The face in the photo that suddenly appeared on her TV had been obscured, but 23-year-old Williette Famolu of Milwaukee knew right away that it was her murdered son.
“This 2-year-old spent six days in intensive care after being severely beaten,” said the voiceover. “But Tom Barrett’s police department didn’t consider it a violent crime.”
Even if Famolu were not a political science major in college, she would have known that Tom Barrett is the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee who was seeking to unseat Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election the whole nation was following. The initial shock of seeing the photo was joined by outrage as she realized that her late son, Karmari Curtis, was being used in a Walker campaign ad.
“The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that hundreds of beatings, stabbings and child abuse cases were never even counted ... Violent crime in Milwaukee is up and Tom Barrett isn’t telling the truth.”
Numerous observers would later suggest that the Walker campaign was not exactly telling the truth in suggesting that Barrett was responsible for apparent crime-stat juggling by the cops. But what stunned Famolu was that her son was being used at all.
“That they would actually show his picture,” she says. “I ran down the stairs telling all my family, ‘Turn on Channel 12, turn on Channel 12!!’ but the commercial was already off,” she recalls.
In just a few seconds, the commercial had triggered a flood of memories for Famolu about that horrific time two years ago when a boyfriend who had once been hailed by all of Milwaukee as an inner-city success story had beaten Karmari to death.
“Just a big rush of them, just kind of feeling overwhelmed, feeling like, ‘Oh, here we go again,’” Famolu says.
The trial and the ordeal of testifying had ended in March with the conviction of 27-year-old Corey Benson of first-degree intentional murder, and Famolu had only just begun to regain some of her equilibrium and fully realize that Karmari would never again be there to welcome her home as the magic reward in the daunting life of a young single mother working full time and going to school. She felt as if she had been knocked back to that searing day when she was summoned to the hospital and beheld her toddler on gurney, battered to death by her boyfriend.
“I really didn’t sleep at all that night.” She recalled. “I’m trying to live again. I’m trying to get used to him not being here.”
After the ad came the Wisconsin gubernatorial debate. Her sister’s fiancé, a close follower of electoral politics, watched it live, telling her that the candidates had argued over the campaign commercial. She was watching a rebroadcast with her father when Barrett brought up the attack ad.
“He’s running a commercial right now that shows a dead baby,” Barrett said. “It shows a picture of a dead baby. This is Willie Horton stuff. That baby died.”
But Barrett did not so much object to the use of a dead child as to what the ad said about him. “You’re running a commercial attacking my integrity, claiming that I had something to do with this, and you know that’s false,” an indignant Barrett continued. “You tell me whether you think I had anything to do with that.”
Walker sputtered, “No, I’m asking you….”
A righteous Barrett said, “I’ll tell you right now, I had nothing to do with that. You should be ashamed of that commercial, Scott Walker.”
Hearing all this on the TV, Famolu’s father went quiet and disappeared into his room. Famolu sat in a kind of psychic freefall, feeling at once the full weight of her grief and the ghostly sense that she did not even exist to these men who were debating before the cameras about her Karmari.
“I didn’t think they even considered if I would be watching the show, how I would feel, what memories would come back,” she says. “After seeing them talking about him, it’s like I’m really not here.”
At the same time, the stark and strident talk of her son being dead hammered into her what the core of her had such difficulty accepting, the still unimaginable fact that her 2-year-old was gone forever.
“It just made me realize he’s not here,” he said. “I don’t want them to be talking about that.”
She heard a radio version of the ad while she was making an appointment at a chiropractor’s office.
“The lady looks at me,” Famolu says. “I can’t escape from it.”
Nearly two years had passed since that day in August 2010, when Corey Benson walked into the Walgreen’s Drug Store in Milwaukee, where Famolu was working six days a week as a pharmacy technician. He was a kind of local celebrity, once featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a child of the inner city who had been 2 when his father was murdered and had been in and out of foster care as his single mother struggled to raise him and his five siblings, and had been homeless in his senior year at Washington High School—yet somehow managed not only to become the first in his immediate family to get a diploma, but to graduate as valedictorian and win a full scholarship to Purdue University. The Journal Sentinel had run a follow-up feature on him as a college freshman.
The initial shock of seeing the photo was joined by outrage as she realized that her late son was being used in a campaign ad.
“How does it feel to live with a star?” he was quoted half-jokingly telling his roommate.
Benson had graduated with a degree in accounting; and if post-college life had not gone as smoothly as he might have hoped, he himself was so smooth as to entrance Famolu. He was well spoken and well dressed, a widely lauded striver right out of a striving 21-year-old single mother’s dreams.
“It did seem like he was Prince Charming,” she says. “Then after a while you got to see how manipulative he really was.”
But as they began dating, he seemed only more heaven-sent. He began picking up Karmari at the Bright Beginnings Day Children’s Center when she was working.
“It is rare for a man to pick up a child, as most want nothing to do with it,” a detective would later report one of the daycare workers saying.
On October 25, 2010, Famolu was working a 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. shift and Benson seemed to be all the more an ideal guy as he came by during a break to get a grocery list so they could make dinner together later. He agreed to pick up Karmari at daycare, and the child was in a car seat in the back of his auto when he came to get her after work. She then noticed that Karmari seemed uncharacteristically lethargic.
