Here I was, six months pregnant driving an hour and a half to pick up a woman I'd met in jail a few months ago who had a history of unstable and addictive behavior. Yes, this was a good idea. Swallowing my fears, I reminded myself why I was doing this.
It was Tuesday morning. Officials had released Bridget from Eau Clair County Jail the previous Friday with the instruction that she was not to leave the state until the next week. She was released with nothing but the clothes on her back; no money, belongings, or phone.
Thankfully, there was one safe person in Pepin who'd rearranged his life in order to pick Bridget up from the jail and provide her a place to stay for the weekend. It was at his place that I was scheduled to pick her up at 7:30 a.m.
It was after 6 a.m. when I hit the road. The morning air was crisp. The leaves were just beginning to change color. Through rolling hills and ripe corn fields, I drove like a bat out of hell. Why? I don't know. I like to drive fast, I guess.
As I neared Wabasha, the rolling hills and corn fields transitioned to river bluffs and forest. A fog had settled over the valleys as the sun began to rise. It was one pristine moment after another as I traveled the Mississippi River valley across state lines into Wisconsin. In those moments I thanked God for hope and beauty.
The GPS on my phone told me I'd have to travel along the river for a bit until I reached Bridget's location. With no way of contacting Bridget, I hoped she'd be there. I was running late.
Finally, I neared the driveway and there stood Bridget, waiting. I pulled into the drive, parked the car, turned off the engine and got out. Bridget had no idea I was pregnant, so she looked a little surprised at the sight of my belly.
We exchanged hugs and greetings, but there was an awkward silence between us as I put Bridget's small suitcase in the truck and we got in the car; though I might have been the only one to feel it. I had the expectation that Bridget would be relieved to be released, but instead, she seemed nervous, anxious, and distracted.
We quickly got on our way. I asked Bridget how she was feeling and she confessed that she was, in fact, anxious and nervous. In the may lay of switching from prison to Wabasha to Eau Claire, she had, again, been taken off all medication. It was clear to me, that hadn't been a good idea.
For most of the trip back to Rochester, Bridget filled me in on her frustrations with her family, her worries, and fears for the coming weeks along with how fantastic it felt to wear real clothes and makeup thanks to her friend's generosity.
After we settled in, and despite it being a potentially raw and difficult subject, I brought up the night at Walmart.
"If this isn't a subject you want to talk about that's okay, but if it's okay, I'd like to ask you some clarifying questions about that night at Walmart?"
"Sure. I've got nothing to hide."
"Well, okay then," I continued. "If I remember correctly it wasn't very long after you were released from Wabasha jail before the Walmart incident, correct?
"Yeah," she said, "I'd been out of jail for 12 days at that point. It hardly took a week for me to make old connections and start selling. The using wasn't really a priority, but it was a comfort. It was a lot easier to go back to those nonjudgemental people than try to pick up the phone and call AA," she confessed with some animosity.
"So, why did you steal from Walmart that day?" I probed. "That's one piece of the puzzle I've not understood even after trial. Especially because items you stole were of no real significance. I remember the prosecutor asking you if you were Christmas shopping since the items seemed like Christmas gifts. You told him 'no,' but was that true?"
"No. I wasn't Christmas shopping," she responded in her usual short & sweet manner.
"Of course, you don't owe me an explanation, but I'm curious. And, since you've already been convicted, you can be open and honest about that night. Why were you stealing?"
"I was stealing those things for a friend of mine. Levi." She said quietly.
"Why couldn't he steal for himself?"
"Well, he'd sort of rescued me from being held hostage."
"What!?!" I wasn't expecting that. Never had Bridget mentioned anything about being held against her will.
"Yeah. For three days I was held hostage. I'd facilitated a drug deal gone wrong between A & B.* Really, I wasn't even involved in the deal," she said, "Because I'm a networker, I'd connected the two, but never intend to be a part of the transaction. Anyway, A had decided they didn't want to work directly with B, so they enlisted C to do the exchange. Somehow A's $3,000 went MIA and because I was the networker, A blamed me for it." She paused before continuing.
"Another guy, D got involved because A was his friend. D tracked me down and took me back to his place where he told me to give him the money or he'd beat me with a baseball bat. I was like, 'just do it.' At that point what was I going to do? I was terrified, but I wasn't going to let him know that.
He took my phones, so I had no contact with the outside world. That was when my daughter would call and he would tell her, 'Your mom's a piece of shit and she took this much money.' He'd say that to whoever called - my brother, my friends - whomever."
"This was in Rochester?" I asked.
"Mm..hmm." She said through pursed lips.
"I don't think people realize our fair city houses this sort of stuff," I said.
"No. They don't"
"Did they feed you?" I wondered aloud.
"No, but I don't think I would have cared to eat, anyway. I respond to stress by not eating."
"What did you do while you were there?" It was more a question of curiosity.
"Nothing. Like I literally sat there."
"Did you talk to anyone that was there? People coming in and out?" I figured if it were a drug house there must have been lots of people who might have been able to help her.
"Sure," Bridget responded..
"Did you try to leave?"
"What would happen when you did?"
"He would physically put me back on the couch or put me in the basement." She made a shoving motion with her hands as if the physical memory came right through her.
"Where is D now?" I asked.
"In jail," she said tersely.
"Well, that's your victory!" I proclaimed.
Her response made me pause, "You know, it's not my victory. It makes me sad because I don't want that for anybody. Drugs, incarceration, or mental illness plague a lot of really good people. It makes me sad because everybody deserves to at least have a fighting chance."
