A Father’s Worst Nightmare
How does a father deal with the fact that his teenaged son has been sentenced to 12 to 15 years for the brutal murder of a helpless elderly man?
It would be hard for any father to accept, but for the father of 16-year-old William Lewis Byers III – variously described by family members, teachers and coaches as “a good kid,” “a delight to work with” and someone with “a positive attitude” – the crime is almost impossible to comprehend.
It’s not as if the Dudley High School football player and wrestler didn’t have challenges. The family history compiled by the public defenders office notes that the young offender was exposed to raging fights between his father and mother that presaged their breakup. The father, William Lewis Byers Jr., acknowledged selling marijuana as a young man. He got into fights as a young man and has struggled throughout his adult life with his temper. Both parents reportedly had father figures who were alcoholics and often absent.
You might conclude that Lewis the son – and by extension his elderly victim, James Henry Shoffner -‘ was just another predictable casualty in the tragic cycle of broken African-American families, another click on a wheel destined to keep turning in America.
And yet Lewis the father has strived to break the cycle. For all his faults, the father has tried to set a positive example for his son about how to take responsibility, work hard and contribute to the welfare of others.
The irony is almost too much to bear. As a barbershop owner, host of an annual community cookout and 2005 Greensboro City Council candidate, William Lewis Byers Jr. is a community leader. The same intertwined issues he has highlighted in that role – violence, crime, poverty and the economic underdevelopment of the black community – became painfully personified when his son got into trouble less than a month after Byers lost his race for city council.
In the lounge behind the barbershop he shares with a women’s hair salon in the Northeast Shopping Center on Summit Avenue he tells a visitor that he still cannot understand how his son became involved in the murder. He’s been taking calls all day on his mobile phone headset from people who have heard about the sentence. He periodically ducks out of the lounge to take care of customers. He still has to keep making a living after all.
What purpose did it serve for Lewis and another teenager to break into the Shoffners’ home and beat the old man to death back in December 2005, the father, the prosecutors and everybody else have been wondering.
“He didn’t need no money,” Byers says. “Both of his parents work and own their own businesses. Access to money was why they went in, but they didn’t take no money.”
He remembers the first time he went to see his son in jail after the arrest.
“Tell me what happened, good or bad, bad or good,” the father said. “Can’t nothing be worse than this.”
The way the father understands it now his son and an older boy, Vinnie Fox, were riding the school bus home and went looking for a third teenager to gather a crew together to confront some bullies. The third boy declined to participate, and in his written confession Byers the son recalled Fox coming down the stairs with a red and black rubber mask that “looked like a demon.”
“When he seen the kid put a mask on it was a sign for him to go,” Byers the father says. “He should have turned around and not went that way. The other kid might have thought he was a pussy or a punk, but he’s not.”
William Lewis Byers Jr. is holding a lot of anger right now. Towards the daily newspaper that splashed his son’s story across the front page. Towards the black clergy, whom he feels has neglected its responsibilities to nourish the development of young people. Towards the local black political establishment, which he believes distracts the community with marches and boycotts instead of getting into the trenches to address real problems. Towards the city council because he sees that nothing has changed since he ran for office.
Mostly he wants everybody to know that his son is an accomplished high school football player and wrestler. “If Lewis had continued on with sports,” the boy’s weight training coach is reported to have said of Lewis, “he would have been one of the top players.”
The father, who has volunteered as a hall monitor at Dudley, also blames himself.
“I was out helping other kids and I let my kid slip,” he says. “How do I feel as a parent? Pissed off. How do I feel as a community leader? Like I let down the most important part of my community – mine.”
While nothing will bring James Henry Shoffner back, the Byers family has taken some small steps to repair the breach. Starting with the boy’s letter to the Shoffners’ church, which read in part: “My name is William Lewis Byers III. I am not askin for pitty, just for your forgiveness and to Mrs. Shoffner I sincerely apologize.”
Byers the father attended Shoffner’s memorial service.
“The Shoffner family is a good family,” he says. “At the church any of their kids could have jumped me. They didn’t have to embrace me. Evidently Mr. Shoffner did a good job of raising his two boys.”
And Byers is still a father despite the fact that his son is a convicted felon. So what is his role now?
“Support him the best way I can, the only way I can: with love,” Byers says. “I’m not gonna throw him away. He’s not a sack of shit. He just did a shitty thing.
“He’ll have plenty of time to think about what he’s done,” he continues. “He doesn’t need me to remind him. The judge didn’t do the wrong thing. She did her job.”
Looking back at the Byers history, certain moments flash with both promise and foreboding for the precarious fates of the children who are the heirs to the family legacy: a son, 16, who is incarcerated; a daughter, 18, attending Winston-Salem State University; and a daughter, 15, who still attends the Boys and Girls Club because her mother fears that without a structured environment she too will get in trouble.
There is the moment in 1988 when Reverner Fennell stopped to make a call at the Elm Street Diner in New Haven, Conn. and a cook named William Lewis Byers Jr. chatted with her on his break. Fennell had moved up to Connecticut from Ahoskie, NC to live with her aunt. Byers, a Dudley High School graduate, had left Greensboro to stay ahead of trouble.
The couple moved to Greensboro to be closer to Byers family, and were married at New Light Baptist Church in 1990 when young Lewis was 5 months old. The father recalls working at two or three restaurants and a landscaping business to pay the bills. Reverner Fennell Byers would later tell a family social worker that she began attending Carolina Beauty School after the birth of her third child, and opened her own salon in 1998. Byers the father finished barber school, and eventually bought the business where he cut hair.
After the murder Byers the son would tell the social worker that he chose to live with Reverner following his parents’ breakup because there was no one else around to protect his mother and sisters. “He said he does not confide in anyone so that everyone is not in his business,” the social worker wrote.
Lewis reportedly described his father as a strict disciplinarian who would take it out on his children when he had a bad day at work by using a belt on the children’s behind.
The father, meanwhile, tried to engage his son in politics.
The social worker reported that Lewis “said he sat in meetings with his father and his father’s computer friends and the meetings related to web logs or ‘blogging.’ Lewis also said that he and his father were going to go to the Million Man March but they did not go. Lewis stated that if things did not go his father’s way it was a problem.”
William Lewis Byers III was 15 when he took part in the murder of James Henry Shoffner. By the time his 16th birthday came around he was in jail.
“I didn’t have my father when I was growing up,” William Lewis Byers Jr. says. “I wanted to have a party to celebrate him becoming a man. We fell eight days short of that.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org