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.