The Condemned Man’s Son

by RJ Young

William Clifford Bryson III walked into the viewing room of Oklahoma’s execution chamber clutching his grandfather’s hand. This wasn’t his first trip to McAlester, and it wasn’t his first time inside the largest prison in Oklahoma, though it is hardly a place for children. It was—it is—a place for criminals, and Will was headed toward the place where the worst of them are killed by the state, where his father would eat his last meal. When Will arrived inside the viewing room at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, his father, William Clifford Bryson Jr., lie strapped to a gurney, his belly full on 10 fried shrimp, a salad, a strawberry drink, a slice of German chocolate cake, a pint of ice cream, and a hot apple fritter.

During the years leading up to that day, June 15, 2000, Will lost track of how many times his grandfather had ferried him to the prison so that he could get to know his father. The father and son made small talk about the details of Will’s life, and Will’s dad tried to give him the kind of advice all good fathers do: Pay attention in class. Listen to your elders. Don’t get mixed up with the wrong crowd. And all of those pieces of advice came with the unspoken caveat that Will could end up like his father, a convicted murderer.

The lights came up suddenly inside the execution chamber. They shocked Will into attention. It was nearingmidnight, and he wasn’t used to being up this late. His sleepy eyes grew wide when he saw his father strapped to the gurney. He grasped his grandfather’s arm as his father lifted his head to try to ascertain who had come to see him on the last day of his life.

When Will made eye contact with his father, the tears were already flowing. He broke down. His sobs were loud and painful. It became clear that, despite his grandfather’s efforts to prepare him, Will wouldn’t be able to sit through his father’s dying breath. Will made it through his father’s last words before his grandfather led him out of the viewing room. He stood outside the viewing room sniffling through tears. He choked back snot while he lost track of time. He lost himself in thought.

Will watched his grandfather file out with the other witnesses when it was over. A nod from the man who’d raised him was enough for Will to figure out his father was dead. The day was only 14 minutes old when Will’s father’s heart stopped beating.

They didn’t stay the night. They couldn’t. Will headed back toward Oklahoma City to begin the rest of his life without his father. He had only celebrated his 12th birthday five days before.

The lovers decided it was time to act. Marilyn Plantz, 27, wanted her husband, James “Jim” Earl Plantz, dead. Her 18-year-old boyfriend, William Clifford Bryson Jr., wanted him dead too. Marilyn had told Bryson how her husband had abused her. How he’d threatened to kill her and then take his own life if she ever divorced him. So she needed to kill him first.

If they did this thing right, there was a $300,000 life insurance policy Marilyn was sure she could pick up after her husband’s death. With that kind of money, Bryson and she could leave the state. Get married. Start anew.

On the summer night that they decided to do it, Bryson and Marilyn waited for Jim, a 33-year-old newspaper pressman, to leave for work at 6 p.m. They withdrew money from Marilyn and Jim’s bank account to go get some party favors—alcohol and cocaine—before heading back to the Plantz’s house in Midwest City to wait for their third, Clinton Eugene McKimble, a man they had enlisted to help kill Jim for a $45,000 fee. McKimble joined them to smoke some of that cocaine with Bryson while Marilyn enjoyed her beer. By 10:30 p.m., she left the living room for her bedroom. By 11:30 p.m., Bryson and McKimble were passed out.

Jim’s shift meant he wouldn’t make it home from The Oklahoman, where he worked the presses, until 4 a.m. It was the keys jiggling in the front door that startled them awake. When they heard those keys, William and McKimble each took off for the far end of the house. Jim walked in with a bag of groceries in his hands, whistling. He never saw the first hit coming. Then all at once William was beating him. Then McKimble was beating him, too. Jim cried out for his wife. She would not come to save him.

The blows came hard and fast until it was clear Jim wasn’t getting up. With the baseball bats that Jim had taught his son, Chris, the game with, the two men bludgeoned Jim until he was bloody, motionless. Standing over her husband and looking at the mess they’d made, the life they’d taken, Marilyn, a Sunday school teacher, said what they had done didn’t look like an accident at all. She told the two men it would be best if they burned the body. Make it look like his truck ran off the road and caught fire. While the men took off to finish it, Marilyn walked back into her house where her two children were still fast asleep.

Jim was still alive when Bryson and McKimble carried him to his pickup. They made sure to leave the city limits and drove out to northeast Oklahoma City. When they found a decent enough spot, the two men moved Jim’s body to the cab of the truck. His slumping body lay against the steering wheel. McKimble took a rag from his pocket, stuck it inside the pickup’s gas tank, and then tried to light it. When it didn’t catch a fire, Bryson poured gasoline over Jim and the inside of the pickup. This time the flame caught. It was only as the two young black men were driving away that they saw Jim’s body erect.

