Cincinnati Enquirer - A heart smashed open: Mom turns grief to activism | Scholarships and a 'Justin's Law' proposal in Ohio

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Nov 12, 2014, 11:27:51 AM11/12/14
November 12, 2014 | Cincinnati Enquirer

A heart smashed open: Mom turns grief to activism
After the brutal murder of their son, mourning parents spread his legacy of kindness

by Rachel Richardson |

It was a raw, overcast day in January, and Sandy Cates was growing uneasy. Her 18-year-old son, Justin Back, wasn't answering the phone at their Wayne Township home. It wasn't like her responsible, reliable Justin, a self-described "mama's boy" who, weeks shy of his 19th birthday, still called to let her know where he was and when she could expect him home.

In the midst of tax season at the financial firm where she works, Sandy was mired in paperwork. Justin was simply listening to his iPod or playing his favorite video game, Skyrim, she told herself. Or maybe he was outside playing in the snow, reveling in his last few days of freedom before he was set to join the U.S. Navy.

Dusky clouds blotted the sky when Sandy arrived home to a dark house. Odd, she thought. Justin always left something on. The house, always so full of Justin's laughter, felt still and strange. Sandy made her way to the dining room, noticing the table had been pushed against the wall.

She did not see that the rugs were missing.

She did not see the blood that had been scrubbed from the kitchen floor.

Her husband, Mark, arrived home soon after from his shift as a prison guard. He went into their bedroom. Sandy's jewelry boxes were gone. So too was his watch, a safe and his gun. "I think we've been robbed," he called out to Sandy. Sandy opened Justin's bedroom door. His lamp was knocked over. His laptop and iPod, missing.

Justin was gone.

'A serial killer caught after his first crime'

It had all been elaborately planned, Sandy and Mark would later discover. A clean kill. That's how Austin Myers and Timothy Mosley would explain to police their plot to kill Justin and rob the Cates' home that frigid winter's day on Jan. 28.

They fashioned a garrote that Mosley used to try and choke Justin. When that failed, he pulled out a pocketknife and stabbed Justin 21 times in his chest, back and stomach. "Help me," Justin cried out to Myers, a childhood friend who watched the terrible scene unfold. "It will all be over soon," Myers coldly replied, as Justin lay dying on the kitchen floor.

In an instant, a family was irrevocably broken, and a mother who never considered herself an activist would find herself leading an unlikely campaign that stirs strangers to random acts of kindness.

But the motive that January day? Robbery, although sometime in Myers' carefully crafted plans it had changed to something altogether much more sinister. They just wanted to kill, prosecutors would later surmise. Also on Myers' kill list, prosecutors said: Mark. And Myers' mother, and his stepfather.

"It was a serial killer who was caught after his first time," said Mark. "Unfortunately, we got to be the ones to catch him."

Myers became the youngest person on Ohio's death row when a judge sentenced him to the ultimate punishment last month. Mosley, who struck a plea deal with prosecutors that removed the death penalty from his possible sentence, is expected to be sentenced Wednesday to life in prison without parole.

Police apprehended the two 19-year-olds that same evening. Justin's body was recovered the next morning from where it had been shot with Mark's stolen gun and dumped below a bridge in Preble County. Sandy remembers the sheriff's words, "Justin's deceased," playing like a loop in her mind.

Deceased – she couldn't comprehend the horrific word in association with her charismatic, good-hearted son. The boy with the impish grin and cowboy hat whose green army men she always managed to step on in bare feet. The geek who animatedly engaged Mark in discussions on Star Wars and played video games standing up. The responsible teen who called his parents to pick him up from a party because alcohol was being served. The goofball who kept the family in stitches with his spot-on impersonations and funny faces. The serious young man who had earned his firefighter certification and wanted to serve his country in the Navy.

"You have this child so full of life, and he's no more. It was so unbelievable, and it still is," Sandy said, a sob wracking her body as she clutches a black-and-white photograph of Justin to her chest.

"They could have had anything out of this house they wanted," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "Just leave me my babies."

