Emily Elkins, ready to turn 15 Sunday, was home playing with her new puppy Tuesday morning. She was too sick to leave the house and go to a courthouse.
Johnny Ray Kendricks – a man whom Emily has never met but has sure seen on videotape from a store in July 2012 stealing a donation jar meant for Emily – was not too weak to go to court. He walked in from a detention pen, begged for mercy and pleaded guilty.
Kendricks was sentenced Tuesday to 15 years for several crimes, including stealing $70 in small bills and change meant to help a little girl with cancer eating away at her muscles and lymph nodes and organs.
Then he claimed he never knew when he did it that the money was for a girl with cancer, despite videotape evidence that showed Kendricks reading a flier about sick Emily that was right next to the jar that, seconds later, he stole.
Emily was too weak for scheduled chemotherapy this week, so she did not see Kendricks standing in court, admitting that he was the one who stole the donation jar in July 2012.
Kendricks, 50, had been committing burglaries and break-ins and stealing since age 18, with the only interruptions from crime being prison stretches where he could not steal from anybody, snuck the jar into a bucket of water that day in July last year while the clerk had his back turned.
“I don’t hate him for doing it,” said Emily on Tuesday after learning of the sentence. “I never did.”
Emily has said from the beginning that she forgave whoever stole it – Kendricks was not arrested until January. But if the thief needed the money, Emily would have given it to him because giving is what life is all about.
When people from as far away as Hawaii read The Herald’s coverage of the theft last summer, then donated buckets of money in outrage and kindness, Emily gave much of that money to the homeless in clothes and blankets. She gave more to kids at Christmas who had no toys or gifts. She gave more still for sick kids in hospitals.
She did keep Justin Bieber concert tickets and rode in a limousine thanks to her nurses and Herald readers. She will accept a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip to Hawaii in the next couple of years.
But she only agreed to take the trip if she could help the group raise tens of thousands of dollars at an April walk in Rock Hill that attracted hundreds of sponsors.
“Emily, alone, decided from the beginning of the donations that she wanted to help others,” said William Elkins, Emily’s father. “She wouldn’t let it be about her. She said the only way to be a good person is to help people who need help.”
Even when Emily fights for her life.
The 2:30 a.m., July 31, 2012, crime was caught on surveillance video at Scott’s Food Store in Rock Hill at the corner of Heckle Boulevard and South Cherry Road. Kendricks is shown buying a 16-ounce Budweiser, a can of beer for $1.79. He asks the clerk for water in a bucket he is carrying. The water was for his overheating truck, Kendricks claimed.
Then Kendricks, with water given to him, asks the clerk for a cigar. The cheap ones, that cost a few cents, kept behind the clerk on a rack. On the videotape, Kendrick is seen bent over the counter, perusing the flier next to the donation jar. The flier stated how Emily was a cheerleader and an “A” student and now was fighting cancer that she would fight with all her heart.
The clerk turns his back, and Kendricks grabs the jar and plunges it into the water-filled bucket so that the coins would make no noise. He then leaves the store with his spoils – $70 meant to help a sick kid.
Kendricks was on the run for months on the donation jar theft and other crimes until caught in January after a manhunt. He confessed to police, and has been in jail since.
Emily Elkins had long forgiven him.
Because she was too weak to go to court, Emily wrote a letter to be read in court. It was on lined green and white paper, stationery from a cancer organization for children.
Her father, William “Paul” Elkins, a giant man with a giant heart that has been broken again and again by cancer and theft but always is fixed by his daughter’s courage, said as he tried not to cry in court that he knows Kendricks is a “career criminal” who needs prison time.
But Paul Elkins said his Christian heart repaired so often by Emily forgives Kendricks.
Still, Paul Elkins read what Emily wanted Judge Michael Nettles, the judge to know. The words sounded like a ringing gong in that otherwise silent courtroom. Paul Elkins works maintenance for the state Department of Transportation. He had to take time off from work for court.
“Take in to consideration he knew it was for a cancer kid: cause there was a sign saying why they was donating money,” Emily wrote. “If he has kids ask him how he would feel if it happened to one of his kids (getting money took.)”
