On “Bad Actors” in Fencing

 

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“We all have a Monster within; the difference is in degree, not in kind.”

-Douglas Preston

Even ten years after “Jason’s” imprisonment, it’s difficult for me to look at his booking photo. Jason is expressionless, his perfectly symmetrical face staring into the camera blankly. His brown eyes are dead, but he raises his cheekbones just enough to harbor the familiar intensity I came to know and cherish both on and off the piste. The aqua blue collar of his jumpsuit sneaks into the top of the photo, setting into reality that it’s not Jason I’m staring at, but a visage belonging to a stranger I barely know now.

“Sentenced to life,” the words read below his booking profile. As I write this, I realize that minutes have passed, and I’m still fixated on his face and the lifelessness it shows as he looks into the camera.

“Sentenced to life…”

I scroll down on the page. “1ST DG MUR/PREMED. OR ATT, Currently Incarcerated.”

I met Jason when I moved down to Florida in the middle of my seventh-grade year. When I first walked into the studio, Jason stood out to me like a sore thumb. He had an animated personality; he spoke loudly and with confidence, and out of his small frame he could project a belly laugh that filled the walls of the salle. Something about Jason immediately helped put my guard down that I had kept up for so long since moving to Florida. He had an infectiously positive demeanor, and as I began to take the fencing rust off, his joyfulness drew me in. Spending hours a week training together, we quickly became friends both inside and outside the salle, going to the mall on weekends and bumming around Tampa.

While Jason’s hardworking and ebullient ways made him a popular figure in the club, Jason had a way with children unlike anything I’ve encountered over the years. He projected unparalleled warmth to them, full of joy in every interaction, commanding their respect and admiration. Jason not only taught youth fencing and beginner classes in the salle, but was a youth pastor at his local church. It was commonplace for Jason to bring members of his youth group in for fencing classes, which we often taught together.

As we would find out over time, Jason wasn’t the choirboy we thought he was. To this day, I wonder what caused him to go from the happy-go-lucky and charming coach he was to now, a convicted murderer spending life in prison without parole. Over time, his corrections in lessons went from encouraging and positive to abusive and physical. I recall a time when two students of his were messing around with foam swords while wearing their swimming goggles, and he erupted at them in a fit of rage telling them to switch to fencing weapons. Without much warning, he stopped showing up at the salle.

The last time I saw Jason was the summer before I went off to college. We met up at the mall for some lunch and a movie, and he showed up in broad daylight, oddly, wearing boxing wraps on his hands. Jason appeared irritated, paranoid, and unsettled throughout the day, and when I asked him why he was wearing the wraps, he simply replied “you should get some too. You never know what’s gonna get you.” After we sat down for the movie, he kept getting up, walking around, inspecting the audience as if he was somehow endangered. It was an awkward end to what had otherwise been a pleasant friendship.

I’ll never forget returning home for winter break my Freshman year. A clubmate approached me and said “did you hear the news about Jason?” Knowing things had soured with him, I braced for the worst; but what I fathomed as the worst was nowhere near the reality of it. “He’s accused of killing a kid from his youth group and is being held without bail.” My heart broke at that moment, and I had to go home.

When we last parted ways, I could tell Jason was in a dark place, but as I began to read the local newspapers, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Jason had been accused of strangling an innocent 13-year old boy to death in a secluded park. When the boy was found, his pants were found down at his ankles, both his face and shirt bloodied. The night of the murder, Jason had emerged from the park, covered in the boy’s blood, wearing white latex gloves, calling for help.

When questioned by the police, Jason had claimed he was out for a jog and found the young boy’s body, but authorities were suspicious as to why he had latex gloves while out for a run. Soon after, Jason was charged with murder in the first degree. Two years after, the murder trial began, and just in ten days, the jury of his peers found him guilty in the boy’s killing. A judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

I’m not entirely sure what lessons I’ve learned from Jason Ramirez. Perhaps, it is that we don’t know those close to us as much as we think we do, what they’re capable of, and that even beneath the skin of someone you trust, there can exist unfathomable malevolence that can surface without warning. Perhaps that malevolence is there all along and you just can’t see it.

With as small a community as Fencing has, we’re often hit with stories like Jason’s, and the Jason’s of the world aren’t always blocked out by SafeSport. Every time USA Fencing sends out an email announcing a new lifetime ban for a bad actor, there’s a good chance you’ve known them for years, shared memories with them, been their friend, or even broke bread with them. The same can be true of their victims, unfortunately.

I’d venture a guess that 99.9% of those in the community are as decent, kind, and as good-natured as advertised. It’s that .1% that surprise in the worst ways possible, exposing their emotional immaturity to prey upon the vulnerable. I write this, not with the intention to frighten, but with the instruction to pay attention, and to have open ears for your teammates, students, children, etc. The idea of the “bad actor” need not be at the forefront of your mind; rather, something to be aware of. May you never encounter one.

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