And So it Begins: The Trial of Kyle Underhill’s Murder

The word for someone who lost a spouse through death is widow/ widower. The word for a child who lost parents through death is orphan. There is no word in the English language for a parent who has lost a child through death. Losing a child is so unnatural, so unspeakably horrific, there literally are no words.  But it happens.

It happened on November 16, 2011 in my town, a few blocks from my home, when 18 year old Kyle Underhill was murdered.  On September 28, 2015, nearly four years later, the trial began.

Kyle was a handsome young man with piercing blue eyes.
Kyle was a handsome young man with piercing blue eyes.

 

I first wrote about Kyle’s murder days after it happened.  It struck me hard on many levels.  Not because I knew Kyle in life; in fact it was because I didn’t know him.  My father’s violent death after his complete absence from my life to that point was what defined him to me.  It always struck me as inherently unfair that one moment could overshadow an entire lifetime.  In my blog, I tried to shift the focus from Kyle’s death to his 18 years of life by sharing the stories I heard from those who were fortunate enough to know him.

Face full of promise for a glorious life.
Face full of promise for a glorious life.

 

At that time, so little was known about the circumstances surrounding Kyle’s death.  As members of the community, all we knew is that Kyle was found in the marshy woods on Brook Street.  He died by someone else’s hand and it was deliberate.  By all accounts, Kyle did not live a life where this would be a likely event.  He graduated high school in June, worked two jobs at two of our town Main Street’s more upscale businesses and he was full-time college freshman with aspirations of a career in psychology.  We were all scared.  If this could happen to a young man like Kyle, it could happen to any one of us.  The killer was at large.  Within a few weeks, police officers attended our neighborhood watch meeting to give us an update.  While no arrests had been made, the police investigation concluded that Kyle’s murder was neither gang related (which had been early speculation) nor was it random.  As with the majority of murders, Kyle knew his killer.

Kyle Underhill was Islip High School Class of 2011. June 2011, he was filled with the joy of achieving this milestone, exited about what his future had in store.
Kyle Underhill was Islip High School Class of 2011. June 2011, he was filled with the joy of achieving this milestone, exited about what his future had in store.

 

In November 2013, just about two years since Kyle was murdered, an arrest was made.  Thomas Liming, a young man whose house I could practically see from mine, surrendered to the police after hearing that a grand jury indictment was imminent.  He was charged with second degree murder, arrested and held on $5 million cash bail.  For the first time, it was released to the public how Kyle was found and what caused his death.  I don’t think the details are important to know here.  I am sure that once the medical examiner testifies at trial, every last gruesome detail will be revealed by the media…but I will say that I understand clearly the police’s early conclusion that this was a deliberate act and that Kyle suffered in his last moments on earth.  That is something that my father was spared, as violent as his death was.

During the nearly two years since the arrest was made and we received the answer to the pressing question of WHO became known, it seemed to offer more unrest in our community than comfort.  Just as Kyle was such an unlikely murder victim, Tom Liming was an unlikely murderer.  Yet he killed Kyle.  Slowly.  Violently.  They were friends.  This is what has made it so difficult for our community to swallow.  They were friends.  The ones who were – and still are – in the greatest disbelief are the friends they had in common.  At 18, you believe that you are invincible.  Indestructible.  Your friends are everything.  When a tragedy occurs to burst that illusion, it’s devastating.  A lot of those kids were who I heard the heartwarming stories about Kyle from that I published in my original blog.  I remember when they came to our neighborhood watch meeting to gain support for a petition they composed to get more street lights on Brook Street where Kyle died in tribute to him.  They wanted this not to be real but since it was, they wanted justice.  Now that another friend confessed to killing Kyle, many of these mutual friends who are now 20-somethings are in varying degrees of denial.  As are many of the adults in our community.  In many ways I think our community would rather Kyle’s killer be a random, homicidal interloper.

