THE LEGACY OF A CRIME (Part 1 of 2): Nobody was supposed to get hurt — (The Frederick News-Post)

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The Frederick News-Post

By Liam Farrell, News-Post Staff

More than 11 years ago, in the early hours of Oct. 8, 1995, Frederick native Benjamin Scott Garris, 16, who was living at Fordham Cottage on the campus of Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System, a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore County, murdered Sharon Edwards, a nurse and single mother, with a knife.

Ben escaped and was on the run for three weeks before being apprehended in Virginia Beach, Va. In July 1996, a little more than 10 years ago, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 50 years.

He doesn’t blame his fate on his parent’s divorce; he doesn’t blame his treatment at Sheppard-Pratt; he doesn’t blame Prozac, his defense at trial or the media.

Nobody was with Sharon Edwards that night besides Ben.

“I don’t hold any grudges. I hold myself to that,” Ben, now 27, said this year, talking through a black phone behind a glass partition in the Jessup Correctional Institution.

“If I hadn’t done what I had done there would be no headlines.”

Nobody was supposed to get hurt.

All Ben Garris wanted to do was escape.

For eight months, after he had tried to commit suicide by ingesting Ambien, cough syrup, NyQuil, and whiskey on March 8, 1995 in his mother’s Frederick home, Garris had been receiving psychiatric treatment on the campus of Sheppard and Enoch Pratt, a hospital along a winding stretch of North Charles Street in Baltimore County.

Garris stayed at Fordham Cottage, a three-story stone building with a slate-gray roof, two red chimneys rising above a thicket of trees and white trim like icing on a gingerbread house.

Both the Sheppard-Pratt adolescent crisis unit and Fordham Cottage focus on stabilizing patients in crisis and establishing outpatient care, but in both Garris felt imprisoned.

At Fordham Cottage, Garris outlined his escape, compulsively writing pages and pages of plans, collecting bus schedules, figuring out how to cause diversions with fires and Molotov cocktails.

The plan was simple: Tell the counselor on duty he had a headache and needed aspirin from the safe; pull out one of the knives he had hidden away, threaten the counselor and tie her up with duct tape; get the combination for the safe, take whatever money was locked inside and leave.

Nobody was supposed to get hurt.

But someone died.

Garris first met Sharon Edwards, a nurse working the overnight shift on Oct. 7, 1995, during her general orientation. Then she was just another staff member.

But that night, she was an actual person, not just part of his escape scheme.

Could he go through with it? Could he threaten her with a knife?

In his bedroom, Garris went back and forth in his head — he didn’t want to be violent or frightening. But he didn’t want to stay, and doctors were planning to move him to a long-term residential treatment center.

He came out of his room and asked Ms.
[]  
Edwards for aspirin from the safe.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she said. “I don’t have the key for that.”

Garris went back to his room. He would have to leave the money behind. He started climbing out his bathroom window, but a security car came down the road and shined its headlights on him before turning around.

Fifteen minutes later, the cottage phone rang.

“They’re going to find everything,” thought Garris, who had the hunting knife. “They’re going to put me back in that locked unit.”

Ms. Edwards knocked on his door.

“Are you feeling all right?”

It was after 1 a.m. Garris had drugged two other cottage residents, Josh Baskin and Calvin Witherspoon, with sleeping pills so he could escape unseen. Only Garris and Ms. Edwards were awake, and they went downstairs to watch television.

Garris had the knife with him.

He felt relieved; maybe he didn’t have to go through with the escape after all.

“You seem like a nice kid,” Ms. Edwards said, giving him a glass of iced tea. “What’s a kid like you doing in a place like this?”

Garris told her his story — how his parents had divorced, his problems at home and school, how he had tried to kill himself and been remanded to psychiatric care. The conversation wasn’t light, but Garris felt better than he had in a long time.

After talking to Ms. Edwards and watching television for awhile, he took his glass over to the kitchen sink and turned around to go upstairs.

But still holding the knife, he never made it past Ms. Edwards.

He stabbed her 26 times.

He dragged her body behind a pool table.

He sprayed the living room furniture with lighter fluid, set up crude bombs and lit cloth leading out of the cottage into the yard, creating smoke that eventually drew the attention of Mr. Baskin and security personnel.

For hours after leaving the cottage and the Sheppard-Pratt campus, Garris lay curled in a fetal position under a pine tree behind a Burger King in Towson, cursing himself in disbelief, having only the faintest grasp of what he had done.

He waited for Jane DeCosta, a girl he had met at the hospital who helped him get the knife, to meet him so they could run away together. Ms. DeCosta was later tried and convicted as an accessory to the murder.

