By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
Hearing this, Henrietta Groce smiles. When Wainwright first came to cook with them, he was an inmate. "They told us he was hotheaded," she recalls. "But we found him to be different. We joked with him and taught him different things we cooked -- casseroles, all different kinds of salads. He liked the way we all worked together. He never thought us white women would treat him like we did, treat him just like we were. We played country music all the time, and at first he said, "That ain't my music!' but pretty soon we got him hooked on Toby Keith."
Wainwright left prison in 1994, got a job down the street at the Beverly Manor nursing home, settled down with Cooper and even took up fishing. "It's really strange -- I don't even eat fish; I turn 'em loose," he shrugs. "Mildred says, "What's the sense in going?' But I want to live out what's left of my life kind of peaceful."
He was well on his way. Then came word from Arkansas: His son's lawyer needed money to fight the death sentence. Wainwright set Cooper's admonitions aside and dug out his forgery pens. "I've been locked up so many times," he shrugs. "Taking the money was what his lawyer needed."
In January 1997, despite the last-ditch appeal, Kirt Wainwright was executed in Arkansas. Newspapers wrote lurid accounts of how he and two other death-row inmates were transferred to the concrete-block "death house," that state's version of the place in which his father had sought refuge from guards and older inmates. Relatives weren't allowed to be present at the execution, but Wainwright later learned that his son lay there for an hour, strapped to a gurney with the IV line already in his vein, while a panel of judges deliberated one more time. They finally voted 6-4 to proceed.
"I wake up in the middle of the night and I see that boy lying there," says Wainwright. "I see the boys who died in the penitentiary and they called it suicide. I see Mama, and I wonder why I'm still here. Why didn't God take me and not them? I'm the one who's been messin' up. Spent my fuckin' life in prison. I'm laying there at night and it all comes back -- they're right there, and I wonder why I'm carrying them."
He slides back the molded-plastic chair in the visiting room of the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph, where he's awaiting release on his most recent forgery conviction. Glancing toward the shadow of the guard waiting just outside the door, he leans forward on his cane (the legacy of a recent car accident) and says heavily, "I wish my life would have been something better. I do believe I'll be OK now -- but it's almost over.
"It's not physical anymore," he says. "Now the whippings are all in your head. But even the guards are different. This guard here" -- he gestures to a friendly officer in his early 30s who's just come on duty -- "he doesn't have the pot belly, he doesn't smoke cigars, he doesn't hit you with shit. I tell these young guys all the time, "Y'all have no conception of what prison is like.'
"A lot of the younger guys come and talk to me," he adds, "but who do I talk to when things are busting my head?" He looks out the window, eyes clouded. "I want to learn how to stop the bad dreams, have some quiet in my soul."
A few seconds later, he turns back from the window. "I am still trying to forget the things I have seen in prison," he says quietly. "We worked on the state dock where they brought the bodies through, so we got to see a lot of things we shouldn't have seen. Like the boy who they said killed himself -- somehow with his arms and legs broken got up onto a meathook, and the door of the freezer was locked on the outside, but they said he did it, how I don't know.
"It was another time, another world," he finishes wearily. Then, in a flash, he changes his mind. "For me, it's the same world. This is not history to me. This is memory."
Joseph was released from Algoa the same day as Wainwright. He came home changed. "Before I went in, I was close with everyone," he says, "and I did little jobs, shelved and bagged for the Fixler druggist on Jefferson, used to carry groceries home for the older people. But when I came out, I kind of avoided all the people I knew before. I just felt like a stranger to them. I'd listened to all that rhetoric about crime and bank robberies, the quick money, the Cadillacs and easy lifestyle, and I was snakebitten."
By December, he was back in jail. On the St. Louis streets, he'd run into an older inmate released from Algoa, and, he says, the guy coerced him into helping rob a shoe store on Grand. The older man got away; Joseph, 16, was arrested and sent to Moberly. He served almost three years, then spun through a revolving door and wound up back inside, sentenced to 13 more months for carrying a concealed weapon.