Growing up, “he was always there.” Sixty-six days ago, Bethany Bourgeois George lost her father Alfred Bourgeois. Had her father died from COVID-19 like millions of other people around the world, his death would have been traumatic, she said. She is a nurse, and she has borne witness to that kind of suffering. Her father’s execution was different. It was calculated and unstoppable. Since his execution, Bourgeois George has dedicated herself to proving her father’s innocence.
“We’re not attorneys,” she said, but she and her husband Sheldon have read hundreds of pages of legal documents since she set out to exonerate her dad. “They say, ‘he’s dead, there’s nothing we can do,’” Bourgeois George said of her conversations with attorneys. Their disinterest in taking on her case hasn’t stopped her. “This is just so massive," she said.
“He went to the police academy…so he could visit me more,” she said. Despite this tension, Bourgeois George said her father was there when it mattered: dance recitals, birthday parties, holidays and barbeques. “He was very involved in my life,” she said. “There were ice cream days. He bought me my first swing set.” As she got older, Bourgeois George saw more of her father. Her mother had explained to her own parents that, no matter how Bourgeois made her look bad with his infidelity, he was still her daughter’s father. Bourgeois George remembered visiting her father’s trailer, seeing his mother and her aunts and uncles. She remembers playing school and Simon Says. She doesn’t remember him ever yelling at her or her mother. Bourgeois was so proud of his oldest daughter that he even showed her off to the woman with whom he was intimate. It caused some tension between Bourgeois and Bourgeois George’s mother, but it was just how much he loved his daughter. When her father moved into a house, Bourgeois George got her own room there, complete with a waterbed. She visited that house often. “During those years, it was wonderful,” she said.
Bourgeois George said she remembered something important about how her father treated his daughters.
When she would stay with Bourgeois every other weekend or during the summer, her father refused to bathe her for one very specific reason. “[He felt] it was inappropriate for a man to see a female child naked,” Bourgeois George said. If there wasn’t a woman in the house who could bathe his daughter, he would simply fill the tub – complete with bubbles and a rubber duck – and then leave the door open a crack. He told her not to put her head under the water and that he was there if she needed anything, but he would not go in the bathroom otherwise.
Bourgeois George met the woman who would become her stepmother in 1993. Bourgeois told her that he and her stepmother would be married, and that she was going to have a younger sister soon - an exciting prospect to her. The excitement was tempered by her discovery that she wouldn’t be allowed to participate in her father’s wedding, something she said hurt her feelings. She sat in the second row, wearing a red dress, and was picked up after the ceremony by her mother. “I don’t feel that my stepmother liked any of my father’s children,” Bourgeois George said. She explained that her stepmother obviously was good to her own kids, but that she did not seem to want Bourgeois George or any of her siblings around. Despite this tension, Bourgeois grew to love her new sister; she especially loved hearing her sing. It was with her stepmother and new baby sister that Bourgeois George would travel the country in her dad’s rig. Bourgeois was adventurous, an excellent cook, and a lover of travel. During the summer after Bourgeois George finished fifth grade, she, Bourgeois, his new wife, and his wife’s baby daughter traveled across the United States; Bourgeois was a trucker at the time. She has photos from the trip, documenting the 17 states they visited and the things they did while they were there. Bourgeois won his oldest daughter a Los Angeles Lakers basketball from the Six Flags in Atlanta. He took her up in the Gateway Arch and down a river on a Tennessee steamboat cruise. He made her take a tiring jog up some stairs in Pennsylvania. She later learned she had recreated Rocky Balboa’s run up 72 steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the iconic movie scene. “He loved doing activities,” she said. “He was not an idle person, and I swear I think I get that from him.”
On that cross-country adventure, there was trouble for the father/daughter relationship. “During this trip, this is also where the conflict started," Bourgeois George said. Bourgeois George said she was often left alone with her stepmother during that trip; during one of those moments, Bourgeois George said she experienced an interaction that would later make her mistrust her stepmother (we will limit the detail here because we have not spoken to her stepmother). Bourgeois George told her mother what happened during that exchange, which caused a fight between her parents. When Bourgeois was presented with both his oldest daughter’s and his new wife’s sides of the story, he presumed he knew who was telling the truth. “He’s never ever believed me,” she said. Bourgeois George said she would describe her stepmother as having a propensity to be cruel. “I don’t think he knew her at all,” she said.