One of the advantages of growing up in a perpetual state of dysfunction is that I am afforded suspension of disbelief in situations such as this.  It still breaks my heart but the shock wears off on me sooner than most.  In my 45 years, I have never been harmed by a stranger.  Heinous acts that were perpetrated upon me were at the hands of those who were supposed to put my safety and well-being above all else.  I’ve seen firsthand that at our core, humans are animals capable of savage things.  The overwhelming majority of us never unleash our primal behavior…but some do, as it happened in Kyle’s murder.  We make ourselves vulnerable to the people we trust.  That’s what makes the betrayal all the more painful when it is revealed.  The moment you come to the realization that this person you trusted is committing an egregious act against you is more painful than the act itself.  At least it was that way for me…but unlike Kyle, I lived through it and was afforded the opportunity to heal and move on.  The pain of his friend’s betrayal might have been the last thing Kyle felt.

In our US justice system, we have the presumption of innocence.  The prosecution has the burden of proof that beyond reasonable doubt the accused is guilty as charged.  They open the trial.  They present their evidence first.  They close last.  However, in this case there is no presumption of innocence; the defendant admitted to killing Kyle.  The trial is now a question of WHY?  Oftentimes, the WHY is revealed to an extent at the opening of the trial.  This did not happen here.  Because the prosecution still needs to meet the burden of guilt of second degree murder, the defense is going to hear the evidence presented to the court, cross examine the witnesses and then decide what the affirmative defense will be.  This is the right of the defendant.

I believe in our justice system.  I know from firsthand experience that what something appears to be can differ greatly from what is.  It is best for all of us as Americans that the prosecution has to meet high standards of proof in order to obtain a conviction.  But the prosecution is also known as “The People.”  In murder cases, The People are a person without a voice of his own because his life has been stolen from him.  Even the name of the trial itself further shifts the importance from the victim to the defendant. When I arrived at the courthouse, I asked which courtroom to go to for Kyle Underhill’s murder trial.  They didn’t know what I was talking about until I said the defendant’s name.  The trial is referred to by the defendant’s name, not Kyle’s. It seems somehow unfair that the thief of this human life, the admitted killer, has the ability to not only be present but to weigh out his options because he created the ultimate silence for the victim.

Long hair and a suit...Kyle doesn't look too different from my friends when I was 18.
Long hair and a suit…Kyle doesn’t look too different from my friends when I was 18.

 

I deliberately attended the trial the day that Kyle’s mom was called as a witness.  I cried on the drive out to the courthouse in Riverhead.  I wondered how is this woman mentally preparing to talk about the worst day of her life?  In my blog I write very openly about some very bad things that happened to me…but there is less than a handful of people I speak to in-person about these experiences.  The writing process to me is cathartic.  Because my blog is published publicly, I have found out that my words have had a healing effect on others, too.  But I get to choose what to say and when to say it.  Kyle’s mom had to recount every detail of every painful second from 1 a.m. on November 16, 2011 to when they found Kyle on November 18th.  She sat there and spoke for hours.  All the while facing the defendant who sat less than 10 feet away, the person who admitted to ending her son Kyle’s life.  Then it was the defense’s turn to question her, trying to poke holes and twist the things she said.  But she did it.  She did it for Kyle.

The thing that struck me the most about Kyle’s mom’s testimony was that she always spoke about him in the present tense.  From the very first question the ADA asked, how many children do you have?  “I have two sons.”  To her answers to other questions, “Kyle works at Manhattan Sweets,” and “Kyle is studying psychology.”  She can’t bring herself to refer to him in the past tense.

For all of us, we remain alive in the stories people tell about us.  There were reporters from Newsday and the NY Post in the courtroom the day I went.  They will be relaying the facts in a manner that will benefit the circulation of their newspapers.  There is more to Kyle story than this.  I want that “more” to be the stories I share.

