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His breaking point came on a warm August day before the start of his senior year at college. In the car while they ran errands, Pam sent Tim into a dark funk by criticizing his voice and needling him about girls, telling him to find a proper mate at church. That evening, after watching the news, Pam turned off the television and instructed Tim to read aloud from a book of biblical analysis by Brother Frank. His stomach churning, he acquiesced. Then she told him to repeat the reading, over and over, as a voice exercise.

Tim usually did as he was told. But this time he seethed, overcome by a "feverish" wave of anger and fear, as he'd later describe it to a forensic psychologist. Then he snapped and lunged at Pam, unleashing his bloody fury over and over—first with his fists, then the desk clock and the kitchen knives—until she lay still. More than an hour later, when Tim called 911 to report that he had killed his mother, the operator mistook him for a woman.

Tim's grandmother Esther Rufo, comes across like a fifth Golden Girl. She has an eager-to-please manner with hints of a sharp wit as she fusses over visitors with a bottomless coffeepot and tray of desserts. Her thin face is framed by frizzy brown hair; oversize glasses magnify big, brown eyes that gleam when she smiles. But her gaze grows distant when the conversation veers toward her grandson Tim and her dead daughter, Pam.

Esther and her husband met and married through the church in 1958 and built a simple, satisfying family life—Paul earning a healthy wage at the electric company, and Esther eventually working as a secretary at a local college, which meant free tuition for the kids. But while their marriage was affectionate, as the years wore on Esther and Paul sometimes differed on church matters. Occasionally Esther questioned Paul's zeal, and the notion that Brother Frank alone had a direct line to the Almighty. But heaven help you if you failed to heed Brother Frank. Says Esther, "You will suffer the consequences of that decision."

After Pam's murder, Paul and Esther shared memories and wept together over the breakfast table; they also met with Tim's lawyer, Emil Rossi, in a show of support. But things grew complicated when Rossi sought to have the charge of second-degree murder reduced to manslaughter in the first degree as the result of "extreme emotional disturbance." The strategy made sense—it would knock a potential life sentence down to as little as five years in prison—but it required psychological evaluations and, ideally, an insider's statement about what led to the crime. Blame would unavoidably fall on Pam, Brother Frank, and his church. For this crucial backstory, Rossi approached Esther.

She agreed to cooperate. And while Esther saw the risks of being openly critical of the kingdom ministry, she hoped she could walk a fine line—not blaming the church directly but describing the debilitating anxiety and fear it made Tim feel. Her husband, however, grew upset with this approach, anticipating how Brother Frank would react. "Esther, I can't be part of this," Paul told her firmly.

Rossi's gambit worked. The prosecutor, William Fitzpatrick, agreed to the reduced charge and recommended a 15-year prison sentence. "You cannot read this kid's story and be a sentient human being and not feel some degree of sympathy, despite his horrific actions," Fitzpatrick says now.

On July 16, 2007, the extended Rufo clan gathered in a Syracuse courtroom for the sentencing. Neither of Esther's surviving children, nor their spouses, were aware of the narrative the lawyers had pieced together behind the scenes. First Rossi spoke vaguely about "the realities of this tragedy." Next, Tim apologized for killing his mother and subjecting his family and his church to such grief.

Then it was Judge Anthony Aloi's turn. He characterized Pam as loving—but also spoke of her having "failed herself" and Tim. Pam refused professional help for herself and her son, Aloi said to Tim, turning instead to a church that "was unable to deal with the personal issues that you and your mother were facing."

Pam's siblings gasped. The family walked silently from the courtroom after the judge gave Tim 15 years.

That Sunday at the pulpit, Brother Frank thundered his disapproval of "the satanic strategy that was used in order to influence the court by blaming Pam and then even implicating the church for Tim's behavior and for his actions." Brother Frank left little doubt whom he had in mind when he condemned the "evil" and "despicable" face behind that story line: Esther.

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