The 14-Year-Old Who Grew Up in Prison

On October 9, 1979, Thomas Beitler was working the late shift when he used his break to buy cigarettes and a soda. Pittsburgh’s Fort Wayne Cigar Store was open 24 hours a day, and the third-generation postal worker arrived there a little after 3:30 AM—almost exactly the same time as 14-year-old Ricky Olds and his friend Todd Allen. Minutes later, Beitler was dead from a gunshot wound. Barely a month after that, Olds and Allen were taken into custody, and neither has left prison since. Thirty-six years have passed, and Olds continues to pay the price for being a barely adolescent kid out too late for his own good.

When the two teens were arrested for Beitler’s murder a month later, the newspapers referred to them as “North Side youths” accused of killing a man from Millvale. This was code—any Pittsburgh reader immediately understood that the kids were black and the victim white. At trial, when the prosecutor asked about the height and weight of the victim, the coroner testified he was a “well-developed, well-nourished white male.”

In 2005, the US Supreme Court banned the death penalty for minors; in 2010, it ruled against mandatory life sentences for juveniles who committed non-homicide offenses; in 2012, it ruled against mandatory life sentences for juveniles under all circumstances; and this past January, it ruled that inmates already serving mandatory sentences should receive new sentencing hearings.

Nonetheless, Ricky Olds sought an appeal —after all, he hadn’t actually killed anyone, and the ruling applied to all non-homicides. But the Pennsylvania Superior Court, pointing out that Olds had in fact been convicted of second-degree murder, made short shrift of that argument. In a coldly ironic turn, the judge who authored the opinion, Robert Colville, was the same Robert Colville who, as district attorney, had so glibly told the press three decades earlier that Olds could be out in 17 years “and maybe far less.”

  • How I wish I was raised:There’ll be times in your life where you’ll feel like giving up and ending it all, and they’ll be people who’ll try and bring you down to try and lift themselves up, but never give up what you love; your feelings matter, we want you to be happy, no matter what. We'll be here to support you emotionally, whatever the cost.
  • How I was raised:You’re too young to be stressed – you’re just sad, you’ll be happy the next day – stop overreacting – just stop being shy – you’re too young to know what love is – stop moaning, everyone else has it worse – no, you can’t do this subject because we want you to have qualifications for THIS job – don’t dress like that, WE don’t like it – you never appreciate what we do for you.