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Worth Remembering
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It was June of 2013 and, having been fired from a new job just shy of turning 50, I was in need of some comfort. My former boss had terminated me unceremoniously less than four months into my new gig without cause, and I didn’t have any prospects. It was the first time I’d ever been canned in my career and I was reeling with self-doubt and fear of the future.

I filed for unemployment benefits and posted my credentials on every job board I could think of. I networked with colleagues and contacted various employment agencies. Every morning I trolled for jobs and had sporadic interviews here and there, but I was still waiting to receive an offer. Any offer. Once the day’s first round of online job searches had concluded and résumés had been sent out, I turned to recreational web surfing, primarily on Facebook. Wanting a balm to soothe my ego and distract me from virtually constant worry, I began immersing myself in groups that took me back to childhood. Nostalgia is a safe cocoon where you can enclose yourself in only those memories you care to recall, and remembering what it was like to still have my parents and not much more responsibility than homework made me feel safe. I was scared and unhappy, and I needed that feeling of safety now very badly.

Members of Vintage Phoenix posted wonderful pictures that reminded me of so many things about growing up in Phoenix that I hadn’t thought of in years. I was transported by reminiscences of our beautiful Japanese flower gardens, favorite radio stations and their DJs, the beloved Legend City amusement park, and the cutting edge humor of local television celebrities Wallace and Ladmo. The Late, Great Chris-Town Mall group focused on a favorite hang-out that had once featured exotic caged birds and an organ grinder who strolled the mall with a mean little monkey. Group members fondly recalled Ferdinand the Bull, an unusual sculpture at the mall designed by Jac T Bowen; happy celebrations at Farrell’s ice cream parlor, and dinners at Piccadilly Cafeteria. Beyond the mall’s sparkling sidewalks, exterior shots shared on the page revealed a surrounding landscape full of trees and empty fields, all of which are gone now.

The postings were enjoyable to me for several reasons. Most of the regular writers were either my age or older and wove a colorful narrative of places I could remember, as well as those that were already gone by the time I came along. It was nice to read such fond memories of Phoenix residents because we all shared in the happiness of their recollections, and it was interesting to try to picture from their descriptions what the city looked like before so much development. There was nothing for us to look back on yet because we were young then, and everything was still ahead of us. What a time it was.

The third group I began to frequent on Facebook was devoted to memories of Phoenix's West High School alumni. Several posters were from my class and a few were later graduates, but most had graduated earlier than I had. My big brother graduated from West in 1967, my sister in 1977, then I trotted up to the stage in cap and gown four years later. We didn’t know each other as teens, but I even married a graduate from the class of ’75, so the school played a big role in my family. Our house was so close to West that on game nights in autumn, the lights from the football field cast a cozy amber glow into my bedroom. When the wind moved just right on those Friday evenings, whispers of the marching band could be heard determinedly pumping out the school fight song again and again.

West High Thunderbirds wrote on Facebook about favorite instructors, school assemblies and theatre productions, and about stealthily festooning teachers’ houses with toilet paper. Just as entertaining were posts about establishments in the area immediately surrounding West, such as the old Gass farm (across the street from my house), which still raised cows as late as the 1970s; the La Piñata and Dairy Crème restaurants that were popular teen hang-outs, and the AJ Bayless market, whose beloved manager Charlie seemed to know every kid’s name.

I was catching up on past group discussions, when a thread from early 2013 caught my eye:

Remember the fatal argument involving Luke, Rich, and Fred that resulted in Fred's death? About 1968-69.”

“Yes – it was over a girl wasn't it?”

“Yes, it was.”

“I always felt bad for her. What an awful thing to have happened. As I remember, Fred was kicked in the kidney. Whatever happened to the kid who did it?”

“That was a sad story all around. Luke Devlin and Rich Sawyer went to Fred's house and beat him badly. Fred died of a lacerated liver. Due to religious reasons, his father would not allow the operation that would have saved Fred. It was a shame that Fred's parents had to be put in that situation. Luke's girlfriend, Jane, was devastated. Very sweet individual. When I walked into the funeral home at Fred's wake and his mother cried and hugged me, I had tears as well. Sad days.”

“Devlin became some sort of an official in town. I saw him being interviewed on television once.”

“I remember the whole thing as a tragedy.”

“The whole situation was so sad. Luke Devlin is still married to the same girl. Saw them both at the 40th reunion.”

“Fred Ryan was a friend of mine and also in my class (1968), but he was beat to death just weeks before we graduated. I'll never forget it. What a tragic story that was, and what a waste of life over something so stupid. Rich Sawyer was also in our class. I heard he passed away not long ago.”

“What happened to Rich? I also heard that he passed away.”

“I found out about Rich’s death at our last reunion. I don’t know what he died of. I think someone said cancer but not sure.”

“I remember my mom, who was a teacher, telling me about it. Shattering.”

“Yes, I also remember Fred's being beaten and then dying. Over – Jane? She and I were on the yearbook staff together. I remember rather liking Fred. He was always nice to me.”

“Fred was a nice kid with a big mouth and lots of hormones. I adored him as a friend. He kept us laughing at lunchtime and he certainly did not deserve to be kicked to death by someone with anger issues! That person has gone on to live a nice life while Fred lies 6’ under.”

“Fred was a very good friend. He had a great sense of humor and was not afraid to voice his opinion. As expressed above, he did not deserve to die at 17.”

