A Rip in Heaven is Jeanine Cummins’ story of a night in April, 1991, when her two cousins Julie and Robin Kerry, and her brother, Tom, were assaulted on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River just outside of St. Louis. When, after a harrowing ordeal, Tom managed to escape the attackers and flag down help, he thought the nightmare would soon be over. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Tom, his sister Jeanine, and their entire family were just at the beginning of a horrific odyssey through the aftermath of a violent crime, a world of shocking betrayal, endless heartbreak, and utter disillusionment. It was a trial by fire from which no family member would emerge unscathed.
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The Mississippi River is the fourth longest river in the world. As a watershed, it drains about 41 percent of the continental United States, plus two Canadian provincesthat’s roughly 1.25 million square miles. Every second, the mighty river spits out 2.3 million cubic feet of water into the Gulf of Mexico, carrying 159 million tons of sediment with it each year. At St. Louis, the old bridge’s name, Chain of Rocks, refers to an actual string of huge boulders that jut up from the riverbed, stirring the rushing water into a tumultuous frenzy. Local legend claims that, during dry periods, Native Americans used to cross the river by hopping from boulder to boulder. Today, that same chain of rocks makes the St. Louis stretch of water one of the Mississippi’s deadliest. In 1991, it was common knowledge among locals, including Julie and Robin Kerry, that the Chain of Rocks Bridge was a sure thing for local suicide-seekers.
Of course, Tom Cummins, the tourist from Washington, D.C., did not know this as he leapt wildly from a concrete pier, arms and legs flailing, on the north side of the Chain of Rocks Bridge. After he jumped and well before he hit the water, he had time enough to form the thought, My God, this is a long way down. And then, a moment later, Holy shit, I’m still fallingI still haven’t hit yet.
When he finally did hit the water, he went in feet first and immediately plunged deep into the river, hurtling toward its bed with astonishing speed. Underwater, he opened his eyes and spotted the faintly glowing green of the surface that seemed like miles above his head. He started swimming, executing an overhead pull and kicking with all his might, straining toward the elusive air above. When he broke the surface, he spent a moment just breathing, filling his aching lungs.
The first sight that struck him as he fought to stay afloat was the menacing giant of a bridge above him. The river was swift, moving much more powerfully than he had expected, and as Tom struggled to remove his coat, he realized that the current had already carried him underneath the bridge and he was looking at it from the south side. It was truly a massive beast, that bridge, and the reality of how far he had fallen both terrified and encouraged him. He would never have been able to jump if he had really known how high up he was. They would have had to shoot him.
There was debris everywhere in the water and, now that he had gotten his bearings and assured himself that he had survived, Tom began to scan the water for his cousins. There were logs and branches moving all around him with frightening speed, and in the dimness, as he bobbed up and down in the rapid current, he thought he glimpsed Robin a few feet off to his left. The current rolled up between them and when he looked again at the place where he’d seen her, she, or the log that resembled her, was gone. Julie appeared behind him then, about ten or fifteen feet off to his right, and he spotted her clearly, despite the clash of the rugged water around his face. He shouted to her, receiving a mouthful of dank river water for his efforts, but she heard him and turned her moon-white face toward him, terror-stricken in the frothy water.
“My God, where’s Robin?” she screamed.
But Tom couldn’t answer her. His efforts at treading water were becoming a losing battle. The current was just too strong for him. He had to get his sneakers off. He tried removing them with his feet and had no luck. When he used his arms, he began sinking. He had a moment of complete and abject panic, convinced that death would be the end result of what had happened to them tonight after all. He screamed as he sank and the water enveloped his head like a slick hood. Two or three feet below the surface he gave up on the sneakers and reached toward the light again. He breathed more calmly now, as if the few moments of panic had been exactly the emotional release he needed in order to find the strength to carry on. His mind became numbthere wasn’t much room for a rational thought process here in the river. He had to rely on his body to do the work of survival, and it took every ounce of his physical strength just to stay afloat.
