Sixteen-year-old Tara Perry followed her man into crime and madness
Since her 1999 arrest, Tara Perry has gone from a suicide watch to a college degree. Prison, she says, "has been like a sanctuary for me." Watch a video interview with Perry.
They know how to make an entrance, these bad boys. They strut into the King Soopers on Smoky Hill Road on a Friday evening in May like it's fight night in Vegas and they've got ringside seats, their every move radiating heat and menace.
There are four of them, all wearing ski masks and gloves and toting big handguns and semi-auto carbines. The message is clear: Attention, shoppers. Don't fuck with us.
They have an Explorer outside that they jacked in Cherry Creek, the driver now a duct-taped hostage in the cargo area. They have enough ammo to take out the dairy section and enough adrenaline to jump-start a whale. Before anybody can think about being a hero, they light the place up, firing shots in the air and shouting, "Get down!"
Some do as they're told. Others run, frightened by the gunfire and the masks. And that's when the shoppers notice the fifth member of the crew, rushing to her assigned station at the store entrance. She's a mere wisp of a girl, sixteen years old and five-two, maybe a hundred pounds, awkwardly clutching a .22 semi-auto with a 72-round clip, the muzzle pointed straight in the air.
Tara Perry is late to the robbery. While the others piled out of the Explorer, she was left in the back, fumbling with the door lock; she finally had to climb over the front seat to get out. She stands just inside the store, tugging at the nylon stocking over her head, which is sticking to her long eyelashes and making it hard to see.
The air is thick with gunsmoke. Squinting, Tara can catch a glimpse of Randy Miller, her boyfriend, shooting at the locked door of an office where the cash is kept. Ateba Bailey cradles a mini-14 and stands very still. The other two men — kids, really, not much older than her — are bouncing around. One clubs a sacker with his pistol. She doesn't even know their names, these two; Ateba brought them, and she just met them a few minutes ago. They're rushing around to no purpose, and time seems to have stopped.
The trigger on her .22 is softer than she expected. Before she knows it, she has sprayed the ceiling with bullets. She freaks and drops the rifle. Everybody is staring at her, and it's as if she's staring, too. She's out of her body somewhere, watching all this happen to someone else, watching it unfold like a movie.
For Perry, the entire three-day crime spree was like a movie — a detached, grim import, maybe, the most joyless "spree" imaginable. A movie with a bad ending, directed by a man whose one goal in this world was to find a suitably violent exit from it.
Three months before it all started, she'd been a shy sophomore at Aurora Central High School, a member of the soccer and speech teams. Then Randy Miller had come out of prison and back into her world. A 22-year-old former child prostitute and drug dealer, Miller had promised to take her away from a tumultuous and painful home life. But the journey he had in mind led downward, into a terrifying series of home invasions and armed robberies and, finally, a few hours after the King Soopers stickup, to a standoff with state troopers in a small Kansas town.
That was where the movie ended for Miller, who killed himself rather than surrender. But not for Perry. The robberies had gone down just weeks after the 1999 Columbine shootings, in a state besieged with demands to crack down on teen violence. Charged as an adult, Perry was sentenced to 66 years in prison for attempted murder, robbery, assault and other crimes. (The "attempted murder" rap stemmed from the gunfire inside the King Soopers.) The total was later reduced to forty years, but her sentence is still the longest of any juvenile in the state who didn't actually kill or maim anyone.
Forty years is more time than people receive for second-degree murder or, in many cases, for rape or for beating their own children to death. Perry has already done more hard time than Lisl Auman, sentenced to life for felony murder in 1998 after a burglary cohort killed a Denver police officer — but moved to community corrections seven years later, after her cause was taken up by Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp. That Perry has been buried in the adult system for thirteen years now, with no end in sight, incenses many of her longtime friends and supporters.
"She's been there so long," says Mary Michaud, who was Perry's English teacher at Aurora Central. "It's sort of like sending a kid to their room forever. At what point does this stop being anything good and just become cruelty?"
