Devils' Advocate

Karl Whitmire takes in strays. Cats, usually, but sometimes a dog. Once in a while, even a person. Billy Lyster was a stray of sorts -- cute and sweet but not too quick, Karl remembers. And young.

That was 13 years ago. Karl was 35, Billy 21. A friend asked Karl if he had work for Billy. Karl hired him to clean his bathrooms; Billy wanted to move in. Eventually, he did. Karl and Billy fooled around, but kept separate rooms.

The relationship didn't get serious until three years ago, when Billy moved out of Karl's north Phoenix home -- and into a jail cell.

In 1996, a grand jury indicted Billy Lyster on charges of child molestation. According to the police report from one of the incidents, Billy allegedly performed oral sex on a 12-year-old boy from down the street and offered to buy him Nintendo games and other toys in exchange for more sexual contact. At Karl's urging, Billy pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted sexual contact with a minor. Karl says he thought Billy would get six months; Billy got eight years.

Karl replays the day of Billy's sentencing over and over in his mind. He blames the victims, the judge, the system, Billy's lawyer at the time -- but most of all, Karl blames himself for persuading Billy to sign that plea agreement.

He replays the events that led to the initial charges, too, and Karl knows Billy is innocent. Yeah, maybe Billy asked for something, Karl concedes, but there's no way Billy performed oral sex on that kid.

How does he know this? Because Billy refused to perform oral sex on Karl, despite Karl's requests. They fought about it often.

"He would pack his clothes and everything, and be willing to move out of my house rather than suck my dick," Karl says of Billy. "Yet they're saying he sucked these little boys' dicks. And that is why I don't believe it."

So, for the past three years, seven months and 19 days, Karl has devoted himself to getting Billy out of prison, or at least making his partner's life better while he's in. Karl sued the Phoenix Police Department, claiming officers violated Billy's rights when they arrested him. He sued Billy's former lawyer for malpractice. Karl sued the state because he and Billy are not allowed to embrace during visits because they are gay.

When Billy got sick in prison, Karl wrote to the U.S. Justice Department, claiming his lover had actually died in the state's custody and therefore the remainder of his sentence should be dropped. He filed a motion asking the court to review Billy's intelligence, saying his IQ had dropped in prison and thus Billy shouldn't be incarcerated because he doesn't understand his crime anymore. Karl writes often to prison officials. He filed other motions claiming Billy was medicated at the time he made his plea "agreement and didn't understand what he was signing, and that Billy didn't understand his crime because he was molested as a child. He's complained about work conditions at the state prison.

Most recently, Karl asked that Billy be granted furlough to come home twice a year, at Christmas and on Karl's birthday.

And so on. Nothing has come of a single one of Karl's lawsuits or letters, but that hasn't stopped him yet. Instead, he's broadening his efforts. Billy tells his fellow inmates in the sex offender yard (currently, the South Unit at the Arizona State Prison in Florence) about Karl's legal filings, and some write to Karl, asking for help. Karl reads their files and decides whether they have a case to be made -- and if so, he promises to make it. No charge.

But it's Karl's "inmate assistance program" that really fills his mailbox.

When he found out that inmate jobs pay little and that inmates must buy their own toiletries, Karl was outraged.

"If you get a job, at 10, 20 cents an hour, you've got to use your pay to buy soap, shampoo, shaving materials. It's slave labor. It's a sweatshop. And when I found out that these guys have no visits, no friends, no family, they're working for 10 cents an hour and using their money to buy their soaps and shampoos, I took offense on it. I love Billy. I could never make him do without," Karl says.". . . So I got names and numbers, and I sent them a little bit of money so they could buy themselves something. A soda, a candy bar. I just sent $25 to an inmate who asked me if I could help him get a pair of tennis shoes 'cause his tennis shoes are shot. No problem."

Not too long ago, Karl cruised local pawn shops and bought 20 televisions. He drew names from a fishbowl and sent the televisions to inmates. Word has spread outside the various sex offender yards where Billy's been housed; Karl gets requests from corrections facilities all over the state, with guys asking for $25 for a Walkman or money for an electric razor. Their wishes are generally granted. Karl estimates he spends $200 a month -- money some would say he can ill afford. His modest home has seen better days, and he's put off getting a tooth pulled.

