Michael Gray


Mike Gray received his MFA from Florida Atlantic University in 2012 and currently serves as an English Instructor at Hazard Community and Technical College in Kentucky. His fiction has appeared in Carte Blanche, The Rockford Review, Foliate Oak, Riverwind, and others.


A Memory of Hands


The interview with Lace Watkins can still be found online, a one-hour CBS exclusive that originally aired on December 16, 1999. For a brief time it was fairly popular on the Internet—just a candid, unadorned conversation in a well-lit living room. The blunt sixty-eight year old with her dowdy bisque cardigan and resolute stare. The grandmother of Emmy Lester with a story to tell.

Not sure I believe them with most things, but I do that—about where they found it. I know that picture so well. There’s a tack hole near the top edge of the original because I always kept it on the cork board, by the kitchen window there. Sun faded it in places, but look close enough and you can still make them out pretty clear.


In the photograph, the young girl is seated on a fissured concrete stoop with an infant balanced on her lap. Wild, peach-blonde hair, chalky-blue tee shirt, bare feet on the sidewalk with her toes in the sun.

Some have said it’s not the innocence that stirs them, but the absence of it. The girl’s expression—the weary, dutiful grin, shaded eyes fixed on the baby, or maybe gazing just beyond him. One columnist called the image “a still frame of depletion.” It’s an expression belonging to a worn life, though the girl was only twelve years old at the time.

This photograph was released to the media anonymously nearly a month after Hillsboro, and it helped redefine the capricious public perception of Emmy Lester.


A guest psychologist in the wings of a newscast weighed in on the relevance of the photo and Lace’s interview. He suggested that “why is always easier once you understand where, and in the wake of the Burkhart crime wave that’s precisely what they offer us.”

For Emmy Lester, “where” was a dilapidated two-story house in East Dayton. It’s still clear at a glance that the neighborhood she grew up in is just a step away from the poverty line. Many of the houses on Nassau Avenue have since doubled as low-income apartment buildings. They have bed sheets for blinds, squat porches without rails, awnings that bleed rust down the aluminum siding.

Emmy’s parents, Stella and Greg, were never married. It’s said that both of them openly kept other lovers in the house, usually from the pool of transient friends and boarders constantly streaming through. Greg worked on an assembly line packaging auto parts for thirteen years. A fourth-generation alcoholic, he was by most accounts somewhat grave and laconic, carrying a hint of hostility in the way he dealt with people, though no one could remember him ever actually losing his temper.

In contrast Stella Watkins, Lace’s only child, served nine months for her part in a burglary when she was nineteen and never held a regular job in her adult life. She was histrionic and verbally belligerent, traits that helped sever the ties with most of her immediate family. She eventually had a total of four children, though paternity beyond Emmy is uncertain. Her first son wasn’t born until the fall of 2000, so Emmy was the only child who ever lived in that house.


There are few reliable details about this early period in Emmy’s life.

Several years later, when Emmy was first identified as Clancy Borden’s girlfriend, the public craved an explanation. People couldn’t help but speculate about the upbringing of a girl like that. It was easy to imagine all that could go unchecked in such a place as the house on Nassau, a young girl steeped in the irregular shuffle and clatter of adults, but until Lace broke her silence the media had to rely largely on partial records and imagination. They knew that like most of the local kids, Emmy attended Wynn Elementary. Neighbors said she was a common sight coming and going, but a scarcity of facts always plagued their testimonies.

Of course her mother, Stella, gave interviews when first approached, often passing herself off as a kind of neighborhood mother hen. About half a dozen clips from encounters with local reporters exist. In one of these Stella plays the parent of a martyr. Standing on the sidewalk in front of a neighbor’s house, the inhalant addict, with her long nails and nicotine-colored highlights, rambles on incoherently about public schools and the economy, and all while holding a toddler (a friend’s son) that’s so heavy she can’t even keep up a pretense of tears.

Aside from the age difference there isn’t much to blur the physical similarities between Stella and Lace, especially the slight hook to the nose that makes them look secretive when they grin. But what’s striking is the difference in sincerity.

Though Emmy’s grandmother never says it directly, it’s possible these early news clips are what inspired her to step into the public eye. When her interviewer suggests she might face criticism for justifying Emmy’s part in the Burkhart crimes, Lace Watkins simply shakes her head. Please don’t do that. I’m not here to talk about those others. Their story’s been told.


Hers may be a name indelibly linked to Clancy Borden, but it’s been argued that another man is responsible for Emmy Lester’s fate.

