SAN DIEGO - (Note: This story was reported and published by inewsource.org, a 10News media partner)
In May of 1979, Randy Fletcher was 28 and unemployed when he traveled nearly 1,900 miles to Smackover, Ark. to retrieve his 2 ½-year-old son Nathan and return him to Carson City, Nev. Armed with a court order and a revolver, Fletcher was prepared for a confrontation with his ex-wife, Sherrie.
“… she has kept weapons in her presence in the past,” he testified during a custody hearing.
“I felt that if she had one of the weapons, obviously, I would not be able to get Nathan, but that, you know, I would probably have to leave and try again,” he said.
Nathan Fletcher doesn’t remember that day, but what he does remember is “a living hell” his father’s home became after his mother lost custody. His biological father had “wild swings from very violent to very apologetic … It doesn’t make a lot of sense then, it doesn’t make any more sense today.”
Fletcher, a former California assemblyman and second time candidate for San Diego mayor, sat down Sunday afternoon with his mother, Sherrie Graham, in the KPBS studios for an exclusive interview with inewsource about his childhood. Although he said he has rarely revisited details of his young life, his past is becoming part of the campaign.
“I’ve done my best to try to protect my family and protect what little privacy you can when you run for office,” he said. “Like so many families out there, my life experience doesn’t fit neatly in a 30-second sound bite.”
Fletcher and the other mayoral candidates are facing intense scrutiny of their personal histories from the media in a campaign that follows the disgraceful exit of Mayor Bob Filner in August. Filner resigned after more than a dozen women alleged he either sexually harassed them or behaved inappropriately.
Polls suggest Fletcher is likely to make it to a runoff. If none of the candidates receive more than 50 percent of the vote Nov. 19, they will face off early next year..
In stump speeches Fletcher, who’s morphed from Republican to Independent to Democrat in little over a year, has spoken of his working class parents, his factory worker father who became a cop, his mother an advocate for battered women. Some of his comments have appeared inconsistent, and he’s taken heat for refusing to release certain information to the media, such as his college transcripts.
The Sunday interview filled in gaps in records inewsource obtained from the courts in Carson City. Together, they paint a picture of a traumatic childhood, and suggest an explanation for the ambiguous narrative Fletcher has publicly presented.
(Fletcher’s parents’ divorce and custody battle were first reported in the San Diego Reader in 2012).
In the beginning….
Sherrie Morgan was 18 when she married Randy Fletcher. He was 25, but according to Sherrie, Randy lied about his age and told her he was just 21.
It was the first in a series of Randy’s lies, Sherrie told the court in her battle for Nathan. He lied about graduating from college, about having a sister in the Peace Corps, about being the nephew of an NBA referee.
And he failed to tell the Carson City Sheriff’s Department he had a glass eye, something that could have disqualified him from becoming a deputy sheriff, a job from which he was eventually fired.
“He lies, and I don’t think he can help it, and there are several instances during our marriage, and since our marriage, during our separation, and since our divorce, that he has showed me that he is just not always what he appears to be….” Sherrie told the court.
Sherrie and Randy had known each other less than a year when they married in 1975. Nathan was born on New Year’s Eve one year later, Dec. 31, 1976.
Two years later the Fletchers were divorced. Sherrie had custody and Randy was granted visitation on weekends. Without the court’s permission and without telling Nathan’s father, Sherrie took off with her son to Arkansas.
“This was a very abusive relationship and I had to get Nathan out and so when we separated I was stalked everywhere I went. One time my car had no brakes in it. I couldn’t live there anymore and I took Nathan and I moved to Arkansas, where I had family,” Graham said Sunday.
Sherrie arrived in Arkansas Jan. 9, 1979. She met Danny Farley the next day and married him 18 days later.
Farley worked as a laborer at the International Paper Company in a neighboring town, earning $14,000 a year.
The newly-configured family began life in a rented, neatly kept two-bedroom, green-sided house in Smackover, a town of just four square miles, population 2,000, with “maybe nine or 10” Baptist churches, according to the town’s mayor.
Nathan began calling Farley “Dad.”
Throughout the campaign, Fletcher has either called his dad a cop, a factory worker, or both. His biological father was a cop for a while. Farley worked at a paper factory until it closed down. He currently works as a court security officer for a private company, contracted out by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Who is Fletcher referring to?
“When I say my dad, I’m talking about my stepdad, that’s the only dad that I know. It’s the dad who raised me, he took care of me, I called him dad,” Fletcher said. “I understand in a campaign people will look for any little thing that they can try to distort or take out of context or twist, but it’s always been clear for me.”
