Those were the first group of questions racing through my head. They were the questions that I wanted answered immediately, but more importantly, they were the questions, at least the type of questions, that never get answered about the accused. No murderer is just a murderer. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The interesting part for me, at least the one the press never answers is how the murderer got there. Oh, not the silly psyco-babble about his mpo0ther or his upbringing, but how and why his brain and his mind led him to just this place at this particularlar time.
But clearly, processing the events that took place that day take time and a lot of introspection, I wasn’t sure he had gotten there yet. What I really wanted to know is Gene Combs’ feelings then, versus Gene Combs’ feelings now.
Those were the type of questions, I thought, people on the outside would want answered. I wanted to also ask him questions that those of us on the inside have, and those are frighteningly different. People on the outside want to know how they protect themselves. People on the inside want to find out the triggers so they can act accordingly.
An interesting phenomenon occurs to, or rather affects a lot of inmates. Maybe it is the time locked in a cage, maybe it is simply time alone, or maybe in a search for forgiveness for what they’ve done, a lot of guys in here turn to religion, almost to a fanatical level. I hear scripture invoked in conversations all the time. Some of it is pure bullshit, some is legitimate transformation. I was really curious to gauge where Gene was along this continuum.
I wish that I could tell you Gene got back to me immediately, or at least at his next “unlock”. He didn’t. I do not believe that his delay was because of apprehension or unwillingness on his part. It’s just that not much happens “now” in Solano County. There is no sense of urgency on anyone’s part.
I did not speak to him until more than a week later.
At the time he arrived at my cell door, so did the newspaper and he asked to see it when I was done. I suggested he keep it, but I asked that he hold on while I retrieved my notes.
I knew he was dying to tell his side, but I also knew he had a lawyer and that they invariably tell you not to talk to anybody. My first task then was to reassure him. I didn’t spare any punches. “Look,” I said, “this is probably going to take two or three sessions; I want you to be comfortable and I want you to bear with me. I know you want to tell your side but first I think we need to establish who you are so for right now; I want to ask you background stuff.”
He positioned himself better at the window so he could see my eyes and nodded. I’m sure that was just as much for reassurance as it was to convey that he agreed.
“Who are you?” I asked. “And here’s what I mean: if I was sitting in the congregation at your funeral and your best friend was talking about you, what would he say?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Gene answered, “I have a friend Joyce who I hang around with – nothing sexual – we’ll have a drink and talk – she has three daughters about my age, and I work on their cars too. She’d say I was nice and kind, and that I give freely.
“Even my wife says that I’m too nice. That I don’t charge enough for the work I do on cars.
I think they’d say that I’m nonjudgmental also.”
“So you have a wife?”
The problem for me, though, was that Gene’s ‘yeah’ was a bit unconvincing. “How long you been married?”
“We’ve been married about eight years. We’ve been together about 13 years or so,” he was quick to add. I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret that until he added, “We’re separated now, but we were working on it.” (All I could think was “Dude, ‘separated now’ youv’ve got to be kidding. That chick’s gone. You’re never getting out of here.”)
The pain was evident in his eyes, and frankly I didn’t want him going there. I wanted to know who this guy was before we got into how all this was affecting him, and after a brief pause, I took the opportunity to change the subject. “How old are you, Gene?” I asked.
“Forty-six, huh… I know that seems irrelevant but I want to paint a picture of you as a person. The papers and the DA are already working on creating a monster, but no one’s all good or all bad. That’s my point for talking to you. The DA wants you not to be a person. He wants you guys to be seen as animals.”
“That’s what my lawyer says, too.”
“Your lawyer’s right. And now that the press has done its thing, you have to know the DA’s going to be coming at you with all he’s got. He can’t look soft on crime. He’ll be protecting his job and if that means frying you, then that’s what he’ll do.”
“Wow, my lawyer said that, too.”
“Good,” I said. “You lawyer’s at least being honest. But remember this, at the end of the day, win or lose, your lawyer goes home to his family. This is your life on the line.” He appreciated that. My directness was creating a bond, and I felt like Gene and I might actually accomplish our goal. “So you’re 46. So where are you from?”
“I grew up in Washington State. Olympia, Washington.”
“What was that like?”
Gene looked at me a bit confused. The question had been too vague. I thought about it for awhile, and then said, “What was it like for you growing up? Tell me about family life. What about your mom and dad?”
“My dad died when I was fourteen. He was an alcoholic. He was pretty out there.”
“Out there…What do you mean?”
“He was violent, beat me and my mom.”
“Any brothers or sisters?”
“I have one brother. He was mentally retarded. He’s a year younger, 45, and has lived his entire life in an institution.”
“Do you have any contact with him?”
“No, not really…. My sister and I are pretty close, though. She’s in Australia now with her boyfriend… but she’s been following the case…the incident…on the internet. She wrote my wife about it. She told her she knew I was not a murderer… that she knew I didn’t do this.”
“What about high school, how was that for you?”
“I didn’t really go to high school. I was Y.A.”
“Yeah… Youth Authority. I got sentenced to Echo Glen when I was thirteen for stealing my friend’s motorbike. I didn’t really steal it, I was riding it and when he came home from school it was gone. I brought it back but the cops made his mom press charges even though she didn’t want to.”
“So did you graduate from high school? I mean, as a kid, what did you want to be?”
“I got me GED,” he offered, “but I could always fix things and what I wanted to be was a machinist. That’s what I am, a machinist-equipment operator, but I mostly work on cars.”
“Did you study it, go to college, anything like that?”
“No, I’m self-taught.”
“What about religious training growing up…Your family Protestants, Jewish, Catholic, what?”
“Not really anything. I think my mom goes to church, but I really couldn’t say.”
“You didn’t have much contact with her?” I asked.
“Uh…I don’t know. Just didn’t.”