Now Karl's got strays all over Arizona, mostly child molesters and other sex offenders. He helps anyone, regardless of his crime, although he won't fight all of their battles. He turned down the guy who wanted Karl to protest the wearing of orange uniforms in prison, and another who complained that the toothbrushes are too short (it's so they can't be used as weapons).

Some have even sought him out after they've been released. Karl would let them stay with him, but his 17-year-old daughter is living at his house, and released sex offenders are not allowed to live with minors.

From time to time, Karl sends a "newsletter" to his mailing list of inmates, a chatty note filled with tales of his cats' health and his four-wheeling adventures and updates on his relationship with Billy, and on Billy's case. He includes some Internet humor (a recent newsletter offered a list of the "Top ten things a man would do if he woke with a vagina for a day") and sponsors a contest, with cash prizes. The latest quiz: What is the meaning of a license plate his daughter bought for her boyfriend's motorcycle? It reads "8 3 1."

The answer? "Eight letters, three words, one meaning:


From the prison yard to the streets, sex offenders are the lowest of the low. In prison, they are segregated from other criminals as a means of protecting the sex offenders' safety. Once out of prison, laws require that many register their whereabouts with the government, that they undergo lifetime probation and observation, and that neighbors are notified when they move in.

Society treats sex offenders this way for a reason: They are often the most difficult to rehabilitate. And their victims are the most defenseless, the most vulnerable to immediate harm and emotional trauma -- the kind of harm that haunts one for a lifetime.

There's just not a lot of sympathy out there for child molesters. So why does Karl Whitmire have it in droves? Why would a guy with a daughter, a full-time job and a lot of cats to feed bother with the dregs of society?

"Bad terminology, but out of pity," Karl says, brushing off the question. But it's more than that. Helping these guys -- even if they're society's cast-offs, pariahs -- makes Karl feel important. They look up to him. They need him. And Karl needs to be needed.

"It's one of the reasons I stay with Billy -- because I think he'd be helpless without me," Karl says. "And I do feel important, because I have someone there who needs me. And I love him."

Karl is sitting in a booth at the Metrocenter Souper Salad, crying into his cottage cheese.

This place was his choice -- he wanted something low-cholesterol -- but there's nothing green on his plate. Instead, it's a mayonnaisey mosh of everything white the salad bar has to offer, topped with pink -- ham and salami.

Doesn't matter, he's barely touched it. He's wearing shorts, espadrilles and an oversize tee with an enormous green-eyed cat on it. He found the shirt at a thrift shop and wants to copy it, to sell as a fund raiser for his animal shelter, which is really just his pet-packed house.

Karl is unshaven, his reddish-brown hair faded, and when he gets going on a topic, his face is so expressive he looks like a Dr. Seuss character. But Karl's story is certainly not for children, and is hard even for some adults to hear.

Some history: Karl was born in Buffalo, New York, and moved to Arizona in the early '60s as a kid. He grew up in north Phoenix, not far from Metrocenter. He didn't go to college. Instead, he ran a sandwich shop, made golf clubs, had his own limousine service. He worked at an auto body yard, which is where he learned to weld. For years, he's run his own construction-related business.

Karl says he comes up with his best legal theories while he's welding. "The reason my mind works so well while I'm working is because any multicolored orangutan can do what I do," he insists.

He starts to cry when he talks about Billy. Oh no, he says, he doesn't want to describe the specifics of Billy's case -- there's a young boy sitting at the next table. Instead, he talks about how he and Billy met, about the irony of not falling in love until Billy was sent away.

"When that judge said, 'I can't abide by this six months. . . . Everybody's given you the benefit of the doubt. Everybody's taken pity on you. I will not take pity on you. You will spend the next eight years of your life'" -- by now Karl is sobbing loudly -- "'in the custody of the Department of Corrections.'

". . . That was when I realized exactly how much he meant to me."

He keeps going. "Everybody says he's so fortunate to have me." But Karl says he's the lucky one.

