Watch: From hate to healing — A father's journey
Thomas Randall wanted Kamryn Fisher-Hackler dead.
For months, in the middle of the night, he would sit in the corner of his garage and chain smoke, consumed with thoughts of revenge.
“I was filled with anger and hate and payback,” the Bonney Lake man said.
Randall’s 19-year-old son, Thomas Jr., had long been friends with Fisher-Hackler. On Jan. 26, 2015, they were out with another friend, driving over to pick up Thomas Jr.’s paycheck from the fast-food joint where he worked.
Fisher-Hackler, 21, was speeding and tried to pass another car. He lost control, and another car T-boned theirs near Lake Tapps.
The friend was hurt. Fisher-Hackler suffered injuries that nearly killed him.
Thomas Jr. died in the crash.
For nearly a year, Randall fought his anger over the death of his only son.
But when the time came to tell a judge what he wanted Fisher-Hackler’s sentence to be, Randall spoke only of mercy.
“They were all best friends,” he said. “They were driving like they always drive.”
Then, in the months after he spoke at Fisher-Hackler’s sentencing, an unlikely bond formed between the young man convicted of vehicular homicide and the 50-year-old father of the teen who died.
The two are working together on cars and planning summer trips to go camping, fishing and crabbing.
Their relationship —once full of hate and hurt — has become one of healing.
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‘SOMEHOW YOU ARE GOING TO LOSE HIM’
A single parent from the December day his son was born, Thomas Randall was admittedly overprotective.
“I was OCD,” he said. “All his whole life he was sheltered.”
The boy’s mother struggled with drug addiction and was in and out of prison. When Thomas Jr. was still a baby, Randall decided it would be best for his son to move from their Dixon, California, home to Washington state, where he had a sister and other friends.
As he grew up, Thomas Jr. wasn’t allowed to spend the night at friends’ houses. Until he was about 14, every time he left the house he had to take a walkie talkie to keep in touch with Dad.
Finally, Randall remembers, his son put his foot down.
“Look,” Thomas Jr. said, “I’m not doing the radio. It’s embarrassing.”
They compromised — by getting him a cellphone.
But feeding into Randall’s deepest fears, Thomas Jr. called one day from the Enumclaw skatepark to say he’d ripped open his calf muscle on the pedal of his bike.
What the father saw as a nightmare, the son saw as a battle wound.
“I was deathly scared I was going to lose my child somehow, some way,” Randall said. “Something inside told me: ‘Somehow you are going to lose him.’ ”
Thomas Jr. loved riding his BMX bicycle and hoped one day to get a sponsor.
He was a student who teachers loved, though he could be disruptive in class, his dad remembers. Bonney Lake High School didn’t work out for Thomas Jr., but he was working to get his GED and wanted to learn to design cars.
He was a joker, too, once pulling down father’s pants in the middle of Walmart. Another favorite trick was to put flour in the hand of a sleeping friend and then tickle his face to get him to cover himself with the powder.
Randall regularly drove his son to and from his shifts at the Wendy’s restaurant in Bonney Lake. Thomas Jr. talked about two things nearly every day on the ride.
He told his father to stop smoking. And he talked about his dreams to turn his old 1993 Honda Civic into something fit for “The Fast and the Furious” movies.
“He wanted to get it painted Honda S 2000 blue, and white graphics, and he wanted a whole body kit around it,” said Randall, a former mechanic who’s been on disability since multiple back surgeries and an accident that badly hurt his hand.
“This is why he worked so hard. For this little Honda Civic. Go figure.”
On that January day in 2015, Fisher-Hackler drove Thomas Jr. and their friend to pick up the teen’s paycheck at Wendy’s.
Thomas Jr. had asked his dad for a ride, but dad said no, because the teen hadn’t put gas in the car like he was supposed to.
“Thomas called the front seat, and Kamryn was driving,” Randall said.
They intended to take the check to get Thomas Jr. a tattoo he’d been planning, of a seeing eye on top of a dollar bill.
But the young men never made it to the tattoo parlor, and instead, the elder Randall got the tattoo, over his heart, in memory of his son.
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LOSING A CHILD
On the way back from Wendy’s, the white 1994 Acura carrying the three friends happened to race by Randall and his longtime girlfriend, Julie Braeger. The couple was heading home after getting groceries.
“They flew by me,” Randall recalled. “It was just a white flash.”
