By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Richie's best friend--his father--hanged himself.
And the suicide became connected in everyone's mind--including her own--to Esther. It came after Richie's mother, Barbara, had started working at a tony Valley spa as a cleaning lady. Barbara had gotten the job because Esther leaned on a friend, the gym's owner.
Returning home from work one day, Barbara erupted. Her husband, Lennie, had sold the videocassette player for crack. Though Barbara still smoked rock, she had it in her head that the VCR was off limits. She rented movies and used the VCR to baby-sit her youngest children, 7-year-old John and 8-year-old Tabatha.
Barbara threw Lennie out of the house.
Richie tried to console his dad, a man given to depression. When the sun went down, however, Barbara screamed at Richie to come inside. Lennie brooded in the dark.
That night, July 14, 1994, Lennie fashioned a noose out of rope, slipped the line over his neck and hanged himself from a railing on the balcony just outside Barbara's front door.
Neighbors found his corpse and cut it down.
"I saw him lying on the floor of the porch," said Richie. "It was pretty awful. My brother and sisters knew what had happened and couldn't do anything more about it than I could."
The suicide devastated Barbara.
She quit the job Esther had gotten her. She moved out of an apartment Esther had found her in a nice part of town and back into her old neighborhood in downtown Phoenix. She gave up on the dream of a better life that Esther had tried to create for her.
Lennie's parents gave her a couple of thousand dollars to bury their son properly; she smoked the money, binging on crack, and requested the county cremate Lennie as a pauper.
After the funeral money ran out, Barbara turned to prostitution to support her habit.
Hollywood call girls might cater to lonely executives, but Barbara turned tricks on skid row. Every time she climbed into the front seat of a john's car, she took her life and a stranger's sex organs into her hands. The Blandon kids got used to seeing their mother return home beaten up.
Barbara and the children moved frequently. Eviction threats hounded them; she'd pack up their possessions in a shopping cart, and then it was down the sidewalk, looking for the next nearby flop.
Richie worried about his brother and sisters as his family disintegrated. Guilt overwhelmed him because he felt responsible for his dad's death. Why hadn't he thought of something to say on the one night his best friend needed him?
Richie believed it was up to him to save what was left of his family.
Noticing a construction crew repairing a run-down apartment complex near Second Avenue and Fillmore, the boy asked for a job. The foreman, who protected himself from the neighbors with a pistol on his hip, felt sorry for this child who wanted to put food on the family table. He paid Richie to do odd jobs, asking only that the breadwinner stay in grade school.
When Richie met the California lawyer who owned the building, the kid stepped right up and asked if his family could have one of the freshly patched apartments. Touched by the plea, the landlord let Barbara and her kids move in without paying rent.
Richie put a roof over his family's head, and then he reached out to Esther. His sister Helen had dropped out of high school, pregnant and unmoved by Esther's naive gestures at assistance.
But Richie had a different attitude.
"I thought Esther was cool for trying to help my sister," said Richie. "So I went to Esther and asked if she could help me."
Esther promised to stick by Richie, a compassionate pledge that quickly convulsed Gould's own family.
But no one saw the storm coming.
In the beginning, there was only a simple letter from Richie to Esther, addressed: "To My Favrit [sic] Mentor."
"I remember when I was three years old, and it was my birthday, [sic] so well because it was so great," wrote the man of the house. "[Richie's aunt] went to the car and got me a present. She said open your eyes, so I did. It was a brand new Huffy bike . . ."
From this innocent childhood, Richie went on to describe in the letter how his family moved from housing projects to slums, and how one school followed another.
". . . [Esther] picked up on me because she saw that I was doing good in school . . ."
Although he spilled out his life story in the letter, Richie never once mentioned crack or his father's suicide. And the fact is, he was not doing well in school.
The omission and the exaggeration are less important than the boy's vision: Richie Blandon had taken the first crucial step to reinventing himself.
Esther Gould grew up in a family that loved her.
She was the sort of child who needed little discipline. In fact, the one time that her father slapped her, the entire family ended up in tears.
"I was very close to my parents, who valued me highly, even though I was a girl. I was always assured that I was special," said Esther.