He was vaguely aware of Julie’s presence some ten or fifteen feet away, and on that same subconscious plane of thought he supposed that Robin, too, was somewhere nearby, battling mightily against the strong current, obscured from his vision by distance or debris. He wrestled his way onto his back and allowed the current to carry him while he backstroked awkwardly, blindly bumping into debris as he cut his course through the water. All of his concentration was on staying afloat. He hadn’t even considered getting to shore yet. In between the constant slap-slap of the water at his ears he heard Julie’s voice, crying but not hysterical. It encouraged him. He heard his own voice responding to her.
“We have to swim, swim, swim, swim, swim, swim!” he bellowed, in a voice that sounded foreign and distant to his own ears. Between him and the Missouri shore, just past where he thought Julie was, he spotted one of the water-intake towers that belonged to the St. Louis Waterworks. He didn’t know what it was, but it was a large structure, stable and well lit, and to his mind it symbolized safety. “Swim toward the lights, Julie! Swim, swim, swim, swim, swim!”
“I’m drowning, Tom!” Julie shouted her response with increasing hysteria.
Tom lifted his head out of the water as best he could and yelled at her, “We’re not drowning. You’re not drowning. We’re going to get to shore. Swim, Julie!”
And she swam. After that, Tom did his best to keep a visual vigil, constantly scanning the water for her at those moments when he swelled on the high side of the fickle current. She was still struggling, getting closer to him as they flowed fast with the mighty river. She drew closer and closer to him as the minutes ticked by, but they didn’t waste their energy on speech, their bodies requiring every ounce of strength for their battle with the water. They were only subliminally aware of each other’s presence. And then Tom looked up and saw her closer than ever, approaching with startling velocity. In the quick glimpse he got of her eyes, he saw utter fatigue. Julie Kerry did not want to die, but her body was shutting down. Beaten by exhaustion, shock, and trauma, her little frame was giving up, refusing to swim any farther.
Making one last valiant effort to keep herself afloat, she lunged for her cousin Tom, encircling his neck with the strong grip of her tiny arms. They both went under. They sank rapidly, with the weight of two entwined bodies lumped together, unmoving. In a moment they were four or five feet below the surface and Tom had run out of air. He hadn’t gotten a proper breath before they went under and he needed one now. He very nearly took one before he realized what he was doing. He knew that he was drowning, but still Julie clung to him, her little arms tense with effort and fear.
Tom wrangled his hands beneath the crooks of Julie’s elbows where they stuck out at angles beside his shoulders. In one swift movement, he straightened his arms, pushing Julie up over his head toward the surface and releasing himself at the same time. They both bobbed to the surface.
“We have to keep swimming,” he shouted over the din of the water. “Swim, Julie!”
And again, she swam. The current had swept some distance between the two cousins as soon as they resurfaced, but Tom knew that she was still nearby and he tried to keep her in sight as much as possible. He flipped onto his back again, scanning the water to check on Julie’s weary progress whenever the current floated him high enough for visibility. She was clearly exhausted, but she continued to paddle along with the current. Despite the increasing heaviness in his limbs and the spinning thickness of his thoughts, Tom’s voice still sounded strong, and he heard it as if outside of himself, encouraging Julie to swim. But even as he cheered his cousin on, Tom’s own feet grew heavier in his sopping shoes while he slipped through the mighty river like a ragdoll in the current. About two or three minutes later, when Tom bobbed up and searched the spot that Julie had occupied in the water, she was gone. He became instantly hysterical. He thrashed and flapped savagely in the water, screaming her name, tears joining the river wetness on his face.
“Julie!” he cried. “Help us. Help us. Please somebody help us.”
Tom’s brain still refused to believe that either of his cousins had drowned. He wouldn’t even consider it a possibility. We’re just separated, he kept telling himself. We’re bound to get separated in the roughness of this water. And so he turned round and round in the water, hoping against hope to spot Julie again. But he sobbed as he turned, and with each moment that passed without his seeing his friend, his heart and his hopes sank toward the bottom of that river. He ceased to swim. He floated on his back, giving himself over to sobs and hysteria.
“I can’t do this,” he said aloud, and he noticed for the first time how cold he was. He shivered in the icy water and his entire body ached, rigid with the cold and the fear. “I can’t fucking do this!” he said again.
