Four years ago, Esther Rufo's small, safe world was shattered by a horrible tragedy. What she couldn't have predicted: finding a way to embrace her daughter's killer, her own grandson, Tim.
Esther Rufo was jolted from a deep sleep by the sound of the doorbell. A grim trio was waiting outside: a police officer, a state trooper, and the police department chaplain. For Esther and her husband, Paul, their immaculate three-bedroom ranch had always been an inviting place, the site of holiday gatherings and Sunday dinners after church with their kids and grandkids. But this morning a stark grief rolled through the rooms as the chaplain, Jim Corl, said the unthinkable: Esther and Paul's 44-year-old daughter, Pam, had been murdered. And the murderer was Pam's 21-year-old son, Tim.
"There was an altercation between Pam and Tim, and Pam didn't make it. She died" was how Corl put it. Esther, still in her pajamas, doubled over.
All Paul could manage was, "Oh my God." Slumped in a kitchen chair, Esther said, "They loved each other. This can't be. Are you sure, Jim? Are you sure?"
He was sure. At that very moment, Tim was down at the police station, having concluded his grisly confession: Earlier that evening, in a fit of rage, he'd punched his mother in the face and neck, shoved her to the floor, bludgeoned her with a desk clock, and stabbed her repeatedly with kitchen knives. Then Tim covered Pam's body with a quilt, turned out the lights, retreated to his bedroom, and started cutting himself: one wrist, then the other, then his neck, before realizing that he didn't have it in him to kill himself.
As the facts sank in, Esther's mind reeled. Their lives had always flowed in a safe and predictable rhythm of twice-weekly religious services and volunteering at the church—Esther taught Sunday school for a time while Paul did maintenance work. They'd strived so hard for so long to build a healthy, stable life. But now their middle child was dead. And their oldest grandson, the meek perfectionist who barely spoke at family functions, had his mother's blood on his hands.
The three men left. Soon the house would fill with distraught relatives and friends: Paul and Esther's surviving daughter, Pauline; their son, Stephen; and of course the minister of their church, Frank Giuliano—Brother Frank, as he is known. All offered tearful support during this, the worst moment of any of their lives. What Esther didn't realize was that an even greater test of her fortitude and faith was yet to come.
At a maximum security prison in northern New York, Tim Ginocchetti, clean-shaven, with close-cropped hair, looks neat and tidy in his uniform and rimless glasses. Greeting a visitor, he extends his hand and bows from the waist. During a daylong interview, Tim—now 24 and facing at least nine more years in prison—speaks lovingly of his parents and his "Nanni" Esther, and describes a happy childhood.
Happy but eccentric. Tim and his parents resided in the caretaker's house on property owned by their beloved place of worship, the Christian Apostolic Church near Syracuse, New York. When retreats weren't in session, they lived in isolation, surrounded by empty dormitories. Tim had no siblings and few friends, and he was so obsessed with television—wholesome fare such as Touched by an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman—that when his parents punished him by revoking TV privileges, he carefully cut out plot descriptions in the local listings of each missed episode so he could hunt down the reruns. With a compulsive attention to detail, he hoarded boxes of his elementary school papers and kept meticulous scrapbooks on major news events.
By the time Tim entered his teens, his awkwardness gave way to depression; he battled a host of anxieties as it dawned on him that he might be gay. "I didn't know who I was, what I was," he says now. But he couldn't share his secrets with anyone—not his parents, and certainly not Brother Frank, the looming authority figure in his family's life.
In the early 1950s, Brother Frank made a name for himself among a small network of evangelical churches in the Northeast that catered to working-class Italian-Americans. Emphasizing the notion of a wrathful, if loving, God who could be appeased only by utter obeisance, Brother Frank was a uniquely compelling orator, with a charismatic speaking style and a cerebral take on the Bible; for a fledgling community of worshippers seeking structure and security, it was easy to be drawn in by his moral certainty. By 1952 he had moved to Syracuse and founded what he called the Christian Apostolic Church, a devout congregation that is unaffiliated with any specific denomination.
Now in his 80s, Brother Frank has the portly, well-groomed look of a banker; in person, his demeanor is cheerful and open. At his bright, inviting church on a leafy side street, he greets the men and women of his flock with kisses and hugs, tousling their children's hair. And yet his sermons, delivered in a rich baritone, are stern affairs.
