Video: A Father's Mission

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 5/25/2009 9:36:26 PM ET 2009-05-26T01:36:26

Paul Crotts knows all about unintended consequences.  He’s been creating them, living with them, trying to un-do them, for decades now.  The story he has so generously allowed us all to explore bristles with consequences and Paul’s mighty effort to control them.

I sat with him in the furniture store he and his father have run for more than 60 years. It’s a rambling, single-story structure, cobbled together from several small old-fashioned buildings and filled with a crazy quilt of the furniture styles on offer from America’s few remaining factories.  I sat there and I looked out the window and across the main square of Graham, N.C., at the looming bulk of the most impressive building in town.  It is the nearly 100-year-old courthouse that has been the battleground and the symbol of so many of those troublesome consequences Paul has been trying to control.  All day, everyday, he must look at that building and wonder what he might have done differently. (That is what found myself thinking, listening to him, looking at the courthouse, sitting there on the arm of a brown leather sofa).

I drove with Paul along curving blacktop through green rolling pastureland to his red brick house in an upscale suburban development.  He showed me an old picture: Paul in his bodybuilding days, all rippling muscles, massive chest.  That chest has sunk a little now.  I sat with him in his living room and looked outside as night fell.   There, in the dark, was the spot (he pointed it out) where the worst imaginable consequence was so narrowly averted.  He must look at that everyday, too. 

I turned left at the end of Paul’s street and drove for a mile through more green hills.  It is truly beautiful here.  Paul pointed across a meadow to a very large and quite old farmhouse, white clapboard, well tended.   A murder-suicide happened there quite recently, he told me.  A respected elderly couple. There had been an illness.  Consequences now rippling through another family, or whole series of families. 

I followed directions, drove a little farther and then turned in through an open gate to Paul’s horse farm.  In the stable I looked at photos of the life Paul has pursued when he is not fully engaged with his own difficult circle of consequences.  In the pictures, he stood proudly with his prize-winning horses, like a man in the prime of a charmed life.

His son was there, Mark. As quiet as Paul is vocal.  A quiet man, eager to please, if I wasn’t mistaken, and eager also to leave all those sad days, those terrifying days, behind.  I sat with him on a rough wooden bench, breathed in the aroma of contented horses, and listened to Mark Crott’s soft-spoken longing for a peaceful life, beyond the reach of legal drama.

A few weeks later, producer Liz Brown and I drove to an all-night restaurant where we sat at a booth in a far corner with the investigator who has worked with Paul, on and off, for many years. He did not come to eat.  He looked at us with wary eyes that seemed to ask: Can you understand what’s going on here?

We visited the new sheriff, a savvy man with an open face and a quick southern humor. We talked of failed investigations, flawed prosecutions, long-sought justice, the relative value of a polygraph.

We learned that in a story of unintended consequences, it’s wise to be careful what you wish for.

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