By Chuck Goldberg
Chris Keith was as good as dead when his father shot him in the head with a .38 as he slept. His heavenly Father, though, had another plan for this 5-year-old boy, and never stopped loving him and giving him a reason to live.
In one of the most sensational crimes in Oklahoma history, the rest of Chris’ family perished on October 30, 1985, in their Tulsa, Oklahoma, home.
Used to hearing his 27-year-old parents fighting, Chris and his older brother Michael, age 8, were sent to bed that night as another argument raged. The couple were separated, with a divorce pending, but Chris’ father, Ted Michael Keith, had convinced his mother to allow him to visit so they could discuss their relationship. Chris’ dad was under the influence, and an argument started that quickly escalated.
His father squeezed his mother’s neck until she lost consciousness, then smothered her with a pillow in a bedroom, according to a
coroner’s report. He then retrieved his gun and fired point-blank into Michael’s head as the boy slept, killing him instantly. He did the same to Chris, aiming behind his left ear. The bullet shattered his cerebellum and exited behind his right ear, leaving many fragments that are still in his brain today.
"I guess he decided that, if he couldn't have us, nobody would," says Chris, now 31, with a family of his own. "I still miss my mother and my brother terribly."
After attacking his entire family, Ted Michael Keith sat down in the living room and shot himself in the head. To this day, Chris has no memories of the incident; he only recalls going to sleep and waking up in the hospital. The blood trail he left behind reveals that during the night he made it to his brother’s bed, apparently to check on him. Then, trying to leave his bedroom, he crawled as far as the door and collapsed.
The next day, Chris’ aunt grew concerned when his mother failed to appear for work at the insurance company where they both did data entry. When her phone calls went unreturned, the aunt drove to the house and got scared when she found both cars in the driveway. After getting no answer at the front door, she walked around to the back, peering through a window with curtains open. She could clearly see Chris’ dad and “flipped out,” according to Chris, scrambling to call the police.
Some 12 to 18 hours after the shootings, paramedics arrived and pronounced Chris dead along with the rest of his family. The responder checking Chris’ body found him cold to the touch, without a pulse and with stiff muscles. He would go on to report that rigor mortis had begun setting in.
With resuscitation efforts obviously unnecessary, the crew began packing up. Then one departing paramedic caught a glimpse of slight movement in Chris’ arm. She emerged from the front door, calling out to the others: “We’ve got one alive in here!”
Chris was carried to a stretcher and airlifted to St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa. “She just picked me up and ran,” Chris says of the paramedic. “They didn’t know what to do--they were so shocked I was still alive.”
Death was assured without surgery, but if a surgical instrument went a millimeter off course, that would also bring instant death. Yet Chris emerged successfully from the nearly eight-hour operation, though the surgeon had no prognosis on possible long-term impairments. He expressed complete bafflement to Chris’ grandfather that the boy even survived the wound.
Alive on the outside
As well-wishers flooded Chris’ hospital room, he stared through them all, fixated on the door, waiting for his mother to enter. Deep down, he knew his grandparents—not blood-related, but grandparents through marriage—would take care of him, but he said it wasn’t the same. “I knew if I saw my mom, everything would be OK,” he says. “I wanted my mom and my brother to walk through that door to tell me it was going to be all right. She never did, and that’s when I realized I was by myself.”
After Chris’ grandparents were granted guardianship, the state of Oklahoma convinced them to withhold the truth, believing he was too young to absorb the news. Scared to reveal too much information, his grandparents told him he was the sole survivor of a car accident. Chris accepted this story and asked no more questions; he was already shy and timid from having witnessed his mother suffer so much verbal and physical abuse.
From age 5 to about 14, he experienced the same nightmare maybe twice a week—about something in his head expanding at a rapid rate. He says he always woke up crying, terribly frightened.
As time went on, and he attended a new school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, he felt increasingly alone and confused as he tried to navigate the swirling emotions he seemed unable to express—fear, abandonment, and longings for his family. Eventually, he became more of a quiet recluse at home but a boisterous clown in school, suppressing his feelings as he attempted to win friends to salve the hurt inside.