He teaches that any "apostate" who rebels against the kingdom ministry (as he refers to his church) is guilty of nothing less than "recrucifying" Jesus Christ. Another persistent theme is the debased and lowly nature of mankind, a point he's driven home by citing scripture that refers to people as "worms" that exist for God's purpose. In his 1996 book God's Nobodies, Frank blasts "the pseudo-Gospel of self-realization and fulfillment," advocating instead "death to self." "Being a true Christian goes beyond acknowledging Jesus Christ as our personal Savior," Frank once wrote in a church pamphlet. "It also involves giving up our rights to ourselves in order to become His own possession." And although Frank doesn't dwell on homosexuality in print, he has left no doubt that it should be treated as a grievous sin.
His tough love stance has made for an obedient, tight-knit parish. Many in his congregation believe that Frank alone can discern God's will; the especially devout refer to him as a prophet, and "the anointed." They routinely consult him on personal matters: Paul and Esther asked for his guidance on where to buy a house and how to handle their children's dating travails; Pam and her future husband, John, asked Brother Frank when they should announce their engagement, and sought his approval for the wedding guest list. When another bride's ceremony contained elements he disapproved of, Brother Frank chastised her from the pulpit, saying she'd sinned before God.
Pam was 100 percent on board, and always concerned with how her family—in particular the distinctly odd Tim—was being perceived by the church. Her husband, John, a fit and physical firefighter, was more accepting of their son's quirks.He found it poignant that Tim shared none of his burly confidence, and John felt protective toward him: If anyone had a problem with Tim, they had to deal with his father first.
That ended in March 2002. After John and a fellow firefighter entered a burning house, the floor collapsed beneath them and they were killed instantly. In their shock and grief, Pam and Tim turned to each other for companionship, cocooning at home night after night, praying together and watching TV. Pam purged her belongings of all traces of her late husband, although she did allow one memento: a framed news photo of the fire that killed him. In the flames, Pam insisted, she saw an image of an angel ascending.
With her husband gone, Pam couldn't risk losing Tim, too, so she smothered him with worry, insisting on constant contact when he started commuting to Syracuse University. Even today, Tim can dutifully recite the rules: "Call her when I arrive on campus, and then sometimes throughout the day, and then when I leave campus," he recalls. "I would give her a copy of my schedule of classes, and what hours they would end, and what hours she could expect to see me home. If class was canceled, or if something came up, I would call her and let her know. Otherwise she would be just totally panicked"—and start barraging him with calls.
Pam fretted so much about Tim that nothing was off-limits, including his effete manner—she once warned him that his reluctance to talk to a girl at church looked "very gay." As Tim remembers it, she relentlessly criticized his thin, high voice, hectoring him with "Clear your throat" and "Speak up"; if Tim objected, she would simply respond, "Well, then, fix the problem." She sent Tim to a drama coach and a voice therapist, and put him through countless drills of her own—anything that might deepen his tone. (In one exercise Tim particularly despised, his mother demanded that he repeat "It's a beautiful day" over and over in a gravelly register.) All of which contributed to Tim's mounting terror—accompanied by a sick feeling in his gut—that the secret of his homosexuality was seeping out. In the worst moments, he harbored fantasies of killing both his mother and himself.
With Pam scrutinizing Tim, the mood in their home grew unbearably tense. It might have helped if Tim had had someone to talk to, but Pam had turned to Brother Frank—and Tim clearly couldn't confide in him. His protective father gone, his mother fragile, his church inaccessible, Tim endured the summer of 2006 in a solitary panic.
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.
After the sentencing Paul and Esther fought bitterly over her perceived betrayal of the church and Pam, their children siding with their father. One evening, after taking a verbal beating from her youngest, Stephen, Esther retreated to her car, parked in the garage—and she thought, "I wonder what it would be like to just turn this key on and end my life."
Paul pressed Esther to reconcile with Brother Frank, but she refused. "I'm not going back to a church that destroyed my family," she told him. Any reconciliation, she knew, would mean subjecting herself to public humiliation. "I wasn't about to get up and repent and say, 'I've sinned before God and I ask for your forgiveness'; I was not going to do that. Because I. Did. Nothing. Wrong. I know I told the truth." After one particularly vicious fight, Paul left the house for good—nine months before their 50th wedding anniversary.
