I killed my mom

After a life of abuse, Terry Payton, 16, is charged with murder

click to enlarge Terry Payton, right, shown here as a child in an undated photograph, admitted to stabbing his mother, Kathie Payton, on June 23. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JAN BURNO
Terry Payton, right, shown here as a child in an undated photograph, admitted to stabbing his mother, Kathie Payton, on June 23.

By all accounts, Terry Payton is a quiet, shy 16-year-old with a brilliant mind and a penchant for Pokémon. Family, friends and neighbors in the Edgar County community of Paris say Terry is meek, eager to help and never says an ill word against anyone.

So it was a shock to them when Terry was arrested for allegedly murdering his mother, Kathie Payton, 53, on June 23.

“He’s a very quiet, gentle, intelligent, well-spoken laddy,” says Terry’s paternal grandmother, Maureen Lye, who flew to Illinois from England with her husband, Terry Lye, as soon as they heard about the incident. Maureen Lye says Terry is a straight-A student and three-time spelling bee winner.

“He’s not like other lads,” she says. “He doesn’t like fighting; there’s no violence in him. That’s what’s so surprising. It’s like we’re in a dream. That’s just not Terry.”

Terry Payton is charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

click to enlarge Teri Dennis, owner of Teri's Threads in Paris, holds a T-shirt sold at her shop to raise money for Terry Payton's defense fund. - PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
Teri Dennis, owner of Teri's Threads in Paris, holds a T-shirt sold at her shop to raise money for Terry Payton's defense fund.

Allegations of abuse

There is a back story to this death, according to people who knew Terry and Kathie Payton. They say Kathie was an abusive alcoholic who constantly beat and humiliated Terry. If Terry did kill his mother, his family says, it was likely in self-defense. Now, Terry’s family, friends and community are rallying around him to provide a level of support they say he never had before.

Terence R. Payton lived with his mother in a Paris public housing development full of small brick duplexes. Terry has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism characterized by impairment in social interaction and restricted patterns of behavior, interests and activities. Neighbors recall that Kathie seldom left the house, instead sending Terry out to hang laundry, take out the trash and more. Though they rarely saw Kathie, they heard her often.

“She was drunk a lot, and she would scream at him all hours of the day and night,” says Valerie Scales, a neighbor who lives right across a common yard from Kathie and Terry’s apartment. “One-thirty in the morning, she’d still be screaming at him. I never heard him say anything to her, but I heard her screaming at him. I don’t know what it was about.”

Sandy Chapman, another neighbor who lives in the apartment building adjacent to the Paytons, reports hearing Kathie yelling at Terry numerous times in the two years that Chapman has lived there. Chapman says she and Kathie used to work and party together several years before they became neighbors.

“Kathie was a very heavy drinker,” Chapman says. “She drank Jim Beam by the gallon. She was very abusive to him. She drank and always cut him down, made him feel low-life. He acted like he was scared and afraid to open his mouth. He’s a good kid, but she verbally abused him a lot.”

Another neighbor, who asked not to be identified, says the abuse sometimes went beyond words.

“One day we saw her with him in a headlock, beating him on his head,” says the neighbor. “They fought a lot. He’s had the cops out here quite a few times, and they’ve never done anything about it. I thought he was a nice, polite kid.”

Several neighbors report seeing Kathie passed out drunk on the sidewalk, while Terry tried to pick her up and move her back inside. Kathie also locked Terry out of the house on multiple occasions, Scales notes.

Once, while Terry was locked out for a period of about a week, he stayed with neighbors Shanna and Kevin Lawrence. Shanna Lawrence recalls Kathie taking Terry’s birthday money, which was sent to him by his grandparents in England to pay for new clothes, to buy alcohol for herself.

“Even after she kicked him out, he never had anything bad to say about her,” Shanna Lawrence says. “I just hope he gets the help he needs.”

