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Lisa Rea interviews Stephen Watt

Nov 05, 2009

By Lisa Rea:

The following interview is with Stephen Watt, a former Wyoming state trooper and two term state legislator who was shot multiple times by a fleeing bank robber. Lisa Rea's interview focuses on how the impact of a severely violent crime continues 20 years later. Mr. Watt has met with the offender, forgiven him and a friendly relationship has grown up between them. Nevertheless, he continues to suffer. Can restorative justice open doors for further healing in a victim of violent crime who is suffering continuing, severe trauma?

Q. Stephen, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell us briefly about the crime committed against you? What kind of injuries did you sustain?

SW: On March 18, 1982 while serving as a Wyoming State Trooper I was searching for a bank robber when I stopped a car to ask the driver if he had seen the certain kind of car that I was looking for.  Unknown to me it was the bank robber that I was stopping. 

Michelle Renee and Cheryl Ward-Kaiser listen to Stephen Watt at Forum on restorative justice held at Fresno Pacific University's Centre for Conflict Studies & Peacemaking. Date: (circa) 2007
Michelle Renee and Cheryl Ward-Kaiser listen to Stephen Watt at a forum on restorative justice held at Fresno Pacific University's Centre for Conflict Studies & Peacemaking, (circa) 2007

As soon as I turned on my overhead lights the bank robber slammed on his brakes and jumped out of his car and fired two bullets into the windshield of my car.  The first bullet came through the windshield, through my sunglasses and hit me in the left eye.  This bullet went to the back of my eye socket, broke out the back of the eye socket and stopped the thickness of a piece of paper from entering my brain. 

I threw myself onto my right side to get below the dashboard and out of the line of fire when the bank robber ran back to my car, leaned in the door and shot me four times in the left lower back.  One of the bullets went through me and hit me in the liver.  This bullet missed a major blood vessel by a quarter of an inch.  If this bullet would have hit that blood vessel I would have died within minutes from internal bleeding. Another bullet hit me in the spine stopping a sixteenth of an inch from my spinal cord.  The last two bullets after bouncing around inside me ended in my left hip.  

Considering where I was hit, I should have died, suffered brain damage or at the very least been paralyzed. As it is I lost my left eye and have no feeling in my legs from the knees down.

Q. Since the shooting what kind of problems have you experienced? How has it changed your life?

SW: With age the problems that I am having from being shot seem to have taken on a snowball effect.  Ever since I was shot I have had a lot of pain, daily pain.  Now I just don't have the energy to do too much.

Because of having no feeling in my lower legs I have gotten ulcers on the bottom of my right foot and gotten bone infections that have resulted in having bones taken out of my foot.  Now the structure of my foot has been compromised to the point that I have to wear a special boot and use crutches and a wheel chair.  I've also had so many infections in my foot that I have developed diabetes.

I really don't know how to answer the question, "How has it changed your life?" mostly because I don't know how my life would have turned out if I hadn't been shot.  The plan that I had for my life was to serve twenty five years as a state trooper and then retire and become a sheriff in my home county for as long as I could get elected.  I can say that everything I had planned didn't happen.

Q.  Would you go in some detail about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?    Do you feel that in some way your needs as a crime victim have been ignored?   If so, why do you think that is?

SW: Well, I think that first I would like to start with a definition for post traumatic stress.  The definition I like is, "Normal reactions to abnormal situations".  Then the disorder part is the negative effects that the abnormal situation has on one’s mental and physical health or functions.  I know that this is a very simple way of looking at it but let's face it I am a pretty simple person.

I have post traumatic stress disorder.  From the moment I first woke up from surgery I woke up from nightmares of being shot.  I would wake up screaming that I had been shot.  I have had this nightmare ever since (the shooting).

Sometimes I will have it every night for months and then I might go for months without having this nightmare but I will have other violent nightmares.  I will also have some periods of time without having any violent nightmares.

Another thing I experience is flashbacks.  Sights, sounds, and smells trigger the flashbacks for me.  I have two kinds of flashbacks.  One flashback I call the slide show which is individual pictures of my shooting that flash into my mind.  Sometimes that one picture will flash just once and other times it will flash over and over.  Then at other times I will have a series of pictures flash through my mind with a blank pause between the pictures.  Then there is the movie which will be the whole shooting flashing through my mind just like the movies.
I've also had times of just blank spots in my life.  I have no idea where I have been or what I have done.

