As a fifth-grader, Aleesha Mance wrote an essay about her sister’s killer, explaining how peer pressure and drugs led the 17-year-old to make a deadly choice.
In high school, she searched for his name online. She read news articles about a teen with Nazi tattoos serving a life sentence for firing into a black man’s house on April 3, 1999. She saw photos of her 6-year-old twin, Ashley, who died on their living room couch.
In 2012, her mother told her about the letter.
Jessy Joe Roten had a message for Aleesha and her younger sister:
"I realize that no amount of change in me is enough to take back the terrible tragedy I caused in their childhoods," he wrote from prison. "I wonder if they have questions they wish they could ask me, or if they ever think about confronting me.
"I want them to know how very sorry I am for what I did."
Aleesha wrote back.
"I told him I did forgive him," she said recently. "I told him that if I could let him get out earlier or change anything about (his sentence), that I would."
This month, she did.
• • •
That night nearly 20 years ago, on the day before Good Friday, Yahaira Valentine dropped off her 6-year-old twins with their father, Terry Mance, at his St. Petersburg house. Their 4-year-old sister, Jailene, also stayed with them. Valentine’s sister agreed to babysit her 6-month-old son while she worked a shift at a telemarketing firm.
The next day, Valentine was supposed to pick up the girls. But over the phone, their stepmother said the sisters were having fun and boiling eggs for Easter.
So they stayed one more night, sleeping side by side on their father’s bed while he fell asleep in the living room.
About 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, Mance rushed toward their screams.
A single bullet burst through Aleesha’s back, knicked Jailene’s right ear and pierced Ashley’s shoulder, tearing an artery.
Mance carried Aleesha to the living room and pressed on her wound to stop the blood. On the couch, he started CPR on Ashley. The twins locked eyes from across the room, as their father raced between them, trying to help them both.
He screamed at Aleesha to stay awake.
When paramedics arrived, Ashley was dead. They took Aleesha to All Children’s Hospital.
• • •
The shooting shocked St. Petersburg that Easter weekend: a murdered first-grader on what was supposed to be a time for church and family gatherings.
Pinellas sheriff’s detectives got a tip from neighbors about a teenager living at 3146 57th Ave. N, 10 houses west of Mance’s home. They spoke to Roten, dressed in camouflage pants and boots.
At first, Roten denied shooting into the house, but later changed his story: in a fit of rage after an argument with his girlfriend, Roten said, he had stormed out of his house with a rifle and fired it in an alleyway near Mance’s wood-framed home.
In his parents’ shed, detectives found a semiautomatic rifle wrapped in plastic. In his bedroom, they found photos of Roten posing in front of a Nazi flag. The tattoos on his arms had ties to white supremacy. "WWC" stood for White Working Class, "88" for Heil Hitler.
Roten, they soon discovered, was a member of the hate group Blood and Honor.
During an eight-day trial in October 2000, prosecutors characterized the shooting as a hate crime. They said Roten targeted Mance, a black man with biracial daughters. Blood and Honor members had hollered racial slurs at him months earlier.
A jury convicted Roten of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. Pinellas Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley sentenced him to three life terms.
In that moment, Valentine said she felt that Ley was doing what was best for her family. But as she walked out of the courtroom, her thoughts turned to Roten.
"Everything just started unfolding, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to die in there.’?"
• • •
For Valentine, Ashley’s death was a wake-up call. She ended an abusive five-year relationship. She took the kids out more often, putting the girls in cheerleading and taking them to Busch Gardens. She got married and for the past 15 years, has worked for Pinellas Schools, first as a bus driver and now as a dispatcher.
She found Christ months before losing Ashley. Prayer became her refuge from the despair. Her children became a lifeline.
"I had to live for them."
Through the years, her thoughts wandered to Roten: How was he doing? Where was he? Had he forgiven himself?
Forgiveness helped Valentine and her daughters overcome the grief, she said.
"It’s freedom," Valentine explained recently. "Once you have remorse or anger toward somebody, you can’t move on. You’re just angry, and it will eat you alive. Why would you want that?"
• • •
The letter arrived at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in May 2012.
Detective Jim Beining recognized the name on the envelope. In his 20 years investigating homicides, he had never been contacted by a convicted murderer he helped put behind bars.
In three handwritten pages, Roten wrote about breaking out of his "self-contained little world" and reflecting on Ashley’s murder.
"The years have been flying by, and not just for me. Today, Ashley Mance would be a young woman; Aleesha and Jailene are young women," he wrote. "I’ve been thinking about them more and more with every passing year."
Roten also had a message for Beining.
"I purposefully shot into the Mance house that night with the intention of harassing Terry Mance. … Once I pulled the trigger, I suddenly became very aware of everything. Very sober. I heard dogs barking, kids crying. I ran home and fell asleep."
Beining asked a victim advocate to forward the letter to Valentine. He also sent Roten a reply: "I hope you are sincere regarding your request to communicate with them as they do not deserve to be misled in any way."
In the next few months, Roten wrote to Aleesha.
She felt compelled to open the envelope. Aleesha had thought about him often while trying to preserve the memories of her sister, of sleeping in bunk beds and riding bikes. Ashley was talkative and grumbled about wearing matching outfits. Aleesha was shy and quick to tattle on her sister’s antics.
"I just wanted to know. It was always on my mind," she said. "Maybe he wants to apologize. Maybe he wants to tell me his side. I just wanted to know what he wanted to say."
He wondered if the shooting traumatized her. She replied that the family grew closer.
Aleesha, a single mom living in Clearwater, told him about her 4-year-old daughter, Analiyah.
Her middle name is Ashley.
• • •
In 2012, a month after the detective received Roten’s letter, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatically sentencing juveniles to life in prison was unconstitutional because it violates protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Florida law was revised so that a judge must consider several factors, from age at the time of the crime to the potential for rehabilitation, before sentencing an underage murderer.
Scrolling through Facebook, Valentine saw an article about the new ruling and immediately thought of Roten. She searched his sister’s name on Facebook and sent her a message. Her brother, the sister replied, was already requesting a new sentencing.
Judge Ley granted his motion in September 2016. During a three-day hearing in March, Assistant Public Defenders Stacey Schroeder and Stacy McNally presented evidence of Roten’s tumultuous childhood. His father was a Ku Klux Klan member who told him to avoid Mexicans and black people. His mother struggled with drugs and slipped into homelessness.
"Now that I know how his life was," Valentine said, "he never had a chance."
He joined Blood and Honor, his attorneys said, to find friendship and acceptance.
Former U.S. Attorney Arthur Lee Bentley III testified about Roten’s decision to help federal prosecutors in their case against Blood and Honor. He took the stand in 2011 against members charged with killing two homeless men in Tampa. Roten did it without accepting any deals on his own sentence. He also denied holding on to any racist beliefs, Bentley told the court.
His testimony, Bentley added, was critical in disbanding the hate group.
During the hearing, Valentine and Aleesha asked Ley to hand down a lesser sentence. Aleesha looked at Roten, now 37, and said a few words. In her heart, she told him, he was forgiven. Roten thanked her.
"I think it was more closure for him than for me," she said.
On May 7, what would have been Ashley’s 26th birthday, Ley announced her decision, a sentence of 40 years. Roten will be eligible for a sentence review after 2025. He will be 44.
"You’ve got a future back for the first time since you were 17 years old," Ley told him.
Through the years, Valentine has bought greeting cards for Roten. But the words eluded her when she stared at the blank pages. Now, with his new sentence, Valentine feels ready to write.
"My job is to forgive him, how Christ forgives me," she said. "He’s always going to carry that, always, for the rest of his life."
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.