Redemption Song

Gravel crunches under Ken Lamberton's sneakers as he follows the Yetman Trail near the Tucson Mountains west of the city on a clear, cold morning in early January. Lamberton glances up and pauses. Above him, a large bird flies in circles. He identifies it as a red-tailed hawk and gives a quick lesson on how to spot one.

With his salt-and-pepper hair, soft voice, and curious eyes, Lamberton resembles a science teacher on a field trip. When he pauses again later in the hike to explain how the nearby mountains were created by an ancient volcano, it's easy to picture him in front of a classroom talking about fault lines.

"In one place they say it was like a thousand feet thick. Molten ash covering all these square miles," he says. "Kinda makes you feel puny."


Ken Lamberton

In fact, Ken Lamberton was once a science teacher.

He's also a convicted child molester.

Lamberton served a dozen years in prison after he seduced a student and left town with her. He was 26. She was 14 — even younger, when they first became involved. This month marks the 20th year since the crime.

A lot has changed. Twenty years ago, no one had heard of Mary Kay Letourneau, another teacher who bedded a student (she even bore the 12-year-old's baby) and became a quasi-celebrity in the pages of People magazine. And these days, Hollywood considers teacher-student romance fodder for satire instead of drama — in Election, Reese Witherspoon has an affair with a teacher, and she comes off as the creepy one, instead of the other way around. (Although that guy does lose his job.) Only a pervert with a twist in his tale, like Neil Havens Rodreick — the 29-year-old recently caught in rural Arizona masquerading as a preteen — grabs the spotlight the way Ken Lamberton did 20 years ago.

Around town, people still talk about the Mesa teacher who ran off with his student, a case described in a New Times story at the time as a "tragedy of obsession and betrayal."

Since he first went to jail in 1987, Lamberton has written two books about life in prison. He tells his personal story through nature and metaphor.

But in Lamberton's third prison book — to be published later this year by the University of Arizona press — he faces his crime and its consequences head on. In the book, tentatively titled Time of Grace, Lamberton gives the reader an in-depth look at his life in prison and the struggle to rebuild his marriage.

Though his is certainly not a household name, Lamberton has achieved relative success with his books and is generating interest in literary circles.

He recently won a grant from the Open Society Institute, a group sponsored by George Soros, the millionaire known for personally funding the education of black university students in Cape Town, South Africa, during apartheid and, closer to home, pro-marijuana initiatives in Arizona and other states.

There's no doubt Lamberton is talented, but it's interesting that he's building his post-prison career on the fact that he can write eloquently about his crime.

Lamberton's case is complicated. In some ways, he doesn't fit the mold of the teacher gone bad. He says he doesn't — didn't — lust after teenage girls. Just one — whom he loved, he says, adding that the student, Kelly Gregan, loved him back.

But the fact is, this isn't a story about two teenagers in love. It's about a grown man with a family, and a girl experiencing powerful feelings, at a very early age, for a man in a position of authority.

Gregan, now a family law attorney in San Diego, did not respond to e-mails or phone calls to comment for this story. Her parents are both dead, and her sister, Maureen, who is also her attorney, did not return a call for comment.

The last time Gregan spoke publicly about Lamberton was in 1986, when she was 14. She told the Arizona Republic, "I was used, emotionally and physically. I think he should be put away for as long as possible."

Gregan didn't talk for this story, but Lamberton did. He gave New Times a copy of his forthcoming book; only his editors, close friends, and family have seen it. He spent hours talking about the past, present and future, and so did his wife and children. Hundreds of pages of court records were reviewed for this story, including the letters Ken and Kelly wrote to each other 20 years ago.

Ken Lamberton's crime itself is just the beginning of a complex story. It's what came afterward that's truly unusual: His wife and daughters never left him, and he now has a good relationship with all of them. Still, some of the wounds he inflicted continue to bleed and will likely never stop.

