On June 23, 1997, life sucker-punched Kathy Roever.
That was the day her 24-year-old daughter, Deidre, was raped and murdered, tossed into a shallow grave up Old Stage Road, her slight body crushed under heavy rocks. Everything that's happened since, Roever ties to that fateful, heartbreaking day.
At the time, Roever had a good job, making $9.56 an hour working in the mailroom at Focus on the Family. A single mom, she was raising her two sons in their three-bedroom west side home. They weren't wealthy, by any stretch, but they were comfortable enough.
Nearly a decade later, Roever has lost nearly everything. While still grieving, she was fired from the family ministry for missing too much work. She sold her house. Her adult children, including another daughter, are scattered; she rarely speaks with them. She lost the rest of her belongings, including most of her photographs and life's mementos, when she couldn't pay her storage bill last November.
But there are two things that no one can take away from a woman who earned notoriety for publicly forgiving her daughter's murderer during a face-to-face prison encounter: her strength and her faith.
Always on the move
Roever, now 56, is getting ready to spend her third winter living inside a cramped, 20-foot mobile home. She and her fianc live on the move. They pull their 1979 Cobra, white with red stripes, into the parking lot at Wal-Mart, or any one of a handful of places that allow them to stay overnight, one night at a time.
In the morning, they head to Ecumenical Social Ministries on North Weber Street to shower. Roever uses the free phones at the county's Department of Human Services on the city's near west side. She sometimes dines at the Marian House soup kitchen.
"It's one thing, being in a mobile home when you're going on vacation," she says. "If I was 20, or 25, that would be cool. But after you've had a three-bedroom house, with cars, it's like living in the closet.
"Plus, you can break down anywhere."
Like the time earlier this summer, when Roever spent six days trying to get out of the Marian House parking lot in downtown Colorado Springs. Her six-wheeler is down to running on four tires; the other two only have rims remaining. The Cobra is safer with six wheels, but when you're this broke, what do you do?
Roever lives on $230 a month she receives from Aid to the Needy and Disabled, and another $150 a month in food stamps. Her fianc also receives assistance, but even pooling their resources, they struggle.
"In some respects we're lucky, because we don't have to camp out in a tent," says Roever. "We have a roof over our heads."
But then, memories of the creature comforts creep back. "It would be really great to be able to get up and take a shower, without having to get everything together first and go somewhere," she says.
Roever doesn't feel sorry for herself and she doesn't want anyone else to feel sorry for her, either. She simply wants people to hear her story, and to realize that she is just one of hundreds, even thousands, of people in Colorado Springs who have lost their jobs, their businesses, their families. Who are living on the streets or under bridges or who are dangerously close to it.
"Things happen, and I don't take it personal," she says. "The guy that murdered my daughter had nothing to do with Focus, but if they would have done something, and not kicked me while I was down ..."
Roever moved to Colorado Springs in the late 1980s with four children and her second husband, when he was transferred to Fort Carson. She was cleaning hotel rooms in 1991 when she learned that James Dobson was moving his ministry from Southern California.
"I had been listening to their radio program, and enjoyed it," she says. "I thought it was so cool when I found out they were coming to Colorado Springs."
She was thrilled when she landed a job in their mailroom, sorting thousands of pieces of ingoing-outgoing every day. But things didn't work out so well at home; her husband left her in 1994 and their divorce was finalized in early 1996.
The next year, her daughter Deidre Malachowski, 24, went missing. The young woman, always dependable, didn't show up for her shift at the Sonic Drive-In in Fountain, and Roever immediately knew something was terribly wrong. Six days later, Dede's body was found near Old Stage Road, in the mountains just west of Colorado Springs.
Initially, her co-workers rallied with an outpouring of support, Roever says. The county victims' assistance fund, the Sheriff's Office and other groups pitched in to pay for a large, granite, tear-shaped tombstone. On June 30, 1997, she buried Dede in the Fountain city cemetery. KRDO Channel 13 covered the emotional service.
Roever was back at work five days later. She needed to earn a living, she says, and she found the work therapeutic.
But home life was another matter. Her sons were 12 and 14, and her younger boy, especially, was having problems coping. He was acting out at school, Roever says, and classified with attention deficit disorder. At one point, the Department of Social Services was called; it took her two years to get them off her back. Eventually, with the help of victims' assistance, Roever found a therapist who made inroads with them.
"I was really trying to keep everything going," she says. "The first year, we were all just kind of floating."
Eighteen months after Dede's murder, Alan Yerkey, a 29-year-old handyman who had lived in Colorado Springs, was arrested in Texas. He was charged with raping and strangling a 12-year-old Colorado Springs girl, Danielle Bonfield, and dumping her body in the mountains.