Yet Perry, now 29, doesn't talk much about the harshness of her sentence, or of having spent nearly half her life behind bars. She doesn't offer excuses, doesn't blame others for her actions. She would rather talk about the life that began with her arrest, amid misery and death, and has developed into something unscripted and unexpected. No longer the battered and broken accomplice to Miller's rampage, she has become an educated, independent model of rehabilitation and remorse, an inspiration to inmates and staff alike — and, perhaps, a few steps closer to redemption and freedom than she dares to hope.
"I think I began to realize that there was value in me when people started coming out of the woodwork to help me, to be in my life," she says now. "It sounds strange, but prison has been like a sanctuary for me. I've learned how to express myself, to make choices that matter — and even to be happy. To be able to believe that life is still beautiful, beyond this experience, is a blessing."
Despite the name, it's unlikely that any royalty has ever stayed at the Kings Inn, one of a dwindling procession of inexpensive motels along East Colfax. Half a century ago, the motels were often the first stop of new arrivals in town. But in recent years they've adapted to a different clientele, including people in desperate need of temporary housing — people battling a downward spiral of poverty, addiction, family crises...or all three.
Diana Lombardi brought her three children — Tara Perry, her older sister Teresa and a younger brother — to the Kings Inn in the mid-1990s. In some ways, it was a step up for the family, which had spent months at a time in homeless shelters and many nights sleeping in a car.
Tara and Teresa have almost no memories of their father, a man Lombardi met at a party when she was twenty. Lombardi had a good job when they started dating, but not for long. They were both heavy drinkers, and her new partner was a mean drunk and frequently in trouble with the law. "He was beating me up so bad I couldn't go to work," she recalls.
After their father left, the girls enjoyed brief periods of stability. At one point they lived in a trailer in Palmer Lake with the man who fathered Lombardi's son. But Lombardi was often broke, unemployed, and barely scraping by. The Kings Inn was supposed to be a fresh start. They ended up staying for years, after Lombardi got a job managing the motel, which included free rent.
Tara loved going to school; it felt safe there and offered a degree of structure and routine she never found at home. Her friendships were distant, though. She was ashamed to bring classmates to the motel, afraid they might tell others about her poverty and her alcoholic mother. "It felt like I was living a double life," she says. "I had one life at school and another at the motel."
Life at home was frequently chaotic, with running drunken arguments between Lombardi and her boyfriends. As they grew older, Tara and her sister increasingly spent time away from the place, even if that meant wandering parks late at night. "We tried not to get home as much as possible," says Teresa Perry. "We found our own outlets."
One of Tara's outlets was visiting Robert Lee McCalmant, better known as Pops. A quiet man in his sixties, McCalmant lived on the fourth floor of the Kings Inn, in a two-bedroom suite that was furnished like a regular apartment. He ran a coffee shop at the Dunes Motel and always seemed to have a buck or two to slip to the needy kids who hung around his front door. He collected guns and antiques and seemed to know everybody in the neighborhood. Tara couldn't figure out why he stayed in a place like the Kings Inn and rode the bus when he clearly could afford better, but it wasn't a mystery she could solve. She was just glad to have a place to hang, where nobody asked questions.
It was through hanging around McCalmant's place that she first met Randy Miller. She was thirteen. He was twenty and a denizen of Colfax. He already had a long history of drug and assault arrests and had done time in the juvenile system, but to Perry he seemed charming and gentle, almost feminine. "Girls followed him everywhere," she says. "He paid me compliments and made me feel special."
With Miller, she didn't have to pretend to be someone else. He knew about the turmoil in her home and seemed to genuinely care. But a romantic relationship between the two didn't develop until after Miller went into the Colorado Department of Corrections in 1997 on a two-year jolt for drug charges. He wrote her a lonely letter. She wrote back. By the fall of 1998 she was writing him every day — and counting the weeks until he'd be back in town.
She celebrated her sixteenth birthday that December. No one at school suspected that she was "super-involved" with a convict pen pal. Retired Aurora Central teacher Michaud remembers Perry as "almost a shadow" in her English class — a quiet, eager-to-please waif.
"There were kids at Central who specialized in trouble, who liked the idea of the danger and the drugs," she says. "That was never her thing. It was clear that Tara was a lost soul. You could see she wasn't being taken care of, but she came to class all the time. Then all of a sudden she wasn't coming, and nobody seemed to know why."