“What have you done, what have you done?” he said over and over to himself.

A police helicopter searched with its spotlight, and Garris could hear police cruisers patrolling the streets.

But it isn’t Ms. Edwards’ screams or the din of the cops that haunt him today.

“I think I’ll remember her last breath more than anything,” he said sitting behind the glass in the Jessup Correctional Institution. “That silence just drowned out all those angry, selfish, juvenile thoughts I had.

“I had hurt someone for no reason.”

II

Garris now lives about 50 miles from his hometown.

The tall brick towers of the Jessup Correctional Institution are almost impossible not to see, off Md. 175 on House of Corrections Road.

A massive complex that houses about 1,200 inmates, the prison sits behind two chain-link fences: the interior fence curves inward and loops of razor wire cover the whole face, rendering it almost certainly impassable; the outside barrier reaches straight up to a fringe of barbs.

Few people, other than corrections officer
s, come and go between the surrounding clusters of trees. On tracks across from a gravel parking lot, MARC commuter trains roar past.

Garris wakes up each day in a cell about 8 by 10 feet, with off-white concrete bricked walls and a steel door with a slot.

He is older and slightly heavier than he was in photographs published in Frederick’s newspapers, with a tired yet bright gaze beneath closely trimmed dark hair and a beard.

Garris’ right arm is covered in tattoos — a white rose with the inscription “Always Remember” and a bar code with the date of his birth and the date of his crime.

“It’s dark. It’s very violent,” he said. “Ultimately it’s one of the things you substitute for a scar.”

For his left arm, Garris is designing more hopeful tattoos, including a Japanese koi swimming upstream, “in the face of adversity, still swimming.” He said the tattoos represent how his life is divided in two, between the half that ended with the stabbing, and the half that began in prison.

“It’s just another extension of my self-expression,” he said. “Telling my story to others just wearing the skin on my back.”

Garris’ self-expression is not limited to his tattoos — he also paints.

He recently created a collection titled “Requiem,” which he sells online at www.bengarris.com, using half the proceeds to pay for materials and donating the other half to the National Center for Victims of Crime.

“Requiem” is a memorial — an effort to atone and give a window into prison life and the guilt that comes with violent crimes.

“Whatever your faults … whatever the misperceptions … in the long run, if you really take the time to look at the value of mistakes they don’t have to be swept under the rug,” Garris said. “You can still learn from them.”

The images in the paintings — 26 of them, the same number of times he stabbed Ms. Edwards, the same number of years she had lived, and the same age Garris was when the collection was finished — are spectral, surreal. Ghosts walk freely in the brush strokes, from the masked villain of “Effigy” to the strangling, devouring snake in “Dirt.”

“I simply wanted to convey my personal experience in just being a human,” he said. “Someone who is just as liable and just as flawed but just as thoughtful as someone who hasn’t been in a place like this.”

One painting, “Dearly Departed,” depicts the bridge on South Market Street during Frederick’s In the Streets festival. Garris drew it from a photograph taken on his last visit to Frederick, only hours before he murdered Ms. Edwards.

Garris’ father, Steve Garris, left Frederick and has lived in the Calvert County town of Lusby, near the Chesapeake Bay, for the past six years. He helps Garris with his collection and acts as a go-between for reprints.

“This is his apology,” Steve Garris said in July. “At 26, he picked the goal, set a timeline, and he achieved it.

“So many guys in there, so many guys out there, never do that.”

Steve Garris said his son grew up loving Frederick, but it’s hard now to talk about the hometown depicted in “Dearly Departed.”

“I think we have a really great relationship … but limited by the circumstances,” he said. “He can’t really relate to anything outside.”

It’s difficult to talk about the growth and changes in the world, Steve Garris said. In the insular world of prison, time moves differently, and Garris was so young when he was imprisoned.

“It’s like he doesn’t want to lose the memory (from childhood). He doesn’t want to know that memory has changed,” he said. “But I understand it.”

Garris has developed many interests while in prison, but his painting has not lagged, said his stepfather, John Lee.

“The art is the one thing that has stayed constant,” Mr. Lee said.

In their Frederick home, Garris’ mother, Tina Lee, and Mr. Lee have several of his paintings, including a crucifixion with blood drops from the head of Jesus turning into falling rose petals.

“I think he is tremendously talented,” Ms. Lee said; she has thought about trying to have his work shown locally. “It’s very important for him to create an awareness. This is a way he can tell his story, share his remorse.”

III

Those who are convicted of crimes can be easily found. Anyone can gain access to their prison addresses and other information through the Maryland Department of Corrections.