Vern Anders: a tall, gaunt drifter from West Virginia with an eighth-grade education and nineteen arrests to his name, all for petty thefts and misconduct. He worked the line with Emmy’s father at Dover Packaging that fall and reportedly lived in the house on Nassau for about a month during the winter, somewhere between 1995 and 1996.

No one knows where he wandered after that. Or what became of him.

He was forty-two at the time. Emmy was eleven.

She told me not to, so I never asked. But I knew. She was already living with me by then and she’d wake up screaming and kicking, quilts all over the floor, and I’d whisper it over and over—I know, honey. I know.

Police weren’t called in time to do much. Emmy didn’t tell until she couldn’t hide it anymore. They say her daddy went hunting for the bastard, but he didn’t go any further than route thirty-five. I was there. He came back that same night with a case of Budweiser.

Then about a month after Oliver was born, Emmy tells me about finding a man in their basement, sleeping face down behind the furnace. She was down there playing. Said it was dark, all the windows had masking tape on them. Took her awhile to get her guts up, but she started in close because she thought maybe he was dead.

Only he wasn’t.


The move to Lace’s home was supposed to be permanent.

Stella visited four times in those five months and each time Lace pushed the subject of legal custody. Even if she didn’t make any progress, she said, it was a sure way to hurry Stella out the door.

Lace would later explain that she was preoccupied with the pregnancy and hadn’t pushed hard enough. She was used to Stella’s procrastination and unreliability, but she hadn’t expected all the trouble that followed the birth.

Emmy carried the baby to term solely in her grandmother’s care, and when she went into labor Lace kept the news from the rest of the family.

Oliver Alan Lester was born on Tuesday, September 10, 1996 at 6:21am. Pink skin, searching hands, a prominent lash of peach-blond hair curling up from his forehead like a question mark. Lace recalls how the medical staff called him perfect, though it had not been a perfect delivery. Emmy remained in the hospital another three days before returning to her grandmother’s home. Lace had prepped an area in Emmy’s room, purchasing enough furniture and supplies to last a long while.

However, Emmy and her baby only remained at Lace’s home another four months.

By late January of 1997, Stella had still taken no official steps concerning the agreed-upon change in custody. Then in February she got the police involved and demanded the return of both her daughter and grandson.

Lace readied herself for a fight in court, but without any legal agreement, she was told, her case would likely amount to nothing.


When asked about Stella’s motive, Lace has an answer ready.

As I recall it was coming up on tax season. In hindsight it’s not so hard to see coming.


According to the faculty at Wynn Elementary, Emmy returned to school the following winter term and immediately became a target for ridicule from her peers, most of whom had advanced in the interim. The official story was that Emmy had missed the better half of fourth grade because she’d been severely ill, but it didn’t take long for the truth to surface and there was little compassion once it did. In one case a sixth grade boy she didn’t even know was suspended for misspelling “hore” on several pages of a textbook he’d stolen from her.

Emmy became a truant almost in self-defense, but the attention found her at home as well. It quickly became common to see a spare knot of kids hovering around Nassau, trying to get a look at Emmy Lester’s baby.

Lace goes on for nearly two minutes about Emmy’s maternal instincts and dedication, but she was still a little girl. It’s anyone’s guess who watched the baby on those days Emmy decided to attend school. Even though the reception was frigid, Lace said she tried to make it to the house on Nassau several times a week. She’d usually bring fresh supplies and look in on Emmy and Oliver, but the condition of the place disgusted her. One afternoon, after finding cigarette ashes in the crib, she decided to call child services. The only lasting result was that Stella locked the doors against her from that point on.

Lace continued sending care packages addressed to Emmy whenever she could, but she never got to see her great grandson again.


May 21, 1997.

It was quickly established that Emmy was not home that morning. Nor should she have been. As the child services agent told Stella, Emmy should’ve been at school.

However, she hadn’t been there either.

In fact Emmy didn’t return home until an hour after the regular dismissal time. She paused at the front door when she saw the official-looking group milling around the living room. There were burrs and bramble thorns stuck to her sneakers and pant hems.

Cleveland Park, she admitted.

A moment later, they told her that Oliver was dead.

For at least half an hour that morning, the eight month old had had free reign of the cluttered backyard. At some point he crawled into his blue kiddie pool, still full and murky from earlier in the week, and drowned.

Though the incident was eventually ruled an accident, Emmy was removed to a foster home for the rest of that year. In her absence, Stella sold most of what Lace had purchased for Emmy’s baby, including his clothes, crib, stroller, and highchair. Lace tried to vie for custody a second time, but once again it came to nothing. She would never be able to understand or accept the decision.

