Two months after Jacob Wideman was arrested at work and brought back to prison — for failing to make an appointment with a psychologist on a particular day, as directed by his parole officer — he faced the Arizona parole board again.
The board had to make a formal finding: Did Jake violate the conditions of his parole by not making that appointment? And, if so, should he stay in prison or be returned to the community?
Parole revocation hearings tend to be routine affairs. But, as this episode shows, Jake’s hearing was far from routine.
Ultimately, the parole board voted to keep Jake in prison, where he remains, possibly for life.
In Part Seven of the “Violation” podcast, "No Safe Place," we discuss what happens now and what Jake’s legal options are. And we return to thorny dilemmas about the criminal justice system: When someone commits a terrible crime, as Jake did, is there anything they can do to prove they deserve to be free again? How does the parole system help us determine what justice should be in any given case — and does it make us more safe?
We also return to the question of why Jake killed Eric Kane in 1986. There’s one last piece of the puzzle that might bring a little more clarity, and Jake tries to explain it in his own words.Additional materials:
Beth Schwartzapfel: Hey folks. Heads up. This episode describes some violent acts and sexual assault. Please take care when listening, and here’s the show.
Last time on “Violation”:
Marta DeSoto: He called me, and he was very threatening, and he said something, “Your life is about to change.” And he hung up the phone.
Kathryn Blades Ptak: Mr. Kane and Mr. Gross were given Mr. Wideman's GPS coordinates, which it’s my understanding that ADC always considered those confidential until Mr. Kane requested them.
Patty Garin: I think that's highly unusual. Highly unusual.
Jake Wideman: He said, “So are you going to contact McCaine?” And without an ‘or not’ or anything, I mean, it's just it's just a cordial conversation. So, I volunteered to call him the very next day. I said, “Yeah, I'll call him tomorrow, first thing” . . . Four POs jump out and start surrounding me and I'm just essentially standing there in shock. I have no idea… and I'm like, What's going on? And they just start saying, Oh, you messed up. You messed up. I don't know why you didn't set that appointment . . . and I think the other kinds of emotional traumas I'm describing have their roots in some incidents that I haven't spoken about publicly before and don’t really intend to speak about.
Beth Schwartzapfel: There’s a song that John Edgar Wideman writes about in his 1981 book, Damballah.
John Goss, baritone: O, Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away you rolling river
Beth Schwartzapfel: The song, “Across the Wide Missouri,” always makes John want to cry, he wrote, because it transports him to a time when he was a boy, and this song was the soundtrack to a movie he saw with his dad, Edgar.
John Wideman: I have sons of my own and my father has grandsons and is still a handsome man. But I don't see him often.
Beth Schwartzapfel: One day, when Jake was in second grade, he came home from school singing that same song. But Jake called it “Shenandoah.” He would have been seven or eight at the time.
John Wideman: He's the kind of kid who forgets lots of things, but who remembers everything. He has the gift of feeling. Things don't touch him. They imprint. You can see it sometimes. And it hurts. He already knows he will suffer for whatever he knows. Maybe that's why he forgets so much.
Beth Schwartzapfel: That passage haunted me — haunts me still — because it was written and published long before Eric’s murder, long before even the red flags that emerged in Jake’s teenage years. He was a little boy, and even then, it was clear Jake had an interior life that reflected the kind of knowledge, and suffering, usually reserved for people who had lived much longer than that.
When we started telling this story, I told you it was not a whodunit, but that there are the mysteries at the heart of it. About the big questions in this giant mess of a criminal justice system that crystallize so clearly in Jake’s case. Like, what should happen to people like Jake — people who did something terrible when they were children, and then grew up? Is there anything they can do to deserve to be free again? And also why? Do we understand — can we ever understand — what lived inside of Jake that night? There’s one last piece of the puzzle that might bring a little more clarity to that question, and in this last episode of Violation, we’re going to dig deep and try, as much as it’s possible, to understand.
I’m Beth Schwartzapfel. From The Marshall Project and WBUR, this is Violation. A story about second chances, parole boards, and who pulls the levers of power in the justice system.
This is part seven: No Safe Place
It’s not an accident that Jake and his father John and John’s father Edgar all appear alongside each other in John’s story about that song, “Shenandoah.” One of the preoccupations of John Wideman’s writing is in this idea of generations — of your ancestors being present in you as you move through the world. He begins several of his books with what he calls a “begats” chart, a family tree going all the way back to the runaway slave who was their forebear and matriarch.
Jake talks about that too. At his first parole hearing — probably the highest-stakes moment in his life since he went to prison as a teenager more than 20 years earlier — he said he sensed “a gathering with me...of those who are both alive and those who have passed on."
The issue of Jake’s family has, of course, been central to his case all along. You may recall Eric’s family blamed Jake’s father John for “creating a monster.” For ignoring early warning signs of Jake “crying out for help”. How they pointed to John’s writing as proof that he approved of violence. Jake’s family came up again, in 2017, when Daniel Struck, the private attorney the corrections department hired to represent them in their efforts to bring Jake back to prison and keep him there, spoke to the board.