Toward the end of his prison stretch, writing from a cell in the administrative-segregation unit at the Territorial Correctional Facility, Miller told Perry that he'd reached a momentous decision. He hinted darkly at secrets he could no longer carry on his own. He was paroled on February 23, 1999, and sat her down that night to tell her everything.
"You can't tell anyone," he began, "but I finally did it."
He told her that he had gone to the Aurora police about Pops. Pops was pure evil. Pops had started molesting him when Miller was eleven years old. He had used him and put him on the path to prostitution. And he'd sexually assaulted at least five or six other boys. McCalmant, he said, was a rich man who stayed at the Kings Inn simply to prey on runaways, plying them with drugs and booze and using force if necessary. An investigation was under way, and Pops was going to be arrested soon.
"He told me that he'd had male relationships in prison and was coming to an acceptance that he was bisexual," Perry recalls. "He said that the only thing he ever wanted was to turn McCalmant in, that he loathed him. And he said, 'Stay with me.'"
Perry was stunned. She had never seen anything sinister in McCalmant's generosity, never picked up on the hatred and fear that the sight of the old man stirred in Miller. But now that it was out, it made a terrible kind of sense. And she knew she would stay with Miller. She had never been with a boy before, wasn't used to being with anybody. But none of that seemed to matter now.
"Randy was my first boyfriend," she says. "I didn't date at school because then I would have to explain my life to them. With Randy, I didn't have to fear rejection."
Perry's mother wasn't thrilled to discover that her sixteen-year-old daughter was moving in with an adult felon. But she knew she'd lost control of Tara long before that. "I didn't know him, and I didn't like it at all," Lombardi says. "But there was no way I could stop them."
Teresa thought her sister was undergoing a personality change under the influence of her new boyfriend. "She just kind of lost herself and started doing things that weren't normal for her," she says. "She stopped going to school, to soccer, to church. I knew he wasn't the best person. He just kind of seemed like the boss, and I didn't dig that."
Miller was possessive and domineering, increasingly restricting Tara's ability to visit family and friends. When Miller barked that it was time to go, she would jump up and head for the door. Her sister and mother both suspected that he was abusing her; Teresa remembers Tara showing up at the motel in the middle of the night a couple of times, presumably after a fight with Miller. But when Lombardi confronted her daughter about a bruise on her arm, she said that Miller was simply teaching her how to "street fight."
In fact, Perry's new life had become a bruising domestic drama almost from the outset — a cycle of arguments and beatings, followed by tender makeup scenes, then more outbursts of violence. "He was sexually and emotionally abusive right away," Tara remembers. "He shoved me around a lot. He was emotionally controlling and very coercive, sexually aggressive. I was getting isolated from other people, but at some level I liked the attention.
"At one point I thought they were going to send him back for violating parole, but they didn't. I was thinking I needed to separate from him. I almost came out of my delusion. But I couldn't detach from him. He'd say, 'You're the only one I can talk to,' and I became obsessed with his turmoil."
Detectives working the McCalmant case tried to keep Miller, their chief witness, calm and out of trouble while they tracked down and interviewed other victims. But McCalmant's arrest that spring, far from bringing Miller relief, seemed to make him only more bitter and depressed; putting his tormentor away, he realized, wasn't going to give him back what had been taken from him. He began cutting himself and using heroin.
"He kept talking about guns, about crimes and suicide by cop, about going out in a blaze of gunfire," Perry says. "He had obtained a handgun and was basically setting up events to make his suicide happen."
He lost one job at a Waffle House when money turned up missing. His parole officer told him he was running out of free passes. Then he lost another position as a restaurant worker at Denver International Airport, amid other theft allegations. On Tuesday, May 18, the parole officer called to tell him to report to his office the next day.
"I'm done," Miller told Perry after he hung up. "I'm not going back to prison."
The next evening, he said he needed to get some groceries before his parole curfew and suggested they walk to the store. He took a route that brought them to the edge of an upscale apartment-hotel complex called the Holtz Executive Village. Spotting an open back door at the complex's offices, Miller abruptly pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt, grabbed Perry's wrist and plunged through the doorway, drawing his 9-millimeter handgun at the same time.
