HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The majority of Catherine Jones' 29 years have been spent in prison. Before that, they were spent languishing in the hell of sexual abuse at the hands of a family member.
Catherine was only 13 when she plotted — with her 12-year-old brother Curtis — to kill their abuser as well as their father and his girlfriend, Nicole Speights, whom they thought were allowing it to continue.
They became the youngest children in the country's history to be charged as adults for first-degree murder.
The siblings started by shooting Speights with their father's handgun, hitting her four times out of nine bullets fired.
They immediately realized their tragic blunder, tried to cover up the crime and ran to a neighbor's house to say it was an accident. They eventually fled to a wooded area where they hid for the night before Brevard County Sheriff's investigators found them near their Port St. John home on the chilly morning of Jan. 7, 1999.
Facing the prospect of life in prison, they plead guilty to second-degree murder and were sentenced to 18 years in prison followed by probation for life.
There was no trial. There was no testimony. There was no opportunity to present the documentation from the agency later renamed the Department of Children and Families that showed welfare investigators found signs on more than one occasion that the siblings were being abused by a family member. That same family member had already been convicted of sexually assaulting his girlfriend's daughter in 1993.
So agency officials never had to explain how they could have so utterly failed a pair of young children. Children who felt so trapped, so alone and so victimized that they thought their only way out was through blood.
The story went untold until 2009, when Catherine agreed to meet with a Florida Today reporter.
The gruesome tale she recounted included her natural mother — who is white — fleeing for life and leaving her children behind after years of domestic abuse. Their father wouldn't let the children go and the mother's family did not want them because they were half-black, Catherine said.
Their father was charged with second-degree murder after shooting two men in a Titusville pool hall in 1989. Catherine was 4 at the time. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor when the police decided it was self-defense.
The family member accused of abusing Catherine and her brother once spent six years in an Alabama prison for a strong-arm robbery. Later, he was convicted in Brevard of having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Now he was living with them and even shared a bed with Curtis. Florida Today is not identifying the family member because he was never charged in this case.
It didn't stop with Curtis.
"He would make me perform oral sex to the point where I would throw up," Catherine told me in 2009, adding that her father and his girlfriend, Speights, did not believe her.
Catherine never knew Curtis was also being sexually abused until one day, while walking to Space Coast Middle School, he told her that he believed her story — because it was happening to him as well.
They never stood a chance.
All the allegations were easily verifiable through records — including child welfare reports, sheriff investigations and school memos — collected by lawyer and Florida State University professor Paolo Annino who tried to get clemency on their behalf.
During a 2009 interview at Homestead Correctional Institution, Catherine said that while she regretted taking a life, she was willing to do anything to get away from the hell she was born into. Even prison was better.
"At one point I was just so happy to be away," she said. "I know that sounds, like, really messed up, but there was a point where I was just away from all that and I was by myself and I was safe."
Thousands of miles away, Senior Chief Ramous K. Fleming was aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise in the Persian Gulf. He was spending a little free time on the Internet looking through crime stories from his home state of Florida. A self-professed true-crime junkie, Fleming enjoyed spending his time reading and learning about various crimes.
Catherine's story touched him. He couldn't get it out of his head.
A few years later he searched the Internet for the story again and found the video that Florida Today did with her. He became fascinated and decided to move outside his comfort zone.
"I wrote a letter and she responded," Fleming said this week from Norfolk, Va., where he is currently stationed. "I had never done anything like that before. Her story just piqued my interest and I wanted to be pen pals."
They kept in touch.
"We continued writing and through that we fell in love," he said. "It never crossed my mind that would happen."
They decided to meet and the mutual attraction was instant, Fleming recalled.
"It was as if I knew her more through every letter and it felt very natural," he said. "It was like we had known each other for years. It did not feel weird at all."
On Nov. 27, 2013, the couple married in the chapel at the Hernando Correctional Institution.
30 and dependent on others
Annino's efforts at clemency fell on deaf ears. So did a proposed bill that would have allowed Catherine and her brother to leave prison after serving 10 years instead of the mandatory 85 percent of their 18-year sentences.
Curtis, who did not wish to be interviewed for the 2009 story, had another year added to his sentence when a hurricane knocked down a prison fence and he was among a group of inmates who ran in 2004. Fleming said he speaks with Curtis on a weekly basis and that he is doing great. In fact, Curtis is now an ordained minister.
If calculations for "gain time" or "good behavior" are correct, Catherine will leave prison on July 28, as a 30-year-old married woman who has never driven a car, texted on a cellphone, walked a high school hallway, gone on a job interview, attended a dance or surfed the Internet.
"After spending all of my teenage years and most of my young adulthood behind bars, I'm being released into a foreign society so different from what I left behind," she wrote in a letter to Florida Today last year.
"Of course there are fears, mainly because there's so much I must learn to function like a normal person: how to drive, fill out job applications, text, dress for a job interview, build my credit, obtain life, dental, medical insurance. I'm completely clueless. The idea of being 30 and completely dependent on others to teach me how to do these basic things isn't appealing. I'll leave prison just as clueless as I was at 13."
At least she won't have to do it by herself.
Fleming, slated to retire from the Navy in a little more than a year, is under no illusions. He knows this fairy tale has lots of baggage and will need lots of work as his new bride adjusts to her new life.
"I'm prepared for life after," he said. "There is a lot she has to learn but it's very exciting at the same time. I look forward to it and I think my training in the military has prepared me for it. There will certainly be a lot of adjusting to do."
There's already been one adjustment. The reason Fleming is retiring from the Navy is that he would have to go on another deployment at sea if he remained on active duty. That is something he can't afford to do.
"I don't want to leave her alone," he said.