NEW PORT RICHEY — Charlene Bricken lost her son to a masked man's knife blows and unbridled hatred.
She was lying in bed when the deputies arrived early one morning almost five years ago. She prayed all the way to the hospital, where only hopelessness waited. She had to wait until her boy was brain dead before she could let him go.
For five days last year, she sat in a courtroom listening to the horrific details of his murder but expressing nothing as the American Nazi recruit accused of the crime faced trial. Justice was near, she thought, but most of the jury didn't believe John Ditullio was guilty.
The trial ended in deadlock, and for Bricken, letdown.
Ditullio's retrial is under way, and Bricken is there, still yearning for justice.
Through it all, the worst part has been hearing her son, Kristofer King, talked about as if he wasn't a real person.
In the courtroom, he's "Mr. King." He's "the victim." And worst of all, in the words of the neo-Nazis who hated him enough to kill him, he's the "f------ faggot."
What he actually was in life was an aspiring writer who excelled in all his classes but hated the confines of high school. He dropped out and earned his GED in two weeks with plans to attend Pasco-Hernando Community College. The stinging irony of his death was that he accepted people as they were.
"He was such a wonderful person," Bricken said in an interview at her home after the first week of the retrial wrapped up. "He was smart. He was so good-looking."
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In March 2006, Kris, 17, wasn't getting along with his dad, Bricken said, and was spending most nights at his friend Brandon Wininger's house. Wininger and his mother, Patricia Wells, had recently moved into a small mobile home on Teak Street, next door to a group of American Nazis who boldly displayed swastikas and rebel flags. They blasted white supremacist music and drank heavily and guarded their property with fences and cameras to ward off harassment.
But Wells and Wininger felt plenty of harassment — threats even — from the neighbors. They have testified that the neo-Nazis shouted slurs and chased them into their house and slashed their car tires.
Bricken knew about them and was afraid of them. A few days before Kris was killed, she picked him up one morning from Wells' house and drove around with him for a little while. She implored him to come home. He said he would that night, and when she dropped him off she gave him a hug — a light one, to convey tough love.
But Kris didn't come back, and on March 22, after he got off work, he went to Wells' house. Kris loved playing computer games, and that's what he was doing when a knock came to the door around midnight.
Wells was dozing on the couch in front of the TV. Before she could answer, the door opened and there was a man in a gas mask who just started stabbing her. She ran to the bedroom where Kris was and got backed into a corner by a bookshelf as the attacker stabbed her again and again in the face and arms. Then he turned on Kris, who never made it out of that room, two fatal wounds in his skull.
Ditullio, then 19, was arrested the next morning after holing up in the compound, which was surrounded by SWAT members with submachine guns.During the night he wrote a missive about being ready to die for his race. Months later from jail, he sent Kris' parents a mocking Christmas card, writing "hope your Christmas is filled with memories of your dead gay son."
He testified in his own defense last year, blaming the killing on another group member. He attributed the rage in his writings to being falsely accused.
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Nearly everything about Bricken's life is different now. She and Kris' father split up, and last year Bricken remarried. Her younger son, Korey, finished high school and shipped off to boot camp in the Air Force a few weeks ago. She left her longtime bank job and earned her insurance license and securities license.
In her new house in New Port Richey, she has a large framed picture over the couch of Kris and Korey and their cousin on a long-ago hike in the woods. They are barefoot, with walking sticks and a black dog — "how boys are supposed to be," she said. Kris' ashes sit on a shelf in an urn with his photo on the front. Bricken has a McDonald's cap from when he worked there, his favorite Tigger doll and his old cornet. She has entire days now when she doesn't think about Kris' murder, but she also still has days she can't get out of bed.
"There's something missing in me," said Bricken, 53. "I feel that all the time. I'm never going to be whole again."
When the medical examiner testified last week about the gory specifics of Kris' death, Bricken stayed in the room and listened, wiping tears from her cheek. What stood out to her was this detail: The knife that pierced his skull went in between two bony plates that weren't completely fused, like they would be in a full-grown adult.
"He was a child," Bricken said.
She feels differently even about Ditullio, who is set to take the stand again today.
"I don't have the hate that I had," she said. "When something like this happens to you, you hate that person, you want to get him. I still don't like him, but you can't live like that every day.
"And it hit me too, that's how they were — the neo-Nazis. I don't want to be like them."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.