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The mind of Kenneth Maready

No medicine or therapy could cure his depression and addiction. Now his last resort is prison.



On the day psychiatrists were going to shoot electricity through his brain, Kenneth Maready did not eat breakfast. He'd taken a pill to relax, and he felt hopeful that the impending shock would mend his mind, because he was consumed with thoughts of suicide. An anesthesiologist put him to sleep and injected him with succinylcholine, a drug that paralyzed his muscles so their spasms wouldn't snap his bones. Doctors placed an electrode pad the size of a silver dollar above both of his temples, and with a press of a button, induced a seizure that would alter Maready's brain chemistry faster than any antidepressant. Except for his fluttering eyelids, Maready looked like he was sleeping. The rhythmic twitching of his fingers and toes registered his stifled tremors in jagged lines on the electroencephalogram.

Over the next several weeks in February and March 1995, doctors at John Umstead Psychiatric Hospital in Butner jolted Maready out of his despair, though not for long. "You're tired and confused for a couple days, and then you start feeling a little better," says Maready, in a small visitation room at Maury Correctional Institution, where he will spend the rest of his life. "Then you start to go down again. It only lasts for two or three weeks, and then you're right back where you started."

The start. It's not nearly as clear as the end, which is detailed in court documents and newspapers. The start is hazy and dim; parts are even lost. Maready's electroconvulsive therapy ravaged memories that years of drug addiction and drinking didn't erase. He has little sense of chronology: In his mind his past is mashed into one big, dateless fiasco, mixed with more missed opportunities than he can count. Chances to put down the liquor. To follow his therapists' orders. So many times he could have chosen not to climb behind the wheel of the car. If he could only peek inside his head to see what's broken, why drugs are more pleasurable than food or sex or love or warmth; why sights, smells and memories trigger an uncontrollable reflex in his brain, sometimes before he's even aware of it—instincts he follows despite the catastrophe that inevitably comes next.

His family members—the ones who aren't estranged—offer few clues. "There is a lot I do not remember," says Victoria Abate, one of Maready's two older sisters. "I just totally blocked it out." And as she grew older, she chose to look the other way.

"Every now and then Ken would call, I would talk to him on the phone. But if he asked me for a place to stay, I would not have allowed him to live with me because I didn't trust him," she says. "I was tired of hearing 'I'm better' and it just falling through. We didn't realize how much he needed us. We just pretended like nothing was wrong."

Maready's mother, who bailed her son out of many jams, may have understood what troubled him, but she is dead. And she probably wouldn't have revealed her secrets. "Mom hid a lot from us," says Abate. "We knew that Ken had gotten in trouble, but I still to this day probably do not know everything."

But Maready's family now knows one thing: His years of addiction and mental illness crescendoed to a horrifying end. In 2005, Maready was driving drunk and fleeing police when he killed 61-year-old Kay Stokes, who was on her way to buy peaches at a market.

Facing a 50-year sentence, Maready, 44 replays his life inside his head, from bleary start to tragic finish, wishing against fate he could have lived another life. He traces his troubles to his early Durham childhood, when his father, also a former shock therapy patient, left him, his mother and sisters to live only a few blocks away, as Maready learned later. Maready never recovered from the rejection. "In my community I was the one who didn't have a dad when all the others did," he wrote last year in a letter from prison. "I was always left out of things." He says his mother worked to exhaustion to support the family, but he wanted to be near his father.

Unlike his sister, Victoria Abate, he remembers his mother being admitted to the hospital several times for "nervous breakdowns," and taking Valium to soothe her anxiety. He says he followed suit; the tranquilizer turned his mother's fake smiles into real ones and transformed Maready into an addict at the age most children were learning to read.

If his memory is correct, Maready was committed to a children's residential mental health facility by age 9 or 11. In eighth grade, he says he began using methamphetamines with a Hell's Angel and a Vietnam veteran who had strange dreams. Before the school year ended, he ran away with a fugitive to Louisiana where he says he worked at an iron yard and met a blind chemist who taught him to cook meth. It's a time he doesn't talk about much, but the court record is clear about what happened next: At age 17, he went to prison for the first time, back in North Carolina, on a breaking and entering charge. He and some friends invaded a pharmacy to steal the ingredients for meth.

In 1995, when 31-year-old Maready, a husband and father, was committed to Umstead Psychiatric Hospital for the electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, he had spent almost nine years in prison on six occasions, abused "every drug you can name," and attempted suicide by overdosing at least three times. His chief complaint, when he was committed for threatening to shoot himself, according to his medical records: "Nothing makes me happy anymore."

