David Christopher Leon wandered away from his mother in their Tucson, AZ, church parking lot on October 29, 1983, after spying a carnival at a shopping center nearby. There, a carny offered the 10-year-old $5 to help him pitch a tent.
“We lived off of welfare and food boxes and donated clothing,” recalled Michelle Williams. “That $5 must have seemed like $5 million to my little brother at the time.”
But there was no tent. The man threw the boy into a car, gagged him, took him to an abandoned house, and brutally, repeatedly sodomized him. David was found at 1:30 the next morning, bleeding, in the same church parking lot in which his mother had lost him.
He was lost, indeed. “We always say he died that day,” said Williams. “He was never emotionally whole: He did everything he could not to feel pain or shame for what had happened to him.”
In the lonely, wee hours of June 16, 2004, at the age of 31 after struggling with drugs and alcohol, Leon died when he was hit by a train.
Two years earlier, Leon had finally confronted his abductor in court, re-living the rape—years after another man had been wrongfully convicted of the crime and subsequently released, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Finally, in 2002, Walter Calvin Cruise pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
But it wasn’t enough to save Leon. Less than two years later, Williams said, “my brother gave up his life.”
Williams, married for 20 years and the mother of an 18-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, last year began having trouble sleeping, spending hours each night sobbing in her bed. Overcome by the renewed anguish, she heeded a voice that told her to turn her pain into power, to remind people that these horrible things really do happen and need to be talked about openly.
A runner, Williams sat down at her computer to search for the next big race and came up with the ING New York City Marathon. A late quest last year to get the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children added to the list of Marathon charity partners surprisingly yielded five race bibs. Williams; her sister, Danielle; and her mother, Patricia Benitez, used three of them, with the other two going to people who had lost relatives under similar circumstances. Together they raised more than $16,000, 125 percent of their goal.
On November 4, Williams will run again, this time with her youngest sister, Raquel. But she emphasized, “This is not David’s run; this is for every child.”
Also running is Jan Wright, a retired police chief in Hamburg, NJ, who worked on an abduction case in the late 1990s and was present when the child—10 years old, the same age as Williams’s brother when he was raped—was reunited with his mother eight months later. The young man several years ago graduated from Temple University, and his mother calls Wright to thank him every year on the anniversary of the day her son was found.
“Sometimes we feel bad because we had such a happy ending [and others do not],” said Wright, a long-time runner who will be doing his first ING New York City Marathon.
Their name, “Team Run Baby Run,” is as poignant as it is fitting. It’s what they hope every child who feels threatened will do.
“I just go back to that day when [my brother] was getting in the car,” Williams said, “and I wish I had been there to yell ‘Run, baby, run.’”
Photos Courtesy of Michelle Williams. Top: David, 10 years old. Bottom (left to right): Williams's mom, sister Danielle, and Williams before the 2011 ING New York City Marathon.