Page 3 of The Innocent Man

A few months after the season was over, Bruce Leba was casually walking through the Southroads Mall in Tulsa when he saw a familiar face and stopped cold. Just inside Toppers Menswear was his old pal Ron Williamson, wearing very nice clothes and peddling the same to customers. The two bear-hugged and launched into a lengthy session of catch-up. For two boys who'd practically been brothers, they were surprised at how radically they'd drifted apart.

After graduating from Asher, they went their separate ways and lost touch. Bruce played baseball for two years at a junior college, then quit when his knees finally gave out. Ron's career had not fared much better. Each had notched one divorce; neither knew the other had been married. Neither was surprised to learn that the other had continued a fondness for the nightlife.

They were young, nice-looking, single again, working hard with money in their pockets, and they immediately began hitting the clubs and chasing women together. Ron had always loved the girls, but a few seasons in the minors had brought an even higher intensity to his skirt chasing.

Bruce was living in Ada, and whenever he passed through Tulsa, it was time for an allnighter with Ron and his friends.

Though the game had broken their hearts, baseball was still their favorite topic: the great days at Asher, Coach Bowen, the dreams they'd once shared, and old teammates who'd tried and failed just like them. Helped mightily by two bad knees, Bruce had managed a clean break from the game, or at least the dreams of major-league glory. Ron had not. He was convinced he could still play, that one day something would change, his arm would miraculously heal, someone would call. Life would be good again. At first Bruce shrugged it off; it was just the residue of fading fame. As he had learned himself, no star fades faster than that of a high school athlete. Some deal with it, accept it, then move on. Others keep dreaming for decades.

Ron was almost delusional in his belief that he could still play the game. And he was greatly troubled, even consumed, by his failures. He constantly asked Bruce what people were saying about him back in Ada. Were they disappointed in him because he had not become the next Mickey Mantle? Were they talking about him in the coffee shops and cafes? No, Bruce assured him, they were not.

But it didn't matter. Ron was convinced that his hometown saw him as a failure, and the only way to change their minds was to get one last contract and claw his way up to the major leagues.

Lighten up, pal, Bruce kept telling him. Let go of the game. The dream is over.

Ron's family began to notice drastic changes in his personality. At times he was nervous, agitated, unable to concentrate or focus on one subject before ricocheting to the next. At family gatherings, he would sit quietly, mute-like for a few minutes, then barge into the conversation with comments only about himself. When he spoke, he insisted on dominating the conversation, and every topic had to relate to his life. He had trouble sitting still, smoked furiously, and developed the odd habit of simply vanishing from the room. For Thanksgiving in 1977, Annette hosted the entire family and covered the table with the traditional feast. As soon as everyone was seated, Ron, without a word, abruptly bolted from the dining room and walked across Ada to his mother's house. No explanation was given.

At other family gatherings he would withdraw to a bedroom, lock the door, and stay by himself, which, though unsettling for the rest of the family, did allow them some time for pleasant conversation. Then he would burst out of the room, ranting about whatever happened to be on his mind, always a subject completely disconnected from what everybody else was chatting about. He would stand in the middle of the den and rattle on like a madman until he got tired, then dash back to the bedroom and relock the door.

Once, his rowdy entrance included a guitar, which he began strumming furiously while singing badly and demanding that the rest of the family sing along. After a few disagreeable songs, he gave up and stomped back to the bedroom. Deep breaths were taken, eyes were rolled, then things returned to normal. Sadly, the family had become accustomed to such behavior.

Ron could be withdrawn and sullen, pouting for days over nothing or everything, then a switch would flip on and the gregarious personality was back. His baseball career depressed him, and he preferred not to talk about it. One phone call would find him dejected and pitiful, but during the next he would be hyper and jovial.

The family knew he was drinking, and there were strong rumors of drug use. Maybe the alcohol and chemicals were causing an imbalance and contributing to the wild mood swings. Annette and Juanita inquired as delicately as possible, and were met with hostility.

Then Roy Williamson was diagnosed with cancer, and Ron's problems became less important. The tumors were in his colon and progressing rapidly. Though Ronnie had always been a mama's boy, he loved and respected his father. And he felt guilty for his behavior. He no longer attended church and was having serious problems with his Christianity, but he clung to the Pentecostal belief that sin gets punished. His father, who'd led a clean life, was now being punished because of the son's long list of iniquities. Roy 's failing health added to Ron's depression. He dwelled on his selfishness-the demands he'd made on his parents for nice clothes, expensive sports gear, baseball camps and trips, the temporary move to Asher, all repaid in glorious fashion with a single color television set extracted from the signing bonus the A's gave him. He remembered Roy quietly buying secondhand clothes so his spoiled son could dress with the best in high school. He recalled his father trudging along the hot sidewalks of Ada with his bulky sample cases, peddling vanillas and spices. And he remembered his father up in the bleachers, never missing a game.

