A loving father's tragic solution

September 18, 1995|By David Simon, Joe Nawrozki and Gary Cohn | David Simon, Joe Nawrozki and Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF Greg Tasker, Lisa Respers, Dan Thanh Dang and Jay Apperson contributed to this article.

He needed a stamp -- a small detail in his elaborate plan -- and he found one at a Royal Farm store, walking into the Rossville outlet on Route 7 at about half past 2 the afternoon of Sept. 11. The letter went into a mailbox too late for that day's pickup, but no matter; it would get to his parents' house near Cumberland soon enough.

"For my family, I feel this is the only option I have left," he had written.

What remained now was the last critical step, the one to give the letter meaning. Just before 6 that evening, Mark Alen Clark gathered everything he cared about -- the wife who had left him, the three children he felt he had lost -- collecting the essential elements of his life in a 1987 Ford station wagon and parking behind an Essex shopping center. There, he blew his world apart.

To most everyone, the deed was incomprehensible; the verdict on the soul of the bomber was certain and fixed. This was absolute evil, cruel and senseless. But to many of those who knew the 32-year-old Mark Clark and watched his life collapse, the bombing in Essex last week was even more horrifying. They recognized the sad and desperate logic that provoked it.

"Mark loved Betty and he loved those children more than anything," says Anna Fields, a neighbor and friend. "If anything, he loved them too much."

For the past six years, Mark Clark's life included little beyond Betty Louise Clark, their young daughter and the two older children he took for his own, raising them in an old farmhouse in the Garrett County hills.

What mattered were the dance lessons and gymnastics for Melissa, 11, the oldest; Wiffle Ball in the yard with 6-year-old Ricky; a dog and kittens for Krysta, 4. At Easter, he'd spend the bill money on candy and talking rabbits for the kids. At Christmas, his thin paycheck would go for toys on the layaway plan at Wal-Mart. His family gave him his life, his identity, all that he ever had.

On the night before Mark Clark destroyed his 32-year-old wife, his children and himself, he sat talking softly, baring his soul to a young niece.

"Nobody knows how I feel," he said. "Nobody knows the emptiness I feel."

'A good father'

When he met Betty, he half-ran, half-waltzed down Silver Street in Ridgeley, W.Va., to pull up a bouquet for her from his mother's flower garden. From that moment, Betty was the one.

It was late 1989 when she moved with her parents and sisters about eight doors away from the Clark family in the western edge of Ridgeley. By then, Betty Ray had two children. Melissa Ray was 6, Ricky Valdez was an infant; their fathers hadn't stayed around.

Mark had graduated from high school in Short Gap, W.Va., then served two years on the USS Eisenhower. After his discharge, he came home, working as a truck driver, mechanic, plant laborer. He frequented bars, spending more than he could afford, accumulating a string of bad-check charges.

Growing up in Baltimore, Betty had dropped out of the eighth grade and she, too, had her wild years. But after they met, they changed each other. They began by living with her family. For Mark, the children of Betty's earlier relationships became, by all accounts, very much his own.

Eventually, the couple moved into public housing in Cumberland, and they began attending the Salvation Army church nearby. A daughter, Krysta, was born the next year.

"If we needed help with anything, Mark was there," says Maj. Robert S. Henderson, commanding officer for the Salvation Army in the Cumberland area. "If we needed people to shovel snow, he'd be the first one to show up. We relied on him."

It was the Hendersons who urged the couple to make the union legal and helped plan the October 1993 wedding. Betty wore a rose-colored dress; Mark, a sweater and dress pants. Ricky was the ring bearer and Krysta the flower girl.

Money was tight, but Betty kept the house immaculate, mopping the floors and scrubbing the counters two and three times a day. She was fastidious about her appearance and that of the children. Because Mark often had the grime of engine grease on his hands, she purchased a special soap for use on church Sundays.

A hopeful time

There was so much that they didn't have, but in that first year of marriage there was still the hope of things to come. Mark had volunteered to collect Salvation Army donations outside the Wal-Mart store in LaVale; he was so conscientious that the store manager decided to hire him.

As for Betty, she wanted a new life for herself, enrolling in classes for a high school equivalency diploma. Recalls Mary Lee Kegg, Betty's instructor: "What I remember about her most is that she was very thirsty for knowledge. . . . She soaked up every bit of information you could give her, and she was grateful for it."

To reduce their rent, they moved from Cumberland to rural Finzel in Garrett County. The house had a view of ridges and cornfields. The children would have room to run. Though they still were short on money, Mark spent $200 for a swing set.

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