The media plays up the sensation of a sex crime right after it happens — the offense, the trial, the conviction — but the story fades with the next month's scandal. If you live in a neighborhood a sex offender moves into, you'll get a notice in your mailbox. Outside of that, we tend to forget about the Ken Lambertons of the world.

But there is life after the trial and the prison sentence. Even now, six years after his release, the Lambertons struggle with figuring out what Ken's crime means today.

Every day, the family confronts the crime. For this story, Ken agreed to a hike alone with a young female reporter. She didn't think much of it; as it turns out, such a move was a big deal for Ken. The reporter is 23, but Lamberton didn't ask ahead of time. And later he admitted a pang of fear at one point when she said something that made him wonder whether she was a minor. One accusation by the wrong girl, in a situation with no alibi, could mean another long prison sentence.

"There was one moment there on the Yetman trail," he says, "where you said something, and I was like, 'Oh, my God. She's a minor. I'm in trouble.'"

It's not that Lamberton's afraid he's going to reoffend, he says. But it's something he and his wife Karen think about all the time. And Karen has her own issues with him hanging around with a woman she's never met.

"Ken has alibis 100 percent of the time," Karen says, two days after the hike, when meeting the reporter for the first time. But, she adds, "this week, my mom is in California, my dad is in the hospital, my sister's with my dad, and I'm at work . . . so who's gonna check this girl out before they go wandering out in the woods together?"

If Ken Lamberton moved into your neighborhood, you probably wouldn't know it.

Before a sex offender is released from prison, he or she is evaluated on 19 different criteria that predict the likelihood of reoffending. The higher a person scores on this evaluation, the higher their classification level. Lamberton has the lowest rating: class one. He's not listed on Arizona's sex offender Web site. He has to register with the state, but no one's required to tell you if he moves next door.

According to experts, situations like the one involving Kelly Gregan and Ken Lamberton are more common than you might expect. But that doesn't mean there's anything proper about them.

Ralph Earle, a Scottsdale-based psychologist who has worked with sex offenders since the '70s and now runs a business called Psychological Counseling Services that specializes in sex addiction treatment, didn't comment directly on Lamberton's case. He says each individual and the course of treatment are so nuanced, it's tough to generalize.

Earle does emphasize one general point — that crossing the line into the realm of sexual touching and beyond, even if it isn't forced, can still be a form of victimization.

"It can't be called a consensual relationship with a 14-year-old," he says. "That is sometimes said by a sex offender and by the one who's been offended if there's a relationship that went on for a period of time. I would look at it as pretty serious."

Robert Emerick, who has worked with offenders in the Arizona Department of Corrections for 28 years, says it's not unusual for teachers to come into their profession emotionally immature.

"It's not uncommon for some teachers to be developmentally equivalent to the children they're providing education," he says. "That's a different group of offenders than people who target for the sole purpose of being exploitative."

Emerick does point out, however, that the fact Lamberton had formed a marriage with Karen and had children means he did have the ability to create a functional adult relationship.

As for whether or not he's likely to reoffend, both experts say it's tough to tell without a full evaluation of his case. They will say that someone who gets help — as Lamberton has; he's been in therapy for 20 years — is less likely to reoffend, and that people in his situation often respond well to treatment. Emerick also adds that for every five years a person is out of prison and does not reoffend, the risk declines.

Ken Lamberton has been out of prison for almost seven years, and there is no sign he's reoffended. He and his wife live on a quiet, hard-to-find street in a neighborhood on the west side of Tucson. As a sex offender, Ken can never teach again in any school. Instead, he writes.

Though Ken's books get good reviews, Karen is the family's financial supporter in her job as a transportation planner in Tucson. (She doesn't want her employer's identity revealed, one of the few things that she asks be kept secret.) Ken admits he couldn't indulge in his writing without Karen.

"Literary writing, which is what I do, doesn't make money," he says. "Most people who write literature also teach, which I can't do any longer. I have Karen to support my writing — she's my patroness."

