By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
“That day was just crazy.”
And it is one that Tommy Willis replays in his head over and over again.
He was at Elizabeth Kelton’s house and they were arguing over money from a drug transaction the day before.
He remembers her throwing a beer bottle at him, and then reaching for a gun he knew she kept under the kitchen sink.
Anger overcoming him, Willis grabbed a skillet from the stovetop and hit her in the head.
When she started bleeding, he took her to the bathroom where she had been filling the tub before he arrived.
Placing her in the tub, he said he was trying to get the blood off her when there was a knock at the door. Not wanting to see who was there, he ran out the back as fast as he could.
The next day, Willis said he was shocked to learn from newspapers that Elizabeth Kelton was dead, surmising she must have been in a daze from the head injury and drowned when he put her in the tub.
He spends much of his time reliving that day. He shouldn’t have put her in the tub; he shouldn’t have run from the house, But most importantly, he shouldn’t have hit her.
“In no way am I trying to place the blame elsewhere because what I did was totally wrong and I am 100 percent to blame (for) why Elizabeth isn’t here today,” he said.
But it wasn’t planned and he didn’t kill her to prevent her from telling the police, he said. Killing Elizabeth was never his intention, but she is dead and he caused it.
“I have replayed that day in my mind these past almost 16 years; (wondering) what I could have did different,” he said.
“What I regret most is what I did to the Kelton family and the pain I brought into their lives and I do pray for them every day and will continue to pray for them.”
The child of a murdered father, Willis said the familiar pain he sees in the face of Elizabeth’s mother at his hearings haunts him, reminding him of his mother walking with the support of others at his father’s funeral.
In the face of that anguish, he said, “I never felt so much guilt and shame in my life… I have deep regret and sorrow in the pain I have brought their family.”
He wasn’t a violent criminal before that day’s events. He was a young collegiate with hopes and dreams for the future, raised by a supportive and caring mother and step-father who instilled morals and strong Christian values in him.
He grew up attending church, participated in Cub Scouts and countless sports activities from little league, through high school and into college.
He wanted to be a high school football coach and follow in the footsteps of the men who had shaped and influenced him so greatly in his life.
But 16 years of prison life has led him to change his goals.
Now a father himself, he wants to get to know his children, and make a difference, somehow try to turn his life into something other than what it became that summer day.
Willis tries to parent his 15-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, the product of a prison marriage and conjugal visit, by telephone and stay involved in their lives as best he can.
Though he admits the guilt he feels at robbing his son of a father for his entire life sometimes makes him too lenient.
For 7 years, Willis participated in a prison youth awareness program for at-risk youth.
Willis said he thought initially he was helping them but learned it was them helping him.
As he told his story to the teens over and over, he found himself taking responsibility for his choices and telling of the effect those choices had on so many others. He channeled his anger, guilt and shame towards himself, finally in a positive manner.
“That was the most fulfilling thing I feel that I’ve done in prison. And I wasn’t getting anything talking to them. I thought I was trying to help them, but they were helping me,” he said.
When he is released, Willis plans to move to his brother’s house in Maryland, along with his mother, and get a job so he can support himself and contribute to his children’s care.
Almost finished with a bachelor’s degree, Willis has already applied to the University of Maryland, where he plans to earn a masters degree in psychology so he can be of service to others.
“I have prayed for the Kelton family since I have been incarcerated and will continue to do so until I leave this earth,” he said.
“If my time behind these walls can become an inspiration to a convict, ex-felon, or troubled youth; to do the right thing, then it was worth every sleepless day and night.”