“No he didn't, but I feel I should tell you that I was told years later that, due to their religion, his parents would not let them give him a life-saving transfusion at the hospital. The fight was not right, but there may have been extenuating circumstances. Not sure. Could just be a rumor.”

“Luke Devlin sat next to me in biology. I was the only freshman in the class, and he would smash frog eggs in my book, or put a Snickers on my chair so that when I sat down, it oozed through the little holes in the seat, and it looked so nasty on my dress.”

“Fred died of a lacerated liver. And yes, his father was a Christian Scientist who believed prayer and not medical intervention would save Fred. However, no parent should be put into that position. Very sad. I still remember his mom hugging me very tightly at the wake. I will not forget Fred laid out in a casket.”

“I agree it's a sad situation for all. I have empathy especially when the whole story isn't known. There were no winners, but Fred and his family were certainly the biggest losers. I can't imagine how hard it would be to lose a child. No one should ever have to go through that, nor have their child be the guilty one.”

“Kudos for your empathy, although that is something I and many others I know would find difficult, if not impossible, to apply in this case. Having personally had Fred as a friend, and having personally been bullied by Devlin and his gang, tends to put matters in a rather unforgiving perspective. What kind of person takes pleasure in tormenting others – for years? I imagine ‘nurture’ can and somewhat does overcome ‘nature’ but, past deeds are what they are and there's no going back.”

Who were these young people, and what could possibly have prompted an argument so violent that it had resulted in a death?

And so began my journey to meet Fred Ryan.

*     *     *

The Ryan family lived in a tidy red brick house a few miles from the city’s heart. Charles W. Ryan was a teacher at an elementary school in the north part of the valley, and Mariam Ryan, at a time when most women didn’t work outside the home, taught Home Economics at a high school on the west side of town. Growing tired of the difficult winters, the couple had come to Phoenix from Big Rapids, Michigan and were living a modest but decent life. Fred was born in Phoenix in 1950, then the couple’s second son, Mark, was born in 1955.

The kids had a typical early Cold War upbringing. They swam at local public pools in the summer, rode bikes and rollerskated, and watched Ed Sullivan. Fred walked first to Solano grade school, just down the street from his home, then to Grandview for junior high. He proved to be a good student and fairly attentive, although he could be disruptive at times, when he let his sense of humor and quick wit overcome classroom decorum. (Secretly, however, some of Fred’s teachers rather enjoyed his humor, because he was very intelligent and often had very funny things to say). He liked playing with his Erector Set, working with his hands and making models. Once he got a bit older and Project Mercury had begun, he avidly followed the space program and revered the astronauts. He grew tall and lean, his long legs and lankiness making him uncoordinated at times and less than athletic. Fred was like any other well-mannered kid of his era, and was described by neighbor Mrs. E. Jean Stuckey as, “a very intelligent boy. He was very polite, always very correct.” He had an uneventful, happy childhood.

In 1965, he made the transition from grade school and began attending West High, approximately three miles from the family home. High school classmate David Meade remembers Fred Ryan as a boy who was part of the ‘in crowd’ and friends with the popular kids, including the cheerleader-types. “He was tall, bright, funny, and an overall good, personable fellow. A non-fighter and a rather happy-go-lucky sort.”

Fred’s passion in high school was the Reserve Officers' Training Corps., where Bill Godfrey, a Staff Sergeant (Squad Leader), remembers Fred as, “a very good officer. Knew his stuff and looked great in uniform. I believe he would have gone far in the Armed Services. I know he was well liked in ROTC.”

Fellow student Hank Trzcinski became close to Fred when Fred coached him for the Cadet of The Month Competition. “I was a freshman and he was a junior and we became very good friends during that time. The next year Fred was a senior and Battalion Executive Officer, a Major; I was a Lieutenant and a Platoon Leader. In November of that year, Fred said something to the Commandant that got him busted from Major to Sergeant First Class. They made him my Platoon Sergeant, and it was very emotional for both of us. I still remember the day that it happened.

“Everyone was shaken up when the announcement was made and Fred took his place in our formation. After the period was over, I held the platoon for a moment to welcome Fred and to let everyone know that he was to be given the utmost respect. I called them all to attention and saluted Fred. I could tell he was fighting tears; so was I. To counter the emotion, Fred started barking orders to the guys to fall out and get to their next class. He then tried yelling at me to never do that again because he was not an officer anymore. I let him know in no uncertain terms that even though he was no longer an officer, I would still give him my respect and friendship.”

Scott Duff and Fred met as children in Sunday school class. “We were both jokesters, even at that early age,” says Scott. “We took Catechism class together and we each spent most of the classes asking questions about whatever came to mind. The instructor thought that by separating us, he could regain control of the class. Much to his dismay, when it came time for the examination, Fred was #1 and I was #2 in a class of about 20. He and I were both quick learners.

“In high school, Fred was in my freshman German class. Now instead of seeing each other on Sunday only, we'd run into each other on campus almost daily. We'd even sneak off campus for lunch more days than not. We did tend to gravitate towards different interests as I became what was known as a Surfer, and he leaned towards the academic.”