That's a tough gig for any wife and mother, but particularly so for one who was brought by her husband to the brink of financial and emotional ruin.

Looking back, Karen can't believe she stuck with Ken.

"I didn't know how beat-up I would get," she says. "I didn't know what I was facing. I had no concept of prison. None. If I had, I honestly don't think I could have done it."

The financial hardship is still evident, even six and a half years after Ken returned home. Ken and Karen live in a four-room guesthouse on Karen's parents' property. Until their daughters moved out to go to college, the three girls shared one bedroom. Ken and Karen share a car, an old Datsun. Most days, he drives her to the office.

They do get along. Ken works hard to make Karen happy.

"I'm still angry a lot," she says. "People talk about me like I'm some kind of saint. I just want you to know — I'm obstinate, stubborn. Angry."

These days, Karen Lamberton is a strong-minded career woman. Twenty years ago, she was a quiet Mesa homemaker with strong Baptist roots.

Ken and Karen met at the YMCA's Triangle Y camp in Oracle, a small town west of Tucson, in the summer of 1979. They were both counselors at the outdoor exploration camp. Karen was a shy, waifish blonde. Ken was a curly-haired biology student at the University of Arizona.

Within two weeks of meeting, they were already serious.

"Camp was an environment really conducive to falling in love. You spend a lot of time together. You see each other at your best and your worst, and you're young," Ken says, looking back. "You're experiencing things for the first time together. It's just kind of magical."

Ken and Karen's summer romance continued, and the two were married a year and a half later. Ken finished school and got a job at Fremont Junior High School in Mesa.

"We moved to Mesa, bought a little tract home, and started our lives there. She got pregnant, so we started raising a family," Ken says. "We could have been career teachers or career camp professionals if I hadn't taken this other track in our lives."

At first, life was good. Ken started a science club and taught taxidermy after school, using roadkill he picked up along Highway 87, which runs from far east Mesa through Florence and down into Tucson.

The family grew. Karen had their first daughter, Jessica, in 1983, and Kasondra was born two years later. They spent every summer at the Triangle Y camp, where he and Karen were now program directors.

In 1985, Lamberton was named Mesa's Teacher of the Year.

That fall, Kelly Gregan walked into his classroom.

Gregan was vivacious and outgoing. She wore makeup and dressed like a "grown-up," according to classmates quoted in court records, which recap much of the story from both sides.

Gregan joined the science club, but nothing happened until March 1986.

That month, Lamberton took a trip to San Francisco for a national science teacher's convention.

"Kelly told me beforehand that if I didn't send her a postcard, that I was 'dead' or something like that, she used that phrase a lot," he said in a testimony transcript from his appeal. "And so I wrote her a postcard and sent it to her from somewhere in California."

Lamberton was a man under pressure, and Gregan's attention was a welcome distraction, he later admitted in court. His wife was pregnant with their third child, Melissa, and financial problems were growing. The pregnancy was complicated. Karen was constantly sick and at a high risk for miscarriage.

Lamberton retreated, working five or six extra hours every night, with weekends devoted to the science club.

At the end of April, Kelly Gregan gave her teacher a letter.

"You might be surprised by all I have to say . . ." she wrote. "Ever since I met you, I thought you were a real cool guy. When I joined the science club I did it because I thought I could have a good time with you." The letter continues for three pages, concluding, "I was really confused. I still am. I've tried to ignore it, it just gets worse. Inside I know I couldn't live without you . . . You're the most special man I've ever met. And will ever meet."

Another teacher might have dismissed the letter as the ramblings of an emotional adolescent girl. Not Lamberton. He felt the same way.

They began writing to each other often, with Lamberton using his left hand to disguise his writing.

"Juliet," Lamberton wrote, "When I am with you nothing else matters . . . when are [sic] lips meet the heavens open and fire from the sky comes forth."

