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The legacy of John Alfred Mapstone

When you read a story about a tragedy that’s happened to someone with a criminal record, what pops into your head?

That because it didn’t involve an upstanding community member — such as you or me or anyone we love — it’s not as important a story? That you’d never have placed yourself in that situation, so it could never have happened to you or to anyone you know?

When John Alfred Mapstone’s body was found in Bear Creek April 6, we ran a short story on Page A2. The medical examiner had determined Mapstone died of accidental drowning about the time he was reported missing, on March 11.

We didn’t know much about Mapstone, except that he was 38, was from Medford and had a criminal record: convictions for third-degree assault and DUII after striking a vehicle and fleeing.

End of story, we thought.

Then I got a phone call.

It was from an ex-girlfriend of Mapstone's who was upset that we’d printed his criminal history. He was a good person, she said. He was far more than a statistic we dug up in public records.

I’ve heard this complaint before. But I believe if you’re convicted of a crime, it’s public record and fair game for public consumption. It tells something about you. Most people, after all, don’t see the inside of jail cell.

But I agreed to talk with Mapstone’s brother, Stephen, of Duluth, Minnesota, where he and John grew up. I learned that the brothers loved camping, fishing and hiking. But John's later life was not idyllic. He inherited his father’s mental illness and self-medicated with alcohol. Friends and family despaired as they watched him spiral into self-destructive behavior and eventually prison time.

When he wasn’t drinking, he was the kindest man — smart, creative, with a strong faith in God, Stephen said. But then the demons of his past would haunt him: the time he didn’t spend with his son and daughter. The relationships he could never make work. The people he hurt.

John wrote short stories he called “Kaleidoscope Tales,” about things that would go through his mind. One of his tales was about the day he was “called” to Bear Creek, a month before he died.

“He ended up falling into the creek, and considered just staying in there and dying,” his brother said. “Then eventually he decided to fight his way out of the creek.”

I remembered that incident. I’d sent a reporter out, but it turned about to be nothing — just another drunk rescued from Bear Creek by police. But that’s before I knew the man had a name. And a family who cared about him. And a passion for writing.

The last anyone heard from John was on March 11, when he chatted with family and friends over Facebook. Then, apparently, John was called to Bear Creek again. But this time, he didn’t fight his way out.

“He’s always been worried about his legacy, and I would hate for his legacy to just be about his wrongdoings as opposed to the true impact he has on the people around him,” Stephen said.

I didn’t know John, but I know he did leave a legacy: a poignant reminder that the people we write about have families who care about them. Childhood memories. Demons they must battle. And they are so much deeper than a statistic in a public record.

— Reach Mail Tribune Editor Cathy Noah at cnoah@mailtribune.com.