Profile Response: Darlene and Robert Wilhelm, Ponte Vedra Beach FL

HWWLT Logo on yellowThis is the third of four posts profiling Floridians affected by restorative justice.

The case of Evan Wilhelm contains eerie parallels to Conor McBride, and revealing lessons of the potential, and pitfalls, of restorative justice.

Evan was a junior at Florida State University, a pre-dental student and member of Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity. One Saturday afternoon Evan accidentally fired a rifle that instantly killed Ashley Cowie, his girlfriend’s twin sister. Bob Wilhelm, Evan’s father, trembles and shakes his head. “Why did those boys go to a gun show? Why did they buy an assault rifle? Why was Evan fiddling with it in the fraternity house?” Unlike Conor McBride, who shot his girlfriend with purpose, however short-lived his intent, Ashley Cowie’s death was an accident. Evan was charged with manslaughter, a crime that typically receives a ten-year sentence in Florida.


Bob, an attorney, got Evan released to home on reconnaissance. The Wilhelm’s reached out to the Cowie’s to express their sorrow, to no avail. Amy Cowie, Evan’s girlfriend, came to visit, often. One day Bob asked Amy if her parents knew of her visits; the next day they received a restraining order against further contact. An intermediary contacted the Wilhelm’s, offering to meet in a neutral location; it turned out to be a rouse for Amy to see Evan again. During one hearing in Tallahassee Bob positioned himself in the lobby, and when Mr. Cowie went to the men’s room, Bob approached, offered condolences and extended his hand. Mr. Cowie said nothing. Another time the Wilhelm’s were walking from the courthouse parking garage. The Cowie’s approached from behind. When Mrs. Cowie recognized them she screamed and ran the other direction.

imgres-2Without acknowledgement, without communication, there is no opportunity for restorative justice. Quite the opposite. As the case evolved the Cowie’s position hardened. They began to refer to the ‘murder’ rather than the ‘accident.’ At the sentencing hearing Amy testified falsehoods, according to the Wilhelm’s. It took the judge only a few moments to sentence Evan to twenty years, potential for parole after eighteen and a half. Once the criminal case was settled, the Cowie’s sued Evan, Lamba Chi Alpha, anyone associated with the accident. Though no amount of money could ever replace Ashley they pursued a course of suits and settlements.

“I feel desperate that I can’t do anything to help Evan.” Darlene Wilhelm bemoans a penal system that freezes the relationship of everyone involved at the moment of a crime. Perpetrators are coached to show no remorse or regret; which exacerbates victim’s rage. Our worst moment defines us forever.

images-2With her son in prison, Darlene descended into prolonged hopelessness. Then one day she discovered a beagle on the side of the road, brought it home, nurtured it and sought a home for it. An Episcopal priest adopted the puppy and discerned Darlene’s loss. She invited Darlene to Ecclesia, a non-denominational church that serves Jacksonville’s poor. Darlene became involved in Clara White Mission, serving breakfast to homeless. “You look around you and see the difficulties that other people have. It puts things in perspective. They are real people. They are not objects. We care about them.”

The Wilhelm’s continue to pursue appeal options. They travel three hours each way to Wakulla every other weekend, where they are allowed a Saturday and Sunday visit with their son: one hug at the beginning and end of each visit. They are close friends with Julie and Michael McBride; being parents of promising young men who did terrible things is a powerful bond. “We have a key to their house; they have a key to ours. We are in this together.”

How will we live tomorrow?

screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-5-33-07-pm“For me, and this has already started, I will be more sensitive to other people. I am so blessed to meet and be exposed to new people. For years, I found conversations tiresome exchanges of what people want of the other. Now, even the smallest conversations are gems of that individual and the greater human spirit. I am more open to understanding others.

So, how will we live tomorrow? Hopefully, personal conversations, talking around a table, will not be lost to our devices.” – Bob

“I will live tomorrow better than I lived today because of increased empathy, gratefulness, wisdom, and heartfelt sorrow for what happened yesterday. It’s hard to be the mom of a young man in prison and have two parents who are near the end of life. I worry about my son, a convicted felon for an accident, who will never vote, never get a job, never have an opportunity for full participation.” – Darlene


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Profile Response: Kate and Andy Grosmaire, Tallahassee FL

HWWLT Logo on yellowThis is the second of four posts profiling Floridians affected by restorative justice.

“Forgiveness is not a pardon. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. You own me a debt you cannot pay, but I’m not collecting the debt.”