Other letters were even less sophisticated. In one he worries about another boy: "Kelly, I'm sorry I'm being so weird but I'm very confused. I can't figure out what David means to you . . . It's going to take a long time to get over you."

Her letters were covered in smiley faces, hearts, and fireworks. "Ken," she wrote, "No matter how much trouble I get in because of you, you will always be worth it to me . . . There's times when I dream of us running away to another place, far away from here leaving all of our troubles behind."

Other times she was more direct: "Hi! I could do last night every night! But I don't think you could handle it!!"

She was pretending to be a mature woman, but several letters tell Lamberton he's "ruining my life," following up with a "ha ha not really."

In one particularly telling letter, decorated with hearts, Gregan wrote: "You know, you really are still fourteen!?!! Even though I feel like I am 20!" She signed the letter, "I love you more then you love me" and reminded him to "W/B!! Or die!"

(In teenspeak, W/B means "write back.")

In a court transcript, Karen said that, at the time, she noticed a drastic change in her husband's behavior. He started dressing like a teenager, though on the family's tight budget they could hardly afford his fashion statement. He started putting mousse in his hair and paying attention to popular music.

But it wasn't until he returned from a science club field trip to the Grand Canyon that Karen became truly alarmed. This was the first trip Karen was not able to go on because of her pregnancy.

It was also the first time Lamberton and Gregan kissed.

Karen didn't know that, of course. But in testimony, Karen said she was so worried she asked Ken to go visit their family doctor in Tucson.

"When he returned I was alarmed at his appearance," she recalls. "He appeared to have lost weight. He looked haggard and depressed."

As summer approached, the pace became frantic. Like every summer, Lamberton was planning to go to the YMCA camp with his family, meaning a long separation for the pair. Though Karen was still sick with her difficult pregnancy, she says she felt that she had to go to camp.

"I should have been in bed, but the reality is, who gets to do that? Rich people," she says. "So you just be sick. Looking back I'm like, 'What was I thinking?' But at the time, it made perfect sense."

The day he left, Lamberton stopped by Gregan's house while her parents were out, to say goodbye. She gave him several gifts: a bottle of perfume (Calvin Klein's Obsession), a nightshirt she wore to bed, and a stuffed animal.

They continued to write letters, and Lamberton arranged it so that Gregan could come to the camp to work as a babysitter for the staff's kids. Gregan arrived the third week of June, a few days after her 14th birthday.

The two picked up at camp — the same place Ken and Karen had met. They had sex for the first time on June 30, according to Lamberton's testimony.

But Lamberton says Gregan wasn't happy. She wanted him all to herself.

"I had my wife and I had my children and then I had this affair on the side," Lamberton said in his testimony. "Kelly didn't like that . . . She basically had an ultimatum: 'It's either me or nothing.' And I chose her."

Several weeks later, on Friday, August 5, Lamberton pretended he was going to Mesa to take care of a few things. Instead, he and Gregan snuck off with $300 and pretty much no plan.

Karen didn't worry until Ken was several hours late returning to camp. She reported it to the camp director, who reported both Lamberton and Gregan missing the next morning.

At his house in Mesa, surrounded by his family's things, Lamberton was having second thoughts until, he says, Gregan put her arms around his neck and said, "I know we can do this together."

Looking back, he says he was totally out of control.

"I was willing to let anybody else tell me what I was going to do next," he says. "I remember feeling so good as we drove away. Your emotions can lie to you so badly."

Lamberton and Gregan made it to Aspen, Colorado, where he says they planned on starting over. They camped in the woods and talked about renting a cabin. Ken applied for a job at a factory that made plastic figurines.

Back in Arizona, a national search began, and so did the national headlines. The effect on Lamberton's family was immediate.

Karen, realizing her husband was gone, put the house in Mesa on the market within days, sold everything she could, and moved to her parents' house in Tucson. She enrolled at the University of Arizona to study political science even before Ken had been caught, although she was six months pregnant. (She eventually became a paralegal and later got her four-year degree.)