A refuge
'Bad things don't happen to you'

They never thought this could happen to them. After all, Wayne Township had been their refuge from a nearby school district that struggled with dismal academics and daily eruptions of violence. When a classmate threatened to shoot older son Jake, Mark and Sandy looked for safer ground. They found it in the small community of just over 8,000 residents in rural, picturesque Warren County.

Country girl Sandy immediately fell in love with the modest brick home nestled along the Little Miami Scenic Trail with a backyard large enough for the boys to practice football drills and room for them to finally have their own bedrooms. Justin, so much like her, delighted in the woodsy outdoors, coming inside just long enough to be coaxed into eating a few bites before dashing back outside.

"I fell into the false security that we live in a good area, Justin's a good kid, we're a good family. Bad things don't happen to you," Sandy said wistfully. "We found out that it does."

Now, as they struggled to comprehend their broken lives, Sandy couldn't imagine ever stepping foot again inside the house that once felt like home. She and Mark lived out of a hotel for more than a month as forensic investigators ripped out carpet and flooring to preserve as evidence. When they finally returned to their home-turned-crime-scene, Sandy found herself engulfed by memories.

Justin playing cornhole. Justin bebopping through the living room. "Hey, mom." Justin waving his hands animatedly as he recounted the latest "Family Guy" episode. Justin's "Tom Cruise megawatt smile."

"It felt like I abandoned him," Sandy said. "This is Justin's home. He loved it here."

Moving back home was agonizingly difficult. Re-entering the kitchen – where Justin had died crumpled on the floor – required near Herculean fortitude. Sandy forced herself to be in the kitchen. She crocheted there. She did crafts. She hung her favorite photograph of Justin on the wall as a way of reclaiming the space – and him.

"His eyes are closed and he looks at peace," said Sandy, tracing the picture taken by a friend just before Justin's 2013 high school graduation. "The way that his mouth is shaped… you just see a little bit of ornery."

The path forward
A son ripped away again and again

Grief is often considered to be a linear journey in which mourners pass through stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression before finally, the cathartic end goal of acceptance. But grief caused by murder does not follow a predictable blueprint. It cares nothing for tidy stages or orders. It is the building anew of a heart smashed open.

In the aftermath of Justin's murder, Sandy felt only paralyzing numbness. Reality heaved and hurled and yet time stood still. The mundane tasks of daily life – waking, talking, walking – seemed impossibly heavy. Later, when the mass of pain pitched her to the floor of Justin's bedroom sobbing for God to take her, too, she'd long for the aseptic numbness of those early days.

"You play the woulda-coulda-shoulda game. What if I had stayed home? Your mind plays the scenarios over and over and over until you get desensitized to it. Then it goes to someplace else," Sandy said.

"You have nightmares, other dreams about him. There's not a moment that doesn't have Justin going through your head."

Most frightening of all to Sandy came the deepening rage, a tight red-veiled ball of fury and hatred for Justin's seemingly remorseless killers. Frightening, for when the rage came, she began to feel she was losing pieces of Justin. His face. His voice. His laugh. With each blaze of anger, Justin was ripped away from her again and again.

"That's where I came to a crossroads and said, 'How are you going to handle this?' Sandy recalled. "You still have that anger. But am I honoring Justin by sitting here laying on the couch not showering for a week? This isn't what I want Justin remembered for, because he was so much more than that."

"I had to do something," she said. "You have to try."

A legacy lives on
Counteracting evil with random acts of kindness

It began with an unexpected story. At Justin's funeral, a high school classmate described how Justin had once stood up for him. It had meant the world to him, he said.

Soon other tales emerged: Justin stopping in his high school hallway to dry the tears of a girl he didn't know. Justin stepping in to break up a fight before it came to blows. Justin dropping everything to comfort a broken-hearted friend late at night despite having to work early the next day. Justin carrying out groceries for elderly customers at the Kroger store where he worked. Justin and the loner misfit kids he collected and befriended. Justin trying to steer his killers towards a better path in the military even as they plotted his murder.