Roy underwent exploratory surgery in Oklahoma City early in 1978. The cancer was advanced and spreading and the surgeons could do nothing. He returned to Ada, rejected chemotherapy, and began a very painful decline. During his final days, Ron drove home from Tulsa and hovered over his father, distraught and tearful. He apologized repeatedly and begged his father to forgive him.

Roy, at one point, had heard enough. It's time to grow up, son, he said. Be a man. Stop all the crying and hysterics. Get on with your life.

Roy died on April 1, 1978.

In 1978, Ron was still in Tulsa and sharing an apartment with Stan Wilkins, an ironworker four years his junior. The two had a fondness for guitars and popular music and spent hours strumming and singing. Ron had a strong, untrained voice and promising talent with his guitar, an expensive Fender model. He could sit and play it for hours. The disco scene was hot in Tulsa, and the two roommates went out often. After work they'd have a few drinks, then head for the clubs, where Ron was well known. He loved the ladies and was utterly fearless in his pursuit of them. He would survey the crowd, pick out the hottest woman, and ask her to dance. If she agreed to dance, then he usually took her home. His goal was a different woman every night.

Though he loved to drink, he was careful when he was on the prowl. Too much booze might hamper his performance. Certain chemicals, however, did not. Cocaine was roaring through the country and widely available in the clubs in Tulsa. There was little thought given to sexually transmitted diseases. The biggest concern was herpes; AIDS had yet to appear. For those so inclined, the late 1970s were wild and hedonistic. And Ron Williamson was out of control.

On April 30, 1978, the Tulsa police were called to the apartment of Lyza Lentzch. When they arrived, she told them that Ron Williamson had raped her. He was arrested on May 5, posted bail of $10,000, and was released.

Ron hired John Tanner, a veteran criminal defense attorney, and freely admitted to having sex with Lentzch. He swore it was consensual; they'd met in a club, and she'd invited him back to her apartment, where they eventually went to bed. Tanner actually believed his client, a rare occurrence.

To Ron's friends, the idea of rape was ridiculous. Women practically threw themselves at him. He could take his pick in any bar, and he wasn't exactly stalking young maidens at church. The women he met in the clubs and discos were looking for action. Though he was humiliated by the charges, he was determined to act as though nothing bothered him. He partied as hard as ever and laughed off any suggestion that he was in trouble. He had a good lawyer. Bring on the trial!

Privately, though, he was frightened by the process, and for good reason. To be charged with such a serious crime was sobering enough, but to face a jury that could send him to prison for many years was a terrifying prospect.

He kept most of the details from his family- Ada was two hours away-but they soon noticed an even more subdued personality. And even wilder mood swings.

As his world became gloomier, Ron fought back with the only tools he had. He drank more, kept even later hours, chased even more girls, all in an effort to live the good life and escape his worries. But the alcohol fueled the depression, or maybe the depression required more alcohol-whatever the combination, he became moodier and more dejected. And less predictable.

On September 9, the Tulsa police received a call regarding another alleged rape. An eighteen-year-old woman named Amy Dell Ferneyhough returned to her apartment around 4:00 a.m. after a long night in a club. She was feuding with her boyfriend, who was in the apartment asleep with the doors locked. She couldn't locate her key, and since she really needed to find a restroom, she hustled down the block to an all-night convenience store. There, she bumped into Ron Williamson, who was also enjoying another late night. The two did not know each other but struck up a conversation, then disappeared behind the store and into some tall grass, where they had sex. According to Ferneyhough, Ron struck her with his fist, ripped off most of her clothes, and raped her.

According to Ron, Ferneyhough was mad at her boyfriend for locking her out of their apartment and agreed to a quick roll in the weeds.

For the second time in five months, Ron posted bail and called John Tanner. With two rapes hanging over his head, he finally throttled back on the nightlife, then went into seclusion. He was living alone and talking to virtually no one. Annette knew a few of the details because she was sending money. Bruce Leba knew very little about what was happening.