“Famolu asked what was wrong with her son because he didn’t seem like himself,” according to an account in the police report that would later appear along with the boy’s picture in the campaign ad. “Benson stated that he must be exhausted because they were playing. The victim was mumbling.... When they arrived at the apartment, Famolu carried Karmari inside. He seemed very limp to her. As she carried him, he kept trying to move and was making noise. She thought that he wanted to be carried a different way, so she carried him on his side. Again his body seemed very limp.”
“Once they got inside, Karmari looked pale and his lips looked darker than normal to her,” the account continued. “She went to change his diaper. Karmari kept asking for water. When she saw Karmari’s abdomen, the lower area was purple. The belly was very swollen. She surmised that was why he kept pushing away from her when she initially tried to carry him inside.
“She felt that her son needed to go to the hospital. Benson stated that he and Karmari were playing ‘tackle football.’ He stated to her that they were playing rough. He then drove them to Aurora Sinai Medical Center…He kept asking her, ‘Are you mad at me? It’s just a bruise, it will clear up by tomorrow.’”
Karmari was transferred by ambulance to Children’s Hospital, where doctors determined that the boy had suffered a concussion and a fractured liver. A detective who responded asked Famolu how Benson generally interacted with her son.
“She stated that he seems to be very caring with him,” the detective wrote in his report. “There have been no problems in the past. He has never lost temper with and doesn’t physically discipline him. She stated that Benson has not lost his temper with her son. She has argued with Benson before but the arguments never became physical. She has never seen him play with her son too roughly in the past.”
Benson told the detective the tackle-football story, saying he that he had shoved the boy harder than he intended, propelling him into a box spring. The detective was as dubious as the doctors were about Benson’s account, and Benson was arrested for felonious child abuse. He was freed on $15,000 bail with orders to have no contact with Famolu or her son.
Famolu spent six days at her son’s bedside in the intensive care unit. The photo that would appear in the campaign ad was taken after he was discharged and was wearing a miniature set of Army fatigues.
Benson repeatedly called her cell over the weeks that followed, but she ignored the calls. He then began to write letters that were eloquently manipulative, offering his profoundest apology for what he termed an “accidental incident,” saying he still hoped they could become a family and he could be a stepfather for her son.
Famolu finally relented and they began dating again. He once more seemed so much the man of her dreams that she was ready to believe him when he insisted he would never, ever deliberately hurt her son.
Then came the day in April of 2011 when she found herself due at school with nobody to mind Karmari. She was so blindly back in Benson’s spell that she asked him to watch her son. She was in class when a security guard from Aurora Sinai Medical Center appeared and asked her to come with him.
She arrived at the hospital to see Karmari dead on a gurney, Benson rocking back and forth in a chair beside him. This time, Benson told detectives that he had put Karmari in the bath and then gone to putter in the kitchen while listening to college basketball. He said he returned to the bathroom to find the boy face-down and that he had tried to resuscitate him in the living room before dressing him and bringing him to the hospital.
An emergency room nurse noted that the boy’s hair was dry and that there was no water in his stomach. The doctors reported that Karmari’s injuries included trauma to his head, neck, mouth, throat, chest, thorax, abdomen, buttocks, pelvis, scrotum and legs. Benson was arrested for first-degree intentional murder. The police report listed “weapons used” as “hands, feet, fists, teeth, other.”
At the trial, Famolu testified and read aloud the letters that had so deluded her. Benson also took the stand, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that he became exasperated when the judge cut short his effort to extend his answers into similar attempts to manipulate the jury.
“You don’t get to make speeches,” Judge David Borowoski admonished him.
Benson said only “No,” when asked if he could explain Karmari’s many injuries. The jury retired for less than two hours before finding him guilty last March. The judge set sentencing for July 13.
In the meantime, Famolu had been unable to accept fully that her son was gone. She recalls, “When I was working, I would forget it even happened. I would tell coworkers, ‘I have to go get Karmari from the daycare.’ People would look at me crazy. Sometimes when I bought something [to eat], I would say, ‘I have to save some of this for when I pick up Karmari.’”
The striving mom was so stricken that she finally lost her job and her grades dropped at school. She seemed in danger of becoming permanently overwhelmed, but she began to collect herself in recent days, telling herself that she would find closure with the sentencing. She prepared herself for the heartbreak of her son’s absence from her sister’s upcoming wedding.
“He was supposed to be the ring bearer,” she says. “You have to change your thought processes, ‘Okay, he’s really not there.’”
Then she was hit by the campaign ad, followed by the election debate.
“They went way too far,” she tells The Daily Beast.
Though neither candidate in the recall election got her vote, she remains a dutiful citizen and says she still would have voted had she not already filed an absentee ballot because she happened to be with her sister’s fiancé when he picked one up. Both the victor, Scott Walker, and the loser, Tom Barrett, ran on the promise to serve the people, who apparently do not include Famolu in their view, because neither has called to apologize now that the heat of the election is off.
No one from either the Walker or Barrett camp was available for comment.
Famolu is determined to resume being exactly one of the people we most need, one who proves how much better most of us are than our politicians. Her long-term goal is to become a lawyer. Her immediate aim is to hit the books when school resumes in the fall.
“Get those grades back up,” she says.