A ball of yarn and knitting needles represent the memory of a woman who turned her hard life into charity for those in need until one such person strangled her in her home in front of her great-granddaughter.
“It’s just as she left it,” Wesley Stevenson said of his 76-year-old mother, Alice Tollison. “Who knows what it was for. But it was certainly for some charitable thing, some needy person.”
Tollison’s life ended on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, in her Dentsville-area house not far from I-77. James Heyward, 44, went to prison for the rest of his life earlier this month after a Richland County jury convicted him in the brutal home invasion.
Tollison’s then-8-year-old great-granddaughter told jurors how Heyward sat her in a chair and made her watch. Then he stuck her into a hall closet, returned and forced her into a back room where he tied her hands and feet.
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“He is the classic person my mother would have helped out,” Stevenson said of Heyward’s troubled life. “She would have given him clothes and food for his kids, hired him to do work in the yard and paid him well.”
‘Never had it easy’
Tollison grew up in the Kershaw County town of Cassatt. One of 14 children, Tollison was like a second mother to her siblings, according to her sister, Patricia Newman.
“My mother was always there, but I guess (she) had so much to do,” said Newman, 63. “Alice was always the one that I felt loved me like I was hers. If I had a problem, I always went to her.”
Tollison went to nursing school and later became a registered nurse at Kershaw County’s hospital, then a private nurse for the family of former Gov. John C. West, family members said. She later became a nursing home administrator for what is now the S.C. Department of Mental Health.
“She was my sister, but she was also my friend and mentor,” said Debbera Hussey, 66.
Tollison’s life wasn’t easy, family members say.
Her father died when she was young. Her first marriage ended in divorce, and her second husband died in 2001.
In 2007, while Tollison was loading groceries into her car in a CVS Pharmacy parking lot, a car hit her, breaking many bones in her lower body.
“My mother never had it easy,” Stevenson said. “It was always an uphill battle, but she wasn’t one to complain. It was just her lot in life.”
A coupon queen
The 2007 parking lot accident happened as she was loading her car with Mountain Dew to take to the Connie Maxwell Children’s Home in Greenwood, Newman said. Tollison had a habit of taking soft drinks, snacks and other goodies that the home could not afford.
“She loved to go see the kids and take them surprises,” said Newman, who often went with Tollison.
Newman especially recalls one trip they took together.
“Her shoes were bothering her,” Newman she said. “She took her shoes off and one of the little girls put them on and said, ‘Oh, they fit.’ Alice said, ‘If you like ’em, you can have ’em.’”
To pay for the carloads of donations she took not only to the children’s home but to God’s Storehouse in Columbia and other charities, Tollison used stacks of coupons to get shopping carts full of groceries for just a few bucks.
“She was a coupon queen,” said Tollison’s other son, Steve Stevenson, 54. “With her coupons, we could stock up a bomb shelter for six months.”
Tollison also was known as “The Bag Lady” or “The Hat Lady.” That was because her knitting included hats for cancer patients, blankets for the homeless, dish towels and tote bags for people who needed walkers to get around.
Tollison sent some bags to children in Africa and kept others in her car to give to people she encountered. She sold some, too.
“Every penny she made through her yard sales, every penny she made knitting and sewing things, went to some form of charity,” said Wesley Stevenson, who lives in Florida.
The money went to what Tollison called her “Jesus money,” which she used to buy groceries to give away or supplies for her craftwork.
Even the parking lot collision that broke most of the bones below her waist and hospitalized her for months didn’t stop her charity work, Newman said. She continued to knit dozens of hats for cancer patients who had lost their hair to chemotherapy.
Knitting was part of her social life, too. She was a member of “Happy Hookers,” a knitting class.
A member of Dentsville Baptist Church, Tollison also was involved in the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s Project H.O.P.E., which stands for Helping Our Precious Elderly.
Family members say her giving spirit continued up to the week of her death. Days before she was strangled, as the Columbia area reeled from an historic flood, Tollison and one of her granddaughters loaded a van with blankets, toiletries and toothbrushes and took the items to a local high school.
‘She thought she was gonna die’
Tollison’s decades of community service came to an abrupt and violent end the evening of Oct. 11, 2015, when, prosecutors said, Heyward broke into Tollison’s home to take money and jewelry.