Victims and families of victims disappear more easily; addresses in court documents become out of date and family members refuse to talk about tragedies that only conjure sad memories.

The phone number listed for Ms. Edwards’ father, Earl, is disconnected with no forwarding information. The last address and phone number for her mother, Esther Mae, is now occupied by Ms. Edwards’ brother, Frankie, who said his mother is dead.

Frankie initially agreed to be interviewed for this article, describing Ben as a “skinhead” over the phone, but he did not show up for a scheduled interview at his home in a northwest neighborhood of Baltimore.

Frankie later refused on the phone to talk about his sister and how the tragedy had affected his family.

“I’m not going to (talk about it),” he said. “That’s dead. That’s been some years, I’m not going to do that.”

All the written descriptions of Ms. Edwards are similar — that she was pleasant, friendly, a beautiful person and a caring mother.

The Edwards family did not just suffer pangs of grief. They wanted retribution.

“I think they should do (Ben Garris) like he did my daughter,” Esther Mae was quoted as saying in the Nov. 11, 1995 edition of The Baltimore Afro-American. “They should stand him up and cut him like he cut her. Sharon had feelings too. He’s not going to get away with this.”

Following Garris’ conviction, Esther Mae Edwards told the same newspaper that those wishes were made clear to the court.

“We asked the judge to give Garris the maximum punishment. He had no remorse. He’s a mean skinhead and he got what he deserved,” Ms. Edwards said in the July 20, 1996, edition of The Baltimore Afro-American. “He wrote in his confession he stabbed Sharon like she was a piece of meat.

“He did something he wasn’t supposed to do. He has to pay. Once he’s finished paying down here, he still won’t be finished. He still has to pay with God.”

While Garris was waiting to be sentenced in Baltimore County Circuit Court, he wrote a speech he wanted to deliver in the courtroom.

“Before I address the following to the Honorable Judge Barbara Howe and this entire courtroom, I would first like to offer my most sincere apologies to the family of Ms. Sharon Edwards,” he wrote. “Although I know my suffering is just, theirs should never be forgotten.

“Each night my heart is with your daughter, your sister, and your friend, Sharon. Most importantly in my eyes though, my heartfelt prayers are with her only son, whom she undoubtedly loved very much. I’m truly sorry.

“I wish there was something I could say, something I could do to ease your frustration and pain. Only nothing’s ever that simple, because we don’t live in a world where apologies wipe away the tears and fill our emotional voids. But for what it’s worth, my regret and my remorse will always remain pure and in t
heir complete entirety.”

Although he gave a copy to Judge Howe, Garris never read his words out loud in court, fearing they would be seen as disingenuous.

One of the last images Frederick residents had of Garris was on July 16, 1996, in a Frederick newspaper.

“A Frederick youth showed no emotion Monday as he was sentenced to life without parole for the brutal stabbing death of a Sheppard Pratt counselor last year,” the article began.

“Prior to the sentencing, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Howe said, ‘I will remember to my dying day the testimony in this case. It was vivid. It was horrid.’

“‘He squashed out the life of Sharon Edwards as if she were an ant crawling on the ground,’ Judge Howe said. ‘If it weren’t for his ineptitude, two others may have died.'”

IV

“I believe in rehabilitation. The system, especially in Maryland, doesn’t really focus on that anymore,” Steve Garris said. “There are some people who deserve a chance to be rehabilitated. But they’re in a meat locker.”

After the murder and the media frenzy, Mr. Garris, who looks like an older version of his son, became more withdrawn and suspicious of crowded places.

He has been remarried for nine years to Lynn Garris and spends his days taking care of his step-granddaughter, Heather.

“My home is my life,” he said. “I love being a dad.”

Ben Garris’ mother, Tina, and stepfather, John, still live in the same Frederick house.

Neighbors formed a tight community following the murder, Ms. Lee said, leaving her phone messages and food when she came home from work.

“This became our home,” she said. “Ben’s room is still here. I can’t move past that yet. I always felt like, when Ben gets out, he has a place to come.”

The couple have plenty of happy times, Mr. Lee said, and they get through tragedy with a dry sense of humor.

They hold on to the hope that one day Garris will be released and be able do things most people take for granted, like getting a driver’s license and a job or attending the funerals of loved ones.

“The problem is, nothing’s little,” Mr. Lee said. “It doesn’t get any easier.”

The family will always be bound to an October day more than eleven years ago.

“He has the full support of his family he always will,” Mr. Lee said. “To see (Tina’s) soul so devastated is what gets me the most and she always will be. That’s the heartbreaking part. It’s a devastation you don’t get unless you’re a part of it.”