[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2000
At 8 years old, he saw something so barbaric that his mother thought he would never recover. Now he's in the protection business, dedicated to shielding others from the evil he knows.s
The light bulb had burned out in the hallway, and through the dimness of his open door he didn't notice his older sister on the floor, stripped and butchered. Not until he flicked on his bedroom light.
For a second he stood there, taking it in, frozen in the doorway of the room he'd slept in since he was 2, the room with race cars on the wallpaper. Then he was whirling, screaming for his dad, pounding down the steps so fast that he tumbled end over end.
It was Jan. 20, 1988, just after 6 p.m., when Jeremy Colhouer, a grinning little boy with brown-golden curls, learned that monsters can be for real.
He came to dread empty rooms, to peer at people from behind his mother's legs. He kept crawling into his parents' bed at night until a therapist advised them to lock him out. They listened to his screams, his small fists pounding on their bedroom door, until they decided that no shrink's advice was worth that price.
Detectives came by the house often, and then the fear melted a little. As long as the men with the badges were there, he knew, the monster wouldn't come back.
They gave his family composite sketches of the stranger seen on their block the afternoon 14-year-old Jennifer Colhouer was raped and murdered. Now fear had tangible features: a wide face, a pinched little mouth, big, predatory dark eyes.
Jeremy's parents hung these sketches on a tree and handed their 8-year-old a BB gun. Over and over, he squeezed off rounds, riddling that pinched face.
* * *
[Times photo: Janel Schroeder]
The youngest road deputy in Pasco County: Im old enough to do the job, but Im still young enough to relate to the kids out there getting in trouble. I was in high school a few years ago.
SERVING SINCE 1999
He is not assigned to work this day, but he wants to feel the 35 pounds of extra weight, to stand in his new skin. It takes an hour, this first time, to get it all on. The gun belt feels huge, the slacks need hemming, but Jeremy Colhouer is giddy.
Finally, he thinks, I'm almost there.
By August he is there, his first day in his own patrol car, without a field training officer by his side, but his nerves aren't cooperating. He calms them by pulling someone over for a broken taillight and writing a warning. Ease into it. Okay. I can do this.
The youngest sworn patrol deputy on the Pasco force, clean-shaven and meticulously neat, appears too sweet-natured to arrest you. One guy looked at the cuffs on his wrists, looked at the deputy who put them there, and asked, Do your parents know what you're doing to me?
Ask Jeremy Colhouer why he wanted to be a cop, and he speaks eloquently about needing to give something back, of gratitude for those who helped solve his sister's murder -- once his friends and idols, now his colleagues and bosses. He talks of his special empathy for crime victims, and saving other people's sisters.
Good answers all, but the answers of a mature 20-year-old. The dream took shape, in fact, much earlier, before the traumatized second-grader could have articulated anything so lofty.
"This is all he ever said he was going to do," his mother says. "He never wavered from that. As soon as she was killed, he started right away, "I'm gonna be a cop, I'm gonna be a cop.' "
It may be that Jeremy Colhouer needed to be a cop as badly as he needed healing. The two had a lot to do with each other.
The kingdom of his childhood was the spacious sky-blue house at 70 Wayne Way. His father built it on a cul-de-sac in upscale Lake Padgett Estates, on a drowsy block of neat lawns and tidy sidewalks, a street untraveled by random evil.
At the lake out back, the kids played, Jennifer teaching Jeremy to swim, the two bounding down to the water with inner tubes and fishing poles and bread for the ducks. She called him Boo Bear.
A freshman at Land O'Lakes High School, Jennifer copied Bible verses in her journal and lectured her friends about keeping their virginity. She wanted to make a career of giving advice, as a counselor, and had just gotten her braces off, in time for the Sadie Hawkins dance.
A stranger passing through in a red Corvette caught Jennifer alone in the house after school and chased her upstairs to her little brother's bedroom. There she was raped and strangled. The killer grabbed an 11-inch stainless steel knife from the kitchen and opened her from sternum to stomach.
That evening, she was supposed to babysit 3-year-old sister Megan while Dad, Tom Colhouer, took Jeremy to soccer practice. About 6:15, Jeremy discovered his sister upstairs, among the scattered Christmas toys he'd unwrapped the month before.
The family never slept in that house again. In his nightmares, Jeremy kept returning to his childhood room. Awake, he went back only once.