One doctor, noting Maready's soft, mumbled speech and poor eye contact, described his patient's "easy tearfulness ... pervasive feeling of guilt, helplessness and hopelessness, suspect major depressive episode. It is also possible that this is end result of years of abandonment, personal failures, etc."

Antidepressants Zoloft, Paxil and Elavil could not lift him from despair with the speed to save his life, so doctors recommended ECT, which seemed to work. They discharged him with a prescription for nortriphyline, and told him to make appointments at his local mental health clinic. They hoped that one month after his discharge, Maready would be able to complete a 30-minute activity without getting distracted and reduce the number of crying episodes to less than three per week. After two months, doctors hoped, he wouldn't be depressed, and perhaps even feel optimistic about the future.

Twelve and a half years down the line, there's little he can hope for. In February of this year, prison doctors told him he only had four months to live, because hepatitis C is destroying his liver. Five months beyond that deadline, he's the picture of death. The color and texture of parts of his face look like they were applied by an undertaker's cosmetic brush, but in yellow, not pink. The whites of his eyes glow amber and light almost penetrates the folds in his ears.

His memories are slipping further away. The hospital stays, the brushes with death, the DWIs are fading. But one memory is bright and clear—and getting stronger. It stays at the front of his mind.

Over a hamburger and a cigarette, Maready's ex-wife recalls a nightmare with the sense of delight of someone who's telling ghost stories around the campfire. She's years removed from the arguments when she and Maready fought with each other like animals.

"I had this dream that I was taking a shower in my husband's trailer," she says, smiling. "I'm all alone, but I feel like somebody is watching me. I'm washing up, washing my hair, rinsing my hair off. I could hear the water going down the drain. For some reason, I looked down, and when I looked down, I saw something move. I looked a little closer and I could see this eye looking up at me. And it's Ken. It scared the hell out of me."

Maready has always blamed his addiction on his depression, while many around him, psychiatrists included, wondered if his sadness grew from his substance abuse.

"Drugs has always been for me to hide from whatever was going on in my life," Maready says. "Something about my drug use that whether it would be the day before Christmas, the day before Thanksgiving, or [my daughter] Ashley would be in a big play, or my birthday, my wife's birthday, my daughter's birthday, just anything—something special was going to happen—I destroyed it every time," he went on. "I don't know why. I've done this all my life. It's like I didn't want any kind of happiness."

Ashley was born in 1987. "I figure it's about the time the crack started," Maready says, adding he first bought the drug accidentally from a Haitian when the family was living in Florida. He thought the man was selling him marijuana.

"I didn't know it was crack," Maready says. "That son of a bitch—I thought he had ripped me off. I seen a buddy of mine. He says, 'That's cocaine,' and he shows me how to do it. All bottom dropped out for seven or eight months."

He'd leave home for days at a time for places his wife and daughter could only imagine, finding new places to sleep at night, new ways to make money during the day.

"You know he's gone so you stay up all night stressing," his ex-wife says. "Is he coming back? Is he going to be dead? And then you stay up hoping that your daughter doesn't wake up in the middle of the night wondering where her father is...."

After his binges, Maready would return, filled with shame, and pack up his family to move to a new place, so he could try again to be a father to his daughter and live the life he wanted.

"I think he always had good intentions, but he really didn't have good impulse control," his ex-wife says. "If somebody said, 'Let's go have a beer,' he would. Whatever it was he had promised just got turned to dust." When hiding the car keys around the house couldn't keep Maready home, she removed the distributor caps from the car and stashed them in the woods. She says he'd go crazy trying to crank the car until he wore himself out.

While taking a break from her job serving pancakes, Ashley recalls a distant night that feels like a dream. Uncertain of her surroundings, she lay on a mattress on the floor, fading in and out of sleep, watching her mother wait for her father to come home. Eventually, he did. And they fought. Again and again.

As a child, Ashley could see a man plagued with sadness. "I could see that he was happy only for a short time," she says. "There was no permanence in the things that made him happy."

Ashley was a senior in high school when she gave up hope that her father could be rehabilitated. "My cousin Preston called, really excited. It was my first Valentine's Day with my new boyfriend. The first thing he said when I answered the phone was, 'Did you know that your dad killed a woman?'

"I was devastated," she says. "My whole life I kept waiting for my dad to love me. Waiting for him to be sober. Waiting for him to come see me. It was a lot for me to take when there was no more waiting and no more point.