The spotlight was harsh.

"The house was vandalized many times while it was for sale. All the locks were broken and someone cut the electrical lines," says Karen. "I was like, 'People, my husband's a schmuck, but I've got kids.'"

For Ken, the fantasy lasted two weeks. On August 18, Allison Thanhauser, another Mesa schools employee, spotted the teacher and student holding hands in downtown Aspen. She called the police.

Gregan was taken to the police station where she told the officers that she was with Lamberton voluntarily, that he'd never forced himself on her, and that she left Arizona willingly, according to court records.

The arresting officer wrote, "Gregan said she understood that Lamberton is accused of breaking the law because she is a minor, but she does not think it is right."

Lamberton was taken to the Pitkin County Jail.

Karen flew to Aspen. She had no idea what to expect. As she walked through the jail toward her husband's cell, a guard told her, "It's none of my business, but this one is worth saving."

At the time, she brushed past the comment — she already knew she wanted to save him — but she says it became very important to her in later years, because he was the first person to show Ken any compassion.

When she got there, Ken was in a suicide cell, curled in a fetal position.

Standing there, watching him, it seemed to Karen, six months pregnant, that Ken had forgotten he was ever a husband or a father. He crawled into her lap and started to sob.

Lamberton was sent back to Arizona and charged with custodial interference, a class two felony, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor.

His mother posted bail, and he moved into her house in Tucson, where he continued to obsess about Gregan.

"Kelly my only love, I write to you never knowing if you'll read my words, never knowing if I'll ever see you again," he wrote in a letter he mailed to Gregan's home. "They have already done the worst to me they can. They have taken away my love, you Kelly."

He wrote that he would wait by the phone every night at 10 p.m., waiting for her call. In the same letter, he wrote that he didn't want to be with his wife or family; he only wanted to be by Gregan's side.

He wanted to die. He recalls telling his attorney, "You might as well have me executed."

Lamberton's troubles worsened. The charge against him changed to child molestation after it became apparent he'd had sex with Gregan. His attorney, a public defender, negotiated him a plea bargain: 12 years behind bars.

Even the investigating police officer, Terrance Wesbrock, told the court it was too much. "At that time and now I believe that the sentence Mr. Lamberton received was excessively harsh given the facts and circumstances of the offense," he wrote in an affidavit. "This is the only case in my career as a law enforcement officer where the disposition of the defendant has bothered me as being excessively harsh."

Life was tough for Ken in jail, but at least he had a sense of stability, no matter how grim. He also had plenty of time to think and sort out his feelings.

Not Karen. Her house never sold, and the bank foreclosed. She had no education beyond high school; her husband was a sex offender and an adulterer. She was furious with Ken, but her religion kept her from divorce. And she had two small daughters, plus a newborn.

Beyond her religion, something more kept Karen with Ken.

"In a sense it was sheer stubbornness. I. Am. Not. Moving," she says, pausing to emphasize each word. "Once I realized Ken was in no state to protect himself, and that what was really attacking us was outside, I was like, I will stand here and I will not let this get to my kids."

Lamberton says it was his daughter Melissa's birth, just before he went to prison, that made him want to be a husband and father again. He chokes up when he talks about that day at the hospital. He spent so much time in Karen's room, looking at the baby and crying, even the nurses thought it was a bit weird.

"It's a hard thing to even think about. I was with her the whole day and for me it just seemed like such a momentary thing," he says. "Karen says she had to keep telling the nurses 'This is all right, this is okay.' I just remember being there and looking at her."

Four months later, Lamberton reported to the Pinal County Jail for his 12-year sentence.

Karen went on welfare and tried to come up with a coping strategy.

The first thing to go in her household was excessive rules.

