The Sunday edition of the “San Diego Union” on June 4, 1967 related the report from the autopsy of Ricky’s 6 year-old body: "Deputy Coroner R.W. Gillespie said an autopsy of the body showed that the boy died of suffocation. He ordered pathological studies. He said evidence in the refrigerator indicated that the child died inside. Gillespie said marks on his body apparently were caused by his thrashing inside the box.
"Gillespie said the boy may have removed his clothing after finding himself locked inside. Lt. Ed Stevens of the homicide squad said water may have been in the bottom of the refrigerator and could account for the child’s wet clothes.
Stevens said the clothes were lying on the bottom of the refrigerator under the body. He said there was no indication the death was other than accidental, but he was unable to explain why the boy climbed into the box.
"Police spent several hours Friday night examining the scene and dusting the refrigerator for fingerprints, but Stevens said no report on the fingerprints has been made yet.
The Monday edition, on June 5, offered an explanation: "A neighborhood game devised by Clairmont children who locked themselves in an empty refrigerator and then knocked when they wanted to get out caused the death of Ricky Everson, police decided yesterday.
. . ."Detective W. E. Duncan of the police homicide detail questioned neighbor children ranging in age from six to eight and was told the children began playing in the refrigerator last Christmas. The refrigerator racks had been removed.
. . ."Deputy Chief O.S. Roed said, 'When the child in the closed refrigerator wanted out, he or she knocked on the door and the one outside opened it. We assume Ricky, while playing in the backyard and waiting for May Beth Vernon to change clothing, got inside the refrigerator and he may have closed the door in play. Mary Beth in the house heard him call her name, and she answered she would be right out,' Roed said. 'When she went out after a few minutes, Ricky was not in sight in the yard and she looked around, believing he had left and told police she rode her bike around the neighborhood looking for him.'
"Police said the refrigerator door would not swing closed and lock by itself but had to be pushed or pulled closed by a person. . .'Unless something very unusual develops, we will close our investigation and consider the boy’s death accidental,' Roed said.
. . .(The police) "now assume the boy removed his clothes after finding himself locked in and that the water was in the bottom of the refrigerator.
Roed appealed to San Diegans to insure that refrigerators are inaccessible to children. . .if this warning will prevent another child from injury or death, it will have served its purpose.”
So, the verdict by the police was in: Accidental Death—a children’s game gone terribly, terribly wrong. It could have been my little sister, Mary, in that box of death with him, or instead of him. The police blamed the game, but the police got it wrong, because their conclusion implies that it was the children’s fault, somehow. That it was Ricky’s fault, or Mary’s fault, or the fault of any of the unnamed neighborhood children who had played an innocent game. But it was my parent’s fault.
It was my father that had brought that old, used refrigerator into our backyard. It was my mother who caved into the stupid idea of having a patio refrigerator available for parties they never gave. They both failed to see the danger that it posed, so neither one of them took any measures to make it safe from curious little children. Not even their own child, let alone Richard Sidney Everson, Jr.
Within a month, the Eversons sued my parents and the owners of the rental house in civil court. The legal business dragged on for almost two years. According to court records, the trail began on February 3, 1969. The action against the homeowners was dismissed. The defendants’ “motion to reduce their prayer for general damages to $100,000 (from $450,000) was by the Court granted." On February 5, I was sworn in and examined. After a recess at 11:10, my father and mother were examined, and after a recess, Daddy was recalled to the stand. On February 6, the case was handed over to the jury, with 32 pages of instructions to them.
And on February 7th, at 4:23 PM, the jury’s findings came down: 10 “yes” and 2 “no” for Negligent Violation of Section 664 of the Penal Code assessing damages of $30,000 against my parents. Even by today’s standards, it doesn’t seem like much for the loss of their son; they had originally sued for $450,000. But even with some insurance, the assessment was enough to send my teetering parents into bankruptcy within a year of the judgment—at the same time Mama finally left Daddy.
