Thursday, December 29, 2005

Twelve years ago today

This time of the year is always a down time for newspapers and television stations, which makes it a perfect time for year-end retrospectives, top 10 lists, and interminable cutesy features on New Year's resolutions.
It was less than a month after I became managing editor of The Carthage Press in 1993 that this time of the year rolled around. I would have given anything if I could have put those kinds of stories in the newspaper.
We received word 12 years ago today that an eight-year-old second grader from Hawthorne Elementary was missing. The search was on for Douglas Ryan Ringler. Flyers were distributed; the Carthage Police Department did not leave a stone unturned. From the beginning, no one thought the story was going to have a happy ending.
On Jan. 2, 1994, Doug Ringler's burned body was found in a field near Fort Scott. He had been sexually abused, and then murdered. The Monday, Jan. 3, Press featured five page-one stories; most of them done in an effort to help the community get through something it had not faced at any time in recent memory.
Randee Kaiser and I shared the byline on the story about the discovery of the body. Randee's byline was also featured on an interview with John Godfrey, clinical director of Family Preservation Services at the Ozark Center in Joplin about how to tell children about something like this.
I wrote two other articles, one on the reaction of Hawthorne students to the death and another interviewing parents on how they were handling the news. The final article was the statement given by the boy's mother, Norma Ringler.
Ron Graber and I covered Doug's funeral at the BYKOTA Church later that week. I sat in a back row at the church, which was overflowing with more than 500 showing to pay their respects.
The church's minister Michael Banes said, "Though his years were short, we all know that Doug enjoyed life to the fullest. We will miss Doug very much. We will miss his smile and the bubbly joy that his presence brought, but our hope rests in the assurance that we will see him again."
More than 100 balloons had been placed around a photo of Doug...the same photo of a smiling second grader that had been seen in The Press and in the flyers as the search was conducted.
Some of the balloons were taken to Park Cemetery where they were buffeted about by a strong breeze before being released at the conclusion of the service.
The man who was arrested for Doug's murder was Terry Cupp, a family friend, who was a target of the investigation from the beginning after giving suspicious statements to the police.
Though Cupp made a statement to the police describing in detail what he had done, preparations were made for him to go to trial and Jasper County officials planned to seek the death penalty.
Norma Ringler stopped by The Press office on May 17, 1995, and told me that she had been contacted about how she would feel about a plea bargain for Terry Cupp, which would enable him to escape the death penalty. "This is the best thing," she told me. "Not just for my family, but for the entire community."
A trial would have been a nightmare, she said. "If Terry had received the death penalty, we would have to go through years and years of appeals. That would have been real hard."
But the thing that worried Norma Ringler the most was the evidence that would have been presented at the trial. "I didn't want to see the pictures of my Doug. I heard they were very gruesome.
"I wanted to remember Doug the way he was the last time I saw him. He was a happy little boy, so happy and so excited about life."
Mrs. Ringler's voice was barely above a whisper as she told me she often wondered how anyone could commit such a horrible crime. "How can there be any explanation for it?"
Vengeance, she said, would do no one any good. With the plea bargain, she added, "we can finally put Doug to rest."
Even though he was the one who pleaded guilty, Terry Cupp still made two efforts to have his sentence overturned, both of which were rejected by the Missouri Southern District Court of Appeals.
I had not planned to write about Doug Ringler's murder again. This is not a five-year anniversary or a 10-year anniversary of the murder, one of those artificial dates that news media use to bring back major stories of the past.
Then I received an e-mail earlier tonight from Chris Gentry, thanking me for remembering his younger brother.
"It has been 12 years today since his death, and he is missed everyday," Chris wrote. "It is pretty cool that other people still haven't forgotten about him and what had happened to him on this tragic Day in '93. I guess I just wanted to say thank you."
I remember former Carthage Police Chief Ed Ellefsen talking about how the murder of Doug Ringler took away the city's innocence."
Innocence was always the word that was associated with Doug. On May 20, 1994, Hawthorne Elementary School paid tribute to Doug Ringler with a ceremony dedicating a bench inscribed with his name. The bench was placed under a tree, where it was surrounded by rosebushes and chrysanthemums. "Doug's Place," they called it.
A few years later, Hawthorne Elementary closed its doors forever and school officials debated what to do with Doug's bench. At first, they thought about moving it to Columbian Elementary where Doug would have gone had he lived, then at his mother's request, and with the cooperation of the Carthage Public Library Board, the memorial was moved to the E. L. Dale Memorial Library Gardens, where it sits today only a few feet away from Carthage artist Bill Snow's Alice in Wonderland statue in an area designed for children.
Doug's Place was moved where it would always be surrounded with children, so that Doug Ringler, forever eight years old, will never be forgotten.


Anonymous said...

Randy, what a touching story. It seems impossible that it has been 12 years since Doug's disappearance. Too many times we forget about tragedies such as this, and the families that are involved. I'll be sure to say a special prayer for this family. Thanks for sharing this story with us.

Anonymous said...

Randy I was want to thank you for all you did for us during those trying years. It really is hard to believe that it has been 12 years since Doug's death. I have moved to Minnesota now, but often think of the many friends that I made during that time. Your writing has always been the very best. Again Thank You for your caring coverage of my son's death.
Doug will enjoy meeting you one day in the future.
Norma Ringler