Daniel Struck: As you can tell from listening to him and seeing him, he's very articulate and very intelligent. He's a good-looking guy, comes from an articulate family, obviously. But he's a cold-blooded killer.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Struck said this to the parole board at Jake’s first revocation hearing. The parole officers supervising Jake could accuse him of violating the rules of his home arrest, and bring him back to prison to await a decision on that accusation. But now the board had to make a formal finding: did Jake violate the conditions of his parole? And, if so, should he stay in prison or be returned to the community?
Remember, Jake had been arrested by his parole officer and brought back to prison because he had failed to follow a directive to make an appointment with a psychologist on a particular day. He had left a message, but before the psychologist had had a chance to call him back, he was brought back to prison. He may never get out again.
The Supreme Court began requiring parole revocation hearings decades ago as a sort of guardrail to make sure that people on parole aren’t dragged back to prison arbitrarily. The court said these hearings can be “informal,” and they’re typically no-frills, routine affairs.
Kathryn Blades Ptak was executive director of the parole board from 2018 to 2022. She was there while some of Jake’s revocation proceedings unfolded. And she said everything about his case felt different.
Kathryn Blades Ptak: We generally book 15 minutes for a revocation hearing. The hearing was like 8 hours, 6 hours, something like that. We booked the whole day for it.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Not that it’s awesome for someone’s freedom to hinge on a 15 minute hearing with no lawyer. But it is telling just how differently the corrections department treated Jake compared to others accused of technical violations. Kathryn Ptak and several others told me the corrections department typically sends someone from the parole office to describe the alleged violation and present any evidence. The accused person makes a statement in response. And then the board decides what to do.
In Jake’s case, they sent the parole officer, his supervisor, the department’s top attorney, and they hired a private law firm, at a rate of $235 per hour to represent them. By this point the Arizona Department of Corrections had paid Struck over $40,000 to represent them just on the issue of Jake’s parole violation.
Kathryn Blades Ptak: What is not routine is bringing any attorneys at all to a revocation hearing, whether they are the attorney general, whether they're in-house counsel or whether they are privately retained attorneys. ADC has not done that at any other revocation case that I'm aware of.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Daniel Struck, the private attorney, prepared a slide deck and a 101-page legal filing arguing that the board should reverse its original decision to release Jake in 2016. The board had never seen anything like it. Struck went back weeks and listened in on Jake’s phone calls from prison which, in Struck’s telling, were clear proof that Jake was dangerous. He made recordings of Jake talking to his wife Marta, and his mother and shared them with the board.
Remember the robot lady who reminds you at the start of every phone call that this call is being recorded . . .?
Phone Robot: . . . and subject to monitoring at any time.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Struck submitted the recordings to the board as evidence. That’s how I heard them — they were in his public parole file. And the recordings are painfully intimate, Jake telling his wife how much he missed her and how much he hated being away from her. But Struck wanted the board to hear them, because at the end of that call, Jake said this:
Jake Wideman: You know I wake up with this—
Marta DeSoto: I know.
Jake Wideman: With this tightness in my chest every day.
Marta DeSoto: I know.
Jake Wideman: This anger and you know, the sadness of not being with you. And I can't, you know, I can't shake it. I can’t – I guess I'm more angry than anything else.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Is this a man having an understandable reaction to being yanked away from his wife, his apartment, his job, back into prison? A man who is talking honestly about his feelings and trying to work through them? Or is this a man who is exactly as dangerous and unstable as the Kanes and the corrections department say he is? This is Struck again, describing the call to the board:
Daniel Struck: And if you recall Inmate Wideman told you this morning he doesn’t have anger issues. Well, yes he does. Uh, he tells his, uh, his wife that he wakes up with a tightness in his chest every day, and his anger and sadness of not being with her, but he says, “but I am more angry than anything else.” Now this is a man who just told everybody, under oath, that he doesn’t have anger issues. This is not a person that you want out on the street.
Beth Schwartzapfel: We’re taping this episode in 2023, and Jake has been back in prison for almost six years. He’s now had two of these revocation hearings and both times the board revoked his home arrest and ordered him to remain in prison. This is his father, John Wideman.
John Wideman: Now, I don't know what country in the world. I don't know what fantasy place and some sort of TV drama gives out five year sentences for missing appointments with psychologists. But that's the situation as it stands now, and it's going to be six years soon.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Now, even if the board did find that Jake had violated his parole, they didn’t have to send him back to prison.
Over the summer and fall after they revoked Jake’s parole and sent him back, there were more than 30 times that the board found someone guilty of violating their parole but returned them to the community.
A few of these were minor technical violations like Jake’s — things like, failing to attend substance abuse counseling, or, not reporting a new address to a parole officer after a move. Those people were continued on parole.
