“I’ll never be the same person”

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Sunday, January 27, 2008
— Mary Schmidt’s life is cruelly divided.

Before the murder.

After the murder.

Terry Lee Erickson shot Mary’s husband, Gary, as he made a deposit at a Beloit bank in 1982.

Mary was 31. Gary 32.

Before the murder, they worked hard and owned successful Co-Op Tapes and Records in Janesville, Beloit and Rockford, Ill. Later, Mary would write that it was the best life she could imagine.

After the murder, she navigated years of grief and depression. She closed the businesses.

She continues to live with the loss, the regret and the horror.

After 25 years, Mary thought she would have moved on.

Erickson, after all, was quickly caught and tried for Gary’s murder.

But every year, she attends Erickson’s parole hearings. She tells the board how Erickson changed her life, how she still doesn’t trust him to be on the outside.

Even though he was sentenced to life in prison, he has been considered for parole since 1993.

The hearings are difficult, but she feels a duty to Gary.

Erickson recently was granted work release, and she believes his next parole hearing will be his last.

So she has created a petition on a Web site that she is encouraging people to sign. She will print if off and take it with her in November, the next time she appears before the board.

She doesn’t want people to forget.

- - -

Mary met Gary at a Halloween party in Rockford in 1971. She thought he was brilliant, energetic, positive. He always had a smile. He told corny jokes.

“He had vision and drive, and he knew what he wanted. You just felt he knew how to go about getting it and making it happen,” she said.

“I had never met a guy like that.”

The two worked hard every day, determined to make a go of their business. They moved to Janesville in 1978.

“The stores were doing very well,” she recalled. “We were very proud that we were a married couple and running a business together.”

- - -

Mary and Gary celebrated their 10th anniversary with a long vacation in warm, sunny places.

Back in Wisconsin on March 3, 1982, Gary stopped at a Beloit bank to make a deposit before heading home. It was snowing. It would pile up 12 inches that night.

He wasn’t quite out of his van when Erickson shot him at close range with a sawed-off shotgun. Erickson pumped the action and fired again.

“What we do know is Gary tried to get away,” Mary said. “His fingerprints are on the barrel of the gun.”

The murder was cold-blooded, gruesome. The prosecutor argued it was premeditated. Erickson had told a hardware store clerk that he was buying “five bullets for five men.”

Gary managed to put the van into drive. It lunged onto Pleasant Street but veered into parked cars and trees. Gary toppled out of the van and into the road, where a college student found him and called police.

The moneybag was still on the passenger seat.

At 8:25 p.m., Gary was only a few minutes late arriving home. Still, Mary felt something was wrong.

She called police and asked them to check the store.

Shortly after, she got a call to get to the Beloit hospital as quickly as possible. As Mary was ready to leave, a deputy appeared to take her. They sped down the highway, lights flashing.

At the hospital, she was told Gary had died. She couldn’t go inside. She remembers sitting in shock, in the cold stairwell near the emergency room. The faces of detectives, doctors and her mother swam in front of her.

Everything was a blur after that.

“People coming and going at the house. You’re not sleeping, not eating. It’s a bad dream, and you think, ‘I’m going to wake up.’ And you never do. It ends up being your life, something you have to settle in with.

“I don’t think I slept through the night for four years after he died.”

A death is hard enough. It is surely more shocking when it comes violently.

Back then, Mary couldn’t find a therapist who had experience dealing with murder. She has found great support with the state’s office of victim’s services beginning in the early 1990s.

Mary was supposed to be at the couple’s Beloit store the night Gary was killed, but Gary relieved her so she could go home and finish some bookkeeping.

She might have been standing in the same spot when Erickson raised his sawed-off shotgun.

“It could have been me,” she said.

Many times she wished it had been her.

“It was so difficult to go on.”

- - -

Mary recalls sitting in the courtroom, listening to testimony about her husband’s horrific death, how police found him lying in the street, his intestines spilling out, his lower torso missing.

She stared for six days at the seat of their van, dragged into the courtroom and covered in dried blood. It took her breath away. When prosecutors displayed Gary’s down jacket, feathers flew from its gaping hole.

“It was like firing a cannon at close range in a person’s body,” she said.

“There was a lot of shock that came with the trial.”

Mary eventually closed her Co-Op record stores. She could never get herself to enter the Beloit store, anyway.

She hung onto the Janesville store at 1821 Milton Ave. the longest. But the music industry changed.

“Not having Gary there, I couldn’t figure out what to do next,” she said. “I didn’t have the vision he had.”

The store closed in 1990—another March loss—a final end to the passion for music the couple once shared.

Meanwhile, Gary’s father’s health continued to deteriorate. The family is convinced his death in 1998 was caused by the stress of his son’s.

- - -

In the 25 years since the murder, Erickson has worked his way from maximum- to medium- to minimum-security facilities. He now is at the Thompson Correctional Center in Deerfield.

He committed his crime before Wisconsin’s Truth in Sentencing Act, so parole hearings automatically started in 1993.

At first, Mary could bring herself to attend only by video.

The last two years, she’s been in the same room with Erickson.

“You just get stronger with time as to what you can deal with,” Mary said.

“When you lose somebody like that, and they’re so young, and you see this person who’s only 45, you kind of want to get a glimpse of them. You want them to see you, to show them that you didn’t go away.”

“I kept staring at his hands,” she said. “To me, his hands were the reason. They held the gun.

“He’s made statements he wishes he could take back what happened, but he can’t.

“I never heard him say those words that he’s sorry.”

She tells the parole board about her life after the murder.

Erickson was given work-release privileges in 2006, and Mary fears he will soon be paroled.

She thought hard about starting the petition to keep Erickson in jail, but she decided it is her duty. She missed only one parole hearing, and she felt later that she let Gary down.

Mary said she doesn’t have hate in her heart.

But she doesn’t trust that Erickson can live in the community.

She worries he’ll kill again.

“I was dealt this,” she said. “I can’t just walk away from it. My heart won’t let me.”

“What kind of person goes out to rob somebody and takes that kind of weapon and fires it at close range?” she asked. “It’s the most gruesome thing I can imagine … He had it ready to fire the first shot. He had to pump it again to fire the second shot.

“There was definitely an intent to kill.”

It’s a “right and wrong” thing,” she said.

“Twenty-five years just isn’t enough,” Mary said.

Erickson might have half of his life left.

He still owes.

“Gary’s was taken at 32. He was literally gunned down. He died in the most gruesome manner.”

So far, 70 people have signed her online petition. She’ll print them off and take them to the next parole hearing.

- - -

In her second life, Mary sometimes wonders how the first one might have played out.

She and Gary may have had children. She is certain they would have had some sort of business together.

She thinks about him everyday.

On bad days, she asks him why he had to leave.

But her depression deepend after a failed, second marriage.

Recently, she stopped resisting anti-depressants, which her therapist prescribed for what was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress.

The pills steady Mary’s emotions, but she’s OK with giving up the highs along with the lows.

“I try to be a really upbeat person,” she said. “One thing I learned from Gary is to be a positive person.”

The second part of her life has its own milestones.

In March and August—the months of the murder and the trial—she is not herself. She feels jittery, distracted, isolated. She doesn’t sleep. Depression drifts in and out.

When it snows, the flakes transport her to a squad car speeding down the Interstate in a blizzard. She sees herself sitting in shock in a chilly stairwell at the Beloit hospital.

“You don’t go through something like this and not think about it,” she said.

“It changes you.

“I’ll never be the same person because of living through this.”

People can find Mary Schmidt’s petition at www.gopetition.com/petitions/block-the-parole-of-terry-erickson.html.

Last updated: 12:47 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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