At the time he didn’t think twice about who was in the car.
But minutes later in the 6400 block of 218th Avenue East, an accident blocked the turnoff to the Lake Tapps peninsula where Randall and Braeger live. Locals call it the Island, because only a narrow roadway connects the spit of land to the mainland.
Braeger stayed in the car, and Randall got out to walk the short distance from the crash to their house.
It was sort of a game, to see who would get there first.
Walking past the wreck, Randall saw a troubling sign. A body was still inside one of the cars, and through the mangled door Randall saw what looked like his son’s shoes.
He didn’t immediately acknowledge it, but somewhere deep down, he knew his son had been in the horrific crash.
“I could see his black tennis shoes,” Randall said. “I walked home anyway.”
Shortly after Randall got to the house, one of his son’s friends called to say Thomas Jr. had been in a car wreck.
“Please, tell me it’s not the one in front of the Island,” Randall said.
Randall drove from hospital to hospital, looking for his son.
Finally, he returned to the wreck, where it was raining hard. When a chaplain told him his son was dead, Randall fell to the muddy ground.
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‘I KILLED MY FRIEND’
In the weeks after the wreck, while Randall grieved over the loss of his son, Fisher-Hackler was in a coma, on life support with a brain injury.
His family had to turn away visitors, because so many friends tried to visit.
The 6-foot-1 kid with long, thick dreadlocks was popular at Bonney Lake High School and easily recognized around town.
“He’s the only Rasta man in Bonney Lake,” his father, Santana Hackler, teases.
It was the dreadlocks that helped his mother, Stephanie Hackler, identify her son after the wreck.
After hearing her son had been hurt, she frantically called the local hospitals, trying to find where he’d been taken.
Then someone at Tacoma General told her they had a patient who might be him. Investigators knew who he was, but the hospital hadn’t gotten that information yet, and had him labeled a “John Doe.”
When the hospital confirmed the dreadlocks, she took off for their intensive care unit.
Hospital staffers warned Fisher-Hackler’s parents that he might not wake up and suggested they discuss organ donations, in case that decision became necessary.
“They thought he was pretty much chop suey,” Santana Hackler said.
When the young man did wake up, doctors advised his loved ones to let him heal further before telling him what happened.
“They wouldn’t tell me anything,” Fisher-Hackler remembers.
Still, he knew something was wrong.
The other friend injured in the crash visited him but wouldn’t say what happened either. And when he asked repeatedly where Thomas Jr. was, no one gave him a straight answer.
About a month after the crash, Fisher-Hackler began rehab at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup. Only then did staff members give his family the OK to tell him about the wreck.
His first thoughts were: “How am I alive? I killed my friend. I don’t know what to do.”
Now, he has no memories of the wreck.
“I try not to remember them,” he said. “I don’t want to remember them.”
He still struggles with the guilt.
“Sometimes I wish that I died instead of him,” he said.
As he coped with the loss of his friend and started the slow process of recovering from his brain injury, Fisher-Hackler faced another battle.
Because he caused the wreck by driving at least 67 mph in a 40 mph zone, Pierce County prosecutors charged him with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault for the death of Thomas Jr. and for their friend’s injuries.
He pleaded guilty, and on Jan. 8, 2016, about a year after the crash, was in Superior Court to be sentenced for the crimes.
His standard sentencing range for the vehicular homicide was between two years, two months and two years, 10 months. The maximum sentence was life in prison.
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A LIFE SENTENCE
Until the day of the sentencing, Randall had told Tim Jones, the deputy prosecutor in charge of the case, he intended to ask the judge to send Fisher-Hackler to prison.
But when it came time to speak, Randall had a change of heart.
Had his son been alive, he says today, he’d have been in court, fighting for Fisher-Hackler.
“It happened,” Randall said. “It was an accident.”
At the sentencing, he was given a chance to address the court. Randall walked from the gallery section of the courtroom and stood before Judge Jack Nevin. He said he needed to speak for his late son.
“He’s already sentenced to life,” Randall said of Fisher-Hackler. “He’s sentenced to life in his own head.”
As Randall spoke, chatter from those in the courtroom waiting for other cases died down. Soon everyone was listening.
Thomas Jr. would not want his best friend to spend time behind bars, Randall said.
He asked Nevin for leniency.
