MAXWELL:  A requiem for Jimmy

12/17/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As the first light of Sunday morning broke through the avocado trees, the dew-soaked bouquet of flowers that had been placed on the twisted gate glistened and seemed so alive.

What had the mourner who had left the flowers been thinking when he or she encountered this sad place in the Redland _ a quiet farming area southwest of Miami, where police found the remains of 9-year-old Samuel James “Jimmy” Ryce?

That mourner, like me, must have stared long and hard at the abandoned trailer in the avocado grove where, according to police reports, Jimmy was murdered. That mourner, too, must have tried to imagine the child’s terror, his agony during the final moments of his existence.

Why was I here, reflecting on a bouquet of flowers and an old trailer?

Mainly, I suppose, because of the overwhelming grief I felt. Since the moment I, a father and a grandfather, first heard about Jimmy’s disappearance in September, I have vicariously felt something of the parents’ loss. In fact, I feel the loss of parents everywhere.

Each day, many American children are abused and murdered, and too many of us are becoming inured to the horror of these atrocities. As a writer, I wish to put human faces on these innocent victims who, unfortunately, become mere statistics over time. Writers also need to put faces on the surviving loved ones whose sorrow becomes nothing more than yesterday’s news or footage in a one-time special on missing children.

By now, the country is familiar with the horrific details that emerged on Dec. 9, three months after Jimmy Ryce vanished:

At about 3:30 p.m., according to police reports, Jimmy got off the school bus, within shouting distance of his front door. Juan Carlos Chavez, a 28-year-old farmhand who rafted from Cuba to the United States in 1991, confessed that he forced Jimmy into his car at gunpoint and drove him to a trailer in an avocado grove nearby.

There, Chavez said in an affidavit, he sodomized the child. He then drove Jimmy back to the spot of the abduction and was about to release the boy when he was frightened by police vehicles near Jimmy’s home. So Chavez drove Jimmy back to the trailer, shot him, cut up his body and put the parts in containers, where police found them.

And who was Jimmy Ryce, the child who will remain 9 years old forever?

He was a fourth-grader who weighed 70 pounds and had a perpetual gapped-tooth smile that endeared him to everyone. He had blue eyes and reddish-brown hair. He had the dreams of an all-American boy. A Miami Dolphin fanatic, he had a poster of quarterback Dan Marino over his bed.

He was an outstanding baseball player and hoped, like many other boys his age, to break into the major leagues. He wanted to make his parents, Claudine and Don, proud. Jimmy had a fine collection of trading cards, and he loved baseball caps. Classical music captivated him, and he wanted to play the piano. He was the scrawny kid, in the newspaper photograph, proudly clinging to that huge tuna he recently had caught in the Keys.

But Jimmy is gone now, and none of his dreams will come true, as his parents and older sister know only too well.

From the very beginning of this sad affair, the Ryces, like former South Floridians John and Rave Walsh, whose 7-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped and beheaded in 1981, have been a source of strength for others of us who may lose a child. And like the Walshes, the Ryces _ rather than suffer in bitter silence _ have turned their loss into a cause.

Backed by thousands of supporters, they already have, for example, petitioned President Clinton to mandate that missing children’s photographs be placed in all post offices and other federal facilities.

I had known that the Ryces were admirable folk, but I did not know how much so until I, along with dozens of other print and television journalists, attended the news conference they held in their front yard six hours after receiving the terrible news. Standing erect and looking straight ahead, both were dressed immaculately. They donned red roses.

I stood in the rear. A light rain fell.

“Jimmy was someone we always called our gift from God,” Don Ryce said, holding back the tears. “Now, we know he’s back in God’s hands. But the fight we started for Jimmy is just beginning. As long as we live, we’re going to be seeking new laws, seeking new changes in the way things are done here for children.

“If Jimmy had to die, please help us have his sacrifice have some meaning. . . . It’s too late for Jimmy. It’s not too late for other kids. There is nothing anyone can do to help our grief. But one thing we could not stand is . . . to look at another couple and see them go through the living hell we’ve been through.”

Claudine Ryce wiped drops of rain and tears from her cheeks and said: “I believe that Jimmy is in heaven, and I hope I can be with him someday. I have to be very, very good and make sure I get there. Meantime, we will go forward and try to make the world a safer place for children.”

Up to the very end, the Ryces held out hope that Jimmy would be home for Christmas. But the little boy with the crooked baseball cap and the innocent smile will not be home for Christmas _ ever.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.