Some of the violations were serious. In one instance, a man was found guilty of sending a pornographic text message to a minor. He was released back on parole. In four instances, the board found people guilty of assault, and in one case a man threatened his parole officer. They were all released back on parole. Sometimes, the board required additional drug treatment or anger management or domestic violence counseling when they released the person. They could have done that with Jake. They could have released him with the requirement to follow up with Dr. McCaine, that psychologist he was supposed to make an appointment with, for instance.
But they didn’t.
So Jake’s only official recourse at this point is to start from scratch: to begin going before the parole board and asking for parole again, as he did, for years. But he has tried another tack: in 2018 he filed what’s called a special action in state court. You can’t appeal a parole board decision, so a special action is another way to get a judge to look at it. In it, he argued state officials violated the law in how they handled his parole revocation. And he’s been fighting with the state about this ever since. And unless and until a judge or the parole board finds in his favor, he’ll stay in prison for the rest of his sentence. Which is the rest of his life.
I asked Kathryn Blades Ptak, the former parole board director, about this. She said it struck her as weird that the state spent so many resources trying to lock Jake back up. She just didn’t get it.
Kathryn Blades Ptak: To me, the case didn't look that much worse than any other case. And I say that understanding that like someone's child was murdered, but, you know, parole went away, in 1994. So, the only case is the board hears is still are 25 year to life cases, with a few exceptions. So, almost every case they hear is a murder. It's either a murder or it's a repeat sexual assault. Like every case the board hears is bad. I mean, they're all bad. And so with having said that, I wouldn't say this case stuck out to me as being a hundred times worse than any other of the cases that the board would hear.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Do you have a hypothesis about why?
Kathryn Blades Ptak: Based on the presentation of the case, they seem to think that Mr. Wideman is just a really bad, dangerous guy.
Beth Schwartzapfel: After Jake filed that first special action in state court, a judge said he was “troubled” by the way the board handled several aspects of Jake’s revocation hearing. He ordered a new revocation hearing, which was held in 2020 — and went very much like the first.
Board members read Jake’s failure to schedule an appointment with Dr. McCaine as evidence that he had lapsed into “disregard for authority.” At one point board member David Neal said, “Without that counseling he's going to do something that is in the criminal ways or he may just go hanging out with criminals.”
David Neal: And I would appreciate it if you wouldn't give your convoluted manipulative answer. Just simple yes or no.
Patty Garin: I object to that.
Beth Schwartzapfel: This idea that Jake was manipulating the board had come up again and again over the years. It was first raised by the Kanes, but then, over time, Struck, parole officers and supervisors, and even board members themselves — began to take the view that nothing Jake said was in good faith, but rather was only a way for him to manipulate the board into getting what he wanted.
Louise Kane: Wideman is a self-serving, unpredictable, manipulative actor…
Holly Dorman: …engaging in behavior that was manipulative in some fashion . . .
Daniel Struck: He continued with his manipulative behaviors. Manipulative behaviors that he’s trying to do today.
Beth Schwartzapfel: I have thought a lot about this. The last thing I want is to be manipulated by Jake — to be taken for a sucker and get on this mic and tell you a story that is biased or misleading or just plain false. I’ve reviewed court documents, police reports, psychiatric and psychological examinations, prison records, jail records, phone records. Emails and calendar entries and memos from inside the corrections department, the parole board, and the governor’s office. I’ve interviewed dozens of people. I can tell you that all the verifiable facts in this story have been verified. But you can still stitch together true facts in a way that feels false.
That’s what the board is accusing Jake of doing. The same set of facts can either be read as an honest misunderstanding or as manipulation. Jake left a message and was waiting for a call back. Or Jake wanted to give his parole officers the impression he was trying without really trying.
At Jake’s revocation hearing, in 2020, a corrections department employee who had been testifying picked up their phone during the lunch break and texted someone. “The board has blasted holes in Wideman’s defense,” he wrote. I got these texts in response to a records request.
“LOL,” the person responded. Then, later, after the board revoked Jake’s parole, the employee wrote, “Unanimous; revoked.” And the person, again, responded, “LOL.”
The records don’t make it entirely clear who these people were, but the person who wrote “LOL” is listed as “D.P.,” or Dan — Daniel Pereda, remember, was Jake’s first parole officer. And the other person said he testified briefly that morning in his text — and the only corrections employee who testified that morning was Jake’s second parole officer, Patrick Pogue.
Later, Dr. McCaine told me, the parole board and all the corrections officials had already made up their mind about Jake, and in his view, nothing he could have said at these hearings would have changed their minds. Here he is talking about the 2017 hearing, where he testified.