"I've been with a lot of people in my life, and of the bunch that I've been with, Billy's the best. I'm not saying he's perfect; I'm saying he's the best. He didn't clean the house the way I wanted him to clean the house, but he tried. He didn't cook the way I wanted him to cook, but he tried. He would take a chicken breast, put it on a platter, pour Italian dressing over it and bake it. I won't eat it because of the cholesterol. He'd throw a bitch fit and throw it in the trash. But I could tell him to go to the bank and he'd go to the bank and bring the money back the way he was supposed to."

So Karl decided he should wait out the eight years, take a chance on Billy. His only request: that Billy remain faithful. Billy has agreed that Karl can fool around with one guy who hangs out at the house, only because Billy knows that the guy drives Karl nuts, that Karl would never fall in love with the guy.

"There's people in the prison that write me. There's people who would love to take me away from him," Karl says. One even wrote and called him "Daddy," and said now Karl was his. Karl understands why; he treats Billy well. The others are jealous. Karl visits every chance he gets, and estimates that only about 100 of the 500 inmates in Billy's yard ever get visits from anyone.

People don't understand how hard it is, Karl says through the tears. He thinks it's easier to lose a loved one to death than watch him go to prison.

"I watch people crying and whining because their kid was riding a motorcycle . . . and he [accidentally] killed himself. They're crying and going nutburgers over that and everything, and I can feel their pain, but you know what? I've turned cold-hearted on them. Because these people are crying over something like spilled milk. There's nothing they can do about it. They get their closure. They get to bury that person, they get to have a holiday or two of pain, they get to move on. When you have someone in prison who is your entire world," -- he pauses, sobbing -- "you miss him every day, you wait by the phone every night, every day you run out to the mailbox looking for a letter. You never get that closure. So the pain never goes away."

One way he passes the time is by working on the many lawsuits he's filed on Billy's behalf, and on behalf of other prisoners, as well.

"Billy's attorney has repeatedly told me that I am probably the smartest lawyer in Phoenix," Karl says.

Actually, that's true -- sort of. Billy's attorney, Daniel Inserra, who has his own practice in Scottsdale, says of Karl, "I hope you don't take it out of context, but he's the best lawyer in the world. I mean, his stuff is all wrong, but his ideas are -- he's the type of guy who would have thought up the McDonald's lawsuit. You remember that, when the woman poured the coffee in her lap? He's the type who can think of that kind of stuff."

Not every lawyer agrees. William Wilder, who until recently worked for the Arizona Attorney General and defended the state in the "homosexual hugging" lawsuit Karl filed in federal court, says, "From what I saw, I would not agree with the 'brilliant legal mind' theory." He adds that one of Karl's "legal" ploys was to call upon Judge Roger Strand to hark back to the days when he was young and in love and wanted a hug. Much of it was not so different from what you might see in the average inmate's lawsuit.

"He had some interesting legal theories, but they just didn't pan out. Especially when you have an inmate involved, ADOC has the right to take reasonable measures to protect inmates, and I think their regulation was certainly calculated to pursue that."

The state's position was that homosexuals would be placed in danger if other inmates saw them hugging. Strand tossed the case; it's on appeal.

At Souper Salad, Karl pushes his plate away. "I have one case -- and don't take offense on this case, all right, because it is a little disgusting," Karl says, eager to talk about his legal maneuvers, obviously not worried now about that young boy in the next booth.

An inmate whose prison name is "Thunder" wrote to Karl, requesting legal assistance. In 1993, a jury in Maricopa County Superior Court convicted Thunder of having sexual intercourse with his 9-year-old stepdaughter, of having her touch his "private parts" and of two counts of providing obscene material to minors. He was sentenced to 25 years. He's appealed his case, but so far it's gone nowhere. (Thunder did not respond to a letter seeking comment.)

Karl asked Thunder to send him his file. He read the police report, looking for constitutional violations, then read the testimony.

"I read the testimony of this guy's victim, a little girl. I read her testimony, and after reading her testimony, I was disgusted with this man. . . . I put his file aside, and I sat there watching TV."

