News Press

Emptiness, grief haunt dad a year after wife killed son

By ANDI ATWATER, aatwater@news-press.com
December 22, 2002
News Press

“On a balloon that he won
He wrote mama I had fun
I missed you and I wished you were there
I wasn’t sure what he had in mind
’Till he jumped up and ran outside and
He let it go, he waved goodbye, or was it hello?
I don’t know but I died inside
I can still see his excitement
Him pointing and smilin’
When it was gone as it could get
He turned and asked me
You think it’s in Heaven yet?”

— “The Balloon Song” as sung by Mark Wills

Today it has been 15 months since Bill Wallace buried his youngest son.

The grave site in Fort Myers is now a familiar place.

On Sept. 2, the first anniversary of his son’s killing, Wallace and his teenage son, Kenny, released a half-dozen yellow balloons in the air, each with messages to James “Buggy” Wallace:

“We Miss You.”

“We Love You.”

Singer Mark Wills crooned “The Balloon Song” in the background on a portable CD player. Bill Wallace plays that song often.

“I miss his hugs,” Wallace said, his eyes brimming with tears, tired with endless, unanswerable questions. “But he’s still with me. He will always be with me.”

Today, National Children’s Memorial Day, the Wallace men will light a candle for their loved one, as thousands of parents who lost children will do at 7 p.m. around the world.

It’s been more than a year since Leslie Wallace, police say, gunned down her 6-year-old son while he watched cartoons on a Sunday morning.

She then, unsuccessfully, went after her two teenage boys.

As Leslie Wallace, 40, sits in Lee County Jail awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge, her estranged husband and two sons have tried to move on with their lives, to try to make sense out of a senseless killing and find solace in a world where pain tinges everything.

EMPTY FEELING: Bill Wallace sits in his Cape Coral home more than a year after his wife, police say, shot and killed their 6-year-old son, James, in September 2001.
Photos by TODD STUBING/news-press.com


Kenny Wallace, 17, whose life was spared when the blast from the shotgun was stopped by his Bible, has entrenched himself in school and church.

He wants nothing to do with his mother, his father said.

Greg Wallace, 20, who escaped the shooting rampage by locking himself inside a Pizza Hut, will try to rejoin the Army within two years, his first attempt thwarted by terrifying nightmares that began during gun training earlier this year.

He sometimes talks to his mother.

Bill Wallace, 45, his beard now shaved and his eyes heavy from a year of sorrow, tries to get through his days with grace and compassion, driven by the belief that one day he’ll be reunited with his beloved James.

He started collecting angels.

“I go on breathing every day; I put one foot in front of the other,” he said. “I want nothing more than to hold James — but I don’t want to sound suicidal because I’m not. I won’t give in to it. I have my boys to think about and I believe I won’t get to see James again if I did something like that.”

It’s still hard not to blame himself, tormented by the “what if” and “if only” questions that plague most surviving parents.

Wallace replays that morning over and over again in his mind.

He had to run some errands. James wanted to go with him, but Wallace said no, stay with Mommy.

James was dancing around, imitating a Power Ranger. James’ running back into the house as his father drove off is Bill Wallace’s last living memory of the boy.

“Yeah, I a blame myself. I stood my wife up, gave her and hug and said, ‘You want to go?’ Bill Wallace said. “She said, ‘No, I have something to do.’ I didn’t know she meant kill my son.”

Attorneys for Leslie Wallace will use the insanity defense in Wallace’s trial. Her next appearance in court is Jan. 21, but the case isn’t expected to go to trial then because she’s still being examined by psychologists.

Her family said she has a history of mental illness — depression — and court records show she dabbled in witchcraft and called herself “Palm Frond.”

According to police, when Leslie Wallace called 911 that fateful day, she told a dispatcher, “I just shot a 6-year-old boy ... He’s probably dead by now.” She then added, “I just regret that I missed my 16-year-old.”

ANGEL IN THEIR HEARTS: An angel statue hangs next to James Wallace’s first-grade picture at Bill Wallace’s home in Cape Coral. In the picture, James is wearing one of his favorite shirts, which he was wearing the day he died.

Somewhere deep inside, Bill Wallace has dredged up some compassion toward his wife of 14 years.

“I don’t hate Leslie,” he said. “I hate what she did, but I don’t hate her. Hate would just eat me up, destroy me.”

He went to see her once in July — via a video monitor — but the meeting didn’t go very well because Bill Wallace said he wanted a divorce.

His compassion is akin to pity.

“There is no chance of us getting back together,” he said. “I’d look at her and I’d see the woman who killed my child. It’d be like saying James’ life was not worth anything.”

Still, he doesn’t want to see Leslie Wallace get the death penalty if she’s convicted. At the same time, he bought cremation services for her and arranged to have her interned next to James.

“She needs to live with this the rest of her life — just like we do,” Wallace said. “It’s only fair. She’s still the mother of my kids. They lost their brother and I lost my wife. Under these circumstances, I don’t think the death penalty is appropriate.”

On Thanksgiving, Wallace and his sons ate dinner as a family, the chair to the left of Wallace’s empty but for a picture of James, a smile gracing his cherubic face.

Symbols, great and small, mark the days.

Angels abound in the Wallaces’ rented house in Cape Coral: on shelves, pinned to hats, around Bill Wallace’s neck.

Wallace’s adoring Pomeranian puppy made its first sound at James’ grave.

A green striped shirt that James wore is laid out on Bill Wallace’s bed, a comfort, he says, during the silent, lonely nights.

James’ face graces the computer screen saver on Wallace’s desk. Wallace still takes James’ child-size fishing pole with him.

And in a china cabinet in the dining room, some of James’ favorite toys are displayed — a yellow Picachu Pokeman, a Transformer, a toy truck and several action figures.

If he can find someone to do it, Bill Wallace wants to get an angel painted onto his black car, preferably with the likeness of James.

“It’s getting easier, but it’s still hard,” Wallace said.

Wallace keeps mostly to himself these days, the anguish of his son’s death still the overriding emotion that haunts him.

He wants to move on. He’s even eager to move on. But a few courageously attempted dates have convinced him he’s not yet ready.

“Let’s face it, this subject matter comes up and it makes things awkward,” he said. “And with so much emptiness inside, you’re overflowing and you end up smothering the other person.

“I’ve come to realize that I’m in a Catch-22 right now — I’m aching with emptiness, but I can’t really be around other people. At least not yet.”