In February 1979, the Ferneyhough rape went to trial first. Ron testified and explained to the jury that, yes, indeed they had had sex, but it had been by mutual consent. Oddly enough, the two had agreed to have relations behind a convenience store at four in the morning. The jury deliberated for an hour, believed him, and returned a verdict of not guilty. In May, another jury was impaneled to hear the accusations of rape by Lyza Lentzch. Again, Ron gave a full explanation to the jury. He had met Lentzch in a nightclub, danced with her, liked her, and she evidently liked him, because she invited him back to her apartment, where they had consensual sex. The victim told the jury that she decided she didn't want to have sex, that she tried to stop it long before it got started, but she was afraid of Ron Williamson and finally gave in to keep from being hurt. Again, the jury believed Ron and found him not guilty.

Being called a rapist the first time had humiliated him, and he knew the label would stick for many years. But few people got tagged with it twice, and in less than five months.

How could he, the great Ron Williamson, be branded as a rapist? Regardless of what the juries said, people would whisper and gossip and keep the stories alive. They would point at him when he walked by.

He was twenty-six years old, and for most of his life he'd been the baseball star, the cocky athlete headed for big-league glory. Later, he was still the confident player with a sore arm that just might heal itself. People in Ada and Asher hadn't forgotten him. He was young; the talent was still there. Everybody knew his name.

It all changed with the rape charges. He knew he would be forgotten as a player and would be known only as an accused rapist. He kept to himself, withdrawing more each day into his own dark and confused world. He began missing work, then quit his job at Toppers Menswear. Bankruptcy followed, and when he'd lost everything, he packed his bags and quietly left Tulsa. He was crashing, spinning downward into a world of depression, booze, and drugs.

Juanita was waiting, and she was deeply concerned. She knew little about the trouble up in Tulsa, but she and Annette knew enough to be worried. Ron was obviously a mess- the drinking, the wild, nasty mood swings, the increasingly bizarre behavior. He looked awful-long hair, unshaven face, dirty clothes. And this was the same Ron Williamson who had enjoyed being so stylish and dapper, who sold fine clothes and had always been quick to point out that a certain tie did not exactly match the jacket.

He parked himself on the sofa in his mother's den and went to sleep. It wasn't long before he was sleeping twenty hours a day, always on the sofa. His bedroom was available, but he refused to even walk into it after dark. Something was in there, something that frightened him. Though he slept soundly, he sometimes jumped up screaming that the floor was covered with snakes and there were spiders on the walls.

He began hearing voices, but wouldn't tell his mother what they said. Then he began answering them.

Everything tired him-eating and bathing were enormous chores, always followed by long naps. He was listless, unmotivated, even during short stretches of sobriety. Juanita had never tolerated alcohol in her house-she hated drinking and smoking. A truce of sorts was reached when Ron moved into a cramped garage apartment next to the kitchen. There, he could smoke and drink and play his guitar and not offend his mother. When he wanted to sleep, he drifted back to the den and crashed on the sofa, and when he was awake, he stayed in his apartment.

Occasionally, the moods would swing, his energy would return, and he needed the nightlife again. Drinking and drugs, chasing the ladies, albeit with a little more caution. He would be gone for days, living with friends, bumming money off any acquaintance he ran into. Then another shift in the wind, and he was back on the sofa, dead to the world. Juanita waited and worried endlessly. There was no history of mental illness in the family, and she had no idea how to handle it. She prayed a lot. She was very private and worked hard to keep Ronnie's problems away from Annette and Renee. Both were married and happy, and Ronnie was her burden, not theirs.

Ron occasionally talked of finding a job. He felt rotten for not working and supporting himself. A friend knew someone in California who needed employees, so, much to the relief of his family, Ron went west. A few days later he called his mother, crying, saying he was living with some devil worshippers who terrified him and wouldn't allow him to leave. Juanita sent him a plane ticket, and he managed to escape.

He went to Florida and New Mexico and Texas, looking for work, but never lasted more than a month. Each brief trip away exhausted him, and he crashed even harder on the sofa.

Juanita eventually convinced him to see a mental health counselor, who diagnosed him as manic-depressive. Lithium was prescribed, but he wouldn't take it regularly. He worked part-time here and there, never able to keep a job. His only talent had been in sales, but in his current state he was in no condition to meet and charm anyone. He still referred to himself as a professional baseball player, a close friend of Reggie Jackson's, but by then the locals in Ada knew better.

Late in 1979, Annette made an appointment with the district court judge Ronald Jones at the Pontotoc County Courthouse. She explained her brother's condition and asked if the state or the court system could do anything to help. No, Judge Jones said, not until Ron became a danger to himself or to others.

On one particularly good day, Ron applied for training at a vocational rehabilitation center in Ada. The counselor there was alarmed at his condition and referred him to Dr. M. P. Prosser at St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City, where he was admitted on December 3, 1979.

