“We are outside the courtroom just minutes before the trial of Ezra Stratton will begin.” Clisty stood in front of the camera in the hall with large, closed wooden courtroom doors behind her. “The judge has ruled against television cameras inside the courtroom. However, he does allow reporters. I’ll take notes and sketch the scene as I see it. They may look like stick figures to another artist, but I’ll do my best to bring the story as accurately as possible.”
Inside the courtroom, the bailiff pounded the gavel on the strike plate. “All rise,” he announced.
“I need to take my seat,” Clisty signed off, opened the door, hurried midway up the isle and sat down beside Roma and Ralph just as all those present took their seats. She opened her e-tablet and poised her hands to list the charges.
The bailiff read the charges pertaining to Ezra Stratton. Clisty quickly brought up the meaning of each charge on her touch screen. She always did her research completely and well in advance of a hearing. That research came up immediately on Clisty’s tablet and she followed the words as the bailiff spoke.
“Kidnapping and/or Criminal Confinement:” Indiana Code – Section 35-42-3-3 Criminal Confinement:
a. A person who knowingly or intentionally:
(1) confines another person without the person’s consent; or
(2) removes another person by fraud, enticement, force, or threat of force, from one (1) place to another;
commits criminal confinement. Except as provided in subsection (b), the offense of criminal confinement is a Class D felony.
(a) The offense of criminal confinement defined in subsection (a) is:
(1) A Class C felony if:
(A) The person confined or removed is less than fourteen (14) years of age and is not the confining or removing person’s child;
(B) It is committed by using a vehicle;
“Got ya!” she screamed inside, her hand pumping a fist in triumph. Clisty brought up her notes for the next charge.
“Accessory to Robbery.”
“Those who aid in the commission of a crime before or after the actual act are called accessories to the crime. Any person, who willingly and intentionally helps a person before a crime is committed, is considered an accessory before e fact. For example, the person who provides the principle with maps of the bank, security information, and other details may be considered an accessory before the fact.
“That fits,” she entered a large number (2) beside Accessory to
Robbery. “One more to go,” she mumbled and looked around to see if anyone heard her. Next the bailiff read:
“Accomplice in a Crime.”
“Accomplice in a Crime” Clisty clicked on that tab. “One who intentionally and voluntarily participate with another in a crime by encouraging or assisting in the commission of the crime or by failing to prevent it though under a duty to do so.”
Clisty knew it would be the courts in Illinois that would charge Stratton with fraud, embezzlement of funds, child abuse and whatever else lay incriminating at the bottom of the satchel.
The Allen County Prosecutor, Albert Fisher’s opening statements included a reference to Clisty. Her hands froze on the keyboard. “Ezra Stratton committed kidnapping and criminal confinement of Faith Sterling, and the attempted kidnapping of Clisty Sinclair. These children were only nine years old when this man snatched Faith Sterling out of the Sinclair home, and held Faith from the time she was a nine-years-old child until she was twenty-seven years old. That’s eighteen years out of her life! Her parents sit here in the courtroom, praying for justice for their daughter. We are here to see to it their prayers are answered!”
The defense attorney fed the jury lie after lie that Stratton had told them. Ezra Stratton was a master manipulator and he had fed his lawyers a believable story that was shot full of holes. It would be the witnesses that would influence the jury though, not the lawyers’ rhetoric.
“I’d like to call Melvin Dean Fargo to the stand,” Fisher announced.
Fargo came in wearing slacks, a sport shirt and sport coat. He was clean shaven and his hair trimmed. It didn’t matter how much the Prosecutor’s office made him appear to be a respectable citizen, to Clisty, he was still one of the monsters that haunted her nights. She had not seen him the day Stratton nabbed Faith; he was supposed to be waiting in the truck. But, Clisty remembered that she had heard a man’s voice at the front door, “Hurry up! I wanna get out of here.”
“Mr. Fargo, let the jury know that you have already pleaded guilty to the robbery of Fort Wayne Bank. Is that right?” Fisher questioned.
“Yes,” was Fargo’s single response.
“Did the Prosecutor’s office offer anything to you in exchange for your testimony?”
Stratton sat at the defendant’s table, his profile within Clisty’s gaze. She kept her iPad in her lap where she entered data as attorneys began their opening statements. She also began to draw in the sketch pad she had brought. What appeared on the paper was the side view of the man who, as far as Clisty was concerned, personified evil. As she listened to the testimony and mechanically penciled in details of the man—Ezra—she was suddenly aware of all the multitude of frowning, angry lines that filled his face. She decided to finish his sketch later. Flipped the page over, she began to sketch Fargo.
“In your own words,” Mr. Fargo, “please tell the jury the terms of the deal you made.”