By the time Emmy was shipped back to Nassau Avenue, it was as if her son had never happened.


The story of Emmy Lester’s early adolescence is largely unknown. Records show that she never completed another full year of school, at least not at Wynn Elementary. According to some, she became withdrawn and aimless. She lost interest in old amusements. Friendships stemming from before her pregnancy were allowed to dissolve.

It’s not clear exactly how or when she met Clancy Borden, a recidivist six years her senior. He hailed from a nearby neighborhood called Burkhart, named after the avenue all the surrounding streets branched off from. Because of the proximity, some people suggest they met through acquaintances. Others say he was just another transient passing through the house on Nassau. What is clear is that by the time Emmy was fourteen years old, they were rarely seen apart.


Early in the interview, Lace is asked to describe her impression of Clancy.

Emmy brought him and those other two by for breakfast one morning. It was just a little visit. They were all real polite. Asked me about my lighthouses, cleaned up after themselves. And now I can say that I’ve known evil men.

There’s nothing else worth saying about them.


At least part of what fueled Clancy’s notoriety is that he looked evil, but not in the Hollywood fashion. He was fairly short and slight, weighing less than 150 pounds. The black hair he kept parted down the center contrasted with his pale complexion. When taken together these features might’ve suggested something of frailty, but not when you consider his eyes. When he was six, Clancy fell against a tree stump sticking just a few inches out of the ground. The wood cut into the upper lid of his right eye, which scarred and gave his expression a slant, impatient quality, like some emotion was always on the brink of surfacing. A former accomplice once said Clancy “never seemed to be frowning or smiling, but like he could do either one at any time.”

Like many of the young men who would later join with him on and off, Clancy barely made it to high school. His police record began with an assault on a classmate when he was just eleven and grew steadily from there. For a while the local police were on a first-name basis with him, but at seventeen Clancy graduated to armed robbery and was no longer considered a petty threat. Back then he favored the small groceries and gas stations bordering Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, passing between states in stolen cars. He used a semi-automatic handgun and carried a long, thin hunting knife in plain view on his belt.

The two who were most often with him at this time were Leslie Harrow and Travis Dane, friends from the Burkhart neighborhood. Together these three toured the border roads of the Midwest, stealing cars and holding up mostly small, isolated establishments whenever they ran low on money.

It’s estimated that between April and June of 1999 these “Burkhart Boys” committed nine such robberies: three convenience stores, five gas stations, and one fast food restaurant. It was a difficult routine to trace because of the random nature of the group’s movements. Then on a cool spring evening in Anderson, Indiana, when a twenty-three year old communications student left a bar to pull money from an ATM, the routine changed.

Clancy and the others happened by the student while looking for a place to spend the night. On a whim they parked and tailed the young man, holding him at gunpoint until he withdrew money for them. This task complete, Travis hit the student behind his right ear with the butt of his pistol and kicked him into a coma he wouldn’t recover from for eight days.

Though they made off with over four hundred dollars, Clancy and Travis were later identified by the machine’s surveillance camera.

It was a mistake they wouldn’t repeat.

Veering toward individuals didn’t always pay better than their traditional robberies, but there seemed to be less risk involved. The group refined their approach, only targeting people at free-standing ATMs, which allowed them to stand behind the units and avoid the cameras. They also established a pattern of kidnapping the men and women they robbed instead of assaulting them. With an often loud, collegial bravado they would drive their victims deep into rural areas and release them into fields or roadside thickets without their shoes. The steady, clerkish Les Harrow was clearly the designated wheelman who worked hard at keeping silent while Clancy and Travis tried to banter with their hostages, asking questions about their jobs or families or life goals. Even though none of these first victims were harmed, a number said Travis had produced a sewing needle from the brim of his ball cap and threatened to stick them if they didn’t “sunny up.”


In their reports these victims gradually started mentioning that there was a young girl involved. Not another victim—at least not that they could tell. Seated in the front passenger side, a small girl with a thin hook nose and light orange hair who would occasionally turn to glimpse beneath her headrest.

She never spoke, though several claimed to have seen her smiling.


When asked about the rapidity of her granddaughter’s descent, Lace Watkins takes a moment to respond.

Happened the same way everything does, I guess. One after another.


September 8, 1999. Portage, Michigan.

At about 2:40am police responded to a call from a startled widow who said someone was tearing at her back door. Moments after they arrived, officers identified the suspect as Travis Dane.

He was unarmed, sprawled on the woman’s back porch with a severe knife wound to his left side, a few inches below his armpit. On the chance that his associates were in the area, police began a thorough search of the surrounding neighborhoods, which turned up nothing but a station wagon stolen ten days earlier in Toledo.

