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August 9, 2008
Hugh Thornton carries on in wake of tragedy
The letters arrive each afternoon now, and Hugh Thornton knows they'd make Mom smile.
Ohio State and Illinois one day. Indiana and Michigan State the next. If only he could read them to his mother, Michelle, or his 8-year-old sister, Marley, who were murdered four years ago while Hugh slept in a nearby room in their Jamaican home.
Hugh's father Mark, who split with Michelle in 1995, is aware his son is one of the top football recruits in the country, but they haven't talked much since Hugh fled Boise, Idaho, in March. His five-year stay with his dad was broken up by a pair of stints in foster care.
"My dad hit me," he said.
Hugh, 17, believes nothing like that will happen here, in Oberlin, Ohio, a freckle of a town just outside of Cleveland where he now lives with his aunt Lydia. At 6 feet 4 and 285 pounds, Hugh is already being hailed as the top prospect in the history of Oberlin High School. He's been named team captain without playing a single down.
Still, for Hugh Thornton, the ensuing months are about more than fitting in with a new team at a new school. They're about starting a new life.
"Somehow, some way - despite all that's happened to him - he's still sitting here with every opportunity in the world in front of him," Oberlin coach Dave McFarland said. "It's one of those stories so crazy that it's impossible to make up."
Moments after he saw the image that will haunt him forever, 12-year-old Hugh Thornton said he ran into the kitchen and grabbed a machete.
Throughout the house he crept, stopping at every room and closet, hoping to capture the people who murdered his mother and young sister.
"By then," he said, "they were nowhere to be found."
Hugh awoke that morning - on Jan. 1, 2004 - and went through his normal routine. He walked past his mother's room and noticed the door was cracked open. Michelle liked to sleep late, so he didn't bother going in. Instead, he stepped onto the porch for some fresh air. Seconds later he heard a terrifying scream from his aunt, Rebecca, who had made a gruesome discovery.
Hugh ran inside and saw Marley dead on the floor of his mother's bedroom. He said she'd been suffocated with a pillow.
"She was blue," Hugh said.
Nearby, on a blood-stained mattress, was Hugh's mother. He said she was bound at the hands and feet and that she'd been raped and stabbed multiple times in the middle of the night, bleeding to death before sunrise.
Before he left the room, Hugh stood next to Michelle's body and looked at the woman who raised him, the one who played soccer with him on the beach and cooked the homemade Sloppy Joe's with the fresh-baked bread.
Gently, Hugh said he placed his fingertips on each of Michelle's eyelids and closed them for the final time.
"That morning," Hugh said, "is going to be a part of my life forever."
Losing a mother is traumatic enough, but when Michelle died that morning four years ago, Hugh also lost his best friend.
Michelle was the granddaughter of wealthy Oberlin philanthropists Eric T. and Jane Nord. She vacationed in Jamaica often and loved the laid-back, worry-free lifestyle of its residents. In the summer of 1999, she decided to move there with Hugh and his four sisters – Marley, Sarah, Kathryn and Chelsea.
"The first few months we shared two tents," Hugh said. "Then we built a one-room house and slept on cots. Our porch was our kitchen. We drew our water from a well and there was an outhouse for us to use up the hill.
"She had plenty of money, so it's not like we had to live like that. She just wanted it that way. She never wanted us to get caught up in material things."
Eventually, Michelle moved her family into a bigger home. As Hugh's high school years approached, she insisted that he relocate to Idaho to live with his father. Michelle wanted him to receive a better education than the one he'd be offered in Jamaica and, according to friends, she thought Hugh needed the discipline that only a man could provide.
"He was like any boy that age," said Cherie Buckner-Webb, Hugh's godmother. "He had become a little rebellious, a little hard to control at times. It's not like he was a bad kid. Michelle just thought that living with his father would do him some good."
Hugh moved in with his dad in the fall of his seventh grade year and then went back to Jamaica at Christmas for a visit. He gets choked up when talking about a letter that Marley had written him prior to the holidays.
"She said how excited she was that I was coming home and about how glad she was that I was her big brother," Hugh said. "She had this big smile and freckles. My mom named her after Bob Marley. You can imagine how cute she was."
Hugh stopped for a moment and gulped. Through the years he's gotten better at talking about the murders, but this part still gets him every time. His voice begins to shake.
"She was only 8," Hugh said softly. "She was only 8"
Upon returning to Jamaica, Hugh learned that Michelle, 38, had broken off a relationship with her 32-year-old boyfriend. He responded with a marriage proposal, which she declined.
Hugh's grandmother, Virginia Nord, said it was that man - along with his 19-year-old nephew - who was arrested in connection with Michelle and Marley's murders. He was released, but the 19-year-old went to trial and was found not guilty.
Virginia was present for the court proceedings and said a "tainted semen sample" kept the jury from convicting him.
"He was the only one with keys to certain locks," Hugh said. "People testified that he was planning to do something like that, but he still didn't go to jail."
