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If there's a test for that sense of history and recognition, Rothbart is taking it now. He's back on the road, in the midst of a 75-city tour plugging My Heart and celebrating Found's 10th anniversary. And he has been re-encountering some of the people who became characters in the book.
"So far, I haven't heard from anybody that's been unhappy with the way they were portrayed, which is good," he says. "But there's definitely been nights when I've been nervous. At our Brooklyn show, Hakim, the hitchhiker I pick up in 'Canada or Bust,' was there, and so was his mom. That was a little uncomfortable." In that essay, Rothbart reveals that Hakim's mom sold her son's video games to buy drugs. "Obviously it was a time in her life she isn't proud of."
And the women? "I'm still friends with Sarah," Rothbart says. "She saw an earlier draft of 'Shade,' but I haven't seen her yet. It'll be interesting."
While Rothbart is in Kansas City this weekend, he plans to see another character from My Heart, though it won't be at his Saturday RecordBar show or his Sunday appearance at the Johnson County Central Resource Library. Instead, he'll drive to the Crossroads Correctional Center, in Cameron, Missouri, to visit with Byron Case.
As a teenager, Case was an early Found reader and submitter. He picked up notes he found at places like the Broadway Café in Westport and sent them on to Rothbart. The two soon struck up a correspondence, writing and sending each other letters the old-fashioned way, via post. After an extended silence on Case's end, Rothbart sent him a new issue of Found, which contained some of his submissions. A few weeks later, he received a note from Case's mother explaining that her son had been convicted in the murder of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen. The teenage girl was found with a bullet in her head at Lincoln Cemetery, near Truman Road and Interstate 435, in October 1997. Case was sentenced to life in prison in 2002. His mother believes that the conviction was wrongful.
In "The Strongest Man in the World," the longest and most sober essay in My Heart, Rothbart tells the story of his relationship with Case and his ongoing role in the effort to reverse the guilty verdict. Case knew the victim — she was the girlfriend of his best friend, Justin Bruton, who killed himself the day after WitbolsFeugen was found dead. Case was convicted despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime. The most incriminating evidence was a taped phone call between Case and his ex-girlfriend (who also was close with Bruton and WitbolsFeugen at the time of their deaths), which strongly suggested that Case was familiar with the details of the crime. ("Cemetery Plot," May 16, 2002, The Pitch story about the trial, is accessible at pitch.com.)
But new revelations, dug up by J. Bennett Allen, an author of a book about the crime (The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case), cast doubt on the legitimacy of the phone call and its transcript. Allen's reporting has given Rothbart and Case's supporters (centralized online at freebyroncase.com) a fresh glimmer of hope.