Months later, his mother pulled him, crying, back up the steps. His room had been stripped bare, carpet sliced out and furniture hauled away, toys bagged as evidence.
Cheryl Colhouer sat her son down, in a spot where light from the window fell onto him, and tried to heal his memory.
"I felt the only thing I could do was take him back in that room with it all cleared up, and maybe somehow we could change the thing in his head. I was trying to replace the one scene with the other one."
Jeremy offered to pay for Jennifer's funeral from his piggy bank. At school, for no reason other than that they could, kids taunted him: I'm glad it was your sister, not mine.
"I never in a million years thought he'd be normal," Cheryl says. "He was glued to me, almost like he was part of me."
Outside therapy, outside the family, Jeremy learned to keep what he had seen to himself. Teachers at Lake Myrtle Elementary School, including Laurie Howard, saw a freckled boy, always smiling, not much changed. "By fifth grade, I really couldn't tell anything had happened to him."
His mother saw someone else: The boy who came home from junior high to find that the house alarm wasn't working and, rather than go inside, waited nervously in the garage, for hours, until his parents came home. The eighth-grader who, assigned to write about the worst day of his life, described the time he returned from a hunting trip without a deer.
Beset by dyslexia that made written tests difficult, Jeremy figured he wasn't built for college. Working as a bag boy at Winn-Dixie and behind the parts counter at an auto shop, he dreamed of the police academy, of foot chases and arrests and the heft of a gun belt.
Without knowing it, two Pasco sheriff's detectives had nudged him in that direction.
Gary Fairbanks and his partner, Fay Wilber, devoted months to trying to put a name to the pinched face glaring from the composite sketch. The detectives kept the Colhouer family abreast of leads.
They told them about Windy Gallagher, a 16-year-old nearly 1,000 miles away, in Griffith, Ind., who had been raped and cut open three months before Jennifer. In the specifics of the savagery, they read the same killer's hand.
Six months after Jennifer's death, the detectives knocked on the door again. They had another name: Michael Lee Lockhart, a 27-year-old drifter captured in Beaumont, Texas, after he murdered a police officer.
Lockhart drove a red Corvette, and Officer Paul Hulsey Jr., pegging him as a drug dealer, followed the car to a motel. There Lockhart put a slug through the plates of Hulsey's bulletproof vest.
Lockhart had been in jail about four months when Fairbanks came across his picture in a police newsletter and placed it beside the composite. He saw the same man.
Cheryl finally could tell her son, They know who hurt your sister. But the boy's brain was crazy with questions: Do we know him? Can he get to me now? Can he get to us? No, she answered, he is locked up, "in Texas, away, away."
As Lockhart waged a legal war for nearly a decade, the Colhouers and the detectives grew close. "You try not to get too involved with a family" in a homicide case, says Wilber, whose family spent a Christmas with the Colhouers. "I guess they were different, because they're a damn good family."
Wilber says he gave them the composite sketches of the still-uncaught killer for Jeremy to shoot at, as therapy.
To a frightened little boy, Fairbanks and Wilber were more than the men who helped bring his sister's killer to justice. Against the fear that was drowning him, their presence was a lifeline.
"They were there, keeping things safe," Jeremy says. "Me and my mom talked about it. I probably felt that if I was a cop, I'd be able to protect my family and the people around me."
Jonathan Michaelis, a psychologist and expert in childhood trauma, says it's natural for a child who grows up with a real-life bogeyman to be drawn to the strength a police officer represents.
Comic book heroes are invincible. They wield the talismans that banish evil, the powers that whittle nightmares down to size. They are other people's safety. To a kid, here in the real world, a man who wears a five-pointed star might be the closest thing.
Dec. 9, 1997. Mom, Dad, Jeremy and Megan fly from Tampa to Texas, rent a car, and check in to a hotel near the state prison in Huntsville. Michael Lee Lockhart's legal saga is about to end at the point of a needle.
Jeremy Colhouer is 18. He desperately wants to witness the execution, to stand at his father's side and watch point-blank as the syringe sinks home, eyeball confirmation that his childhood ogre has been blasted off the earth. And something else: balance, symmetry. Witness a second death, payment for the first. "I saw my sister on the floor of my room. So this would be equal."
But at the prison, Jeremy learns that there isn't enough space in the witness room. Only his father will get to watch. Jeremy has to wait in another room with his mother and younger sister, with Wilber and Fairbanks, with families of Lockhart's other victims. Some cheer when word comes that Lockhart is gone. Jeremy's eyes pool with tears.