There was a young lady in Fred’s life named Christi Frandsen, an all-American beauty who also went to West High. They didn’t exactly go out on dates or attend nighttime school events together because he was constantly working, she says, and she also had extracurricular activities like pom and golf. But everyone knew they were an item. A particularly poignant memory for Christi is the day the pair, “threw caution to the wind and played hooky from school. We played at the park, and Fred rented a small motorcycle and we rode everywhere, all day and into the early evening. This is something we had never done before and never after.” She still cherishes the small photo booth pictures they took that day. Maybe it was Christi’s arresting light green eyes that Fred had noticed first, or her soft hair cut in a contemporary bob; whatever it was, they had been tight since junior year. The formal portrait of them from 1967, Fred in his ROTC uniform and Christi in a stunning formal, still brings tears to her eyes. They shared a common interest in ROTC, and she was Queen of the Military Ball their senior year.

Christi says that Fred “was proud of his involvement in ROTC; in fact, he was hoping it would help him get a scholarship to college. He had planned out his future until about his mid-thirties. We often talked of marriage, but college for both of us was a higher priority.

“As hard as he worked all the time, he never let me contribute,” Christi remembers. "Even after I moved several school districts away the last part of junior year, when he had to drive much farther to see me, he wouldn’t accept any gas money from me. He had an old, white station wagon (gas guzzler) that he’d bought himself.” The length of years can’t diminish the note of pride in her words: pride at Fred’s generosity, his resourcefulness, his work ethic.

“Fred was a nice person, and so fun to be with. He always gave the impression his family was close. He was proud of being a big brother, and loved his brother dearly. Fred seemed like he might have been tighter with his dad, but he would do anything at all for his mom. He helped people whenever he could.” Besides the pictures of Fred, Christi also treasures the memory of a beautiful white rocking chair he gave her the last Christmas he was alive. He had refinished the chair himself for Christi, and years later she would rock each of her babies in it.

Classmate Gwen Hurst recalled, “There were many times that Fred drove my friend Paula and me home when we had stayed after school for some activity. I can still remember us laughing at his jokes, and how carefree and happy we all were back then. I think Fred would have done something big and exciting with his life, had he gotten the chance to live it. Those who knew Fred will never forget him. He was that kind of person.”

Hank Trzcinski also fondly remembers how much fun Fred was to be around. “He had a tremendous sense of humor and a very sharp tongue. There were many times that we thought he needed to put a filter on what he said. He was constantly changing the words to all of the songs that were played on the radio. He had about six different sets of lyrics to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Some of the lyrics were PG rated, but most were R or X.

“We had fun that year, until March of 1968.”

*     *     *

Another boy walked the halls of West High with Fred Ryan, although the two couldn’t have been more different in appearance or temperament. Luke Devlin was short (5’8”) and muscular, whereas Fred was 6’2” and slim. A fullback on the football team and expert pole-vaulter, Devlin is remembered as being aggressive, even as far back as elementary school. Said one classmate, “I remember Luke Devlin from grade school. He was a bully there. We all gave him a wide berth.” “He always was mean,” echoes another contemporary who knew Devlin in grade school, “and a bully from the time he was a kid.”

Devlin apparently hadn’t mellowed any by high school, as another classmate remembers: “One of my best friends lived across the alley from Luke, who was always ready to fight. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, and even swaggered when he walked. You had to be very careful about what you said to him or how you said it. His dad had taught him to take nothing from no one-­and he didn't. He always put up a very tough front. As I recall, Luke was in several fights in school (which he always won). I was at my friend’s house one night and Luke pried off my gas cap and proceeded to help himself to my gas. He certainly wasn’t the most popular guy in school. I never liked him.”

“I spent a couple years working the same Arizona Republic paperboy station with Devlin,” described another West High graduate. “Devlin was a real piece of work. Every day was a challenge, but we never got into it because I followed my mom’s advice and ignored him the best I could. Occasionally he, or someone he prodded, would find my route’s second half (because I couldn’t carry the Sunday papers all at one time) and throw my papers around. Once Devlin even goaded one of his wannabe friends into trying to scare me with a knife.”

Devlin had a clique at West, which one of his classmates referred to as “Devlin and his little gang of despicable bullies.” The most notable of Devlin’s crew was Rich Sawyer, a rather goofy-looking guy with a trunk for a neck and more muscle than brains. The kind of kid who kept quiet in class. Sawyer liked that Devlin liked him, because that meant Devlin didn’t make fun of him or try to embarrass him in front of others. Devlin’s thick build and that of Sawyer must have made them an imposing pair when they walked side by side through the crowded halls between classes. Although Devlin was a junior to Sawyer’s senior in ’68, they developed a strong bond playing on the varsity football team. As intimidating as Devlin could be on the field, Sawyer had seen him display similar tactics in the halls and off school grounds after class. Whether it was shoving a guy for no particular reason or indiscriminately knocking someone’s books askew, Devlin enjoyed the rush of power he got when he taunted someone. Whenever he thought he’d bested another, it made him feel, if only temporarily, like a big man. And he enjoyed that feeling.

Yes, Rich Sawyer liked that Luke Devlin liked him, and he wanted to keep it that way.

*     *     *

A beautiful young lady figures prominently at the center of this story, and she would be linked forever to both the killer and the killed. Jane Johnson was a stunner, with deep blue eyes, dark hair and a beautiful smile with straight white teeth. All the guys thought she was hot, but she was Devlin’s girl. It’s easy to understand what he saw in her: Jane was out of his league and Devlin knew it. What she saw in him was excitement, a little danger, some mystery, and surprise. As conventional as she may have appeared, an underlying rebelliousness combined with sexual attraction made Devlin a temptation Jane couldn’t resist. They made an unusual looking pair, a delicate-featured young woman next to a short, muscled bully, but like so many women, Jane liked the bad boy.