Travis, often considered the strongest, most volatile member of Clancy’s gang, survived for another two hours. When questioned in the Emergency Room at Spring Valley Hospital, Travis refused to give up his group’s exact location, but did say they’d been drinking and playing cards. He admitted that he’d struck Clancy’s girlfriend in the mouth after she spilled a beer across their winnings. Without a word, Clancy leapt and stuck him with his hunting knife, digging in straight to the hilt.

Though she would not be positively identified until after Hillsboro, this was the first time authorities heard the name Emmy.

Travis Dane took his last breath just after five that morning.

In the same moment, Clancy Borden became a murderer.


On September 12, 1999, four days after the Portage incident, Les Harrow and Clancy held up a small all-night diner called Perth’s in Solon, Ohio. After they emptied the register and collected valuables from a handful of patrons, the manager tried to tackle Clancy.

It was a mistake. While on the ground, Clancy pushed the barrel of his semi-automatic against the manager’s left cheek. Witnesses said he whispered something before firing. The forty-seven year old was dead before the gang’s vehicle was even clear of the parking lot.

Less than an hour before dawn that same morning, the gang hit three gas stations outside of Akron, one after another. After the diner robbery, Clancy seemed to develop a fondness for the sound of his own weapon. In all three instances, he fired rounds through front windows and glass cooler doors. This blitz was answered by authorities, but they missed Clancy’s newly-stolen minivan, which headed north, reportedly passing back through Solon before disappearing.


These events established the gang’s tastes and methods during a serial robbery spree that held the Midwest hostage for almost two months afterward.

The only video footage of Emmy Lester that exists was taken during this period, from a gas station surveillance camera in Seymour, Indiana.

At first the footage seems fairly commonplace: gunmen storm the counter shouting muted commands; employees fumble with the register, empty their pockets. But then the front doors swing open and a petite young girl with light orange hair enters.

Your breath catches.

For a tense moment you expect the assailants to turn and see her—you watch for her reaction. But neither of these things happen.

Instead, the small girl in jeans and a plain yellow top strolls back to the wall coolers for a bottled soda, fills her pale, thin arms with chips and candies, then heads right back outside. Except for a sideways glance, she doesn’t even look at the register.


October 20, 1999. Hillsboro, Ohio.

A cold, gray dawn. Rounded clouds draped low over the countryside like spilled bearings. On the thread of road called Locust Avenue, hemmed in by browning fields and spare thickets, Clancy Borden coasted a steel-blue Maxima along at a calm pace. While Emmy slept in the passenger seat, Les Harrow, seated behind her, silently offered a length of beef jerky to the young brunette buckled in beside him. She politely refused.

During the last weeks of their spree, the only discernible pattern in the gang’s behavior was the targeting and abduction of ATM patrons. At some point in late September, authorities in Indiana and Ohio started positioning small teams of undercover officers at some of the more remote ATM units as bait. It was a long shot, one the officers involved didn’t particularly enjoy. But at about 5:30 that morning, just a few steps down from an old Colony movie theater in downtown Hillsboro, the unlikely plan succeeded.

The woman sitting beside Les Harrow was a Highland County Deputy.


Officers on this assignment followed a strict routine. They would take turns approaching their chosen ATM, trying to look casual as they repeatedly withdrew small amounts from dummy checking accounts. The nights were tedious and numbing. Deputy Ashley Coates had already been through the routine twice that night, each time donning a different coat and hat. She’d just entered the PIN when Clancy struck out from behind the unit with a pistol leveled. He had her withdrawal her maximum, $200.00, then he forced her down the sidewalk at a trot.

The officers admitted that after weeks of uneventful tedium, the speed of the crime caught them off guard. Rather than risk a firefight, they held back as the Maxima pulled up at the far corner. Another figure appeared from the backseat and motioned Deputy Coates into the car. Only after the vehicle was out of sight did they begin their pursuit.

Locust Avenue acts as a kind of serpentine access road dividing the rear acreage of a number of surrounding farms. By 6:00am a formation of cruisers had the road blockaded at the intersection where it dead-ended several miles ahead. In the meantime, two other cruisers closed in from behind.

According to Coates, Clancy noticed the pursuit just after cresting a hill and accelerated. He shook Emmy’s shoulder and told Les they were being followed. Coates played along, keeping still as Les dug through the mass of handguns and loose ammunition on the floorboard.