And so the campaign "Pay it Forward, Justin-style" was born, a way to kick at the darkness through simple acts of love and kindness. Hero qualities, Sandy calls them. The call to action has become a common refrain in this pocket of Warren County. Sandy and Mark hope it will soon become viral, a global wave of karmic goodness connected through the hashtag #PIF4Justin.

"I want Justin remembered for how he lived his life and try to help other people live that same way," Sandy said. "The world is full of evil and it doesn't discriminate, but we can counteract that hopefully by doing these small things."

Seeking justice, not closure
'If Justin's law passes, Justin didn't die in vain'

That was the way Sandy and Mark made sense of the world. Evil had descended one awful winter afternoon, but into the darkness shone the promise of justice. Two monsters had brutally killed their son, but they had been caught and would be harshly punished.

But following Myers' and Mosley's arrests, they learned the grubby reality: If convicted of murder, the two 19-year-olds could have faced a sentence of just 15 years to life in prison. If convicted of aggravated murder, they could become eligible for parole in as early as 20 years.

"That's it for a life?" gasped Sandy.

After pouring prodigious hours into researching sentencing laws for convicted killers, Sandy approached state Rep. Ron Maag. Would he help her toughen those laws in Ohio? Maag, touched by Sandy's quiet ferocity, readily signed on to sponsor "Justin's Law," which proposes to add 35-, 45- and 55-year mandatory prison terms to the range of sentences available in aggravated murder convictions. The law would also allow for the sentencing of juveniles convicted of aggravated murder to life without parole.

It was never about retribution. If passed, the law will have no effect on Justin's killers, who ended up receiving far harsher sentences than what Justin's Law calls for. But, Mark and Sandy hope, it might prevent other senseless deaths.

"For 20 years I worked around the worst murderers and killers in prison," said Mark, shaking his head. "There are things you can be rehabilitated from, like drug abuse. But there are people who don't want to fix and never will."

"If Justin's law passes, Justin didn't die in vain. Something positive came out of it. That's all we're trying to do," Sandy said.

Sandy and Mark look at each other knowingly. The grief passes between them like air.

It's all they can do.

A grief like no other
Internalizing, healing and finding meaning

The Cates shoulder their sorrow differently. For Mark, the pain is too wrenching to share with the world. He folds his grief into himself. Sandy finds that activism anchors her, gives her a connection to the world and a way to ensure Justin's memory lives in it. And, in that way, his legacy will not have ended just as he was making the change from boy to man and she will find meaning – and healing – in his death.

People marvel that she's strong. Inspirational. No, she shakes her head. She's not strong, she says. She's just a mama who loves her kid.

"I couldn't fight for him that day," Sandy said, her voice trembling, the pain almost more than she can bear.

And then louder and more resolute: "I'm fighting for him now."

It's your turn
Here' how you can help

-- Pay it Forward, Justin-Style calls on people to commit random acts of kindness, such as holding the door open for someone, paying for another's coffee or donating food or clothing to those in need, and then share the acts on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #PIF4Justin. The Enquirer will be curating some of the acts shared.

--  The Cates this spring awarded four scholarships in Justin's memory to students at Waynesville High School and the Warren County Career Center who exemplify Justin's "hero" qualities. They're raising funds for next year's scholarships through T-shirt sales and donations via their website, They also share remembrances and post news of upcoming events on their Facebook page, Remembering Justin Back.

-- State Rep. Ron Maag is set to introduce Justin's Law, which seeks to strengthen Ohio's sentencing laws for inmates convicted of aggravated murder, to the state judiciary committee on Wednesday. Legal experts say the law would provide greater sentencing options for judges and could reduce the number of death penalty cases sought by Ohio prosecutors. The Cates ask citizens to contact their local state representatives in support of the bill.

/ / / / /
Steve Hall
The StandDown Texas Project
PO Box 13475
Austin, TX 78711

512.879.1675  (o
512.627.3011  (m
shall78711    (Skype

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