It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.............so starts Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, 150 years later that line is as relevant as ever. Last week I asked people who were struggling to get in touch with me, let me tell their story, this is the first of those stories, but it's probably not what all of you were expecting.
Mike sits in a Sugar Creek cafe, tearing his toast in to pieces. The first thing I notice when I sit down are his hands, they are shaking a little, and he can't seem to decide what to do with them. He has a stack of papers several inches thick sitting on the table. The folder contains two years worth of legal motions, court documents, and ex parte orders. The story behind the paper work isn't what I was expecting, it's not exactly what I had in mind when I set out to write about people who are struggling due to the poor economy. Mike's financial woes have been brought on by attorney fee's, court costs, and court ordered payments to various investigators, arbitrators and guardians. Mike says he is in a struggle for custody of his two children, aged 7 and 12.
He tells me he was an EMT until a couple of years ago. He would come home from work and smell cat piss in his house, even though he didn't own a cat. His wife never slept, she lost a whole lot of weight, something wasn't right. Bills weren't getting paid, money kept coming up missing from his bank account. He says it turns out his wife was using meth. He moved the family to Springfield, but it wasn't long before she found the same problems there. He filed for divorce, got custody of the kids. She continued to get high. Court papers he showed me indicated 3 suicide attempts and at least a couple of stints in treatment, by his wife.
Custody fights are never pretty, accusations fly from both sides, some false, some accurate, and some fall in a gray area somewhere in between. I'm a lot of things, naive isn't one of them. As I delved into Mike's story, I took things at face value. I don't know him, never met him before Saturday. He told me that his wife's father is a retired Police Sargent in a small Kansas City Suburb who has it in for him. In between his wife's suicide attempts and stints in Mental health facilities, there were allegations made against Mike. Threatening text messages, the ex parte order, allegations of abuse. Mike tells me about finding rows of bruises on his daughters back, he claims they were put there by the wife's boyfriend. The case is being heard in a smaller county than Jackson county. Mike says the judge routinely denies his motions, blames the good ol boy network.
I've seen some of the court filings, I read bits of the documents. His story rings true in a lot of respects, then I get a call Saturday night, it's Mike. He tells me his kids got home from a supervised visit. He says he walked in to his 7 year old sons room and found him playing with a syringe. When he asks where it came from, he claims the boy told him his mother gave it to him, it's a secret, mike isn't supposed to know about it. He says you could see residue, it had that cat piss smell. He asks what he should do, I say call the cops, tell them where it came from. When I hang up, I begin to have some serious doubts, it doesn't ring true to me. Mike calls the following day and tells me the cops said there was nothing they could do.
Up until that Saturday night phone call, my plan was to write a three part story about Mikes plight. After the phone call, I got the feeling that I was being played a little bit. What I know to be true, is what I read in those court papers. I know there was drug abuse, suicide attempts, but beyond that, I had to take his claims at face value. And that's where this story goes from a tale of hardship in tough economic times, and evolves in to a lesson in Internet experiments and gonzo journalism. There are a million stories waiting to be told, but how do you know if the one you are telling is accurate or not. The simple truth is often not so easy to find. For the most part I believe much of what Mike told me. At the same time, I think he tried to further promote his cause by adding the syringe story. Hey, maybe it went down like he said, but it just doesn't sound right.
So this story ends with an unexpected twist. I can't say it turned out in a way that pleases me. I set out to tell a story, perhaps make a positive impact in someones life. What I ended up with is more questions than answers, and a nagging doubt that prevents me from taking it any further.
*** I need to clarify a couple of things that came up from commenter Jools. Mike didn't ask for anything per se. The possibility of a lawyer offering pro bono services was mentioned, and Ive even made a couple of calls, but i doubt anything will come of it. He has custody of his kids, according to him, he is just trying to keep custody. I don't believe he was blowing smoke up my ass, like I said, I read the court documents and judges decision. The problem I had was the syringe story and the dialogue he claims took place between him and his son. For me, it just doesn't ring true. That nagging doubt does call in to question the details of what he told me. I think what I ended up with is half truths from one side of the story***