Even in the midst of her own anxiety and troubles, Bridget's compassion never quit.
"So, how did you get out of there?"
"My friend Levi had heard where I was, so he came and got me out. He tried to set D straight about the money. D agreed to let me go, well, because Levi was the bigger man. Literally."
"Why did Levi come for you?" Perhaps he was a former boyfriend.
"Because he felt bad for me. Some people you connect with are genuinely good people who have chosen poorly. I had dated his brother at one point, so there was a sense of protection, too, maybe."
"What did you do after Levi picked you up?"
"Well, we met up with Charlotte and drove around in her car for a while."
Where were you guys going?
"You were driving around aimlessly?" The idea of doing so seemed reminiscent of my school days when we'd drive "the whip" back home for hours on end.
"Yeah. That's what you do. You don't ever have a destination. Even when you think you do you never get there."
"When did Walmart come into the picture?" It seemed like we'd never get there.
"Oh, we were talking and Levi mentioned he needed some stuff at Walmart, so we drove there and I said I'd go in for him."
"Why didn't he go in and get his own stuff? Why did you go in for him?"
"Because I'm a caretaker." Or, perhaps there was a warrant out for Levi's arrest?
"Did Levi not have any money?" I continued to probe for more of the story.
"Where there are drugs there's always money. That's the insanity of it," frustration accompanied Bridget's voice.
"So, why did you feel you needed to steal?"
"You know, it's that self-sabotaging behavior." Now she sounded more self-defeated than frustrated.
Now, I was coming to the tricky part. The question about the knife.
"You did have a knife of some sort right?"
"Yeah, I had to open up the packages," her response was curt.
"Where did you get the knife?" Had she had it before Levi arrived?
"No." I wondered if she felt like she on trial again, but I wanted to know the truth.
"Where did you get it, then?"
"From Levi. It was in the center console of his car before we hooked up with Charlotte. I told him I could've used that knife three days ago. He told me I could have it in case something should ever happen again."
"So, then, you put the knife in your pocket?"
"Yeah. In my jeans pocket.
"When you and Charlotte walked into Walmart had you already decided you were gonna steal everything?"
"Well, I don't know...there was never a plan, you know. It's that impulsive thinking. I had a list, but I figured go big or go home. It's crazy, I know. Insane." It's as if Bridget was mystified by her own behavior.
"A cry for help can come in the strangest ways," I suggested.
"Yeah. Looking back, when I walked into Walmart, I knew it was not going to be a good thing. There was a serious gut wrenching feeling that something bad was going to happen, but my ego and my pride would not allow me to go back to the car and say, 'You know what? I'm not comfortable here.' I went against my intuition and proceeded to place myself in a reckless position."
Taking in what Bridget had said, I paused for a moment before proceeding.
"Inside Walmart, after filling your duffel bag with stolen items, you went through the check-out line and bought a few items legitimately before going into the bathroom to cut the packaging off the stolen items, correct?"
"Yeah. I didn't know it at the time, but there was a Walmart employee in the bathroom with me. If I had left everything in the bathroom and walked out there wouldn't have been anything they could do about it except escort me out."
Finally, the question I'd wanted to ask. "When you walked out of the bathroom, was the knife in open your hand when you got to the vestibule?"
"Honestly, the knife was not in my hand. I don't remember it in my hand," Bridget said with confidence. A claim she still makes to this day.
Wanting to put a positive spin to the conversation I asked, "Bridget if you could say one thing to yourself that night what would it be?"
"'I love you,' because if I would've loved myself, I would not have allowed those things to happen. I deserve better." Bridget's words made me hopeful for her future.
By the time we reached Rochester, Bridget seemed more relaxed. Allowing her some privacy, I waited in the car while Bridget met her grandson for the first time. She came out of the house minutes later; her face beaming as she introduced me to her grandson. A proud and happy moment, indeed.
The next few weeks for Bridget were rough. Really rough. Like 'touch and go' rough. Perhaps more difficult than going to jail is coming out of jail; the experience made exponentially worse by the pressure of an uncertain future. Bridget wasn't in a position to find work or move forward with any plans. And, despite their love for one another, living with her daughter created its own set of difficulty as four people shared a very small space. My heart ached for Bridget when she would call wondering if she'd survive. I told her she had to. There was no other choice. We prayed and we cried.
Finally, her sentencing day came on October 2, 2014.
It was either Providence or ironic coincidence (I lean towards Providence) that I found myself chaperoning my son's kindergarten field trip to an apple orchard the day of Bridget's sentencing. Just before 10:30 am, I felt a double vibrate on my phone indicating I had received a text message. It was Bridget.
The judge had been so pleased with Bridget's progress that she ordered probation instead of prison. The State's Attorney also suggested that more time behind bars would derail the progress Bridget has already made. Still, Bridget would live under the thumb of probation for twenty years. If she were to violate that probation in any way she would automatically be sent to prison.
Sitting in that apple orchard, I looked around. Bright red apples were tempting their fate. In fact, while sitting there one dropped to the ground. My son who was sitting next to me jumped a little. "Mom! An apple just fell to the ground! Woah! Why does it do that?"
"Well, Gabe, in order for a new tree to grow, an apple must fall to the ground so the seed can reach the soil. Then that little seed will grow into a whole new tree."
I may have cried right then and there. The seeds in that fallen apple would have to experience death and decay before new life could grow. Bridget, like those seeds, had experienced a sort of death and decay. Now her new life would begin.
The prisoner had been set free and new life was her destiny. It wouldn't be easy, but when is a good, full life easy to come by?
*Names are intentionally omitted.