The Uphill Slide

There is always something.

Story In the Details


I recently read a heartbreaking article written by Gene Weingarten for the Washington Post about parents who forgot their children in the car . His article shared the stories of several of those devastated parents. Over two years ago, I read one of those stories while waiting for my daughter to try on a pregnancy bathing suit. It was in a magazine for parents. As I read then and now, I felt this awful empathy knowing that this could happen to anyone; I felt so grateful that it had never happened to me. This was something truly worthy of that expression ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.

One of those stories in the article is that of Lyn Balfour who was prosecuted for second-degree murder and acquitted. The reporter takes apart her story piece by piece to show how small details coalesced to create the circumstances wherein she forgot her son was her passenger. I do not believe he gave these details as any excuse for her, but simply to show how small things and changes in routine can come together in a tragic way. He used James Reasons’s term “Swiss Cheese Model” to explain there are holes in any well-laid plan.

Some of those details in Balfour’s life that day were an unexpected appointment, a night without much sleep, an unwell son, not her usual car, a car seat behind the driver, and a babysitter with a new cell phone. He included at the beginning of this scrutiny of her case the reason perhaps we have seen an increase in these deaths. In the 1990s car seats moved from the front seat to the back seat because of safety concerns with airbag deployment. This put the child behind the parent where distractions could lead to parents forgetting their child was in the car with them.

Jacob’s Details on Labor Day Weekend

I have picked apart the details of that weekend the accuser alleged the last instance of abuse occurred with my son and which ultimately led to the statements to the mother. I suggest the details set the background and mood of his married life, how he was portrayed to some of his in-laws, how he did not fit into parts of that family, and how it must have become necessary for them to sever his relationship with his wife. Much of that led to the ready acceptance and even embodiment of the accusations without consideration or confrontation of Jacob. The details tell a story beyond the words of accusation.

Unfortunately, in court these details are often not revealed because they are not relevant to the accusations. A skillful attorney though might paint a clearer picture through questioning depending on his/her strategy. I suggest there is much more to be learned in the details of many cases. They can explain the chain reaction or domino effect in a story. That Saturday when the accuser spent the night alone with Jacob at the house, it was another day of discord between Jacob and his wife.

Jacob’s wife had been unhappy in the marriage from the beginning, although I believe from notes and texts I have read that there were periods of relative calm and satisfaction, if not true happiness. Perhaps there was hope that somehow this marriage could be saved. Those last months in that summer though she had threatened to leave, said she was looking for an apartment, and was going for counseling with some counselor friend who was recently divorced. She testified in court that her marriage was on the rocks before the accusations, but events in those last weeks came together in some odd way.

She said she was leaving that summer, but then she invited (without consulting Jacob or collecting any rent) a girlfriend to live in their spare bedroom. This woman was still living there at this time, but she was away for that holiday weekend. That same weekend my daughter, her boyfriend and my two-month-old grandson came from Lancaster for the three-day holiday. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I hurriedly organized a family and friends picnic for Sunday to introduce my new grandson. I invited Jacob’s mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law to my picnic in reciprocation for their invitations to us to their family events.  On Saturday we planned to visit Jacob and his wife in Pittsburgh. His wife though had a hair appointment that afternoon in the North Hills.

Saturday Brunch

We arrived at Jacob’s house with plans to eat brunch at a café in Edgewood. Apparently his wife posted a comment on Facebook that morning about being forced to get up early on her day off. I did not see this, but she had posted comments in the past that seemed pointed at my daughter or Jacob or his friends. That was one reason I stopped following her postings. At the restaurant as we waited for a table, I mentioned that Jacob and I had eaten there only two days earlier for lunch. His wife’s head snapped around at my statement startling me with her reaction. I felt suddenly guilty for something and tried to make an explanation of why we had eaten lunch together. Why would I do that? I guess I always felt as if I needed to defend Jacob or myself in some way when she seemed disturbed. It was obvious they did not share their daily lives.

After the brunch she left us for her hair appointment while we rode the incline up to Mt. Washington and enjoyed our  family day together. I was hurt by her brush-off  but not surprised. I do not know if she just wanted to hurt Jacob or my daughter or all of us; it felt deliberate. In court she testified that she did not want to spend the day with Jacob’s family.

She might explain that her behavior that day was because she was fighting with Jacob. But what explanation would it be for all the other times she had ignored us or when she did not attend her nephew’s baby shower or send a gift? When we first met her, this was not the face she showed to us.  Jacob was living with us, and she visited and stayed on weekends in our house. Perhaps we were no longer useful.

What Should I Have Done?

It was obvious to many of us that Jacob’s marriage was not happy, though I think he denied the extent of the deterioration. The end of the marriage was as apparent as the folly at the beginning of the marriage was to many of us. Did we contribute to the end because we expected it? There is sometimes a belief that we fail because we expect to fail. I had told friends before the marriage that I hoped it worked out and feared that when it ended it would be ugly. If only I had known the extent of the ugliness, what would I have done?

I wonder what I should have done to develop a relationship with this woman. We did not live close enough to just get together for coffee. We never spent any time alone together to my recollection. When we saw each other, it was in Jacob’s company or at her own family’s events that we were invited to. It did not seem right to feel uncomfortable around her, because I had a good relationship with my mother-in-law. When I came to visit at my son’s house though, I felt like an interloper. Was I just too sensitive? Should I have been the one to make more effort? I expected at some point we would develop a better relationship or a least some type of guarded friendship.

