Hell in Idaho, 2009 Judge’s Choice

By Bob Bailey

The Idaho State Penitentiary’s infirmary with walls of two different shades of tan that split the room in half like a high water mark halfway up the wall was as good a place as any to witness the end of one of Idaho’s worst sons.

James Wood looked at the paint job and decided that the choice of colors could only have been the work of some idiot bureaucrat or they had been given the paint free from the Feds. As an artist who was good enough to teach it to others, he finally decided that the darker tan was the first to arrive and when the new lighter tan came and they found it was not the same as the bottom, they had just taped it off and done a half of each job. To him it was half-assed and ugly as dirt. He had offered to paint murals all over the prison, but since it was his idea and request it was turned down with extreme prejudice. Too bad he did not have something besides an ugly wall to look at in between the bouts of intense pain.

James Wood had been mentally preparing to slip from this life into the next for that last couple of months. Would God hold him responsible for everything he had done? He did not believe he would suffer, after all, hadn’t he confessed to Jesus and gone to church? It had gotten him out of the cell one more hour a week. God was a good guy. He would let him skate after punishing him a little bit. Wasn’t religion all about forgiveness? He had never thought that he would actually be executed, but he had a firm date with a needle in a couple of months. Could it be he was wrong? If he was wrong about being executed, could there be other things he was wrong about?

Crime by crime, rape by rape, murder by murder, everything he had done started to quickly go through his brain like a movie gone wild. There really was a quick recap of your life before you died. One more thing he was wrong about. He knew he was not going to survive this experience and he was terrified deep down in the core in his soul that he had not heard from in a very long time. Not allowing society to have the satisfaction of killing him gave him some sense of personal satisfaction. They had already purchased the chemicals needed to end his miserable existence, now they would be stuck with the bill for those. This was the first humorous thought his mind had come up with in years. True punishment was that his nose still worked great and the infirmary smelled like Clorox. It reminded him of cleaning the toilets at the Youth Ranch in St. Anthony. He had cleaned a lot of toilets in his youth as less than an honor inmate. He really hated that smell and now he could do nothing but breathe it in with every shallow breath. The radiating pain was killing him, literally.

The vast majority of the good citizens of Idaho thought it was a waste of good air to have kept him alive this many years. James knew a lot of people would be happy to hear of his death, this night. The irony made him smile. James had finally found something that got approval from normal people. Smiles had not come easily to him, unless he was lying to someone in order to take advantage of them. Smiles were tools like his little pistol–useful tools that had always worked for him.

The civilized side of society had made tentative moves over large chunks of his life to keep him off the streets, putting him in reform schools, jails and prisons. As often as not they had just let him go for his crimes against humanity for lack of evidence and those were the few times he had been caught. The cops had rarely caught him. He knew how to keep on the move and leave as little evidence as possible. Prison was really the finishing school for people who chose a life that contravened the laws set up to protect the sheep from the wolves. He was a predator and he was good at it. James had no real regrets about all the things he had done to other people. He just did what he did because it was his nature. He refused to go to group sessions to discuss the devastating consequences of what he had done, even though it would have meant more time out of his cell. There was nothing he could be threatened with to get him to do anything he did not want to do. James thought it the grossest of hypocrisies to pretend to find religion and appear like you were redeemable after a lifetime of proving you weren’t. His opinion had not stopped him from playing that card. He had enjoyed messing with the system and the Holy Joes who came to see him. They were such useful idiots. He told them what they wanted to hear and they believed his line of bull. He hoped God had bought it.

The throbbing pains in his head and arm had gotten him into the infirmary and the progressive paralysis of his right side told him that he was in bad shape. An ambulance was coming to take him to St. Al’s in Boise, but that was never a fast process since the prison was in the desert west of the airport. They also had to get enough transport officers to go with him. James had the status of a bad ass and that required that two armed officers go with him.

James was now lying flat on the gurney in pain even though the night nurse had given him a shot of what she said was painkiller. It could have just been water or his hated Clorox for all he knew. He did resolve that if he survived this experience he would throw some body fluids at the ceiling tiles to make it more interesting the next time he was there.

The IV line in his left arm burned and it felt like his brain was on fire and being flooded at the same time. Now he really knew he was not going to make it out of this one alive. Of all the times he had cheated death, to die like this was an insult to him. He was supposed to go out with protestors in front of the prison and newspaper people asking for last interviews, and yes a couple of TV trucks with their boom towers up in the parking lot would give him his appropriate status as a nationally known killer. No, he would not get to enjoy any of the perks he deserved.

THIS WAS NOT FAIR! He deserved better. He had earned the right to a big send-off.

James heard a pop deep in his skull. It was not heard with his ears, but with his mind. He waited for the light at the end of a tunnel that he was supposed to see. Where the hell was the light? He was just enveloped in darkness. He had only experienced total darkness once as a teenager when he and his buddies had broken into a closed mine on the Fort Hall reservation. When they got inside, his stupid friend had turned off the flashlight and there was absolutely no light. He had panicked then and he was panicking now. Where the hell was he? Then the thought came to him that he had considered the question incorrectly. Where in hell was he? He knew there would be no light at the end of his tunnel.