I knew Andy and Kate Grosmaire were ‘Vatican II’ Catholics before I even stepped inside; a statue of St. Francis stands among the trees in front of their house. Inside, I found more symbols of the church I grew up in; one devoted to humility and service rather Catholicism’s more recent preoccupation with moral rigidity. I looked forward to an evening among humble shepherds.

161214-anns-statueKate and Andy are from Memphis. Andy landed a first job for the State of Florida in St. Petersburg and transferred to Tallahassee in the 1980’s, “If you’re a state employee, the gold is in Tallahassee.” Andy is now Bureau Chief at the Office of Financial Regulation; Kate is an IT consultant for the Florida Department of Transportation. They live five miles east of town, on a three-acre lot adjacent to the Greenway Trail that traverses miles of lush Florida hammock. “Ann had a horse; being near the trail was the main appeal of this house.”

Ann is dead now – shot in the face at age nineteen by her boyfriend Conor McBride. Kate and Andy have two other older daughters, but these days their life is defined by Ann’s murder, and their extraordinary response to it.

Ann and Conor had dated for several years, in the on again / off again way of teenage couples whose magnetic attraction short-circuits burgeoning individual identity. One summer Conor fought with his parents so hard that he came to live with the Grosmaire’s. He was accepted to Stanford, but decided to stay local. College success, independent living, and devotion to Ann swaled and crested. Conor asked Andy for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Neither Andy nor Kate thought the couple ready for that commitment, but they liked the boy, loved him really, and decided not to buck the inevitable. Marriage seemed ordained until one weekend Conor and Ann had an aching fight whose anger flowed into the following day. Unable to resolve the issue or cool off, Conor found his father’s gun, contemplatimgres-1ed taking his own life, but shot Ann instead. He drove around Tallahassee in a daze until he turned himself in. Ann survived, comatose, for nearly a week. She died on Good Friday.

Somewhere in the fog of turmoil Kate realized that she would never understand the why of what happened, and didn’t need to know. Ann loved Conor; Conor loved Ann. Revenge and retaliation would deny that gift and cement their tragedy. Kate chose to honor the good between them. She forgave Conor. She visited him in jail. She learned about the penalties he faced. She embraced his parents. The two families explored options for a young man who made a fatal mistake.

imagesWhen they learned about restorative justice, they cajoled the Florida judicial system to apply it, if awkwardly, to Conor’s case. “The pre-plea conference was not a complete success, but it was something that had to be done. We hoped to reach agreement as to what Conor’s sentence would be. Jack Campbell (prosecutor, now Florida State General) listened, but he did not reveal what the sentence would be at that time.” Conor McBride received a twenty-year sentence, no reduction allowed, to be followed by ten years of parole, community education and service; possibly the lightest sentence for first-degree murder ever in the state of Florida.

imgresKate has written a book about their restorative justice experience, Forgiving my Daughter’s Killer. The four parents have been profiled in the NY Times, featured on Good Morning America, and speak to groups interested in alternatives in our penal system. “The story is so much more powerful when all four of us are in the same room. People ask me, ‘How can you speak?’ Every time I speak, someone comes up and says, ‘I really needed to hear that today.’”


How will we live tomorrow?

andy“Helping each other, teaching each other.” – Andy

“Andy wanted answers. He wanted to know what happened. I didn’t need to know. I knew it wasn’t going to make sense. I always knew it was bigger than the Grosmaire’s and the McBride’s and Conor and Ann. This can affect the world and the entire universe for the greater good.

“Anger is the easiest emotion to be in touch with, but we seek more. We understand that we need turmoil in order to bring us to the point we have to change. We cannot keep turning people away, which is what Florida does. We have to change.

kate“If enough people start to think in a certain way, it spreads beyond them. If six million people believe something, it can spread to the collective conscientiousness. We had never heard of restorative justice, but we have learned and we are spreading the word. Andy and I are not yet the snowball at the top of the hill, but we’re one of the people who are going to understand forgiveness in a way we cannot understand now.

“The core of what I believe is ‘God is love.’ If you are good with that, I am good with you. I feel like forgiveness has allowed me to transcend most of humanity. I reflected on that for a very long time. You become a teacher, you share your story, but you occupy a place that few other people do.” – Kate


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Profile Response: Julie and Michael McBride, Tallahassee FL

HWWLT Logo on yellowThis is the first of four posts profiling Floridians affected by restorative justice.

The social graciousness of an evening with the Grosmaire and McBride families is so perfect; it’s like stepping into a Douglas Sirk movie. Kate provided the venue. “We’ll meet at our house because Andy has a deacon meeting at church and won’t be home until late.” Julie and Michael brought the food. “These look sweet, but are actually savory,” Julie explained as she passed a platter of toast points. Kate showed off her blue ribbon winning wax block. We discussed the changing pattern of deer sightings in their wooded neighborhood.