As Chris got into more trouble at school, his grandparents sent him to several counselors, but he never allowed them to help. “I never really took to it,” he says. “I didn’t want a stranger who didn’t know me try to help me.”
Chris distrusted people anyway, believing they didn’t care, putting self-interest above concern for others. He grew increasingly miserable and depressed. He’d come home from school and head straight to his room, anxious for each day to end. He would often listen to music, and the words of one song gave him hope:
"Do not let the world get you down, and remember that a bright shiny day comes after the rain. It is going to get better."
"I just clung to that," he says.
Sometimes, however, he would lie awake all night “just thinking.” Eventually, he had suicidal thoughts he knew he could never act upon.
Knowing Chris needed more bonding, his grandparents enrolled him in soccer, basketball, and baseball, which he enjoyed, and he did make friends. When he reached 12, his grandparents felt it was time to reveal the truth, so they accompanied him to his counseling session. Since they’d never done that before, Chris was expecting some kind of intervention because of his school antics.
He says he’d largely figured out the truth anyway after hearing bits of information here and there over the years; plus, he’d wondered about the telltale scars on his head. What he lacked were the details, and he heard them all that day—from everything that happened that night to the extent of his father’s dysfunction.
“It hit me really hard,” Chris says. “It was almost a bigger trauma. All these emotions started coming back, even new emotions of hatred, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. I hated my dad for what he did, and I was upset at my mom for taking him back.”
Many times she took him back, Chris says, though his dad drank to excess and was physically abusive. Things got so bad sometimes, he says, that his mother took him and his brother to a battered women’s shelter for short stints.
Just before the deadly rampage, Chris’ aunts and uncles had begged his mother not to take his father back. The same aunt who later found their bodies had strong words for his mother, threatening that she would end their relationship if she did not leave him for good. His mother replied that he would never hurt the kids and that she would continue to absorb the physical abuse—whatever it took to keep the family together.
“I’m not sure which was more prominent, her fear of being alone or her belief that he would change,” Chris says. “But he never did change, and it cost me my family.”
The revelations sank Chris’ trust in people even lower, increasing his sense of isolation and loneliness. "My own dad tried to kill me,” he says. “So who was I supposed to trust?"
He also struggled with bouts of guilt, feeling it was somehow his fault, always searching for something he could have done to bring about a different outcome. It took him a long time to process that, as well as the question, “How could my father do something so evil?” His driving goal became not to wind up like his dad, which permanently eradicated any lingering thoughts of suicide.
A true friend
Through the years, Chris’ grandparents consistently took him to church every Sunday and tried to be good examples. Though Chris didn’t understand the concept of a heavenly Father’s perfect love, he didn’t mind attending because he found the people nice.
As a high school freshman, Chris grew close to Jason, the high school youth minister his church later hired. Months later, Chris surrendered his life to Christ, was baptized within days, and his nightmares disappeared. His outlook changed so much, he began to realize the importance of forgiving his dad and eventually did.
Still, Chris remained guarded with people, refusing to disclose his past so he could spare himself from trying to discern genuine friends from pity-givers. The turning point came at a church retreat, when Jason made a surprise visit to Chris in his dorm room.
“Chris, you’re always cracking jokes and having fun, but you never talk about yourself and I can tell something is wrong,” Jason said. “If it’s OK with you, I’d like to know a little more about you.”
Chris says he didn’t think he could tell him without crying, so he simply pulled out a newspaper article about the killings that he always carried in his wallet. He handed it to Jason, saying simply, “Read this.”
As Jason read, Chris studied his reaction. To his great shock, Jason became emotional, even teary-eyed. A few minutes later, Chris’ best friend walked in, asking what the two of them were doing, so Chris handed him the article and got the same reaction.
“That was a huge night for me,” Chris says, “because I realized they were crying because they cared about me and loved me—that not everybody is as selfish as my dad was. It was amazing to me, because I had never seen a man cry before.
