Wrongfully incarcerated for 34 years, Indiana County man struggling to adjust to real world
November 22, 2015 12:00 AM
Lewis "Jim" Fogle sits in his Indiana, Pa., apartment. “When I was arrested, for once in my life I had everything I wanted — a job, a heck of a good wife, two children in my life. To me, I had the world at my feet and then all at once — Bam! — it all went away.”
By Michael A. Fuoco / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
First in an occasional series
Lewis “Jim” Fogle is lost …and afraid.
Where is my prison cell? Why in the hell can’t I find it? Where’s my name, my number? I have to find it before I get tossed in the hole! Run! Is it here? Why is this happening? Where is it?
Jim tosses back and forth. His eyes jerk open. Breathing heavily, he tries to focus. He’s been dreaming. There is no cellmate, no bars, no guards. This isn’t his 8-foot by 9-foot cell in a maximum security prison; it’s his apartment in Indiana, Pa.
He hasn’t been an inmate at the prison in Erie County’s town of Albion since August. Still, whether awake or asleep, he can’t stop thinking about how he unjustly spent more than half of his life — 34 of his 64 years — as Pennsylvania inmate AP7750, serving a life sentence for the murder of an Indiana County girl.
For decades he proclaimed his innocence. He kept saying he didn’t rape and kill 15-year-old Deann “Kathy” Long, didn’t know Kathy, never laid eyes on her, had never even heard her name until after her body was found in a wooded area not far from her Cherry Tree home in July 1976.
No matter. State police who arrested him in 1981 didn’t believe him; a prosecutor who tried him and a jury that convicted him of second-degree murder in 1982 didn’t believe him; appellate courts over the decades didn’t believe him. It was only after Innocence Projects in New York and Pennsylvania found new exculpatory DNA evidence that a judge finally believed him and ruled that he should be freed and exonerated.
It was like landing on another planet, a stunned Jim told reporters Aug. 13 as he drew his first free breaths outside of prison since March 19, 1981.He was in a far different world than the one he had left.
But now, months after reporters closed their notebooks and switched off their TV cameras, Jim finds himself a stranger in an even stranger land.
With no income, no prospects for a job, few friends, no compensation for a miscarriage of justice, he lies in bed, covered in night sweats, wondering: What am I going to do? How can I fit in? How can I reclaim my life? Will I ever be free? Or happy?
In a sense, Jim has left one prison only to enter another.
An announcement blares. Jim freezes. For 34 years he’s heard that prison loudspeaker. He begins hyperventilating. His head on a swivel, he takes in his surroundings and realizes he's not in prison but in an Indiana mall. That was only an intercom request for an employee to pick up the phone.
His stomach is in knots and he's sweating. His wife Deb takes his hand and tries to calm him. They sit. Slowly, the trauma passes. For now.
Sometimes on his walks through Indiana or in neighborhood stores, he’ll spot a police officer. It paralyzes him with fear that he will be arrested again for a crime he didn’t commit. So he largely avoids the free world he once longed to rejoin but now finds difficult to navigate.
Still, when he’s sitting in his efficiency apartment paid for by the Innocence Project in New York, he often feels the walls closing in on him and just has to get out. So he spends much of his time, hours upon hours of every day, walking through a nearby cemetery.
Such reactions — along with depression, anger and confusion — are common for those who were wrongfully convicted. Prison can be a brutal, dehumanizing environment for those rightfully convicted, but for those wrongfully found guilty, its effect is infinitely exacerbated. Because of that, the Innocence Project in New York is paying for Jim to see a therapist weekly.
“I think it is very difficult, like being reborn,” said Karen Wolff, a social worker with the Innocence Project in New York, who works with Jim. “He’s not used to having choices, he’s used to being told what to do — when to eat, what to eat, what to wear, when to sleep. For a lot of our exonerees, it is paralyzing when they have choices to make.
“I find him to be charming, engaging and funny and also a little bit discombobulated. He doesn’t know what hit him. It is kind of unknowable. He is trying to understand.”
In a study published in 2005, “Understanding the Effects of Wrongful Imprisonment,” University of Cambridge psychiatry professor Adrian T. Grounds found that those like Jim suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms such as nightmares, constant edginess and panic attacks, among others. Also, they experience a “hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world, social withdrawal, feelings of emptiness or hopelessness, a chronic feeling of threat and estrangement.”
Since his release, Jim follows the same routine he did in prison. His apartment is clean and neat, just like his cell. As in prison, he’s in bed at 11 “and I lie there until 3 or 4 in the morning trying to sleep. Six o’clock I’m up. The only thing I do is make a pot of coffee, maybe get something to eat, return letters and then I go out and walk around. I’ll walk for three or four hours at a clip. “
He and Deb married three months before his arrest in March 1981. Their son Bob was 7 months old when Jim was incarcerated. Now free, Jim doesn’t live with Deb as they “work out some issues,” but she picks him up daily after her workday and takes him to her home where they eat dinner and spend the evening together. And then it’s back to his apartment, alone.