"The day I found out his sentence was the day before final exams," she goes on. "I remember I took a Valium and I fell asleep for 13 hours. People thought I was dead."

Several stacks of medical records fill a cardboard box. Scribbled nurses' notes, typed reports, EKG charts: Each page is infused with smoke, because for months the papers sat in the office of Maready's court-appointed trial attorney, Woody Vann, where it's still acceptable to puff on a cigarette indoors. The documents detail Maready's 10-year journey through psychiatric wards, drug treatment facilities and emergency rooms. They show what state doctors, nurses and social workers thought about Maready, and what he thought about himself.

"Intelligence is average. Judgment is poor. Insight is fair."

"Immature coping skills and is unable to take responsibility for his actions."

"MD will assess whether Kenneth's depression is primary or secondary to his cocaine, alcohol, marijuana, Dilaudid, Xanax usage."

"Stated he feels he's finally getting the help he needs."

"He reports crying spells frequently sometimes even by watching cartoons."

"Stated he feels most comfortable in prison."

"Stated, 'fucked up since day one.'"

"Interacts too well with one of his female peers."

"Patient believes there is a God but does not understand how to work with him."

Records show that upon admission, someone from the hospital would usually interview Maready and make an initial diagnosis. Then a doctor would prescribe a trial of a psychotropic drug.

"That time they give me the shock treatments, they done everything," Maready says. "They really tried to help me out and get me straightened out. Every time I been since, they'll put you on an anti-depressant, and they'll ask you every day, 'Do you feel like you'll hurt yourself if you leave the hospital?' The second you tell them no, that's it, you're gone. You're on your own."

When he checked into Umstead Christmas Day 1996 after a suicide attempt, doctors gave him Librium to sedate him and clear the drugs from his system. They tried a course of ECT. Then a trial of lithium, which gave Maready the shakes. They put him on trazodone so he could sleep. Then Zoloft. Then Depakote, but after more tremors, they switched him to Tegetrol, an anticonvulsant, more Zoloft and trazodone. He improved.

In 1998, doctors restarted him on Zoloft and prescribed carbamazepine for anger. In 2000, when Maready was facing one of his many criminal charges, doctors put him on Effexor for depression and tried ECT until he started vomiting. In 2002, a different cocktail: Ativan and Robaxin to detox and Celexa and Neurontin for depression.

He would leave the hospital, usually after several weeks, with a prescription and a plan, but seldom follow through on what his doctors asked of him. "I'll do good for a while," he says. "And for whatever reason my mind tells me I'm good. I'm better. I don't want this mental health problem. And I quit taking the medications and I end up right back. I just go up and down like that."

Maready's last visit to Umstead Hospital was in February 2004, exactly a year before the wreck. He'd been transferred from UNC Hospital inpatient psychiatric services, because he was apparently "engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior with multiple patients," threatening the nursing staff, and trying to convince other patients not to swallow their anti-depressants so they could pass them on to him.

His medical records show the frustration of Maready and the Umstead Hospital staff about that final treatment. A doctor evaluating him for another course of ECT wrote: he "would only speak to me briefly to state he did not want to be treated or evaluated for ECT. On brief interaction, he appeared to be irritable and angry, but did not appear overtly depressed."

When psychiatrists didn't offer the diagnosis he wanted, Maready used his imagination: He lied about the circumstances surrounding a fire he survived several years before, giving doctors the impression the blaze was even more tragic than it actually was. In 1997, in a southeastern state he doesn't remember, Maready was strapped into the passenger seat of an RV when it ran out of gas. The driver, "trashed," decided to pour gasoline in the carburetor, which was inside the cabin. The engine exploded, and Maready was trapped in the flames until he ripped off his seatbelt and jumped out the window. Even though doctors predicted he would never see, walk or use his hands again, Maready eventually returned to life as usual—psych ward visits and criminal convictions included.

On his last visit to Umstead, he showed doctors the scars covering his body and created a different version of events. A physician noted on Maready's psychiatric assessment: "He had one major suicide attempt by setting a fire in 1997, when he set fire to his home and his [wife, mother and two sisters] died in that."

"It's because they don't want to believe you," Maready says, explaining why he embellished the story. "I don't want them to just put me on antidepressants and be done with me. I'm gonna make them help me this time, and I'm gonna tell them this so they understand how bad it is. I've done that a lot."

That time he was apparently unsuccessful. "States he wants to leave and is 'fine,'" one observer wrote. Maready was discharged with prescriptions for Celexa and Neurontin.