“I realized then that I had to let others help me to heal. I had been trying to do it on my own—forget the world, forget everybody else—I’m tough. And I was failing—miserably. It wasn’t until I let others help me that I started to grow.”
My Good Father
Jason continued mentoring Chris and encouraged him to share his story publicly to help others. Today he speaks at church youth groups, juvenile justice centers, and other venues.
“My dad didn’t do this just to me,” Chris says. “He did it to the community and to the extended family, so I feel an obligation to these kids who are suffering, having gone through similar things. I firmly believe I have a second chance from God for this reason—to help others. The doctors don’t know why I’m alive, so I just want to make the most of it and help others who are suffering.”
Part of that second chance, Chris says, was God propelling him out of bed that night to crawl toward his bedroom door. Collapsing where he did put him squarely in the departing paramedic’s line of vision. Had he remained in bed, he believes he would have died. “I firmly believe that Jesus had his hand on me that night saying, ‘Hold on, someone will come for you, just hold on,’” he says.
The goal of Chris’ life now is to invite others to God, who will help them press on. One theme he always tries to cover is the need to forgive. Once he was able to forgive his father, he says, it was as though a huge weight lifted. “I realized I’m cheating God if I spend my time hating others,” he says.
Nonetheless, he was surprised to discover that he still harbored some unforgiveness toward his dad when he visited his grave this year for the first time. He went at the suggestion of a film crew from the organization Christ in Youth, which is including his story in a soon-to-be-released documentary about kids growing up without dads that will air at CIY conferences and thousands of churches.
“It was good closure for me,” he says. “It was an emotional experience. I thought I had forgiven him but realized there were still some pent-up feelings.”
The documentary’s theme, Father to the fatherless, is from Psalm 68:5, which resonated deeply with Chris as he began to understand God’s unconditional love under Jason’s guidance. “That verse was huge in my healing process,” he says.
Another big one was Jeremiah 29:11, which an elderly lady handed to him after he shared his testimony at his home church in Tulsa: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
The other topic Chris always tries to cover is the need for perseverance—to keep pushing on through the bad days and the discouragement.
“Perseverance is the key,” he says. “A lot of people see it as a story of tragedy, but I see it as a testament of hope, the hope of God’s love and mercy—the joy and peace that come with perseverance. If I had given up or spent my whole life feeling sorry for myself, I wouldn’t be where I’m at. I never would have received that awesome gift of having a family if I hadn’t pushed through.”
Married 12 years, Chris and his wife Crystal, 33, have two children, Dylan, 8, and Isabel, born May 1. They also had three foster children, ages 3, 4, and 9, until other families adopted them earlier this year. The Keiths plan on taking in more foster kids when Isabel gets older. Chris wants to make a difference in their lives too, showing them that people truly love them.
Chris met Crystal while attending Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri, then moved to Texas. He is now a part-time student at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, as he travels doing outreach. His goal is to get a bachelor’s degree at Colorado Christian University in Colorado Springs. He also works as a pharmacy technician in Fort Worth.
Except for his scars, Chris emerged with no physical deformities. His cerebellum is smaller than normal, but he says the rest of his brain compensated, so he functions normally. X-rays still reveal the presence of bullet fragments, however.
Above all, Chris tells his audiences that he once had a father who gave up on him. Now, he has a heavenly Father who will never turn His back on him.
“He just kept instilling in me, keep on, it’s going to get better,” Chris says. “Sometimes it doesn’t get better--it gets worse--but you have to have faith it will get better. I’m not going to lie and say I’m perfect. I still struggle with things, but I want to be a godly person and have a godly family and show as many people as I can God’s love.
“It’s my job to help them see hope through a relationship with their heavenly Father. I just want to try my best to see others make it."
Chuck Goldberg has a degree in journalism and a Master of Divinity in Christian education. A former newspaper reporter and magazine managing editor, he is now an ordained minister and freelance writer-editor. He and his wife Dolly have three children and live in Layton, Utah.