But then Karl changed his mind. "I was sitting there and I said, 'Wait a minute. If I was on a jury, I could not convict that man.'

"They shafted him. The police report said that he supposedly masturbated in front of this gal, that he climaxed, and that she asked him what that white stuff was, and he explained to her that it's sperm, it comes from a man's balls. In her testimony she says that he laid on the couch behind her and he made her go get the lotion out of the bedroom. And she was asked, 'What did it feel like?' And she said, 'Oh, it kind of hurt like something going in and then he did this and it was over with.' And they said, 'OK, now, what did he tell you to do?' 'He told me to go to the toilet.' 'Did you go to the toilet?' 'Yes.' 'Was there anything in the toilet?' And her answer was, like, 'White stuff?'

"Now, I'm sorry. I'm a gay man. I know about anal sex. This little girl's answer -- first off she should have been crying, 'And I said, "Daddy, Daddy, please stop, please don't do it!"' And the answer should have been, 'Was there something in the toilet?' 'Blood.'"

Next, Karl "interviewed" a friend of his who had anal sex at age 9. Was there blood? Yes, his friend told him. Aha.

"This little girl's answer was wrong," Karl says, his voice rising with his passion, his lunch still untouched. "There is blood. There is ripping and tearing. You got a 39-year-old-man who's well-endowed taking a 9-year-old girl for the first time and there's no pain, no blood, no tears? He was lied into prison."

Karl is getting blisters on his fingers, he says, typing Thunder's legal appeal. How does he do his legal research? "I pick it up here and there."

But isn't there a client he'll refuse? An inmate whose crime was so heinous he'd just as soon let him sit out his sentence? No. Anyhow, Karl says, if he decides an inmate deserves part of his sentence, but not the whole thing, he'll time his filings accordingly.

Here's his hypothetical example: "Let's put it this way. You did it. You know you did it. I know by looking at the paperwork you did it. You had one count against you. You're looking at six years of your life in prison for one count. You just got in there, and it took you 30 days to contact me. I know that a Rule 30 case is going to take a year, an appeal on that is going to take nine months, a writ of habeas corpus is going to take a little bit of time. We're looking at two to three years of your life, gone."

Makes perfect sense to Karl. "Because he did it, he was wrong. And if he comes to me and I can get him out in 90 days, but I think he should be in for three years, I'll drag it out."

But what if the victim was a minor?

"I'm going to consider taking it."

But does Karl have a cutoff, like will he take a case if a 16-year-old was allegedly molested, as opposed to, say, a 5-year-old?

Karl tsks. "You're bringing prejudice into it."

Often, Karl will review a file, make suggestions and send it back, letting the inmate deal with his own lawyer on it, so Karl never knows if his ideas worked.

He says he was successful in getting parole for a man named Milton Frey. Milton is not a sex offender; he was in for attempted first-degree murder and drove the bus at one of the prison facilities where Billy was held. Milton and Karl struck up a friendship.

"He's a brilliant legal technician when he puts his mind to it," Milton says of Karl. He knows this because of the 200-page brief Karl wrote to the parole board on Milton's behalf.

Actually, Karl says, it was pretty simple.

"There were no arguments. When you deal with the parole board, you've got to get your point across within the first five to 10 pages. The rest of it they won't read. You could cite poetry, the rest of it. I basically told them that I came to know him while he was driving the bus in Tucson, and I came to know his situation and stuff, and that on a personal opinion, I felt that he had learned his lesson and that he needed to be on home arrest, and I didn't cite any precedent, I just let them know the person he was, that he learned his lesson and everything, that I had insight into him because I always rode his bus and that I felt that was the best way for justice to be served in this matter."

And for the rest of the 200 pages? Karl says he literally did cite poetry. Dozens of pages of it. He can't recall the particular poet.

Since he's been out (and back in once, on a parole violation), Milton has benefited greatly from Karl's generosity. Karl found and loaned him the money to buy a Suzuki Samurai and got him a job. After nearly 12 years in prison, life can be confusing, Milton says.

"When I see something I don't understand, I'll call Karl."