Dr. Jon McCaine: As I’ve said, once you come up with an idea you go on a search for proving it. It’s what we refer to as confirmation bias. You can give me literally anything. Regardless of how ridiculous the idea will be, I can find or create evidence for it. Okay? And so I think when you've already decided on the outcome that you want, you go in search for proof for what you already believe. In which case there's a loss of objectivity.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Former board member David Neal, in an interview with us, compared Jake to guys he encountered when he was a cop — guys who were not allowed to be within 500 feet of their ex because of a restraining order would park 502 feet away, just to show the cops, and their terrified ex, who was in control. Jake wasn’t just passing by Marta’s kids’ schools because that’s the route the city bus took on the way to work, Neal said. He was doing it to see what he could get away with.
David Neal: My memory is saying that Dr. McCaine at one point in time did turn around and accused Wideman of being manipulative and everything.
Dr. Jon McCaine: Oh, that is absolutely not true.
Beth Schwartzapfel: This is Dr. McCaine.
Dr. Jon McCaine: That there is no basis whatsoever in anything I said or wrote ever about him. Okay? But that speaks to, I think, the propensity of some people to define their own truths and realities. And I'll just leave it at that.
Beth Schwartzapfel: If Jake were lying to the board all these years — if this were the latest in a long series of lies and manipulations, as the Kanes insist it is, wouldn’t it make more sense to lie in a way that makes his story more palatable, simpler, easier to understand?
This is Board Chair C.T. Wright at a hearing in 2015.
C.T. Wright: It’s still in the back of my mind, why would a young man, young child, 16 years of age, murder someone without a cause? I could understand it if you were in a fight, I would also understand it if you was arguing over money or girl or music or drugs or anything during that period.
Beth Schwartzapfel: He sounds just baffled, right? Many board members do, over the many hearings and years. We even had one former board member tell us she always suspected the two boys had had some sort of sexual liaison that ended badly.
Jake and Eric were the only ones in that hotel room that night. If Jake had said ‘yes sir, you’re right, the truth is, we were arguing about a girl,’ or, ‘yes, I admit, we were in bed together and I freaked out,’ there would be no one to dispute that. And it would probably serve him better in his efforts to explain his crime in a way that the board can easily grasp. It just makes more sense than the complicated, confusing, messy story Jake has always told.
Jake Wideman: I wished over the years that there was a simple explanation for the crime. But there really isn't.
Beth Schwartzapfel: There are all kinds of things like that throughout Jake’s history. Things that would make no logical sense for someone to do if they were trying to manipulate the situation to their advantage. Like, confessing to murdering Eric. Like, falsely confessing to murdering Shelli Wiley, that woman in Laramie whose case is still unsolved.
Dr. Jon McCaine: So if he is manipulative, he's not very good at it. Okay? Because the whole notion of manipulation is that you can do it and not get caught doing it.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Because he is a seasoned psychologist who works with people with violent and abusive histories, and because he spent hours in sessions with Jake, I thought Dr. McCaine would have a more educated opinion than most on this question. He said that people who fit this profile — antisocial, manipulative, charming — tend to deflect blame. They make excuses. They frame things in a way as to make themselves look good and others look bad. And they do it consistently over time.
Dr. Jon McCaine: He resigned himself, when he was charged and convicted. Felt to some extent he deserved it. Had no desire to live. Wanted the death penalty. I'm failing to see the manipulation of that as opposed to someone who is lost and hurt and really felt resigned to not having a life that could be any better than what he already experienced
Beth Schwartzapfel: So you're saying if he was –if he was a manipulative person, then you would have seen that behavior going all the way back to 1986?
Dr. Jon McCaine: Oh, yeah. Because, again, it's not it's not uniquely, singularly situational. It's an enduring and pervasive pattern. Quote. Okay. In terms of personality disorders.
Beth Schwartzapfel: So if this is, in fact, the case — if Jake has been telling the truth as best he can all along — what is the truth about the crime? Or, as CT Wright put it, “Why would a young man, young child, 16 years of age, murder someone without a cause?”
We’ve been circling around that question for weeks, talking about Jake’s mental health, about the temporal lobe seizures that made the mental health symptoms so much harder to manage and control. Temporal lobe syndrome, remember, is the medical explanation Dr. Woods finally gave for those “adrenaline rushes” Jake had been having since childhood — the sudden overwhelming rush of energy and anxiety and sensory overload. We’ll never know exactly why Jake did what he did, when he did. Because of course tens of millions of people experience temporal lobe epilepsy and never hurt anyone. But there are a few remaining pieces that might get us closer to some sort of understanding.
So, remember how Eric was often teased by the other kids?
Todd Miller: I think it's fair to say probably everybody at some point or another, um, just, you know, teased him, gave him a hard time.
Beth Schwartzapfel: I talked to Todd Miller, the camper in this recording, recently. He didn’t want me to use the tape from our phone call, but during our conversation he described Eric as a little slow. A little…different. One newspaper article published after Eric’s death said, "lt was as If Eric kept his own time on his own special wristwatch. He'd get to wherever he was going when he got there.”