"One of my rules for children in crisis is you must allow messes," she says. "One, for your own sanity, and also, because children are creative, and they learn brainstorming when they make messes. One of the things about being in prison is a lack of ability to brainstorm."

Her efforts paid off. Today, all three girls attend the University of Arizona. Melissa, the youngest, even got into Harvard (on a full ride), but turned it down to stay close to the family. None of the three women remembers feeling poor when they were kids.

"We kind of considered ourselves middle-class," says Jessica, 23. "Even still, we're not really that. But she made sure we were dressed in, if not brand new clothes, at least in nice clothes. It's just something in your head."

Karen took the girls to see Ken every chance she got. No matter how angry she got with Ken, she kept him in their lives. She snuck their homework into visitation so that he could help them, and made sure to mail their report cards to him so that he could sign off on them.

"To have your entire childhood missing your father's signature on the report card — you notice these things, you know," she says. "I was fairly insistent that there would be a parental relationship."

Karen mailed Ken copies of the girls' favorite books, which he would read into a cassette recorder and send back. That's what passed for a bedtime story in the Lamberton house.

The girls dreaded visiting their father.

"I think when we were younger, it was like going to the grocery store as a kid," says Kasondra. "You just don't want to do it. As I got older, it got more scary."

Melissa remembers the prison dogs.

"I remember having to stand against the back and this huge German shepherd that was bigger than me would have to sniff me," she says. "I think we were a little scared of the guards just in general. I was more afraid of them than I was of any of the convicts."

Welfare kept the family going until 1991, when Karen lost her eligibility.

Since the time Ken had gone to jail, Karen had been driving an extremely old car. It had no seat belts. She had to hot-wire it to get it going.

On a trip to California, the girls piled into their aunt's car. She turned the key and the car started. The girls were amazed.

"Does it always do that?" they wanted to know. "Do you always turn the key and it starts?"

Horrified at what Karen had been driving, her sister bought herself a new car and gave Karen the old one.

Unfortunately, the car was worth about $9,000. Under Department of Economic Security guidelines at the time, a person on welfare could only have $2,500 in assets, and only $1,500 of that could be a car. DES told her she had to sell the car and spend all the money in order to stay on welfare.

She said no. She needed the car.

She did some research and learned that the requirement wasn't made nationwide.

So she challenged the decision. And she won twice — initially, and then on appeal, at which point hers became a class action lawsuit, merged with similar cases.

Eventually she got off welfare voluntarily when she finished school and got a job. Karen's graduation from college wasn't the end of the family's struggle, but it certainly helped.

Life kept going for all those years. Science projects and school concerts and trips out to the prison. The girls couldn't deny or forget the fact that dad was in prison, and explaining it to people wasn't easy.

When she did have to explain to her friends, Melissa says she did it by degrees.

"I answered in the same way my mom answered me when I was asking. She answered in degrees," she recalls. "When I was a little girl she would say he ran away from home and he took things that didn't belong to him. As I got older I understood he had committed adultery, so I thought that was the reason. As I got older she would explain in deeper degrees. So I used the same pattern with my friends. I was like, 'I can't explain it to you any other way. He's a sex offender. He's in prison.'"

The visits saved him, Ken says. Early on, he was at the Santa Rita unit of the Arizona State Prison, in Tucson, which at least was close to Karen, making visits easier.

Always an outdoors type, Lamberton used the nature he saw around him in prison as a mental escape. He became a bird watcher, marking his time in jail with the migration of the birds.

Bird watchers keep obsessive lists of the birds they've spotted, where they spotted them, when. It was a perfect prison pastime.

"A lot of my first birds were there," he says. "There was a robin, which was kind of a surprise. There were lots of hawks — red-tailed hawks and Cooper's hawks chasing doves around."

He became more focused than ever on nature. It gave him a sense of freedom to watch birds or hunt for tadpoles on the yard.