"I wish I had stayed that time, but I didn't," he says now from prison. "A year later this happened."

The next psychiatrist to evaluate him was at the Durham County Jail in March 2005. Maready was "a 43-year old Caucasian male. He was arrested three weeks ago and charged with second-degree murder. He was arrested at the scene of an accident and was found to be intoxicated. His vehicle struck another vehicle and the driver was killed."

"I was in jail for about two weeks before I even knew what happened," he says. "I don't know what they had me on at the hospital, but it took me about two weeks to come out of it."

Maready visited his mother's gravesite for the first time—Feb. 11, 2005—the day before he killed Kay Stokes. He hadn't yet paid his respects to his mother, who tried more than anyone to set him straight, because she died in 2001 while he was in prison. He decided to skip the funeral than attend in handcuffs and chains.

"Just take me close to a bus stop, and I'm gonna go see my momma," Maready remembers telling his brother-in-law, Michael Abate, who had given him a job. Maready couldn't drive to the east Durham cemetery himself because his license had been revoked after a half-dozen DWIs. "I'll make it back to Raleigh and call y'all to pick me up," he recalls saying.

"I didn't really get upset," he says of the visit to see his mother. "I just get this—I don't know how to call it. It's just something that—the first thing that hit me when I'm sitting at the grave is that I should just go get a drink and I don't have to think about this." He found an old friend named Ronald Jones, a mentally handicapped man with plenty of his own problems, and they drank all night.

"He didn't come home the next night," his sister, Victoria Abate, says. "And then the next day was Sunday, and he didn't come home for church. After church, I started calling around to police stations and I happened to call one where a friend we grew up with answered the phone on dispatch. That's how I found out."

Jones and Maready woke up around 9 in the morning on the day of the crash. "Me and Ronnie sat there talking," Maready says. "He is real depressed all the time. I said, Ronnie, let me get you out of the house."

They walked to visit a neighbor, but were stopped by two Durham County sheriff's deputies, who were responding to a call reporting two intoxicated pedestrians. The deputies talked to the men and decided to let them go. It was the first time that day police missed a chance to prevent Stokes' death. "They said, 'Just stay out of trouble,'" recalls Maready, who did not testify at his April 2006 murder trial and is telling his version of events for the first time.

"I go to the store," he says. "When I come out, I see this guy that I knew. I said let me use your car real quick, and he said go ahead." Forrest Cooper, the owner of the silver Honda, denied that, testifying at trial that he called police to report his car was stolen.

"I get in the car," Maready remembers. "I start going up the road. The sheriff is coming this way and he gets right behind me. And I see the sheriff. So I pulled up to stoplight. He gets behind me at the stoplight and hits his light....

"I know I ain't got no license, so I get out with my hands up. Both of them jump out and pull their guns," Maready says, contradicting the deputies' testimony that they didn't unsheath their weapons.

"They're screaming and pointing the guns at me," he says. "'Where'd you get the car? Where'd you get the car?'"

"I said, I borrowed the damn car. I'm standing there with my hands up. They make me at gunpoint get back in the car. I got back in the car. They keep screaming. They run up to the window real fast, so I jumped out again and put my hands back up. I knew what they were trying to do. They were trying to yank me through the window."

Deputies Morial Whitaker and Norman Perry testified they approached the driver's side after Maready's second surrender attempt. "I just felt he was impaired on some type of substance because of the way he handled his ID," Perry said. "You could tell he was a little nervous, but as it went on, he became very sad. He actually started crying at one time."

The deputies said they then ordered Maready out of the car, and he refused. "Once we realized that he was not going to get out of the vehicle, me and deputy Perry kind of gave a head nod, like we're going to get him out of the vehicle with force," Whitaker testified.

"Sure enough both of them reach in and try to yank me through the window," Maready says. "When they try to yank me through the window, I took off. I go down the hill and they're right behind me. I know they're right behind me. There's a store there called Pope's Mill. This is where I grew up at. I'm trying to get to Pope's where there's people and I'll stop and get out."

"I wasn't trying to get away from them," he says. "Believe me, I've run from enough of them. You're not getting away...

"We get down to the bottom of the hill. It's a long curve. When I go to pass this truck, this truck goes to pass the truck that's in front of her. She hits me like this, and I spun around, but she hits her brake. Somehow, I guess to avoid this, she goes to the left side of the road and when she comes back across, somehow she hit the curb and it flips her truck."