Bryson and McKimble returned to the house to find Marilyn cleaning her husband’s blood off the floor. She saw the two men’s clothes were bloody and ragged and had them dress in her dead husband’s before they left the house. The two men tossed their soiled clothes into a nearby river and found they were hungry. They used cash they’d fished out of Jim’s pants to buy themselves a couple sandwiches and drinks.

The burnt truck was later found at 5:15 a.m. on August 26, 1988. The driver’s side door was left open. It revealed Jim’s leg flat on the ground and his blackened body slumped behind the steering wheel. When Jim was finally identified by his dental records, William Clifford Bryson III was just two and half months old.

Bryson and Marilyn were later caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death together during the same trial on March 31, 1989. During the trial, Bryson and McKimble detailed two earlier fumbled chances they had to kill Jim Plantz, leaving the jury with the impression that, one way or another, the trio was going to kill him.

The jury took fewer than three hours to find them both guilty. Marilyn Plantz was executed by the state on May 1, 2001. She was just the second female ever to be executed by the state of Oklahoma. McKimble pleaded guilty to murder in first degree and was sentenced to life in prison in exchange for testifying against Bryson and Marilyn. He has a parole hearing scheduled for July 2015.

William Clifford Bryson III’s mother, Yolanda Butler, wasn’t ready to have a son. She was just 15 years old when she gave birth to Will, and there wasn’t a whole lot of fuss when the Oklahoma Department of Human Services made her baby a ward of the state. He passed through several foster homes until his paternal grandparents were able to sort through the bureaucracy and mounds of paperwork to gain custody of him.

“In the ‘90s, every piece of paperwork or anything that you had to have, you had to put your best foot forward,” Will said. “It took my grandparents a long time to put that best foot forward.”

When they did, though, they didn’t stop with just one foot. They raised Will as their own and made sure he had every opportunity they could afford him. He played sports, made friends, and grew like a weed. During his adolescent years, he didn’t talk with his mother much. She seemed fine with knowing Bryson’s people were taking care of her son while she did the best she could to take care of herself. Will can’t say he missed her all that much or held a grudge that she wasn’t around. Even now, at 26, he’s more inclined to see his birth through her eyes.

“I’m pretty sure at the time, being a 15-year-old kid, with a kid by a guy that was pretty much cheating on you and now kills someone and has been incarcerated, was bad enough,” Will said. “Being 12 years old and watching my dad die, it, like, cut real deep. I’m pretty sure she felt the same way when she became a single mother at the age of 15. She still hadn’t got her high school diploma. I’m sure that she was pretty distraught and let down. What teenager wouldn’t?”

Will takes into account of all of it: How everyone else felt about what his father had done. How everyone else dealt with having a new baby thrust into the arms of two folks who had already raised their own children. How the family of Jim Plantz must feel about his being murdered. How everyone else felt about knowing his father was on death row. Will’s empathy has become a defining characteristic for him. That empathy was first tested when his grandfather made plain to him what his father had done.

Will was five years old when he first stepped foot into the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He didn’t want to visit a prison, but it was the place he had to go if he wanted to meet his father. He asked his grandfather why he had to go to prison to meet his father. “Your father did something bad,” Will was told. “This is where you’ll go if you do something bad, too.”

Their first meeting wasn’t as sad as it was surreal. He’d made it through the gray-walled wings of the prison while breathing in the stale musk of the place. He made it past the telephone banks and the loud slamming cell doors on what felt more to him like a field trip than a trip to death row. When he finally reached his destination, an average-sized man in a gray cutoff shirt and blue pants stood before him, explaining that he was his father. The man followed up with a question.

“You know why I’m in here, don’t you?”

The words came out of William Bryson Jr.’s mouth more like an accusation than a question to his son’s ears. Will said he did, but his father wanted to make sure. Bryson went straight into what he’d done wrong, the terrible mistake he’d made, and then, satisfied that his son was sufficiently scared of those four walls, he settled into the man Will remembers him being. Their talks weren’t long, and they weren’t profound. They were talks about school, about sports, about how quickly Will was growing. The knowledge that these talks even occurred is what Will focuses on.

For seven years, Will’s grandfather drove him from Oklahoma City to the prison so that he could spend time with his father. In the final months of Bryson’s life, the point of the trips to McAlester began crystallizing for Will. His father wanted an opportunity to teach Will to do better.