Ironically, Jane was also involved in ROTC at West High, and she was part of Military Queen Christi Frandsen’s court. The two groups – the jocks and the ROTC squad – didn’t hang in the same circles, but their paths would begin converging toward tragedy on Friday, March 22, 1968 during lunch period. The scene is easy to imagine:

Fred, holding court surrounded by several other boys and perhaps even a few girls, keeps them laughing with his biting humor. Somehow the subject of Devlin’s pretty girlfriend comes up and Fred says something about Jane. Whatever the exact comment was, no one can recall, but it had to have been glib, and it was likely lecherous: probably something he’d “like to do” with Jane, or that he "wouldn't kick her out of bed." It’s difficult to believe it was a malicious or ugly comment, but more the equivalent of a teenage leer conveyed with a wink and a smile, delivered no doubt to an appreciative audience. Fred, the boy who sometimes didn’t use a filter by thinking before he spoke, makes what he surely intends to be a joke, and he probably gets the laugh he wants.

I can’t imagine that one of Fred’s friends sharing lunch with him that day would have repeated his comments to Devlin, since everyone knew Devlin was a hot-headed punk who picked fights. So it is easier, somehow not as awful, to presume Fred’s statement was overheard by someone close by – an outsider to Fred’s circle of friends – who then told Devlin what he said. Whoever re-told the joke perhaps thought it would make Devlin feel proud of his beautiful girlfriend and the fact that she was his. Or maybe repeating Fred's joke was a way of getting in good with Devlin. Whatever the reason Devlin was told, the remarks that Fred made that day sealed his fate. Silence from the grave is absolute and the exact comments will never be known but whatever he said, it was certainly nothing that justified murder.

The day concluded and the students departed home to begin their weekend.

*     *     *

“Yeah, is your brother home?” The boy standing at the Ryans' front door was short and thick, and just behind him stood a taller boy, perhaps a bit even thicker. It was about 11:00 on Saturday morning when Mark, Fred’s younger brother, opened the door when the bell rang. Mrs. Ryan was in the kitchen on a phone call, and Fred was in the laundry room ironing a shirt for a date that night with Christi. Fred had a job at Romley’s Mexican Restaurant, which was near the Ryan residence; although he almost always worked on Saturday nights, he’d taken that evening off to see his girlfriend. Mr. Ryan wasn’t home.

Mark didn’t know who the boys at the door were, but they didn’t look like his brother’s usual friends, and they certainly didn’t have the crisp, soldierly air of Fred’s fellow ROTC members. The t-shirt Luke Devlin wore under his light jacket had a smear of what looked like motor oil on it. Rich Sawyer, who’d driven them to Fred’s house in his pickup, which he’d left blocking the curb lane in front of the house, looked like he hadn’t combed his hair. When the 12-year-old hesitated, the taller of the two boys added, “We need to talk to him about some homework.” He sort of smirked then, pleased with himself for having thought of the ruse so quickly. Mark yelled, “Fred, there're some guys here to see you,” as he turned and headed back toward his bedroom.

Fred had put the iron down and had started for the front room a moment after he’d heard the doorbell, and he immediately checked his stride when he came around the corner and saw who was there. He knew both Devlin and Sawyer because they were on the football team. He also knew Devlin was dating Jane (everybody knew that), and that Jane was part of Christi’s military court. But these guys weren’t friends of his, and he didn’t have any classes with them, so he was more bewildered than concerned to see them in his house. He also knew their reputations as toughs, and they looked very wide standing next to each other inside his front door.

Fred was entering the room at the same moment his kid brother was exiting. Taking the last steps to meet the visitors, Fred opened his mouth to say, “Hey–” and was cut off when Devlin stepped forward quickly, swinging his right arm hard and smashing his fist into Fred’s nose. “You talk shit about Jane, you’re gonna pay for it,” Devlin said, his voice low and thick with anger. At the same instant Devlin’s fist connected, Fred lost his balance and fell backward, his head slamming hard into the wall just inside the front door. Mariam Ryan dropped the phone when she heard the sound and, panicked, started to run from the kitchen. Mark, too, ran back from his bedroom door and returning to the living room, saw his brother on the floor with the short boy standing over him. Covering his nose with his right hand, his left arm raised in a desperate attempt at self-defense, Fred was trying to get his legs under him so that he could stand, but he didn’t have the chance because Devlin now attacked with his foot. “Mind your fucking business, you shit!” said Devlin, emphasizing the words each time his boot connected with Fred’s torso.

Simultaneously as Fred’s mother had entered and screamed, “NO!” the bigger boy stepped forward and yanked back hard on Devlin’s jacket. “Devlin, enough,” Sawyer said with a small nervous laugh. “He’s got it. Let’s get out of here.” Shaking off Sawyer’s hand, Devlin took a last look at Fred’s ashen face as he lay gasping on the floor, his mother kneeling next to him, then he turned and walked out the door. Without a sense of urgency, Devlin went to Sawyer’s truck and the two drove off. The entire deadly incident had played out in less than twenty seconds.