Jake said that with all his insecurities — all the secrets he was hiding, his paralyzing fear of being perceived as weird or different — watching Eric get teased was like a fun-house mirror.
Jake Wideman: Eric had a very graceful way of dealing with, uh, what would the kids put him through sometimes. There were times when he would explicitly stand up for himself, but there were other times when he had the grace and the strength to just walk away. And for me, you know, there were times I envied that. And there were other times when it made me angry because I felt like he wasn't standing up for himself. And that was part of that kind of split that I felt in association with him.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake says he couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but he had begun projecting all his fears and insecurities about his ownself onto Eric. Jake says it took him many years of therapy to be able to identify all these dynamics — to name them, to understand how and why they led him to the disastrous place he ended up. He’s speaking now after decades of hindsight and professional help. But at the time all of this registered as little more than an overwhelming fog of emotions.
Jake Wideman: And this part of me that wanted to defend him was stronger, but the part of me that also was angry at him for not standing up and wanted to ridicule him as well for my own reasons was stronger. It was just a very intense experience of looking into a mirror. And it reminded me, as you can imagine, very powerfully, of the trauma that I had experienced as a kid.
Beth Schwartzapfel: The trauma that he experienced as a kid. Jake mentioned this many times over the course of our conversations together, including in our very first call, when he tried to give me a sort of crash course in his childhood suffering in the 15-minute window before we got cut off.
Jake Wideman: And I think the other kinds of emotional traumas I'm describing have their roots in some incidents that I haven't spoken about publicly before and don't really intend to speak about.
Beth Schwartzapfel: I wanted to respect Jake’s privacy, and didn’t push him on this. But over time I started to piece together what had probably happened. I thought about that condition, encopresis, that caused him to soil his pants into his teenage years. How the psychiatrist had chalked it up to a rectal prolapse rhe’d experienced as a child, instead of seeing the prolapse itself as another piece of the puzzle. I thought about some notes I’d seen among the psychological evaluations from the ‘80s that mention two instances of Jake inappropriately touching another child.
And then, after months of talking, Jake told me he was ready to discuss it: the missing link that would tie together all the confusing, messy pieces of the story he’s told about Eric’s murder.
Jake Wideman: Yeah, I almost chickened out.
Beth Schwartzapfel: What Jake told me after the break.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Despite cold feet at first, Jake said he thought he had mentioned this childhood trauma indirectly enough times that people would probably figure it out.
Jake Wideman: There didn't seem to be any compelling reason to not just open up completely and talk about it and maybe, maybe talking about it will benefit others or encourage others who are in a situation similar to mine to open up themselves.
Beth Schwartzapfel: This is what he told me. Over the course of two years, when he was in elementary school…
Jake Wideman: I was sexually abused by two different men during and actually during the same time period in two different places, one in one in Laramie, who was an employee of the school I was attending at the time, and one actually at Takajo.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Remember, Laramie was where Jake grew up. And Takajo was the camp owned by his grandfather, where he had been spending summers for as long as he could remember. Takajo sponsored the cross-country trip that Jake and Eric took together many years later, but during this period Jake was too young to even go to sleepaway camp, and lived with his parents during the summers in a house on the camp property.
Jake Wideman: All I know is it was nightmarish for me because there was no safe place. Those were my two homes. The two places I associated most closely with home, you know, was Takajo and Laramie, where we lived. And for that period of time, neither place was I safe.
Beth Schwartzapfel: This abuse, during Jake’s formative years, he said, laid the foundation for his mental illness and its devastating consequences — for his shame and self-loathing and terror of being perceived as weird or broken, for the obsessive violent thoughts and images, all of which escalated throughout his childhood and teenage years and led to that terrible night in 1986.
Jake Wideman: My instinctive mode was for decades afterwards to be obsessive about protecting myself and not putting myself in vulnerable situations, whether it be physical vulnerability, emotional or psychological vulnerability, even spiritual vulnerability.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake said he thinks he was born with the temporal lobe syndrome — that it was unrelated to the abuse — but it exacerbated all the feelings and patterns and behaviors that the abuse engendered.
That summer that he was 16, Jake says, the intrusive, obsessive thoughts of harming himself or someone else were almost nonstop. On top of managing the thoughts themselves was the near-constant task of pretending he wasn’t having them — while at camp and on the Western trip, living 24/7 with other people and acting like everything was fine. The hypervigilance was exhausting and left him jumpy and on edge.
The night of August 12th he thought going out to the car to listen to some music would help calm him.
[excerpt of “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay”]
And it did, for a time, he said. He even laid down on his bed and fell asleep with his clothes on for a while. But he woke up around 1 am, in the midst of what he now knows was a temporal lobe seizure.
Jake Wideman: It was waking up and immediately being in that hyper state of just sweating, thoughts racing, of shaking, of feeling physically out of control.