Karl's latest rescue mission? Toni Windom. Toni and Billy met when Billy was incarcerated in Tucson. Toni was in for armed robbery, but had a prior conviction as a sex offender, so he was put in a sex-offender unit. He was released last year, but violated parole because he failed to keep the state updated on where he was living, a condition of a sex offender's release. He was homeless. Toni is back in prison. He was up for parole this summer, and Karl wrote the parole board a letter offering to pay for housing for Toni and monitor him until he could get on his feet. Toni's parole was still denied.

"Toni's one of the ones who wrote to me, hitting on me," Karl says. The one who called him Daddy.

In a letter, Toni says Karl's been a tremendous help to him. "Karl is one of a kind," Windom writes. They've corresponded for three years. Toni also writes to New Times of his rough childhood in south Phoenix, how he was molested and addicted to drugs. He says he doesn't recall the sex offense that landed him in jail; he thinks it might have been a prostitution charge. Pinal Superior Court records show he pleaded guilty in 1996 to a count of sexual abuse, charged with performing oral sex on an unwilling minor.

Karl plans to challenge the sex-offender notification and registration laws as soon as he can find a good case. The laws were passed in response to a case in which a released sex offender raped and killed a young girl. The argument for making sex offenders register is so that they can specifically be kept apart from minors.

"We have a sex offender, lives the next street over from me, and they're driving him nuts with that whole notification thing, and I have a real problem with that!" Karl says. "Megan's Law came about because little Megan was raped and murdered by a sex offender who was just released from prison. Everybody was up at arms, so they came up with Megan's Law to register sex offenders and notify the neighborhoods of sex offenders.

"However, how many times have you read in the newspaper about a family completely wiped out at an intersection by a guy who just got out of prison for DUI? How many times you read in the newspaper about a little old lady that was murdered in a burglary attempt by someone who just got out of prison for burglary? How come it's not the Little Old Lady Law? How come it's not the DUI Family Law? How come it's not the Felon Registration Law? It's Megan's Law. That's bullcrap. The Constitution very clearly states that no law, statute or ordinance shall be enacted that does not affect all persons equally. Megan's Law affects sex offenders only. Therefore it is unconstitutional."

Karl says Billy's attorney suggested that he wait until Billy gets released from prison, then have him refuse to register. He'd get tossed back in prison, and Karl would have his lawsuit. Karl's not so sure he wants to do that. He thinks he has a good case up in Washington state.

In a brief phone conversation from the state prison, Billy sounds more intelligent than Karl has described. Actually, he sounds a lot like Karl -- same cadence to the speech, often the same phrases. But Billy does giggle at the end of every sentence, and his attention span is short. He frequently interrupts the call to chat with a fellow inmate, his "adopted brother," Billy says. They're not doing anything -- just friends -- he adds quickly.

"I love him to death," Billy says when asked about Karl. "He's a very sweet, kindhearted man. He helps people. I just love all the qualities about him. . . . He's my whole life, he's my whole reason for living."

He says it's amazing, how he tells fellow inmates to write to Karl for legal advice or money, and it appears. Billy doesn't want to talk about his own case, except to say he didn't do 90 percent of what he's accused of.

None of Billy's victims contacted for this story wanted to talk about the case. But a "confrontation call" from the 1996 police report that details Billy's sex acts with a 12-year-old is damning evidence. Police persuaded a girl who knew both Billy and the alleged victim to make the taped call, in which she asks Billy about the accusations. Billy admits to performing oral sex on the 12-year-old, but says the boy wanted it, that he kept "egging it on, and on, and on, and on."

Even though he's seen the police report, Karl insists he knows Billy never did that, because Billy repeatedly refused to give Karl a blowjob.

On a chilly morning in early November, Karl and his daughter, Trish Malone, are on their front porch, playing with the animals.

Two large cats are perched on the roof, and Trish stands on the tips of her Birkenstocked toes to hand them raw hot dogs, flashing a pierced bellybutton. Three dogs and a number of cats beg. One of the dogs is named Shady, after rapper Eminem's alter ego Slim Shady, one of Trish's favorite musicians.

