Hi. How you doing?
Hello, sweetheart. How are you?
Uh, not too good.
I know, baby.
I have to come home. I have to come home.
Baby, I know that. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stay strong. Are you saying your prayers?
Yes, mom, but I want to come home.
Baby, I promise you that we’re working on that, okay?
Will you promise me that I’ll come home?
Will you try?
Sweetheart, we’re trying everything we can. I promise you. There’s nothing in the world that I want more than my boy home with me.
It’s a familiar conversation: a homesick child calling his mom, begging to come home. Yet this boy is not away at camp or on a school field trip. He’s in prison, a juvenile tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
This is the beginning of Lost for Life, Josh Rofé’s heart wrenching film that takes viewers inside the lives of these young people and the lives of their parents as they attempt to adjust to a new normal, one that revolves around prison. We see the crimes these prisoners committed and learn about the victims and the victims’ families. While that opening phone call is painful to hear, that audio is juxtaposed with a visual as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the brutal slaying of a young teenage girl that landed this teenage boy and his friend in jail.
]“I did not make an advocacy piece by any means,” explained Rofé during a phone interview. “I hope that this film will spark a national conversation around the issue.” On June 24, 2012, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to mandate a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of homicide. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
The ruling does not eliminate life without parole for juveniles, but means that other factors should be considered before sentencing, including the young person’s background and circumstances as well as the nature of the crime.
According to the National Center for Youth Law, there are currently around 2,500 prisoners serving life without parole sentences for homicides committed when they were under 18 years of age. The U.S. Is the only country in the world where youths are allowed to die in prison.
“[That Supreme Court ruling] should have been front page news,” said Rofé. “It wasn’t because minutes after that ruling came down, the ruling [on Obamacare] came down. No one even remembers it unless they are in the trenches working in or around this issue or had their lives deeply affected by it somehow. And I think there are a lot of people out there serving this sentence who are worth a second look, who are absolutely worthy of redemption.”
Rofé remembers exactly when he first heard about juvenile murderers being incarcerated for life with no hope of freedom. “It was October 10, 2008; I was in Los Angeles at a friend’s birthday party,” he said. Rofé spent most of the evening talking with his friend’s father, a judge in Panama City, Florida. “I asked him what cases and trials had stayed with him throughout the years. He told me about a15 year-old girl who shot a cab driver in the back of the head killing him and who he sentenced to life without parole. I was taken by the fact that a 15 year-old girl did something like that, but I was also taken with hearing about life without parole for someone so young.” The judge told Rofé he was conflicted about handing down such a tough sentence.“His daughter had the same name as the girl he sentenced to life without parole; they were about the same age. He kind of bit his tongue, but he expressed that he wasn’t quite sure if that was the right move.” (Rofé later learned that the girl, Rebecca Falcon, had been gang raped when she was 13 and was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. When Rebecca’s grandmother urged her to tell her mother about the abuse, the mother instead married the boyfriend.)
Beginning the project, Rofé initially thought he would make a film about Rebecca Falcon. But after her attorney told Rofé he had a roster of 14, 15, and 16 year-olds in the same situation, Rofé realized there was a larger story to tell. “That set me on the path,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to open it up and examine multiple cases across the country as opposed to just one person’s story.”
Rofé spent four and a half years working on the film, admitting that two and a half years into the project, he literally “wiped the slate clean” and finally ended up with the subjects featured in the film. Those interviewed fall into categories. “There’s the kid who grew up in a gang culture; there was the kid who was abused and took vengeance on the abuser,” he said. The third category and the one that opens the film is the “thrill killer.” Rofé added: “Those were, of course, the most unsettling. It seems like you can chase your tail forever and ask why. You go and you meet their families and they remind you of your own. But there’s something that went very wrong. There’s some secret that was either unearthed or has yet to be unearthed that led to these crimes.”
The prisoners in Lost for Life are now adults even though they were sentenced as juveniles. For the most part, they come across as intelligent and introspective as they reflect on their crimes and why they did what they did. Jacob Ind, now 34 years-old, was 15 when he was arrested for killing both his mother and stepfather. Jacob had initially recruited a schoolmate to do the killings. When that boy botched the hit, Jacob finished the job. “Jacob, who I got to know very, very well, his mother sexually abused him in ways that are so horrific, you can’t even believe that these things exist,” said Rofé. “She used to give him enemas to prepare him for his stepfather.” On camera Jacob said: “I raised every red flag that I could and no one paid any attention. It put me in a very deep, dark place where I didn’t see any option.” Mary Ellen Johnson, author of The Murder of Jacob, commented: “Jacob is serving a life sentence for the sins of our community. Nobody helped him.”