After his arrest in the Bonfield murder, detectives dug into Yerkey's computer hard drive and found a program called "MySins." They cracked the Malachowski case when they figured out Yerkey's password, "Godhelp," and read what he had listed. The second sentence read, "The rape and murder of Deidre."
Dede had lived less than 100 yards away from Yerkey's apartment. Prosecutor Dave Gilbert told the Associated Press on Dec. 22, 1998, that Yerkey admitted killing the young woman during an argument over her boyfriend.
"He said he killed her by punching her in the head," Gilbert told the wire service. "She fell to the ground and may have hit her head, and he proceeded to try to bury her under some rocks. Putting the heavy boulders on her head may have contributed to her death."
For the two murders, Yerkey was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
"People at work would say, 'Wouldn't you rather have the death penalty?' and these are people at Focus!" Roever says. "Well, I really believe it's better that he has to think about what he did for the rest of his life.
"He'll never get out of prison, and you know what? It doesn't matter. It's not going to bring her back."
Keeping it together
After Dede's murder, Roever went to a few meetings of the local support group Parents of Murdered Children. She stopped, she says, because it was just too depressing; new parents just kept showing up.
She did connect with Mark Hoffman, a Colorado Springs psychologist who, through the victims' assistance fund, provided counseling. Roever, however, tried to maintain her stoicism. She was determined to keep it together.
"Yeah, it was tough," Roever says now. "I may have started to slow down a bit at work I guess I had a lot going through my mind."
Less than a year after the man who murdered her daughter was sent to prison, on Feb. 16, 2000, Focus on the Family fired Roever, citing poor performance.
She had worked there nine years. She says that at the time she was let go, she was processing 28,000 pieces of mail a day at the ministry, a multimedia powerhouse that generates so much mail it has its own ZIP code.
Roever says that she remembers telling her supervisors, 'Guys, I'm going through something here,' but they were telling me I was screwing up.
"They acted like they were doing me a favor," she says of her firing. She received no severance pay, and no unemployment insurance.
Focus on the Family, which reported nearly $138 million in revenues last year, specializes in products designed to advise men, women and children across the globe on all aspects of family life. For example, James Dobson's 1993 bestseller, When God Doesn't Make Sense, carries this promotional snippet: "Why does disease, divorce, rejection, death or sorrow seep into our lives when we are trying to serve the Lord? Drawing on his long experience as a Christian psychologist and family counselor, Dr. James Dobson offers hope and encouragement to those who face trials and heartaches they can't understand."
For its own employees, Roever says, Focus on the Family offers one counseling session a year, available upon request. Lisa Anderson, the head of corporate media relations at the ministry, did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story, including clarification of Focus on the Family's policies related to employees who experience unexpected death and trauma.
"A lot of people either love Focus or they hate Focus; I'm kinda in the middle," Roever says. "I was so tickled I got the job. But they're not any different than any other place."
Forgiving a murderer
Roever had been working since she was 18 years old, but it took her nearly a year to land another job, at a bicycle equipment manufacturing company called Rock Shox. It didn't pay as well as Focus did, but she enjoyed the work. However, after a year she was forced to quit; the chemicals, she says, were giving her a terrible rash.
Other potential employers gave her a cool reception. She suspects that Focus on the Family's human relations department was badmouthing her to prospective employers.
But she had another pressing issue to resolve. Constantly thinking of her daughter's murder, and the man who was sent to prison for committing the crime, she decided she needed to forgive him.
She contacted Hoffman, the psychologist who had previously helped her family. Hoffman recalls the nearly two years from when Dede's body was found to when Yerkey was sent to prison. "What was just so interesting about the case was, Kathy's strength and her Christian faith were just incredible," Hoffman says.
"During the trial, she actually pleaded he not be given the death penalty but a life sentence, because he didn't know Jesus Christ. She actually pleaded for his life, despite the fact he raped and killed her daughter."
In July 2003, Roever, accompanied by Hoffman, traveled to the Sterling Correctional Facility in southeastern Colorado. The warden greeted them, incredulous, Hoffman says, over the idea that a mother wanted to meet with the man who murdered her daughter to forgive him. "This is very, very rare; it's just impossible in psychology," Hoffman says.
In prison, Yerkey was studying to be a minister. He was only allowed out of his cell for 30 minutes every 24 hours, but unlike many inmates who are locked up for such extended periods was not, Hoffman says, insane. Yerkey and Roever began talking. He told her that his guilt was immense. Many nights after he had murdered Dede, he had gone to the graveyard where the young woman was buried, begging her to forgive him.
"He said he would hear her screams in his mind for many years," Hoffman says. "I would say he'll hear the screams off and on his entire life."
Roever went to the prison wanting to learn what her daughter's final words had been. But Yerkey could not, or would not, tell her.
Months later, the Colorado Springs Gazette published an extensive account of Roever's decision to forgive Yerkey, and subsequent visit to the prison.