Fargo turned slighted to look at each jury member, and then looked away. “I agreed to testify against Ezra Stratton in exchange for a reduced sentence for bank robbery.”
Stratton grabbed the side of the table, growling as he lunged across the surface, “You what?” he roared.
“Mr. Lubansky, please control your defendant,” the judge ordered.
“Sorry, Your Honor,”Lubansky said as he whispered to Stratton.
“What do you know about the kidnapping of Faith Sterling?” Fisher asked Fargo.
“Ezra and I were having coffee at Mary’s Coffee Place on the west side of Chicago, when he started crying. I asked him what was wrong. He said his little girl had just died.”
Lubansky stood up, “I object. Your Honor, what does the death of a child have to do with a kidnapping or bank robbery?”
“Mr. Fisher?” Judge Sheldon raised his eyebrows.
“Mr. Fargo was just about to tell us how all of this connects.” Fisher answered then turned back to his witness. “Mr. Stratton was upset over the death of his daughter?”
“Yeah ... yes. He said, his wife—“
“Objection,” Lubansky said again, “hearsay.”
“Withdraw,” Fisher responded. “Mr. Fargo, just tell us how the death of Mr. Stratton’s daughter affected you.”
“Ezra said his wife was so upset—”
“Your Honor!” Lubansky objected again.
“I’m going to let the witness finish. Then I’ll rule if it’s admissible. Continue Mr. Fargo.”
“Ezra asked me to go with him to Indiana to find another daughter for his wife. He said, his grandparents lived in Fort Wayne and he knew his way around.”
“Go on,” Fisher directed.
“When we got to Fort Wayne, we drove around for a while and finally spotted two girls out exploring alone. We followed them to a house and Stratton waited for a little while to see if he could tell if any adults were at home. He told me to get out and go around and look in the windows while he went to the front door. If I didn’t see anyone by the time I got back around to the front, I was to go to the truck and be ready when he came out. I saw him burst through the front door and come out a few minutes later with a girl tucked up under his arm. He threw her in the truck cab between us and we got out of there,” Fargo didn’t look at Stratton but kept his focus on Fisher.
“Now, can you tell us Stratton’s connection to the bank robbery?” Fisher asked.
“When I needed money I’d go over to Naperville, to Ezra’s place and get another payment for keeping my mouth shut about the kidnapping.”
“Did you know that Faith Sterling was still held captive in one of the upstairs rooms?”
“I didn’t want to know.”
“How did Mr. Stratton pay you?” Fished asked.
“Cash,” Fargo said and smiled. “I would only take cash so I didn’t have to endorse a check.”
“Do you know how much he gave you over the years?” Fisher asked and looked at the jury.
“Ezra knows every penny. He would take a book out of his big safe and write down every dime. I asked him where all that money came from and he said, ‘I’ve got a really good scam going. The Freedom Temple is as good as Fort Knox.’ He said everyone just hands over their money to him.”
“Hearsay,” Lubansky shouted.
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Lubansky,” Judge Sheldon spit back in a well-rehearsed tone. “We’ll check all his statements against the facts.”
“Do you know of any proof of your statements?” Fisher asked.
“Sure, Stratton loved to count his money over and over. He had it all written down in those books he kept.”
“So, each time you went to him, Stratton gave you cash for your silence?” Fisher paced back and forth in front of the witness stand like he was pondering the depth of Stratton crimes.
“No, not every time. A few times, he said he was getting tired of handing over his money to a taxi driver.”
“A taxi driver?” Fisher snapped back.
Fargo stole a glance at Stratton and quickly looked away. “Yeah, because all I did was drive the car. He said he’d planned out some robberies for me to pull to save him his cash.”
“Hearsay,” Lubansky objected with his hands spread in surrender.
“It’s not just my word,” Fargo protested. “I saved Ezra’s diagrams and instructions.”
Fisher took a manila envelope from the defense table and withdrew three pieces of paper. “I would like to enter these into the record as Exhibits A, B, and C.” He held up Exhibit A for Fargo to see. “Do you recognize this document?”
“Yes, Sir. That’s the first robbery Ezra planned for me.”
“Let the jury be aware that experts have analyzed the handwriting and are ready to testify that the handwriting matches Ezra Stratton’s,” Fisher said and handed the paper to Fargo.
“This paper shows the directions to a hardware store owned by Ezra’s uncle, Wade Dunlevy. Ezra said he had spent a summer in Fort Wayne with his grandparents and worked at the Hardware store. The writing says:
1. Payroll in store by Friday noon.
2. Most employees go to lunch between 1 pm and 2 pm. Store traffic down.
3. Money available to cash customer’s payroll checks.
4. That cash is in a vault in Dunlevy’s office.
5. This last set of numbers is the combination to the vault.
Fargo testified, “I was able to get in the store, ask Dunlevy to find a part I thought would be back in the store room, slip into the office while he was gone, open the safe and was out of there in minutes. I got five-thousand dollars with that job.”