Flying home the next day, he seethes at being shut out. "He took that very hard," Cheryl says. "He said it's like he's not really dead."
Eight years earlier, on the day a Pasco jury said Lockhart should die for murdering Jennifer, Cheryl had faced him in a holding cell and asked, Why did you pick my daughter?
Just chance, Lockhart told her. He spotted Jennifer outside the house and posed as a real estate agent needing to use the phone; she invited him inside.
Cheryl didn't believe it -- she had taught her daughter better than to let a stranger in the house -- and considered the serial killer's story just one more cruelty. Yet with time, she came to forgive him. Let the anger own you, she says, and he wins again.
Jeremy recites his mother's lessons well: "He's winning if I tell him how angry I am. Then he's winning the situation." But forgiveness? That's where mother and son part ways.
"It won't happen for me. There's no forgiveness. After that, I don't think so."
Yet part of healing, part of what he learned growing up and in years of counseling, was that the role Lockhart forced upon him -- the brother of a slain sister -- need not define him.
"This had an effect on me, but it's not an image of me. It's not what I'm about. I should be judged by what I am, and not what happened to me."
Dec. 11, 1998. Ceremonies are held for the 23 graduates of Police Academy Class 44 at Pasco-Hernando Community College. Jeremy Colhouer had not missed a day of the 672-hour training. When he crosses the stage for the handshake, his family screams.
His mom gives him a gift, a mug with little painted handcuffs. It reads: OFFICER COLHOUER.
At his swearing-in last June, Cheryl pins the sheriff's silver, five-pointed star to her son's chest. She cries. Fairbanks and Wilber congratulate the beaming deputy, his shoulders now as tall as theirs.
They say they weren't aware how Jeremy regarded them all these years; they were just doing their duty. Fairbanks is now a major in administrative services, so Deputy Colhouer, on the road on the midnight shift, doesn't run into him much. Wilber, a lieutenant, supervises the rookie's platoon and makes sure no one has reason to believe he gets special treatment.
Deputy Colhouer wouldn't have it any other way. "He's my lieutenant, I'm a deputy, that's pretty much the way it is. I'm supposed to do what everybody else does."
[Times photo: Janel Schroeder]
The family today: Tom, Megan, Jeremy and Cheryl. Megan has lived dangerously -- bungee jumping, getting into cars with strangers -- convinced she was indestructible until she turned 14, the age when Jennifer was murdered. Then Megan convinced herself it was her time to die. She is 15 now, and over her fear that she'll die violently as a teen.
The uniform goes on easily now; the gun belt feels more like a part of him.
People look at him differently when he wears it. It's not just the added weight on his 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame, the Kevlar shield that swells out the chest, making him look bigger and older.
Jeremy Colhouer knows there are other ways the uniform transforms its wearer.
Not long ago, he was a teenager who liked action flicks, girls and Ybor City, the speed and flash of his yellow Mustang. He's pretty much the same now, except in cop gear he's never invisible. Drive down the street, people stare. Walk into a store, people stare. He is Authority. He is other people's safety.
"You put on this vest and this big gun belt, and you walk into any building you want and it's amazing how people come to you for the answers."
His mother cried the first day he drove solo. She pictured him searching dark buildings, standing over a body.
"It scares me, of course, because I've already lost one child, and I do worry. But I'm a real bottom-line-type person, and the bottom line for me is, if he does die, then he's died doing something he loves."
Jeremy still lives with Mom, Dad and Megan -- now 15 -- in a roomy house in Land O'Lakes, only a few miles from Lake Padgett Estates. Coming home after the midnight shift, Jeremy always makes sure the front door is bolted. Not long ago, he found it unlocked and woke his parents at 4 a.m., demanding an explanation, irritated when all they could say, apologetically, was, We must have forgotten.
Like their old place on Wayne Way, the Colhouers' new home is a picture of suburban security, on a drowsy block of neat lawns and tidy sidewalks.
Except this time, visible from one end of the block to the other, there's a shiny green and white car parked in their driveway, with a big gold shield and the word SHERIFF on the side. Says Jeremy: "Anyone in their right mind wouldn't mess with a house with a police car at it."
It's a message he's been looking for a way to send since he was 8 years old:
This family is protected.
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