161214-wax-blockSupper was hearty soup with crusty bread and crisp salad. When Andy arrived we pulled another chair up to the table. When the McBride’s son, Conor, called during dinner everyone chimed in on the events of his day and his prospects for a new job.

The evening’s anecdotes of rescue dogs and honeybees were so comfortable, these two couples such obviously long and good friends, I finally stopped searching for the melodrama foreshadowed in every Douglas Sirk film. The sordid event that brought these couples close does not lurk beneath the surface. They have brought it into the light, acknowledged it, addressed it, and forgiven it. Which enables the Grosmaire’s and McBride’s to move beyond the worst day of their lives.

Six years ago, Conor McBride killed his girlfriend, Ann Grosmaire. Ann’s parents, Kate and Andy, found forgiveness in their hearts, expressed it to Conor and their community, interceded on behalf of the troubled young man, and championed the first case of restorative justice in the state of Florida. As a result, Conor is serving a twenty-year sentence for a crime that usually carries life, or execution.

Restorative justice turns our legal system on its head. Traditional criminal procedures freeze relationships at the point of the crime and isolate victims from perpetrators under the guise of protecting them. This hardens all parties. Criminals never fathom the consequences of their actions; victims never witness perpetrators’ remorse. Restorative justice brings perpetrators and victims together in structured settings to negotiate punishment and restitution. This does mean that punishment will be lighter. Rather, punishment can be more appropriate. Perpetrators are forced to confront their actions; victims have the opportunity to move beyond powerlessness.

161214-grosmaire_mcbride-1Restorative justice provided an avenue for the Grosmaire’s to forgive – not pardon – Conor. There was no precedent or structure within Florida’s penal system to do this. However, through a creative interpretation of the pre-plea conference, the Grosmaire’s, McBride’s, Conor, and a collection of attorneys and restorative justice advocates met face to face for five hours to discuss the young man’s fate. The result – a twenty-year sentence without probation and stipulations on community service and speaking about teen dating violence – is less creative than restorative justice might allow, yet is far different than any doled out to a murderer in Florida.

Conor is not the only person who’s benefitted. All of the parents have also found strength and peace through forgiveness. Ann’s murder can never be atoned, but the Grosmaire’s believe rancor and revenge would only fuel the hole that Conor’s bullet shot through both families. By choosing to forgive, Kate and Andy refuse to be collateral victims of his violence. The process also eases Julie and Michael’s isolating burden as parents of a murderer. They recognize that Conor’s crime does not just affect one young woman and one young man. It reflects our culture and affects the entire community.

How will we live tomorrow?

julie“With kindness.” – Julie




michael“I change the question to how can we live tomorrow. The Grosmaire’s took a stand on restorative justice that affects our whole community. It affects the victim, the perpetrator. They have unlocked the door for a new, more just way to live.” – Michael



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Profiel Response: Aiden Sewall – Fayetteville AR

HWWLT Logo on yellowAiden Sewall studied graphic design at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, but has spent his adult life in education and missionary service. He taught English for five years in Vietnam, then two years in Cambodia. In Dubai Aiden worked among the South Asian immigrants who fuel that bustling emirate. “It wasn’t strictly missionary work. We were providing social services to those in need in Jesus’ name.”

Now Aiden lives in Fayetteville with two apartment mates in a complex that caters to students. He has complied his travel memoirs into books and works for Global Outfitters, an outreach arm of New Heights Church, a local church with a mission of service. Other New Heights initiatives include running a local coffee shop to support a Guatemalan orphanage, a support group for people with disabilities, obtaining refugee center status for Fayetteville, and sponsoring the city’s first reimg_8427-1fugee family from Sierra Leone: people who have never lived outside a refugee camp.

New Heights Church strikes a middle road in terms of politics and ideology, creating a large tent for Christians interested in doing service in Jesus’ name. It is unusual among churches in that it eschews owning property. When the congregation, which meets in the Fayetteville Boy’s Club, outgrew the gym where they meet on Sundays, they funded an expansion of the Boy’s Club rather than build their own facility. “Church should be based on community. The buzzword is that we’re an Acts 2 church, based on the book of Acts, Chapter 2 in The Bible.”


Aiden, age 41 and single, is dedicated to living his faith, but he is not a minister. “I function as a chaplain rather than as a preacher. I am better at consulting. I have a strong personal faith and global point of view. I want to be a good representative of my faith, but not dogmatic.”

imgres-1Aiden grew up in a Little Rock family he describes as, “straight GOP.” Then he discovered, a Christian order that works among the poor, and his perceptions changed. “Undocumented workers are a theological issue. Are national borders god-made or man-made? If they are man-made then must people of God be bound by them?”

