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PORTRAIT OF A FRIEND, FOR THE YOUNG WELL-WISHERS OF A MURDERER

You were waiting there outside the courthouse, to wish him well; your friend, the murderer.

"Oh Craig," one of you yelled as the marshals hustled him into a prison van. "Craig, Craig, Craig."And he saw you, his friends, and then he smiled.

"Later," he yelled. "When I get out, I'm going to smoke a bomber."

Your 15-year-old friend, Craig Price.

This is a story about a local crime, but it's really a story about America in the 1980s. A New England boy named Craig Price stabs a young mother to death. He admits to it. And his friends, teen-agers all, rally around him.

So this column is for Craig Price's friends. But it's also for young souls everywhere who find it somehow thrilling to know, and embrace, a criminal.

Perhaps it is instinct to stick by a schoolmate, even after he's pleaded guilty to murder. It's instinct to remember the good times, how 15-year-old Craig was the life of the party, always joking, always cheerful.

But for a brief moment, you, his friends, might want to think of the other side of him. You might want to think of what he did, whom he hurt, whom he left behind.

I give you Dolores Ratliff. She's the mother of his victim, whose name was Rebecca Spencer. She lived a few doors away from Craig. She was 27 when it happened, struggling to raise two young children on her own by working at a jewelry factory. Craig Price, your friend, stabbed her 58 times.

I called Dolores Ratliff, the victim's mother, because I wanted you to know what murder does to those left behind. I found her in Kentucky, where she now lives. I asked her to tell me about Rebecca, who was murdered in Rhode Island.

She was called Becky. As a child, she loved dolls, especially the lifelike ones with soft skin. She also loved roller skating, and dancing, and the ocean.

She was a girl of realistic dreams. Her great goal was to be a mother, and she did become one, first a boy called Steve, then a girl, Danielle. And then a divorce. She began her factory job shortly afterward. I asked Mrs. Ratliff why her daughter didn't simply go on welfare instead.

"Wanted to be independent," she told me. "She was proud. She sure was. And she was real pretty. I might be prejudiced, but she was. You'd call her sandy blond. She had big brown eyes. She was about 5-3. Like I say, a real slender girl. It just tears me up that someone could take such a good person."

The night that your friend, Craig Price, broke into Becky's home, her children were staying with their father.

"Thank God," Mrs. Ratliff now says. "If they'd have been there, I don't believe I'd have had my grandkids."

And now it's time for you to hear what Craig Price did.

"The police told me it was the worst condition of stabbing they'd ever seen," said Mrs. Ratliff.

I told her she didn't have to talk about it if it was too hard for her, but she said the truth was important.

"The boy had broken in the back door and stabbed her in the back with her own kitchen knife," said Dolores. "She was basically close to death then, but he kept stabbing her. He cut her from head to foot, in the throat, in the face, her hands. Up and down her body."

Then Mrs. Ratliff mentioned a detail I don't think I'll ever forget.

"At the funeral home," she said, "they told me I wasn't allowed to touch her because they had such a hard time covering the cuts on her hands from trying to fight him off. I wasn't allowed to touch any part of her, really. At first they didn't think the coffin could be open."

That's when I told Mrs. Ratliff about you, Craig Price's friends. I told her how you were still standing by him, waving to him outside court, defending him in conversation.

She asked me to have you think again about what he did.

"For someone to just stand there and stab and stab," she said. "I can imagine the screaming and hollering and trying to get away, and knowing it was useless from the size of that boy. I know she probably screamed `Ma,' and screamed for anybody else. But he just kept stabbing."

There's something else the victim's mother wants you to know.

"I still talk to her at night," said Mrs. Ratliff. "It may sound foolish to some people, but I talk to her, tell her how much I miss her, tell her that her children are doing fine. Some people may think it's crazy, but that seems to be my only way of keeping in touch with my daughter."

You were waiting there outside the courthouse, to wish him well; your friend, Craig Price. Your friend, who pleaded guilty to murder and then made jokes about smoking dope when he gets out.

Ask yourself: what kind of soul is inside this friend of yours?

And ask yourself this: Who, really, should decent people be wishing well?

The killer? Or the victim?