Here are some of the things I found out about Kyle in the courtroom:

  • After founding the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) in his former high school, when Kyle and his family moved to Islip in his sophomore year, he and the school nurse established GSA in his new high school. GSA is a club that was established to defeat intolerance and promote acceptance of others.  No matter who you are, what you like, who you love, it’s okay to be who you are.
  • Kyle saved $5,000 from the two jobs he worked to buy a Toyota and continued to work so he could insure it and keep it running. He had so much pride in ownership that he washed it by hand constantly, even as late as November.
  • He aspired to work at Teller’s for quite some time before he got the job. He applied several times.  Then one day Kyle’s parents sat him down and said “maybe they will hire you if you cut your hair.”  Kyle was a metal head and was growing his hair long.  He got that haircut then went to Teller’s one more time and came home with a blue shirt, red tie, a crumb scraper – which he thought was the coolest thing EVER – and a job.   It was as if they were waiting for Kyle to get that haircut so they could finally hire him.  PS: I think those crumb scraper things are pretty damn cool, too.
  • Kyle had a first love. He kept photos of the two of them tucked in his wallet.  It made me happy that he knew love like that before he died.
  • He kept a box of art supplies in the trunk of his car so he would be ready when inspiration strikes.

The media won’t be reporting on these things…but I think is important to know how much was lost the day that Kyle’s life was stolen.

Do you remember how proud you were of your first car? Your first taste of freedom. Kyle was no different.
Do you remember how proud you were of your first car? Your first taste of freedom. Kyle was no different.

 

There were several moments during the day’s testimony that made me cry.  Recounting Kyle’s graduation from Islip High School, working two jobs and embarking upon college…I just went and/or am going through all these things with my baby girl.  There but for the grace of God go I.  My heart breaks for Kyle because now more than ever I see my daughter in him with all her hope and promise.  My heart breaks for Kyle’s mom because now more than ever I see myself in her first with the transitioning and letting go as our children become adults…then the unimaginable.  But I get to shake it off and hug my baby girl at the end of the day.  Kyle’s mom has only memories to give her comfort.

Then there is the defendant.  His inscription in Kyle’s yearbook was read into evidence.  It was a full page that started “where do you think we will be in 5 years?”  I don’t think there was any way either he or Kyle imagined their future to be intertwined like this.

Caylee Anthony: Tragedy Close to My Own Heart

When they polled the jury, they said it came down to motive. They did not see a motive behind murdering Caylee Anthony so after the 33-day long trial, it took 10 hours of deliberation to acquit her mother, Casey Anthony. It wasn’t the lack of physical evidence. It wasn’t the lack of eye-witnesses. It was the lack of motive. Just because 12 “reasonable” people could not understand why a mother would murder her 2-year old daughter, does that negate her culpability for what happened? In Orlando, today it does. That is wrong. When is there ever any motive  when a mother abuses her child? Does that mean that we can’t ever find abusive parents guilty for what they’ve done to their children? Lord, I hope not…but my personal experience shows me an incredible lack of justice for the abused.

 

Caylee Anthony. Innocent. Sweet. Smiley. Let's remember her this way instead of how she died.

The Casey Anthony Trial hit me very close to home. My mother married when she was 18, gave birth to me when she was 19 and when I was six-months old, she left my father and returned to her parents apartment. After a couple of futile attempts to reclaim his family, my mother and father divorced. While we all lived under the same roof, I rarely saw my mother. She had a job in Manhattan during the day and went out to discos (I am a child of the ‘70s) or dates at night. She stayed out all weekend most of the time. My grandmother handled all the maternal responsibilities – taking me to school, making sure I did my homework, forging my mother’s name on tests and other papers that required a parent’s signature because it would be “too embarrassing” to let the school know that my mother wasn’t available, going to parent-teacher conferences (the teachers were perpetually told that my mother was stuck at work), feeding me, shopping for clothes and school supplies, doing my laundry, keeping track of who my friends were. She would yell at my mother to take an interest in my life. My mother said I was “a pain in the ass.” I “moved too slow” to take with her on errands. I couldn’t “do a damn thing” for myself. My grandmother didn’t know that I heard any of these arguments. If you ever heard my grandmother speak, you would know how ridiculous that is. Delicate my grandmother was not.

 

This little boy in the denim jumpsuit is actually me when I was about 7 with the dreaded Dorothy Hamil Haircut. I'm smiling because I was at my Aunt Carol and Uncle Milton's house. Love them! Love my cousins!