"The stuff I could see on the yard were similar to what my daughters could see, so it would give us things to talk about," he says. "Among the rosebushes, there were toads that would come up after it rained, and just to hear those toads singing or see them hopping around on the yard connected me in a lot of ways to my children who were doing the same thing at home."

In 1989, he started going to a writers' workshop run by Richard Shelton, an English professor at the University of Arizona. He says it changed his life.

Shelton remembers that Lamberton was very shy when they first met.

"He was young. Good-looking. Terrified," recalls Shelton. "He introduced himself, but he was so soft-spoken that I couldn't understand what he said."

Once he got comfortable, Lamberton became a leader. Unfortunately, his writing wasn't great.

"He was writing terrible stuff. Religious stuff mostly." says Shelton. "I knew he was a biologist. I said, 'You shouldn't be messing around with this other stuff, you should be writing in your field.'"

Armed with a clichà every good writer knows well — write what you know — Lamberton discovered he did have some talent. He began working on a series of essays about how what he saw in prison that related to nature.

"Writing was probably my biggest therapy. It helped me make the decision that I was going to use the time to get better rather than to turn bitter," he says. "Prison is an interesting thing. When you're doing a lot of time, the reason why you're there falls off pretty quickly. It doesn't seem to matter. It's dealing with being there."

By 1994, Karen was done with school and off welfare. She focused her energy on a new objective: getting Ken out of jail.

At this point, he had served almost eight years of his sentence. She wanted him home. Through therapy sessions and constant conversations at visitation — they were hardly allowed to hold hands, so there was nothing to do but talk — the couple had gotten to a point where they felt they could save their marriage if Ken was out. Karen managed to convince a judge to hear the case.

After months of evidentiary hearings, the judge made a decision in December 1994.

He ruled in Lamberton's favor. Ken was free.

The day Lamberton came home was the first time Melissa, now 20, remembers seeing her father outside prison walls.

"I didn't remember having him before he went to prison, so he was always in prison. That was just what dads did. They were in prison," she recalls. "The first time I understood was when I saw him walking down the hallway in the law office. I was like, 'Oh, that's Daddy. I know him.' And then we all went running up."

The Lambertons learned how to be a family again, but lurking in Karen's mind was the fear that Ken would have to go back. The Gregans had filed an appeal.

"There was always the threat of going back. Karen wanted to focus on that. I couldn't do that," he says. "I think Karen just got more and more frustrated."

For the next year, the family settled into a routine. Lamberton spent time with his daughters — camping, fishing, helping with schoolwork, trying to be the father he hadn't been for the last eight years. He could no longer teach. Instead of looking for other work, he took over Karen's role as traditional "mother."

But in November 1995, bad news came.

The girls remember it vividly. They had just returned from the library. The phone rang and their dad answered. He started crying. Jessica and Kasondra heard him tell their mother he had to go back to prison.

The girls went into the small bedroom they all shared (triple-bunking until they moved out for college), where Melissa was reading.

"Jessica came in and told me, 'Dad's going to prison.' I just remember rejecting it," Melissa remembers. "I was like, 'Well, that's not true.' And I remember thinking, 'What is Jessica doing here? She should go away so I can finish my book.'"

Jessica nods: "I still remember the blank look on your face."

The appellate court returned Lamberton to prison after Gregan's lawyers made a persuasive case that the legal precedent his lawyer had argued in the appeal did not apply to his case. Lambert was back behind bars in July 1996, after an appeal filed by his lawyer failed.

During the appeals process, Gregan took the stand and spoke about the experience in a victim's statement she submitted to the court.

"I was flattered by the attention of this person whom I began to trust and feel safe around," she wrote in the nine-page statement.

She wrote that it upset her Lamberton when expressed his feelings. "I stared out the window and cried."

Her letters tell a different story, but Gregan was obviously one confused 14-year-old child.