Q. What kind of assistance would you like to receive as a victim of crime?

SW: The thing that I think that is most important for victims of crime is that any assistance that is offered should be friendly to the victim.  Any help that I have gotten, or asked for, I had to jump through hoops to get.  I've had to fill out all sorts of paper work and answer all sorts of questions, questions that were worded in a way that made it sound like I was trying to cheat the system.  Questions that made me feel like I was a criminal for even asking for help.

I think that victims of crime should be offered counseling for the rest of their lives if needed.  I didn't realize that I suffered from post traumatic stress disorder until twenty years after I was shot. When I finally realized that I needed counseling it was a battle to get workman's compensation to pay for it.  Then I think that the victim should be compensated for their loss.  Most important I think that the offender should be the one to pay for all of the expenses that their crime has caused.  I think that this is just as important as any time the offender spends in prison because the victim then feels that the offender is truly paying for their crime.

Yes, my needs as a crime victim have been ignored simply because when I was shot there were no victims' rights.  There was no restorative justice and there is still no restorative justice.

Q. Following up on that comment we know you are a supporter of restorative justice. In fact, you supported the work of The Justice & Reconciliation Project (JRP) [founded by Lisa Rea] by telling your story to the public and to the media. Why do you support restorative justice?  What ways could restorative justice be more fully actualized in your life now?

SW: On my own I contacted the man who shot me only to share my new Christian beliefs with him.  After that initial contact we just kept communicating and over time a friendship started to grow.  As I got to know him (Mark Farnham), I started to see him as a human and not the monster that shot me.  As time has gone by our friendship has grown to the point that we are very good friends now. I support restorative justice because I believe that those people who commit a criminal act should have to make the victim of their crime as whole as possible in every aspect.  When an offender is required to do this it makes their victim human. It also makes the offender understand the cost of the crime to their victim.

There is a story I’d like to share about Mark. One day I was visiting him in prison.  He was pretty quiet and didn't have a lot to say. I asked him what was wrong.  He told me that everyone in prison over time forgets their crime and victim.  Some even twist facts around so they can place the blame for the crime on the victim.  Mark told me that because of my forgiveness and friendship that he could never do that. Every time he talked to me or saw me he had to remember what he did to me. Because of my forgiveness (expressed to him) and friendship he now had to stop and think about how his actions would affect other people. For years now Mark has wanted to help me in any way that he can but because he is still in prison with little chance of getting out he can't help me.

Q. I understand you support Mark getting out of prison. Is that right? Why?

SW: Yes, I do I support Mark getting out of prison.  For some reason this part of my story seems to make a lot of people mad at me and I can't figure this out.  One thing that I think that people need to understand is that under the right circumstance and with a poor choice some of us could find ourselves in situations that could land us in prison.  Maybe for a crime that we didn't intend to commit or for a crime that we just didn't realize was a crime.  Or maybe we just didn't think about what the consequences would be for what we did.

I think all of us could say at some point in our life, "But for the grace of God go I."  I support the man who Mark is now (to get him out of prison) and not the man who Mark was when he shot me.  The man who shot me was a monster at the time he shot me.  The man who I call a friend is truly a changed man who is sorry for what he has done to me.  If I had allowed myself to never have gotten to know Mark in a personal way I would never have gotten to know just what kind of person he is.  Over the years I have found out that we are a lot alike.

Q. How active have you been in seeking Mark’s release from prison? Has that had an impact on you and your well-being?

SW: I've written letters to the parole board and appeared at parole hearings to speak on behalf of Mark.  I have done so at great cost to myself but I believe so strongly in the changes that Mark has made in himself that as a friend you provide support regardless of the cost. Every year when Mark has a hearing and I write a letter or attend his hearing I start having nightmares and flashbacks due to the stress I feel. 

I get so frustrated because it seems that everyone who is involved in the parole process seems to say, "We value what you have to say as a victim of this crime as long as it keeps the man in prison."  I get the feeling that because I don't hate Mark and because I support his release that the parole process feels that they must keep him in prison and punish him more because of my forgiveness.

Mark has served more time than any person who has committed murder in my home state.  He has served more time than any other inmate right now.  I wonder when he will have served enough time.

Q.  You have been a state legislator in Wyoming and were elected for two terms. What laws do you think are needed to improve your life, as a crime victim/survivor, and hold offenders accountable?

SW: Well I guess the first thing is that we need to come up with a good definition of restorative justice and then from there craft a law that would fulfill that definition.  Just what is a good definition is I really don't know.