My parents were guilty, but Ricky’s parents were not blameless. Neither were the parents of the neighborhood children. Why didn’t they know where their children were playing and what they were doing there? A locking refrigerator was as dangerous as a loaded gun. Had none of the kids gone home and spoken to them of the “fun” refrigerator game in the Vernon’s back yard?
There was plenty of blame to spread around, but I spread it all on myself. Although only 18, a mere child from my perspective 43 years later, I considered myself an adult, and I had been the last adult to see Ricky alive. I should have known, I should have been more aware, I should. . .I should.
It is “stinky thinking” to “should” on ourselves, but it was what I had grown up doing. Since I was 12, I had assumed the responsibility of being the ”adult” in the family because—as in the case of the refrigerator-- my parents had difficulty in assuming responsibility. They were much better in assessing blame, and it wasn’t at themselves their fingers pointed, even after the trial. Even decades after the tragedy.
On the other hand, I had had a lot of practice of being the family “savior,” so it was not such a huge step to assume the blame and guilt of the tragedy. It did not take me long. One night, toward the end of June 1967, only 3 weeks after Ricky’s death, I resolved to kill myself. I don’t even remember what put me over the brink to make that resolution. Not to die for the sins of my family. Just to die, to rest, to find some peace.
I went out to the garage—the very place that Ricky had found me in his last moments—I stuffed rags and old towels along the bottom of the closed door, got in the family station wagon and put my key in the ignition. In those days, ignitions were very simple affairs. There was no locking this or safety that, just a simple slot on the dashboard. The key slid in easily. I would turn the car on, let it run for a few minutes in the enclosed space, and carbon dioxide would take care of the rest. It was supposed to be just like falling asleep. Aaaah.
I twisted my wrist to turn the key, but the ignition wouldn't budge. I tried again. And again. No go. I couldn’t start the car. Could it have been the hand of God resting upon my hand that was on the key? Could it have been a God- embedded will-to- live that would not allow me to give up on myself? Had an angel come to visit me to offer me a silent glimmer of hope? I believe that now—that just as Mary had had a heavenly visitor offering courage and comfort the night that Ricky died-- I now believe I had my own visitor that night I wanted to end my life. I didn’t feel support. I didn’t feel comfort. But my hand was “stayed.”
I opened the car door, got out, and shut the door. I picked up the rags and towels covering the gap between the garage door and the cement floor. I put them away, turned off the light and went inside. I guess I would just have to go on living.
Will you pray with me?
Our Guardian and Keeper,
You share Your life with Creation and pronounce it “Good.” You speak Goodness through nature and through the human generations. As persons we are often slow to hear, slow to learn what Your Goodness means, but You are our Teacher. And we learn that You have not made us to bear the weight of the world. You instruct us to do what we can and to leave everything else in Your care. We learn that it is You, and You alone, who knows the deepest needs and the buried prayers of our hearts. And it is You who speak s and acts on our behalf, staying our hands in times of trouble and sending us on our way.
I pray today for those who cry to you in their pain and sorrow. I pray for parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers who grieve the loss of a young child. And I pray for those who may be responsible for that loss. I pray for the safety of innocent children playing games where unseen danger lurks. I pray for a call to community in towns and cities where people do not know their neighbors and feel no connection to them. I pray for police officers, detectives, and medical personnel who daily must deal with unspeakable sights and heart-breaking situations.
And I pray for all those who are considering suicide. Stay their hands, O Good Shepherd. Lift them up and set them on a path toward healing. Send messengers and angels to help them learn to love Your gift of life and to claim their rightful place as Your beloved children. Spur people of good will and compassion to reach out to them to speak words of encouragement, forgiveness, and hope.
Teach us how to live as grateful people. Stir us with Your Spirit. Breathe new life into weary bones, so that, like flowers in the sun, we may turn toward Your Eternal Goodness and flourish. Amen.