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Inside the closed-security Lebanon Correctional Institution in southwestern Ohio, inmate Paul Montgomery solemnly refuses to calculate the days remaining before he is eligible for parole in February 2032. "Too many," he says. "Can't tell them apart." His personal effects are another matter. Lebanon stipulates that an inmate's personal belongings fit in a 2.4-cubic-foot box. Once the box fills up, a prisoner typically has to get rid of something if he wants to add anything else, even an item as small as a newspaper clipping. So if your daughter gets voted 2001 international female wrestler of the year, and if she's one of the U.S.'s best hopes for a gold medal at the Nov. 2-3 world championships in Greece—where women's wrestling will make its Olympic debut in 2004—you carefully count and reread the growing number of clippings about her, aware that you soon may have to throw some away. "Won't have room in my box if she keeps making history," says Montgomery, 42. "I'll need a good memory."
Toccara Montgomery is the talk of her sport. At 19, she is quick on her feet and, at 5'6" and 158 pounds, stronger than any other woman wrestler her size. She emerged as a star last year, defeating three former world champions. After her second-place finish at the world championships in Bulgaria, she became the first American to be named top female wrestler in the world by the sport's international governing body. Montgomery still needs work on her technical skills, especially in the par terre (on mat) position, but her talent seems limitless. When she tossed Katie Downing, a capable foe, onto her back at the U.S. nationals last April, some wrestling aficionados called the five-point throw the most spectacular they'd ever seen.
If only her father could see her now.
In the 3� years since he was sent to prison for 30 years to life for a double murder, Paul Montgomery has been sustained by memories of his daughter. He can remember when she was eight and he would take her to the library near their home in Cleveland so they could both stock up on books. When he worked weekends cleaning offices, she would join him; he can remember how she would sit at a desk and play with the phones.
Paul calls his daughter Puff, for her chubby cheeks, and he can remember the mornings when she would sneak up behind him and he would flip her over and start tickling her. In a letter he received from her last year, she wrote, "I'm bigger now and I'm quicker. I can take you."
"That's my Puff," he says now, fighting back tears as he recalls the words.
On each letter he sends to her, he writes ALWAYS AND FOREVER on the back of the envelope. It signals the endurance of his love for his daughter, but it also spells out the depth of his regret for what happened on the night of Oct. 3, 1998.
At around nine that evening, Paul, who had served a total of 10 months in prison in the 1980s for two felony convictions-one for assault and the other for receiving stolen property and possession of criminal tools—rode with one of his nephews to an apartment complex on Cleveland's east side to visit Paul's older brother Ken. While his nephew was parking the car, Paul says two men confronted him on the sidewalk as he approached Ken's unit and offered to sell him drugs. Paul says he passed on the offer, but an argument began, and one of the strangers pulled out a gun. Paul says he wrested the gun away in the ensuing struggle, shot the two men and ran off in a panic, unaware if either was alive or dead. He drove the three miles home and frantically told his wife, Tara, what had happened. Toccara, then 15, and her brother, Patrick, then 6, were asleep in bed. Later that night Paul saw policemen searching the neighborhood and turned himself in.
The gunshot victims had died. Police never found the gun, and Paul's nephew and brother said they hadn't seen exactly what happened in the scuffle, but based on his admission that he had shot the victims and on his fingerprints' being found on a box of bullets of the same type used in the shooting, Paul was charged with two counts of murder. "I know I screwed up," Paul says, referring to his involvement in the argument that he claims led to the shooting. "There were 50 million other ways to handle it."
Tara recalls that in the weeks following the shootings, Toccara kept her emotions bottled up. "She doesn't like to express bad things about anybody, especially her father," Tara says. "After the shootings she buried herself more and more. She wasn't hurting in school, wasn't hurting socially, but she was hurting inside. She needed to just let it out."