Terry’s father, Stephen Lye, lives in England. Lye says Kathie Payton often changed phone numbers to cut off contact between him and Terry. Money that Lye sent to Terry for school fees was used to change Terry’s last name from Lye to Payton, Stephen Lye says.

“This was extremely hurtful to both Terry and myself and was a coldhearted attempt to sever the bond between father and son,” Lye wrote to Illinois Times in an emailed statement. Lye says he tried to get Terry to come live with him in England after realizing the extent of the abuse he allegedly suffered, but Lye says Kathie wouldn’t sign the paperwork necessary for Terry to obtain a passport.

“It is breaking my heart that I cannot be with Terry at this time,” Lye says, adding that he is working in England to raise money for Terry’s defense. “Terry is, and will always remain, my clever, sensitive, loveable and wonderful son. No child should have to endure what my vulnerable son has had to cope with throughout his short life. We all look forward to the day, hopefully in the very near future, when it is recognized that Terry is the real victim here.”

click to enlarge Terry Payton is led into the Edgar County Courthouse by law enforcement officers on July 18. - PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
Terry Payton is led into the Edgar County Courthouse by law enforcement officers on July 18.

“The system failed him.”

Sabrina Cooley, Terry’s 17-year-old half-sister with the same father, says Terry’s family, friends, neighbors and teachers called the police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services repeatedly in the months prior to Kathie’s death.

Staci Garzolini-Skelton, a counselor at Paris Cooperative High School, contacted DCFS after a phone conversation with Kathie, in which Kathie threatened to cut off Terry’s legs with an electric knife while he slept. Kathie also told the counselor that she would slit Terry’s throat if he stole her medicine. It’s unclear what kind of medicine Kathie may have been taking.

DCFS visited the Paytons’ apartment on at least two occasions in March and April this year, but Kathie refused to talk with DCFS caseworkers in person or over the phone. The caseworkers spoke only to Terry, who denied having been abused or threatened by Kathie, and DCFS concluded that Terry was in no danger.

Jakob Shumaker, one of Terry’s close friends, says he counseled Terry to seek help from authorities after Terry told him the full extent of the alleged abuse. Shumaker says Terry likely denied those same allegations when asked about them by DCFS caseworkers because “he was scared of his mom.” The repeated ineffective visits by police and DCFS caseworkers on Terry’s behalf show that “the system failed him,” Shumaker says.

“They took him back so many freaking times to her,” he says. “Of course, at some point, you’re going to be scared because you know you’re going to go straight back.”

“I’m a monster!”

Terry told police that he woke up around 10 a.m. on June 23 to find that Kathie had already begun drinking. He says his mother was mad at him for leaving the door unlocked the previous night, and the two began to argue. The fight lasted into the afternoon, and at around 1:30 p.m., Terry says he was pouring Kathie’s alcohol into the sink when she cornered him and threatened to kill him. Kathie reached for a knife, Terry told police, so he grabbed a different knife and stabbed her in the chest and neck seven times.

An autopsy later revealed that Kathie’s skull showed signs of head trauma, and in a second interview with police, Terry said that he had struck Kathie’s head on the kitchen floor several times before stabbing her.

In a series of text messages between Terry and Jakob Shumaker, Terry asks for help to make the body of his mother “disappear.” Illinois State Police investigator Lisa Crowder, the lead investigator in the case, read the texts aloud during a preliminary hearing on July 18, including one from Terry that said, “I killed el madre, need help making her disappear. I stabbed her seven times after mercilessly beating the shit out of her.”

After the stabbing, Terry also posted on his Facebook page, saying “I’m a monster!” Terry later turned himself in to police.

click to enlarge Terry (left) and Kathie Payton (right) in an undated family portrait. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JAN BURNO
Terry (left) and Kathie Payton (right) in an undated family portrait.