Emily wrote in that note that she knew Kendricks had to be sentenced to many years in prison, and should, and might even get so much jail time for his crime spree that included the jar that Kendricks might die in jail.
“Tell him I’m not mad, I just have no respect for him.” Emily wrote in that little girl’s handwriting. “I hope taking $70 was worth losing your life.”
Emily’s father also said there was no doubt, none, from the videotape, that Kendricks had read the flier and knew that he was stealing from a girl with cancer. Her mother, Annie Brakefield, said the same thing.
Despite all that, Kendricks claimed in court Tuesday, crying, that he had no idea that the money he stole was from a child with cancer. He said his other crimes were bad, the break-ins to steal lottery tickets, more, but admitted that stealing from a sick child was far worse.
“This one, this stealing from the child, it tears me up,” Kendricks stated in court.
In begging for leniency, Kendricks told Judge Nettles, and Emily’s father, to thank Emily for forgiving him.
He claimed that only months later did he find out the jar was for someone battling for her life who, at the time, was just 13 years old.
“I promise you, I didn’t know it was for a sick child,” Kendricks claimed to Emily’s father and the judge.
Kendricks’ crimes came just weeks after he was released from prison on probation after a 2010 burglary conviction where he was sentenced to 18 months. Since 1980, Kendricks has only spent short stretches a free man.
Kendricks blamed a childhood of abuse, followed by the past 30-plus years of drug and alcohol addiction, for his most recent crimes. Especially the jar that he stole.
Kendricks’ lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Mark McKinnon, said that Kendricks is not a “diabolical criminal mind” when off drugs and booze. McKinnon had asked for drug court – alternative to jail – but that request was denied by prosecutor John Shiflet.
Shiflet made it clear in court Tuesday he was having none of Kendricks’ not going to prison for all his crimes – especially the donation jar.
“15 years minimum, 20 years maximum,” Shiflet said, plainly and sternly, of plea negotiations.
The judge, Nettles, a visiting judge from Florence in York County this week, stated plainly to Kendricks that prison was the only option.
“The only time you don’t commit a crime is when you are in prison,” Nettles told Kendricks.
Nettles also told Kendricks that all the thefts and damages he caused in his crimes are just a few hundred dollars, but the cost to imprison him for up to 15 years, paid for by taxpayers just like the Elkins family, would reach a half-million dollars.
“But that is all we can do,” Nettles told Kendricks. “If we didn’t lock you up, you are out committing another crime.”
When court was over Tuesday, Kendricks walked out in chains.
Kendricks will be eligible for parole again in about nine years.
Emily Elkins, about to turn 15 Sunday, never knows if she will have 15 minutes, or days, or weeks to live.
Or if she will make age 15 on Sunday.
Cancer does not give parole.
Emily Elkins’ entire life is a death sentence. A sentence she alone, without courts and lawyers and judges, has overturned each day she wakes up and fights for life and gives to others.
On Monday, Emily Elkins is going to the Department of Motor Vehicles, to get her driver’s permit. She has studied the book for two months.
After her jar was stolen, and The Herald’s coverage that went national, she became, in her own words, “kind of a celebrity.”
The notoriety made her uncomfortable. It embarrassed her. She was just a teenager.
But Emily clearly was no ordinary teen: She used that celebrity to give to others and still does.
Her father said the donations and fundraisers by the community, the help, show the real human spirit – not the crime that brought it all about
Emily is in the middle of a tough chemotherapy round, said her mother, who missed court Tuesday, too, to stay home with Emily.
“She’s just a great girl,” said her mother. “She never hated who did this. She worried about him, really.”
Emily still does worry about Johnny Ray Kendricks whom she never met.
On the day that the career criminal who stole that jar with $70 in it finally pleaded guilty and went to prison, Emily did what teens do: She sent a text message. Emily and her mother hope Kendricks will be able to see somehow:
“Can u tell the guy I thank him,” the text read. “Because of his actions, we were able to see that God is alive and working through others.”
“We forgive him,” Emily wrote of her family.
Then Emily wrote, to be seen hopefully by Johnny Ray Kendricks, who stole from a kid with cancer:
“And (I) wish him the best.”
Johnny Ray Kendricks asks for forgiveness
Father of Emily Elkins reacts to verdict
FILE: Surveillance video of man stealing donations