Fisher looked at the jury. “So that paper is a complete instruction for the robbery at Dunlevy’s Hardware Store,” he repeated. “Again, let the jury be aware that all handwriting on the paper belongs to Ezra Stratton. The fingerprints are those of Stratton and Melvin Dean Fargo.” He placed the sheet of paper into evidence on the bar of the court.
“What about the robbery at Fort Wayne Bank?” He pulled out another exhibit and showed it to Fargo.
“Yes, those are Ezra’s directions to the bank, when to hit it and which teller to approach,” Fargo said with growing confidence.
“Why did Stratton identify a specific teller?” Fisher questioned.
“Because, she’s his cousin,” Fargo pointed accusingly at Stratton. “She had already been through a robbery at the bank before and Stratton said she was rattled. She had told the family if she was ever held up again, she wouldn’t be able to get the money to the robber fast enough and get him out of the bank,” Fargo sat back and finally relaxed a little.
Fisher faced the jury and waved the evidence in the air. “Let it be known that the facts of previous robberies and the name of the teller in both cases is indeed the second cousin of Ezra Stratton. All handwriting and fingerprints have been checked and corroborated.” Next, Fisher presented Exhibit C. “Tell us about this small piece, Mr. Fargo.”
Fargo took the three by five card in his hand and flipped it with his fingernail. “This one’s old, but I remember it.” He squirmed a little in the witness chair and cleared his throat. “See there, at the top, there’s a date. The date we drove from Illinois into Fort Wayne, Indiana to snatch Joslyn Stratton.”
“Let the court be aware that Joslyn’s name at the time of her abduction was Faith Sterling.” Then he turned back to the witness. “Go ahead, Mr. Fargo. Tell the court what the rest of the card says.”
“It’s a list,” Fargo explained. “It says:
1. Leave - 9 a.m. sharp
2. Take your gun
3. Gas up the truck – it’s a long way to Fort Wayne
That’s it. Ezra liked to make lists and keep notes. It makes him seem more in control than others,” Fargo added.
“Thank you. I’m finished with this witness,” Fisher said.
“You may step down, Mr. Fargo,” Judge Sheldon announced.
“I would like to call Faith Stratton,” Fisher announced.
Faith was sworn in, sat down, turned and caught Clisty’s eye.” She smiled faintly and refused to look at Stratton.
“Mrs. Stratton, tell us what happened to you when you were nine years old,” Fisher’s tone was calm and soothing.
“I was playing at my friend’s house, Clisty Sinclair’s, when the front door burst open and The Guardian broke in.”
“The Guardian?” Fisher questioned. “Is The Guardian here in this courtroom?”
Faith kept her eyes on Fisher, and then turned to the defendant. “That’s The Guardian, Ezra Stratton.”
“Will you tell the jury why you refer to Stratton as The Guardian?” Fisher asked.
“He kidnapped me and took me to his home in Naperville, Illinois. I never knew his name. I could call him, The Guardian and his wife, Lady. They forced me to live in one of the bedrooms upstairs. I never went outside. No one knew I was there except for Melvin Dean Fargo, but I didn’t know his name at the time either. I had a pillowcase over my head most of the way to Illinois and only got a glimpse of Fargo.”
Faith was on the witness stand for a long time. Then, she was cross examined by Lubansky.
“Mrs. Stratton, Ezra Stratton is your father-in-law isn’t he?” Lubansky asked with hostility in his voice.
“Yes, I guess he is.”
“You guess? Are you that confused?”
Fisher jumped up. “Your Honor, I object to the tone Mr. Lubansky is using. Faith has been through enough.”
“I’m sorry,” Lubansky apologized, and then turned back to her. “If you’re going to accuse a man of something he has a right to face you.” His voice rose and grew louder. “Take another look at the defendant. Can’t you face him?”
“Yes!” Faith hissed as she turned. “I can look at him, even though I was his child-slave, a phantom in his presence. He rarely talked to me except to yell and berate me. He never touched me except to beat me or slap me across the room, just as he did my daughter, his loving granddaughter, recently. I was a prisoner in his home. I never went to school or to the church he was the so-called Spiritual Leader in.” Her eyes flared and her cheeks grew red with anger. She stuck out her finger the full length of her arm. “There’s the man, my kidnapper, the man who illegally confined me for eighteen years and ... the guardian of ... nothing,” she yelled and stared Stratton down.
The people in the courtroom whispered between themselves. “He’s evil,” one of them said. “I’d like to get my hands on him,” a man muttered. The judge gaveled the room to silence.
“I have no more questions of this witness,” the defense attorney surrendered.