Q.  You have a very unusual story in that you have forgiven the offender. Can you explain how that happened? Did it bring you a measure of healing by forgiving him?

SW: My wife was the main factor in my forgiving Mark.  After I was shot  my wife became a Christian and it was through her that I also became a Christian.  Even though I was a Christian I still was full of hate and bitterness towards Mark.  Well, a person can only hate so much and so long before it destroys everything in life. My wife could see how it was destroying me.  With her encouragement I finally forgave Mark. 

Well, maybe at first it wasn't so much that I forgave him but that I didn't hate him for what he had done to me.  Over time as I came to understand Christ's forgiveness for me it became clear to me that I needed to practice the same thing that Christ teaches.  With my Christian faith I also came to understand Christ's friendship with the worst that society has to offer.  It is because I believe this way that I allowed my friendship with Mark to start and grow.

Healing? Yes, a big measure of healing.  Forgiving Mark gave me back control of my life.  As long as I hated him, he was in control of my life.  Once I forgave him hating him wasn't important any more. The time and energy that I used to hate him with was now mine to do other things with.  People have a hard time understanding; they think that my forgiving Mark was for Mark.  It wasn't, it was for me.

Q.  There seems to be more of an openness at this time to consider alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system since our rate of incarceration is so high and the cost of incarceration is so expensive. Do you think this is true?

SW: I don't think that there is an openness to alternatives.  First of  all  there isn't enough education to the general public about the cost of incarceration.  To be honest I don't know if the general public really cares about what it cost to lock someone up.  Second, politicians don't get elected if they seem to be anything but tough on crime and I would just bet that any politician who started talking about the cost of incarceration and alternatives to incarceration wouldn't stand a chance of getting elected. A good example of this is my own state.  During my second term in the legislature I asked our prison system how many inmates we housed out of state due to overcrowding.  The answer was around 550.  Now the cost to house these inmates was almost double of what it would have cost the state if we had to room to keep them in our own state.  I then asked the parole board how many of the 550 inmates were eligible for parole at that time.  The answer was 400.  Armed with this information I started talking to other legislators and members of the public and there was a complete lack of interest in this subject.

Lock them up and throw away the key seems to be the only punishment that most people know.

Q. Do you think it is time for restorative justice?

SW: Yes, I do think it is time for restorative justice because what we are doing now isn't working and hasn't worked for years.

LR: Thank you so much for being with us. Your voice is so important in the debate over crime and punishment, Stephen. I know we will hear more from you in the future. 

For those who would like to contact Stephen you may email him at in Wyoming.

(permission to reprint: contact Lisa Rea @ November 2009)


See also a January 2011 newspaper article for updated information about Stephen and Mark.

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Michele Rosenthal
Michele Rosenthal says:
Nov 05, 2009 11:42 PM

Thanks for posting this interview! It's so important to educate people about PTSD, let them know they're not alone and that it is NORMAL! <br /> <br />I wish healing had also been more deeply discussed. There's no reason anyone has to live with flashbacks and nightmares. It is possible to heal all psychic wounds. There are many of us shedding our PTSD and sleeping peacefully at night! :)

Michelle Renee
Michelle Renee says:
Nov 06, 2009 09:13 AM

PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal, or traumtic, event. Flashbacks, sleep disorders, physical pain, hearing-smelling-feeling everything from that event and reliving it, jumping out of your skin with every sounds and feeling like fear and anxiety is eating away at any sense of sanity you have left...I experienced it all after surviving a horrific home invasion, kidnapping and home invasion. The good news is that there really is light at the end of the very REAL and dark PTSD tunnel. With the right help form a qualified specialist, some out of the box healing techniques and a belief in your ability to heal your life and choose acceptence, mindfulness and restorative healing, you can be better then ever and discover you can live in the most positve way with PTSD. It isnt about &quot;getting over it&quot;. That is not possible in my opinion and life as you knew it before...well, it's gone. But it is possible to embrace your new reality and move forward in a positive way and discover that you can make a difference with the gifts you have uncovered through tragedy.