Mariam Ryan couldn’t really register what had happened. There had been two boys in the house she didn’t know, who’d left almost as quickly as she’d seen them. Her older son was hurt because he was lying on the floor, bleeding and moaning and clutching his stomach, and her younger son was standing nearby sobbing. At Mariam’s direction, Mark ran for a towel to help staunch the blood, then somehow he found her car keys and together they gathered Fred, who was doubled over but able to walk leaning on his mother, and loaded him into the backseat of the car. During the 2.8 miles to the hospital, Mark wiped tears from his face and, terrified, glanced intermittently at his brother lying prone across the backseat. In as reassuring a tone as she could muster, Mariam repeated again and again, “It’s okay, he’s going to be okay,” as much to herself as to Mark. During the awful five-minute drive, Fred drifted in and out of consciousness.

*     *     *

Police arrived at the hospital quickly and although he was in pain as medical personnel worked to evaluate the extent of his injuries, Fred was able to speak to investigators. One detective said Fred could not or would not give any reason for the incident, but he did identify Luke Devlin and Rich Sawyer as his attackers. At some point, perhaps that evening when the stunned family was back home, Mark found Devlin’s picture in one of Fred’s yearbooks and showed it to investigating officers. There was no question as to whom the police would arrest.

Fred was a strong young man in the peak of health, but the damage that had been inflicted by the steel-toed boot worn by his assailant proved too extreme. He was on the operating table when he died at 4:45 pm, approximately six hours after he’d been attacked in his own home. Seventeen-year-old Fred Ryan, cited in a local paper as “one of the more promising students at West,” was gone.

Luke Devlin and Rich Sawyer were taken into custody after being brought to police headquarters by their parents, then the two were held without bond at the Maricopa County Juvenile Detention Home. On Sunday, Devlin’s mother was quick to defend her son in the newspaper, acknowledging he and Sawyer had gone to Fred’s home to talk to him but, “They didn’t intend to fight with him, or beat him up, or anything like that. I know they would have avoided a fight if they could. And I know he never intended for this thing to go as far as it did or for the other boy to be hurt.”

Mrs. Devlin also made it clear that Sawyer had no part in the actual fight. Sawyer, a jock who wanted to be liked by Devlin so he could avoid his bullying, had thought Devlin would only put a good scare into Fred, and that it would be fun to watch. Sawyer probably never expected that when he drove the pair to Fred’s house in his pickup truck, he was driving what ultimately became a getaway car. Mrs. Devlin also pointed out to newspaper reporters her son’s small stature compared to Fred’s height, neglecting to add that her son was a muscled athlete, while Fred was a slender, non-athletic type. She insisted, “My boy is well liked at West High. He isn’t the kind who would start a fight,” though, according to Devlin’s peers, he’d been someone to avoid since long before high school because he was known for precisely that.

On the day after Fred’s funeral, Devlin and Sawyer were scheduled to have a hearing before Superior Court Juvenile Judge Walter Wang.

*     *     *

More than 70 members of Fred’s ROTC unit, along with 30 more from other local high schools, attended Fred’s viewing at a local mortuary. The image of weeping teenagers, plus all those young men in uniform, some of whom would head to Viet Nam, must have been incredibly moving.

“I was getting ready for a date with Fred when my dad came back to my room to tell me the news,” Christi recalls of that terrible Saturday. On the day of Fred’s service, only two days later, Christi says she, “went to the funeral home by myself. I opened, I think it must have been a side door, and I stepped in, and there was a massive crowd of West High people. They all turned toward me at the same time and just stared at me. All of a sudden, Fred's mom came through the crowd, tears running down her face. She threw her arms around my shoulders and steered me into a room, pushing whoever was in there, out. Then she shut the door. I was going to say something to her, but I was alone! I turned, and she’d closed me in the room with the casket.

“Slowly, I inched toward Fred and . . . just looked and looked. I couldn't handle it. All I can remember is running, running for all I was worth straight through all the people and out the door. Before I reached the curb I ran right into the chest of Dennis Davis, who grabbed me tight and didn't let go. Someone asked me if there was someone at my house for me to go home to, but there was no one. They wouldn't let me go to nothingness, so a friend let me spend the night with her.”

The day after the service, Mr. and Mrs. Ryan and Mark, now a family of three, left Phoenix to take Fred’s body back to Big Rapids.

*     *     *

Walter Wang ran for and won a seat on the Superior Court bench in 1962. Two years later, a 15-year-old Arizona boy named Gerald Gault was accused of making an obscene telephone call to a neighbor. There were a number of transgressions committed against the teen during the legal process, starting with the sheriff failing to notify his parents when they took him into custody. At the conclusion of the hearing, when the judge in the case ordered Gault to serve juvenile detention until he turned 21, the Gaults filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus (an order for the court to deliver their son). When this was dismissed by the state Superior Court and then by the state Supreme Court, the Gaults sought relief in the Supreme Court of the United States. The high court agreed to hear the case to determine the procedural due process rights of a juvenile criminal defendant, and it came back in 1967 with what is considered a landmark ruling. In re Gault holds that juveniles accused of crimes must be afforded many of the same due process rights as adults.

This ruling had to have factored, to some degree, into Judge Wang’s handling of Devlin and Sawyer because although Wang was not connected to the Gault case, it directly impacted his work as a juvenile court judge. The Gault case had originated in Arizona, after all, and it had led the U.S. Supreme Court to closely examine the overall juvenile court system. The ruling from the high court came down just one year before Devlin and Sawyer would stand before Wang, who might have felt the eyes of the justices were focused squarely on his courtroom.