He’s trying to establish a relationship with Bob, now 35, married with a daughter, Olivia, who turned 2 on Thursday. She is the one surefire thing to light the lights in Jim’s eyes. He also is getting to know Bob’s in-laws — “wonderful people.” And he’s also attempting to establish a relationship with Stephen, 38, Deb’s son from a previous marriage.
On Thursday, Jim will join Deb and Bob’s family for the holiday — the first Thanksgiving in nearly 3½ decades that he won’t be eating processed turkey in a prison mess hall.
He knows he’s on a tricky journey as far as personal relationships are concerned. “One of the things I have problems with is I spent 34 years of my life not showing emotion. If you showed emotion [in prison], you were a punk. You never showed fear in there. If you did that, it was a weakness. It’s a big change.”
The feeling of what was stolen from him is never far beneath the surface.
“When I was arrested, for once in my life I had everything I wanted — a job, a heck of a good wife, two children in my life. To me, I had the world at my feet and then all at once — Bam! — it all went away.”
Not in a million years
Jim had a tough life before it got really tough.
Two sisters died in a house fire before he was born. He never really knew his biological father, who was imprisoned on a sex crime and never returned upon his release. A brother died in prison. Another brother — Bob’s namesake — was paralyzed from the neck down due to a car wreck. He and Jim’s mother, stepfather and grandparents all died while Jim was in prison on the murder charge.
Growing up in Clearfield, he didn’t enter first grade until he was 9 because he was dyslexic at a time the condition wasn’t widely diagnosed. He quit school in eighth grade and began a life of odd jobs — construction worker, carpenter, auto repairman, sanitation worker, you name it.
He committed his first crime at 21 — a burglary — but he can’t really remember where it was or what he took, only that he needed money. “I always seemed to be OK when I had a job. I’d have no problem then. When I didn’t have a job and needed money is when I’d screw up.”
He was convicted in about five cases on burglary or theft charges and another for simple assault. He served a total of about five years in various stints in county jails as well as a year for theft in the state prison in Pittsburgh, then known as Western Pen.
Sure, he was a burglar and thief, Jim freely admits, but a rapist and murderer of a 15-year-old? Not in a million years!
“I never was an angel. Hell, no,” Jim says. “But when I was arrested on this, I thought it was a joke. I thought they’d never convict me because I didn’t do the crime.”
Jim was implicated by a man he only met once, the late Earl Elderkin, an early suspect in the crime who gave five different stories to police between 1976 and 1981. The last statement was given in March 1981 after he committed himself to a mental institution and was hypnotized by an amateur hypnotist. In that tale, he said that he and two other men were present when Jim and his brother Dennis raped Kathy before Jim shot her in the head with a rifle. The police already had the murder weapon — owned by Kathy’s father and found in the Long residence where the family said it was always kept.
A judge barred Elderkin from testifying at Jim’s trial. But three men who were serving time in the county jail with him testified that he confessed the crime to them. And a couple other witnesses changed previous statements to conform to Elderkin’s.
Jim, the only person to be prosecuted in the case, had an alibi and took the stand in his own defense. He was confident of acquittal. After seven hours of deliberation he was crestfallen to learn his life would never be the same again.
Working on his case
Jim cuts quite a recognizable figure in Indiana. Much of his once fiery red mane is gone but he still sports a long beard, albeit now gray like his remaining hair.
No longer required to wear an orange prison jumpsuit, Jim regularly dons a distinctive flat-brimmed, black Navajo hat like that worn by the title character in the 1971 movie “Billy Jack,” his favorite film. Jim wore that same hat before he went to prison and his family kept it for him. He also favors a black leather jacket he got for half price from a thrift shop owner who recognized him from a TV story about his release.
While in prison, he became quite an accomplished painter, particularly of covered bridges in Western Pennsylvania, winning several art contests in Indiana while behind bars. Among the several hundred paintings he completed are those hanging in homes in New York, Florida and California.
He’s hoping someone will stage an exhibit of his work. And he says he really needs someone to help him set up a website to sell his paintings so he can make a few bucks.
He’s learned how to make and receive calls on a cell phone but that’s about all he can do with it and that’s just fine by him. He uses a laptop to write — no Internet, no emails — but gets frustrated because he loses all of his work when unsuccessfully trying to print. That’s why he bought a manual typewriter from a neighbor.
All he brought out of prison was a steamer trunk full of hundreds of pounds of legal papers and research, plus a Bible — even though “I lost my faith quite a long time ago.” He continues to work on his case, now advocating for a statute requiring Pennsylvania to compensate the wrongfully convicted as 30 other states do.
He vows to fight to regain a life torn from him: “There’s bound to be one day I’m happy.” It’s unclear if he’s making a wish or citing the law of averages.
The walls begin pressing in again. He needs to get out of the apartment, to walk in the cemetery.
Black-clad amid the dead, Jim struggles with the cruel irony of being alive and free yet unable to live freely.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968.
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