Barry Nilson
Barry Nilson says:
Nov 06, 2009 02:51 PM

Hi, <br /> <br />I am working on a property crime case (felony)here in NH. I recommended an alternative sentence of Reparative Probation and a suspended prison sentence. The county prosecutor had no interest to discuss an alternative and did not agree with the DOC recommended sentence either. The county prosecutor did not show interest in the needs of the community either. A few direct victims have written blogs filled with rumors and gossip about the offender's family and its wrong! How much empathy do these victims deserve? Of course, some are angry and have some &quot;entitlements&quot; but &quot;two wrongs do not make a right.&quot; Ironically some victims who cannot eventually find resolution and put away their anger become hostage to their own feelings and in effect incarcerate themselves. I know, I am a victim of a violent crime and property crime but decided to resolve my victimization and do something for other victims and offenders. - Barry Nilson

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Nov 06, 2009 09:49 PM

Hello, Barry. Thanks for your post. The story you told is unfortunate. We need do to more to educate prosectuors, and judges, about the value of restorative justice to victims of crime. As you know, restorative justice is about offender accountability. Prosecutors who are not open to the use of restorative justice are often unfamiliar with it. At the same time, community based programs need to be in place to accept offenders if alternative type sanctions are given. <br /> <br />The victims you mention in your post could benefit from restorative justice. Do they deserve empathy? I am not sure that is the right question. Restorative justice can provide any and all victims of crime more satisfaction with the criminal justice system while providing a degree of healing that most likely they have not experienced. <br /> <br />As with Stephen Watt's case, healing after violent crime takes time. In his experience, especially given the severity of the crime, it can take a life time. But Mr. Watt has experienced more healing because of participating in a victim offender dialogue than if he had not chosen to do so. It is my opinion that we need to do more to address the problem of PTSD as we present public policy options based on restorative justice. <br /> <br />The victims you describe deserve restorative justice as an option. The offender in that case can benefit from taking responsbility for his crime. <br /> <br />Thanks for your comments. I am glad to know that you are working in your state of New Hampshire to open doors for restoraive justice policies. <br /> <br />Regards, <br /> <br />Lisa Rea

Stephen Watt
Stephen Watt says:
Nov 06, 2009 05:15 PM

One thing that Lisa and I didn't talk about in our interview is what have I done to lessen the effects of PTSD. After sixteen years I came to realize that something wasn't right with my life and started counseling. This is when the PTSD came to light. Sixteen years is a long time to live with something that is wrong with you and PSTD like most negative things only gets worse if it isn't taken care of. Over the years of not getting any help for my PTSD I have developed so many triggers and packed away so many boxes of emotions that that while counseling has helped me with many issues I still suffer negative effects. My counselor has said that it is most likly that I will always have some issues with PTSD. I can tell you that today my PTSD is better than it has ever been but I still deal with it daily and nightly. <br /> <br />I think that the key for victims is to get help right away. The sooner that a victim gets into and stays with counseling the sooner they can start putting their life back together. The sooner they can take control back of their life and then they can start to hold the offender accountable for what they have done. <br /> <br />There are many types of counseling and counselors out there. My advise is don't give up. You may not find a counselor you like right away just don't give up keep looking. Also the type of counseling is important. If at first it doesn't work try another kind of counseling. <br /> <br />As a cop I would not go to just any counselor it had to be a counselor that understood the life a cop. I found a counselor who's father was a retired police officer. Needless to say he really understood what made me tick. The type of counseling that he used for me is called EMDR and I swear by it.

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Nov 06, 2009 07:08 PM

Thanks, Stephen. It is very helpful to learn more from you regarding your astounding experience. It seems that counseling is essential. <br /> <br />What kind of monetary compensation have you received as a victim of violent crime in your state? Is there a state victim's fund in Wyoming? Do offenders, serving time, pay into that fund? <br /> <br />We talked briefly about the issue of offenders paying restitution but often they do not have the resources to pay back the victim unless they are employed inside as they serve time. That part of our interview was not published here. What are your thoughts on this and especially in light of your offender, Mark. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br /> <br />