Perry had no weapon — and no warning, she says: "He points the gun at this cleaning lady, who starts screaming. The manager comes out, and Randy's demanding money. She brings him to the cash register and opens it. He tells me to put all the money in my pockets. I'm grabbing at the money, and money is flying all over the place. Then he grabs my wrist again and we run."
Some men pursued them. Miller pointed his gun at them and they backed off. The couple returned, out of breath, to the apartment they shared with another woman who worked at DIA. Miller counted the haul, around $900 in currency and a few checks, which they destroyed. He told Perry they'd have to get out of town fast; by now the police probably had her fingerprints from the cash register. He was also upset that she hadn't seen fit to cover her face. Perry wasn't worried about that. "I was more concerned that he would leave me," she says.
On Friday morning, Ateba Bailey, a friend of Miller's from his days in juvie, dropped by the apartment. Bailey was also failing parole and determined not to go back to prison. He and Miller agreed that it was time to "breeze." But first they needed more cash and wheels. Miller had already procured the other necessary items: He produced two more Bryco Jennings 9-millimeters identical to his own — one for Bailey, one for Perry. Now they had a matching set.
Miller asked his roommate to drive them to the Wyoming border. (The roommate later told police that she was "the victim of a kidnapping" and, like Perry, had received no advance briefing of the crimes about to be committed. She was never charged in the case.) Miller seemed to be improvising as they went; before they reached the state line, he announced a plan to fake a breakdown outside of Cheyenne and then steal a car when someone stopped to help them. But after a few minutes of standing by the side of the road, trying to flag down motorists, he gave up the idea. Instead, he eyed an isolated house not far from the highway and announced his intention to go make a phone call.
Perry and the others followed him to the front door. A four-year-old girl answered the bell. She summoned her mother, and Miller went into a spiel about his car breaking down. Then he was through the door, politely asking if his friends could come in, too. Once the others were inside, he pulled his gun on the woman, demanding, "Who else is in the house? Where is your money?"
The father appeared from another room. Perry stood guard over the family as Bailey and Miller went through the house, searching for treasure. They tied up the family in the basement and took off with their car and several guns they found. But after a few minutes of aimless driving around, Miller began to cry. "We shouldn't have done that," he said.
They left the stolen car at a truck stop and caught a ride with the roommate back to Colorado. Bailey, Miller and Perry stayed with another friend in Westminster that night. But once their host saw all the guns, she told them they'd have to find other lodgings.
On Friday the trio checked into the Royal Host motel at Colfax and Colorado Boulevard. After breakfast they wandered into the Mayfair neighborhood, where Miller selected a house, seemingly at random, and knocked on the door. A woman answered. This time Perry knew exactly what to expect, because it was a replay of the Cheyenne robbery: Could I please use your phone? Is there anyone else in the house? Where is your money?
No children this time, thankfully. Just the woman and her father, money and a car. But Miller seemed more agitated than during the previous robberies, frantic to leave. As he headed for the door, Perry called out, "Randy." He turned around and belted her with the back of his hand. They piled into the stolen car and he drove wildly, swerving and nearly crashing.
"Why did you say that?" he screamed. "Now they know my name!"
Perry felt shut down, as if the blow had snapped something inside her. She got out at the Royal Host. Miller said he and Bailey would dump the car and come back with another one.
She could have left at that point. But she stayed put. She called Teresa but refused to tell her where she was. She says she was too passive, too deeply enmeshed in her doomed romance to believe in the possibility of an exit.
"I remember talking in circles, telling Teresa I had seen bad things happen," she says. "My responsibility all along was in not getting out of that relationship. I'm absolutely responsible for my own dysfunction and not getting help. I understand why people who are abused feel they can't do that. But when you watch something happen and you don't get help, there's a lot of culpability in that."
Miller and Bailey returned hours later with a blue Explorer and a plan to rob the King Soopers on Smoky Hill Road. Perry could see something stirring under the cargo screen in the back of the Explorer. It turned out to be a 37-year-old employee of the Cherry Cricket, who'd been taken hostage in the carjacking. Perry asked him if he was okay and got a muffled affirmative.