Bourgeois George described several other instances of her stepmother telling Bourgeois one thing, Bourgeois George telling him another, and Bourgeois siding with her stepmother. This strain eventually led Bourgeois George to stop speaking to her father for a while, when she was in sixth grade. Even during this time, she managed to develop a fond memory of her father. He picked her up from school one day to take family pictures – she said Bourgeois loved family photos – and when he promised that her stepmother wouldn’t be there, Bourgeois agreed to go. “It was a joyous day,” she recounted in her own writing about the experience. After that day, Bourgeois George said she thought things were looking up. Her father continued to show his love for her with birthday parties and a trip in Bourgeois’s rig to Dallas with her cousin; she said the two cousins were a handful. Even then, he was patient with them.
When she started high school, Bourgeois George did not know how to swim. Her father wanted her to learn. “He was disappointed that my mother had not taught me,” she said. “I hated it, but I trusted him.” She described learning to swim as being thrown in the pool, something Bourgeois George said she didn’t believe would fly with most parents today. Despite this unconventional method, she said she knew her father would always be there when her head broke the surface or ready to help if she needed him. “It wasn’t malicious. It was meant to teach us how to swim,” she said. “It was common at the time.” After Bourgeois George grew confident swimming, she experienced yet another painfully personal conflict with her stepmother. She said she turned to her stepmother for help, received it gratefully, and later suffered when her stepmother told Bourgeois something other than the truth of what had happened. “Shame on you,” her father had said over the phone. “I thought I taught you better.” When she tried to explain what happened, Bourgeois George said her father yet again took her stepmother’s side, refusing to believe what she told him. It made her angry. “That happened a lot,” she said.
“I don’t know how long it was that I did not speak to him, but I know it was for a while,” Bourgeois George said. At the same time, her brother started getting into conflict with their father as well. Bourgeois George’s brother was living with Bourgeois and his wife at the time. She said he was getting in trouble in school, hanging around with the wrong people.
It came to a head when Bourgeois found out her brother had gotten a gun. “You have so much potential,” Bourgeois had told his son. “Why would you do this? You’re smart.” The conflict escalated and nearly ended in a physical fight. “Their relationship was never the same after that day,” she said. Bourgeois George said she suspected her stepmother had something to do with the inciting incident, and after that she only visited the house when her father was present.
In her junior year of high school, Bourgeois George picked out her first car with her father. He had told her she could pick any used car she wanted as a reward for her good grades. She immediately settled on a red car, ignoring her father’s suggestions that they should shop around. Bourgeois George’s uncle had said, “Let her pick. This is not your car; it’s her car.” Bourgeois heeded the advice. The car took Bourgeois George to work and to visit her dad, whom she wanted to spend more time with again. Her mother was a homebody; Bourgeois was an adventurer. Even the car, though, was tainted by Bourgeois George’s relationship with her stepmother, who she said was upset that Bourgeois had bought his daughter a car but would not pay for his wife’s car.
As much as Bourgeois George said she was a good child, she never claimed to be perfect. The car her father had bought her was supposed to take her to school, sometimes to the movies. It wasn’t meant to take her and other girls to Mardi Gras to see her friend in the parade, but it did.
Bourgeois George explained that Mardi Gras is an experience in New Orleans. To put it in perspective, she said, students get three days off of school every year for it. At the end of a wonderful Mardi Gras experience, the red car would not start. Panicked, she called her father. As expected, she said Bourgeois told her he was disappointed in her but also that he was on his way to get her. When Bourgeois arrived, he noticed something brown leaking from the gas tank. He backed the girls up from the vehicle and tested the substance, touching and smelling it. After saying the substance smelled sweet, Bourgeois decided to taste it. He told the girls that if he died, he would like them to please report this in the best way possible. It was chocolate syrup. Her father was furious. Bourgeois George said she was lectured after the Mardi Gras incident, but that her father never cursed or raised a hand to her.
That same year, when junior prom came around, Bourgeois rented a limo so that she wouldn’t be driving at night. He took care of her, her friends, and her boyfriend, even though he had previously taken the young man for a ride to explain how he expected his daughter was to be treated. “I made prom queen that year, and he was very, very excited.” This was about the time, Bourgeois George said, her middle sister got mischievous. Bourgeois did not allow his wife to discipline their daughter, though. Especially physically. “My father did not want anyone hitting my sister at all,” she said. Around this same time, Bourgeois George said her father decided to divorce her stepmother. Conflict and infidelity had ravaged the relationship, and Bourgeois had had enough. When asked why he had waited so long, she said he told him that “[her stepmother] was the only woman ever who let him raise his child.” All he ever wanted to be, she said, was a dad.
“So let’s go to Jakaren.” When Bourgeois found out Jakaren was his daughter (with another woman besides Bourgeois George’s mother and stepmother), he called Bourgeois George and told her. He said he was excited to have the baby girl in his life, and excited for his oldest daughter to get to meet her. Bourgeois George said she remembered interacting with her baby sister twice. The first time, she said, was at a huge party – part high school graduation for her and her godsister, part birthday party for another one of her sisters, part christening. It was a celebration. Jakaren wore a little red dress and stockings. She gave people hugs and kisses, and when she had to use the bathroom, she went with Bourgeois George’s mother. Like her own experience growing up, Bourgeois refused to see a little girl exposed in any way, even his own daughter. Though she did not talk much, Jakaren had a favorite word that she loved to say, especially when getting her picture taken. “The only thing she would really say is ‘cheese,’” Bourgeois George said. “That was her favorite word.”
The second and final time Bourgeois George remembered being around Jakaren was at her graduation dinner. “My dad was so so, so proud,” she said, explaining that he let her pick the restaurant no matter the price point. She remembered Jakaren and her other younger sister coloring at the table while she and her father talked about an upcoming trip to New York with her boyfriend and starting college shortly after that trip ended. He was going to buy her another car and move her to college in the rig.
After the meal, Bourgeois George said she thanked her dad and told him she had to get home to get some sleep before her trip. “That was the last time I ever saw him,” she said.
“Hey Bethany. I have Jakaren now. I thought it would be nice if we all went on a family trip.” Bourgeois George had gotten that call in June 2002, one month after returning from New York. Bourgeois George was excited at the prospect of another family adventure, provided that her stepmother wouldn’t be there. Bourgeois George agreed to take care of her two little sisters on the trip, and Bourgeois agreed he would not bring her stepmother. After checking with her mother, Bourgeois George found she couldn’t go on the trip because of a dental appointment. Her father was disappointed, but he said he would still go with the girls and his wife. “He went on the trip, and I never heard from him again.”
On June 28, 2002, Bourgeois George got a call from her cousin. Her father and stepmother had been arrested. Her baby sister Jakaren was dead. She said she did not believe her cousin at first. She knew he could never kill anybody. “I always think about what would have happened if I would have been on that truck,” Bourgeois George said. “I think things would have been a lot different.” “I’ve never believed that he did it,” Bourgeois George said of the prolonged abuse and murder that landed her father a death sentence. Bourgeois George said she was supposed to be a defense witness during her father’s 2004 trial, but she was never called to testify. She wanted to tell this story of her life with her father, but she never got the chance.
Instead, she said, people only heard the story of a monster trucker who molested and murdered his two-year-old daughter.
College was a struggle for Bourgeois George with her father’s trial looming over her. She planned to major in political science and minor in journalism. She wanted to pursue a law degree so that she could prove her father’s innocence one day. She worked hard and made friends that she would sometimes spend the night studying with; they saw how the trial affected her. One night, a group of friends had a sleepover so they could study for an exam the next morning. By 2 a.m., the girls had all gone to sleep. They awoke to the sound of Bourgeois George crying and screaming, “Dad, Dad, oh my God, Dad.” Her friends had to calm her down. Eventually, Bourgeois George’s grades started dropping. She left that school, tried to collect herself, and ended up pursuing a nursing degree elsewhere.
For years during the trial and after his conviction, Bourgeois George could not get in touch with Bourgeois. The closest she came was in the form of a painting he had made for her in prison. His attorneys sent it to her. Her siblings believed he was guilty, and this disconnect caused an intense strain on her relationships with them. There was a brief time, however, where she believed them. In particular she had briefly trusted the testimony her sister gave during Bourgeois’s trial. Her sister was just a child then, and her story had changed from the initial interview, but she found herself believing that her sister knew what she witnessed. “For five years I hated him too,” she said. “I hated my dad.” In 2010, she found out Bourgeois was being held in a facility just down the street from her Houston, Texas home. “My father was in this place, and I couldn’t even talk to him,” she said. Bourgeois George said she and her husband would park at the facility multiple times a week.