Aiden looks forward to a time of universal governance (unlike many fundamentalist who view that as a condition leading to the Antichrist). According to Aiden, there are 83,000 different Christian denominations throughout the world, whose shared principals are few. “There is a passage where Jesus prays for unity, but with 83,000 differences, and other religions, that unity is hard to find.”

images“We live on two planes. One is intellectual; the other is the human you meet in the park. Social media is all intellectual. Faiths have these same two planes. One highlights our differences, the other our commonalities. I try to relate to people directly and not go up into the intellectual attic.”

How will we live tomorrow?

 img_8424“We can answer that in so many ways. It is not just the good overtaking the bad. My faith shows that will happen when people live as decent humans. But it cannot happen without Jesus. His love is contagious. I believe it can expand to encompass the earth.

“You think there’s all this unity, and then there’s Donald. Trump. So it’s a spiral. People don’t learn from history, but I believe we can spiral up. Our survival as a human race has a lot to do with each other. We all know there’s more to life in two than in one. Jesus knows that. His branding is that all who love Him know and love each other.

“We have confidence, as Christians, in the future.”

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Profile Response: Jacqueline and Crunch Stepp St Augustine FL


HWWLT Logo on yellowI have met my totem spirit on this trip: Eskimo, an eight-year-old dog. When Eskimo lived with Jackie and Crunch Stepp on their boat a few years ago, he got hit by a truck on US 1, broke his shoulder and his scapula, had a pin installed, and these days is a mellow soul seemingly unaffected by that trauma. I can relate to the trauma and aspire to the mellowness.

Jackie and Crunch are a young couple from Tennessee who met when living in neighboring communes. They fell in love and lived in an intentional community until a schism led them to leave. For three years they lived on a boat, traveling Florida’s warm waters and the Bahamas, and enjoying the extended community at River’s Edge Marina, their home base in St. Augustine. screen-shot-2016-12-24-at-12-17-38-pmBut they long to return to Tennessee and start their own intentional community. So, they invested in a house and hope to build equity toward purchasing a piece of land in their native state.

“We have notebooks where we each write what we envision. How many people do we want? How will our commune be organized? What is required for membership?” The idea is very present in their lives. In the meantime, they invite all manner of folk, long and short term, to share their home. Jackie’s brother Stephen lives with them more or less full time, a friend Travis was staying for a few weeks, yet they also invited me to sleep on the couch.

screen-shot-2016-12-24-at-12-18-00-pmSix years ago, Jackie and Crunch committed themselves to each other. Crunch’s vows emerged in the spirit of that moment. Last year, mostly to please Jackie’s parents, the couple had a formal wedding. “It felt so fake.” Crunch didn’t like having to write vows in advance, go through prescribed procedures. “I don’t think I’m from planet earth. I don’t get this planet. I’m from somewhere else, sent here as some kind of probation.”

img_8916Crunch works for Roto-Rooter and is weeks away from getting his plumbing license. Jackie was a tour guide in St Augustine and now works in the Old Trolley offices. They see these endeavors as stopgap measures in service of the larger plan. Yet, the spirit of communality drives their daily life. In the morning, everyone moves through their large kitchen, making coffee, fixing lunch, cooking omelets, chatting, listening to wake-up rock’n’roll with an energy far beyond what a solitary couple on a Monday morning.

Eskimo and I sat in the corner and observed the activity. We appreciated the food and drink that came our way, thankful that our broken bones are so well healed.

How will we live tomorrow?

img_8913“I see mass extinction and hard core crazy things you won’t want to publish on your blog. If you’re talking tomorrow, I’m all for one day at a time. If you’re talking tomorrow tomorrow, we’re f@#ked.” – Crunch

“I think it’s a difficult question. There are so many people, how can I create a ‘we’ out of seven billion and growing? Every day we’re accelerating faster and faster than our little monkey brains can handle. We have to get to smaller groups.

“The biggest contributor to climate change is population growth. We have to find a way to work that out. I’m not going to be the one that will figure that out. I want to create my own space, for my own family, sharing space and resources and communication. If I can move toward that with my own family, then it can spread out to others.” – Jackie

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Profile Response: Bonne Bernau, Gainesville FL

HWWLT Logo on yellow“Tall women playing volleyball get a lot of attention.” Bone Bernau, Florida State PhD student in Art Education, got plenty of attention back in December of 1994 when she was invited to play a Sunday game in Tallahassee. Alan noticed the statuesque woman, but he didn’t compete with the other guys for her attention. Instead, he rode his bicycle to the post-season party a few weeks later and finagled Bonne to drive him home. “He kissed me on the back of the hand. That’s when it began.” Twenty-two years later the couple is still together, though rarely in the same place. “We’ve only lived together for four years, and three of those were during my cancer.”