“That was the message to me that last six, seven months that he had to talk to me before he was executed. ‘Don’t make the same mistakes I did. Go to college. Do whatever it takes for your family to do what’s right.’ ”

That message would take some time to sink in.

 “Talking about it now, 14 years after the fact, is a little bit easier than it was at 13, 14, 15—when I was angry at everybody,” he said. “Not necessarily just crying or anything like that, it was just after the fact you’re like, ‘Why did they take them away from me?’ I had a lot of regret towards police officers, authority figures, people.”

It was hot July day when Will’s grandfather remarked that this day, July 11, would’ve been Will’s father’s birthday. Usually, they’d have put together and sent him a care package or gone to see him in McAlester. But this time there was no reason to do either of those things. Not long after that day, Will began to see the world differently.

Seeing kids with both sets of parents would make him upset, would have him asking what he’d done wrong. He’d grit his teeth when folks would ask him where his parents were. He’d get upset when parents were there to celebrate triumphs with his peers.

Even now, he can’t point to one scene, one story, where the loss of his father sent him spiraling. His pain was the pain of a thousand cuts. He began to experience more of his forlorn feelings when his grandmother passed away. He was 11 then. He felt them more when his father was executed. He was just 12 then. They nearly overtook him when his grandfather died. He was only 18.

Will was barely an adult when he was all on his own. He never felt more alone than the day he was pulled over for speeding in college. He had an outstanding ticket that led to the police officer taking him to jail. He was only there for a few hours, but it was long enough to scare him. The walls, the bars, the people he was sitting amongst—they all scared him. It was the only time he’d ever experienced even a fraction of what the last 12 years of his father’s life was like. He knew he didn’t want to end up there. But if he didn’t find a way to take out his frustrations, he knew he’d return sooner or later.

Will’s powerful emotions were the reason he found himself on a basketball court so often. On a basketball court, Will could play out his fury. He could shoot out the misery. He could dribble through the pain. He played the sport straight through high school. He applied to several colleges but decided on Oklahoma Christian University. He wasn’t there for any length of time before OCU basketball coach Dan Hays took notice of him.

“He was always here,” Hays said. “He was always in the building, and he and I just talked a lot. We might have been talking about the Thunder or whatever, but we just liked each other. He just hung around.”

Hays first came to know Will when Will enrolled in Hays’ class on the theory of coaching basketball. There, Hays saw Will wasn’t just a basketball junkie. He was a student of the game too. Hays was never more sure of that than when he started losing cash to the kid in class.

The coach liked to quiz his students on basketball trivia. To make it interesting, he’d give a dollar to the first person to come up with the correct answer to his questions. He’d ask questions about Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Before long, Bryson was told he wasn’t allowed to play anymore. “Will would take my money,” Hays said. “After awhile I had to tell him, you can’t count. You can’t play. Because Will would take my money.”

He came to grow fond of Will, and Will grew fond him. So it hurt Hays to find out Will wouldn’t be able to finish his education at OCU. The private school was just too expensive, and he was on his own again.

When the money got tight, Will transferred to the University of Oklahoma where he quickly ingratiated himself with the basketball staff and became one of the team’s equipment managers, thanks in large part to a phone call from Hays.

Will kept that role straight through the rest of his undergraduate career. After he graduated, he picked up a job as a production assistant with SoonerVision, OU athletics’ in-house video production operation, and decided to work toward a master’s degree in human relations.

Inside the Catlett Music Center at OU, he’s talking matter-of-factly about how he’s made a life out of learning from his father’s gross mistake.

With his LA Dodgers hat and his hoodie unzipped, he is comfortably speaking about an executed father and a terrible situation he’s made the most of. He’s thinking he’ll become a counselor for at-risk teens in Oklahoma. Sitting in the hallway of the music hall, he doesn’t believe he’s beaten the odds on anything; he just believes he’s making the most of the life he’s been given. That’s not how most folks would carry it. That’s not how most folks would view what he’s been through. He just shrugs his shoulders.

“The older you get, you try to forget,” Will says. “Well, not really forget, but manage your emotions about a lot of things. That helps you move on. That’s where I’ve been the better part of the last 10 years moving forward. That’s why I want to do counseling. I’ve been through a lot of stuff. I don’t tell a lot of people, but I know my experiences can help out John Doe down the street who’s going through the same things I’ve went through. That’s where I’m at with that.”

Originally published in This Land: Spring 2015.