By Ricky Ortega
Placed under arrest for murder at the age of 19, I stood in the living room of our home; the place where I once learned to be a kid, where I played with my dog and watched the Super Bowl with my dad. For me, it was the safest place on earth, but on this particular day, I felt the cold steel of handcuffs for the first time being locked around my wrists, a grim reminder of a fatal choice that would lead to life in prison without parole. At this moment, I looked into my mother’s eyes as she stood in front of me, courageously fighting back her tears of disbelief, searching for the strength to surrender her son to a world beyond her control. Through her maternal tenderness, I could hear the words she spoke silently in her heart; her poetic beauty expressing the qualities of her love by the simple words, “Son, do you need something to eat before you go?”
My father sat quietly in his chair, generally a man of few words but they were always words of wisdom that saw me through the turbulent years of adolescence. On this day, however, he was speechless. I kissed my little brothers good-bye as they slept in their beds and made my way to where the police officers were waiting. As they escorted me out the door, I took one last look at the trophy case that stood as the centerpiece of our home, featuring the world of artistic dance skating awarded to my sister and me while competing as dance partners. She was a vision of beauty as we danced across the floor and into the hearts of countless family members and friends. I felt so proud to have her on my arm each time we stood together on the trophy platform; but on this day, I stood alone, searching for the meaning of life; a dying man gasping for my last breath of freedom.
This series of articles will explore the many challenges facing those serving life without parole, particularly how we have dealt with deserting the ones we left behind, the ones who stood beside us throughout our lives, the ones who shared our last breath of freedom.
Randy Rizzo was arrested in November of 1990 and sentenced to life without parole. While grocery shopping with his mom, the Richmond police apprehended him while she looked on. “It was the worst day of my life,” exclaimed Rizzo. “But as hard as it was on me, I was more hurt for her than I was for myself. She was my best friend and I would spend every day taking care of her. She didn’t have it so good, and I wanted to protect her and my little brother. But now, I was in handcuffs, knowing I could never take care of them again.”
Forsaking those we love weighs heavily on our conscience. Like beasts of burden, we carry the weight of their tears upon our shoulders as we trek through this desolate wasteland we created for ourselves. Labeled incorrigible, we press on toward the light of rehabilitation in hopes of rediscovering our true authentic self.
“My mom never spoke of my crime,” admitted Rizzo. “I think she refused to consider the thought that I could be responsible for taking another human life. Although I never denied it to her, I allowed her to believe what was in her heart. She never missed one of my court hearings and she was here visiting me every time the visiting doors opened until she passed away in 2010. I’m comforted knowing she is at peace now, but I will always be reminded of the day I abandoned her.”
Shipwrecked by the winds of our past, those serving life without parole find themselves stranded on a deserted island; alone and forgotten. It is a place where we will render an account for ourselves to God. It’s an island of missed opportunities and shattered lives, where the voices of the ones we’ve harmed seem to whisper in the ocean breeze. Lost at sea, our only signs of life are the memories of the ones we left behind. My mother passed away in April, 2022, after serving 42 years of incarceration in her heart. As a young boy, she taught me about God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness will dwell. I look to that promise today; perhaps then I can see that sparkle in her eye once again, the way it used to light up my life; that sparkle that I took away from her on the day she shared my last breath of freedom.