 

On the occasions that my mother was home when I was and she lost the argument with my grandmother and had to spend time with me, I remember being very nervous about doing everything correctly and quickly. I was chubby (some things don’t change) and awkward to begin with so the additional stress generally did not lead to anything good. I remember coloring with my mother one day in my coloring book. I was working on one page and she was coloring in the adjacent one. I was trying so hard to stay in the lines and keep pace with her picture. I didn’t want her to have to wait for me to be done when she finished her picture. My grandmother splurged on Bic Banana Markers (remember, I’m a child of the ‘70s) and my mother was using them for her picture. The colors were so much more vivid than the crayons I was using so I decided to use them on my picture, too. I stayed in the lines. The colors were beautiful. I was proud when I was done. I showed her. My heart was beating fast at the thought of her being proud, too. She looked down at it. Without saying a word, she turned the page to look under the page I colored. Her lips parsed, she shook her head and let out a huff. “You ruined your whole book. You have to put a piece of paper underneath so it doesn’t leak through.” I didn’t notice that’s what she did on her side. I felt my face grow flush. My pride was gone. “I wish I could have had an abortion.” I already felt stupid so I decided to ask my grandmother what an abortion was. She yelled at my mother “Why the Hell would you say that to a 5-year old?!?!?!?!?” My mother didn’t answer. I am not sure that it was because she was being obstinate. I think it might have been because she didn’t have an answer as to why other than the fact that she’s rather be out at discos with a variety of men than saddled down with me, even though she was rarely forced to be responsible for my care. This was not the extent of the emotional wounds my mother scarred me with. But I think this anecdote is a good example of the most positive dynamic of our relationship; her boundless apathy for me.   It got worse.

 

 

Remember these from the '70s?!?!?!?! The only thing cooler than the "ink crayons" was the ad for them on TV with Charles Nelson Riley dressed as a banana.

At times, the apathy turned to rage. My great-grandmother had a stroke when I was 8. It left her paralyzed on her left side. My grandmother tried to care for her at home but she required far too much care. When she moved into a care facility, my mother moved out of the room we “shared” and into my great-grandmother’s old room. One day, I went into her room to look at her make-up. She used a brand called “Starlight.” It had the most vibrant shades. VERY disco. I loved this purple sparkley loose powder eyeshadow she had. It was the same color as Grimace from the McDonald’s ads and the sparkle had a bluish tone to it. I don’t remember where my grandmother was. She didn’t want me going into my mother’s room. But I was 8 and I just had to get to that Starlight purple eyeshadow. And I did. At first I shook it and watched through the clear lid how the powder floated inside. It was beautiful. So beautiful that I wanted to touch it. I opened the lid as carefully as I could. But I didn’t realize that loose powder didn’t really sit still in its container. There was a POOF of purple, sparkle. Like magic fairy dust. My mother walked in as I was smiling at the sight of the mystical cloud. She grabbed my wrist so tightly that I thought I would drop the eyeshadow and lose all of it into the gold shag carpet on the floor. I held steady. With her other hand she grabbed the container from me. She placed it gently, carefully on her dresser, still gripping my wrist tight. Then she turned to face me. Her face was twisted in anger. She brought her face down to mine. She was so close, all I could see was the blackness of her mouth as she screamed at me. I thought she was going to bite my face off. “NEVER…NEVER EVER GO THROUGH MY THINGS AGAIN!!! DON’T COME INTO MY ROOM!!! DON’T EVER COME NEAR ME!!!” She tossed me wrist-first at her door. I just missed the door itself as I landed in the doorway. I felt like crying but I didn’t. I was wrong. Crying would only make it worse. I got up and heard the door slam behind me. I don’t think I ever went into her room again. At times I thought what if I had hit the edge of the open door with my head? Would she feel remorse? Would she feel relief that she got the abortion she wanted 8 years late? I gave up wondering why she would toggle among apathy, rage and conspirator in a third-party’s abuse (not ready to talk about that now but this trial stirred up those recently recovered memories for me as well). It didn’t matter. It would still feel the same.