He was exhausted and terrified and ready to give up. And as he lay floating with the current, body battered and mind ready to submit to the river, he began to experience the strange flashing images that were his life. Water covered his face now and he was drifting down and down slowly, but in his mind, quick and distinct, he saw the snapshots that, strung together, made up his life. First, the guys from his shift at work, out in front of the firehouse on a sunny day, hosing down the big trucks and having a laugh with each other. Next, his family eating a picnic barbecue in the backyard, Blarney the dog sniffing around hopefully for scraps. Next, Julie tickling Jamie on their living-room floor, textbooks and notebooks abandoned on the couch behind them. Tom was markedly absent from all of these images, and that fueled him. He loved his life. He loved his family and friends and he wasn’t ready to die. His fingertips broke the surface on the first splash. He hadn’t sunk very deep, and now he had a new rush of adrenaline. He was going to make it.
For the first time, then, Tom really studied his position in the water. He was still much closer to the Missouri bank, but it seemed like miles away, and the bridge was rapidly shrinking from his sight. He started to backstroke. He swam like that for what seemed like years. Every few minutes he looked toward the shore and lost hope all over again. He seemed to be making no progress whatsoever. He was sure that the bank was farther away now than it had been before, and he gave up. Then the snapshots would come back to him and he would splash and flail anew, determined to fight his way to the bank.
When he finally did reach the shoreline, nearly an hour after he first entered the water, he found himself facing a whole new obstacle. The bank was only about five or six feet high, but it was almost a straight vertical ascent from the water and Tom looked up at it with renewed despair. Debris had collected in a tangled mess by the bank and Tom had to pick his way among the slimy driftwood before facing his slippery uphill battle with the bank. He grappled with roots and reeds, slipping back into the water with a splash every time he chose an unfixed hold. It took him twenty minutes and several failed attempts before he finally succeeded in surmounting the slick bank. Once atop the muddy hill, he lay on his stomach with his face pillowed in the muck and he wept. It was the truest and purest exhaustion he had ever experienced and he gave himself over to it completely. When his brain kicked in again after those few blank moments, his first thoughts were of Julie and Robin.
I’ve got to get help, he thought. And he glanced behind him with a shudder at the steep bank and the rushing water beyond, I’ve got to get them some help fast.
And Tom pulled himself up to a standing position and started to make his way through the trees. He had broken his right hip in the fall, his body was generally bruised and battered, and he was in shock, but Tom didn’t know any of this. And in the relative comfort of walking on dry land, he ceased to feel any pain at all or concern for his body. He tramped quickly through the dense trees, keeping the river at his back and making for where he thought he might find a road. His eyes were well adjusted to the light by this time, but his tired arms hung limply by his sides, so that as he walked the branches slapped and scratched at his wet and muddy face.
He emerged from the treeline after less than a hundred yards and found himself in a field. There were warehouses nearby, and a pond. He skirted the pond and discovered some railroad tracks with a fence to one side. He followed the tracks for several minutes until he found himself back at Riverview Drive, at the entrance to the St. Louis Waterworks plant. There were lights on the road, but no people and no cars. Tom paced lamely along the road, anxious to find people and help. Several minutes passed and a few cars drove by, their frightened drivers ignoring the desperate and muddy young man as he waved his arms frantically, jumping and shouting at them to stop. When a tractor trailer came into view on the road ahead, Tom walked out into the middle of the road, closed his eyes, and put his hands in the air above him. The truck driver slowed to a stop, blinking with curiosity at the muck-covered teenager in his headlights. Tom drew up gratefully to the driver’s window and craned his neck at the man within. His mind spun, overfilled with thoughts and words. He realized that he had no idea what to say to this man.
“We need help,” he began simply in a choked and tortured voice. “They raped my cousins. They threw us off the bridge. Please, they need help. We need help.”
The man looked confounded and his mouth hung open in confusion or perhaps skepticism.
“All right, wait right here, I’ll go get the police,” he said.