The woman’s great-granddaughter was staying with her that day and was in the living room watching TV, the child later told Richland County sheriff’s investigators. The elementary school-age girl went to the kitchen to get a toy and saw a man there with Tollison, who used a walker to get around.
The child initially could recalled only that the man wore an orange jersey, but later identified the intruder as Heyward.
Prosecutors said he put a gun on the table and forced the girl to sit in a chair and watch as he strangled the woman the child called grandma.
Heyward put the girl in the closet, rummaged the house and left her bound in the back room, she told investigators later.
Somehow, she managed to call 911 at 5:37 p.m.
“I’m 8, and my grandma’s dead,” the scared but coherent child tells a dispatcher. “I don’t know if the guy’s still in the house.
“He said he knows where I live,” she can be heard saying in desperation. “I’m stuck, and I can’t move. I’m tied up, and I can’t feel my hands.
“Please, my grandma’s laying on the floor, and she’s dead. I’m tied up. I’m scared, and I don’t know what to do.”
She manages to get outdoors, asking the dispatcher if that’s the best place for her to be. Later in the call, sirens can be heard in the background growing louder as help draws near.
In a statement later to investigators, the child said, “He killed my grandma in front of me.” She demonstrated how Heyward, whose name she did not know, put the crook of his arm around Tollison’s throat.
Heyward put her into the closet, pulled her out and bound her hands with a telephone cord and her feet with electrical wires and stuck her back in the closet, the child told investigators.
He ransacked the home. When the house was quiet, the girl somehow called 911.
She later gave investigators a description of the intruder. Heyward’s DNA and his fingerprints tied him to the crime, according to testimony.
“She said she thought she was gonna die, and just asked God to let it be quick,” Hussey said, recalling vivid testimony from the girl, who is now 10.
Before Heyward invaded Tollison’s home, he already had convictions for weapon offenses, drugs, theft and strong-armed robbery, Sheriff Leon Lott said. Four months before that Sunday, Heyward had been released in New Jersey after serving time for a robbery conviction, Lott said.
“This man should have been in a New Jersey jail and nowhere close to my mother,” Steve Stevenson said. “This guy, on his fifth conviction, should have been convicted under the habitual standards in New Jersey and had a minimum of 20 years.”
‘My mother forgave him’
Hussey said she forgave Heyward out of a sense of duty.
“God says we have to forgive him,” she said. “I won’t forget. I deal with it a lot.”
Patricia Newman has prayed for strength to forgive Heyward and strength for the girl to deal with what she saw that Sunday afternoon.
“I have prayed, ‘Lord, just take that out of her memory so that she can put it behind her,’” she said.
Neither of Tollison’s sons believes they can forgive Heyward.
“I feel very confident my mother forgave him before she hit the floor,” Steve Stevenson said.
As an attorney, now in North Carolina, he said he doesn’t represents criminal defendants any more because of his mother’s murder.
Alice’s unfinished work
Tollison’s relatives and friends are trying to put the trial behind them and carry on Tollison’s charitable spirit.
“The thing about it is, this community, we all lost,” said Gloria Brown, 72, who knew Tollison since 2012 and attended the Happy Hookers class with her. “He didn’t just take Alice’s life, he snuffed out a spirit that we’re trying to keep going.”
The past two Christmases, Patricia Newman has gone to the Greenwood children’s home because it’s what her sister would have wanted.
Wesley Stevenson also wants to maintain his mother’s spirit. “The main thing is (that) we continue her work, that somebody can be inspired to step up and make up for where my mother’s gone now.”
He remembers a conversation he had with his mother about a week before she was killed.
“Son, you’re gonna get the house and all of the stuff that’s in here when I go. But what are you gonna do with all my purdies?” Tollison said. She was referring to her term for the dozens of angel figurines she’d collected.
“I don’t know, Mama; it’d take a month of Sundays to sell them all in a yard sale,” he recalls telling her.
The family has come up with a plan that honors Tollison and her charitable work.
They will auction her figurines and sell what’s left of her knitting. The money will go to the children’s home that she loved so much.
And Wesley Stevenson’s home will always hold his mother’s final, unfinished work, the ball of yarn and her needles.