Josiah, whose parents were in a religious cult, was convicted of killing Stacy Dahl, 39, and Gary Alflen, 47, during a robbery. “My parents would, like, have random prophets through the house that, you know, we’d be left with, and, we could have been protected better,” explained Josiah’s sister, Amber.
Sean represents the most hopeful story in the film. Now 38, he was arrested at 17, in a gang shooting. “Sean is the poster child for someone that America would write off,” said Rofé. “He’s black. He was a Blood. He murdered somebody in a drive by shooting. He was a drug dealer. Everything about him on paper says we should forget about him.”
Sean was released on parole and has dedicated his life to helping others who came from circumstances similar to his own. “I talk to him frequently,” said Rofé. “He’s married. He’s a great guy. He’s incredibly grateful and incredibly remorseful. He’s committed to, one day at a time, trying to make amends for what he did when he was so young.”
Rofé believes that community outreach is important. “I have always hoped that with this film, frankly, we would scare the shit out of kids who are in sixth grade,” he said. “Whether it’s the inner city or the wealthiest suburbs in this country, there are kids right now getting ready to commit horrific crimes. We’ll know their names tomorrow or a year from now. But I think the juvenile lifers themselves can share their experiences directly with kids who think there is no other way. “
If you plan to be in the vicinity of Sarasota, Florida, be sure to set aside time to visit The Ringling. Listed as the top tourist attraction in Sarasota by Trip Advisor, The Ringling was the estate of John and Mabel Ringling. The many exhibits provide something of interest for all ages. including the circus museums, Venetian style mansion that was home to Mabel and John, the magnificent formal gardens and lush grounds, and a first rate museum.
Five hours was enough time to skim many of the exhibits, but I look forward to returning to explore more of the galleries and grounds and take at least a few tours with the docents.
While we started with the Art Museum, the most unusual exhibits were in the circus museums, so give some careful consideration to your time and the interests of your group because you should absolutely not miss these buildings.
We approached the Museum by walking past the Dwarf Garden and over a bridge. The many dwarf representations of commedia dell’arte players were hidden among the plants forming a circle around a great banyan tree. There were many banyan trees on the estate and these are a wonder of nature. While they may start as one tree, the banyan sends out many aerial roots that hang down and reach the ground where they become additional mature trunks of the tree. Over the many years since their planting, they continue to spread out to form canopies that cover sizeable areas.
While the Museum itself had many interesting galleries including European art, fascinating sculptures, some modern glass which will eventually be moved to its own wing, and a very interesting traveling exhibit of Islamic Art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the most noteworthy aspect of the museum is the stunning and expansive Italian Renaissance courtyard and gardens. The open porticos surround the courtyard on three sides, forming a U shape.
There are three terraced levels in the courtyard including reproductions of two classical fountains among the water features. Throughout the gardens are casts of classical statues. The open end of the courtyard faces the bay and links the two wings with a bridge. A cast of Michelangelo’s David is in the center of this bridge. Standing here, we could fully appreciate the spaciousness and sense of order and beauty of this dramatic courtyard while we could also look west and see the water.
By this time, we were hungry and followed the short path past the enticing playground full of school age children to the Banyan Café. This simple lunch spot offers made-to-order sandwiches, hamburgers, and salads to be eaten at outside tables. This was a good stop prior to our 1:00 unguided tour of the Ca’d’Zan.
On the way to the mansion, we detoured through the rose garden. In March, there were some roses, but I was informed that they had recently been pruned and were only now starting to bloom. It must be spectacular when many of the 1200 roses that form this wagon wheel design are in full color.
Walkway with Zodiac Leading to the Mansion
We continued up the palm-lined walk on the path of terra cotta mosaic inlaid with signs of the Zodiac, where we lined up for admission into the mansion. Ca d’Zan, obviously named for its owner, means House of John in the Venetian dialect. We had selected the quick self-guided tour because of our time constraints and because there was no additional fee. I so enjoyed the splendors of this structure that, on a future trip I would consider both the 40-minute guided tour of both the first and second floors for $10, and also the $20 Private Places Tour that includes the third floor game room and the Belvedere Tower. It is important to note that, for the unguided tour, 25 people are admitted every five minutes, so it makes sense to arrive shortly before one o’clock.
Each room in the Ca d’Zan included beautiful architectural details and possessions, from the gilded door in the solarium to the silver asparagus tongs in the pantry. I especially loved the windowpanes throughout the house, tinted lilac and blue; the green and clear crystal chandelier in the breakfast room; the ceiling in the dining room that looks like hand carved wood, but is really plaster and the Tap Room. I could happily imagine bellying up to this bar during Prohibition!