The first of three separate hearings took place April 2 and, following longstanding juvenile court practices, the proceeding was held in secret. It was up to Wang to determine whether the accused would be treated as juveniles or adults. If Wang decided they should not face trial, they would likely be committed to the State Industrial School for Boys at Ft. Grant, and no criminal charges could ever be filed against them in connection with Fred’s death. The attorneys for the accused requested that Wang disqualify himself in the case – which he denied – and the attorneys responded they would appeal his denial to the Arizona Supreme Court. The defense team was apparently worried about Wang.

On the day the first hearing began, the Sawyer family’s pastor punched a newspaper photographer and bloodied his face, and the judge became concerned that the press coverage could potentially influence the case. The community demanded justice for Fred and punishment of the accused, most calling for a manslaughter charge – if not for both juveniles, then specifically for Devlin. Neighbors had been discussing the case; parents of West High students were discussing it, as were the students themselves. I’m sure my own parents must have closely followed the story, as well as my Great Uncle, who was the principal of Phoenix's East High, and my Great Aunt, who had taught Rich Sawyer in her 7th grade class at Kenilworth School. Concerned extensive press coverage would influence the case, the judge tried to order that no photographs be taken of the accused during the proceedings, but the local paper chose to ignore the judge’s edict.

The prosecution presented its side first, called no witnesses, and concluded in two days. The young deputy county attorney prosecuting the case, who had only just been admitted to the State Bar, conceded that the killing was unintentional but, because Devlin had kicked Fred when he was down, urged the court to remand both teens for trial as adults. Once the details of the killing had been discussed in the secret proceeding (during which Mark Ryan had to testify), the defense attorneys asked the judge to open the hearing to the public and press, which Judge Wang did. Therefore, evidence as to the brutality of Fred being attacked in his own home was not officially released, but all of the testimony from Devlin-Sawyer supporters was heard in open court.

According to one of Fred’s peers: “No expense was spared on the defense attorney. He had a reputation for getting people off, and certainly didn't disappoint in this case. Many school employees who could have testified for the prosecution (recounting past incidents involving the accused), were subpoenaed instead by the defense to testify for its side. They were, of course, never called to the stand, so the information they could have provided was kept out of the hearing.” A dozen defense witnesses stepped up during the now-public proceeding, from a juvenile probation officer to a West High track coach to Jane Johnson’s mother to a psychiatrist, all of whom attested to the good character of each of the accused. The probation officer assured the public that Devlin had, “learned a lesson he will not soon forget.”

While the state had presented its case in two days, the entire process lasted nearly forty, and on May 17, less than two months after Fred’s murder, Judge Wang issued his decision. Not wanting to veer in any way from the U.S. Supreme Court’s stance as laid out in re Gault just one year earlier, the judge ruled that Devlin and Sawyer would not be tried as adults. Additionally, because they had been made to stay at the detention home during the judicial proceedings, Judge Wang “felt that their being held during the entire process was a sufficient incarceration,” so they wouldn’t even face juvenile jail in Ft. Grant (which the newspaper had hinted would be the likely sentence). Determined to not be perceived as bowing to public pressure, the judge put the pair on probation until they were 21 . . . and that was the extent of their punishment.

By making his focus the defendants, affording them the rights of adults but failing to rule they should be tried as such, the judge’s decision was in some ways a decision against the Ryans. It was as if Wang hadn’t taken their immeasurable loss into account at all, hadn’t considered their need (their right) to see Devlin pay for his crime. The Ryans deserved better.

Heretofore, Judge Wang had been considered by some to be among the best on the bench, so the public was stunned and angry at his leniency. After it received dozens of letters, the newspaper started an investigation into the hearings and poured over the record of the official court transcript when it was released about a month later. (A law keeping juvenile records secret had been repealed by the state legislature in 1957, but various juvenile judges had been inconsistent in their ruling on keeping them closed or opening them to the public. Wang had made it clear early on that he would use his power as a judge to keep the record of the Devlin-Sawyer proceedings secret, but he obviously re-thought that decision, probably as a result of the public outcry).

The transcripts were a bombshell. Devlin had made a courtroom admission that he’d been in several fights, which prompted the paper to investigate and expose a number of violent incidents involving Devlin, at least one of which had resulted in his suspension from school. Devlin had even had a previous fight where he’d knocked down another student and kicked him in the head and ribs. Just two days before being released, in fact, Devlin and Sawyer had been involved in a large fight at the detention center. All of these revelations came too late, however, because the case had already been closed.

The transcripts also revealed that Wang, once he had made the questionable decision to adjudicate the accused as juveniles, might not have had much choice in ruling in favor of rehabilitation over punishment. This was primarily because the prosecution called no witnesses and the defense called so many, all of whom were effusive in their praise of Devlin and Sawyer. And the background of the two – a history of instigating fights, failing grades, school suspensions – had not been presented to Wang.

A very similar case came before Judge Wang just six months after the Devlin-Sawyer case had concluded, wherein an Hispanic laborer the same age as Devlin kicked to death a fellow laborer. In that particular case, the judge ruled that the accused deserved to be tried as an adult. If Wang was trying to make some sort of amends by proxy or save face with the public, it didn’t work. The judicial merit selection process has since changed in Arizona but at that time, citizens could still vote for or against judges (not just vote to retain them as the process is now), and the public made its displeasure with Wang known by summarily voting him out during his re-election bid in 1970, forcing him to re-establish a private practice.