"Kathy has gone through a lifetime of trauma," Hoffman says. "When she mentioned that [Focus on the Family] had fired her because of tardiness, I thought, "My goodness, what would you expect?' I think there are some corporations that would have treated their employees better. I would have recommended they give her six months' leave while the sheriffs were investigating this thing."
Roever was able to patch together a job here and there. She worked at Molly Maids; volunteered at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo; at the American Association of Retired People, for minimum wage.
In April 2004, Roever sold her house and loaded a moving van. She headed to Florida, and stayed for five months with her oldest child, a daughter, and her daughter's husband. She looked for work, but again, nothing panned out. Finally she got her guts up to call her former longtime employer.
"I said, "I have a right to know what's in my file,'" she says. The folks in Focus on the Family's human relations department told her, she says, that their records indicated she had problems with performance and attendance in 1997 and 1998.
"I told them that was when Dede had been murdered. Don't you take that under consideration?"
Her younger son, by then a young adult, joined Roever in Florida, but didn't get along with his sister's husband. So, after a brief stop in Kentucky, the two of them returned to Colorado Springs.
Back in town, Roever met her fianc, who asked that his name not be used for this story. He lost his business several years ago and also has struggled. As they get ready to spend their third winter living inside the Cobra, Roever says their living conditions have improved some.
The first year, she says, the motor home had no heat source, and so the couple would burn 20 candles at a time for heat. "Once," she says, "we got it up to 65 degrees."
Last winter, they were able to lay their hands on a propane heater.
Roever doesn't drink alcohol, doesn't do chemicals. She goes through periods of depression, but is never suicidal, she says. She has a good relationship with her younger son, but only recently spoke to her older son for the first time since Christmas 2004. Her network of acquaintances consists mostly of homeless people and others living on the edge.
She would like to work, she says, but is unsure what sort of job she could land, and whether she could earn a salary to live on. And she continues to worry that her record at Focus on the Family will stymie her efforts.
Roever recently applied to receive early Social Security benefits, but was rejected. She has been told that it usually takes years of appeals to wrangle through the system, though a broker is currently helping to try to expedite the process for Roever, in exchange for a cut of the benefits he helps her obtain.
"If it wasn't for June 23, 1997, I'd be working, and going on with my life," she says. "I can blame Alan Yerkey, but I've got to move on. But I'm having a hard time getting back on the ground."
After meeting with Roever recently, Hoffman made a number of recommendations. With limited skills, he indicated, Roever would benefit from a vocational assessment and she has indicated she would like to go back to school. A psychological evaluation was also advised, specifically to assess trauma and possible post-traumatic stress disorder. Hoffman has offered to personally accompany Roever to Focus on the Family to try to rectify her employment history.
But mostly, Hoffman says, Roever would benefit from compassion, and a society in which people take better care of one another. The down and out, he notes generally, are neither sociopaths nor criminally minded. And some people, he says, are far more sensitive to trauma than others.
The yellow sewing basket
Roever often notes that she is far from alone on the streets. "There are so many others who are in the same boat people who've lost their businesses, everything," she says.
A few Sundays ago, she was at the flea market on East Platte Avenue, picking through the piles.
She came upon a yellow sewing basket and remembered the kit she had bought, for $12 many years earlier at a shop in her west side neighborhood. She lifted the lid and sorted through the contents. Pulling out a cardboard bobbin, she saw her own name on it.
The irony of the new price tag, $12, was not lost on Roever. She can no more afford to repurchase her own sewing basket than spring for a weekend getaway at The Broadmoor. Besides, she says lightly, a reclaimed sewing kit would just take up extra weight and space in the motor home.
Roever misses her lost possessions, mostly the sentimental stuff: a tote full of family photographs; her books; the handprint artwork that her kids made long ago; the 300 vinyl classics by the Doors, Eagles, Steppenwolf, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan; a 100-year-old dresser set she inherited from her mother; the "outfit and a half" that she wore to her daughter's funeral.
"But then I listen to people who lost everything in [Hurricane] Katrina, and their stuff is gone, waterlogged, destroyed," Roever says. "At least my stuff is getting used by somebody."
Roever recalls the generosity of a woman in a car with Texas license plates who got to talking with her a couple weeks ago. The woman, whose name she never learned, commented that Roever looked like she was about her size, and handed over a treasure trove of slightly used outfits.
Ultimately, Roever says, she wants to return to Kentucky, where she lived for a year just after Dede was born, and where she briefly visited in 2004. It is, she says, the only place she ever truly felt was home.
As she explains, "I'd like to have a little place, where I can pick out what I'm going to wear in the morning, rather than dig through a stack of stuff.
"I just want to move on and have a relatively normal life. If there is such a thing."