My first prison interview

The operator from a S.C. jail says, “You have 15 seconds left on this call.”

“Let me call you right back,” the woman tells me.

She’s in jail for attempted armed robbery – since 2013.

My reason for speaking with her – her 19-year-old son was shot dead the month before in Lancaster.

The last time she saw him – 2014.

And she isn’t allowed to go to his funeral.

I sit there and wonder how we got here, wonder why this happened.

I remember two days before, sitting down with another mother whose 17-year-old son was fatally shot.

I think about my grandparents who lost their son – my uncle – when he was just 19 years old. He was stabbed in the back with a knife at a football game.

I wonder – why so young?

Is it jealousy over a girl? Is it anger over who won a game? Is it because a bully’s feeling threatened?

What during teenage years could be horrible enough to kill somebody? Somebody with a whole life ahead of them.

My off-the-record conversations later tell me the truth, and it wasn’t just a silly game.

My goal with every interview I do on the streets and with families after a murder is to find answers, regardless of how bad I annoy the cops and friends and eye-witnesses. I do it because it’s a public safety issue. I do it to inform the public about what’s really going on.

The phone is on speaker. The boy’s grandmother and aunt, who both took care of him after his mother went to jail, sit on the sofa beside me.

The mother mentions her nine children.

But this one – he’s always stood out, she says.

I hold back my tears and finish my last questions: What kind of kid was he? What was he involved in at school? What type of father was he to his little girl?

I let her pause to hold tears back, too, and finish her answers.

And I leave the home with just a little bit of peace, hoping I gave the family some closure.

But I know the hurt will always be there.

 

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

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Here come the Americans

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We walk down a side street in Lastra a Signa, a small town outside of Florence, Italy, and my father asks me, “Why is everyone staring at us?”

“It’s your New Balance tennis shoes,” I tease him. The Italians – especially the Italian men – wear leather loafers.

Or maybe some know we’re American because we drive down a one-way street into oncoming traffic minutes after we get our rental car. We’re fine – more importantly the rental car’s fine. We now know a red circular sign with a horizontal white line means “one way.”

A 12-day family trip to Florence, Italy teaches us we stick out like sore thumbs in some cities around the Tuscan area. It’s mostly in the places where the locals frequent and Americans don’t venture – but that’s why we choose to visit those places.

Though we don’t have much to offer the Florentines, they have so much to offer us – architecture, history, art, leather, food.

The Italians are welcoming when we arrive in a new place. They’re patient when we can’t understand the language. And helpful when we can’t find the grocery store – and by helpful, they get in their cars and tell us to follow them to the store just to show us themselves.

 

The first authentic meal

I sit in a restaurant ready for my first real Italian meal.

The menu is, of course, in Italian. So my mother, sister and I go for the safe bet – pizza. My brother and father go for the pasta and risotto, not completely sure what will be in the dishes.

The waiter gives me a weird look when I only order one dish. But I ignore the look – I know there’s no way my 120-pound body could eat a normal four-course Italian supper all by myself.

The pizzas arrive about 10 minutes later. One by one the waiter puts them on the table.

It all looks appetizing except for one – my mother’s pizza.

She looks at it with eyeballs almost as big as the eyeballs on the full-sized, unpeeled prawns on top.

She hates seafood.

And she really hates those eyeballs looking back at her.

I quickly tell her to switch pizzas with me – I can tell from her almost-green face she wouldn’t be able to stomach it.

We finally get the hang of ordering after the next few meals.

And we learn what’s proper when it comes to food and drinks – like the chefs don’t cut your pizza for you, but they do cut your steak into strips. Like it’s not polite to ask for cream in your coffee after noon. Like the Italians eat their salads after their main course, not before like we do – it’s to help with digestion, apparently.

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Winery tours

A handful of wood barrels big enough for all five of us to fit inside surround me in a wine cellar at Castello di Verrazzano, an elegant vineyard with a castle and hectares of land that have produced wine for a very long time.

