Many years ago, a couple of days before Halloween, the weather was dull and sunless, and the wind blew my deputy sheriff’s uniform like a sailor’s on an aircraft carrier as I entered the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Dallas Kratzer was walking into his office in the old jail when he waved me and another deputy into his office. “Pat, would the two of you drive to Mayfield, Kentucky to return a prisoner for court here tomorrow? It’s a long trip, but he needs to appear in Common Pleas Court at 9 a.m.,” he asked.
I went upstairs and looked at the Rand McNally map dotted with red and blue highways across the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Mayfield was about 400 miles from Wilmington, and that wasn’t as the crow flies. It was a trip through the foothills of Kentucky and ended close to the Mississippi River. It would be a grueling one-day drive.
As we entered the Graves County Jail in Mayfield, the jailer shook our hands and said he would be back. A few minutes later he returned to the lobby with a large, balding man, hair hanging to his waist, handcuffed and wearing leg irons.
“Here’s your man, fellows,” the deputy said. “Be careful driving home.”
The trip home to Wilmington was uneventful. The prisoner scarcely spoke throughout the eight-hour trip.
Two weeks later, Sheriff Kratzer called me into his office again, and asked me to take the same prisoner to the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. The local judge had sentenced him to 20 years of incarceration in the Ohio Pen, a maximum level facility that housed the worst of the worst criminals.
Another deputy and I placed the prisoner in leg irons and a large leather belt with handcuffs on the front that were no doubt secure, but allowed him to keep his hands in front of his body.
The sheriff’s cruiser had just left the corporation when the prisoner began to talk. I didn’t interrupt him as I thought his uncharacteristic, incessant chatter was a means for him to mask his fear and nervousness, and hopefully, to keep his mind occupied on matters other than escape.
“Several years ago, I was an inmate in a maximum prison in Missouri assigned to a work gang because I had experience as a lumberman. The warden wanted the inmates to clear a large, wooded area outside his residence on the prison grounds,” he said.
The man went on to say that one afternoon he was working in a dense forest and a large tree fell on him. “It killed me,” he said. “They called the coroner, who placed a blanket over my face and carted me into the prison morgue, and said, “This man is dead.”
I said nothing in reply as I looked at him through the mirror. He was smiling a vacant smile.
“When the tree fell on me, I felt a terrific pain across my head and everything turned as black as a coal mine without lanterns,” he said. “Just before they were beginning the autopsy, I felt myself spinning, and began to fall into a large, murky hole that became warmer the further I fell.”
The prisoner then told me a large, wooden door opened, and a demon appeared. The putrid looking creature grabbed him and pulled him inside a dark, dank room that had no end. The creature tied him to a table and began to beat him about the back, leaving open pustular sores all over his body. Everywhere he went, people were screaming and yelling obscenities at him. He never slept. Two days later, he said he decided to yell at the creature to stop the punishment. He said he told the creature, “In the name of God, stop hitting me!” As soon as he said the word God, the beating ceased, and he shot through the sky like a rocket heading back to earth, from where he didn’t know.
“I felt life enter me again,” he said.
We soon pulled up to the iron gates, the massive concrete prison looming before us. I slowly pulled the cruiser through the entrance and honked the horn as the sign instructed. A corrections officer appeared, checked the paperwork, and instructed me to drive the cruiser inside.
Immediately upon pulling inside the thick walls, two officers escorted the prisoner away. As the prisoner was leaving the cruiser, I said, “That is quite a story you told me.”
He smiled and said, “Son, mind your ways. Don’t be like me,” and as he glanced at a large wooden door in front of him, a tear rolling down his cheek.
With that he winked at me, went halfway through the door, then turned his head to say anxiously, “I feel like I’ve been here before.”
And then, he was gone.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff.
His book, “Around the Fire: Stories from Here and There” — comprised of his nonfiction stories in the News Journal through the years — is available through the Clinton County History Center in Wilmington, or you can reach Pat directly at 937-205-7844 or via email at [email protected] to purchase a copy.