Thomas Atkins wanted to be a preacher or brain surgeon. It didn’t happen. One month shy of completing a two-year sentence for violating probation, the 21-year-old man was brutally murdered inside his cell. How to explain this tragedy? Was it disguised grace?
A friend of the victim’s parents, Karole and Rick, heard that two-word phrase—disguised grace—every time he prayed for them. It’s since become their touchstone.
Disguised grace? What does that mean?
“My take is how the soul grows from hurt or loss,” Karole says. “It’s a must to heal and minister to others.” In other words, bad things happen to remind us of the forgiveness we must extend—even to those who steal relationships most important to us through senseless acts of violence.
Hearing Karole and Rick’s story is hard.
You can’t figure out whom to blame. The prison system? Their adopted son? Certainly, Thomas, then 18 years old, exercised poor judgment when he and two friends took a couple of golf carts for a joy ride during a snowstorm in early 2017, causing more than $1,000 in property damage, a felony.
Rational thinking disappeared again one year later. While on probation, Thomas tossed his ankle monitor into the Tennessee River. His probation officer called Karole and Rick to tell them the news. Everyone thought he had drowned.
He’d gone into hiding.
For this crime, the judge sentenced Thomas to two years in jail. Due to overcrowding at the Blount County Detention Center, officials moved him to another facility in nearby Morgan County.
For reasons hard to understand, Thomas was then moved again, along with convicted murderers and rapists, to Whiteville Correctional Facility in Hardeman County—a nearly six-hour drive from Karole and Rick’s East Tennessee home.
Rick and Karole never saw their son again.
Numb to It All
Why did so much happen to Karole and Rick? While dealing with Thomas’s issues, the Atkins’s older son, Chris, and his wife were tee-boned driving home from a night out. Their daughter-in-law died instantly. Their son spent two weeks in a coma and nearly died.
When the hospital released Chris, he recuperated at Karole and Rick’s. When needed, they cared for Chris’s two children who’d moved in with Chris’s mother. In between, they checked in on a brother and aunt diagnosed with cancer and dealt with the angst caused by an uncle’s attempted suicide.
“I was numb to it all,” Karole remembers.
Reflections on Thomas
We’re sitting on a living-room sofa with Karole’s two lively, company-loving dogs. At her fingertips are photos of Thomas whom she and Rick adopted when he was 18-months-old.
Also at arm’s reach are a booklet she compiled years ago to remember the funny things Thomas would say, and a letter from the man who killed him.
“He was always saying something funny,” she says, explaining why she compiled her booklet. “I loved how he saw things and wanted to remember.” In one entry, Karole recounted the time a migraine sent her to bed and Thomas to his bedroom for his Bible.
Although told to let her be, Thomas returned and ordered her to close her eyes. “I pray for you.” Thomas raised his hand, shut his eyes, and mumbled. He then placed his hand on her head, and said, “Jesus, make my momma’s head better. Amen. Amen, Jesus.” Within five minutes, Karole’s migraine was gone.
Thomas’s transfer to Whiteville Correctional Facility happened in late 2019. A few months after his arrival, Thomas was inside his cell when another inmate, known only as “Hunt,” ordered his cellmate to leave. Hunt threatened Thomas with a knife before raping him.
Moved to another cell where yet another cellmate roughed him up, Thomas requested protective custody. The jail denied it, according to court documents. And on February 19, 2020, Thomas was found dead—one month before completing his two-year jail sentence.
Karole says one of the guards allowed the murderer to enter Thomas’s cell. He choked, gagged, and kicked Thomas so ferociously that the right side of Thomas’s face was no longer recognizable. The beef: a television set.
A makeup artist spent three days repairing the damage so that Karole could see her son one last time before his burial. “Snow is what got him in trouble,” she says. “It was snowing during his funeral, but a Bradford Pear was blooming. Peaceful. And then the snow just stopped.”
Her suffering didn’t. “I was in a bad place. I was mad. I didn’t feel anything. I stepped down from church responsibilities. I listened in church, but I didn’t hear….In idle time I’d sit and just imagine that guy kicking Thomas.”
God Goes to Work
Disguised grace. God started working.
“I don’t think I had much of a heart left, but God sends you people,” Karole says. Especially those who ask that you mentor them, as did a young woman from Paraguay, or a friend who offered the perfect healing words: “Thomas’s last breath on Earth was his first in heaven.”
She and Rick prayed God would open doors. He did. They now support their church’s prison ministry reaching inmates in 18 correctional facilities across Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, West Virginia, Virginia, and Mississippi. New facilities are coming online.
Karole gets up and retrieves the letter the murderer wrote after his conviction for Thomas’s death. In that letter, he told Karole she had to forgive him because she was a Christian. Yes, she thought, I do have to forgive you, “but don’t tell me what to do.” She says God gave her a lot of grace.
She has since forgiven her son’s murderer, and looks at his photo every day, wondering about the experiences that shaped him to become a man who would kill another over a television.
“I do pray for him and would like to see him. What if we’re the last people to tell him about the Lord, and didn’t? If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven.”
Disguised grace. Have you extended it?