Woman recalls grisly Jasper murder in memoir

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

CHICAGO — Southern Indiana native Theresa James was living in Jasper in 1998 when the unthinkable happened.

James

She was newly divorced when her ex-husband, John Ritzert, broke into her Kluemper Road home and murdered their three children — Sean Tilk, 12, Jarod Ritzert, 6, and Brandi Ritzert, 2 — before killing himself. The tragedy was the second murder in Jasper since 1854 and the town’s first murder-suicide. It made national headlines. 

On July 10, 1998, 30-year-old Ritzert, a bricklayer, returned to the home that James, then 32, had won in their divorce that was finalized June 30. According to Herald reports from that day, Ritzert cut the phone lines before breaking in through a window and opening the back door around 5 a.m. James met Ritzert in the hallway and plead with him not to hurt the kids. He said he just missed his kids and pushed past her to their rooms. James fled the house to call 911 from a neighbor’s phone and heard gunshots as she left. By the time police arrived, the three children were dead in their beds, and Ritzert was dead on the floor of Sean’s room. The children’s funerals took place on July 14 in St. Joseph Catholic Church.

In the year that followed, James turned to journaling to help her cope with the loss of her children. She’d journaled throughout the divorce, so continuing to journal afterward was a natural progression. By 2000, James had written a book, “Healing Tears,” detailing her life with Ritzert and culminating in the 1998 tragedy. She tried to publish the book after she finished it, but no publishers accepted the manuscript. Rather than continue to be rejected, James put the manuscript away and didn’t open it again for 16 years. Last July, however, James decided it was time to publish the book. She hears stories like hers more often now, and hopes her experiences can help someone else cope.

“Now there’s so much anger in the world, and stories like (mine) are in the news,” James said. “It was just time.”

Once James decided to publish, she and her cousin, Kim Haage, edited the manuscript, and James added a couple chapters about moving on from the tragedy and forgiving Ritzert. She also added a new beginning to the book. Then, she contacted Hay House, a self-publishing house in Bloomington. Now, less than a year after James decided to publish, “Healing Tears” is available on Amazon, barnesandnoble.com and the Balboa Press website, which is a division of Hay House.

Theresa James’ ex-husband murdered their three kids before killing himself inside her Jasper home in 1998. James’ recently published memoir chronicles her grief and healing and ultimately forgiveness.

James hopes readers will find hope and strength through her story, which shows the process of grieving and is honest about the setbacks James faced while trying to move on. For example, Mother’s Day is hit or miss. One year she might be OK and share happy memories of her children. The next year might be depressing, and she might struggle with missing them.

“No matter what your struggle is in life, be open to reach out for help if you need it,” James said.

James said working on “Healing Tears” again after 16 years was difficult. Reading her words, she relived the emotions she had following the deaths of her children, but she also felt the love of her children and knew they’d want her to be happy. She’d also forgiven Ritzert by the time she revisited the manuscript, which helped.

“I had healed and grieved and found joy in my life again after 17 years,” she said.

Part of that joy comes from her husband, Todd Patron, and his two children, Connor and Courtney, whom James has adopted as step-children. James met Patron shortly after she and Ritzert moved to Jasper in 1991. The two worked as managers in a Jasper staffing agency and both went through divorces at the same time. They developed a friendship over their six years working together that James says changed once they each completed their divorces. After James’ tragedy, the two moved to Evansville and were married in 1999. James realized, however, that she needed to get out of the state after the tragedy, so the two moved to Columbus, Ohio. They lived there for eight years before moving to Chicago. The couple have lived in Chicago for nine years, but are now moving to Fort Wayne to be closer to family.

After the tragedy, James would accompany Patron to Jasper to pick up his children for visits, and she’d even gone back inside her old house after the incident. But she reached a point where she couldn’t be in Jasper, so she stopped coming with Patron. Now that Connor and Courtney have grown up and moved out of Dubois County, James doubts she’ll come back to Jasper — not because she can’t, but because she doesn’t have a reason to. She keeps in touch with friends through social media and phone calls.

She said she’ll return someday if a friend invites her, and she holds no ill-will toward the town.

“The entire community was supportive and showed me love,” she said. “I just knew I couldn’t live in Jasper any longer.”

After James and Patron moved out of Jasper, James changed her career as well. She quit working in employment agencies and became a financial adviser. Now, she continues to work as a financial adviser while writing in her free time.

With her memoir published, James has turned her attention to writing children’s books. Each book is a story about her kids and her experiences raising them. The first one is titled “I Love and Like You.” It recalls how Jarod would tell her every night, ‘I love and like you, Mom.’ It’s based off James’ experience teaching him the difference between love and like and that you can dislike someone for a period of time, but you always love them.

James is willing to share her stories because she believes others can find inspiration from them, and she believes they can shine some light in the world.

“I think when people are willing to share their stories with each other, then we’ll all look at each other with compassion and love,” James said. “That’s what I think we all need to do.”




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