In the last few moments that he could call his own, he realized a few things about his new existence. One, he still existed in some form; at least his mind, spirit, or soul did. Two, he was not in control. He had always been in control–always. And the third thing he knew was that this was not going to be pleasant; he could feel everything. There would be no thief on the cross going to paradise for him. This was very bad and quickly, it got worse.

James’ mind was like one of those movie houses in which they kept trying to perfect the viewing experience by using smells and temperature and vibrating chairs to make the experience more realistic. This beat the hell out of that. He could now see, and the strange thing was that he was looking at himself. He was driving and he felt terror in every cell of his body. It dawned on him that he was looking through the eyes of an eleven year old girl and that this was his hell. He watched and felt the molestation occur. It was just like it was happening to him, because it was. He had no idea that his victims suffered such horrific physical pain, terror and humiliation, and all at the same time. As he watched himself do the unspeakable acts he did, he was struck by how cold his eyes were. There was no pity, no life, in the eyes. They just blinked occasionally and went about the business of being evil. Evil seemed inadequate a word to use. He was beyond the normal bounds of evil. James was breaking new ground as he went. Every pain and emotion that he had caused, he now felt. Nothing was missed. After this scene ended he immediately was in the girl’s mother’s body and felt the pains that only a mother can feel at the loss of her child. It was a little better since he was not looking at himself doing the acts, just at the consequences of what he had done. He worked his way through the girl’s family and then came to her little sister. She was the one who had shared a room with his victim. James had owned pet dog that a foster family had let him keep and when the dog was run over he had hurt and hurt badly for a couple of days. The pain he was going through as experienced by this little girl made him shake with agony. The little sister had no ability to understand how anyone could take her big sister away. James was astounded at the pain and anguish he had caused.

Like a map with a central point and roads running out in all directions, James went to the end of each person’s pain trail caused by his crimes. Grandparents, neighbors, cops, schoolmates, Sunday School teachers, anybody and everybody who had been hurt by him when he killed the little girl. He felt every person’s pain, loneliness, fear, depression. Since time did not exist here, he had no idea of how long all this took. It seemed like centuries for some of the people that still hurt over his actions, and this was just one of many horrible crimes he had done. When it seemed that he was finally running out of people to hurt for, there was a mass pain that came from the entire town of Pocatello, and the anguish of the combined town hit him. “How could this happen in a good community like Pocatello?” kept being asked in his mind over and over and over. He was the only one who could answer. He could not form the words to try to explain why he had done what he had perpetrated on the innocent community. James was just being James. There was no other answer for a psychopath. When every person touched by the rape and murder of one little girl had had their day in his consciousness and he had felt exactly how they had felt, he moved on to next horrific act he had done. He was also in the stealing innocence business.

James had thought of eternity as once described by a preacher: One ant, taking one pine needle from every pine tree in the world and trying to fill the Coliseum. His new version of eternity was a pine tree with many thousands of needles and the ant would go to the end of each one and feel what all the victims and everyone related to them felt for each crime he had done. He had wanted to say, “My God, get me out of this.” He could not form the words before something else came to his consciousness and blocked him.

James was feeling very much like the ant. When every possible avenue of pain had been exhausted from one crime he had committed, he would move to a new one. Some were quick and relatively painless, like the armed robberies he had done. There were so many of these that he had forgotten many of them. Armed robberies were just his version of work and few had extended consequences. One particularly bad one was a robbery that put a business under, and the owner had killed himself. He left three kids with a penniless widow. The excruciating, heart- rending pain he felt as he was each family member he thought was unfair. How the hell could he know that would be the outcome? IT WASN’T FAIR! He had killed others, but not this guy.

Every crime, rape, or murder was different. The only things that every memory had in common was that he viewed everything, including himself, from a victim’s perspective and that his actions caused unspeakable anguish wherever he had gone his entire life. He slowly developed the absolute consciousness of his guilt and the first feelings of actual remorse that he had ever experienced in his existence. He had been sorry for committing crimes–but only when caught. Credible contrition was another skill he had developed for use in front of authorities. What he was feeling now was all too real.

The stories were wrong about hell. There were no flames, only the ones he felt inside, there were no demons, no pitchforks. He had seen no other person than himself as seen through his victims’ eyes. James was absolutely alone with his agony.

If Idahoans knew what he was going through they would not think he had escaped justice by dying of a massive heart attack before he could be executed. The eternal scales of justice were being balanced. Boy, were they being balanced.

James Wood had just decided that he was as much of a victim as the people he had wronged.  No one had warned him that his actions would cause this torture to his consciousness. IT WAS NOT FAIR! Just at that instant, as this thought came to his consciousness, he was again looking at himself through the eyes of a terrified eleven year old girl.

Bob Bailey can be contacted at [email protected]

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