It was my sister’s eighth-birthday party and Richard Parker was standing in the kitchen of my childhood home. He was 4 going on 5 and showed no expression save something like a frown as he looked at my mother’s camera. A chubby baby beside him was preparing to drop a plate from his high chair. That was me.
Until I was 7 I thought Richard was a cousin. Visiting the Parkers was routine, as it was with family. After I understood we weren’t related to the Parkers, I still thought of Richard as a friend. He was older, but I rarely felt he was treating me like a pest as my brother and sisters sometimes did. Richard also had interesting toys. Like the boomerang.
I was 8 when he got it. I thought the boomerang was cool and told Richard so. Looking at it, my mind filled with visions of kangaroos and khaki-clad hunters. I saw them hurling the wide V across the dusty outback, and I could almost hear it whickering back to the hunter’s outstretched hand.
Richard said he’d show me how to throw it. He was nearly a teen and already tall and broad-shouldered. Hindsight may be coloring my memories with adult insight, but by then I had begun feeling uncomfortable around Richard, though I’d once looked up to and perhaps envied him. At the time I probably put it down to growing fully aware of our age difference.
Richard, like me, was the youngest in his family, and I had the impression that — also like me — he was doted on. Cool toys like that authentic boomerang were no big deal to him.
Richard held up the boomerang and said, “I’ll show you how to throw it. But you have to play a game.”
I asked him if he really knew how to use it, and he insisted he did.
I didn’t want to ask about the game. As if it were no big deal, he said, “Let’s get in the closet.”
I didn’t want to, but he was bigger, older. I didn’t know what to do. We climbed inside his closet and sat down in the dark.
It wasn’t rape. I don’t think he understood what he was doing yet. But Richard held me down, and he overpowered me. I couldn’t breathe as he jammed his tongue in my mouth and groped me. I went rigid. And I said no. I remember feeling like I might get sick. I also remember feeling bewildered and scared. He had never been violent with me, but he was bigger and stronger. And I was telling him no, and he wouldn’t listen.
It wasn’t simple curiosity or confused sexual experimentation on his part. Though I found it chilling after Richard’s 2014 arrest to learn he’d been involved with youth at his church, I don’t think the older boy in that closet with me was a budding pedophile. What he did in that closet was a predator’s experiment in manipulation.
Our mothers were two rooms away in that small house that reeked of dogs, having coffee in the kitchen.
At some point I think our mothers occurred to him, too — the idea that they might hear us. Maybe I said something about it in desperation. That part is unclear today, decades later.
He pulled away.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he told me. “They’ll think you’re queer.”
Richard and I walked from his house up through a space in the hedge to his grandmother’s house next door, then around to her large, sloping backyard. He was going to keep his promise and show me how to throw the boomerang.
One of the clearest moments in my memory from that day was walking through that cut in the hedges. I felt like throwing up. Watching his feet as he walked ahead of me, I didn’t want to be near Richard. I was sickened by his flat expression, by his soft, monotone voice.
He made a show of winding up to throw the boomerang. It whirled up into the blue, arced down toward the treeline where his grandmother’s lawn ended and the woods began, and vanished in the shadows there.
He’d never known how to throw the boomerang.
Later we stood in front of his house waiting for my mom to come out so I could leave. He pointed to a gravel walk. “I shoveled all that.”
I don’t think I said anything.
After we left I said to my mother, “Please don’t make me visit them with you again.”
She didn’t, and she didn’t ask me why.
I didn’t truly realize I’d been molested until I was in my teens. That was when I began reading a great deal about crime and psychology. Accounts from victims of sexual trauma sounded familiar.
On its website, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) lists some symptoms of sexual trauma in boys and men, noting that male survivors “may experience the same effects of sexual assault as other survivors.” I had most of the symptoms in my teens and have some still today. I still have plenty of “anxiety, depression, fearfulness.” In my early teens I was sometimes stricken in the middle of an aggressively male-dominated southern culture with “concerns or questions about sexual orientation.” To this day I still often feel “on-edge” and “unable to relax,” with “difficulty sleeping.”
“Fear of the worst happening and having a sense of a shortened future” is a constant theme of my inner monologue. “Withdrawal from relationships or friendships and an increased sense of isolation” defined my dating experience for years. Perhaps worst of all, though, was feeling “like ‘less of a man’ or that you no longer have control over your own body.” I grew up around men who were invested in a cartoonlike ideal of southern male machismo.
As I connected these challenges across the years to events in my life, I stewed sometimes about what I considered my failure to live up to that image of manhood. I blamed Richard Parker. And over time, I developed an inexhaustible reserve of anger (some of it self-directed) and an obsession with people who prey on others.
Richard, meanwhile, moved on. He was just getting started.
Jon and Marion Setzer knew tragedy. They first faced it in 1977 when their son Jon-Jon, age 3, slipped through the slats of a fence by their suburban Nashville home and was killed by a neighbor’s dog.
The Setzers remained in that suburb, though, their surviving children eventually attending nearby McGavock High School.
At McGavock, their daughter Laura met Richard Parker, who was by then a tall young man into weightlifting and building things. Richard and Laura both attended Tennessee Technological University (TTU) after graduation.
They married in December 1987. Wedding announcements published in The Tennessean stated the couple would take a New England honeymoon, then settle down in Antioch. Richard was said to be working on his master’s degree and was employed by a construction company. By 1990 Richard was trying his hand solo in the construction and restoration business.
It didn’t go well.
Danny and Rosemary Martin hired him to renovate their 160-year-old cabin in Pulaski, Tennessee. But it soon became clear that he couldn’t handle the job. He missed deadlines. He did shoddy work. In July 1990, they confronted him about issues with the work, and Richard promised to finish the job on time.