Trouble soon began when Ron demanded privileges that the staff could not provide. He wanted far more than his share of their time and attention and acted as though he was their only patient. When they did not comply with his wishes, he left the hospital, only to return a few hours later and ask to be readmitted.

On January 8,1980, Dr. Prosser noted: "This boy has demonstrated rather bizarre and sometimes psychopathic behavior whether he is manic as the counselor in Ada thought or a schizoid individual with sociopathic trends, or the reverse, sociopathic individual with schizoid trends may never be determined... Long term treatment may be required but he does not feel he needs treatment for schizophrenia."

Ron had been living in a dream since early adolescence, since his glory days on the baseball field, and had never accepted the reality that his career was over. He still believed that "they"-the powers that be in baseball-were going to come get him, put him in the lineup, and make him famous. "This is the real schizophrenic part of his disorder," Dr. Prosser wrote. "He just wants to get in the ballgame and preferably as one of the stars."

Long-term treatment for schizophrenia was suggested, but Ron would not consider it. A complete physical exam was never completed, because he was uncooperative, but Dr. Prosser did observe "a healthy young muscular, active, ambulatory man... in better trim than most persons his age."

When he could function, Ron peddled Rawleigh home products door-to-door, through the same Ada neighborhoods where his father had worked. But it was tedious labor, the commissions were small, he had little patience with the required paperwork, and, besides, he was Ron Williamson, the great baseball star, now going door-to-door hawking kitchen products!

Untreated, unmedicated, and drinking, Ron became a regular at the local watering holes around Ada. He was a sloppy drunk, talking loud, bragging about his baseball career, and bothering women. He frightened many people, and the bartenders and bouncers knew him well. If Ron Williamson showed up to drink, everyone knew it. One of his favorite clubs was the Coachlight, and the bouncers there watched him closely.

It didn't take long for the two rape charges in Tulsa to catch up with him. The police began watching, sometimes following him around Ada. He and Bruce Leba were barhopping one night and stopped to fill their car with gas. A cop followed them for a few blocks, then stopped them and accused them of stealing the gas. Though it was nothing but harassment, they narrowly avoided being arrested.

The arrests, however, began soon enough. In April 1980, two years after his father died, Ron was jailed on his first drunkdriving charge.

In November, Juanita Williamson convinced her son to seek help for his drinking. At her prodding, Ron walked into the Mental Health Services of Southern Oklahoma office in Ada and was seen by Duane Logue, a substance abuse counselor. He freely admitted his problems, said he'd been drinking for eleven years and doing drugs for at least the past seven, and that the booze increased dramatically after the Yankees cut him. He did not mention the two rape charges in Tulsa.

Logue referred him to a facility called the Bridge House in Ard-more, Oklahoma, sixty miles away. The following day Ron presented himself at the Bridge House and agreed to twenty-eight days of alcohol treatment in a lockdown environment. He was very nervous and kept telling the counselor he'd done "terrible things." Within two days he became a loner, sleeping long hours and missing meals. After a week, he was caught smoking in his bedroom, a clear rule violation, and announced that he was through with the place. He left with Annette, who happened to be in Ardmore to visit him, but the next day he was back, asking to be readmitted. He was told to return to Ada and reapply in two weeks. Fearing the wrath of his mother, he chose not to go home, but instead drifted for a few weeks without telling anyone where he was.

On November 25, Duane Logue sent Ron a letter requesting an appointment on December 4. Logue said, in part, "I am concerned about your well-being and I hope to see you then."

On December 4, Juanita informed Mental Health Services that Ron had a job and was living in Ardmore. He had met some new friends, had become involved with a church, had accepted Christ again, and no longer needed the help of the mental health service. His case was closed.

It was reopened ten days later when he was seen again by Duane Logue. Ron needed long-term treatment, but he would not agree to it. Nor would he consistently take the prescribed medications, primarily lithium. At times he would freely admit to abusive drinking and drug use, then he would adamantly deny it. Just a few beers, he would say if asked how much.

Since he couldn't keep a job, he was always broke. When Juanita refused to "loan" him money, he would roam around Ada, looking for another source. Not surprisingly, his circle of friends was shrinking; most people avoided him. Several times he drove to Asher, where he could always find Murl Bowen at the baseball field. They'd chat, Ron would deliver another hardluck tale, and his old coach would fork over another twenty bucks. While Ron was promising to pay it back, Murl was delivering a stern lecture about cleaning up his life.

Ron's refuge was Bruce Leba, who had remarried and was living a much quieter life in his home a few miles out of town. About twice a month, Ron would stagger up to the door, drunk and disheveled, and beg Bruce to give him a place to sleep. Bruce always took him in, sobered him up, fed him, and usually loaned him ten bucks.

