HAZEL DONALDSON REMEMBERS THE anger she felt last August when she saw the tattoo on her son Billy’s arm. Hazel was already a wreck. Her kids were a week late returning to her home from a visit with their father, Willie Dennison, five hours away in Clarke County, Va. Then Billy, now 7, stepped out of the truck. “I could see these little blue markings showing from under his sleeve,” says Hazel, 28, of Sand Fork, an impoverished West Virginia town. “I was so angry. I said, ‘Billy, who put this on you?’ ”
The answer was Billy’s father and uncle. Willie, 29, had held his son down, while Jimmy Dennison, 23, ignoring the boy’s tears and pleas, took a needle and wrote B-I-L-L-Y in blue ink down his upper left arm. The details came out last month during a trial in Clarke County, where the brothers live with their parents. Jimmy was found guilty of maliciously wounding his nephew and could get up to a year in prison. Following a plea agreement, Willie is likely to get a similar term when the pair are sentenced April 7.
Even with random violence in the nation’s cities claiming the lives of children almost daily, Billy’s ordeal seems peculiarly poignant—perhaps because it seems to symbolize so literally the indelible marks that a cruel parent can leave on a child. Hazel has received at least two offers to have the tattoo removed, one of them from the Sally Jessy Raphaël show, which will air the story this week and has agreed to pay the bill—between $750 and $1,000—for a laser-surgery removal technique.
It may be more difficult to expunge the memory of the tattooing, which might have been inflicted in reprisal for the failed relationship between Willie and Hazel, who was for nine years his live-in girlfriend. They had four children together, but a year ago, with things falling apart, Hazel left Willie for Ed Donaldson, her former husband and the father of her two eldest sons. Willie was livid, says Hazel. “It took Ed to jump on him a couple times to make him leave me alone,” she says.
In August, Willie took the four children back with him to Virginia, but after a few days Billy started asking when he was going home. “Willie wasn’t nice to me,” says Billy. “He called me names—bad names I won’t say.” Then one morning Willie and Jimmy asked Billy if he wanted a tattoo. Billy said no. “Willie held me down, and Jimmy put it on,” says Billy. “I cried. It hurt.”
According to B.J., 10, his older brother, Billy had bad dreams for weeks after the visit. “I’d wake him,” says B.J., “and he’d tell me he was dreaming about Jimmy and Willie.” But the nightmares have ended. These days Billy’s dreams turn on New York City, which he visited for the Sally Jessy Raphael taping. On the bunk he shares with B.J., he keeps a postcard of the New York Hilton, where he spent two nights. “It was real beautiful,” he says.
For a while, at Sand Fork elementary school, Billy remained aloof from the other kids because he feared they would ridicule him. But now he is himself again, a happy, outgoing kid who loves kickball, cartoons and, he says, a classmate named Amber.
LUCKY MARMON in Sand Fork