medical Facility in Vacaville — and into a cramped, cordoned-off wing that held a hospice for convicts.
Madrona, who with another gang member fatally shot Takahashi at the door of his Gardena apartment in 1993, now was helping terminally ill inmates die in peace.
He was one of 12 convicted murderers who worked at the hospice under Keith Knauf, a prison chaplain. They sat with the dying men, many of them killers themselves, often in silence deep into the night, trying to give them comfort.
Pastoral Care Worker John Paul Madrona, right, tends to fellow inmate Gary Smith. “There’s not a guy among our dying prisoners who does not find John Paul to be a favorite,” said Chaplain Keith Knauf, who’d come to lean on Madrona. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
In March of 2011, Madrona began a deathwatch with “the kid,” a 24-year-old thief named Freddy Garcia, who had colon cancer. Garcia, serving nine years for his second felony, had been a gangster. Menacing tattoos covered his shaved head. But he also was fragile, fearful and wanted his mother to hold him.
Garcia reminded Madrona, 35, of the foolish kid he had been when he killed at 18. It didn’t take long for the reminder to magnify his feelings of guilt.
“My crime, my victim, his family, his brother, his parents, the pain they feel I can only imagine,” he said one day in the chaplain’s office. He shuddered.
“Tracy Takahashi … Tracy Takahashi. His name is grooved in my mind deep — so deep I cannot run from it. I will always be connected to him … Tracy Takahashi. He will be with me until I die.” Often, he said, he had nightmares about the crime that produced terrible, unforgettable sensations. He would be overcome by searing cold and feel as if he was freezing.
Maybe the letter would help.
He hoped the Takahashi family would want to read it someday. If they didn’t, he would understand. He knew some people would think his efforts were aimed at getting a parole board to set him free. But it wasn’t like that. He needed to forgive himself. He’d started the letter dozens of times, but the words were never there.
“Sometimes, honestly, it feels hopeless,” Madrona said.
In November 2010, prison doctors had given “the kid” six months. By spring, Garcia had outlived that death sentence.
He spoke often of beating cancer, of getting out of prison and living happily with Marina Luevano, the woman he’d married after persuading prison officials to allow the first wedding in the hospice’s 20 years.
“I’m just praying I can get out and be a normal citizen and live happily ever after with my girl,” he said, sitting on his bed. The beige walls around him were adorned with letters from Luevano and photos of the two of them.
Luevano visited often, but they had begun arguing. When Garcia thought she was not showing enough enthusiasm for his dream of living free and having a son, he sank into deep depression.
“You can’t be worried about stuff like that anymore,” Madrona told him. They spoke mostly at night, Madrona sitting in a small chair beside Garcia’s bed.
“Stop stressing so much,” Madrona said. “You don’t have time.”
The cancer was spreading. Madrona saw a hard lump on Garcia’s neck. He heard him gasp for breath.
Before the younger man died, Madrona wanted to teach Garcia the most important lessons he’d learned. He told Garcia the past could not be controlled and what mattered was how he lived his life now, how he treated others, how seriously he was preparing for what both men believed in: heaven or hell.
Garcia said he wasn’t sure he was worthy of heaven. He’d been in shootouts and wondered if he’d killed someone.
Like Madrona, he had nightmares. In some he saw the devil and ran toward God. God laughed.
“Get right with Jesus,” Madrona said. “Only he can forgive.”
Garcia pored over the tattered blue Bible he kept near his pillow. He spoke of having another dream. This time, God didn’t laugh but promised a miracle. God wouldn’t say what it would be.
“I’m a different man now,” Garcia said. “I don’t have to walk around worried about you because you might be in another gang…. I used to act tough but, really, I’m not so tough. I’ve been humbled.”
Madrona looked at the tattoos on Garcia’s head and leveled with him: “So long as everyone can see the tattoos, everyone is going to wonder if you’re just playing games…
“You have to be ready. Start preparing for what is coming.”
Garcia began to grow his hair. Soon the tattoos could barely be seen. He used soapy water to clean the gang symbols he’d scribbled on his prison flip-flops. He began to offer advice of his own.
Madrona didn’t speak much to others about his crime, but he’d told Garcia the details of what happened and how frustrated he felt trying to write his apology.
“Keep going,” Garcia urged. “One day, the right words will be there.” Garcia had a better handle on English than Madrona did and promised to edit the letter.
Neither man knew how much time was left. Garcia’s pain began to feel like jolts of hot energy. He went to sleep wondering if he would wake up.
Within two days, five men had died, a tremendous toll even at the hospice. Garcia watched some of them being zipped inside body bags. He felt he was next.