Beth Schwartzapfel: He said it was the most intense episode he had ever experienced in his life. Earlier that night, when he had rummaged through his bag to look for his tapes, he had pulled out a souvenir hunting knife he had bought at Yellowstone earlier that week, he said. It was sitting on top of his suitcase.
Jake Wideman: And I just remember seeing that and seeing Eric.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Eric was lying on his bed, sound asleep.
Remember how Jake talked about Eric being a mirror? Watching Eric navigate being different and being teased brought up all of Jake’s insecurities about feeling different, about his shame and his fear of being found out, about his terror of being vulnerable, about his inability to protect himself when it mattered most. Again, these are insights Jake says he developed over the course of decades. At that moment, in 1986, all he knew was that he woke up shaking and sweating and hot and completely out of control, he says. And he felt this compulsion to destroy all of those overwhelming feelings and memories that arose when he saw Eric lying there, sleeping.
Jake Wideman: I saw in Eric, at the time, a mirror for all the things that I hated in myself and all the things that I hated that had happened to me. And even that is nuanced because I didn't feel hatred for Eric. I didn't feel anger at him, explicit anger at him. But there was something inside of me which held that mirror up and which ultimately, when I did wake up in the midst of a seizure and when I did wake up in the midst of a storm, of all those emotions that grew out of my the abuse I experienced and everything that had happened since then, I – in just a moment's time, I looked at Eric and I saw all of that and all of it came to the front.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Did you think about going for a walk? Did you think about using the knife on yourself? Were there other things that occurred to you or did it all happen too fast to to to consider alternatives?
Jake Wideman: No, it just it just happened immediately. There was no. No time for thought at all.
Phone Robot: One minute remaining.
Jake Wideman: And. Yeah, there was. There was no time. There was no consideration of anything. Um, you know, I it just – I woke up and saw those things and and, you know, did what I did.
Beth Schwartzapfel: When we first started talking, Jake had told almost no one about the sexual abuse. Just a small handful of trusted therapists, Patty Garin, his former attorney, and Marta, his wife. He didn’t tell either of them for many years, either.
Patty said that in the years that followed that weekend they spent together in the mid-90s, where Jake spilled his guts about his mental health struggles, she arranged for a psychiatrist to evaluate him. And that doctor said he showed signs of having experienced childhood sexual abuse.
So Patty asked Jake about it, she says, and that’s when they started discussing it openly. He told Patty the name of his abuser from Takajo, and she tried to find out what had become of him, to try to corroborate Jake’s story.
Patty Garin: He didn't want it to be public. He didn't want it to come out. I talked with him, saying, you've come this far to remember this and to think about it. You know, let's really think about whether this could be helpful in your case. And he just absolutely didn't want to do it. It's too hard, it’s too painful, it’s too – everything. So it just stopped.
Beth Schwartzapfel: For Marta, it was around 2011, when she was helping Jake prepare the packet he submitted for his first parole board hearing, that it became clear.
Marta DeSoto: I knew about the signs and symptoms of, you know, people who have been sexually abused. So when I was like, you know, I read, you know, the evaluations, you know, when he was a kid and I was like, there's no way that something had not happened to him. But I never said anything about it. I just felt like if he wanted to tell me something, he would, because I just felt like he needed to, you know, come to it on his own, I guess.
Beth Schwartzapfel: And eventually, he did. A year or two later, he wrote her a long letter. But he was not ready to discuss it publicly. Until now.
But why now? Is this just a tactic to garner sympathy, from me and from you?
That is almost certainly what people opposed to Jake’s release will say at any future parole board hearing. That it’s all too convenient, suddenly, to frame himself as a victim. And even if he was sexually abused, that is no excuse for murder. That this disclosure at this moment is a manipulative act by a man who will say anything to get out of prison.
Jake Wideman: Because I can anticipate that that same narrative is going to be produced either publicly or at future hearings or whatever the case may be saying, “Oh, he's changing the story again.” And and I refute that. I went into tremendous detail about, um, the outcomes of the abuse, not the abuse itself, but the outcomes, the behavioral outcomes, the emotional outcomes, the developmental outcomes, all of that. I discussed with the board for hours and hours and hours and hours. And the fact that I'm now opening up about the source, you know, the deepest source of some of those outcomes doesn't change anything. It doesn't mean that I wasn't honest with the board.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Fear of how some people might react is part of why Jake didn’t raise this sooner, he said. Why he didn’t tell the board about it in 2011, when he first had the chance. It was too painful to air in a public setting, where this most intimate trauma would be the subject of an hours-long discussion among people who were sure to treat it with skepticism if not contempt. And then once he didn’t say anything in 2011, each year it got harder to avoid this question of why now? Why are you suddenly telling us this after all this time? Because the honest answer, he says — at least part of it — is that he’s just finally ready.
He also says he feared for his safety. Talking about this stuff publicly back then — even as recently as 2011 — was dangerous.
Jake Wideman: 2011 is only chronologically 11 years ago. But in terms of the culture of prison and particularly particularly the prison where I was housed at the time, it's a very different time. Yyou know, even hinting around…
Phone Robot: One minute remaining.
