Three weeks ago, William Proper led the life of quiet routine and structure that so many middle-aged parents enjoy. He worked, he went to church on Sundays and, of course, he looked forward to spending time with his family.
Now, his parents are dead and his 13-year-old son could be facing a life sentence in prison because of it.
Propers son, Zachary Proper, is in jail without bail awaiting trial on charges of criminal homicide after allegedly shooting and killing his grandparents Propers parents, George and Dorothy Fross, on Sunday, Oct. 7. That leaves Proper struggling to make sense of it all, and to clean up the mess thats been left to him.
This (incident) just blew me out of the water, right up out of the water, Proper said during an interview last week in Oil City. I had no indicators of this.
And in the aftermath of the tragedy, Proper said it has been his family, his friends, his co-workers and others in the community who have helped him keep going.
The community, my friends and my family theyve all been great, Proper said. Everybody has been very understanding and caring and always tell me they keep me in their prayers. All the people I work with, if I want something or need something, they show up. Day or night, I know if I call on them, theyll be there for me.
I want to let people know Im very thankful, he added. With my heart and soul, Im thankful. Because I really need them, I need that support, I need the friendship, I just need that. Its that structure that keeps me going ... If I didnt have them, what would happen? I dont know. I dont know how Id deal with it.
And where family, friends and co-workers cannot fill the void, Proper said he turns to the only thing he has left: memories of his parents, George and Dorothy Fross.
My systems on overload, Proper said. But the thing that keeps me going though tough times is that I always told my parents I would make them proud with my decisions and through my life. I promised I would make my parents proud, and that has carried me.
The healing process
Proper said, for him, the healing process started on the mild, partly sunny morning of Friday, Oct. 12, when he and his sister, Sabrina Fross, laid their parents to rest.
I was really trying to hold myself together while (Monsignor John Herbein, who presided over the funeral Mass at St. Patrick Church in Franklin) was speaking because I didnt want to miss one word. I didnt want to miss anything, Proper said. Because that was one of the last things me and my sister could do for my parents. And it was important to us that we follow their wishes.
While that ceremony put the healing process in motion, Proper knows any real closure will be a long time coming.
Do I have deep, dark, scary moments? Of course I do, Proper said. But I have support, and Ill be fine. Its just going to take a long, long, long, long time.
What Proper doesnt know is if he can ever fully accept that his parents whom he described as loving, nurturing and caring were allegedly shot and killed by his own son in the Polk Cutoff home built by his stepfather Georges own hands.
I will never accept it, he added. I will never accept whats been done. I just cant accept that.
But I have forgiven Zachary, he added.
Proper said his forgiveness stems from a passage in the Bible, a passage also referenced by Herbein in his touching eulogy for the Frosses.
They say in the Bible that, to really heal correctly, you have to forgive first, Proper said. You have to. And if you dont, its like a virus in your body that will eat you apart with rage and hate.
And with rage and hate comes poor decisions, and it just starts a vicious cycle, he said.
Proper said forgiveness isnt something he learned just from the Bible, but from his own parents, too. And he said he knows George and Dorothy Fross would forgive their grandchild if they could.
I know they would both forgive him, he said.
A good kid
Proper said Zachary was a good kid who had a solid relationship with his parents and grandparents, a relationship based on love, trust and compassion.
I remember Zach telling me many times that Grandpa and Grandma were two people he could always count on, Proper said. Ive heard it with my own ears.
My mother had an extremely bad back ... and when I would look at the X-rays, sometimes, I would just cry, Proper related. And she said, even if she couldnt walk, she would crawl on her hands and knees from Polk to Oil City to help Zachary with anything.
And Proper said Zachary appreciated all his grandparents did for him, and that he reciprocated those good deeds with the love only a grandchild can give.
Zach was a good kid, he said.
A stack of photo albums at Propers Oil City home reveal memories of a happy family that always celebrated holidays and birthdays with great gusto, and many a snapshot from the family camera.
Included are pictures of Zachary and his family at Christmastime, of Zachary out on the paved driveway of the Frosses home, trying out new rollerblades given to him by his grandfather or playing basketball in a new pair of sneakers, of Zachary holding up shiny coin collections year after year a favorite birthday gift from his grandfather, Proper said.
One picture in particular shows Zachary holding his latest coin collection installment this past summer, on July 27, his 13th birthday. Unlike many of the other photos in the half-dozen or more albums carefully arranged by Dorothy Fross, Zachary is not smiling.
