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Son of child killer helps kids cope through creative outlets

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published May 31, 2012

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As a boy, he didn’t know his father was a convicted child killer, on the run with his mother who helped his father escape from Indiana State Prison in the ‘70s. But all through his childhood, Chip St. Clair says he experienced the cruelty of the man he knew as David St. Clair, whose real name was Michael Dean Grant.

He recalls the day his dad took him on a boat out on Lake Michigan and threw him overboard, rowing away as Chip screamed for him to return. His dad did slow down a few times — just enough for Chip to take a few frantic swipes at the oars — but stayed just out of reach, teasing him.

The water was dark and frigid, and the shoreline was barely visible in the distance. Chip thought he was going to drown. But he remembered something he had read earlier out of boredom. It was the William Ernest Henley poem “Invictus,” Latin for “unconquerable,” which ends: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

Strengthened by those words, Chip powered through the waves and eventually made it back to dry land. His dad told him it’s amazing he swam so far, and they should tell his mother. Like any sociopath, Chip said, his dad knew how to turn on the charm.

“Looking back, I don’t know if he was trying to kill me,” Chip said. “Maybe being on the run, I slowed them down.”

His parents were both on the run for 26 years, after Grant was tried for second-degree murder and convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1970. He had been baby-sitting the children of his then-girlfriend Vicky Ingersoll at her home in a small town in Indiana. The two kids, 3-year-old Scott and 5-year-old Thomas, got boisterous in the bathtub. Grant grew angry.

He yanked Scott out of the water and the 3-year-old urinated in fear. Grant smashed the boy’s head through a plaster wall. He then plunged both of their heads underwater, struck Scott against the hallway walls like a baseball bat and stomped them both so hard he left footprints on their naked bodies.

This was all recounted by Thomas in court, who survived the incident and spent days at a hospital in critical condition. Scott was not so lucky.

Nonetheless, Grant was able to secure the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. He was to serve two years and then be up for parole every year up to 21 years.

When he was denied his first parole, Grant worked out an escape plan with his new girlfriend, Leslie Weaver, Chip’s mom, who picked him up in a car while he was on a work detail on the highway. He changed his name to David St. Clair, and together they moved all over the country, at least 30 times during Chip’s childhood.

Everything came crashing down around them in 1998, when Chip visited them with his fiancée Lisa, now his wife. Chip disagreed with his dad about something in the news; his dad pummeled him and dislocated Chip’s shoulder. Lisa called the cops.

“It’s all over,” his mom said. Chip thought he meant being in their good graces. He later learned from his aunt that his parents weren’t who he thought they were. While DNA tests show they’re his biological parents, he still doesn’t know his real age, birth date and birthplace, as his birth certificate was forged.

Chip later found a trunk his dad kept in his bedroom, containing news articles, locks of children’s hair, bags with baby teeth and pictures of other young boys with the name “Chip” written on them. He said it was like opening Pandora’s box. His dad was a suspect in the Oakland County child killer case, which remains unsolved to this day.

Grant is now deceased, having died of heart-related issues at a halfway house in Indiana. He died a free man: Prosecutors failed to file charges for fleeing prison, so he carried out half of his indeterminate sentence on “good behavior,” enough to be let off the hook under Indiana state law.

The horrors of Chip’s childhood still haunt him to this day, but he’s wiser for it.

“By finding out my father’s true identity, I was literally embarking on a quest for my own identity,” Chip said. “I also learned a valuable lesson, though my father did not intend to teach me this: Fear is a tool that you give someone else to use against you.”

Faced with adversity throughout his childhood, Chip learned to find solace in the arts. Whether it was oil painting, listening to classical music or reading poetry like “Invictus,” Chip found strength in creative expression.

Today he brings the same philosophy to thousands of at-risk teens across the country each year, by way of the St. Clair Butterfly Foundation, founded with his wife in 2007 and based out of downtown Rochester. The butterfly theme is also found in his 2008 memoir, “The Butterfly Garden.”

“For me, personally, it represents that ability to make a metamorphosis; that no matter what adversity you face, you can overcome it,” Chip said. “We can’t allow our past to consume us and destroy us; instead, we use our past as fuel to form our own personal cocoon, which I call introspection, and emerge as creatures that want to make the world more beautiful after what we’ve been through.”

On May 23 at Community High in Madison Heights, about two-dozen students in the fourth-hour biology class spent the day getting their hands dirty as they created a garden in front of the school. The whole school will take ownership of its upkeep, Chip said, and by nurturing the garden in the years to come, they’ll learn to take care of themselves. It’s a creative outlet and an exercise in horticultural therapy dating back to ancient Egypt.

It was also a learning opportunity, said sciences teacher Ivanna Yavorenko.

“It’s wonderful, especially for biology,” Yavorenko said. “We’re talking about the birds out there; we’re talking about the plants. Now they’re asking me questions about it: ‘What is this in the soil? Oh, a grub? What does that grow up into?’”

The garden is made to attract butterflies, with such annuals as white alyssums, blue Hawaii Ageratum and daylilies, and such perennials as hostas, coral bells and butterfly bushes.

The project was made possible with support from Bordine’s of Rochester, Home Depot in Rochester Hills, Main’s Landscape Supply and Armadillo Printwear. Toarmina’s Pizza supplied pizza and will do so at future events, as well.

Leslie Renne-Kegebein, principal of Community High, said that when Chip visited the school earlier in the year to share his story, the roughly 150 teens were spellbound. The school provides an alternative education for second- and third-chance students.

“They see him (Chip) as someone who has the power to make change and have an impact on the world,” Renne-Kegebein said. “So often, they question whether they can have an impact, and sometimes that’s where their bad choices come from, because they feel so unable. He gives them hope, a feeling that the road doesn’t end here and that they have so much farther they can go.”

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