Investigation continues, but charges pending

The charges against Terry seem to have been filed even as the investigation into his mother’s death continues. Illinois Times spoke to five neighbors who lived in close proximity to Terry and Kathie Payton, only two of whom report having been contacted by police about the case. Those neighbors who have spoken to police were not asked about allegations of abuse, they say, but only whether they heard or saw anything unusual around the time of Kathie’s death.

During the preliminary hearing, Crowder, the ISP investigator, testified that she was not aware of the threats against Terry that Kathie had expressed to the school counselor. Crowder also said she had not received Terry’s school records or DCFS reports regarding Terry, and Edgar County Coroner William Templeton says results of tests for drugs and alcohol on Kathie’s body have not been returned. Her body has been cremated.

Terry’s attorney, Edgar County public defender Kaye Dent, declined to be interviewed by Illinois Times, but she questioned during the preliminary hearing whether there was a “thorough enough investigation” to file charges against Terry.

A woman who answered the phone at the office of Edgar County State’s Attorney Mark Isaf declined to comment, saying, “At this time, we’re not speaking to any media.”

Similar cases

This isn’t the first time a headline-grabbing murder case has happened in Paris. In 1986, newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoades were found murdered in their home, which had been set on fire. Two Paris residents, Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock, were convicted of the murders and later exonerated after both spent more than a decade in prison.

They say they were framed, and they are currently suing the City of Paris, former Edgar County State’s Attorney Michael McFatridge, and several former Illinois State Police troopers and officials for their roles in the wrongful convictions.

That case was the subject of Too Politically Sensitive, a 2009 book by former Illinois State Police investigator Michale Callahan, which details problems he found in the case against Steidl and Whitlock. Callahan was pulled off the case by his ISP superiors and told to stop investigating because it was “too politically sensitive.”

Meanwhile, a minor closer to Springfield has also been charged with murder in an unrelated case. An 11-year-old boy in Chandlerville, 30 miles northeast of Springfield, has been accused of murdering his mother, Brenda Schaad, 39. The minor, whose name has not been officially released, is charged with one count of first-degree murder.

Terry Payton’s case is scheduled for trial on Sept. 29. Mark Isaf has requested that Terry be tried as an adult, and the court has ordered that Terry see a psychiatrist to determine whether he is fit to stand trial. Terry has pleaded not guilty. He is being held at the Vermilion County Juvenile Detention Center in Danville.

Rallying supporters

Maureen Lye, Terry’s grandmother from England, says Terry felt alone because of bullying at school and cries for help that fell on deaf ears.

“All this time, Terry suffered cruelty, but nobody really cared,” Lye says. “They ignored it. … This had been going on for years, that he was totally ignored. The neighbors took him in and fed him, but the actual authorities – the system – failed him.”

But Terry is alone no longer. His case has sparked an outpouring of support in Paris and beyond – from family, friends, neighbors and even perfect strangers.

Angel Jarvis, a 38-year-old Paris native who now lives in Universal, Ind., organized a fundraiser picnic for Terry on July 16. Though she has never met Terry, she says his story resonated with her because her mother died when Angel was still young, and she had gotten in trouble with the law often.

“I know how this kid feels, with no one to turn to,” Jarvis says. “I thought ‘who is going to help this kid?’ It grabbed my soul, and I’ve poured myself into it.”

Terry’s family hands out laminated buttons imploring the wearer to “Please help Terry,” while friends on Facebook have created three separate support groups, two of which are raising money for his defense and one of which has more than 700 supporters.

Teri’s Threads, a T-shirt shop in Paris, has sold more than 40 “Support Terry” T-shirts for the Support Terry Payton Foundation, set up by Terry’s friends. Of the $20 cost per T-shirt, $12 goes toward Terry’s defense. Supporters have even created a website, TerryPayton.org, to share Terry’s story, collect donations and post updates.

“We’re not stopping the foundation,” Jakob Shumaker says. “This train’s going and it has no brakes.”

[Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Dyke and Karen Rhoades' trailer home had been set on fire. The story has been altered to reflect that the home was not a trailer.]

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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