When deputies came out of the curve on Stallings Road, less than a mile beyond the traffic stop and near Maready's childhood home, they saw both vehicles flipping amid smoke and debris, until the cars landed on their wheels.

They ran from the squad car and found Kay Stokes lying facedown on the side of the road, already pale, with a broken neck and cracked skull. Her granddaughter was still in the truck, hanging out the window screaming for grandma.

Jones, Maready's passenger, had also been ejected, but Maready was still in the driver's seat when the deputies apprehended him. They later learned that Maready's blood alcohol level was 0.14, nearly double the legal limit, 0.08.

"I don't want to feel that what I done wasn't my fault, but it's just so many things that could've happened that was out of my control," Maready says.

"I wanted to die. I remember that. I remember thinking, God, not this, this ain't happening. Now that I think about it, I even told the deputy, 'Let me run and you do what you gotta do.' He said, 'I can't do it,' but nobody would have ever known."

Maready was the second person ever punished in Durham for murder in connection to a drunken driving death. After a jury convicted him of that charge, and also driving while intoxicated, assault, driving with a revoked license, reckless driving and misdemeanor auto larceny, Judge Abraham Jones sentenced him to at least 50 years in prison, more, Maready's attorney argued, than someone who "will take a gun, put it against somebody's head, and fire the trigger."

Jones said at the sentencing that his decision was not easy. "If a man has diseases which have been shown over many years not to be changeable and not due to any fault of his, but just because that's the cards he got dealt ... isn't it pretty clear that, regardless of what help he's received from everything, all the resources that could be mustered, he can't control his behavior?

"He's got to be in an environment where he can never hurt another human being again," he continued. "Some people deserve life because they are mean and they are psychotic. This man, unfortunately, deserves life because he can't control himself. It's very sad."

The judge told Maready to stand and asked him if he wanted to say something.

"No," Maready replied. "Other than my hepatitis C. I don't even know why this trial went on. I'll be lucky if I live five years, anyway. That's all."

Maready has served a year and a half of his prison sentence. He wants everyone to know he thinks the system is broken. "This I'm very passionate about," he wrote in a letter last week. "Our courts and mental health systems are failing. Not just me."

He looks back on his first trip to prison as a turning point in his life and a prime example of the system he says has gone awry. "When I was young and I first got in trouble, the judge, I can remember it seemed like he wanted to help," he says. "He was like a father figure. He sent me on this study. I can remember standing there thinking—it was like a thousand pounds taken off of me. I didn't know how—I didn't know much of nothing. I just felt like things were going to work out....

"I talked to all these psychiatrists and they sent me back to court with a recommendation. Well, they recommended long-term psychiatric and drug treatment or five years in prison." Maready went to prison. He was released in 1984 and later convicted of felony drug possession, breaking and entering, assault, assault with a deadly weapon, hit and run, driving while license permanently revoked, forgery, larceny and six DWIs—all before he killed Stokes.

"This stuff about sending prisoners to house them somewhere and then just sending them right back on the street is just bizarre to me," says his sister, Victoria Abate.

Maready's ex-wife has remarried. His sister still writes, but can't take as many collect calls as she used to because they are expensive. He hardly remembers the last time he saw his daughter; he was semi-conscious in a hospital bed near death.

"I'm gonna die soon—it ain't gonna be long," he says. "I'm getting where I'll sleep 16 hours a day. I've lost about 25 pounds. I don't eat no more much. And I'm confused all the time. Ever since this happened I can't even think straight....

"I used to could take my medication and whatever problems I had or whatever feelings I had, it would always help. Nothing is going to help this."

At night he dreams of Stokes. "I used to walk to a ballpark as a kid and I used to come right through there where she lived. When I seen the picture of the accident, it hit me right then, I knew this lady. I seen this lady. This lady used to come out and give me lemonade and cookies. That could've been her."

And during the day, he relives the accident. "When I pop my eyes open in the morning, it's the first thing I think about and the last thing I think about when I go to bed. From the time I woke up at Ron Jones' house to that time I got this sentence—I think about that over and over and over and over every day, and it don't ever change....

"All those things that I've done in my life, why does somebody else have to get hurt and lose their life and I'm still sitting here? That really bothers me....

"I'm thinking now that the hepatitis that I got that God is giving me a way out, because I can't live with this. I can't do it. When they first told me what they're telling me about the hepatitis, I think, God is having mercy on me. He's not going to make me have to kill myself in here. That's where I'm at. Every single day I think all these little things all the way through."

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