Tom thanked him and then wandered to the side of the road to await the cavalry. As the truck’s taillights disappeared from view and Tom found himself alone again in the silent moonlight, he realized suddenly that he was on Riverview Drive. That he was standing like a target on the side of Riverview Drive, just down the road from where those four men had probably parked their car. They could drive by at any minute, see that their work was incomplete, and finish him off with that bullet they had promised him earlier. In fact, if he hadn’t been lucky, he might have inadvertently flagged them down earlier. His breath grew rapid with paranoia and he drew himself into the shadows of the fence, watching the road and shrinking with dismay from any passing headlights. He began to look around him for a more concealed place to hide until the police arrived. The grass was longish and damp with dew, but Tom was already soaked and glad for the cover, however insufficient. He crouched down low in the long grass under an oversized stop sign that had been fastened to the fence. He was several yards off the well-lit road and feeling safer now, tucked into the shadows of the fence-line.
Several minutes and cars passed as he hid there, and he began to wonder if the trucker had let him down, had just kept on driving to Tulsa or Albuquerque or wherever. So he watched out for another truck. When he saw one coming, he sprinted from his grassy hiding place and hurled his body into the beam of the oncoming headlights. He repeated his incredible tale to this second startled driver and the man responded kindly, asking Tom if he wanted to get in, drive with him to a phone. Tom explained that he was already waiting for the police and didn’t think he should leave, so the driver said he would go straight to a phone and call for him. Tom thanked him and returned to the fence-line, finding the flat spot that his weight had already made in the wet grass and crouching into it once again.
After ensuring that Robin, Julie, and Tom had all plunged into the Mississippi, presumably to their deaths, Richardson rejoined Clemons on the catwalk and the two of them climbed up through the manhole onto the bridge deck. There they met Gray and Winfrey, who were waiting for them.
“I dumped them hard,” Richardson announced gleefully, and looked to Gray for a congratulatory gesture. Gray smiled and nodded, patting Richardson on the back, as if this were some rite of passage that Richardson had accomplished.
“That was really brave of you, Tony,” Gray said to the younger kid, who smiled up at him. “Let’s get outta here then.”
Gray suggested they drive to Alton, Illinois, and climb up the giant boulder there that locals called “the Chair,” where they could sit and watch the river for a while. They still had one joint left and the weather, though chilly, was comfortable enough. Gray had abandoned Eva earliershe had been expecting a ride home hours ago. He knew he’d be in trouble with her when he finally did make his way home, and that thought was now turning to dread.
Winfrey became panicky while the others talked nonchalantly about what to do next with their evening. He hadn’t really believed that his new friends intended to murder those three people. He had participated in the rapes by standing guard and by holding the girls down, by covering their mouths and their eyes while they screamed. He had even enjoyed the adrenaline rush, the pure wickedness and momentum of the whole situation. But, he told himself, he had been the only one of the four who refused to physically rape the girls, a fact that he would later emphasize to his girlfriend. It wasn’t so much out of a sense of goodness or fear that he refrained but, rather, he seemed to possess some subconscious and innate suppressant within him that would not allow him to rape. A suppressant that most normal people must have, he thought, while he tried not to consider how dangerous his companions must be, that they lacked this basic human characteristic. And now that the deed was in fact done, Winfrey began to experience a good dose of panic. So while the others talked about going to the Chair, Winfrey began worrying about “going to the chair” in a different sense. He didn’t really worry about Julie or Robin, right now in the process of drowning in the water below, but he did begin to fret about his own culpability in the situation. In short, he started to freak out.
“I’m not in this,” he said over and over again. “I’m not in this, I didn’t do this.”
But the others just laughed at him and soon all four were running down the bridge toward the Missouri end, toward their cars, stimulated by the adrenaline that filled their veins and the sense of self-preservation that urged them all to flee quickly from the scene of their vicious crimes. On the road, they stopped for cigarettes, gas, and sandwiches. Richardson paid for these items with the money they had stolen from Julie and Robin. He tossed one packet of cigarettes to Winfrey and then handed out the sandwiches. Winfrey sat in the passenger seat of Gray’s car and immediately lit the first in a chain of cigarettes with his hands shaking, and he continued to mumble, “I’m not in this.” His stomach churned a little as he watched the others sitting on the hood of the cars, munching their ham sandwiches and chatting. When they were done eating, the four drove to Alton, ascended the Chair, and lit their joint. From their vantage point, high on the huge rock in the moonlight, they looked out over the rough current of the Mississippi.