Bonne was diagnosed with Stage Three breast cancer shortly after she moved to DC. She attributes her remission to an extraordinary combination of traditional and alternative care. “My eastern healer was with me during my double mastectomy and reconstruction, six hours of surgery. She sat at my head with her hands positioned on either side. In recovery, the anesthesiologist came to tell me he had never seen such even brain waves during surgery. He didn’t need to tell me that; it was my healer.”

imgresIn 1999 Bonne returned to Florida to care for her parents and became an art educator at University of Florida’s Harn Museum or Art. “The arts help us examine who we are as human beings, even when we don’t have the words to express it.” Alan remained in DC until 2014, when he returned to Tallahassee to care for his mother.

images-1After retirement, Bonne decided to stay in Gainesville. “One of the things that keeps me in Gainesville is the energy. A lot of old hippies have stayed. A lot of young people have stayed here and started entrepreneurial ideas. We are doing what we love, making a living at it, and helping people in the process.”

Bonne and Alan are a couple for the long haul, through disease and job change and aging parents. Having the same address is immaterial to their bond.


How will we live tomorrow?

img_8900“Being a cancer survivor has changed the way I think about tomorrow. You cannot guarantee that it will arrive.”


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Profile Response: Amre, Tallahassee FL

HWWLT Logo on yellowOkay, okay, call me shallow. How could I resist requesting an invitation to stay with Amre after reading the opening line of his couchsurfing profile. A bit about me : +-1m71, +-71 kg. Clear brown complexion. Dark hair. Brown eyes. Big rounded nose. Beautiful ears. The most handsome man in the world according to my mom.  I felt a moral duty to verify his mom’s assessment.

Truth be told, Amre’s mom only got it half-right. Amre is indeed handsome, easily among the most handsome in the world. But there is so much curiosity and depth beneath his features, his physical attributes merely support an equally handsome soul.

imgresAmre is French, though few would guess that. His parents fled Syria several Middle East crises ago and landed in Montpelier by happenstance, which is where Amre was born. At age 18 he spent a year in India. “India was my right opposite. It was my rebirth.” He’s lived several other places around the globe, obtained a Master’s in IT Communications in Paris, and married a woman from Venezuela who had permanent resident status in the US. That brought him to Miami.

imgres-1One weekend last winter everything fell apart. “Within 48 hours we decided to divorce, I found a job in Tallahassee, packed up, drove here, and started a completely new life. Amre is appropriately circumspect on the details, but I gather it was not entirely his idea.

images-1Since then Amre has been working hard, staying fit, eating well, and offering his spare room to visitors like me. Though I arrived with a question on tap, Amre made many more queries. What provoked my trip? How had it changed me? What advice would I give my younger self? Amre is a young man half my age in search of himself; he resurfaced the inner questions I searched at that time in my own life. Given Amre’s earnest inquiries, I am confident he will find a good way for himself.

imgres-2Amre works for a private contractor that provides IT services to the Florida State Senate. Like most immigrants I meet, many aspects of our culture flummox him. “I thought everyone here would be very hard-driven. I don’t find that at all.” “Why are people here so out of shape?” “I am the only one who wears a suit to work. It conveys respect. Unfortunately, appearances matter.”

images-2Nevertheless, like most immigrants I meet, Amre hopes to stay here. “I believe America still has the idea of freedom. It still has more opportunity than most of the world, much more than Old Europe. Here, people know I’m not white, but they don’t care beyond that.”


How will we live tomorrow?

img_8824“I like the ‘we.’ It implies community. I’ve never thought about the ‘we.’ No one in our social system is asking this.

“Eventually, we will get back to our roots. Now, we are living abnormally. It started with the industrial revolution and become more unsustainable ever since. We can proceed for one more generation, perhaps, but your children and my hopeful children will grasp that we need to change and we will live in balance. Some things will be forced in order to achieve that, but we’ll get to balance. There will still be wars and struggle for power, but we will live with more balance. The Occidental world will ascend and bring their spiritual nature to the fore. I am optimistic. I can see that we will get there.

“I am a big believer in universal income. In purest form, you’re given a basic income to cover your expense just for inhabiting the earth. I do not believe this will make people lazy; they will be energized. If everyone who makes a non-economic choice can be happier, then universal income will lead to greater creativity and happiness.”

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