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Retired pastor stands in gap of high-profile murder case

Amanda Hamm is escorted into the courtroom at Macon County Courthouse for the first day of her trial in Decatur, Ill. A UMNS photo by Lyndsie Schlink, Herald & Review.

By Paul Black*
Jan. 25, 2007 | CLINTON, Ill. (UMNS)

It’s Wednesday afternoon and the Rev. C. Don Ferrill heads to the DeWitt County Jail for his weekly visit with 30-year-old Amanda Hamm.

It’s the same trek the retired United Methodist pastor has made each Wednesday for two years since the Clinton woman was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in connection with the drownings of her three young children.

“We do not discuss the case, but we have gone through tears and moments of anxiousness together,” Ferrill says of his meetings with Hamm. “I really don’t have a judgment call on the case. My role was a ministry of presence.”

The Rev. C. Don Ferrill

Hamm is scheduled for sentencing on Feb. 1 following her conviction in December on the lesser charge of child endangerment. Her sentence could range from probation to a maximum of 20 years in prison.

The verdict, just like the crime three years earlier, sparked outrage and divisiveness among family members who have sat in different parts of the courtroom during the trial.

The high-profile case stems from the September 2003 drowning of Christopher Hamm, 6; Austin Brown, 3; and Kyleigh Hamm, 23 months – all born of relationships with different men, according to Amanda Hamm’s mother.

Hamm and her live-in boyfriend, Maurice LaGrone, were accused of murdering her children by placing them in a car that sank more than four feet into Clinton Lake while the couple stood on the shore. Hamm and LaGrone maintained the deaths were an accident that occurred after LaGrone parked too close to the water on a boat ramp. However, prosecutors said the drowning was intentional.

LaGrone was convicted last April on three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.


Ferrill, who was pastor of Clinton United Methodist Church from 1967 to 1988 and retired in 1997, became involved shortly after serving as interim pastor of a Presbyterian church in Clinton, where he had contact with several of Hamm’s family members. Shortly after Hamm’s arrest, the young woman asked him to visit her in jail.

“The Baptists used to have worship services at the jail but had discontinued them,” Hamm told Ferrill. “Would you come and see me?”

And so, every Wednesday for the next two years, Ferrill has done just that – listening to Hamm’s story and praying with her. “I believe in second chances; otherwise, none of us would make it,” says Ferrill.

While media images of Hamm have depicted her as cowering and meek, Ferrill says she has grown during the years he has visited her. “Her story is full of contradictions. When she was in high school, she quit months before graduating and then went back and got her GED,” he says. “Even when the drowning occurred, she had already planned to return to school. She writes beautifully and continues to develop that gift.”

The minister has been in the courtroom periodically throughout the trial. “On the day of the verdict, you could have cut the tension with a knife,” he says.

Ferrill says the community continues to express anger and frustration over the loss of three children. While some see December’s verdict as a victory for Hamm, Ferrill says there are no winners in this case.

“Everyone loses,” he says. “Sometimes as Christians and the church we drop the ball on the wounded. I think Jesus could have been responsive and have compassion. Sometimes it’s just a matter of standing in the gap when something as divisive as this occurs.”

*Black is director of communications for The United Methodist Church’s Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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