 

This isn't exactly the "Grimace" purple or the same Starlight cosmetics but the bluish sparkle is very similar. How could I possibly resist?!?!?!?!?

 

In Orlando, Caylee Anthony was born to a young mother who wasn’t done being single and untethered by the responsibilities of motherhood, much the way I was many, many years ago. In the big picture of our lives, I am not sure the motives of my mother or Casey Anthony matter as much as their result. The jury had an opportunity to validate Caylee Anthony’s existence. To say that what was done to her was not right. That taping her up and casting her off like a bundle of sticks in the woods is unacceptable, regardless of the reason why. That once a woman decides to give birth and keep the baby, she owns the enormous responsibility to her above all else in her life. And if she fails and her neglect or abuse or apathy leads to the destruction of that innocent life, she will face the consequences for the choices she made. And in some small way, if a guilty verdict was handed down, it would be shared by the millions of people out there who are still living, like me.

 

Caylee Anthony, rest in peace, sweet princess. Know that you are loved.

 

Caylee is dead. I am damaged. Justice is absent.

A Welcome Visitor

I had a dream last night about my Uncle Milton. He was sitting in a booth at the Palace Diner in Flushing. He was having a cup of piping hot coffee and wearing his navy peacoat. My Uncle Milton was a Navy Man, just like his big brother, Sydney. Uncle Sydney served in WWII. Uncle Milton was too young but he served in the Korean War. Like all the Weiss men, he was proud to serve his country.

 
 
In my dream, he looked exactly as I remembered him, complete with a wooden toothpick in the left side of his mouth. I sat down across from him in the booth. I was surprised to see him. Even while I was dreaming, I remembered that he’s been dead since 1999. I got the feeling he was expecting me, though. My lip began to quiver and a lump came to my throat. “Oh Uncle Milton,” I said. “I’ve missed you so much. Especially lately. The summer before last, something terrible happened…” Uncle Milton reached out and held my hand. His nearly black eyes looked through his glasses straight into mine, which were welling up with tears. “I heard, Judy.” I was scared of what he was going to say next. I was afraid he would be enraged with me like his sister, Pearl, was when she heard. Then he said, “I will make sure to get justice.” I felt warm and safe in my dream then burst into tears, my hand still in his. Then I woke up.
 
 
 
That's me (when I was a young boy in the '70s -- HATED that damn Dorothy Hammil Haircut!!!) and my Uncle Milt on the comfiest couch ever.
 
 
It seemed so real. In typical Weiss-fashion, Uncle Milton was never overtly affectionate. The picture above of the two of us on the sofa (yes, that’s me with a Dorothy Hammil haircut) is about as close to a hug as Uncle Milton and I exchanged and on the occasion that he gave me a kiss on the cheek, it was a very wet one that my little hands were quick to wipe off as soon as he turned his back. But I always felt warm and safe whenever I went to Uncle Milton and Aunt Carol’s house. I loved going there. My grandmother used to take me there quite a lot when I very young. My cousin Melissa (she was Missy to me back then) is about two years older than I am so we would play together. Jeannie is about three years older than Melissa so she didn’t have much use for us kiddies but she was never a mean to us. Lauren was the oldest girl and helped keep an eye on all of us. Then there was Richie. I remember he was always up to something mischievous with Kenny. They always had pets running around and the house looked like people actually lived there, unlike where I lived because my grandmother was an obsessive cleaner. Our furniture was covered in plastic slipcovers so it was never comfortable to sit down. At Uncle Milton’s and Aunt Carol’s, their sofa practically cried out for human contact. Aunt Carol drove a station wagon (Uncle Milton never drove; I’m not sure if he ever even got a driver’s license – oddly, my grandmother didn’t drive either). It was totally ’70s – wood paneling and all. Melissa and I used to play in it sometimes. She’d pretend to drive. I just loved hanging out in the back. It was my dream car.
 