At first Esther hoped the separation was temporary, a cooling-off period while they attended counseling. After all, how could a deep, decades-long marriage end this way? But Paul was intractable. "I may have left you physically, but you left me spiritually," he told Esther, who couldn't believe Paul would let the church trump their marriage. (Through a spokesman, Brother Frank stated: "The church feels very strongly that what happened between Paul and Esther is a matter between them.")
After eight months of separation and several fruitless therapy sessions, Esther filed for divorce. She weighed less than 100 pounds at the time, having dropped 15, and went on medication for severe depression. Pariah to her family, outcast to the church, she didn't have much left to lose. But what she couldn't have anticipated was how much she stood to gain: Amid the incalculable fallout, Esther—who'd followed the rules for so long, and married the only man she'd ever dated—found her strength and what she refers to now as an "awesome purpose." "I won't abandon Timmy," Esther says, her delicate jaw set tight. "I'm the only one he has."
Last year Esther bough a two-story condominium across town. Making a decision of that magnitude on her own—along with learning such basic life skills as how to balance a checkbook or prepare decent meals for one—had been unthinkable for her just a few years earlier. "I never shed a tear," she says of the day she moved out.
For months, she couldn't display photographs of the other grandchildren in her new home; she hasn't spent time with them in two years. But recently the pictures have come back out. Her World's Best Grandma refrigerator magnet is still stowed away, as are Tim's belongings, under a dustcover in the basement: his clothes, books, and his father's lieutenant's cap.
Supporting herself now, Esther has a part-time job working in member services at the local YMCA. And she enjoys a bit of a social life with friends from the new, more lenient church she has joined. Parishioners have taken her to the symphony and out to dinner. Not long ago, she even went to a bar for the first time in her life, after her 50th high school reunion, where she toasted the class with a glass of soda pop.
Every other month, Esther heads up to the state prison in Dannemora, New York, near the Quebec border, to visit Tim. The ride is about ten hours round-trip, and her late son-in-law's firefighter buddies often give her a lift. But now that she's bought herself a GPS, she can drive up with a friend and stay overnight at a motel near the prison, which means a two-day visit with her grandson. When she arrives, she greets Tim in a cavernous visiting room and sits across from him at a long wooden table, where they talk about the strange turn their lives have taken.
Most of the time, Tim tells her he is doing fine. He regularly attends church services in the prison chapel and takes a computer-aided-design class. He hopes to earn a college degree, but he doubts he'll bother with his original major, civil engineering, since he'd need a license to work in the field. Exuding an eerie innocence—so difficult to reconcile with his deadly outburst four years ago—Tim quietly notes, "They're certainly not going to let someone like me with this type of a felony build a bridge that thousands of people are going to be crossing over daily."
Between visits, Tim and Esther talk on the phone. And while the old Tim spoke in monosyllables, now he loves to converse, and has grown more affectionate as well. "He can hug me now. And he kisses me now," Esther says. For her part, though homosexuality used to be something she viewed with church-prescribed disapproval, in recent years she has worked hard to better understand her grandson—for instance, watching the 2009 Lifetime movie Prayers for Bobby, with Sigourney Weaver, in which a mother's attempts to turn her son away from homosexuality drive him to suicide. "He is what he is, and I need to love him the way he is," she says simply.
Sometimes the most carefully wrought plans crumble the quickest—Esther wasn't supposed to end up like this, alone and estranged from her family. And yet, improbably, she seems almost peaceful. But is she happy?
"It's a mix," she says. "I'm happy about being able to, hopefully, move on. But the sorrow is there, the pain is there, of the losses. Multiple losses..." She looks away, her voice trailing off.
When she talks about Tim's eventual release from prison, she brightens. If all goes well, he'll get out in June 2019, six months before her 80th birthday. And she will be there for him.
"How many times I've said, 'Lord, why are you keeping me here?' Why is God keeping me here, with all that I've had to endure?" Esther says. Her voice goes from plaintive to soft—almost a whisper. "I know why now."
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, March 8, 2014
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