Her life changed forever nearly 40 years ago when her mother was murdered in a New Orleans liquor store. Eighteen-year-old Stephanie Cassatly was about to graduate from Emory University in Atlanta with a bachelor’s degree in business when aunt Joy and brother Stephen showed up at her dorm to deliver the news.
“It was a big shock,” Cassatly says. “It’s still like being in a dark cave when I talk about it.”
Yet she talks about it a lot. The Jupiter resident recently wrote a memoir documenting the senseless crime, and now she speaks publicly of her journey to forgive the killer.
“I forgave him in 2000,” Cassatly says of Charles Hodges, the man who was sentenced to life in prison at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Notice of Release takes readers through the halls of the maximum-security facility she visited as part of her research. Chapter 30 describes her act of forgiveness, which began when a piece of paper fell to the floor as she was paging through a file folder. On it was the number of the prison chaplain.
“On impulse, just out of the blue, I picked up the phone and called,” Cassatly says.
Father Joel LeBauve answered.
“I’m calling to inquire about one of your inmates who killed my mother 20 years ago,” Cassatly said.
“Let me ask you, what is it you want to accomplish?” LeBauve asked.
“I’m considering… Thinking about… Trying to find a way to forgive him, but I don’t know if I can,” Cassatly answered.
LeBauve relayed the message to Hodges, who was wheelchair-bound with a terminal illness.
“I’m struck by your timing, my dear,” LeBauve said. “That over a 20-year period, you call now.”
Cassatly, sitting in her living room overlooking the Loxahatchee River, remembers the moment she received the certified piece of mail notifying her of Hodges’ death.
“I’m standing in the driveway, holding this letter to my chest, thinking, ‘He had been released, and I had been released,’” she says. “I said, ‘That’s going to be the name of the book.’”
The 57-year-old wife and mother started out writing Notice of Release for her daughters. “I hadn’t really told them the whole story,” Cassatly says.
The undertaking involved not only visiting the prison but also poring through pages of court documents and contacting Hodges’ family.
“After I forgave him, I realized, ‘Wow, something big just happened here,’” Cassatly says. “It was like someone changed the dial on my radio.”
She shelved her bachelor’s degree and earned a master’s in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Letting her fingers loose on her laptop has become a passion and priority.
“I feel like it’s the only way I can make sense of my own life,” Cassatly says. “It’s like an anchor.”