We exited the mansion onto an expansive terrace overlooking the bay. Everywhere on this visit, there was so much of interest to see and to absorb. Standing on the terrace, we could enjoy the beautifully patterned marble terrace floor, the house with its row of arched windows, tower, and patterned façade, the detailing on the balustrades and, of course, the view of Sarasota Bay.Fortunately, there were chairs so we could rest a while and savor all of this.
We were foot weary at this point and a bit on overload, but we hadn’t yet arrived at the two buildings of the Circus Museum. Fortunately, the Ringling has many golf carts to transport tourists, so we rode comfortably to the Original Circus Museum. We saw costumes, posters, beautifully carved and painted cage wagons for the animals, and even the cannon used for humans! The most interesting display, to us, was the luxurious railroad car that transported John and Mable to and from New York and on tour with the circus.
Main Room with Chandelier
A movie about the Ringling family and especially the lives of John and Mable provided interesting information and historical perspective. John and his four older brothers became interested in the circus as boys and he continued to run it long after his siblings had aged out and died. John became one of the richest men in America through his involvement with oil, ranching, railroads and real estate, including extensive holdings in the developing city of Sarasota. After John Ringling died in 1936, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Consolidated Circus was managed by his nephew until it was sold in 1967. The estate became the property of the State of Florida in 1946 and continues to be expanded and improved.
From their purchase of the property in 1911 until her death in 1929, Mabel was actively involved in improving the estate. Her initial projects were two gardens, the Rose Garden and a less formal Secret Garden. From 1924 until 1926, the Ringlings replaced their existing house with the Venetian Gothic style mansion that became their winter residence. Sadly, we also learned that Mable only lived for three years after the completion of Ca d’Zan. Mabel’s final project was the building of the Art Museum in 1927.
We continued on to the second building in the Circus Museum, The Tibbals Learning Center, where we encountered a most unique display and the absolute highlight of our time at The Ringling. The first floor houses a miniature model, scaled to ¾ inch, of a tented circus as it would have looked in its heyday when it had over 1300 personnel and 900 animals and traveled from town to town, setting up one morning, tearing down that evening, and repeating the entire process the next day. It is located in a 10,000 square foot gallery, with ceiling and skyline painted to represent Knoxville, Tennessee, including the train yard, trestle bridge, and passenger terminal.
You enter the display space by the railroad yard with its 55 railroad cars and continue around the perimeter viewing all the miniature tents and scenes that would have existed as part of the circus set-up. We walked past the cookhouse and the dining tent with its tiny place settings, including 145 sugar bowls and a multitude of diners, each assigned to his own designated seat at a table.
There were miniature tents for the horses that performed in the big top and the backyard where the performers, staff, and workers spent their time between performances, including the private tents with accommodations for the stars of the circus. The areas for the public, included built-to-scale people, animals, wagons, refreshment stands, and more. There was even the men’s rest room tent, including miniature figures and a sign reminding the men to face the wall!
Of course, the Big Top was the most spectacular sight with its three rings, four stages, and arial acts. Some of the models are of real performers, such as the Flying Walendas and Emmett Kelly, the clown. As many as 13,000 people would attend one performance, with straw bales providing additional seating for children at a sold-out circus.
As we were leaving the exhibit, we noticed tourists stop an older man and ask for his picture. He posed, a little sheepishly. Here was Howard Tibbals who, along with other skilled workers, continues to add to the circus. Tibbals built this one-sixteenth life-size scale replica over 50 years. Before it arrived at its permanent home in 2006, he had exhibited it at ten different locations.
Clearly, more than a full day could be spent simply marveling at the details of the Howard Bros Circus, but we returned to the Visitors Center and the gift store. I purchased two very interesting paperbacks that have been helpful as background for this article, The Circus in Miniature: The Howard Bros. Circus Model and Grounds and Gardens.
We made one final stop, near the front door of the visitors center, at the Asolo Theater, an 18th century Italian Theater that was moved to the property in 1950. The three tiers of this u-shaped auditorium sparkle with white wood trimmed in gold and brightly illuminated.
While we spent much of our time inside buildings at The Ringling, the grounds are magnificent and one could easily spend a day simply wandering outside or sitting at an easel painting. I especially enjoyed seeing so many mature Banyan trees. Among the other sub-tropical trees were cabbage palms, royal palms, pines, and multiple types of oak, some with Spanish moss. On another trip, I would like to walk along the Bolger Promenade studying the plantings while looking at the bay. It would be fun to see the flowers in the Secret Garden, to share the play space with a child, and to revisit so many of the venues we have just discovered. Perhaps that three-day pass is in my future!
For more information, go to the website for The Ringling.
Circus Museum photo courtesy of The Ringling. All other photos by Susan Kobayashi.