They left her alone in the back seat, a few inches from the hostage, while they stopped to pick up Ateba's two young friends, who seemed excited about knocking off a grocery store. The five of them managed to shoot up the place, including Perry's firing into the ceiling, and to assault a couple of employees — all for nothing. They fled before getting any cash. Back in the Explorer, Perry realized that their captive had freed himself and slipped away while they were gone.
Miller drove like a maniac. He berated one of Ateba's friends, whom he accused of being too eager to take off. He had Ateba take the wheel while he turned around and began to beat the traitor with his pistol. Ateba told him to stop.
They dropped off the bloodied henchman and his pal at Ateba's place and decided to make tracks for the state line. But they'd gone only a few blocks when Ateba said he couldn't leave; his family needed him. Miller let him out.
Miller and Perry said little as they drove through the night, headed east.
It ended like a scene out of Badlands — but without the film-school artiness. A third of the way across Kansas, Miller spotted a state trooper in his rear-view mirror and decided to exit the highway at the town of Ellis, then hop back on after the law had passed by. But the trooper had run the plates on the Explorer, and there was no way to get back on the interstate except to return the way they came. Within minutes they were in a high-speed chase through the dead-end town, then in a head-on collision with a police car.
Miller hit the ground running. The last a dazed Perry saw of him was the white soles of his athletic shoes. She eyed the 9-millimeter he'd given her, sitting on the dash of the wrecked Explorer, and thought about killing herself. But before she could act, a trooper reached through the window, pulled her out of the vehicle, and threw her to the ground.
They took her to a basement command post. Miller had grabbed two male hostages and was holding them in a house nearby. They had the place surrounded, with a helicopter and snipers and SWAT. Just like in the movies, they wanted to put her on the phone with him and persuade him to give up. She agreed to try.
Miller's voice was calm. "You know I'm dying today," he said.
Perry told him to let the two men go. He said he wasn't going to hurt them. He told her how much he loved her, that he'd hurt so many people but never wanted to hurt her. Knowing that the law was listening in, he talked about how he "made" her go on the robberies with him, trying to give her an out.
He talked at length about how much he hated McCalmant. Knowing that Pops would soon get the good news of his demise saddened him beyond words. He described what it was like, going around with the detectives and telling the mothers of those boys what Pops had done, how one of them had slapped his face for not stopping him sooner, and how guilty he felt about that. But seeing Pops hauled into court in handcuffs had been the happiest day of his life.
The conversation went on for three hours. At one point he rang off and called her mother at the Kings Inn, to let her know that Tara had been arrested. Lombardi, who'd heard nothing from her daughter for days, wasn't in any mood to console Randy Miller.
"He said he was in a house with two old men and was pointing a gun at them," she recalls. "I said, 'Take the gun off them. I know you're just going to use it on yourself. Just do it.'"
Back on the line with Perry, Miller asked her, "Does God forgive you for everything?"
"God does forgive you for everything," she said.
"Even for being gay?"
"I love you," he said.
The gunshot was deafening, like an explosion in her own skull.
A year and eighteen days after Miller's death, Robert "Pops" McCalmant was found guilty on a hundred counts of sexual assaults on children and received the longest prison sentence ever imposed in Colorado: 1,338 years. He died in a prison infirmary in 2006, the full extent of his crimes still unknown.
"I believe we only scratched the surface," says Aurora police captain Terry Brown, one of the lead investigators on the case. "We identified twelve victims by the time it went to trial, but there may have been several others."
Tara Perry spent most of the first year after her arrest on a jailhouse suicide watch. To visitors she seemed in shock, convinced her life was over and eager to join her dead lover. She made several attempts to do just that by slicing her wrists.
Lombardi says her daughter was still suicidal when she accepted a plea deal of 66 years for the robberies in Denver and Arapahoe County. The family had few resources for a trial, an attorney who was pushing the deal — and a defendant who seemed utterly indifferent to her fate.
"I was told that if I went to trial I'd get hundreds of years," Perry says, "and that's true. My co-defendant did." (Ateba Bailey, who continued to insist on his innocence, was convicted at trial in Arapahoe County on multiple counts of attempted murder, robbery and kidnapping, and received a set of consecutive sentences totaling 250 years.)