“I don’t want other people to think I’m a coward,” he said, “so don’t tell nobody, but I’m afraid.”
Soon after, Madrona saw that Garcia had stripped bare the walls above his bed. Luevano’s letters and photos were gone. The conflict with his new wife had taken a toll. He’d looked in a phone book for a divorce lawyer and rarely spoke of her again.
Madrona had seen other men distance themselves like this, seen them remove letters and photos from their walls.
“He’s getting ready,” he said. “It will be very hard. For him, of course. But this one, for me, it will be very, very hard too. Freddy has become my little brother.”
By the end of June, Garcia was spending afternoons beneath his covers, stifling tears, imagining his mother being there.
Late one night he shuffled to the hospice foyer, where Madrona sat in the dark with George Taylor, a 59-year-old killer with a cancerous tumor jutting from his throat. Some people in the hospice avoided Taylor.
Madrona was laughing with him, reading him Bible stories and carefully wiping his face.
“You’re not going to die tonight, Taylor,” Madrona said. “Not tonight.”
Months earlier, when their friendship began, Garcia had tested Madrona by offering him a cellphone, illegal in the prison, and the address of a girl to write to. It was a street gesture, an attempt to display power and gain favor. Madrona had rejected both.
Now, as Madrona sat with Taylor, Garcia approached, carrying a bowl of rice and spiced beans he’d mixed together from his rations.
“John Paul, I know that you are down about Taylor and I want you to know I care, so would you like some food?”
Madrona wasn’t hungry. But he believed he was dealing with a changed man. He accepted.
Dying in the hospice was the most many sick inmates could hope for. There was a staff of doctors and nurses. There was the chaplain and his care workers. There were guards, of course, but it looked nothing like most prisons. Curtains framed the windows, bars were hidden and paintings were affixed to walls. Still, no dying man really wanted to spend his final days there.
By July, Garcia was convinced a last miracle was close. He pinned his hopes on a nonprofit Oakland law clinic, Justice Now, whose lawyers were pushing the state to grant a compassionate release.
He’d already twice made such an appeal and been denied. Few at the hospice thought a third bid would work. Garcia could still walk. A judge could decide he was dangerous.
Compassionate releases were infrequent in California.
Madrona, though, was hopeful. “Who thought he would get married?” he said. “Who thought he would live this long? I believe.”
It needed to happen quickly. Garcia was failing. On July 30, he rose slowly from his bed and limped to the chaplain’s office, where he had a phone call. His mother had news: A judge from the Los Angeles County Superior Court had agreed to his release. “The court finds that Mr. Garcia poses no threat to public safety,” the judge’s ruling read.
Garcia was going home within 48 hours.
He slumped in the chaplain’s chair. Then he and Chaplain Knauf stood together, reciting prayers of thankfulness.
Two days later, when the time came for Garcia to leave, Madrona was permitted to escort him to a doorway that led to the world outside. Madrona had not been that close in years.
“I can’t wait to go home,” Garcia said. “Freedom.”
“I can only imagine,” Madrona said.
“I’m sorry,” Garcia said. “I’m sorry.”
They hugged and shook hands. Madrona knew he would never see Garcia again, just as he knew he might never leave prison himself. One thing worried him: Garcia had shaved his head.
“Just remember that if you really want to change your life, you not only do that by saying it but by showing it,” Madrona said. “Stay away from anything negative. Show yourself how much you have changed.”
Garcia nodded — yes, yes — and then turned to leave.
Madrona watched him hobble out the sunlit doorway.
Brother Salvadore Garcia, right, and friend Jessica Figueroa, left, help Freddy Garcia into bed Sept. 23, 2011, less than two days before his death at his grandparents’ Carson home. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Garcia’s waiting family drove him home to Carson. On the way, he burst into tears when he saw the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles. He spent August with his family and Breanna, his 3-year-old daughter.
He spoke wistfully of Madrona, vowing to phone the hospice so the two could talk again. He didn’t. It was just too hard to look back.
He grew so weak he needed help getting out of bed. Speaking was difficult and waking moments were painful.
Early on Sunday, Sept. 25, Garcia died. His mother was holding him.
When Knauf delivered the news, Madrona was silent for a moment. He thought of taking the day off but decided not to. Since Garcia left, 10 inmates had died. More were near death. Madrona felt he was needed.
“I’m glad I could be there for my little brother, but this experience helps me understand,” he said. He understood that what he had done for his friend would not be enough.
“No matter what I do in here, I can’t take back the mistake I made … I have to accept that and then I have to do my best to keep helping people any way I can.”
Not long afterward, Madrona sat again in front of the old IBM computer. He began typing another version of his apology to Tracy Takahashi’s family. This time the words began to feel right.