On a bright autumn morning, a man drives into the wilderness of the Utah mountains. As he arrives, the sun glows, the clouds float, the aspens glimmer in a passing breeze, “humming a faint prayer.” In the front seat of his pickup, the man’s toddler son dozes happily in the warm light.
A golden moment, you might think, in which nothing can go wrong. Or, in the tradition of classic literature, a sucker-punch moment after which all will go wrong. And in Barry Siegel’s 2002 Pulitzer-Prize winning piece for the Los Angeles Times, “A Father’s Pain, A Judge’s Duty and a Justice Beyond Their Reach,” everything does go wrong.
This is not, though, a tale of the Fates idly spinning out mortal threads. Siegel’s story is one of human decisions and their consequences. It is, in fact, the story of a single choice that ripples, stone into water, into a widening circle of lives. And it’s within that ever-expanding circle that this story of a local tragedy – the too-familiar tale of a careless moment and a dead child – becomes something bigger.
I’ll confess that as the mother of two sons, this is not the kind of story that I necessarily look to read. But I’ve come back to it repeatedly, partly because it’s so compelling, partly to figure out what makes it so compelling. I especially admire the way Siegel structures his narrative. He doesn’t follow people as much as he follows decisions, and the consequences of those decisions continue to unfold until the very last line of the story.
Siegel makes his vision of the story clear from the start, beginning not in that humming moment in the wilderness but later in the chambers of the presiding judge in the case of little Gage Wayment. The judge is waiting for the father, Paul Wayment, to begin a brief jail sentence. And as he waits, as the day lengthens, Judge Robert Hilder begins to worry about Wayment.
He’d sentenced Wayment to jail even though the prosecutor didn’t want this distraught father to serve time. Hilder felt he had to. Wayment’s negligence caused his young son’s death. There must be consequences, the judge ruled.
The story moves forward, exploring the reasoning behind decisions, from police to prosecutor to judge. As it does so, a haunting question emerges: What defines the limits on our ability to live with consequences, to bear up under the results of the choices we make?
“The first choice, though,” as Siegel notes, “had been Paul Wayment’s.” As 2-year-old Gage slept in the truck on that shining morning, a trio of deer drifted past into the forest. Wayment decided to follow them, just for a little bit. And then another a little bit. By all accounts, he then lost track of time. It was one or two miles later when he realized how long he’d been gone. When he hurried back to the truck, Gage was gone, apparently off looking for his father.
It took five days to find the child, and in that time period an autumn squall swept through the mountains, leaving almost half a foot of snow behind it. When a searcher found the little boy huddled under the scant shelter of a tree, he was long dead. His father had anticipated it, feared it from the moment he reported Gage missing:
“I’m responsible for his death if he is dead,” Wayment said. “I’m responsible for his death. I don’t think you can put it any other way … I had custody of him. I was supposed to look out for him. He was under my care.”
Siegel places that story, the judge’s story, the story of the criminal investigation, the decision of the prosecutor to charge the grief-stricken father, and the community uproar surrounding the death all within the suspended time period in which Judge Hilder waits for news of Wayment. There’s an astonishingly good section in which the members of the prosecutor’s office debate whether charges should be filed at all – what could be worse punishment, after all, than the death of a beloved child? When they decide to move forward, it’s with resignation: “If they didn’t, they’d be saying it was OK, or at least not criminal, to leave children alone in a remote area.”
By this point, Siegel has clearly established Hilder as the narrative focus for the story. He’s told the judge’s life story, built a thoughtful portrait of the man who must decide the unhappy father’s future. He’s also used the judge’s story as something of a narrative device: Hilder expects the Wayment case to come to him, dreads it, follows it, and as he does, so do we. Eventually, inevitably, the story reaches the point where Hilder learns of Wayment’s fate.
What I love about this story is that it’s an entirely compassionate look at a world, our world, in which decisions – careless decisions, carefully thought-out decisions – can and do go wrong. Wayment is never anything less than a father who loves his child. Hilder is never anything but a judge trying to make the best decision possible in the midst of a genuine tragedy. Both of them are forced to live with terrible consequences.
In the end, this is a story that looks for resolution. Hilder tries again to make the best possible decision, not just to live with his choice but also to learn from it. “It’s not a bad thing,” he says, “to have Paul Wayment’s face forever part of my life.”
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”
For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, check out the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.