Deputy Coates would later explain her actions as stemming from a sudden understanding of the suspects’ resolve. In short, she hadn’t expected the assault rifles hidden under a lap blanket at Les’ feet. The gang had never used such weapons in the course of their crimes and there is still no record of how they acquired them.

Les checked the weapons and handed one up to Clancy, who wedged his beside the center console. Les then rolled down his window, leaned into the brittle blast of morning air, and tried to steady his sights behind them.

Clancy was approaching a curve at high speed. The young girl, Emmy, buckled her seatbelt.

With Les busy out the window, Deputy Coates was free to reach for a bleary chrome revolver she spotted on the floor. She waited for Clancy to start into the curve, aimed the revolver at the back of his head, and fired.


The pursuing officers watched as the Maxima swiped a rainwater ditch and flipped seven times, finally coming to rest upright some distance into a field.

Les Harrow was thrown from the vehicle on the first rotation. He landed on the frost-hardened ground nearly sixty feet from the crash site and died there from internal injuries.

The gunshot to Clancy Borden’s head had been fatal. His body wound up face down in the backseat, his feet hooked over Deputy Coates’s lap.

Coates suffered facial lacerations and a broken collarbone. In her report, she claimed that when she regained consciousness, moments after the crash, she heard a thin moan from the front seat. Even though Emmy Lester had strapped herself in, the force of the vehicle’s collision with the ditch caused her torso to slip beneath the upper strap of her seatbelt. As the car rolled, she’d been shaken violently from side to side.

Coates managed to reach far enough over Clancy’s body to check the young girl’s vital signs.

She found none.


Emmy Lester had remained anonymous up until her death. Authorities had initially labeled her a possible kidnapping victim, then later as simply an unknown female accomplice, which added a layer of mystique to the group’s crime spree. The story drew the attention of the local media right away, but when Lace’s interview aired it ignited an unexpected surge of curiosity and coverage.

The local outcry drove Stella Watkins from Dayton within a month. After facing threats and at least one assault, she fled to Indiana. Her house on Nassau was emptied out by police and vandalized by just about everyone else. The structure was soon condemned, though shortly after the plywood went over the windows and doors, it was firebombed to the ground.

Greg Lester, Emmy’s father, disappeared westward much earlier, having never been placed before a camera.

A few months before they killed her, Emmy came by on her own. I couldn’t get her to sit down anywhere. She was so loud and jittery, laughing at every little thing like she got something you didn’t.

Not sure what she was hyped up on. She followed me all over the house, smelling like scotch and ashes. Then we were standing in the kitchen and I remember she stopped laughing because she spotted that picture on my board, the one they found in her back pocket afterward.

I was making ice tea. Seeing her in that state got me sour, so I said I was surprised she even remembered Ollie.

It wasn’t a nice thing to say.

Emmy didn’t seem to hear right away. She took the picture down and held it awhile, then she said, “I remember those little hands.”

A few seconds after that she was gone out the backdoor. I didn’t think about her taking the picture until later.

Lace pauses a moment. It’s the only time during the interview that she offers one of her knowing smiles.

There was this man on TV not too long ago and he was talking about people who do these things, and I remember he said something about the tragedy of it, how people like Clancy and them have these lives that are compressed into just a few acts of violence and crime and that’s all they leave us with. And I guess that makes sense. But then I thought that that doesn’t really apply here. There was another Emmy at one time and she had a life that lasted about twelve years. May not have been a great one, but it had nothing to do with those others. Nothing to do with crime. Whatever it was it belonged to her.

One of the most influential memories from my childhood involves an abduction. At least that’s how the public was first introduced to it—a little four-year-old girl, abducted, stolen from her bedroom through a window during the night. Her pleading, tear-streaked mother explained it all on the local news. The girl’s name quickly became familiar, the search efforts urgent. Her Xeroxed image was posted around town beside similar descriptions of lost pets, local babysitting services, used mattresses for sale. I was still young. I didn’t fully comprehend the situation, but I hunted for her anyway, prowling through our neighbors’ hedges expecting that at any moment I might come across the shivering face of the hidden girl. But of course I never found her. That little girl came to symbolize one of my first brushes with death, for she had been killed several days before I heard of her, bludgeoned by her mother and anchored to the bottom of a flooded basement in the rubble of a nearby foundry. Her death stayed with me, dormant, incubating into a metaphor about just how forgotten we can become. That a child can exist for so brief a time and vanish without any monument beyond a headstone. It was this metaphor I came to terms with in writing ‘A Memory of Hands.’ In a way, when Lace Watkins breaks her silence to the media, it’s almost as if she’s pulling that girl from the basement for me.