There was no Celebration of Life for 14-year-old Marysa Nichols. Some man came along and crushed out her life before she got to bloom. He left her body in a field near her high school in Red Bluff, Calif.
When Marysa did not come home on Feb. 26, her parents knew she had not run away. She was a happy kid, who liked to practice her clarinet and was looking forward to playing in a school concert.
There’s a reason, though, why police often don’t take missing persons reports seriously for at least 24 hours – the missing person often shows up. The Red Bluff, Calif., police were no exception. It fell to the parents to post notices.
“I saw the dad walking up the street, hanging up fliers and the grandma walking behind him,” the mother of one of Marysa’s classmates told the Redding Searchlight newspaper. “It was awful watching him walk up and down the street.”
Two days after Marysa disappeared, her body was found. She had been strangled, and the police were now very interested.
Cops visited her home and asked to see Marysa’s room. When the parents showed them her room, one of the cops asked sarcastically, “What’d you do? Clean it?”
The parents understood that family are often legitimate suspects in criminal cases. They simply replied that no, they hadn’t cleaned it. The room was exactly how she left it. The cop didn’t believe them.
“No 14-year-old has a room this clean,” he said. (That cop would later apologize.)
Strangers empathized and wanted to help, even if it was only to have their car washed to help raise money for Marysa’s funeral. They posted sympathetic comments on news stories about the victim. Classmates and friends talked about how popular she was.
But, as in any homicide, some people looked for reassurances that they or their loved ones couldn’t end up like the victim. What happened to that girl wouldn’t happen to their daughter.
So there was this in the Red Bluff Daily News: “Asked whether he believed Nichols was ‘up to no good’ when she left the school campus, (Police Chief Paul) Nanfito fired back, ‘Absolutely not.’”
This was also the kind of homicide that doesn’t travel far. I wouldn’t have heard about Marysa’s killing were she not my sister-in-law’s niece.
For everyone except Marysa’s family, her story will fade with the headlines – to be replaced by the next killing and the next and the next.
When California legislators were trying to decide what to do with state prison inmates, did they put a dollar sign on the heads of future victims like Marysa? No. Legislators looked at other costs: the costs of building new prisons, the costs of future lawsuits if they didn’t build new prisons, the costs of keeping inmates in prisons vs. the costs of shipping them out to the counties to be jailed or supervised.
California legislators passed a bill – AB 109, the 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act – which called for the “realignment” of prison sentences. Realignment – kind of a vague word, isn’t it? In this context, it meant “realigning” certain prison inmates by changing sentencing guidelines for certain crimes, and sending some offenders and parole violators to county jails rather than state prisons.
Among the parole violators who have been “realigned” was Quentin Ray Bealer, 39.
On the day Marysa disappeared, Bealer failed to appear in court on charges of second-degree burglary, receiving stolen property and possession of a methamphetamine-smoking device. Under AB 109, this was not serious. With realignment what mattered was Bealer’s current criminal charges – not his extensive criminal history dating back to the 1990’s and including crimes like battery with serious bodily injury and corporal injury to a spouse.
Anyway, three days after he failed to appear in court, Bealer was arrested, booked, cited and released.
At the same time, police were looking for a “person of interest” in Marysa’s death – a man seen on video surveillance footage taken outside the high school the day she disappeared. The video showed a stocky man with a red beard and a tattoo on his left leg walking into the school’s parking entrance, less than two minutes before Marysa would follow the same route.
Bealer’s friends saw news coverage of the video, asked him about it and he admitted it was him. Several hours after Bealer had been released with a citation on the failure to appear, one of his friends accompanied him to the police station to surrender.
At his arraignment on murder this week, Bealer insisted he was innocent and seemed to implicate one of the friends. The friend is a registered sex offender.
While this was being detailed on a news Web site, there was a five-paragraph story on an unrelated case: “Man arrested 11th time for skipping out on parole, court appearances.”
This brief story elicited 33 comments from readers, many of whom grasped a fact that eluded California legislators when they passed AB 109. As summed up by one reader: “This realignment program is a joke if we have people out there violating their parole like this guy, and yet we do nothing but book and release them.”
Here in Oregon, our legislators – at the urging of Gov. John Kitzhaber – are weighing changes in sentencing guidelines and moving prison inmates to county supervision. In Oregon it’s not called realignment – it’s called justice “reinvestment.”
Kitzhaber enlisted experts and lobbyists from the Pew Center on States to help sell justice reinvestment. He created a Commission on Public Safety to make the appropriate recommendations. A Joint Committee on Public Safety has been holding hearings in anticipation of a legislative vote later this year.
I’ve been to more than 20 meetings on the subject of Kitzhaber’s justice “reinvestment.” Supposedly $600 million can be saved over the next 10 years.
For the Quentin Ray Bealers (every state has them) this could be good news.
For the Marysa Nicholses (every state has them) this will be bad news.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons