Interview With Chris Castillo
Chris Castillo started his career as a reporter for a Texas newspaper. He was covering the court beat when he learned his mother, Pilar Castillo, had been murdered in her Houston home. Soon after his motherís death he began working with crime victims in Jefferson County and attending their annual Candlelight Vigil. About 10 years ago he joined a faith-based ministry called Bridges to Life, which takes crime victims into prison to help inmates see the impact of crime on the individual. It was through that program he found forgiveness. His involvement with prison ministry has continued. He volunteers with a Bible study group at the U.S. Federal Prison Camp in Beaumont, and has worked with Karios and Epiphany, programs aimed at bringing faith into the prison and changing the hearts of inmates. It is his goal to make a difference within in the world. For him, his work with MVFR is more than a job. It is a calling.
I understand you were covering the court beat when you learned of your motherís death?
I was a reporter for the Port Arthur News covering the court beat and county politics when I learned about my motherís death. I was writing up an appeal about a man who was sentenced to prison for a double murder when I got the call that my mother was dead. At the time, nobody would tell me how my mother died. So I suspected I was something horrible. I lived in Beaumont Texas and worked in the Jefferson County Courthouse in a bureau of the Port Arthur News. Before working in the bureau I was a police reporter for the daily Texas Newspaper. This was my first job out of college working in my chosen profession. It was here that I met another reporter that would be my wife. My wife, Darragh, still works as a reporter for the Port Arthur News. I am working as a national outreach coordinator for Murder Victimsí Families for Reconciliation.
Your mother sounds as though she was a wonderful person; a nurse, community activist, and worked for the Houston Police Department. What was the reaction from the community upon learning of her murder?
I think many in the community were shocked by her death. The Hispanic newspaper, LaVoz, ran a two-page spread of photos from her work within the community and the spread included a wedding photo from my wedding. The Chronicle and Post also did stories on her death. The people working at her college were in morning as well.
When police arrived, they suspected that her death might be involved in a case that she was reviewing through the Civilian Review Board for the Houston Police Department. So, there were a lot of police on the scene. But as things were revealed, they learned about the two men and almost caught them trying to pass one of the checks at a convenience store. When I arrived at the scene there were police all over my motherís lawn. That made me very angry. I guess because I know how intrusive the media can be and it signaled something for me. That my motherís death was likely a homicide.
Even after her death many people did things in honor of my mother. The University of Texas Medical Branch dedicated its surgical technology program in the name of Pilar because of her work to help them develop the program. This was a great honor because my mother attended nursing school in Galveston. My mother was also honored by Houston Community College, which planted a tree in her behalf. My mother was a nurse most of her life and was working on a Ph.D. at the University of Houston when she died. She got her masterís degree from Texas Southern University. I later attended TSU and earned a communications degree from the school in 1988.
Were her killers people she had already been acquainted with?
No. She hired a small businessman as a contractor to renovate her home. The two men were construction workers, and were hired by him. My mother was the first woman president of the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce, so she always wanted to help small businesses. The two men who killed her were from Honduras. They had a key to the home and entered it in the middle of the night. They woke her up and had her sign some check on a small business account she had. Pilar had a small business called International labeling. She worked with translating the labels of goods from English to other languages, which is required by some countries.
After the men had her sign a few business checks, she was strangled to death. In addition, the men stole about $5,000 in valuables from her home. They also cut the phone lines. My elderly grandmother was asleep at the other end of the house. She did not hear the men Ė apparently. That morning after my mother was killed my grandmother must have thought she was sleeping in because she had been ill with a cold. So my grandmother (Pilarís mother) put the blankets over her daughter thinking that she might be cold or the covers came off in the middle of the night. By the afternoon, my grandmother discovered that her only child was death. She fled from the house and went to a neighbors house and called the police.
Were they ever apprehended?
No. They fled the country for Honduras. They remain free. The police believe that two or more people were involved in the murder.
Why, do you think, so little value is placed on human life? Is part of the problem a total lack of Christianity in the offenderís life? No moral or spiritual values?
I think so little value is put on human life because of a lack of spirituality in the life of the offender and poverty. I believe that people who kill donít value human life at all and view people as objects that can be manipulated, stolen from and harmed without recourse. These individuals have no moral character and if they were brought up in church have no value for church or Christianity. They lack faith in God and believe that they will not have to pay for their choices.
A person with morals who believes in God would not end a life. That goes counter to all Christian teachings. I think that the men who killed my mother were thugs who had no moral character and just wanted money. I donít think that they believe they will be held responsible for their actions. I believe differently. I know that God will hold them responsible and judge them for what they have done. I pray that they come to ask for forgiveness before the time comes that they meet their maker.