Perry figured she deserved worse than she got. Along with Miller's suicide, she was haunted by other sights and sounds she couldn't get out of her head. The four-year-old girl opening the door in Cheyenne. The woman and her father in Mayfair who had guns pointed at them. The man in the back of the Explorer, telling her he was okay. The cleaning lady screaming. The terror they inflicted on people at their neighborhood grocery store. How could she have been part of all that pain?
Colleen Pakenham, who worked at the women's prison in Cañon City for twenty years, remembers Perry as "naive, guilt-ridden, and definitely below zero on the self-esteem scale" when she arrived there. "She was a mess," she recalls. "I watched how she went through the remorse she has for the victims. She probably did nothing that first year but go back and relive it."
Yet over time, her wretchedness began to lift. A significant step came in 2002, when she went to a resentencing hearing with a new attorney. The attorney pointed out that Perry had no prior criminal record, hadn't been the principal in any of the crimes, hadn't caused physical harm to any of the victims. She'd cooperated with the police after her arrest and had agreed to testify against other defendants. Her time was slashed to forty years by allowing her Denver and Arapahoe County sentences to run concurrently.
The sentence adjustment didn't make much of an impression on Perry at the time. What did, though, was the appearance at the hearing of the Cherry Cricket employee who'd been kidnapped by Miller and Bailey and bound in the back of his Explorer. He talked about how the ordeal had changed him, the surge of fear he still struggled with when he was alone in his car. But he was also "very compassionate," Perry says, and told her that she needed to forgive herself for what she had done.
Perry was moved. Pakenham and other mentors at the prison had urged her not to throw her life away, to find a way to move on. Maybe she could find ways to make amends. Maybe, even at this late date, she really did have the power to change her fate. "I was thinking to myself, I'm not dead," she says. "I have two directions to go — toward something better or something worse."
After that hearing, Perry was taken to Wyoming to face charges from the home invasion in Cheyenne. She informed the prosecutor that she was ready to plead guilty. "The only thing I wanted was to meet my victims," she says. "I wasn't going to put them through a trial."
Colorado's victim-rights law prohibits offenders from having contact with crime victims — a major obstacle to the effort to launch restorative-justice programs ("The Victim Lobby," October 20, 2011). Wyoming has less imposing barriers, and the family was receptive to the proposal. Perry met first with the two adults who were in the house; then the mother returned with her children, some of whom had come home from school that day to find their parents tied up. The little girl who answered the door was several years older now. The oldest daughter was the same age as Perry.
She answered their questions and told them she was sorry. The father was angry, the mother more sympathetic. The experience, while painful, made Perry feel stronger — more human, somehow. A judge in Cheyenne gave her an indeterminate sentence of fifteen to twenty years, to be served concurrently with her Colorado sentence.
Facing her victims and the enormity of her crimes was something she couldn't have imagined doing at sixteen. She had come into the system beaten and resigned, seemingly easy prey for seasoned convicts inclined to manipulate and abuse the weak. But prison had taught her some basic communication skills she'd never had before.
"Being passive, like in my crime spree, that wasn't going to work in prison," she says. "I learned right away that I was going to have to be assertive, to say what I mean and mean what I say. I had to create strong boundaries."
Perry credits the prison's Alternatives to Violence Program, which focuses on conflict resolution and listening skills, for teaching her that she had the power within herself "to transform conflict by being direct." She began participating in the program shortly after her incarceration and was facilitating workshops by the time she was nineteen. When the Cañon City women's prison closed in 2009, she brought the program with her to the Denver Women's Correctional Facility.
"From what I hear from the other inmates, they see her as a role model," says Bruce Thron-Weber, a facilitator with the nonprofit New Foundations, which oversees many of the AVP offerings within the state prison system. "They see the way she carries herself, the way she resolves conflict, and that encourages others to take the workshop."
Prisoners serving long sentences often don't qualify for or don't bother with some of the classes and training programs offered within the Department of Corrections. Pakenham says Perry "took everything that was offered and excelled in everything." She worked with at-risk youth who visited the prison. She spent years in the popular K-9 program; some day she hopes to be a professional trainer of service dogs for war veterans. She also pursued a college degree — no small feat from behind bars, since funding for higher education for inmates is almost nonexistent, and the few programs that are offered require prisoners to pay for the courses themselves or find a sponsor.