"Don't let the defendant paint the picture of a mature, slutty, sex-driven 14-year-old girl who was anxious to get her science teacher in bed, because I was not," she goes on. "The defendant states . . . that I was with him voluntarily, that I was in love with him and was planning a life with him. He states I consented to all acts of sexual conduct and that the defendant never forced himself on me. These statements are correct . . . it wasn't until long after I came home that I realized this person had deceived me."

The next four years were the worst. Karen fell apart mentally. For years she had clung to the thought that once Ken came home, everything would be okay. She quickly realized that everything about their lives would always be fundamentally different because of the prison experience — everything from the way she and Ken interacted to how the girls explained their father to their boyfriends. Having him home made it clear that, while the marriage could work, nothing could ever go back to the way it had been.

"Up until that point, I was still believing that we just had to hold on to this and it would pass. And then he went back," she says. "During the time Ken was out, it was really clear that it was never, ever, ever going away."

Back in prison, Ken returned to writing and decided to try to publish a book. Mercury House, an independent publisher that focuses on literary writing, took interest and published his first book, Wilderness and the Razor Wire, in 2000. Another, Beyond Desert Walls: Essays From Prison was released later. Both books were written in prison but published after his release.

Nature became the most important thing in Lamberton's life, after his family.

Some inmates discovered a family of mallard ducks that came to roost on the prison yard, and he took comfort in looking for the mother duck, marking time on her egg-laying cycle.

"I could put myself in that mallard's place. You can survive here, you can do well here, you can create things here. And then you can leave," he says.

On September 20, 2000, Ken Lamberton left prison.

His lawyer picked him up and took him to his mother's so that he could change his clothes. He met Karen for lunch. Then she went back to work and he went to see the girls.

When she heard the car pull up, Kasondra, then 16, got so nervous she had to go for a walk.

"I remember waiting and waiting and waiting," she recalls. "As soon as we saw the car pull up, I had to get out of there."

Lamberton had no clue that his daughters were nervous. He remembers just walking up to find them all outside casually waiting for him.

"It wasn't any romantic homecoming," he says. "I just got right into life."

There was some adjusting. The first night Ken slept at home, when he and Karen climbed into their twin bed and she turned off the light, he thought he'd gone blind. It had been years since he'd slept with the lights off.

Though the emotional side of their relationship needed work, they resumed the physical part right away both times he left prison. Karen thanks Ken's 12 years in prison, and the fact that they couldn't really touch during visitation, for the quick adjustments. She giggles a lot as she talks about it.

"You have a really long period of celibacy — this is really a drag. It's amazing how much more interested you get," she says. "We were a prudish religious family. We didn't talk about it. But now he's a sex offender and I'm a convict wife."

And their sex life is better than ever.

Life resumed some normalcy, but Ken knows his place in this household of four women.

"Every male cat in the house has been neutered," he says.

Sometimes the only way to ease the tension is to joke. When a conversation about Gregan gets too intense, Karen says, "You know, it's really too bad for Ken he was born in this culture. He could have had, like, four wives."

Ken touches her hand and says, "You would have been the matriarch. You'd never have to do another dish again."

She just smiles and reminds him, "I don't have to do dishes anymore. I have you."

Early on a Friday evening in winter, Karen and Ken stand before a lover's shrine on Tucson's south side. Called El Tiradito, the shrine is the only one in the United States dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground — a man who died fighting for the love of a woman. People come here to light a candle for his soul, trying to raise it out of purgatory. Stuck in the walls surrounding the shrine are little notes — secrets of forlorn lovers come to the shrine to pray for their broken hearts.

The Lambertons are not Catholic, but they have brought a candle tonight: Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

As Ken lights a match, Karen smiles at him and giggles when he has trouble getting the wick to catch. Ken wonders what happens when your candle goes out. She doesn't know.

"I like the whole story of life being destroyed by stupidity and yet people still come here and pray," she says. "They're saying, 'You're still a part of this community.'"

They look at their candle for a while.

And then turn and walk away, hand in hand.

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