Jake Wideman: …being abuse or let alone talking explicitly about it in the past immediately made you a target. Immediately made people assume that you had vulnerabilities that they could target. . . I made a decision that, especially because of the yard I was on and the culture of that yard, I didn't want to take that chance. I knew that there was going to be a lot of publicity around my hearing and that a lot of stuff that was said there would come out if not in the media, then at least, you know, around the prison, you know, with the prison bullhorns, so to speak. And I didn't want to have to deal with the consequences of having everybody know that I had been abused as a child.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Things are different now, he said. There’s been a tremendous shift, with topics like PTSD and mental illness and sexual abuse being discussed openly and without shame. He wants to add his voice to that, he said — contribute to this culture where younger guys feel safe speaking out and seeking help.
But there was one problem. When Jake and I first had this conversation, he had never spoken to his family about the abuse. He has since begun the long, painful process of those conversations, knowing that the information would be public soon. But for years he avoided it.
Jake Wideman: My parents in particular, felt a lot of guilt about the fact that I, you know, that I took Eric's life and, you know, asked themselves questions over and over again, what could we have done? Why, what should we have seen? And questions like that. And there's always been a big part of me that didn't want to add to that. And I felt as though and to some extent still feel as though opening up about the fact that I was abused and that they had no idea would only layer more guilt upon which they already feel.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake says now he thinks the violent thoughts and imagery about his family was born of subconscious anger over what he saw as their failure to protect him. At times that anger was very real and not at all subconscious. But over time his anger has softened and mostly gone. He says now that given the tremendous effort he made to ensure no one in his life, especially his parents, knew how much he was suffering, it’s hard to imagine they could have done more.
I asked Jake’s father John about this. Did he know how much Jake was struggling? Jake hadn’t talked to me or to his father about the abuse yet — this was a broader question about Jake’s mental health struggles in general. And it clearly struck a nerve with John.
John Wideman: Well I think that question is asking if I want to go down on my knees and cry and ask forgiveness. That’s the only answer to that question I can think of. And I’m not going to go there.
Beth Schwartzapfel: It’s an intense question, to be sure. All parents lie awake at night sometimes, worrying about whether we did right by our kids. Whether there are ways we failed them or didn’t see them or support them as well as we could have. And that’s true even when your kid is dealing with pretty typical kid stuff. Imagine what spins through your mind over decades after your sixteen year old murders another kid. And then grows up, without you, in prison. And then along comes some stranger with a microphone and a list of earnest questions asking you to explain yourself.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Um no. I mean I apologize if —
John Wideman: That’s – I mean, what else can one say? If I wasn't aware, well then I'm terribly guilty. And if I was aware, I'm even more guilty. And what justification is there for being unaware? There is none. And so I would just simply have regret that I could not — that I wasn't up to it, that I didn't, wasn't there. That’s all. Children hide things from parents. And kids are very cunning and have their necessities. But I can't. I mean, that question just makes me speechless. Because it goes: How much — How much responsibility does one take for one's life? And when and how? But believe me, I've asked that question of myself many times. And I’ll ask it until the day I die. Why wouldn't I?
Beth Schwartzapfel: How much responsibility does one take for one’s life? Is there a such thing as enough responsibility? Enough suffering, enough punishment, when you’ve caused as much suffering to others as Jake did?
I’ve tried really hard to fairly represent the Kanes’ point of view throughout this podcast. To convey, in some small way, the magnitude of what they lost. But I have not been able to speak to them. I have not been able to hear from them directly about their son and their experience with the system and with this case, which has stretched on through the decades of their lives. Instead, I’ve had to rely on these terrible tapes — which are so affecting, despite the awful sound quality.
Sandy Kane: Sometimes, when we’re out we’ll see the back of a young, tall man with dark curly hair…
Beth Schwartzapfel: Sometimes when we’re out we’ll see the back of a young, tall man with dark curly hair, and for an instant we look for a miracle, Eric’s dad Sandy says there. And then he turns around and we go back to reality, without Eric.
Over the years, I sent the Kanes emails explaining who I was and that I hoped they would speak with me. I had a phone call with their attorney, explaining the podcast. I asked to speak to someone else close to them — a friend, a family member, their attorney even. They declined all of my requests. And I respect that.
But it has also been really important to describe their role in this case using the information that was available to me. They are the victims in this case. And they have been key factors in how it has played out.
The Kanes have made very clear that they want the state to incarcerate Jake forever, and that the only way that Jake can begin to make amends is to stop trying to get parole. To stay in prison until he dies.
This is Louise Kane.
Louise Kane: Ad nauseam, he says he’s full of remorse. But still cannot bring himself to understand or to care about us. In the hearing last February, Wideman said, and I quote: “I wish so much, I wish with all my heart, that I could relieve them of that burden of suffering.” At every hearing we’ve told the murderer that he can make it better for us by not having more of these hearings. Obviously his words are just made to have you think he’s remorseful. Words are cheap. Actions count.