Perry had no funds for the classes. "I believe in the law of attraction," she says. "Everything we put out comes back to us. I kept putting out this intention, 'Please don't let me go to the parole board after fifteen years and not have a college education.'"
Westy Bush, who's taught art classes in Colorado prisons for thirty years, remembers hearing about a young woman who was bright and motivated but had exhausted the system's usual educational opportunities. She persuaded other members of her church, the Flame of Life Universalist Church in Pueblo, to make contributions.
"We are a tiny church," she explains. "It just happens that our group really cares about helping people contribute to society. I could see changes in prisoners when they took college classes. But Tara's sentence was so long that she wasn't eligible for any assistance."
Perry finally met Bush at the ceremony when she received her associates' degree in 2009. She's now working on her bachelor's, majoring in business administration, with the ongoing support of Bush's church. Jim Bullington, who oversaw a now-defunct program offering college courses for prisoners through Adams State College, says Perry was one of the program's standouts.
"It was very rare that someone received an AA degree — maybe less than twenty out of hundreds," he says. "But there was a group of women at the facility in Cañon City who were unbelievable, and she set the bar high for others."
Pakenham watched Perry transform herself over a period of nine years, up until that prison closed. "She was very well liked, for the most part," she says. "I'm sure there were some inmates who didn't like her, especially as she tried to become a different person. She would find a way to circumvent some of the convict codes to get help, if someone was cutting on themselves or needed to be watched. She's done everything she possibly could to show she would not be a threat to society and would be an asset to the community."
After ten years inside, Perry applied for a commutation of her sentence from the juvenile clemency board, created under then-governor Bill Ritter to consider cases of adult inmates serving time for crimes committed as juveniles. Her application included glowing letters of support from prison volunteers and staff, a nearly spotless disciplinary record, an outside network eager to aid her in finding suitable employment — her mother stopped drinking six months after Perry went to prison, and their relationship is now stronger than ever — and her own eloquent, carefully typed appeal.
"I never take what happened lightly," she wrote. "The guilt I carry in my heart every day will be a huge part of my life forever.... I have come to the understanding that I committed more than just a criminal act. I supported the criminal behavior of the others involved by going along with them instead of resisting and standing up for what was right.
"I have learned that absolute freedom is not in where I physically reside but in becoming free from emotional and mental suffering. I have strengths that I did not have prior to and leading up to my incarceration."
She described her "powerful" reconciliation with the family in Wyoming and expressed the hope that one day she would be permitted to meet with victims of the Colorado robberies, too: "I would never want to re-injure them, but rather to give to them the remorse that is in my heart."
Perry was considered a strong candidate for clemency. But after months of waiting, she discovered that her application hadn't been approved or denied. It had simply been withdrawn because of what amounts to a paperwork glitch. Although she'd entered a guilty plea and been sentenced in Wyoming, she'd never been officially processed into their corrections system; there was still a "detainer" on her record from the Cowboy State, and she wouldn't qualify for clemency consideration until it was cleared up.
She was told she could reapply to the board after the paperwork is addressed. She's also eligible to meet the parole board in 2014. Even though inmates convicted of violent crimes almost never get parole the first time around, she hopes to achieve some form of reconciliation with the other crime victims before the hearing arrives. "Requesting release would not be the same for me if they did not feel comfortable with me going back to the community," she says.
Recently Perry wrote a poem about her effort to free herself from the ghost of Randy Miller — and all the anger and sorrow he planted inside her, the legacy of a victim turned victimizer. It's a meditation on the kind of spiritual freedom she referred to in her clemency application:
Been living inside your suicide for over a decade now
Like living inside a snowglobe raining bullets and blades...
Can't even remember half the things that I missed
Freeing you from my mind every single day
Still doesn't free me from this raging cage
Letting you fade until this story no longer feels like mine
Waiting sweetly for the chance to feel sunshine from the other side
Striving to be better for when that day comes
Striving to better even if that day never does
Letting go of the way everything was...
Wait, wait, wait is now this wingless angel's fate
She takes accounting classes. She writes poetry. She does yoga. She strives to be better. The rest, like the poem says, is just waiting.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.