As a magazine features journalist, I have the privilege of talking to people who truly inspire and amaze me with their courage, resilience, and strength. Now I’d like to share some of their true stories with you…
Chip St Clair, 35, discovered his abusive father was a convicted child killer, who’d been on the run from authorities for 26 years. This is his story:
From my hiding place, I could hear Mum sobbing. Peering over the armchair, I saw her curled in a ball on the kitchen floor, Dad standing over her. I watched as he kicked her in the ribs, then smashed a dinner plate over her head.
Then he was looming over me. ‘Don’t you dare cry,’ he ordered, so I swallowed back my tears; I was just five years old.
It never took much to set Dad off – dinner hadn’t been cooked how he liked it, or the couch cushions weren’t perfectly in line, or there were too many ice cubes in his drink.
When I was 8 years old he took me rowing on Lake Michigan. As we drifted further from the shore he could see I was nervous about the deepening water. ‘You need to face your fears head on,’ he ordered, picking me up and throwing me over the side.
‘No, Daddy, no..!’ I screamed, as he began to row away. Every time I paddled near the boat he rowed further away. ‘See you later alligator,’ he taunted. By the time I finally reached the shore, my whole body was shaking with exhaustion.
Another time he forced me to hang off the balcony of our 28th floor flat, then started hitting my knuckles.
We moved around a lot, so I never had a chance to make any friends, or experience what a ‘normal’ family was like. That’s why I never tried to run away, or ask for help – I just assumed all families were the same. Besides, as cruel as Dad was, he was the only father I knew, and I just wanted him to love me.
Then, when I was 17, I began seeing a girl named Lisa.
One time I decided to show off by holding my breath in the swimming pool for more than two minutes. ‘How did you do that?’ she gasped. ‘Dad used to push my head under the water and hold me there,’ I explained. ‘So I got really good at it.’
I couldn’t understand why she was so shocked. To me, it just seemed normal.
The more time I spent with Lisa and her family, the more I realised how dysfunctional mine was. One night we had returned home for dinner, and I could tell Dad was in one of his moods. When I dared to disagree with something he said, he jumped up from the dinner table.
‘Shut your face,’ he snarled.
Usually, I’d apologise, but this time I’d had enough. ‘Come on Lisa,’ I said. ‘We’re going.’
Dad chased after me. He grabbed me around the neck and started punching me in the head and shoulder until I felt a sickening crunch. I grabbed Lisa and ran outside. ‘I called the police,’ she told me.
Mum just threw up her hands. ‘It’s all over now,’ she wailed. It was a strange thing to say, but I didn’t think any more of it.
Dad was arrested and I was taken to hospital for a dislocated shoulder. Yet, despite what he’d had done to me, Mum was furious that the police had been called.
I was so upset by her reaction that I rang Dad’s sister, Chris, to talk about it. ‘You can’t say a word to anyone,’ she confided. ‘But your mother is worried because your father’s name isn’t really David St Clair. It’s Michael Grant, and he’s a fugitive.’
I listened in horror as she told me he’d been convicted in 1970 of brutally killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son.
He’d met my mother after she started visiting him in Indiana State Prison. On November 16, 1973, he was part of a work gang working on the highways. Mum had simply driven over and picked him up, and they’d been on the run together ever since.
My Dad was a murderer.
It sounded so crazy, yet at the same time, it explained so much – Dad’s violent streak, and why we were always moving around.
I rang the police to find out what was happening and was shocked to hear they were releasing my father. ‘Don’t you fingerprint everybody?’ I gasped. I knew that as soon as they ran his prints they would discover his real identity.
‘Not unless we have a reason to,’ the officer explained. ‘Are you saying that we should?’
My heart was pounding. With just one word I’d be condemning my father to prison. ‘Yes,’ I answered.
I told them his real name, and the officer fell silent. ‘Are you telling me we’ve got one of Michigan’s 10 Most Wanted criminals in custody?’ he finally asked.
I knew I was doing the right thing, but I was still wracked with guilt. Despite what he’d done, Michael Grant was the only father I’d ever known, and I couldn’t help feeling like I was betraying him.
Mum chose to stand by Dad, so Lisa and I were left to unravel his labyrinth of lies. We went through old newspaper files, and court records, and what we discovered made me feel sick to the stomach.
Dad had been looking after his girlfriend’s two young sons and lost his temper after they’d made a mess. Enraged, Dad grabbed three-year-old Scott and threw him against the wall. Then he beat his 5-year brother Thomas until he was unconscious. Thomas survived, but little Scott died from head injuries.
My father was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 2-21 years.
As our investigation deepened I discovered that Dad had also been a suspect in the death of another child – the 18-month old son of his second wife. He’d also been beaten to death, but there was never enough proof to charge my father.
Now all of Dad’s little pranks – holding my head under the water, and dangling me off the balcony – seemed much more ominous.
Michael Grant was sent back to prison to serve out the rest of his sentence. I could no longer bring myself to call him Dad. I never spoke to my mother again.
At first, I was devastated to know that I shared the same blood as a brutal killer, but Lisa helped me to realise that, despite sharing genes, Michael Grant and I were nothing alike.
I was still reeling one year later when I received a letter to say Michael Grant was being granted parole for ‘good behaviour’. Due to an oversight, he was never convicted for his escape from prison, so technically he’d already served his minimum term.
‘We can’t let that happen,’ I told Lisa. We drove to Indiana to speak to the board, and once I’d finished describing the man I grew up with, they immediately revoked his parole. Every few years we did the same thing, until, in 2008, his sentence maxed out. According to the law, Michael Grant paid his debt to society and was now a free man.
Apparently, my mother waited for him for years but had eventually remarried.
At first, I was worried that he’d track us down and seek revenge, but then I realised that, as long as we remained scared of him, my father was still in control. So I let it all go – all the fear, pain, and hurt. It wasn’t easy, and Lisa and I went through some tough times, but we made it through.
Today we live in Michigan, with our two Yorkshire Terriers, Juliette and Cheyenne.
In 2002 I told my story to the media, and since then I’ve campaigned heavily against child abuse.
Then, in 2008, I published my autobiography, The Butterfly Garden. I half expected Michael Grant to turn up at one of my book signings, but he never tried to contact us again. In September last year I received the news that he’d died. I felt relieved – I never had to look over my shoulder again.
I don’t think I’ll ever find out the whole truth about his crimes, but I’ve learned to live with all the unanswered questions.
I’ll keep sharing my story and fighting for the rights of abused children; I want to show people that they can overcome their own dark beginnings, and find purpose and happiness.
• If you’ve suffered from abuse, or are concerned about someone, there are many charities you can contact for confidential help and support: NSPCC Helpline: 0808 800 5000; Childline: 0800 1111