Thursday, April 04, 2002

Death row tale

Jillian's side of the story

        I'd heard that she had an interesting story. A sad story. One she was eager to tell because she was still angry.

        Jillian Hansert answered the door of her Colerain Township apartment with an exceptionally cute newborn baby tucked in the crook of one arm. Sarah, she says, born March 22. Jillian rubs her finger absently through the infant's abundant dark hair. The baby looks like her mother, she says.

        Mothers and daughters. That's what Jillian wants to talk about.

        A year ago, in a business law class at Colerain High School, Jillian was watching a taped TV show about women on California's death row. As Joan Lunden interviewed Kerry Lyn Dalton, Jillian realized she was listening to the woman who murdered her mother. “It made me feel kind of sick,” she says.

        A perfectly understandable reaction.

        Before she died in 1988, Irene Louise May was beaten, stabbed, injected with battery acid and tortured with electric shocks. Jillian knew these things, having read news accounts. But she had never seen the woman convicted of the murder.

        “Then I had to listen to her talk about how tough it was for her to be in prison,” Jillian says. “She said her children don't come to see her. At least, that's their choice. I have no choice. She took that away from me.”

        It made her angry, she says, that the woman had a national audience for her complaints. “They never asked me how I felt.”

Bad memories

        Jillian was only 5 when her mother was killed. Her memories are not good. Addicted to drugs, Irene May often left Jillian and her two younger brothers to fend for themselves. “We'd be in the bedroom, kind of hiding, and I'd try to take care of them,” she says.

        It's hard, she says, to separate “what I really remember from what I've been told over and over.” She believes she sometimes begged for food. But she knows that she did her best to take care of her little brothers.

        “My mother loved us,” she says. “She was trying to stay clean.” She has seen records from San Diego social services. The children had been removed from their home, but their mother was trying to get them back. “She never got the chance to be a better person.”

        Jillian was adopted two weeks before her seventh birthday. “They wouldn't let me be adopted with my brothers,” she says. “Because all I wanted to do was to take care of them. I thought that was my job.”

        At age 5.

        Now, here comes the good part. Her adoptive parents are Steve and Cinda Gorman, co-pastors of Westwood First Presbyterian Church. “I came with a lot of baggage,” Jillian says, “but I'm proud of who I became. And I love the family I have now.” This includes her husband, Charlie, a mechanic.

        As we talk, Sarah fusses a little, and Jillian soothes her. Competently. Kindly. A good mom, I am thinking.

        Child neglect, drugs, murder. A tiny girl hiding with her brothers, thinking they were her responsibility. Then taking on real responsibility as an adult.

        Proud of who she became.

        Writing her own ending to the story.

        E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393. She can be heard at noon Fridays on WVXU radio (91.7 FM).


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