Keeping Hope Alive

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How does a man's own son become a stranger? Listen to Stephen Rochelle's story from "Strangers" a KCRW Independent Producer Project.


Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT "The Stranger" episode. Today, we're wiping away the mystery from some of the people closest to us. And our next story, it comes from a high school principal, Stephen Rochelle. Stephen always had a clear relationship with his students. But when it came to his own son Matthew, things got complicated.

STEPHEN ROCHELLE: Let me see if I can get a real good picture of Matt. I think - oh, that's the picture I love. That smile and those eyes like his mom's. He is a handsome child. I noticed now looking back, Matt was my clingiest child. He cried easily. And he was the type of child that was a peacemaker. I grew up in a neighborhood in South Central LA where many of the kids didn't have their dads in their homes. And people - they want to be the super basketball player or the football player or the business person. For me, when my children came, I wanted to be super at that. That was my definition of who I was as a person. In the 12th grade is when Matthew's grades started to tank and go down. My wife went up to the school one day to just kind of check and see and they walked around together. And Matt told her that no one at the school liked him. You know, he felt like there were people talking about him all the time. And he even said to my wife, see? They're talking about me now. Those people right there, they don't like me. And that's when she thought, we have a problem here.

We took him to the doctor and the doctor - after a series of tests thought that Matt had what's called a thought disorder - which I took some optimism from because it sounded benign. And my wife, she said do you know Steve, thought disorders are a category? And under that category of thought disorders is schizophrenia. Well, I knew what that meant. And I think that's when I first lost it. I cried - I don't think I've ever cried before. It was that feeling where you cry so hard that you think you're going to throw up. The next thing we knew we got a phone call from the police station saying, do you have a son named Matthew Rochelle? Yeah. Well, he's down at the police station. We found him last night with a gun and he was shooting up in the air. When we came to him, he said he was trying to stop the violence. That it was too much crime and that he was ordained to do something about that. I remember thinking, who is this kid? I don't recognize Matthew. And that's what schizophrenia does. It can in a night, take what you will die for and what you live for and turn it into your worst nightmare.

Not too long after that, Matthew had been arrested once again. The police told us he was charged with breaking and entering. That he was talking about saving somebody named Alicia Keys, who was being raped in a house. And his goal was to save her. So he was in Twin Towers, the county jail in Los Angeles - it's downtown Los Angeles. And he's subject to the taunts, to the fights, to the abuse that takes place between and amongst the inmates and the sheriffs. I'm calling every day. You know, this is Stephen Rochelle. My kid needs to get out of Twin Towers. You know, he needs to be in Patton. It's a facility - a mental health facility for the state of California. I'm writing letters. Do you have a bed? No we don't have a bed. So we're waiting every day. One of the reasons why you have children is this concept of hope. What this illness does is to rob you of that hope.

So you start making deals in your head, where you go from, well, I hope my son will be the next President of the United States - the illness makes your hope go, I hope my son doesn't kill himself or kill somebody. So one day on my way from work, it's about 3 o'clock, I just ordered some Cuban food and I'm reading the newspaper. And I see headlines that says inmate charged with murder at Twin Towers. So whenever I see something like that, I'm like OK, what the heck is that about? And it says, Matthew Rochelle, 21-year-old suspect. And I'm thinking my kid's got killed. I'm freaking out. And I go on to read killed an inmate who was his cell partner. I dropped everything - I had already ordered my food. I grabbed my phone. I'm shaking like a leaf. I jump in the car. I call my wife. I go Nina, Matthew killed somebody in prison. She goes, what? I go he killed somebody. She goes, oh, my gosh Steve, oh, my gosh, Steve, oh, my gosh, Steve, oh, my God. I go, babe, just hold on. I'll be there in a minute. Get home. I gave her the newspaper. She's just in total shock.

Come to find out that another mentally ill man was placed in the jail cell with Matthew - a six-by-nine jail cell. It's supposed to be monitored every 15 minutes. Both of these guys are in there. Neither has medication. They're both delusional. And it appears that they're not being monitored and they get into an altercation. The older man gets killed. The other one gets charged with murder. You know, I'm in education and the one thing about a principle is that everybody wants to tell you how well their child is doing. And so I get letters about whose child got accepted to what college. And I'm always so happy to hear it because some of these success stories are real turnaround stories. The irony is, is that the principal's biggest life struggle is that my visits on the weekend are not to Howard University or Harvard or Yale or Princeton, my visits on the weekend are to Patton State Hospital. This is where my baby is. This is as good as it gets. And so that's the world I live in. There are times that I don't want to go 'cause it can be very depressing sometimes to go to Patton State Hospital and see your kid there.

When I do go, I have experiences where I'm just really sad. And that happened once and he came out to the yard where I was sitting and he goes, you OK? Oh, yeah, I'm all right. I'm just a little sad. He goes, well, don't be sad. I'm OK 'cause you guys send me stuff and I got everything I need. You know, the other people here, they don't have what I have. You know, you were a good dad. You just need to take care of yourself. Are you exercising? Maybe you should exercise a little bit and make sure you're eating right. And it's actually one of the things that I'd hoped for, I think, as a parent. You hope that at some point the tables will turn. That your children will be able because of their experiences to give you support and help you out. And so that moment, when he came out and put his hand on my shoulder, was a kernel of what I had always hoped for.

WASHINGTON: Thanks so much to Stephen Rochelle for opening his heart and sharing his story with SNAP. That piece comes to us from the amazing Lea Thau, who used to run them all, but Lea has recently set out on a new adventure - the "Strangers" podcast. It's produced with support from the KCRW Independent Producer Project, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. We're going to have links on SNAP JUDGMENT or you can catch it on Next up, I wanted a rock 'n roll stranger story, so we sent Julia DeWitt to speak with renowned rock 'n roll singer-songwriter, Damien Jurado.

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