“They’ll never make it to shore,” Clemons stated quietly while he sucked on the joint. There was no emotion in his voice.
“Yeah, they definitely won’t make it,” Gray agreed. Then, turning to Winfrey, he added, “See, Danny? You should have gotten yourself some pussy. We’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Winfrey was filled with a sick sense of power mingled with relief at the thought that their three victims were all safely dead by now.
At around two a.m., back on Riverview Drive, police officers Sam Brooks and Don Sanders were en route to the water-treatment plant. Their siren was silent and their lights were darkened. They were responding to two strange but fairly routine calls from truck drivers regarding a suspicious man on Riverview Drive telling a wild story about the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. As they nosed their patrol car toward the fenceline at the St. Louis Waterworks, Tom Cummins cautiously crept from his hiding place in the grass and into the rays of their headlights. The patrolmen were immediately alarmed by Tom’s condition.
Mud covered his shoulders and spilled down the front of his shirt and his jeans. His sopping sneakers were caked with silt, and his hands were pruned from the water and trembling. His eyes were glazed over and he approached the officers clumsily, with a visible limp. The young man was obviously distressed, and he attempted to convey a sense of urgency to the officers about getting help for his cousins. Within a few moments, Tom began shivering violently and his teeth chattered audibly as Brooks and Sanders helped him into the back of their patrol car, cranked the heat up for him, and radioed anxiously for backup. From the hasty facts they had gathered so far, they determined that this was the biggest thing that had ever happened on their beat.
Shortly after their arrival on the scene, Officers Brooks and Sanders were joined by what seemed to Tom like half of the St. Louis Police Department. The two partners tried to make Tom comfortable in the back of their squad car, and then they drove him back to the bridge, where there was already a great deal of activity getting underway. Tom felt an unexpected reluctance, a renewal of his terror, as the car he was traveling in approached the bridge for the second time that night. He knew he shouldn’t be afraidthere were numerous police cars, a rescue squad, and an ambulance already assembled at the bridge entrance by the time they got there. But he could not assuage his inexplicable fear as the officers slowed their patrol car to a stop on Riverview Drive. The one in the passenger seat turned to face Tom in the back.
“You all right?” he asked.
As Tom nodded his response, a chill spread over his body and sent him shivering and chattering all over again. The officer quickly stepped out of the patrol car and trotted over to the nearby ambulance. He returned a few moments later with a thick woolen blanket. He opened the back door of the squad car and wrapped Tom up in the gray blanket, pulling it tight around his shoulders and tucking it under his chin. This simple act of kindness brought tears to stand in Tom’s eyes and he shrunk back against the seat, embarrassed. That officer’s small act of compassion sharpened his pain so intensely. The contrast between that kindness and the cruelties he had seen that night solidified his traumamade his horror all the more real and atrocious. Tom forced a breath past the sharp lump in his throat.
“We’ve gotta find them,” he said quietly to no one, gazing out the far window of the squad car.
The two officers stole concerned glances at each other. They weren’t sure if he was talking about his cousins or their attackers, but the chances of finding any of the above at this point seemed rather slim.
What People are Saying About This
"Cummins presents a mesmerizing, highly balanced memoir of the events, writing in the third person to give readers an intimate knowledge of each facet of the story. Cummins's noble account will ultimately draw readers into all sides of the story." Publishers Weekly
Reading Group Guide
It was a headline story in the New York Times and USA Today. It was covered by Court TV and profiled on the Ricki Lake Show. Now, here is the intimate memoir of a shocking crime and its aftermath...one family's immediate and unforgettable story of what victims can suffer long after they should be safe.
ABOUT JEANINE CUMMINS
Jeanine Cummins lives in New York City.