I asked Heddings about the possibility that he would get out and his fiancée wouldn’t. He said, “Anything could happen."
  • I asked Heddings about the possibility that he would get out and his fiancée wouldn’t. He said, “Anything could happen."
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On November 18, 2002, pro skateboarder Neil Heddings drove his van to San Diego to pick up his two-year-old son, Marty. Heddings’s fiancée Christine Rams, their new baby, and Rams’s four-year-old son had come with him. They collected Marty and then drove back to the house where they lived in San Jacinto. Five days later, on the morning of November 23, Heddings and Rams discovered that Marty was dead.

Heddings, Marty on shoulders, Joey in background. "I’ve always enjoyed the fairness that the Reader has seemed to convey to its audience."

Heddings told police that Marty had been sick and was vomiting. The night before, he had fallen during a bath and hit his head. The autopsy showed that the toddler had died of head trauma, and on March 3, 2003, Heddings and Rams were arrested. At their preliminary hearing, the forensic pathologist testified that the injuries were not consistent with a single fall.

I talked to deputy district attorney Kelly Hansen about this. I asked how they determined the injury wasn’t caused the way Heddings claims.

“Well, the child had ten small contusions underneath his scalp,” Hansen said. “So unless he fell ten times in the bath — he’d have to fall, get up, fall again… It’s common sense this didn’t happen.”

I asked what the charges against Heddings and Rams are, and Hansen stated, “They’re being charged with murder and assault on a child causing death.”

What’s the difference between assault on a child causing death and murder?

Hansen explained, “Murder requires either implied or explicit malice.”

Neil Heddings was born on May 19, 1974. He grew up in Newberg, Oregon, 24 miles southwest of Portland. I asked his mom, Shirley Bookey, to tell me about his early life. “Neil started skating when he was nine or ten. We had gotten his older brother, Shon, a green plastic skateboard for his birthday. He tried it a few times, then just let it lie on the lawn. Neil and his little brother Mitch started messing around with it. Neil started right off, just like he knew what he was doing. He got the nickname ‘Neil the Wheel.’ We didn’t have helmets and knee pads, so Neil got quite a few knocks and bumps.”

Bookey told me at first that the lawyer had suggested she not talk to me. But when I promised to keep the subject away from the death of her grandson and talk only about her son’s skating, she agreed to e-mail me answers to my questions.

“When he was 14,” Bookey wrote, “he and his friend Jason Beaudry would spend hours skateboarding, building ramps. Neil and Jason went to their first competition in Salem, Oregon, when they were 15. Neil’s size is one of his best assets. He is five foot five and is lean and muscular. He would read a lot about Tony Hawk and other riders and say, ‘I’m gonna be like them, Mom.’ We couldn’t keep a pair of shoes on him. He would have a new pair, and by the end of the week, the shoes would have holes in them. He would put Shoe Goo and duct tape on them.”

Around 1990, skaters began building a skatepark under one end of the Burnside bridge in Portland.

“The boys would get rides into Portland, to skate under the bridge,” Bookey continued. “Neil would stay with friends on the weekends so he could help build the skate bowls at Burnside. Cement trucks donated whatever they had left at the end of their day and would work for hours on the skatepark. It never rained too much for Neil and his friends to skate.

“He got a job at Nap’s IGA here in Newberg as a box boy when he was 15. It supported his habit for skateboarding. Skateboards just started appearing. In school, I would say he was an average student. He got Bs and Cs. He did skip a few classes to go skate, which I learned about after the fact. He enjoyed reading, especially Stephen King. And he was also a very good writer and wrote short stories and a few poems. When you get a letter from Neil, it’s like he is right there sitting across from you and talking.”

Sage Boulard now works for Dreamland Skateparks, building skateparks all over the world. Boulard and Heddings worked together on building Burnside. I asked Boulard about this.

“I met Neil when we started working on Burnside. That was the first skatepark. That was the one that exploded. That’s how we started our company. The skateboarders in Oregon had battled for years to get something, somewhere to skate. The city wasn’t responding. The skateboarders took action into their own hands and poached some land underneath the Burnside bridge and started building. The city recognized that as a good thing. And local skaters were skating there and building there and actually cleaning up the area and using the trash under the bridge as fill underneath some of the ramps. And cleaning up the graffiti in a couple-block radius around the park and trying to better the area. And get the local businesses and merchants on our side, so to speak. And there was a new law passed five years ago that states that skateparks fit into the hazardous-sports category. It basically fits in the same category as baseball fields, soccer fields, and basketball courts, which are everywhere, in every town. So this new wave of skateparks started springing up and escalating.”

So you started building and skating with Neil around what time?

“At least ’91, possibly ’90. He just started showing up at Burnside. He would get out of his car and just stand around for a long time, watching as we rode these crude transitions, and ripping. We were just having a good time. He was baffled by how gnarly we were getting under the bridge. He slowly got involved with our crew and localizing the area and was so excited about it. He drove in from Newberg. We had a really bad reputation down there for being gnarly guys, being outsiders. But it’s not that way at all. It’s just the reputation. We welcome everybody in, until they blow it and push themselves out.”

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