Nearly five decades later and long after his death, the judge still drew criticism when an article about his widow, a local health care pioneer, was published in the paper in 2013. Completely unrelated to the article’s topic, one online commenter was compelled to recap the case and denounce once again what he called the judge’s slap-on-the-wrist ruling. No matter how great his overall judicial contributions may have been, Judge Wang’s decision in the Devlin-Sawyer case will always cast a shadow over his tenure within the Arizona court system.

*     *     *

In June of 1968, just three months after Fred's death, Charles and Mariam Ryan split up, and Mrs. Ryan moved back to Michigan with Mark. Unable to remain living in the house where such an abomination had taken place, it's easy to believe she couldn't get away from Phoenix fast enough. Mr. Ryan filed a wrongful death lawsuit at the end of ’68, naming Devlin and Sawyer as well as their parents as defendants, but Mariam wanted no part of it: she made it clear in the couple's separation agreement that she didn't approve of the lawsuit and had no interest in a monetary award, should one come to pass. Mr. Ryan settled the suit three years later, but it was a hollow victory at best since one son was dead and his killer had faced no substantive consequences, the Ryan marriage was dissolved, and Charles now saw his remaining son only during summer vacations and every other Christmas. Mr. Ryan died in Phoenix at the age of 87, having outlived his firstborn child by 38 years.

Soon after the hearings concluded, the Sawyer family also packed up and left Arizona. Sawyer went to college where, capitalizing on his brawn, he played football and was apparently good enough to even go pro for a short time. According to one of the posters on the Facebook thread I encountered in 2013, Rich Sawyer became “a compassionate coach and teacher and led many young students to become good citizens and outstanding members of the community.” It would be nice if that rather trite testimonial was true; I actually hope it is. Rich Sawyer died in 2008 at the age of 58.

Whether his parents made the decision (or more likely, the school decided it), Devlin didn’t return to West High. He carried out his senior year at a different school in town, participating and excelling as he’d done before in the football and track and field programs. A few months after the final hearing concluded, 17-year-old Jane got pregnant, and she married Devlin a month before their first son was born. They had a second son just over a year after that. It's strange that she's chosen to stay with Devlin but maybe, out of some misguided belief that he killed defending her honor, she feels she owes it to him. Over the years, has Jane ever allowed herself to think back on his awful act? Perhaps late at night as he slept motionless beside her, did she ever wonder how someone so young could have been capable of such physical violence? Did she ever fear he’d lose control to the point where he might do something like it again?

Devlin was successful in his chosen profession as a public servant, and he still walks among us in this city. One of Fred’s peers recalled that at West High’s 20-year reunion in 1988, “A couple of us former ROTC officers were seated at the same table across from Devlin, who nearly provoked an altercation. So, it appeared, Devlin hadn't mellowed much in two decades.” Ten years after that, Devlin was found guilty of a Disorderly Conduct/Disturbance charge in town. Though in his 60s now, it seems this small man still wants to prove to the world he’s tough. Maybe one day, if he tries to intimidate or provoke the wrong guy, he’ll come up against someone who carries an even bigger chip on his shoulder than his own.

Shortly after Fred’s death, The Arizona Republic published that his autopsy showed he died from a “lacerated liver caused by a severe kick.” His friends have speculated over the years about Fred’s medical care during his last hours; specifically, whether one or both parents refused to allow a procedure or waited too long to give consent. The source for this speculation was likely an article that ran in The Scottsdale Daily Progress in 1971, three years after the hearings concluded. According to the probation officer interviewed by the newspaper, “several facts in the case had not been publicized, including that the victim’s parents were Christian Scientists and a delay in operating on the boy may have cost his life.”

Fred was a member of the local Episcopal Church, the teachings of which do not forbid transfusions or any medically necessary procedures. Additionally, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Ryan was ever a follower of Christian Science, and all life-saving measures available at the time were taken as quickly as possible, so what the Scottsdale Progress printed was a complete fabrication. The probation officer’s comments (and the fact the paper published them) are reprehensible, and it was an insult to the family to suggest something so cruel.

I have nothing to base it on, but I suspect this rumor might have originated with the defense team, or perhaps the probation officer made it up as a juicy tidbit for his newspaper interview. Devlin himself could have even planted this seed: hinting the Ryans might have shared culpability meant that he wasn’t solely responsible for Fred’s death – when of course, he most certainly was.

The point of the article was to denounce the state’s juvenile detention facilities, and the probation officer quoted (who’d only been in his job two years in 1971), did that by touting how successful probation, rather than juvenile jail, had proven to be for the two accused. The man quoted was, in fact, the probation officer for Devlin and Sawyer, so it would have been in his own best interest to hail both young men as complete success stories. Three years after killing Fred, the PO reported proudly, “Both boys are doing well now and had not gotten into any more trouble since the incident.”

Telling the paper the grieving parents could have inadvertently contributed to Fred’s death was an incredibly cheap shot, and another way (I think) of insinuating Wang’s failure to punish the pair had been a sound decision. The allegation is a complete falsehood and if it does nothing else, I hope this memoir lifts that lingering stain from Fred Ryan’s story once and for all. Now at least his friends know the truth.

