Life Without Father

Dayton James's daughters were the center of his life, and he was the strong and certain linchpin of theirs. Although he and their mother divorced when the girls were small, James saw Darcy and Daytona every week. He took them bowling or to dinner; he let them select movies. Sometimes he took them to the cinema he managed, where they sat in the dark all day watching films and eating popcorn.

The girls adored their father, but they took him for granted, too. "You don't cherish the time you have," says Daytona Ferry. She is sitting with her sister at a table in her pretty Arvada house. "We were at that age when we wanted to be with Dad, but then we had friends we wanted to go to..."

When she was nineteen, Darcy Priola lived with her father for almost a year. She remembers small things -- that he worked late hours and ate a bland diet because he was watching his cholesterol. That she'd lie in bed at night and listen to him laugh at the antics of the gang on Cheers.

At one point, Darcy says, "I gave him a cat that he didn't want."

"It destroyed his couch," Daytona chimes in, laughing.

"Yes." Darcy is laughing, too.

"And it would attack his legs when he was in his suit when he'd leave for work because it was mad that he was leaving."

"But he would pet it. I would see him pet it."

"Yeah, he loved that cat..."

The sisters were also amused by James's bright green wall. Their father was color-blind, Darcy explains, and when she lived with him she'd begged him to repaint the wall because it embarrassed her when friends came over. He'd refused. He said it relaxed him, remembers Daytona. "But I don't think he knew the extent of the brightness of it," adds Darcy.

Daytona was 25 when James was killed; Darcy was 22. Throughout their entire lives he had been both hugely important and invisible in the way that parents are to children. Now, seven years after his death, they struggle with an acute and constant sense of loss. They wish they'd paid more attention during every precious moment they had with their father. They try to fathom just who he was, poring over photographs, searching their memories, putting together bits and pieces they've heard to create a map of his life. They mourn the fact that their own children -- Daytona's two: seven-year-old Sarah, whom James was able to see and hold during a visit to California, and five-year-old Heather; Darcy's son, Dylan James, who's three -- will never know their grandfather.

"Darcy and I went crazy in our minds because we don't know the specifics about anything," says Daytona. "We know a little about this, a little about that. Dad was very private, even with us."

The sisters do know that their father grew up in West Virginia and was brutally abused by his own father. A family friend told them that their father's dog had once tried to protect him from a beating, and their grandfather had shot the dog in front of his son. Dayton James left home at the age of thirteen. He never completed his education -- a fact that troubled him to the end of his life. The day before James died, Darcy had told him over the phone that as a senior citizen, he could take university classes for free. "He was really excited about that," says Daytona.

James lived for some time in Detroit. He was a merchant marine. He returned to Charleston, West Virginia, and taught ballroom dancing for the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, where he was once honored as "the most outstanding and progressive teacher of the month."

For the last several decades of his life, he had managed movie houses, beginning his career as a doorman at Denver's old Paramount Theatre in the early '60s. There was some financial uncertainty after Mann Theatres laid him off in '91, and he filled in at various jobs until he found work at the Basemar Cinema Savers in Boulder. Co-workers there described him as immensely conscientious.

James suffered from depression and saw a psychiatrist to the end of his life, trying to deal with his troubled background. Although he rarely spoke of his religion and never proselytized, James was a devoted Catholic. A friend said he'd once told her that he wasn't skilled at relationships, so he'd devoted his life to his daughters and to doing what good he could in the world. He volunteered for social services, supervising visits between children and divorced parents; he visited a shut-in old man; he allowed neighboring children to set up a basketball court in his yard.

"I know he was a Big Brother," says Darcy. "He used to take this little boy roller-skating all the time. I think he liked helping him, maybe where he didn't get help when he was little. And he did something for Ridge Homes, because there's a plaque."

James often let kids and homeless people into the movies for free. "These two guys showed up at his funeral," remembers Darcy. "They looked like they lived in their car and we thought, oh, who are these people? Then they came up and talked to us. One of them had his birthday on the same day as Dad and Dad took him to Denny's."