Gordon Wright of the Jamaica Constabulary Force said the murders are still under investigation. Virginia said she is doing everything in her power to bring the case back to court. But if she can't?
"In the end," Hugh said, "everybody gets what's coming to them."
The morning after his mother and sister were buried in Ohio, Hugh was on a plane back to his father's home in Boise. People kept telling him to move on, but he couldn't. For years, he said he felt tortured inside by the murders.
"I tried to remember the happy days I spent with them," Hugh said. "But there were so many times when I thought, 'Why didn't I change the locks on the house?' or 'Why didn't I wake up and do something to stop it?"
Friends could tell that Hugh, still 12, was inconsolable.
"He was carrying a lot of guilt," Buckner-Webb said. "He thought he should've been able to save his mother."
Making matters worse was Hugh's combative relationship with his father.
Hugh was only 4 when Mark Thornton's legal problems caused him and Michelle to split. At the time, Mark was nearing the end of a 39-month sentence at the Idaho State Correctional Institution.
Court records from the Idaho Department of Corrections show that, between 1984 and 1992, Mark Thornton was charged with three counts of burglary, one count of forgery and one count of delivery of a controlled substance.
"I tried to teach Hugh from my mistakes," he said.
Mark Thornton appeared to have turned his life around when Michelle sent Hugh to live with him in the fall of 2003. He'd become the head pastor at Capital Christian Center in Meridian, Idaho - a position he still holds - and he said he served on the board of Promise Keepers.
Mark Thornton, though, often had difficulty getting his message across to Hugh, who wasn't used to dealing with an authority figure.
"We had never had much of a father-son, relationship," Hugh said. "Now all of a sudden I was living with him. I was used to being the man of the house, and now I had all these strict rules. We just never saw eye-to-eye on things."
Hugh's father had a different take.
"It wasn't that I had a lot of rules," he said. "The problem was that Hugh was used to having no rules. He had always been bigger than everyone, so he could buffalo everyone around.
"You can't hold down a job if you can't listen to authority. Growing up without me - or any kind of a father figure in his life - put him at a disadvantage."
According to records from the Meridian School District provided by Mark Thornton, Hugh was suspended a combined six times during his eighth- and ninth-grade years, often for fighting.
"That was right after my mom died, and I had a short fuse," Hugh said. "It's not like I was going around looking for fights. But if someone came up and said something to me … I didn't think. I just acted."
In February 2006, shortly before the end of his freshman year, Hugh got into an altercation that led to his suspension from the wrestling team. Mark was so upset with Hugh that he spanked him across the buttocks with a belt.
The spanking left a bruise, and Hugh showed it to his guidance counselor. On March 6, 2006, the Department of Health and Welfare removed Hugh from his father's custody. His next six months included stints in two foster homes and a stay at his godmother's house.
Mark Thornton supplied Yahoo! Sports with court records from the Fourth Judicial District of the State of Idaho that include pictures of the welt the belt left on Hugh's buttocks. The records indicated that Hugh would be in "imminent danger" if he continued to live with his father and that such a situation would be "contrary to the welfare of the child."
More than two years later, Mark Thornton said such claims were ridiculous.
"The reason the Department of Health and Welfare stepped in was because they said, 'You can spank your kid, but you can't leave a mark,'" he said. "But how can you spank a kid with a belt and not leave a mark?"
"He's never been hit. He's never been punched. He's never been slapped. I've given him three spankings in his life and we prayed after each one. He had more spankings by his mom than he's had by me. He's never been abused."
With Hugh's blessing, the courts returned Hugh to his father's custody in September of his sophomore year, and he began to excel in sports.
Still, just as he had off of it, Hugh found himself battling adversity on the playing field – and, sometimes, in the locker room.
Mountain View High School, Hugh said, is "90 percent white." He said it wasn't uncommon for some of his classmates to address him with a racial slur.
"I don't even think they were trying to be racist or mean," Hugh said. "They just thought it was funny."
Hugh, though, rarely retaliated with words. Instead, he battled though a knee injury to become one of the most talked-about players in the area by the end of the season. Colleges such as Washington State began to show interest, and Hugh's performance in the weight room - he bench presses 365 pounds, power cleans 300 and squats 440 - certainly enhanced the buzz.
"That was one of the best semesters he ever had in school - all A's and a B," said Mark Thornton, who played football at Boise State in 1984-85. "He started seeing that football could really take him somewhere, and he started to focus."
The following February, Hugh won the state wrestling title in the heavyweight division, elevating his status as one of the truly elite athletes in all of Idaho.
"Everyone loved Hugh," Mountain View wrestling coach Cliff Laughlin said. "He had a good thing going here. It's a shame he couldn't work things out with his father."
Indeed, just when things appeared to be taking an upward swing, Mark Thornton said Hugh's state championship in wrestling "went to his head." His sports seasons were complete, meaning he had plenty of free time on his hands.
Fearing that Hugh was running with a bad crowd, Mark began requesting the license plate numbers and phone numbers of all of Hugh's friends. Arguments ensued and, eventually, Hugh fled the home and took refuge at a friends' house.