*     *     *

When I read that initial Facebook thread in 2013, I was simply curious about the incident, primarily because it had involved students at my high school. But the more I learned, the more I was compelled to tell Fred's story. Looking back on my days at West, it seems like some sort of tangible imprint should have marked the school: a remembrance laid in stone to tell students from 1968 onward that Fred Ryan had mattered. Knowing his brutal end, I found it eerie to think that I’d walked the same halls that he had, and that I likely had some of the same teachers. Perhaps I’d sat at the very table in the cafeteria where the fateful remarks had been spoken. While researching this piece, I learned that I’ve driven by the Ryan home virtually every day since 1997, because the house where he was beaten is less than a block from my own residence. I wonder if that front room has changed much over the years. I wonder if the current owners have any clue of the savagery its walls witnessed that March day in 1968.

The memories shared by Fred’s peers paint a very clear picture of what West High’s battalion commander, Bruce McCurdy, called “a real good guy”. And the sense of injustice they feel at both his death and the trial’s outcome is still palpable. "Fred was a very special friend of mine," says Hank Trzcinski, "and I still miss his humor very much. This should never have happened." “I am certain that the incident became such a memory for us because we all were young and had not personally experienced such deadly violence,” says classmate David Meade. “And it was someone we knew, and interacted with on a daily basis. And of course, it all seemed so senseless.”

*     *     *

The golden future and long life Fred Ryan deserved were taken from him by a boy who grew into a much lesser man than Fred surely would have been. Devlin, whose rage was allowed to burn unchecked first by his parents, then by the schools, then by the court system, got to live his life. But regardless of whatever good he may have done in the ensuing years, even if he purposely attempted to live a selfless life, its importance was diminished the moment he attacked Fred. Had Devlin served a real sentence, Fred’s family would have at least received a certain degree of justice, but many would argue there are no amends to be made for the taking of another life. There is no atonement to be paid, and no pardon available for the ultimate sin.

It’s hard to measure the impact of a life that spanned less than two decades, but it’s a given that Fred was loved, and that he loved others. And it’s easy to believe Fred was a nice kid: an attentive, thoughtful son and supportive big brother, a generous friend, a conscientious student – it’s easy to believe that because those who knew him describe him that way. What he might have been can never be known but what he was, for the few years he lived, was a good person. Fred Ryan was confident, open and popular, perhaps too anxious to speak when a thought crystallized in his sharp mind, and he was fun to be around. His presence, however brief, made a positive difference to the people who loved him, and he left fond memories in his wake. There is really no more of an uplifting epilogue than this to Fred’s story, but it’s enough. It has to be.

At its most basic, this is a story of a bright young man killed in a terrible way over something stupid, and those responsible didn’t have to pay much (if anything) for their crime; there’s no putting a positive spin on that. But there is still delight to be found in the memory of Fred Ryan’s life, as those who shared with me their remembrances of him did so willingly and with obvious affection. For that, I’m very grateful.

I’m also grateful to Mark Ryan, Fred’s kid brother, for being gracious to me when I spoke to him before I started on this journey. Mark has a lovely wife, two beautiful daughters, and two adorable grandchildren. Happy memories and funny stories from Fred’s childhood – the best of the bright days – continue to be woven into the vibrant tapestry of the Ryan family. Family matriarch Mariam Benedict Ryan, whom I perceive as a woman of tensile strength, passed away in 2013 at the age of 93 and now rests next to her firstborn. There is no pall of a life unfulfilled hanging over Fred’s simple stone, and the air is clean of bitterness. When intermittent breezes tousle the decorative grasses that grow near the graves, there is nothing but serenity and overwhelming peace.

Fred’s friends from the class of ’68 grew old without him. After they graduated West High, some went onto college, the military, successful and rewarding careers. Some married, divorced then married again; some rejoiced in children then rejoiced further in grandchildren. The faces reflected in the mirror slowly weathered with lines of worry as well as laughter from all the sorrows and delights and mundane details in between that make up our lives. Fred’s friends saw the dentist, stretched budgets, went to the movies, washed dishes, bought tires, sang songs, and went on job interviews. They ate sandwiches, pursued hobbies, attended ballgames, shared holidays, mowed the grass, hosted barbeques, and took vacations. Most celebrated decades of birthdays, they carried out the sad, unavoidable rituals when their parents died and eventually, they combed gray hair. The faces in the mirror changed over the years but the face of Fred Ryan in the 1968 yearbook remains the same, fixed in the memory and on the yellowed and foxed pages, forever 17. Still possessing every gift with which he was born: his brightness and enthusiasm, intelligence, generous spirit and humor – the promise of a good life ahead – he is locked in time.

For whatever terrible cosmic reason, Fred Ryan was not allowed the opportunity to share the journey of his peers, yet they have not forgotten him. He did not grow old, but there are people who still regard him as an old friend, and with a wistfulness the years have not diminished, they recognize he is someone worth remembering.

Time it was,
And what a time it was
It was . . .
A time of innocence
A time of confidences

Long ago . . . it must be . . .
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They're all that's left you


Bookends Theme (Paul Simon)
Released March, 1968


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Because it contains speculation regarding true events, this memoir is a work of creative nonfiction. Remembrances of others have been relied upon for some material; additionally, a degree of embellishment has been incorporated for the sake of the narrative and writing style. What is presented here is partly fact and partly conjecture. Names of certain people have been withheld or changed.


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