In fact, I had determined to make that effort in January or February of that last year when I invited them to dinner at our house. They rarely visited us, and I felt Jacob should visit more and keep in better touch. I thought he should have stood up to her about building a relationship with us. I know he feels guilty for not standing up to her. She called me and declined the invitation because she said she would not pretend. That is a story for another post.

Saturday Afternoon

After brunch on that Saturday, Jacob’s wife came back to the house with us. She left for her hair appointment, and we went to ride the incline to Mt. Washington. Later in the afternoon, we decided to go to dinner at the Waterworks Mall. Jacob called to invite his wife to join us. She said she had already eaten and was going to hang-out with a friend.

Her brush-off was complete. Why did she eat brunch with us? Perhaps she had no escape when we came to the house. She told the court that she had packed a bag, and Jacob knew she was not coming home that night. He would not have seen her packed bag because we never returned to the house that day after we split up with her. Jacob said he did not know until later that night when she texted him that she was staying out all night. Staying out at night was not usual for her.

Saturday Evening

After we finished eating dinner, Jacob left us to go back across the river; and we went home. On his way home, he said he decided to stop to visit the accuser’s family. It was a couple blocks detour off his way home. Why? He did not really have an answer other than impulse. It was still early evening. Have you ever just stopped to visit someone on an impulse because you are in the neighborhood or maybe not even in the neighborhood? I have, and I could give you no reason other than I felt like visiting.

The prosecution suggested that he knew his wife was not coming home, and he came specifically to pick up the accuser. Jacob said he came to visit, and then the mother suggested jokingly or not jokingly that he take two children on that Saturday night. Unfortunately, the sister remembered a hair appointment the next day; so the accuser came alone.

It was not strange for them to visit. Why did they like to visit? The accuser claimed closeness to Jacob’s wife. Jacob said they did not normally take them places or out to eat. They did not give them things or buy them presents. Maybe they liked the extra room and having separate sleeping spaces. Maybe they liked the televisions or the video games. Maybe they just liked to get away from their usual routine. Maybe it was to give their mother a break.

The mother called Jacob a mentor of something not specified. What did they have in common? Gaming or computers? A common interest of many, but Jacob said he never spent a lot of time discussing interests or goals with the accuser. The police called Jacob a father figure when the accuser had a father living close by as well as a grandfather figure and two reportedly close cousins. These were terms to suggest that Jacob had a relationship with this accuser that he did not. Jacob shared the hospitality of his home with these two children for no other reason than he was a kind person who cared about people.

Alone in the House

Where was Jacob’s wife that night? She said she was staying with a friend in Greensburg, but no one verified that story. It was not relevant; no one disputed the fact that she did not come home that night. Almost a year later, the accuser’s mother testified she still did not know where Jacob’s wife was that night.

It was relevant to Jacob’s attitude and his relationship with his wife that she did not come home that night. His wife planned to travel from Pittsburgh to Johnstown on Sunday to take part in a fantasy football league. She told Jacob that this league included a previous long-term boyfriend who lived in Johnstown. Jacob was jealous. Feeling as I did though about their relationship, I asked myself why he should be jealous at all. Relationships can be quite contradictory. Why did she tell him about that old boyfriend? Was she trying to make Jacob jealous? Why did she not come home that night? I have to accept that Jacob loved her and still believed their relationship could be saved.

Sunday Picnic

The following day Jacob arrived at the picnic with his grandmother-in-law. In fact everyone was there when Jacob’s wife arrived late. She was in a dress when we were all in country picnic casual. In the kitchen or dining room, Jacob’s mother-in-law whispered to me that Jacob had told her daughter not to come. Why was she whispering complaints about my son in my ear? Jacob said that his wife had complained about our picnic, because she had other plans. At that point, he told her not to come then. I, in fact, wondered why my daughter-in-law had come. She obviously did not want to be there. She had already blown us off the day before.  She sat beside my daughter’s boyfriend and talked only to him as if they were the two outsiders. He was not an outsider though, nor did he feel like one. As I introduced her to our friends, she walked away. I thought she was rude. I can only think she came for show for her mother, because she did not come for Jacob or us.

In the Details

The relationship of Jacob and his wife was volatile and unhealthy and full of vitriol. She was distrustful of him. He was jealous of her renewed relationship with her ex-boyfriend. They were not speaking to each other, and she had behaved badly towards Jacob and our family on Saturday. At the picnic, they did not sit beside each other; and I think they never spoke to each other.

Why did Jacob’s wife stay with him when she was so unhappy? She had family with whom she had shared her unhappiness. She had portrayed him to her mother as an abusive husband. Why was she still there? What was she waiting for?

I break here in this story and will continue on the next post with how more details of the next days and week brought out the accusations. Jacob’s case rested on the accuser’s story, the mother’s testimony about how she got those accusations, and Jacob’s ex-wife’s testimony about their marriage and her suspicions.

The story is in details of his relationship with his ex-family and the lack of details in some areas that raise reasonable doubt. The discouraging thing about this is that instructions to the jury, if I understand them completely as a lay person, told those decision-makers that reasonable doubt could be ignored with the testimony of a credible witness. What makes a credible witness? That really is a 50-50 guess. Ted Talks has an interesting video about children’s lies.



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