Mark Thornton filed Hugh as a runaway, and when he showed up at school the following morning, he was returned to his father.
"He told me that if I wasn't going to live with him, I wasn't going to live anywhere in the state of Idaho," Hugh said. "So here I am, back in Oberlin."
Despite their differences, Mark Thornton said he's confident Hugh will be a success.
"He's a good kid, but he's had a rough patch," he said. "I made every possible attempt to set him up for success. Now it's up to him. We love him. We're still rooting for him. We pray for him every day."
"The bottom line is that Hugh has an image in his head that he'll never get rid of - the image of finding his mother," he said. "He's still got a lot of unresolved anger from her death. Hopefully that's something he can fix."
A voluntary workout has just concluded on a sticky afternoon in July, and now Hugh Thornton stood in the locker room and barked orders at his teammates.
"Everybody up! Everybody up!" shouted Hugh, his voice ping-ponging off the walls.
Players rose to their feet and crammed into a huddle.
"Family on three!" Hugh yelled. "Family on three!"
One, two three … FAMILY!
After five tumultuous years, Hugh hopes that's what he's found in Oberlin. A family. A group of friends and teammates and coaches who will help bring stability to his life for the first time since that dreadful day in 2004 when he found his mother and sister dead.
He knows it won't be easy.
The 2008 season is a less than a month away, and Hugh fears there are players on the Phoenix roster who don't like him. Others, his coach said, might be jealous.
First-year coach McFarland led Oberlin to a 4-5 record during his first season in 2007. The school, which has about 300 students, isn't used to Division I prospects such as Hugh grabbing headlines and attracting recruiters from some of college football's most prestigious programs.
"When he walked through our door a few months ago I thought, 'Oh my!'" McFarland said. "You can take one look at his body and tell that he'll be playing on Saturdays - and maybe Sundays, too. The thing our players will come to realize is that having Hugh here will create opportunities for other people."
Judd Benedick, Hugh's football coach from Idaho, said he won't be surprised by any success Hugh has on the football field. Although Oberlin plans to play him at multiple positions, most schools are recruiting him as an offensive lineman. Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana and Washington State are among the schools that have already offered Thornton a scholarship. McFarland said Ohio State and Notre Dame have also expressed interest.
Thornton is scheduled to take the ACT for the first time this fall, McFarland said.
"The secret is out," Benedick said. "No one is going to overlook him now. There are a lot of big kids out there, but the things that set Hugh apart are his strength and the way he moves. He runs around out there like he's 220 pounds."
He's yet to play a game in a Phoenix uniform, but Hugh's impact is already being felt around Oberlin's program. Summer workouts are voluntary and, in the past, haven't always been well-attended. These days, though, it's not uncommon for Hugh to arrive at a player's home unannounced to coax him off the couch for practice.
During a recent seven-on-seven competition, he chastised his teammates for not paying attention to their coach's instructions. Rather than butt heads with the team's better players, Hugh has done his best to befriend them to show that there's no reason for jealousy or inner turmoil.
Instead of getting into mischief around town, Dorian and Duane Pretlow often spend Friday nights at Hugh's home playing X-Box. Jeff New, one of the Phoenix's top linemen, said Hugh set a positive tone the first day he arrived at school.
"He walked up to me, stuck out his hand and said, 'I hear you're one of the captains. Good to meet you,'" New said. "You can see that he doesn't have a big ego. There may be some people who are still warming up to him, but I don't think there's anyone who doesn't respect him."
Engage Hugh in a conversation and you'll sense a level of depth and maturity that is rare for someone who has just turned 17. Then again, few have experienced as much in life as Hugh, who still maintains contact with his grandmother and other members of the prominent Nord family.
"A few weeks ago I was with them eating caviar and smoked salmon," Hugh said. "I've seen Jamaican wealth and Jamaican poverty. I've experienced racism and tragedy. All of it has made the person I am today."
Every now and then, when he looks at the pictures of his mother and sister that rest on a shelf in his aunt's home, Hugh Thornton begins to cry.
Little Marley is staring back at him with her freckles and red hair, which she wore in dreadlocks. And there's Michelle, the 5-foot-11 beauty who used to take her children to Jamaican resorts on Valentine's Day.
"She was dramatically gorgeous," Michelle's mother, Virginia said. "She was a free spirit who opened her heart up to the whole world."
Hugh prays that one day the person responsible for the deaths is brought to justice but, in the meantime, he's getting on with his life. He talks about his past openly now. Instead of using their murders as an excuse when things are going poorly, he said the best way to honor his mother and sister is to become a success in life - both on the field and off of it.
"I'll always be sad that they're not here," Hugh said. "But the person who did this to them … I forgive him. I'll always be mad at him. But I forgive him. It hurts me to say that. It really does. But I don't want to go through life with bitterness anymore. I don't want to be an angry person. That's not how my mom would've wanted me to live.
"If you're stuck on the past, how can you move forward?"
Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.