Our tour guide explains the contraption at the top – which looks like an old oil lamp. It’s a colmatori, and it lets air leave the barrel without any getting back inside.

It lets air leave the barrel without any getting back inside.

As the tour ends, our guide leads us to a nice dining room overlooking the fields of olives and grapes.

In front of me sits a line of four wine glasses – all for me. That’s when I start to wonder if we’ll make it to the next winery tour.

Several waiters come around and fill our glasses up with rosé – a light red wine with some grapes skins – and three other darker red wines, from a bold, smoky taste to a smoother taste.

We are told to drink the wines from right to left and pair each with certain cheeses, cured meats and the most delicious, sweet balsamic vinegar.

By the end, we’re full. We hop into our rental car. And drive to another city outside of Florence for our next tour.

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A walk around Florence

I keep my bag close as we walk around Florence.

The gypsies are like everyone else – they know we’re American and probably have lots of euros in our pockets.

The city’s small and easy to navigate.

The Piazza della Signoria, or the main square, sits right in the middle of Florence.

Hidden in alley ways and on street corners are gelato shops and coffee bars.

Each flavor of gelato is shaped like a mound sitting in an aluminum container with swirling designs on top.

I pick stracciatella – vanilla ice cream with warm chocolate drizzled over that hardens.

There are several palaces were the money-making, business-minded families lived during the end of the medieval time and into the Renaissance period.

My favorite one – the Medici palace. It’s known to the Florentines as Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

A stone-like bench surrounds the home. It’s where artists and businessmen sat and waited to meet inside to talk business.

The “front doors” of these palaces are at least 15 feet in the air – so the enemies couldn’t enter. A ladder would draw down for the family and friends to enter and exit.

Our tour guide tells us about the women, who were rarely allowed to leave the homes because of all the disease and filth people would just throw in the streets.

Instead, the women would dye their hair and sit in the sun on the terrace. Their idea of hair dye – urine. Yes, urine.

It was all about pale skin and light colored hair.

For make-up, women used white lead, which hardened on their faces. That’s where we get the term, “Cracking up laughing.”

 

Birth of Venus, David bring tears

I see it in the next room and immediately leave our tour group.

I stand on the second floor of the Uffizi Gallery, look at Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” painting right in front of me – a painting I studied three years ago in art history. It’s roughly 5 ½ by 9 feet.

Almost breathless, I stare at the beautiful colors – the strawberry blonde of Venus’ hair, the blue and green ocean, the pink of the robe her handmaiden holds.

It’s a feeling I can’t describe – I knew what it looked like in a textbook, but not in real life.

A few blocks down, I round a corner in the Galleria dell’Accademia.

And there he stands over 16 feet tall – David.

His detailed marble body brings tears to my eyes. He’s a miracle by Michelangelo.

With a slingshot over his shoulder and braveness in his eyes, he’s about to take on Goliath.

I stand there and think – if I lived here, there’s no way I’d take advantage of the oldness or history or art or food.

About 48 hours later, I’m stuffed in seat 37B for the 11-hour flight home – a flight I spent remembering all the beauty I’ve shared with my family.

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Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

Don’t blame the victim who was manipulated

I’m finishing my makeup, staring in the mirror on the back of my dorm room door when I hear him on the other side – hear him growling my name, ordering me to let him in.

He’s angry – angry because I’m going out with my girlfriends after he ordered me not to.

And like a dummy, I crack the door. He’s yelling at me and cussing. And I just stand there, begging him to go away, to leave me alone.

He rams the door open, slings me across the room.

He’s twice my size, but I finally force him out.

That’s when I realize I’m in a toxic relationship. One I need to get out of. One I’d later learn the justice system would say there wasn’t enough proof to do anything about.

I stand there wondering what had just happened. It was the second time in two weeks he’d physically hurt me.

I stand there wondering why someone would hurt me who says he loves me.

I decide I can’t be silent about it anymore.

The week

All of my hall mates and my roommate are away for the weekend. I lock myself in my room. And I fear I’ll hear him knock at any point.

