sptimes.com
Home
Web Specials
  Angels & Demons
 

A_D_Header

Liz_Brown Photo by Herral Long,
Toledo Blade

SAYING GOODBYE: Liz Brown, a close friend of Christe's, was one of the many who broke down during the funeral.


The size of it, the depth and scale and unthinkable nature of it, was almost impossible to comprehend.

At first, when the bodies were being flown back to Ohio and preparations were being made for the funeral, family members struggled to come to terms with what had happened. They worried about what clothes Jo and the girls should be wearing in their caskets; then they remembered how long the three of them had been in the water and knew the caskets would be closed.

Somewhere in that first numbing week, Colleen Etzler -- married to Jo Rogers' brother, Jim -- was sitting with Bill Etzler, her father-in-law and Jo's father, when Bill got this strange look on his face.

"Do you realize how many pallbearers we need?" he said.

No one was in greater shock than Hal Rogers. Even in those first days, when the news was all over the newspapers and the TV and the entire county was reeling, Hal managed somehow to keep the farm going. He got a couple of hands to help him and continued with the milkings and the feedings and whatever else had to be done. But inside he was lost.

Hal kept waiting for someone to tell him that there had been a mistake, that the bodies sent up from Florida weren't his family after all, but someone else. The phone would ring, and he would pick it up, expecting to hear Jo's voice on the other end of the line, apologizing for making him worry. In the mornings, he would come out of the milking parlor and look toward the house, hoping to see the Calais pulling into the driveway and Jo and the girls piling out, grinning and waving.

But no one called, and every time Hal checked the driveway there was no sign of the Calais, and the hole inside him kept growing.

One day he turned to Colleen Etzler.

"I should have went with them," he said. "This wouldn't have happened."

Colleen looked at Hal, enveloped in a loss that defied the imagination, and tried to think of what to say. What could anyone say? How was this possible? How could Jo and the girls be alive one day and then sealed inside their caskets the next?

No. It made no sense.

"Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference if you had gone," she said.

***

The pallbearers took up four rows of pews.

Though it was mid-June, the day of the funeral was windy and cool, the sky overcast. Inside Zion Lutheran, an imposing Gothic structure with red-brick walls and green spires that stretched high above the surrounding farmland, the sanctuary was overflowing. So many people came to pay their respects, they were crowded into the church's basement and fellowship hall. Outside, the road was lined with vans and trucks of TV news crews. Not allowed within the church, reporters stood beside the road with their microphones, looking into the cameras. Driving by, Hal Rogers counted 12 news crews.

Hal was wearing his only suit, a gray pin-stripe Jo had given him, and a raspberry-colored shirt that Jo had always liked on him. ("I ain't afraid to wear pink or orange," he says.) When Hal arrived at the church, the caskets were up front, each covered with flowers and adorned with a framed picture. There was Jo in her high school senior photo, looking like she had all the time in the world, and Michelle in her junior class photo, smiling a camera smile and wearing her glasses with the pink frames, and Christe in another school portrait, beaming as her hair defied gravity and achieved its usual mousse-induced liftoff. At Hal's request, a teddy bear had been placed inside each of the girls' caskets.

Before the service began, Hal nearly lost it. They sat him up front, and then they made room beside him for his mother. This was the woman who had chosen to believe that Michelle and Jo had made up the rape charges against her son John, and she and Hal had barely spoken in the year since then. When Hal saw her there in the church, he could barely contain himself.

"I was about ready to cold-cock her," he would remember.

The service got under way. The congregation sang How Great Thou Art, and when it was time for the sermon, the pastor asked aloud the question that was on so many people's minds: How could God have let this happen? That night out on Tampa Bay, when Jo and Michelle and Christe were praying for their lives, where was the God?

"Why? Oh, dear God, why?" said the Rev. Gary Luderman. "Where were you, God, when this was going on? What was God doing when this was going on? What in the world was going through God's mind when He decided to allow this to go on?"

The pastor told the congregation that God in fact had been with them on the water that night, watching over them as they moved not toward death but toward eternal life. If heaven could open up at this moment, he said, the congregation would see Jo and Michelle and Christe, bathed in joy and glory.

"Don't you see?" he said, his voice rising. "Don't you see how Jesus loved Joan and Michelle and Christe? Don't you see how Jesus loves you? How God must feel right now as he looks into our hearts and sees our pain and our sorrow and our grief?"

The church was silent, but from outside came the sound of a sparrow chirping.

Luderman went on. God, he said, had not intended for something so horrible to happen. "He never meant for you to suffer this pain. He never meant them to have this death. He loves us." Here the pastor's voice dropped. "What a terrible thing it must be to be God. How in paradise at this moment He must be weeping with you."

In the pews, the congregation was indeed weeping. It seemed that tears were falling down every face. People were holding those sitting next to them, even if they did not know each other.

The most noticeable exception to these displays of grief came from Hal Rogers. Wearing his tinted glasses as usual, Hal did not show anyone his tears. He sat silently up front, his movements almost robotic, his face a blank and unreadable text.

The pallbearers stood up and carried Jo and Michelle and Christe down the red carpet of the center aisle and out the arched front doors. To the tolling of church bells, three hearses took the caskets to the tiny cemetery across the road where three freshly dug graves were waiting. As the final prayers were spoken and the bodies were ready to be committed to the earth, some of Michelle's and Christe's friends began to sob and cry out.

Hal walked over to the caskets, took some flowers from the arrangements, and handed them, one by one, to his daughters' grieving friends. When the service was over, he went back across the road.

"I just want to be by myself," he said.

He went inside the sanctuary, walked across its old creaking floor to one of the pews and sat alone, leaning over, wrapped inside himself. A neighbor's son stood guard at the front doors to make sure no reporters or photographers disturbed his solitude.

Later that afternoon, Hal returned to the farm. He took off his pin-striped suit, put on his overalls, and went out to the barn to grind some feed for the cows. It was all he could think to do.

Haunted continued

herding_cows

LEFT BEHIND: Hal Rogers herds cows to the milking parlor. Says Hal: "I never thought I'd be working alone at 45."  

  ©Copyright 1999, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.