Small red bows decorate the front of the house. Got the holiday decorations up early? Nah, Karl says, they're left over from last year. He used to have the front tree wrapped in yellow ribbon, in honor of Billy.

Karl and Trish know all the animals' names and rattle them off with pride. They don't know how many cats they have.

"I've lost count," Karl says, his eyes welling up. "We just lost three kittens. It was devastating to us, especially [losing] little Pumpkin, and it's real hard to go around and count and see what you've got left."

It's hard to tell the difference between Stripey Hip and Fuzz Butt. Snuggles has funny-shaped ears from ear mites. They're all "leukemia-exposed," Karl says, which means some have feline leukemia and the rest might. Karl brings out one of Billy's cats, Monkette. She's been pooping on the floor ever since Billy left. "They know something's missing," Karl says, hugging the cat.

Along with the cats and Trish, Karl lives with five snakes, three dogs, an iguana, a cockatiel, rabbits, rats, mice (food for the snakes) and a pondful of koi, which the cats are always trying to get. His only real recreation is four-wheeling, and the driveway is full of Jeeps in various states of repair. Karl ordered vanity plates for them from the Arizona State Prison inmate store: W8N4HIM. ILW84U. URMINE.

The yard is covered in piles of dog feces, but that's no preparation for what's inside. Karl wants to show off his office.

"I'm going to ask you to keep an open mind, because we're going into my house and we haven't cleaned because of the weather and stuff. . . . Billy's not here to keep my house clean."

In fact, it appears as though no one's cleaned at all since Billy left. The stench of animals and animal excrement is overwhelming everywhere in the small, dimly lit house. Karl's office is piled with papers.

"Typical attorney's desk, huh?"

He keeps boxes piled in the corner of a back room, presents waiting for Billy. Trish's door is closed.

Trish and Karl only recently got to know each other. Two Christmases ago, Karl sent Trish's mom money for the two to take a Greyhound to Phoenix from Washington state. Until then, Trish had only known Karl as "Uncle Karl," through cards and gifts he sent. Mom broke the news in the bus station.

Trish was shocked at first, but eventually liked Karl enough to come live with him.

And how did a gay man come to be a father?

"How do most people come to be a father?" Karl asks. "You get naked with someone."

Karl and Wilma Helgeson were on-again-off-again years ago, working together at the golf club manufacturer.

When Karl got into a bad car accident, Wilma gave him a back rub.

"Back rubs always turn into something else, so that's how I ended up with a daughter," he says, laughing.

"Years ago, somebody asked me one time, they said, 'Well, are you straight, gay, bi?' And I thought about it not very long and I said, 'Sexually, I'm horny. I'll jump anything that turns me on. Emotionally, I'm gay.'"

For no particular reason, Karl refers to his ex as Susie. He likes his friends to call him Kevin. Trish is "The Girl."

Trish isn't in high school, she says, because she can't figure out how to get a picture ID. She's not so keen on Billy. She's only met him three or four times -- all prison visits -- and they don't really get along.

"As far as Billy goes, he's all right. He's done a couple things wrong that caught me the wrong way. That might be because I don't know him," she says.

"I went up to visit Billy for his birthday," Trish continues. "That's my mistake. I went up there thinking, 'I'll be nice.' I hate the prisons."

". . . That turned out to be a mistake because some guy who was in prison with Billy saw me, and he started writing me, saying, you know, 'We can get together when I get out,' so forth and so on. My boyfriend didn't like it."

Plus, you're only 17, she's reminded.

"Yeah, and he's a sex offender," Trish says. That's a "PV," she adds, a parole violation. Trish is a savvy 17-year-old. She says she's been in juvenile hall back home, and in and out of mental-health facilities, too. Says she was molested as a child, up in Washington.

When asked about Trish's new pen pal, Karl responds, "Billy doesn't like the way Bobby treats her." Bobby is Trish's boyfriend.

All that aside, Trish thinks Billy's sentence was way too harsh. He was the victim, she insists; he acts like he's 12.

"He needs to be home," she says. "I don't exactly get along with him, but I can make my way. But see, if he gets out before June, I have to leave. Because I'm a minor."