I have a meeting with my resident assistant soon in Starbucks. Where I’d tell her everything that happened. Where I’d start the process of getting him moved from being four floors above me. Where I’d take the next step to safety, to helping myself get away, to heal.

A week goes by – the week of hell.

A meeting with the dean.

I’m excused from several classes.

The police tell me there’s nothing they can do. My bruises had gone away, there was no proof, they said.

I was walking into spring break, thankfully. A much needed break.

But the break didn’t prepare me for what would come next.

Along with my emotional scars, I’d later be blamed for the toxic relationship I’d gotten away from.

I’d soon hear:

“She was the one who started it all.”

“She was the one who beat him up.”

“It’s her fault.”

I’m strong

I sit in a counselor’s office on campus.

I’d finally gotten away.

He couldn’t hurt me anymore.

I tell her how I fought back. How I tried to get away when he was sling me around, stepping on my feet, pushing me to the ground. How I kicked him with all I had between the legs when he blocked me from getting away.

I realize I’m strong. I realize it’s not my fault he hurt me. I realize he manipulated me into thinking he wouldn’t do it again- that’s why I went back.

I realize he blamed me. He said it was my fault.

I realize I’m the victim. He’s the perpetrator.

It’s a cycle

He or she hits you for the first time and you’re in shock.

Then it’s the I-won’t-do-it-agains. They’re so sorry, they were just angry. They manipulate you into thinking it won’t happen again.

Things are better – or so you think.

Then it happens, again. And you go though the I’m-so-sorry nonsense, again.

Some people get out of the cycle early. Others get wrapped into so many cycles they can’t just leave.

Just leave

The most dangerous time for a victim in this situation is when he or she leaves.

Why? Retaliation – the worst you can imagine. The angriest the perpetrator has been.

Why? Because their victims have left them – they aren’t in control anymore.

It doesn’t help to say, “Why don’t you just leave?”

It doesn’t help to say, “You should’ve left sooner. It wouldn’t have gotten this bad if you had just left.”

It doesn’t help to say, “It’s your fault. You let it continue to happen.”

It’s not that easy to leave. It’s always bad, no matter how many cycles. It’s not the victim’s fault for being wrapped into multiple manipulated cycles.

People who have close ones going through this – don’t abandon them or blame them; provide a safe place for them.

People who are going through this – you are strong; you can get out of it.

 

Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

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An armed robbery & no crunchwrap

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I’m packing to go home for the weekend when I get a text.

9:38 p.m. – “Are you dressed? Taco Bell just got held up.”

I respond the same minute I receive the text.

9:38 p.m. – “Yes. I’m going now.”

I’d just cracked open a this-will-help-you-pack beer.

I race to find my keys instead of taking the first sip. I clip on my press badge, slide on my shoes, change my camera lens.

Out the door and down the road I go.

A red light catches me when I’m almost there. The blue lights I see under the Taco Bell sign make me feel like a NASCAR driver at the starting line.

The light turns green and I hit it.

Without looking, I turn on my camera that’s sitting in my lap. Park the car. Jump out.

I’m greeted – well not really – by a cop who says he can’t talk to me.

It’s something I already know.

I’m just there for the photos. I’ll pull the police report in the morning and call the chief on his cell, thank you.

I walk over to the crowd standing, looking into the restaurant.

I learn I know the guy who works there and who the suspect held a gun to.

I see the fear in his eyes, even though he looks like a tough guy.

Cops bring out the Bloodhound and pull out their big guns. They take off into the woods.

And I laugh to myself because it’s an hour after the robbery – I could bet a couple tacos the suspect is long gone.

I speak to witnesses. And see a car full of people be turned away by a cop who says, “Are you kidding me?” when they approach the drive thru.

At that point I know my exciting night won’t end with a crunchwrap supreme.

So I walk back to my car and drive home. My adrenaline is still rushing and I realize how thankful I am for my what-will-happen-next job.

 

Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter and Instagram @HannahLStrong

My little place downtown

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At first glance it looks seamless.