In February 1981, Ron was again arrested for drunk driving and pleaded guilty. After a few days in jail, he went to Chickasha to see his sister Renee and her husband, Gary. They found him in their backyard one Sunday when they returned from church. He explained that he had been living in a tent behind their rear fence, and he certainly looked the part. Further, he had just escaped from some Army men down the road in Lawton, and these soldiers had stashed weapons and explosives in their homes and were planning to overthrow the base. Luckily, he had escaped in time and now needed a place to live. Renee and Gary allowed him to stay in their son's bedroom. Gary found him a job on a farm hauling hay, a gig that lasted two days before he quit because he said he'd found a softball team that needed him. The farmer later called and told Gary that Ron was not welcome back and that, in his opinion, he had some serious emotional problems. Ron's interest in American presidents was suddenly rekindled, and for days he talked of nothing else. Not only could he quickly name them in order and reverse order, but he knew everything about them-birth dates, birthplaces, terms, vice presidents, wives and children, administration highlights, and so on. Every conversation around the Simmonses' home had to center on an American president. Nothing else could be discussed as long as Ron was present.

He was thoroughly nocturnal. Though he was willing to sleep at night, he was incapable of doing so. Plus, he enjoyed all-night television, at full volume. With the first rays of sunlight, he became drowsy and drifted away. The Simmonses, tired and redeyed, enjoyed a quiet breakfast before going off to work.

He often complained of headaches. Gary heard noises one night and found Ron sorting through the medicine cabinet, looking for something to deaden the pain. When the nerves had frayed enough, Gary sat Ron down for the inevitable serious chat. Gary explained that Ron was welcome to stay but he had to adjust to their schedule. Ron showed no signs of understanding that he had problems. He left quietly and returned to his mother's, where he was either comatose on the sofa or holed up in his apartment, twenty-eight years old and unable to admit that he needed help.

Annette and Renee were worried about their brother, but there was little they could do. He was as headstrong as always and seemed content to live the life of a drifter. His behavior was getting even stranger; there was little doubt he was deteriorating mentally. But this subject was off-limits; they had made the mistake of broaching it with him. Juanita could cajole him into seeing a counselor, or seeking treatment for his drinking, but he never followed through with prolonged therapy. Each brief stint of sobriety was followed by weeks of uncertainty about where he was or what he was doing. For enjoyment, if he had any, he played his guitar, usually on the front porch at his mother's house. He could sit and strum and sing to the birds for hours, and when he grew bored with the porch, he would take his act on the road. Often without a car or without money to buy gas, he would simply roam around Ada and could be seen at various places and at all hours with his guitar.

Rick Carson, his childhood friend, was an Ada policeman. When he pulled the graveyard shift, he often saw Ron strolling down sidewalks, even between houses, strumming chords on the guitar and singing, well past midnight. Rick would ask him where he was going. No place in particular. Rick would offer a ride home. Sometimes Ron said yes; other times he preferred to keep walking.

On July 4, 1981, he was arrested for being drunk in public and pleaded guilty. Juanita was furious and insisted that he seek help. He was admitted to Central State Hospital in Norman, where he was seen by a Dr. Sambajon, a staff psychiatrist. Ron's only complaint was that he wanted to "get help." His self-esteem and energy were very low, and he was burdened with thoughts of worthlessness, hopelessness, even suicide. He said, "I cannot do good to myself and the people around me. I cannot keep my job and I have a negative attitude." He told Dr. Sambajon that his first serious episode with depression had been four years earlier, when his baseball career ended at about the same time his marriage collapsed. He admitted abusing alcohol and drugs, but believed such behavior did not contribute to his problems.

Dr. Sambajon found him to be "unkempt, dirty, untidy... careless in his grooming." The patient's judgment was not grossly impaired, and he had insight into his present condition. The diagnosis was dysthymic disorder, a chronic form of low-grade depression. Dr. Sambajon recommended medications, more counseling, more group therapy, and continued family support.

After three days at Central State, Ron demanded his release and was discharged. A week later he was back at the mental health clinic in Ada, where he was seen by Charles Amos, a psychological assistant. Ron described himself as a former professional baseball player who'd been depressed since the end of that career. He also blamed his depression on religion. Amos referred him to Dr. Marie Snow, the only psychiatrist in Ada, and she began seeing him weekly. Asendin, a commonly used antidepressant, was prescribed, and Ron showed slight improvement. Dr. Snow tried to convince her patient that more intensive psychotherapy was needed, but after three months Ron was finished. On September 30, 1982, Ron was again charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. He was arrested, jailed, and later pleaded guilty.

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