You have stated that upon visiting some of these offenders in prison, you had actually noticed similarities between you and them. Care to elaborate?
I believe that everyone had done things that he or she is not proud of. After visiting and speaking in prison for a while I started looking at the things that I had done, like driving drunk, which could have landed me in prison. I drank a lot as a teen and drove friends around when I was drunk. That was truly stupid. I never thought of the circumstances. But when I was prison I saw what the circumstances were. If you get caught doing something beyond the law you can end up in jail. That is the same for everyone, especially people who have no means for an attorney. So I found it helpful for me to put myself in the shoes of the inmates and not look down on them because I realized it could be me in prison with them because there but for the grace of God go I.
Through experience, I have gotten the impression that these killers have a vacuum in their heads where a conscience should be. Are some people just born evil?
I truly donít think anyone is born evil, but I also believe that some people are mentally ill or they wouldnít commit some of the crimes that they commit. I believe that God puts the ability for us to do good in all of us. We are all blessed by God and children of God. But some people choose not to follow God, and decide to seek out things of the world. They put more value on worldly good than they do human life. This is exactly what God doesnít want us to do. He wants us to help each other, live with each other and grow together in His love.
Your prison ministry sounds like a great idea. How have some of the inmates reacted upon meeting with the victimís families up close and personal?
Yes. I have seen people change over time. There are several prison ministries I have been blessed to be involved in where I have seen God make a change in the lives of men. I like to say that they might leave manís gang and join Godís gang. And with God, they find peace, encouragement, love and forgiveness. This last one is hard for many men. They canít forgive themselves for what they have done. I guess it is that way for all of us. It is hard for us to forgive ourselves. And many of the men donít feel that they are loveable. But we, as prison volunteers, try to show them different.
When was MVFR founded?
It was founded in 1976. It was a blessing for me to be hired by MVFR. I believe it is a calling, and a way that I can share my belief with others. I have met a lot of people who have inspired me and a lot of people who were broken for some time and God healed them. This I truly understand. I think we canít go on until we find a place of peace. We have to believe that God can turn anything into something good that can help us and others. That is what happened to me.
Tell me about Bridges to Life.
Bridges to Life (BTL) changed my world. I was finding stability in my life, and dealing with depression when I was asked to participate in BTL. First I was very reluctant to participate. I felt that I didnít belong in prison because I hadnít done anything wrong. I believed that that is where inmates belonged. I agreed to participate in BTL because I wanted to see if I could make a difference. If I could keep one person from having to go through the horror and pain that I had felt then my work with BTL was worthwhile. A few weeks after I was in the program I told the inmates I didnít know why I was there. One young man told me that I didnít want anyone to have to go through what I had. And that was what I had said on our first week about what I wanted to get out of the 13-week program. He remembered. I didnít. It is good to have someone reminding you why you are here. Bridges has had an impact on many inmates and changed many lives. It has kept inmates from returning to prison. And through that program I made many friends Ė most of whom are inmates. I got to see God change lives and create miracles every week. I saw men cry out of sorrow for the things that they had done. But most importantly I saw God change the hearts of men.
As far as the death penalty is concerned, has anyone ever asked you why you are opposed to it?
Yes. I am opposed to the death penalty because it hurts families. It does nothing for victim family members. Instead it cause more pain for families who have to live from appeal to appeal and live a life where the crime and the offender are at the center of their lives. It also cause more victims Ė the family of the offenders become victims. I believe that the system is arbitrary and unfair. If you donít have money and you kill someone who is while you are more likely to end up on death row. And unfortunately, I believe that some people who are on death row are innocent Ė like Anthony Graves. Some people get caught up in the system and end up being crushed in the wheels of justice. And at some people it becomes more important that the wheels of justice continue to move forward instead of who is guilty and who is innocent.
Do you feel as though all of the time and money spent on executions would be put to better use investing it in victimís services?
Yes, I know that the death penalty costs two to three times more than life in prison. I believe that that money could be better spent on services for victims and to solve cold cases, like my mothers. I know that many law enforcement professionals donít believe the death penalty deters crime. It is a fact that states without the death penalty have low crime rates than states that have the death penalty.
Any last words before you leave us?
I have shared my story with many inmates in programs like Bridges to Life and Kairos, a four-day retreat for inmates that is focused on bringing them closer to God. Opening my heart to witnesses to inmates has changes my life. It took me from a place of pain to a place of peace. Before I started working in prison I was depresses and distant from my family. Now, I am involved in my life and closer to my family. Prison ministry saved me from being buried in grief and anger and it helped me find my faith again. God used prison programs to bring me closer to him and I have seen the love of Christ in prison. Some might say that I found religion in prison. It definitely strengthened my faith.
Copyright © 2011 Leland Gaines