In Smackover, Sherrie, Danny and Nathan settled into their new life. They attended services at the Joyce City Baptist Church every Sunday, Sherry taught Sunday School, Danny coached softball.
“Nathan is much like many toddlers his age: As long as he is not too hungry or too sleepy he behaves pretty well,” his mother was quoted as saying at the time.
All the while, Randy Fletcher was in court, trying to get legal custody. By April, he was successful. May 1, he arrived in Smackover to take his son.
The following is Sherrie’s testimony about what happened that day:
“I was in the backyard hanging out clothes. Nathan was just a few feet away from me. Nathan saw his father.
“I believe he was hiding behind a tree, and he saw his father, and I screamed, and I lunged for Nathan, at which time I fell down.
“Randy picked Nathan up and took off running, at which time I followed them screaming, and there was a car waiting in the middle of the road running, and Randy and Nathan got in the car.”
Sherrie’s mother-in-law later found a gun on the ground.
Randy testified how it got there:
“As I picked Nathan up, I had him on my right shoulder, which, as I will admit, I do have an artificial right eye, not good for me to control a boy, or hold a boy on my right shoulder.
“I was in the process of running from her (Sherrie). I switched him from my right shoulder to my left shoulder, and with the combination of that with the running, Nathan kicked it (the gun) from my belt, and it dropped to the ground as I was running away from her.”
“It took approximately five minutes before he started talking to me, referring to things outside of the car,” Randy Fletcher told the court.
“I would describe the relationship as better than most father/son relationships, and its a very good relationship, considering his age and the experience he has had in the past. I’m proud of the relationship we have.”
Fletcher vs Fletcher
Back in Carson City, a new battle over the custody of Nathan Fletcher played out in a District Courtroom in June 1979. His father was made out to be a liar and emotionally unstable; his mother’s relationships scrutinized.
But there is insight, too: a father who loved baseball, whose dream it was to finish college, who made friends easily; a mother who kept an immaculate home, a room full of toys for her son, who played the piano.
The judge in the case ordered home visits for both parents and ultimately described the decision he had to make when choosing who should have custody as difficult.
“…one which I do not relish, and I would like the benefit of just privately considering these things before I enter an order,” Judge Michael Fondi said in July 1979. “So I will take the matter under advisement at this time and I will enter an order in this matter tomorrow.”
The court transcript of the custody battle ends there, with just a single page in the court file indicating Randy Fletcher maintained legal custody, Sherrie appealed, but the appeal was denied.
When inewsource asked Fletcher to talk about life with his father, he began carefully, neutrally. But each consecutive sentence gained emotion.
“The first couple of years were, I guess, OK,” he said. “And then it just became a progressively worse environment, I guess.”
In what way?
“He wasn’t a good person. It was an environment that over time became a living hell. the last year in particular I was there was really bad.”
Did your father hit you?
“Yeah, he was abusive physically and mentally and verbally.”
He remembers missing a lot of school, a “place of refuge.”
“I remember being asked one time my least favorite class and I said math and someone asked why, and I didn’t have the heart to explain cause it was the last class of the day and I just didn’t want to go home.”
Graham said she recalls seeing bruises on Fletcher when he was 7 or 8 during one of his visits. “I was horrified,” she said. “That was the first time I really, really knew things had changed. He was more withdrawn and couldn’t focus and Nathan has always had amazing focus.”
As a child you think things are your fault, Fletcher said.
Today, he says with conviction, “Without question the lowest form of life on this planet is someone that would beat their wife or child. I don’t understand it now and I don’t think I ever will.”
Life for Nathan Fletcher changed again when he was 8. His father returned him to his mother because Nathan had been a “disruptive influence in his household,” according to court records.
Nathan Fletcher told inewsource he doesn’t know why his father sent him back to his mother. He said he was just told one day to pack his things. He remembers the plane ride to Arkansas and the reunion with his mother.
“We grew up together,” he said of his mother. “My mom was a teenager when she had me. We went through a lot together. I can’t say enough about having a strong steady loving figure in your life. That’s made all the difference for me. I couldn’t be prouder of my mom.”
Fletcher calls his stepfather “a solid guy.” Farley and Sherrie divorced after 19 years of marriage, and Fletcher said he lost touch with him.
He said he’s spent more time thinking about his past in the last week than he has in the last 30 years. And last week, he called Farley. Fletcher said he told his stepfather he appreciated all he had done for him, and Farley told him he’d been following the campaign online.
“He told me he was proud of me and that meant a lot,” Fletcher said.
Read more of this story on inewsource.org.