Solace for an impostor
For all Jerry Joseph's lies, the mother he conned never took back her love
This story appears in the May 14 Money Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
This story appears in the May 14 Money Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
JIMMIE WRIGHT LIVES in a ranch home decorated with lighthouses. Striped ones and solid ones. Ceramic statues and framed prints. There's something about the power of fleeting brightness in a void. Safety and clarity -- lighthouses reminded her. She had been pregnant at 15, kicked out of her house, living with the other lost vessels at a San Antonio home for unwed mothers. A homeless man pushed a shopping cart around the neighborhood. He kept the contents alphabetized, a grasp for order amid chaos. When Jimmie reached seven months, two guys tried to pull her behind a theater. The shopping-cart man saved her. Then he reached into the basket and dug around the L's. There. And he gave a small lighthouse to Jimmie Wright and told her she could always find safe harbor, even if she had to build it herself.
HER NEW SON arrived in the summer of 2009, 15 and grown, carrying everything he owned in a bag. Jerry Joseph would be playing guard on her husband's basketball team. Danny Wright coached at Permian High in Odessa, Texas, home of the real Friday Night Lights; before that, he ran the local Boys & Girls Club. For years he'd welcomed children with no place to go. Jerry was the latest. He seemed happy, but he'd change the subject when asked probing questions. Jimmie, 40, learned what she could. He'd been born in Haiti. His parents were dead. Most of what she knew about Jerry Joseph, which was the name on the birth certificate he carried, came from watching. He poured hot sauce on everything. He slept in a fetal position on the floor of the room they gave him. He arrived hungry, eating everything, scavenging the fridge for nearly rotten leftovers. He kept books on his bedside table, including Talent Is Never Enough and Frankenstein. There was a box inside a bag at the bottom of his closet that she never saw. Hidden in it was a letter from a girl in Florida, a photograph and the passport and Social Security card of someone not named Jerry Joseph.
JIMMIE WORKED TO make him feel at home, with small mother hen acts and with her wide, open face, trained by years as a nurse to radiate comfort. Jerry put on muscle from the endless bowl of their kitchen. She tried to find Haitian recipes. A routine brought some comfort. Jimmie watched Jerry doing his homework on the couch, 6 feet 5 inches of joy, putting the books away to play with his new baby sister. Basketball season began, and he was a star, eventually being named conference newcomer of the year. The kids flocked around him in the halls. He floated above the cliques and the drama. Everyone liked Jerry. The stands were packed when he played. The entire school felt like a family. On Christmas, he cried when they gave him gifts. A week later, after making a miracle shot in a tournament to send Permian into overtime, Jerry returned home to a party for his 16th birthday, the first day of a new year. They bought him a cake and basketball clothes and shoes. He cried then too, and in the pictures they snapped he looked overwhelmed. They'd remembered his birthday. With the Wrights, he'd found safe harbor.
ONE WEEKEND IN that rainy April of 2010, while Jimmie took care of the quilted family they'd assembled off Dixie Boulevard, everything unraveled. Jerry had joined an AAU team after the Permian season and traveled to a tourney in Little Rock, Ark. Midway through a routine trip up the court, the gym doors opened, and in walked players on an AAU team from Fort Lauderdale. They immediately recognized Guerdwich Montimere, the years-ago star from Dillard High. They were laughing, yelling at him, as Jerry Joseph took himself out of the game. After he denied knowing them, the Florida players returned to their hotel and got on Google. They read the lies in an Odessa American story: the fake name, the dead parents, Jimmie and Danny loving him like a son. Calls to Florida spread the word, and almost overnight the old article rocketed back into the top five most viewed on the paper's site. An anonymous tip came in to Permian. They called in Danny, then Jerry, who denied everything. Something about the look on his face hit Danny like a wave. He told Jimmie to go through their son's things.
LONG BEFORE HE ran toward the black pump jacks of West Texas, met Jimmie Wright and moved into her house under an assumed name, Guerdwich Montimere searched for a harbor. The world he left behind had been the opposite of the one he found off Dixie Boulevard. In Fort Lauderdale, his real mother had forgotten his birthday. She didn't come watch him play high school basketball. His twin brother, with mental-health issues, broke out windows in the house and once tried to set it on fire. Guerdwich lived mostly with coaches and mentors. After graduating from high school in 2007, Guerdwich tried and failed at a junior college. He returned to live with his uncle. Basketballs sat in the garage. He didn't want to leave the house. Then, another chance with Iowa Western, which had recruited him out of Dillard. A couple of weeks before school, he called the coaches with news: He had been given a trip to Haiti by his family. The Iowa Western staff watched the Weather Channel as three hurricanes and a tropical storm washed over Haiti. "At that moment," Iowa Western assistant Michael Johnette says, "the kid basically fell off the planet." Five months later, Jerry Joseph arrived in Texas. Jimmie Wright took him in, offering a bedroom and absolution from whatever brought him to her door.
