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Feb 27 2009

Dart Award Winner

A Stolen Soul

Victory Turns to Emptiness

The phone rang from morning till night.

The phone rang from morning till night.

Strangers and friends, more than a hundred of them, called Yong Jones at her home in Bangor to wish her well. They called from the far corners of Maine, and even from Canada, to congratulate her on the conviction of her son's killer. Now you can have closure, they told her. Now, you can go on with your life.

Strangers sent her flowers. Their cards said: ''You're such a courageous woman.'' ''Welcome home.''

Yong was overwhelmed. She knew these callers meant well, but she could not share their good will.

Yes, the man who had robbed and shot her son on a Baltimore street had been convicted. Yes, she was relieved that her son's murder was finally avenged and his soul could now rest in peace.

But why did she still feel so empty? Why did she feel so lost and alone?

She had fought so hard and rested so little during the past four years to see that her son's murder was solved and his killer punished. Yet, now that she had come to the end of her long journey, she felt no victory. Above: A cross remains lit atop Laurence Jones Jr.'s grave in Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor.

Her only child, Laurence Jr., was still dead. Her husband, Laurence Sr., was gone too.

The night she returned from the trial of her son's killer, Yong had visited the cemetery to talk to her son and her husband. ''Yes, Junior, I know you're in Heaven now, but why don't I feel happy? Why am I so numb?''

She heard her son tell her: ''Mom, you finished your fight. I knew you'd do it. It's OK now.''

She heard her husband's words too. ''You're going to make it, honey. You are stronger than you know.''

When she returned to her empty house, the phone kept ringing. Strangers who had read her story in the newspapers and seen her tear-stained face on television continued to call. I hope you feel better now, they told her.

And in some ways Yong did feel better. Her friends noticed her eyes were not as dark and lifeless as they had been during the past four years. The tightness in her chest, the constant stabbing pain that had plagued her since her son's death, was also gone. It had disappeared the night the jury rendered its guilty verdict.

But some things hadn't changed. She still could not eat. When she swallowed more than a few spoonfuls of food, she vomited. Despite the weariness that weighed her down, she could not sleep.

She roamed her home in the darkness, wondering why the house seemed so much bigger now.

And still the phone rang, repeatedly. By Saturday, her third day home from Baltimore, Yong yearned for tranquility. A place to rest, somewhere soothing, peaceful.

She packed a suitcase and drove to the Bangor airport. ''What flights are leaving in the next few hours?'' she asked a ticket agent.

The agent told her there was a flight heading to San Francisco in an hour. Yong pulled her wallet out and bought a ticket.

As the plane roared off the runway, Yong settled back in her seat. She thought back to 1972 when she, her husband and son had spent six weeks in San Francisco. Her husband had been stationed there briefly with the Air Force.

When the plane landed, Yong checked into a hotel and took a taxi to Golden Gate Park. She and Larry and Larry Jr. had often strolled in the park, walking along the wooded trails and among the brilliant flowers. Sometimes, they would spread a blanket and picnic on the grass.

Now, on this February afternoon, Yong walked alone. She stared across the teal-colored water beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. She smelled the salt air and listened to the seagulls squawk as sailboats glided beneath the bridge.

She walked for hours, admiring the tall cypress trees, the rows of pink magnolias and purple and white pansies.

Though she felt calmer, a gnawing emptiness still tugged at her chest.

''It's still beautiful. It's still the same park. Nothing's different except you're not here,'' she told her husband and son.

She tried to think of reasons to feel good. Many of her friends had told her she should be proud of her accomplishment. Proud that she had fought so hard to win justice for her son.

But now that her journey was over, her crusade to rescue her son's soul finished, what reason did she have to draw another breath? Why couldn't she just lie down between the gravestones of her son and husband, and join them in Heaven?

She gazed at the Golden Gate Bridge and the blue water that lapped at its feet. ''Yes, I fought for my son's soul. I did what a mother had to do. But now what do I have to live for?''

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Barbara A. Walsh

  • Barbara A. Walsh is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter working on special projects for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Walsh was one of two principal reporters at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, who worked on a yearlong series about Willie Horton Jr., a convicted killer and furlough escapee whose crimes drew attention to the flawed Massachusetts prison system. The series won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize.

David A. Rodgers

  • Rodgers has been a photographer at The Portland Newspapers since 1988. He previously worked for the Rocky Mountain News and the Boston Globe. Rodgers won third place in the National Press Photographers' Association's international pictures of the year contest this year for his work on the newspapers' Island Odyssey series, which ran in the summer of 1996. Rodgers also has won numerous regional and state photography awards.

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