Shiny, original hardwood floors. New appliances. Neutral color décor. Clean beige walls.

Then you start looking.

The 1940s-built place has cracks. Layers of paint are pealing – some layers that are probably made of lead paint.

You watch your step on the front porch, since each step is a different height.

Doors and drawers don’t close completely, thanks to the layers of paint.

The walls are plaster, not sheetrock – they’d survive a punch, but a fist sure wouldn’t.

It’s a home with many flaws.

But it’s home, nonetheless.

A one bedroom, cozy, I-can’t-wait-to-relax there home.

A wine-sipping call to the back porch, looking out to nature.

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It’s a safe haven from the madness surrounding it. Like the ambulances that pass by daily. Or the crazy neighbor who chases and cusses at her dog when it gets away. And I can’t forget the old man from across the street who asked me on a date to the Shrine Club.

It was a fun time – just kidding.

It’s my first place, my first home.

Sometimes I like for it to look like nobody lives there, like a magazine.

Other times I’m fine with a mess.

It’s where I planted the roots to my career.

It’s where I cook my Grandma Reba’s pound cakes.

One of the best things about it – rent is cheaper than an Apple Watch Series 2.

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A stench, a scalpel & an eyeball

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Some sort of sea animal stench smacks me in the face when I walk through the door at Buford Elementary. I know what I’m getting into when I decide to film it.

The smell gets stronger the closer I get to the classroom – the classroom with dead, two-foot-long dogfish sharks on the table.

I don’t think I can make it through the lesson these fourth graders are about to have – dissecting sharks.

Some students stand there wide-eyed. Some look like they’re about to be sick to their stomachs. Some just hold their noses.

I want to hold my nose, too.

I stand there unsure how to feel about dead sharks lying on newspapers with my byline.

The teacher explains how to use the two tools – scissors and a scalpel – sitting in aluminum pie pans on the center of each table.

That’s when the kids are ready to dig in.

And boy, some of them start hacking away as they make the I-shaped cut on the stomachs of their sharks.

Some smells go away after a few minutes of getting used to. This smell isn’t one of them. A mix of formalin and dead fish to be exact.

The teacher finally opens one of the classroom doors that leads outside. So, obviously, that’s where I duck out to fill my lungs.

I learn the liver is the largest organ in the shark, which they pull out in one piece with the gallbladder attached. I also learn what it looks like when a kid dangles shark liver in front of my camera.

Then, it’s time for “free cuts.”

If they weren’t hacking the sharks up before, they definitely are now.

The eyeballs and brains come out during free cuts.

And when one student pops a shark’s eyeball out, sending it soaring through the air and rolling between my feet, I know it’s time to go.

Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

Elementary schoolers run the interview

I park in the fire lane and pull out my equipment. There’s no rush for this story, but I’m always in a rush.

I walk into an elementary school – the kind of school I frequent to film my infamous Facebook videos.

Hauling in my posse – tripod, camera, microphone and notes – I check in at the front and get directions to the classroom.

Second grade. The grade of what-will-they-say-next.

Today’s topic is finishing well-known idioms and Shakespeare quotes.

I knock on the classroom door and am greeted by a student. The rest are doing recess inside, which is dancing to a song and someone leading the dance on the SmartBoard.

“She’s here,” one whispers.

“Are you a newspaper reporter,” one asks. “I’m Rosie, it’s very nice to meet you.”

“I want to be a newspaper reporter when I grow up,” another one says.

I take five of them in the hall. Put chairs in a circle. And place the tripod with the camera on top of it in the middle of the circle.

I begin holding the microphone to my face saying the first part of a sentence. Then pointing the microphone to get their creative endings.

“Where there’s smoke…” I said.

“…there’s ice cream,” one student said.

I went around the circle. They were calm.

But then, they took over the interview.

“Can I push the button?”

“Can I hold the mic?”

“I want to ask a question!”

Having gathered enough for my story, I let them take over.

The interviewee they chose – me.

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Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong