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Son’s murder inspires dad’s book to help others deal with tragedy

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–When death strikes savagely without warning, little can be done to prepare surviving loved ones for hearing the news. Perhaps, though, they can be prepared to cope with the aftermath.
Carl Wrotenberry, who knows firsthand about such grief, has written a book on the matter. “After the Last Song: Dealing with Unexpected Death,” which currently is unpublished, was written in reaction to a September 1988 telephone message received by the now-retired dean of libraries at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.
A funeral director in a “thinly veiled attempt to hawk business” told Wrotenberry his son, Alan, a tenor with the Houston Grand Opera, had been killed and the body needed to be moved from the Harris County, Texas, morgue and prepared for burial.
“Words failed me,” Wrotenberry said. “I didn’t even receive the benefit of being told by an officer.
“I never thought I would have to bury my son. The shock and the grief were overwhelming. We relived the grief in unusual ways, like when we would hear an operatic song we remembered him singing. I went through extreme sorrow, extreme anger and every extreme in between.”
Wrotenberry said his book is partly a result of his coping process.
“Alan was a talented musician and a talented counselor. This book is reflective of his quality of helping people through their questions in life,” Wrotenberry said. “This book was extremely difficult to write but also very cathartic. I was afraid people would forget Alan. For us, it was a benefit to use our interpretation of our tragedy to help others.”
Details about Alan’s murder were revealed slowly to the Wrotenberry family.
Alan had been apartment sitting for Forrest Henderson, a fellow HGO tenor. Alan, who had recently been divorced, was searching for a place to live closer to the elementary school where he taught music. The night of the murder, Alan slept on a couch, a historical novel he was reading opened nearby.
Henderson, meanwhile, was visiting gay bars in the area searching for a companion for the night. The man he brought home preyed on homosexuals, killing them and stealing their possessions.
The killer bludgeoned Alan with an iron bar while he slept. Alan likely never awoke from his sleep. The murderer also killed Henderson.
“Alan was not gay. He just had a lot of gay friends,” HGO chorus member Doug Threeton said. “He used to housesit for everybody. Did it for me twice. Alan was a lot of fun, a fabulous personality.”
Wrotenberry said he spoke with his son about the unusual living arrangement. “Alan was looking forward to moving into a place of his own. He disagreed with Henderson’s lifestyle choices but was determined not to dissolve their friendship over it,” Wrotenberry said.
The devastating details were magnified when the police investigation revealed no meaningful leads. The murderer left a bloody fingerprint on the bedroom doorknob, but the Houston Police Department could not identify it. They were convinced only that Alan was a “wrong-place, wrong-time” victim.
Police spotted the car the killer had stolen, but he eluded them. The case remained open as HPD detective D.D. Shirley promised the Wrotenberrys he would stay on the case until it was solved.
Wrotenberry lived in profound grief.
“So much had to be done, and we were prepared for none of it,” he said. “We had to make all the arrangements about his funeral as well as having to take care of everything that was important to him while he was alive, including his divorced widow and his 1-year-old daughter, Christine. After the activities passed, we really had to deal with his death.”
Therapy for Wrotenberry and his wife, Julia, came through the opportunity to talk about the tragedy to others. Southwestern professor of pastoral counseling Doug Dickens provided several opportunities.
“Doug Dickens invited Julia and me to speak to the students in his Pastoral Care of Grieving Persons class. We told our story for the first time and the students were extremely interested,” Wrotenberry said.
He said he and his wife returned to the class in subsequent years and began to see the value of writing the information down to help not only grieving people but also caregivers.
In the years following Alan’s murder, the police still processed fingerprints manually. In April 1993, HPD installed an Automated Fingerprint Identification System. After testing the system by entering backlogged files, officers began running fingerprints in 1995 from unsolved Houston homicides, finding 40 probable matches from 125 cases. Alan’s case was one of the matches.
The bloody print left on the doorknob was matched to Derrick Leon Jackson, who had been in prison since 1992 serving time on robbery convictions.
For two years, Shirley followed up on the lead talking with Jackson and trying to match other fingerprints found on items in the apartment. Shirley got an indictment and a court date was set. He then called the Wrotenberrys.
“The call from Sergeant Shirley was welcome but not really a huge surprise,” Wrotenberry said. “We had become adaptive to the fact that we’d never know. We experienced great respect for Shirley for keeping his promise to stay with the case, small relief that things were moving forward, but also great anxiety for exactly the same reason.”
Wrotenberry said the trial had little effect on his grief yet was still important to him.
“The trial itself didn’t change our grief. It was something the state of Texas needed to do to accomplish justice. Still, I wanted the trial to go well. I thought a technicality would give me great trouble. The thought of him [Jackson] going free was very frightening, given his history of violence,” Wrotenberry said.
No technicalities hindered the state’s case. Some of the most powerful testimony came from Wrotenberry, who spoke of his trip to the apartment to pick up Alan’s possessions.
With the physical DNA and fingerprint evidence, conviction came swiftly. In the punishment phase, Wrotenberry spoke of his close relationship with his son.
“We watched him sing the national anthem at the Houston Astros game shortly before his murder, and we celebrated his daughter’s birthday in that same apartment one week before he was killed. The only information she has about her father is from other people. She has never heard him sing, except for a couple of videos,” Wrotenberry said. The jury deliberated for 12 hours before returning with the death sentence.
Wrotenberry said Jackson, given a history of violence that might have included two other murders, earned his punishment. “Whether or not I am a proponent of the death penalty is irrelevant. Jackson lived a life that deserves the punishment mandated by the state,” Wrotenberry said.
Forgiveness is still an issue of discontent for Wrotenberry.
“I struggle with whether or not I forgive him. I don’t know if I do or not,” he said. “On one hand, Jackson hasn’t asked for it. On the other, I certainly don’t wish him any malevolence. If I don’t forgive him, what does that mean of my conduct? If I do, how will that change me? I really don’t know how I feel.”
Wrotenberry does know that he empathizes with Rita Everline, Jackson’s mother. “She’s already experiencing the loss of her son. She saw the evidence — over 160 items. She’s dealing with the truth of her son’s life, knowing that he will die in a jail that forces over 23 hours of solitary confinement a day. She knows he will die an unnatural death because of the unnatural deaths he caused to others,” he said.
“At the trial, my wife, Julia, tried to hug Jackson’s mother and tell her she was sorry for her, but Everline drew back, saying, ‘I can’t let you do that.’ She then turned her face to the hallway and cried bitterly,” Wrotenberry said.
“We both lost our sons through this,” he said.
Wrotenberry has no interest in viewing Jackson’s execution. “I will do it if called upon by the state to witness the fulfillment of the sentenced punishment. But to attain a sense of vengeance — none of us have that need or desire,” he said.
A decade of deep sorrow has slowly progressed. The wheels of justice, turning slowly yet effectively, have finally provided answers. “After the Last Song” stands as the final testimony of Alan’s life as well as serves as a useful aid for those dealing with grief. In this sense, Alan’s legacy will continue.

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  • Bryan McAnally