 
 
Don’t get me wrong. I am not so delusionally nostalgic that I remember their house being like “The Brady Bunch.” There was yelling and fighting. About as much as you would expect in a home with four kids. Neither Uncle Milton nor Aunt Carol were perfect. They did a good deal of the yelling and the fighting. But it wasn’t the same as it was where I lived. When my cousins got yelled at, they didn’t seem afraid that their parents didn’t love them anymore or that they’d be angry at them forever or that they were sorry that they had been born. People got angry there, expressed it then got over it. They seemed happy. I was always jealous of my cousins for that. I always hoped that one day Uncle Milton and Aunt Carol would see how sad I was and ask me to come live with them. I thought that they already had four kids running around in there. One more at that point couldn’t have made that much of a difference, right? But that day never came. As I got older, I went to Uncle Milton and Aunt Carol’s house less and less frequently. I really missed them.
 
 
 
I saw Uncle Milton more than I saw the rest of the family. He and my grandmother were siblings. We had some really interesting talks about history, human nature, justice and other topics I never thought to be synonymous with Uncle Milton. He had a good and loving way about him. Family was so important to him, probably because of the way he grew up. He and Uncle Sydney were sent to a boys home because their mother (my Great-grandma Lily) couldn’t care for them. Well, that was the official story. The real story was that the man, Max, Great-grandma Lily lived with (she was estranged from her husband, my Great-grandpa Sam), didn’t want the boys around so she got rid of them. Pearl went to live with another family member who raised her and my grandmother was the one she kept. These circumstances were not ideal to create harmony and a sense of family. The siblings that were cast-off were resentful of my grandmother for being the one that their mother kept while at the same time, my grandmother suffered terrible abuse at the hand of Max while her mother turned a blind-eye. On occasions that Uncle Milton and Uncle Sydney visited, Max was abusive to them as well. I can only speculate because even during our deep talks, Uncle Milton and I never spoke about his upbringing, but I think that this experience galvanized his resolve to have a happy, loving family. He succeeded. I always got the feeling from him that he would kill or die for any member of his family and had a deep desire to try and undo the damage that was done to him and all his siblings.
 
 
 
It was a great wish of his for me to have a close relationship with his children. The birth of my daughter seemed to do that. Melissa became caretaker to my Catalina for her first three years. Catalina still calls her “Aunt Missy” even though they are really third-cousins or something distant like that. I’m so happy that Uncle Milton got to see us celebrate holidays and special occasions together. I would have loved for him to come to my wedding. He would have loved to see Melissa stand up for me as my Matron-of-Honor. But I got married in 2004, five years after Uncle Milton passed away (I don’t do things in conventional order). He would be happy to know that thanks to Facebook, all of us have gotten to know eachother even better and keep tabs on eachother on a daily basis in a way that we likely wouldn’t otherwise.
 
 
 
It will be two years come August 17th that life changed for me and my family. As horrific as it was, one of the shining lights to come of it came from Aunt Carol and Melissa. They share the horror in their ways. But unlike Pearl who met me with anger, Aunt Carol and Melissa gave me compassion, unconditional love and support, the depths of which I had never known from family. It brought me back to how I felt when I was amid the chaos of their home in the ’70s except this time, it was my home, too. When I spoke to Melissa about it (I still haven’t spoken to Jeannie and although I know she knows what happened, I don’t think it will ever be anything we talk about to eachother), she brought up Uncle Milton. It was the first time either one of us was close to being thankful that he wasn’t around because if he was…we would have found out for certain that he was willing to kill or die for family.
 
 
 
Maybe all this is where my dream last night came from. I am haunted as I am coping with what happened. Every new day is a new adventure in my mind, that’s for sure. Maybe somewhere in my subconscious Uncle Milton is there to serve the justice that he and I spoke about, that each of us so desperately needed and wanted but didn’t believe was out there for everyone in this imperfect world.
 
 
 
I love you, Uncle Milton. Whether last night’s dream was a visit from the Great Beyond or an internal manifestation, it was good to talk to you again. It was good to feel your love. I know you are looking out for me and it is very comforting. Don’t worry, I won’t let my little family and yours drift apart again.
 
 
 
Namaste.