When he was done, Randall walked back into the courtroom gallery, which was separated by a windowed wall from the rest of the courtroom.
Fisher-Hackler spoke next, telling Randall he could never forgive himself.
He began to cry. It was the first time since his brain injury he had been able to do that.
From the gallery, Randall put his hand against the window separating them, and consoled his son’s friend.
“It’s OK,” he told him.
Nevin said Randall’s words helped determine Fisher-Hackler’s fate.
He told the young man to never forget that he not only killed his best friend, but also took someone’s child.
The sentence: No prison time.
After Fisher-Hackler was released, Randall hung out with him and his family for about 20 minutes as they finished up paperwork at the courthouse.
Then Randall floated an idea, something from a dad to honor his son. A favor from a best friend who survived to another who didn’t.
What if he and Fisher-Hackler worked together to spiff up Thomas Jr.’s car, to make it the ride of his dreams?
Fisher-Hackler’s first reaction was to be nervous about spending time with Randall — “I felt like if I was a dad, I would want to kill the kid,” he said later — but then he said he wanted to help.
For Fisher-Hackler, it was a relief to know Randall wasn’t mad at him anymore.
For Randall, it was a relief to let his anger go. He left the courthouse that day with a sense of closure.
Before going home, Randall stopped at the crash site on 218th Avenue. It was still marked by a homemade memorial of crosses and signs. Again, it was pouring rain.
He told Thomas Jr. that his friend was going to be OK.
As he stood there, Randall swears today, the rain around him stopped and the sun shone.
That was as good a sign as any, he figures, that helping Fisher-Hackler was a way to do right by Thomas Jr.
“I think that was his way of saying: ‘Thank you Dad,’ ” Randall said.
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GAINING A SON
The anniversary of the wreck was a couple weeks after Fisher-Hackler’s last day in court. He went to the memorial site with his family, the first time he’d been there since the crash.
They called Randall, who joined them.
Fisher-Hackler read Psalm 23 from the Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. ... He restores my soul ...”
He choked up, and Randall put his arm around him. He encouraged him to finish the passage.
“You know what?” Randall told his son’s best friend. “Thomas is OK now. He’s moved on, and he wants you to do the same.”
Since then, the two men have worked on cars at Randall’s place, and both look forward to the day they finish Thomas Jr.’s dream car. That’s probably a year or more away.
“He just wanted to make something fast,” Fisher-Hackler remembered about his friend.
On a recent work day, Fisher-Hackler was attentive and quick to run and grab any tools Randall needed. He listened carefully to instructions.
Fisher-Hackler is still recovering from his brain injury. Working on cars helps with his motor skills.
The two men talk about the Honda’s B18 turbo engine, about where they’ll go camping, about how excited they are to take a road trip this summer. Sometimes they talk about Thomas Jr. and the wreck.
“You’re a worthwhile person,” Randall reminds Fisher-Hackler. “Accidents happen.”
Fisher-Hackler says that when he has kids, there’s no way he’s letting them drive. Randall gives a dark laugh. He knows a thing or two about overprotective parenting.
Fisher-Hackler remains in physical, occupational and speech therapy but plans to become an electrician and hopes to start his own business.
In the meantime, without school or work in his immediate future, he feels cooped up at home. Getting out of the house to work with Randall helps.
And he’s become a sort of replacement son.
“It’s you now,” Randall told him as they worked.
Fisher-Hackler’s dad agrees.
“He’s repaying the debt by becoming Thomas’s son to fill that void,” Santana Hackler said.
Randall’s girlfriend has seen a change in him, thanks to his decision the day of the sentencing.
“Hearing that he did that gave me a great sense of relief and peace,” she said. “He doesn’t have that pent-up rage and anger like he did before.”
To Fisher-Hackler’s mother, Randall’s idea still seems almost too good to be true.
“Sometimes I think: Is he going to change his mind?” she said. “He’s just happy and so nice.”
Randall credits Fisher-Hackler with being “part of my healing process.”
“It’s just better than healing alone,” he said.
That process has been a slow one, marked with bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide. He still sometimes sits in his garage at night, crying.
But helping his son’s friend, making sure he’s OK, is part of what gives Randall a sense of purpose.
After they finish Thomas Jr.’s car, Randall said, he and Fisher-Hackler will grab the boy’s urn and take the Honda for a spin.
Just a dad and his sons.