The two women are still puzzled about what actually happened on the night of their father's death. They know he would have opened the door if anyone had knocked, asking for help. They also know that he'd advised employees to give up the money without argument if a robbery ever occurred: James had been held up once before. "I would say, Dad, doesn't that scare you?" Daytona remembers. "And he would say, Daytona, there's nothing you can do about it."

"He didn't judge anyone," Darcy says. "I remember when he worked at East Colfax at the movie theater. There were gangs and everything there. And I used to say, aren't you scared? And he said, no, they're nice to him."

The murder destroyed Darcy and Daytona's sense that the universe was fundamentally benevolent. Darcy often finds herself afraid to leave her house. "I'll just think, well, I'll stay home because something bad could happen," she says. "Or if anything's off, like your husband's late, or the phone rings at night, I think something bad has happened."

"For some reason," says Daytona, "I don't know, I cry all the time."

Darcy nods. "Yeah. She cries all the time."

"I can get hysterical over things like...well, my daughter was just at Children's Hospital and when they put her under anesthesia, I knew that the worst was going to happen because that would be my luck..." (Heather had a strep throat that did not respond to antibiotics; she is now fully recovered.)

"Whenever I leave my girls, like for a weekend, I write them letters because we know something like that could happen any time," Daytona continues. "I would love to have letters from Dad..."

Darcy reminds her sister that their father left each of them a small clay figure, and Daytona goes to find hers. She places it on the table. It's a child of indeterminate sex, seated, with its arms folded round its knees. The caption says, "Love the child within."

Darcy and Daytona struggle with profound and complex feelings toward their father's killer.

"You know, I don't really have hate," says Darcy. "He wouldn't want us to hate them. Just...I'm wary of a lot of people. But it's not hate. I don't think I've said I hate Joshua and Charlie Pa..."

"I think I've said I hate what they've done to Dad," says Daytona.

"Looking at them makes me want to cringe."

"Just throw up."

"Sometimes I feel I could forgive them more if they would ever bother to tell us they're sorry," says Darcy.

They talk a little about Beckius's letters to them, and wonder if they were sincere. "It could be his lawyer telling him to write the letter for lighter sentencing," says Darcy. "So I would think if he was truly sorry, he would have wrote again. And the other one just had no remorse at all."

Both women find the prospect of a new trial -- should Beckius win one -- extremely daunting. "We've dealt with it and the pain doesn't go away, we've been able to just manage it," says Daytona. "To me it would feel like we're going to have to go back in time...

"It's nice to know they're in there, doing their time," she concludes.

In a sense, James had a third daughter. Toni Lucci first met him when she was sixteen and applying for a job at a theater he managed. She had been riding her bicycle round and round the building, afraid to go in. "I am who I am because of him," she says now. "I had a tough time growing up. I didn't have a dad. He totally took me under his wing."

Eventually Lucci became a manager herself, and James would tease her: "If I didn't take you off the streets," he'd tell her, "you'd still be riding your bicycle around the theater."

Lucci remembers being snowbound with James in a movie house for ten hours during the blizzard of 1982. "We told jokes," she says. "We put on country music. He was teaching me dance steps.

"He influenced everybody that he worked with. He was very quiet, but with an underlying sense of humor, and you were comforted by him even though he didn't speak a lot."

When James did talk, it was usually about his daughters.

Her mentor's death had a huge impact on Lucci. She continued working as a theater manager, but now she was afraid. "I was at the theater one night," she recalls, "and I could have sworn I heard his voice in my head: 'Be careful.' I saw people outside walking around, and I called security. I know he watches out for me." Eventually, she left the business.

To support Darcy and Daytona, Lucci attended one of the hearings in the murder case, where she saw Charlie Pa and Joshua Beckius. "I didn't want to do that," she says. "I didn't want to see them.

"I can't tell you the amount of anger I have for those two guys. If they had ever worked with him or known him as a person...I don't think anybody who knew him could have done that."

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman