Richmond woman seeks 'another miracle'
By Karl Fischer and Bruce Gerstman
The tiny apparition rubs his fingers on worn, green carpet near the front door and peeks up at Edrina Gibson with doe eyes.
She knows this boy belongs to someone else. But she cannot deny the uncanny resemblance to her own baby, dead now three years. This child lights up her Richmond day care with a familiar ear-to-ear grin.
"You are so adorable," Gibson confides, scooping up the 11-month-old and gazing into his eyes. "I think C.J.'s spirit is in you."
When her boy died, Gibson sank into a pit she never expected to escape: broke, guilt-ridden and expecting cancer to take her before the law took the killer.
Now, more than anything, she craves another chance at motherhood.
* * *
C.J. entered the world under a different name, with a collection of ailments that read like a parable about the dangers of the street.
Born to an addict mother April 30, 2003, he began life with syphilis and a powerful cocaine dependency. Tiny cuts dotted his palms; his fists were frozen shut by the drugs. There was never a question of his birth mother keeping him.
Gibson fell in love the first time she visited him at Children's Hospital Oakland that May.
"I remember the first day I saw him ... his body was hooked up to all these tubes," she said. "But this baby came into the world fighting."
Such children elicit pity but rarely commitments from prospective parents. Gibson, though, felt a special tenderness for little ones in need.
A single mother of five, she already had helped raise several foster children in Alameda County.
Her fiance, Charles McEntire Jr., then 55, had no children. They wanted to adopt, and unlike some, Gibson relished the challenge of a difficult child.
"I wanted him to be a role model," she said. "I wanted to show all those parents who say, 'Oh, I don't want a crack child,' to see that you can make something of them if you care."
She took him home a week later, and the couple married earlier than planned to expedite the adoption paperwork.
They named him Charles McEntire III, "C.J." for short.
The couple lived in Dublin at the time. He worked security at an Oakland middle school. She taught preschool and raised foster kids.
As McEntire prepared to retire from his 28-year career with the Oakland Unified School District, C.J. basked in Gibson's attention. She enrolled him in every course of therapy she could find to help defeat his disabilities.
His progress pleased her, and C.J. always seemed happy. But Gibson's own health became a constant worry. As months passed, she fell ill and never really recovered. She couldn't sleep, though she was tired most of the time. Doctors could not identify the problem.
Tired and sick, sensing that her mostly white, higher-income neighbors disapproved, Gibson gave up caring for foster children by the end of 2003. Unable to afford much else, the family moved to the upper floor of a duplex on Richmond's South 30th Street in April 2004.
C.J. began toddling about that time, helped by tiny ankle braces.
* * *
Gibson's daughter, Rayshana, celebrated her 13th birthday Aug. 3, 2004. The same day, a doctor told Gibson that recent tests revealed lymphoma in her neck, back, pelvis and chest. She might live another six months.
"I always buy my kids a Baskin-Robbins cake on their birthday," Gibson said. "I remember standing in line that day, thinking, 'This is the last time I'm going do this.'"
She tried one painful drug, then another. She endured injections and became skinny and weak. Sometimes medicine made her body swell. Over time, her face grew harder and more angular.
Her son, Jamil, took leave of his Iraq-bound U.S. Marine Corps unit to spend time with his mother. But tension filled the house; money was tight and Gibson and McEntire squabbled often.
It was McEntire's first marriage, first child and first months of retirement. His mother and aunt recently had died. His grief and confusion translated into self-pity when they argued, Gibson recalled. "You're not the only one who's suffering," she said he would say.
Throughout, McEntire grew unusually demonstrative in his affection for C.J. He slept with the child tucked under his arm.
"He would say all the time, 'My wife is dying, my wife is dying. But I got my baby ... I'm going to take care of my baby,'" Gibson said.
The coup de grace arrived in November, packed in an envelope to Gibson from Kaiser Permanente. The letter explained that she owed about $5,000 for her recent chemotherapy because their insurer had canceled their policy for nonpayment.
McEntire had failed to pay his medical insurance correctly after his retirement. He thought the school district would take the amount owed out of his check.
Facing a course of treatment she could no longer afford, Gibson did not feel especially forgiving about the mistake. She wonders now whether her frequent scolding influenced events Nov. 22, 2004.
"He did have a bad temper," Gibson said. "Every time he did lose his temper, he would throw something, or drive 100 mph on the freeway, something like that."
* * *
That Monday began gloomier than most. Gibson woke around 9; Rayshana was already at school. C.J. threw his night diaper in the garbage and scampered around the way toddlers do.
Jamil picked him up and sat him on his lap behind the computer.
C.J. stared intently at a screen-saver showing one of his early idols, the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.
"Bob-Bob!" he exclaimed.
They were his first words.
Back in the bedroom, McEntire scarcely responded to his family's happy shouts. He and Gibson were arguing again.
He ate an unusually light breakfast, just a slice of toast.
"I remember he was messing around with his sock," Gibson said, bending to grab her heel. "I wondered what he was doing."
Gibson remembered little more of the morning, at least until a police officer knocked on the door about 10:15 a.m. She did not understand the officer at first; she must have the wrong house, Gibson thought. Her baby was just fine, napping in the bedroom.
The officer insisted. Gibson led her inside.
"I don't know how I knew, but Jamil suddenly says, 'Where's C.J.?'" Gibson said. "He ran in there and started yelling. ... Then he ran out and started beating on the floor, yelling, 'He killed him! He killed him!'"
Police later told them the story: While they sat in another room, McEntire crept into the bedroom with the 19-month-old. There, he quietly killed his child with a steak knife.
Then he picked up his cell phone.
"Dispatch had received a 911 call from (McEntire)," said Richmond police Sgt. Mitch Peixoto, a homicide detective. "He said right on the tape, 'I just killed my son.'"
McEntire watched from the bedroom window as a police cruiser pulled to the curb. He walked out of the bedroom and through the front door to meet the officer.
"It was a very clean house, very neat, not like some we go to," Peixoto said. "There wasn't much blood, just this little body lying there on top of the bed covers. It looked like there was one puncture wound. He probably just walked in, stuck it right into his back and pulled it out. That was it."
Jamil went crazy. Police officers struggled to control their own emotions. Gibson tried to pick C.J. up.
She still did not understand why they stopped her.
"I didn't see no blood. I didn't see nothing. I just saw my boy taking a nap," she said. "I'm glad God let me see that."
* * *
Charles McEntire has lived three years in Contra Costa County Jail in Martinez, his case still not fully adjudicated.
Last month, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. This month, he plans to ask a judge to rule he was insane when he killed C.J.
If the court agrees, McEntire would move to a state mental hospital rather than prison. After successful treatment, a judge could release him under state supervision.
Three psychiatrists support his claim: one hired by his defense team and two appointed by the court. Another court-appointed doctor could not determine whether he was sane at the time.
Prosecutors remain unconvinced.
"I think it was anger at his wife," Deputy District Attorney Phyllis Redmond said. "She is a strong personality. I don't think he could fight her, so he took on what he could fight."
McEntire declined to comment from County Jail. His attorney did not return calls from the Times.
"If they put that man in the hospital, I will never have respect for the justice system again," Gibson said.
* * *
Toddler hands leave fresh finger marks every day in the hallway at C.J.'s Quality Family Daycare. Odd corners burst with brightly hued toys, cubby holes line the dining room wall.
Three cribs surround Edrina Gibson's bed, napping spots for other people's babies.
"I used to be open 24 hours," she said recently. "But I just can't do that any more."
At 42, Gibson looks nothing like the sickly, screaming woman who clawed for the casket as the pallbearers carried C.J. to the hearse. She put on a little weight, healthy weight. She smiles more and laughs easily. A new tattoo covers her right shoulder, with a cherub sitting on a cloud above the words "R.I.P. My Precious Angel."
The family moved three times in three years, each new home on the same block -- Gibson says she doesn't know why. She got her home day care license 18 months ago. She now lives and works within view of the duplex where her baby died.
In February 2005, when Gibson outlived her prognosis, her doctor switched her to a new medicine that apparently stayed the death sentence. "It didn't go nowhere, it just shrunk," she said of her cancer.
Moved by Gibson's situation, Peixoto opened a bank account for the family soon after C.J.'s death. Donations flooded in, enough to pay for chemotherapy and to keep a roof over her head the first year.
But the pain never leaves. She still suffers infections that swell her neck and stomach. She cannot bear more children.
Gibson does feel healthier these days but never whole, and she says she'll never forgive McEntire for that.
* * *
Guilt remains a daily antagonist. What if she had checked on C.J. sooner?
Gibson said some of her children judged her harshly, said she never really grieved, suggested she did not care. They did not recognize in her the survivor's will to forge on.
"I can't never bring my baby back," Gibson said. "The pain never goes away. It never does."
As her life regains structure, she feels the loss more keenly. Adoption seems the only way to fill the void.
"My whole life has revolved around children. But they don't judge me by my past," Gibson said. "They think ... another kid will die. That is so unfair. He destroyed my whole character."
She applied several times without success to various Bay Area adoption agencies. What happened to C.J. slammed a lot of doors, she guesses. Some of them also wondered if she needed to wait longer before making such a permanent decision.
"I don't want a baby to replace my child. What I want is completeness. I want to complete what I started," Gibson said. "He was a miracle. I want another miracle."
No law prohibits it. Lois Rutten, manager of Contra Costa County's adoption program, said case managers would investigate the motivation for a parent of a slain child to adopt.
"We don't rule things out on the basis of something that might make some people feel uncomfortable," Rutten said.
Oscar Ramirez, spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, said the state would certainly have to look at a killing in the household, whoever was involved.
"Almost everything is a consideration," Ramirez said.
Gibson knows it's a long shot, but she still wants to help, and she feels she brings credentials. Before adopting C.J., she took on sexually abused foster kids. One of her daughters was born blind, one of her sons with learning disabilities.
She wonders whether those adoption agencies would prefer kids like C.J. go to any other home, or even no home, than to hers.
While she searches for the right agency, someone who will listen, she revels in the company of her day care charges, especially the one who reminds her so much of the child she loved and lost.
"One time his mother saw all my pictures in the cabinet and asked, 'Why do you have pictures of my baby?'" Gibson said, watching him slumber beside an empty bottle. "I said, 'That's not your baby. That's my baby.'"