“He is so close and so far and I can’t even talk to him.”
Bourgeois George had not intended to talk to her father before he was executed. When her uncle told her he was going to see Bourgeois, and she went back and forth about whether she wanted to reach out. She talked about it with her husband and questioned whether she would be mentally capable of having that phone call. She was in the middle of launching a start-up with her husband – a free financial literacy app for kids – and she really didn’t believe the execution would even happen. “I just wanted to keep my peace,” she said. “I fought very hard for that.”
“Beautiful and detrimental.” That’s how Bourgeois George describes the phone calls with her father. The day before and day of his execution, she had two hours of phone calls with him. The calls would drop every fifteen minutes and have to be reconnected. But they also reconnected. “When I heard his voice – I don’t know how he did it – you could tell he didn’t want me to be distressed,” she said. Bourgeois shared his sadness at not being able to visit his mother or sister when they passed. He acknowledged not believing his daughter at times when he should have. He kept telling her the legal fight for his life wasn’t over.
“Don’t give up on Dad,” he said.
“I will tell you this part. The day of the execution, right before it took place, I was on the phone with him, and we were talking.” Bourgeois kept telling his oldest daughter he wished he could talk to all of his girls. “He said, ‘I know you have a life, and I know there’s so much to talk about, and I know this call is dropping every fifteen minutes, but please just give me this time,’” she said. “’I will try to get as much of it as possible before they take my life.’” Bourgeois George eventually asked her father if she could set up a three-way call for them and one of her sisters. She texted that sister who agreed, and the call was connected. Bourgeois George’s five-year-old niece, Bourgeois’s granddaughter, spoke to him for the first time. “My dad was able to talk to her and hear her voice too,” she said. Soon, that sister added one more sister to the call, all three of Bourgeois’s daughters on the phone at once. “It was the most beautiful moment,” she said. Her father was excited. “You girls will not believe this,” he told them. “I have been waiting eighteen years for this, for this moment, to be able to talk to all my girls.” His granddaughter started talking, and Bourgeois George struggled to maintain her composure. “I didn’t want him to hear me cry because he told me to be strong for my sisters,” she said. The prison line hung up, having reaching the fifteen-minute limit on the call.
Still on the line with her sisters, Bourgeois George tried to compose herself. Her phone rang, four times back-to-back, as her father tried to reach her again. She was still trying to compose herself; she answered the fifth time. It was not her father. It was somebody she knew telling her the execution was over.
Bourgeois George still has the voicemails on her phone, her father saying her name and asking her to pick up please. “I was four minutes too late,” she said. Bourgeois George has been told not to blame herself and to be glad she was able to create that moment for her father, but it’s never that easy. She still wonders if it was better that she was not on the phone with Bourgeois when they took him away. “At the end of the day, I still have to live with it,” she said. “I was not there.”
Seated behind Bourgeois George to her left during our conversation is a blue and white vase, intricately designed with a delicate neck and stopper. She said she saw it while in Portugal with her husband. He also sat in frame while we talked, to her right. The vase, she explained, was almost left in that market in Portugal. For some reason, though, she couldn’t get her mind off of it. Her friend had wanted to buy it, but that friend’s wife assured her Bourgeois George could get it. As she ran back to the market, she was in time to see somebody else looking at it. She bought that vase, not knowing what it would hold at the time. Now, she said, she is waiting to fill it with one-third of her father’s ashes. Bourgeois George hasn’t had a funeral for her father. All of his ashes remain with his attorneys for now, and she is uncertain what will happen. She said Bourgeois had wanted his ashes split up between his three daughters; she also said neither of her sisters seem to want those ashes. The attorneys had a memorial for Bourgeois. They believe he was innocent.
Bourgeois George is currently reading every document related to her father’s case and conviction that she can get her hands on. She is trying to exonerate him, to preserve his memory. Staring down the barrel of that massive endeavor is taking a toll on her health.
“It just seems like there is so much to be done,” she said. “I’d be able to take such better care of myself if we had help.”
By: Amanda N. Marino