By Jessica Williams
At 16 years old, I watched my father be lifted into an ambulance only to see his lifeless, tall body a short time later in a cold hospital room. After they removed the breathing machines, my mother removed his wedding ring from his limp hand. She gave it to me to keep. It would be the last time we would see him and I would never hear his voice or be comforted by his warm hugs again. The next day I returned to school because I desperately wanted to feel normal.
Two years later, I was failing college.
But as my grades sank that first semester, I met a graduate student while I was working part-time. He was a financial guru, and could work numbers like a chef, wheeling and dealing spices in the kitchen. He gave me the best advice, – “Bring your GPA up to 3.0 and these are the student loan forms you would need to fill out… if you do that, you will have a chance if you really want to attend an SEC (Southeastern Conference) University.”
I returned to campus. I signed up for a free on-campus tutor. Every day, I stayed until 9:00pm in the campus library, studying for hours. At the end of the 2nd semester, I had pulled the GPA from a 1.6 to a 3.0.
A few weeks later, I opened my mailbox and received a letter from an SEC University, “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted….” As a blue collar, small town man my father could only dream of attending an SEC college. Was it truly possible? But there it was. And low and behold, my father’s life insurance death benefits helped a little with the financial burden of tuition.
The day after college graduation, I packed everything I had into a mini-van and moved to central Florida. That financial guru and I were engaged, and he had accepted a job offer. In my father’s place, my grandfather walked me down the aisle. He and I were close, as he and my grandmother lived next door when I was young girl. He taught me many things. And as a Korean War army veteran, he also taught me how to be tough.
For several years, I worked alongside sheriff deputies and officers working child abuse cases, interviewing children who had been beaten and bruised. While my life may have seemed devastating, it didn’t compare to the pain of the children I encountered.
Five years later, tragedy struck again.
My grandfather committed suicide, using a handgun to his head. He suffered from mental illness and was in agonizing pain that no one quite understood.
Four years later, when my son was 3 years old, I was wrongfully arrested.
After investing 7 years into protecting children and the elderly, a new agent decided he needed to pursue criminal charges against me, which just happened to be the same month he was hired by his agency. Little did anyone know that his decision would make history. I became the only Adult Protective Investigator to ever be arrested in Florida, wrongfully accused of falsifying records.
Sitting in cold, metal handcuffs in his office I could tell the agent felt accomplished. I knew the feeling. Capturing a bad guy is a sensational rush. I get it. I had been in a pair of shoes (similar to his) before. I understood. I had watched child abusers and drug dealers be placed in federal agent cruisers. It’s satisfying knowing you made the world a better place.
But the problem was that I had not committed a crime. I had not falsified any records.
I was emotionless. I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t tearful. I wanted to tell him what he needed to know, but I legally knew better to say anything due to Miranda rights.
The morning I was arrested, I had dropped off my toddler at daycare. By early afternoon, I picked him up. He never had to ask “where mommy?”. I knew only God could’ve made that happen. As a mother, that gave me unfamiliar perseverance.
As time went by, all criminal charges were dropped. But it was apparent that my case was liberating to some. A local news anchor sensationalized the story by juggling it between herself and another reporter, airing false information that she was given. After I corrected her by sending electronic documentation to the news station, contradicting her statements, the story suddenly vanished…into thin air.
A year later, I emailed a newspaper editor.
The newly born passion in me to write the truth was like a burning fire I couldn’t put out.
I knew how it felt to be wrongfully, publicly humiliated and dehumanized.
Good people don’t deserve that.
Especially ones who have done nothing wrong. Therefore, I set out to tell people’s stories. Anyone’s story. And that’s what I have been doing as a feature story reporter. For over a year, I’ve written about Grammy-Award winning musicians, Hollywood Actresses, entertainers, athletes, community leaders, authors, local small town artists, and even strangers I have sat down next to on old wooden benches at small town festivals right here, in Brooksville.
Everyone has a story.
That is why I am here, talking to you.
I can think of reasons to despise those with a law enforcement badge. I have reasons to hate the world, and say life isn’t fair. I can come up with reasons to say the world owes me something. But I do not say nor do I think this way. I am not that type of person, as I choose not to be. It was not that long ago that I worked alongside dozens of sheriffs officers, in multiple counties, working cases of child and elderly abuse. I learned a few things about them….
They are human.
Just as you and I are human.
They cry. They get mad.
They laugh. They smile.
They have toddlers who throw tantrums in the toilet paper aisle at Walmart. They have crazy families. They have sassy teenagers. They lose their car keys. They buy groceries. They cook. They drink coffee, lots of coffee. They do laundry. They like Ice cream. Some are fishermen. Some are great dancers, while others have two left feet. Some are great singers, while others can’t carry a tune. They have birthdays. They feel pain. They’re human. Just like us.
They deal with bad people.
They deal with good people.
They arrest people.
They counsel people.
They buy food for the homeless.
They make a judgment call based on if someone is in danger.
They protect the vulnerable.
They see gruesome crime scenes and have been spit on, yelled at, cursed towards, and hated.
I’m not really certain when the act of dehumanization began, but it does need to stop.
I never disrespected the officer who arrested me. I eventually learned he simply had been provided inaccurate information.
Since my wrongful arrest, I have learned very important life lessons from a group of people in this world that are referred to as the wrongfully convicted.
The wrongfully convicted folks have spent decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, far worse life experiences than my own. Some have written phenomenal memoirs, others have been released and have sang jaw-dropping performances on America’s Got Talent. It’s truly something to witness if you have the time.
Several of them have written that they don’t hate the officers who put them in prison, who played a role in stealing decades of their life away.
For example, on page 331 in the book, “Ghost of an Innocent Man,” upon his prison release in 2012, Willie Grimes told local, small town news reporters how he was no longer angry after spending 24 years in a North Carolina prison for a violent rape he did not commit. Many people did not understand him.
It sounds absurd.
But do you know why they’re not angry?
It’s one of the hardest things a human being can do. But it is the medicine that heals a human heart, from hate.
Hate. It will literally tear a human to shreds, emotionally, mentally, and physically. By the time years of hate have digested within one’s soul, how much of a human heart will actually exist? ….and will the wound ever be able to heal?