real life

EXCLUSIVE: How does a mother live, after her ex-husband kills her three children?

“Sometimes it is so hard to envision what they would be like today because they were taken so young,” Theresa James tells me from her Indiana home in the US.

She’s talking about Sean, Jarod and Brandi, her three children, aged 12, six and two respectively. They were hers, and they were taken.

“I miss everything. I miss that I didn’t get to watch them grow up, attend college, get married and now with most of my friends my age, the thrill of being a grandparent.”

In 1998, those three were her tribe. They were her children; young, defenceless, innocent. So innocent, and the victim of evil from the person who was meant to love them the most.

At 5am on July 10, 1998, Theresa James’ ex-husband John Ritzert, a bricklayer, pushed past her in the hallway of her home. He had cut the phone line and broken in through the window, shattered glass in his wake. He missed the kids, he told her. He wanted to go and see them.

Instead, he shot them and, shortly after, himself.

Sean, Jarod and Brandi. Image: Supplied.

As James ran to a neighbour, her adrenaline chasing a phone line, she heard gunshots in the distance. By the time police had arrived, Sean, Jarod and Brandi were dead, their little lives taken, much of James' going with them.

"I remember everything about that day," James tells Mamamia, "I choose to not dwell on the awful visions of that morning but instead I remember the love and support from my family and friends who stepped up immediately to help me."

The media were frenzied, headlines a-plenty and the country mourned the loss of three children whose faces they knew, their personalities they didn't.

"That first week was a continuation of the nightmare that had become my life.  I had lost my children, my privacy, and my home. The realisation and grieving process for me didn’t even begin until after the children were buried, the media left town, and I was able to be alone with my thoughts and emotions."


For James, there was the insurmountable sense of grief and loss, but there was also the anger and spine-tingling shock. This was a man who had shown signs of an inability to "cope with divorce", but never the signs of someone with the potential to murder his own.

"There were times during the divorce process that I was threatened and the police were called to the house on one occasion. As his anger and hurt grew, he showed more frequent signs of losing his ability to cope with the divorce, but I would have never thought he would succumb to such an evil act."

"I remember everything about that day." Image: supplied.

In the days and weeks to come, James picked up a pen and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Her head was down, her grief populating the pages of her journal.

"During my divorce, my attorney suggested that I keep a journal of events and conversations. I continued writing daily, putting my thoughts and emotions onto paper from that horrible summer day and for the next year. I spent the following 12 months or so actually taking my notes and writing my story. This was an important part to my healing and working through my anger, hatred and grief."

By 2000, James had written a book. It was called Healing Tears and it detailed her life with Ritzert and the brutal loss of her three children. She took it to publishers, in the hope they would take on the manuscript. No-one did, so she put the book away. She didn't pick it up for more than 16 years.

Last July, James thought it was time. She contacted Hay House, a self-publishing house, and the book was ready for the world to read.

"Almost twenty years ago, this was the unthinkable crime. Sadly, in today’s society it is not unheard of or [thought of] as rare of an event. I felt that this was the time to be public in the hopes that my story can give others strength as they struggle with their own life challenges," James says.


James says her ability to rebuild her life, piece by piece, brick by brick, came down to her family, her friends, her therapists and her new husband, Todd.

"Having the support and love from my husband, Todd, has been my rock. He has been by my side during the last 19 years. I have also been fortunate to have had a couple of incredibly gifted therapists.

Theresa with her husband Todd. Image: Supplied.

"My family and friends have been the stability I needed to move through the grieving process and to rebuild my life."

Now 52, Theresa James' life is one of work, of love and of healing. She has worked as a financial advisor since 2000, has published Healing Tears, written another children's book called I Love and Like You! and has one more in the works, due out by Christmas.

For someone who has navigated the high tides of enormous tragedy, Theresa James has pieced together a life that is not dogged, nor defined, by a single act at 5am one July day of 1998.

Time, along with its ability to mend a heart, has also let her go back in time just a little bit, to see the faces of the children she loved so much, the voices that went quiet all those years ago.

"In the past couple of years, I have been able to watch videos I have of my children and it is heart-warming to hear them say Mummy or Mum and to tell me they love me.

"Today, they would have been 31, 24, and 21."

If you would like to read more from Theresa James' story, you can visit her website here, or find her on Facebook here. If you would like to buy a copy of Healing Tears, click here. And if you would like to have a look at I Love and Like You! click here.