Stephen Watt
Stephen Watt says:
Nov 08, 2009 08:48 PM

The only compensation I have ever received was twenty six thousand dollars for the loss of my eye from workers compensation. I also receive a disability retirement from the retirement fund that I was in as a trooper. I guess some people would say that the disability payment is compensation but I don’t consider it as compensation. <br />Yes there is a victims fund in Wyoming but do victims receive any money from it. I really don’t know. I do know that I haven’t received a penny from the victims fund. <br />To answer your last question usually as a part of an offenders sentence they are given a small amount ($100) to pay into the victims fund but how that is handled I don’t know. I assume that once they acquire employment in prison they are required to pay this amount. <br />Complete restitution by the offender to the victim I think is a very important part of restorative justice and a must to make the offender accountable to the victim. While I say this I think that we must be careful to not make more victims while we are doing this. We must take into consideration an offender’s wife and children in this matter and what kinds of financial support can the offender provide to them. Do we take from the offender’s wife and children to compensate the victim? Are we not just making more victims by doing this, I wish that I knew the answer to this problem. <br />Another thing that needs to be kept in mind is that any job in prison pays very little, in a lot of cases less than a dollar an hour and in some cases a dollar a day. Now consider this, there are many things that an offender has to pay for out of any money they make because a lot of states, to save money do not provide to offenders. Just a few things that come to mind are things needed to write letters, paper, envelopes, pens, stamps. All of these items are bought by the offender not at cost but a usually a huge mark up from the state. So with this in mind how do we make an offender compensate the victim? My offender wants to compensate me but makes so little at his prison job that after he pays for those items needed for the basics of life there is nothing left to send to me. <br />After rereading my last paragraph I realize that a lot of people are going to say that all we should provide an offender in prison is the very basics of life after all they are in prison and it shouldn’t be nice in there. I think that we need to keep in mind that the punishment for offenders that we impose is the loss of their freedom not how we treat them while they are in prison. We can treat offenders like animals while they are in prison, feed them bread and water, and make them break rocks. Just keep in mind that how we treat them is how they will most likely come out. Treat them like animals and get an animal coming out of prison, pretty scary thought. <br />

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Nov 10, 2009 10:05 PM

Stephen, it was great to read your views on this. It seems to me you have an incredible perspective on crime in general and, of course, as a survivor of severely violent crime your views on restorative justice are so important. <br /> <br />What I hear you saying is that victims need to be paid restitution more consistently but also that we need to make sure victims receive these monies and that the amount they receive should &quot;fit the crime&quot;, as it were. In your case, I don't see that has happened to you. <br /> <br />In addition, restitution is central to restorative justice. Your offender as you pointed out apparently does not make enough monies in prison, if at all, to be able to pay you any reasonable restitution. This is a catch-22. I worked on legislation in California that addressed this problem some years ago. In order for an offender to pay restitution to you as a victim they need, as you said, he needs a job that will pay enough to pay you restitution on a regular basis but also provide enough to pay for his basic needs while serving time. Then as you said, oftentimes an offender is trying to keep his family together on the outside. <br /> <br />We must do a better job of seeing the whole picture as you described it. You said in the interview that your offender you believe should pay restitution the rest of his life. I think that does make sense and I'll bet Mark Farnham agrees with you. It is too bad that the state of Wyoming does not see the logic in that. Perhaps then the state would listen to your views of how he should be treated as an offender some 20 years after the crime. <br /> <br />Thank you so much for sharing all this. I hope that others will get to hear you speak in person some day. Stephen joined me in a radio interview on an NPR affiliate in 2006 (?) talking about restorative justice. If you are interested in that contact me. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />

Stephen Watt
Stephen Watt says:
Nov 11, 2009 09:17 AM

Great comments Lisa and I would like to add to the big picture and the far reaching effects of how this crime effected my family and me. <br />Nine months after I was shot, I was given the choice of going back onto the streets and do my job with no more problems or take a disability and get out. Reading the writing on the wall I knew that I could no longer do my job as I had done before, I could see that it would not be long before I was fired if I chose to stay. <br />I found myself unemployed in a poor job market and very limited job skills at the age of twenty six. For the next nine years I bounced from job to job and moved a total of six times. I must of worked at least fifteen different jobs most of them low pay and few or no benefits. These should have been some of the most productive years of my working life. <br />Ten years after being shot I finally landed a job as a deputy sheriff and this only because the sheriff who hired me had been one of my supervisors when I was a trooper. I spent fifteen years working as a deputy when for reasons out of my control my PTSD started causing me major problems. At this time I was working for a newly elected sheriff who sent me for a mental health evaluation because of my PTSD issues. It was recommended that I should not be in law enforcement and I was fired immediately. <br />I have had many people say to me that during the ten years from when I was shot until I became a deputy sheriff I should have gotten an education, that I should have made myself more marketable. Believe me I tried to figure out a way to do this but then the children started coming and it was all I could do to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. <br />Once again I find myself working a very low paying job with few benefits and struggling to pay my bills. I find myself fighting with the state of Wyoming to pay medical costs for medical issues related to my shooting, that now twenty seven years later and at the age of fifty three are starting to show up. <br />Do I want you to feel sorry for me; do I feel sorry for myself? NO! What I’m telling you is that what we have done and are doing in the criminal justice for victims does not work and needs to change. <br />

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