Pictures on the wall reveal another hobby of Zacharys his passion for football. Zachary wore No. 99 for the Lil Drillers, a big number for a kid with big aspirations.
He was good. He was really good, Proper said. I was told in his second year of football in Pee Wee football that with the right training and some real hard dedication, that he could actually, maybe, turn pro. He was good that way very athletic.
Proper said Zachary was also very active in a number of other activities, activities Proper described as normal boys stuff, such as basketball, four-wheeling, cycling and fishing.
And he liked helping his grandfather split firewood, he added.
A toolbox of life
Proper who had co-custody of Zachary with his ex-wife, Karen Kapp said he always kept a close eye on Zachary, demanding to know where he was at all times and making sure to enforce those boundaries when he saw fit.
I would say, Zach, if youre going to House No. 1, call me on the cellphone and tell me youre going, Proper said. And if youre going to House No. 2, even for three seconds, I need to know that, son.
I told him, Ill treat you fairly until you do me wrong, and once you do ... I dont want you to take my kindness as a weakness, he added. I will pull on the rope.
Proper said he always remembers some parenting advice given to him by his Grandma Betty.
Parenthood is the only job that you can never fail on, Proper said. You cannot fail. If you love your children, and you want the best for them, you have to spend good quality time with them ... Spend good, quality time as a family. When youre blessed with a beautiful child, just love them.
But theres no instructions to being a parent, he added.
Proper said he believes he did the best he could in raising Zachary, and that he gave his son a toolbox of life.
And I gave him the necessary skills or tools inside this box: Do not lie. Be respectful of your teachers. Simple things like hold the door open for others. All of these things, Proper said. He had the necessary skills within this box that I have given him as a father, and I spent a lot of good time one-one-one talking with him, explaining the world and why things were the way they were. You know, really trying to reach him.
Wrong is wrong
But somehow, things went wrong. And now Proper is now ambushed daily by boundless questions of why his son might have murdered two of the people he loved most.
To be honest, I cant answer that, Proper said. I dont know. I just dont know.
To be really heartfelt and honest, Ill probably never know, he added. What I mean by that is, when this goes to court which it will theyre going to paint a picture and theyre going to use the best forensics and science, and I understand that. But to really know for sure, youd almost have to be there.
Proper said his son deserves to be punished for what he did. Proper is a law-and-order type. He believes in rules and structure, and said it isnt a persons place to decide what rules to follow and which to disregard.
Right is right and wrong is wrong, Proper said.
And thats why Proper refuses to make excuses for his son, who is currently incarcerated in an Erie County juvenile correctional facility awaiting trial on two charges of criminal homicide. In fact, its that black-and-white approach that is helping Proper cope with the daunting truth that his son, if convicted as an adult, could face life in prison.
Even if (Zacharys) my own flesh and blood, we have a structured system here and he will have to pay, he said. It isnt my choice, it isnt my wish, but Im just one person in this big universe. You cant pick and choose, thats just not how it works.
Another reason Proper has a hard time making excuses for his son is because Zachary took the lives of Propers parents, parents who nurtured Proper himself and made him the man he is today, parents who stood up for Zachary when his father was at a loss for how to deal with the growing boy.
If I didnt hear this once, I heard it 10 times from my mother this is back when Zach was 12 Hes a 12-year-old boy, and he thinks like a 12-year-old boy, Proper said. (Dorothy) would say to me Bill, just calm down, back off, think about it for a bit.
And Proper said, taking heed of his mothers advice, that he felt like he laid a good foundation for Zachary to be a good young man and, eventually, a good adult.
Ive searched my heart and Ive searched my soul on this one, and I can honestly say ... I did an OK job, Proper said. I did the best I could. It might not have been perfect, but I did the best that I could.
I have my moments that I feel bad for Zach because I know what hes facing, he added.
Proper said he knows his son is feeling remorse and regret for his actions, but said that his current situation under close supervision at a maximum security juvenile facility in Erie doesnt really allow for Zachary to express those emotions.
Oh my, yes, hes (feeling guilty), but at the same token, with the environment hes in, he cant really show his emotions because theyd eat him up, Proper said. Hes over his head more than a little hes downright terrified. But part of me thinks, Rightly so, son, rightly so.
Now, all Proper can do is hope that the coping skills his parents taught him, the same skills he tried to pass down to young Zachary, can help both him and his son through the tough times that lie ahead. He knows that is easier said than done.
The most important advice I can give, one of the best things you can teach a child, is coping skills, how to cope with life, Proper said. Sometimes, this world can throw some pretty ugly stuff your way, but you have to deal with it and move on."