JIMMIE CLUNG TO her son, whatever his real name. She searched for something on the horizon that might make sense of the rogue facts. The police called it a con and arrested him. Jerry made bail. But rumors of additional charges swirled around town. A girl. An underage girl, and with her the time facing Montimere could go from a few years to a few decades. Jerry sat with Jimmie, his head in his hands, denying and pleading. "What if I'm him?" he asked. He read aloud the news but refused to speak the words "Guerdwich" or "Montimere." He'd be reading, then say "his name," then continue. Jimmie wondered if they were, in fact, two people -- or if he thought so. "I'm a nurse," she said. "I'm not sure he hasn't split his personality." The police arrested him again, and he didn't post bail. The girl and her mother had sat down with the district attorney. Serious charges. Jimmie reread texts she exchanged with Jerry before he went to jail. Jimmie: "First, no matter what anyone says or writes, I want you to know I love you. You will always be my son. Please trust me." Jerry: "I do. You're the only mom I know, and I love you. Thank you for never giving up on me."
WHEN DANNY AND Jimmie Wright slipped into the Odessa courtroom for the first hearing that August, Jimmie rubbed her hands on her scrubs. Then one of those hands searched out and found Danny's knee. Her mouth felt dry. She hadn't seen Jerry since he went to jail. "I think somewhere down the line he felt cheated," Danny said. Jimmie's stomach hurt. Groups of prisoners came and went. Tension rolled off Jimmie. "Bless her heart," Danny said of his wife. Jimmie rubbed her own shoulders. Tapped her fingers on Danny's knee. Jerry walked in, taking his seat with the other jumpsuited prisoners. Danny looked at his watch and put his arm around her. The white fans turned slowly. She moved her head back and forth, trying to get a lane to make eye contact. Jerry waved. He mouthed "Hi, Coach," and a smile spread across his face. When the hearing ended, the officers took Jerry away. Jimmie and Danny walked in the glare of the hallway and made plans to visit the jail. "You want to go out there?" she asked. "I'll go out there," he said, "but I don't want to see Jerry."
A RIFT. Danny had struggled not to whip Jerry's ass that long week he was home before he went to jail. When he looked at Guerdwich Montimere, he saw a predator who'd invaded his home and made people call his integrity into question. But Jimmie saw a son to protect. When Jimmie found and phoned up Guerdwich's mom, the apathy she heard in the woman's voice enraged her. The girl who accused Jerry of sexual assault drew her anger too. Jimmie's sardonic laugh cuts deep when she turns it on people attacking her family. She still called him Jerry. She heard the panic in his voice on the phone from jail, and if she didn't answer his calls, he war-dialed, calling over and over again. She searched the Internet for traces of him. There wasn't a single picture she found of Guerdwich on the social media pages of his high school teammates. It's like he didn't exist. Was he in a gang? Was he running? Had be been abused? She clung to anything. More accurately, she swung a bright light around the dark sea.
JIMMIE WASN'T NAIVE. Although Guerdwich conned the family, an entire community, she didn't keep supporting him because she denied the facts gaining strength before her. She supported him because of those facts. That's why she defended him online, took his calls, searched his past. Jimmie had learned a lesson at the place where she once washed up. Her own family members had turned their backs on her. Many people went through crushing trials, and the ones who didn't slip away emerged damaged but survived, often because a stranger reached out. There was something about Guerdwich Montimere she recognized. He needed a home. With a fake birth certificate and a chain of lies, he'd built it for himself.
FIVE DAYS BEFORE his trial, on July 27, 2011, he broke. After holding firm for more than a year, after insisting he was a boy named Jerry Joseph, Guerdwich Montimere, 23, told the court he'd lied. Jimmie never forgot her promise. She sat in the courtroom. Anguish showed on her face as he admitted each charge. His sentence: two more years. "I feel like he was trying to survive the only way he knew how," she told a reporter afterward. "In court, he's still just trying to survive. He's called Jerry, he still goes by Jerry, and he'll always go by Jerry." The news organizations, drawn by the bizarre, ran stories and forgot. Danny Wright washed his hands. Guerdwich Montimere went back to prison. Jimmie Wright sat in her living room of lighthouses and waited for Jerry Joseph to get out. His first chance for parole is May 13.
ESPN The Magazine: May 14, 2012