Faith stood up and waited for a few seconds while the anger, that had set her body shaking, settled down. She said nothing but held her head high and stared at Stratton as she walked passed him, touched Clisty on the shoulder as she passed and walked out of the courtroom.
“Would Mrs. Emily Stratton come to the stand?”
“What?” Lubansky jumped to his feet. “Side bar, please.”
Fisher and Lubansky came to the well of the court. “A woman cannot be forced to testify against her husband,” Lubansky protested.
“She isn’t being forced, Your Honor. And her words are not to accuse Ezra Stratton as much as they are to validate Faith Stratton’s testimony. Since Ezra would not allow anyone else in the house and Faith wasn’t permitted to go anywhere, Mrs. Emily Stratton, Faith’s little daughter Pooky, and Faith’s husband, who is now deceased, are the only people who could testify to her existence for the last eighteen years.”
Judge Sheldon ground his teeth and shot a side glance to Ezra. “If it is Mrs. Stratton’s desire to speak, I am certainly not going to stop her. Let the record stated that she is not required however.”
Emily Stratton came to the witness stand for swearing in. Her long hair, swept back from its peasant style, was fashioned into a soft cluster of curls gathered into a loose bun. As she sat down, the judge addressed her. “Mrs. Stratton, I need to ask you again if you have been forced or coerced into testifying against your husband, Ezra Stratton.”
“I was not coerced at all,” she said with her chin held high and defiance in her whisper-soft voice. She locked eyes with Ezra and did not release him from her gaze.
Stratton’s face grew hard and dark. His brows furrowed with deep menacing lines. Emily expression was defiant in the face of his silent intimidation.
“Tell me why you volunteered to testify today, Mrs. Stratton,” Fisher asked. He stood back from the witness stand. Both the jury and Ezra Stratton himself were within her gaze.
“I must testify to the presence of a wonderful child and beautiful daughter in my home. No one ever saw her ...” she started to sob and then swallowed hard regaining her voice. “But, I have to let everyone know she was there, hidden away, in our upstairs.” She looked at Ezra and snapped, “That hateful man, Ezra Stratton, brought Faith into our home, saying that he had adopted her in Indiana. He named her Joselyn and she never heard the name Faith again. In fact, Ezra never told her what her new last name was, Stratton. But, I’ll have to admit, once Joselyn came out of the shock of ripping her from her home and parents ... she told me something.” She looked back at Roma and Ralph. They were crying. “Joselyn did tell me that she had a mom and dad and that her name was Faith. I thought, or I wanted to think, that Jocelyn was just wishful-thinking, that she hadn’t gotten over the grief from the death of both of her parents. That’s what Ezra had told me.” Emily blew her nose and wiped tears from her eyes.
She continued. “Joselyn was a good girl, an inquisitive and smart girl. But, if she spoke up about anything ... that she didn’t like cauliflower for supper, Ezra would hit her, or even beat her. She was a prisoner in our home. Ezra called her his slave-child. A few times he told her that her parents didn’t die, that they had sold her to him. I cried myself to sleep many nights.”
“Why didn’t you protect her or get her out of there?” Fisher asked.
“I tried a couple of times. I was beaten and he told me that if I ever tried to run away with Joselyn, he would throw me out and keep Joselyn ... if I tried anything. Our own son Steven, who became Faith’s husband and Pooky’s father, could not stand up to him. If Steven said anything to anyone, his schooling would stop and he wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. I had to get Ezra’s permission to leave the house every time, or even go out in the yard. I had no car. I didn’t know how to drive.” She cleared her throat and whispered. “Really, I guess we were all held captive by Ezra Stratton.”
Emily sipped from a glass of water, the prosecutor provided, and then handed it back. “Ezra wouldn’t let me call the doctor when Steven had a heart attack ... he was so young. Ezra said no one was coming in the house. He said, all we had to do was pray and if Steven died, it was our fault because we didn’t pray hard enough.”
“Were you at fault, Mrs. Stratton?” Fisher asked. “Did Steven die because you and Faith didn’t pray hard enough?”
“Of course not,” Emily stated with a small measure of confidence. “God has plans beyond anything we can understand. It was only because Steven died, and Ezra and I were at the funeral, that Joselyn and Pooky were alone in the house for a few hours. God used Steven’s death to free Faith and my dear granddaughter. They were able to escape even though I couldn’t set them free.” She straightened her back and glared at Ezra Stratton.
The court buzzed again with whispers and tears. The judge did nothing to silence the room. Lubansky sat at the defense table and flipped his pen back and forth in his fingertips.
“I have no questions for this witness,” Lubansky said boldly. Stratton seethed, with his shoulders raised, like a mad dog, ready to attack. Lubansky didn’t even look at him.