Irredeemable, episode 6: Coming clean
(Editor's note: We recommend you listen to the story before reading.)
It was December when Rick Tholen was killed. He was working at M&J Grocery in Grand Rapids.
He’d just graduated college and was in his first year of teaching high school English. And he’d decided to take some shifts over Christmas break for extra cash. He was getting married soon.
It was around 10 p.m. The store was empty except for Rick. That’s when Chester Patterson and his co-defendant arrived; Chester had a gun.
“It was a .22 caliber,” says Chester.
Chester told Rick to give him the money in the till. Rick handed him the money. Chester told him to get on the ground. Rick did that. Then Chester shot him in the head.
Rick was 22. It was four days before Christmas.
“I remember sitting there staring at the tree thinking well maybe we should remove his presents from under the tree,” says Dan Tholen, Rick’s younger brother.
Dan did remove the presents “so my mom wouldn’t have to.”
Remembering their brother
Dan Tholen sits in the dining room at his house in Traverse City. He and his sister, Nancy Sweeney, are looking at old family photographs – mostly of Rick.
“Well, that son-of-a-gun didn’t get to get old like us,” says Nancy. “Look at that; he gets to be this.”
Nancy holds up a picture of Rick at the beach lounging on a yellow towel and squinting at the camera. He’s young, handsome and shirtless.
“Come on, that’s our baby oil commercial,” Nancy says.
Nancy says Rick was a lot of things: dedicated to teaching and athletic. She says he wasn’t perfect, but he was a good guy. He also was a ladies' man who sometimes had multiple girlfriends at once.
“We had one in the living room and one in the kitchen at the same time,” Nancy remembers.
Life with parole
Chester Patterson is incarcerated at Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson. He’s 64. Back when he robbed the party store and killed Rick, he was 17. He’d dropped out of school and was messing around with heroin and alcohol. He claims he wasn’t a drug addict, but that if he’d kept drinking, he probably would have ended up an alcoholic.
Chester robbed the store because he wanted money to buy a drink, he says.
After he shot Rick, he and his co-defendant walked out of the store, through a nearby cemetery and to the co-defendant's house where they hung out.
“I was scared and shocked at what I had done,” says Chester, “because I found out later on the news that he had died, and I was pretty tore up about that.”
Chester was arrested about a month later, convicted of murder and sentenced to life.
Unlike other people we’ve profiled in this series who are juvenile lifers with no shot at parole, Chester is eligible for parole.
He was first eligible after 10 years, but 10 years passed, then 20, then 30, and 47 years later, he was still in prison.
“They say you have to lay in the bed that you make,” Chester says. “I made a very hard bed, and that’s what I have to lay in."
Barbara Levine, the former executive director of Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, says in the 80s and 90s parolable lifers like Chester were rarely released. She says things have changed and now “well over 200” lifers have been paroled in the last 10-12 years.
“And their recidivism rate is almost nil,” she says. “You’ve got three, four, five people who’ve come back.”
Chester has a bachelor’s degree; he’s a paralegal. It’s been nearly 20 years since he got written up for a misconduct in prison, but still no parole for him. And he has a theory why. Chester says it’s because he was not honest about what actually happened that day.
Nancy Sweeney – Rick’s sister – would put it differently. She says Chester has lied for years about how he killed her brother.
“He maintained ... that it was an accident,” Nancy says. “That he fired his weapon as he left the store, and that it struck our brother in the head and killed him, and that he didn’t know that he had committed that crime until he heard it on the news later that night. ... And we all knew it wasn’t true.”
Nancy says forensic evidence showed Chester shot Rick in the head execution-style.
Chester struggles to remember what he said when he was arrested or at public hearings.
“What exactly did I say?” he wonders aloud. “It’s been so long.”
But Chester does admit he lied.
“I can’t remember the exact words,” he says, “but I did not say that I shot him [on purpose.] No, I didn’t.”
Chester maintained it was an accident until he had a commutation hearing in 2010.
Nancy was there. She says he came clean after being “badgered heavily” by the parole board to do it.
“I mean finger in the face bully-type conversations,” says Nancy. “He was pretty much told ... that this was his last chance; they were tired of hearing his lies.”
According to a court transcript of the hearing, parole board member Stephen DeBoer told Chester:
“All of the things that you’ve done in prison since 1996 – when you started to get your act together – don’t mean anything to me because you won’t tell the truth.”
Chester finally admitted it wasn’t an unlucky “warning shot” that found its way to Rick, killing him. No. He had intentionally shot him in the head.
Chester says his reasons for lying changed over time. First, he says he was ashamed to tell his mother he had shot and killed someone on purpose. Then – after he told his mother – he says it was too hard in public hearings to tell Nancy Sweeney how he had killed her brother.
“For me to sit there and drag her through that and make her relive that instant when I pulled the trigger is hard for me to do,” Chester says. “And it’s not like I’m not taking responsibility, because I’ve definitely taken full responsibility.”
Chester says he learned his lesson at the 2010 hearing, and if he gets another parole hearing, he’ll describe exactly how he killed Rick Tholen.
Chester says if there’s one thing he could ask of Rick’s family, it would be their forgiveness.
“I made a mistake when I was a kid, and I took their loved one,” he says. “There was no sense to it, there was no reason for it, but I’m not that person anymore.”
Chester says now he’s basically a senior citizen. He’s remorseful and sorry for the hurt he caused.
Nancy Sweeney says forgiving Chester is not her job.
“I don’t hate him; I don’t need to forgive him,” she says. “I just need to know that if he’s out, he’s a contributing member of society and not going to cause anybody else any other anxiety.”
Dan Tholen says forgiveness is “too trite an expression.”
“It just doesn’t work,” he says.
He says he’s not carrying any burden except for missing his brother.
“Anger isn’t eating either of us up,” says Dan. “So, I don’t know, that’s one level of forgiveness right there – to let it go so it doesn’t continue to destroy our lives.”
Over the past 47 years, letting it go has been Dan’s approach. He hasn’t really kept up with Chester’s progress or whereabouts. Nancy – on the other hand – has been keeping close track of Chester. When there are public parole hearings, she goes.
“I go to the hearings to put our brother in a 3-D mode,” Nancy says. “I don’t like the fact that Chester’s letters are there, and his physical presence is there, his wishes, his dreams, his hopes, and Rick is a one-liner store clerk that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and met the wrong people. So, I feel like it’s my job to introduce that board to the man that can’t live and can’t say he wants out.”
Dan says he worries about Nancy and her involvement sometimes.
“It is difficult to do this, to face Chester and to face the issue,” says Dan. “I admire her for doing it, but I hope she can get over the pain.”
The pain for Nancy is missing Rick, she says, wishing he could have been an uncle to her daughter.
“So, that is my pain,” says Nancy. “Chester Patterson is not my pain.”
Both Nancy and Dan say – when it comes to paroling Chester – they trust the legal system to make the right choice.
“I am trusting the people who know way better than I do that he could no longer be a threat to society,” says Nancy. “I currently don’t hold that opinion after the two hearings that I’ve been to and listened to him. ... I just don’t know how you rehab yourself if you go that long telling yourself a lie.”
After I interviewed Nancy and Dan this spring, Chester had his third public parole hearing. Dan and Nancy were both there this time.
This time, Chester Patterson was granted parole. The parole board said they were reasonably sure Chester was no longer a public safety threat.
Both Dan and Nancy say they expected this would eventually happen. Dan says for him it’s not a big deal. Nancy says she doesn’t feel great about it, but she hopes Chester can be an instrument of good in the world.
At 64, Chester is expected to be released from prison July 25.