Aside from his name on their visitor logs, and an occasional letter, officials at the Arizona Department of Corrections say they've never heard of Karl Whitmire.

To DOC, Karl is nothing. But to some folks out there, he's special. He has a handful of friends from different walks of life, but with the same thing to say about Karl: He's a generous man, sometimes too generous, with a kind heart.

Karl met Mike Johnson at a transmission shop four years ago. The two became friends and four-wheeling buddies. When times have been lean for Mike, Karl's loaned him money to pay his electric bill. He loaned him money to start his own transmission shop.

But what about helping child molesters, Mike is asked.

"I wouldn't really lift a finger to help those people," he says. "Me, having four children, I'd be really upset if somebody touched my children that way. So there is a need for somebody to look beyond that and still be able to help those people, because they are human beings."

Darlene Doescher and her 13-year-old son, Adam, have lived down the street from Karl for more than a decade. Karl is always there for her, so when he asks her to visit Billy with him, it's hard for Darlene to say no.

"Very few people will go with him anymore," she says. "It's not a pleasant trip. I've taken Adam. We go together with Karl."

Does it bother her to bring her son to a sex-offender yard?

"I know it's a little ironic, but I want [Billy] to know we support him and we're there for him. Sometimes you have to do things even if they make you feel uncomfortable. We don't do it a lot."

Darlene says Karl and Billy have a good relationship.

"I definitely know Karl's good for Billy. I feel bad that it's so hard on Karl. He's such a good-hearted person, he's always there for everyone, and people have taken advantage of him terribly. . . . He's there for everyone else, and very few people seem to be there for him."

Another friend is Pam Mason. She and Karl have never met; she lives in Tennessee, in a small town near Knoxville. Pam was corresponding with an Arizona inmate who happened to be Billy's first cellmate, years ago. Billy asked the cellmate to ask Pam to call Karl the first night he was in -- to let Karl know Billy was all right. Pam and Karl spoke for hours. In the following years, she's offered her friendship; Karl sends her money and toys for her kids.

Sometimes, she says, she wants to strangle Karl for being so bullheaded. "He's a man. That just says it right there, okay?" she says, laughing. "He seems to have a lot of determination about him, and when he sets his mind to something, he does it."

She's convinced Billy won't be granted furlough for Christmas. She's right. Charles Ryan, DOC's deputy director of prison operations, chuckles at Karl's request, which he's seen, saying it absolutely will not be granted.

But Pam knows Karl will keep trying.

"That is what gets Karl through this whole thing with Billy. He keeps finding some way to get a little hope with it. And I think if it just came down to a point where there was nothing else for him to do or nothing for him to have just a little shred of hope about, I don't think he could deal with it."

It's three days before Thanksgiving, and Karl is in tears. Trish and Bobby moved their stuff out last week, got their own apartment, and today they're gone for good. Trish promised she'd be home for Thanksgiving, but now that plan's scrapped, too.

"Here I am with a thawed turkey and don't know what to do, and I'm going to be alone," Karl sobs, then sniffs up the tears. "I'm a tough old fart, I'll get through it. I got too damn many cats here to keep me company."

Plus, Karl will be busy driving back and forth to Florence to see Billy. And he has Christmas to plan for. He makes greeting cards for the inmates to send to their families, and he's got presents to buy for them, too. This month, Toni asked for a Walkman. Karl sent Thunder $25 for his birthday, so he could replace the Walkman Karl gave him two years ago. Thunder also asked for $60 for new tennis shoes, but Karl wrote back and asked him if he could try to find some cheaper.

He hasn't heard back on his furlough request, but he does realize the chances are good that he'll be alone for Christmas. Karl is stuttering badly today, a side effect from an old head injury, he says. That's one of the reasons Billy is so worried about him being alone. But Karl's trying to look on the bright side. In a couple months, Toni will get out of prison. Karl's hoping he'll come stay at his house -- with Trish gone, there's no reason not to.

"He'll be here for a couple weeks to a couple months, until he finds a place of his own, or he just may stay here until Billy comes home," Karl says.

As long as, he adds quickly, that's okay with Billy.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.