Beth Schwartzapfel: That is a fundamental tension in any story like this one. The Kanes want Jake to go away and never come back. And Jake and his family say that he has served enough time, that he has fulfilled his part of the plea bargain and he has proved he’s ready to be free.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Eric's family does not want you out of prison. They've made that very clear. They want you to be in prison until you die. And you obviously are a human being who wants to be free. How do you reconcile that?
Jake Wideman: There is no true reconciliation of that. There is no way to try to refute what they say in the sense that I understand completely where they're coming from. Their argument makes logical sense. I mean, if somebody felt enough remorse, then they should just, you know, lay down and take their medicine. And I was given a life sentence. And so I deserve to do the rest of my life in prison. There's no logical refutation to that. And there's no emotional refutation to what they feel. I completely understand it. Who among us can possibly say–with any objectivity– that they wouldn’t feel exactly the same way about the person who too the life of their son, especially their son at such a young age? Especially in the circumstances that I took Eric’s life. But having said that, under the law, I was given the opportunity to one day apply for parole and be given a chance. And I felt like over the years – as I healed from the mental illness and the other psychological dynamics that I believe led me to commit the crime that i did, taking full responsibility for that – I believe that the healing and the overcoming of that and becoming a person who is no longer a danger to hurt anybody else. I wanted the opportunity to make an impact outside of here.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Through this project we’ve looked at all the ways this system falls short for everyone. Parole board hearings drag both victims and the people who have harmed them through this traumatic theater over and over again, with no clear rules, no endgame, and no clear idea of what is out of bounds and what is fair and reasonable to expect. Both sides spend decades of their lives trying to be heard and never know what the outcome will be. Even once incarcerated people get out, navigating the thicket of rules feels like a gauntlet rather than a leg up — and even to victims it’s not clear whether all those rules are keeping them, or us, safe.
So here we are, in 2023. Jake is in prison, serving a life sentence for ending another human being’s life. The most elemental and devastating violation there is. A young man who lay defenseless, sleeping. Jake was given another chance and he blew it. Or — some would say — Jake is in prison, serving a life sentence for not getting a call back from Dr. McCaine. For a petty misunderstanding cynically twisted into something dangerous by people determined to see him back behind bars. For a technical violation.
So, about those mysteries at the heart of this story. Is Jake dangerous, and right where he belongs? Or is he the victim of a concerted campaign by people who hate him?
I can’t answer those questions for you. I can give you all the information I have about what happened, and why. And then each person has to decide those mysteries for themselves. But the last piece — the mysteries at the heart of families and the stories they tell. Let’s dig into that before I leave you. Remember Jake’s Uncle Robby? John Wideman’s baby brother, who was serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania for a botched robbery in which a man was killed? Robby was the subject of “Brothers and Keepers,” John’s 1984 memoir exploring all of the messy, thorny themes — racism, punishment, culpability, justice — that came to define both his life and Jake’s. In Brothers and Keepers, John describes Robby as “first a man. . .
John Wideman: First a man and then a man who had done wrong.
Beth Schwartzapfel: That line, that passage, from Brothers and Keepers, was about John and Robby’s mother — how she worked to hold both of those truths in her heart, even as the system incarcerating Robby refused to. Robby deserved to be punished, yes, but he also deserved to be treated fairly. To be treated with dignity and with a recognition that there were people who cherished him. Anything less made a mockery of this whole project of dispensing justice, she felt.
John Wideman: The institutions and individuals who took over control of his life denied not only his humanity, but the very existence of the world that had nurtured him and nurtured her. The world of touching, laughing, suffering black people that established Robby’s claim to something more than a number.
Beth Schwartzapfel: The question is whether we can hold both at the same time — the need for punishment, and the humanity of those who we punish. Whether we can honor the Kanes’ loss andJake Wideman’s striving to make amends for that loss.
This year, Jake filed a second special action in state court, arguing that the Department of Corrections, under outside pressure, invented a pretext to revoke his parole, and asking the judge to release him from prison and reinstate his home arrest.
A new judge is currently considering whether he agrees. If he doesn’t side with Jake, Jake has very few remaining options, except to begin a new round of parole board hearings, every year, trying to convince the board to release him. That ruling could come any day now.
And the justice system — which is to say, all of us — in every case, every day, in courtrooms and parole board hearings across the country, has to reconcile the two sides and find some kind of answer that feels like justice.
Reporter & Host: Beth Schwartzapfel; Managing Editor: Geraldine Sealey; Executive Producer: Ben Brock Johnson; Producer: Quincy Walters; Editor: Amy Gorel; Production Manager: Paul Vaitkus; Sound Designers: Emily Jankowski and Matt Reed; Fact Checker: Kate Gallagher; Illustrator: Diego Mallo