He set the cabin on fire.
Rosemary Martin would later tell CBS News that even after he was convicted of arson, sentenced to probation, and ordered to pay the couple $40,000 in restitution, Richard Parker never showed remorse. She said, “We were trying to get an explanation, and he looked at my husband and he said, ‘Oh, I thought y’all had a lot of insurance on that house.’”
Jon Setzer, an attorney, helped defend his son-in-law. One of Setzer’s former colleagues would later tell a reporter that Setzer found the arson charge too harsh.
Richard and Laura endured that crisis and began a family, and by early 2014, they and their four boys lived on a rural plot in Wilson County, Tennessee. Jon and Marion, 74 and 72, lived next door. Richard’s mother, by then suffering from the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, lived with the Parkers. Richard ran a company called Legacy Restorations, complete with a website. At nearly 50 years old, he still looked fit.
He and his wife were pillars of their church community and often hosted gatherings for the church youth.
On Monday, February 10, 2014, the Setzers — and the Parkers — faced a new and shattering tragedy.
I haven’t been near him in years, yet I could imagine Richard in the Gallatin, Tennessee, Walmart, buying what he needed. He moved with purpose and focus, bearded face impassive. He bought a cardboard box, a lamp, an odd assortment of other items.
He went to an office-supply store and purchased a FedEx packing slip.
Richard took everything home. He assembled his creation, and then he put it in a box along with a note and sealed it. He wrote a fake return address on the packing slip.
He carried the box across his yard to the Setzers’ house and put it on their porch.
The note inside the box encouraged the Setzers to plug in the gift, a lamp. A source familiar with the investigation later told me the note promised “a blast from the past.”
The lamp exploded when Jon Setzer plugged it in, killing him. Speaking in court months later, a prosecutor said that one of Richard Parker’s sons was first on the scene and “essentially saw his grandfather on fire.” The same attorney told the court that Richard Parker was holding a gravely wounded Marion Setzer in a swing when police arrived.
Marion lasted a few days. Richard Parker was among those who kept vigil, praying at his mother-in-law’s bedside.
Just after Marion succumbed to her injuries, Richard was arrested and charged with murder.
He eventually pleaded guilty to killing his in-laws with a bomb he’d assembled inside a lamp. He avoided the death penalty by doing so.
Richard’s motivation for the crime was money. He had written a $12,000 check to himself from Jon Setzer and cashed it a few weeks before killing the couple.
Jon Setzer — the father-in-law who had defended Richard against an arson charge because he felt it was unfounded — had died because Richard likely didn’t want to repay the debt. Marion Setzer had perhaps been collateral damage.
Richard Parker will spend the rest of his life in prison.
His mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s a few months after his plea.
Although what Richard did to me was trivial compared to a double murder, it nevertheless marked me, as molestation has marked countless others through the years, many of them men who found themselves unable to talk about the ordeal for fear they’d be seen somehow as less of a man if they did so.
Even before I was a teenager I began wondering about the selves people showed the world and the real selves they kept hidden inside. I wondered if it had been my fault. I easily lost trust in friends, even family, and was constantly suspicious of others’ motives.
What happened in Richard Parker’s closet is sometimes still present for me even today. It’s in the pause between my sweet and trusting youngest daughter asking if she can go to an unfamiliar friend’s house and my ensuing barrage of absurdly suspicious questions. It’s in the hard look I give every male bus driver who brings my youngest son home.
Richard Parker had seemed like a bland, inoffensive kid. That’s what I recall now — his flatness. Nothing had been outwardly threatening about him. It’s now obvious that by 12 he was unconstrained by a conscience and masked it with a boring façade. Later, as a family man, he masked it with earnestness and religion.
When I saw his mug shot on TV that February day in 2014, I felt rage and something else. Not Schadenfreude. Something more complicated, something I have trouble parsing even now. Maybe it was a sense of revelation.
Not long after his arrest something even stranger happened inside me: In a way, I let Richard Parker go. I did not forgive Richard out of a Christian sense of grace. It just no longer made sense to be angry. It was selfish. Richard had revealed his truest self to the world in a savage way and victimized two truly good people. He will die behind bars.
The only thing I could think to do was try to release whatever it was I’d been holding on to all those years.
Someone claiming to be Richard Parker’s oldest son contacted me over social media in 2015, likely having read some personal blog posts I’d written around the time of Richard’s arrest. He told me Richard’s crime shocked everyone, but he’d been a good father — after the arson, before the murders.
I want to believe that. I want to believe he’d mostly kept himself in check.
It’s counterintuitive, but I also want to believe Richard didn’t entirely understand what he did to me when we were boys.
As I’ve thought about it through the years, I’ve wondered if Richard was imitating something someone did to him. I’ve wondered if he’d decided to try and take some control with a younger, weaker boy the way someone had controlled him. To see what it was like to be the predator. To see if he liked it.
If Richard was abused, it’s a part of this I’ll never resolve, a puzzle with too many missing pieces.
Maybe it doesn’t matter.
By the time he was methodically building the bomb that would kill two people, Richard Parker was fully in control. He was his own man.
I wonder if he was accepting this when he pleaded guilty. In news video of Richard in court that day, he was a large, pitiful, wounded animal in jailhouse scrubs. In his quivering voice, it was easy to believe I could hear real emotion.
Pausing the video and examining his eyes, I saw the same eyes from that photo made in my family’s kitchen when I was a baby. I saw the same eyes that studied me that day his boomerang vanished in the shadows. I saw the same eyes facing the camera in Richard’s mug shot.
In those dark, familiar eyes, I didn’t see anything at all.
Steve Huff is the author of DON’T GO TO JAIL: Saul Goodman’s Guide to Keeping the Cuffs Off.