A California company that helps aspiring authors was moving when an editor noticed a bulky envelope from a Maryland prison in a box of unsolicited manuscripts.
Inside were loose pages of a children's book about a girl who wants to celebrate her birthday by flying kites in a prison yard with her incarcerated father.
The story had typos and plot problems — but also potential, recalled Ralph Scott of Too Nuts Productions.
The envelope came from prisoner No. 168687, Larry Bratt, a childless man serving two life sentences in the Jessup state correctional institute for arranging a double murder in 1981. Bratt said he could relate to kids because the lessons "Kaia," his child protagonist, attains on her fictional journey are the same lessons he learned in prison: resiliency, forgiveness and understanding.
With appeals exhausted Bratt, 62, knows he has little chance of freedom. So he wrote a story about a kite floating high over the prison walls connecting Kaia to her father on the inside — just as writing has allowed him to connect to the outside world.
"It sets you free," Bratt said of the writing process in a phone interview from the medium-security penitentiary.
The company wondered whether it should market the work of a murderer. Maryland law prohibits prisoners from profiting from the notoriety of crimes, but correctional officials say inmates are otherwise free to write and publish.
During his trial, Bratt was described as a drug trafficker who sent two men with a machine gun to kill a business associate and the associate's wife in Pasadena.
A brother of one of Bratt's victims didn't respond to requests for comment, but victims advocates say family members of the slain generally don't want convicted murderers profit from anything while imprisoned, let alone write children's books.
"It's common for surviving family members, particularly of homicide victims, to experience what we call re-victimization, re-traumatization," said Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance. "Thirty years for many people is just like yesterday."
Scott said he recognized publicity about the book could resurrect pain for Bratt's victims, but decided to help Bratt after considering his work as a mentor and advocate since going to prison.
To try to raise $29,000 to publish the book, a campaign was started on kickstarter.com., a website used for similar projects.
Among the donors was Elizabeth Mortenson, of Santa Rosa, Calif. She said that "something about Mr. Bratt's story" compelled her to give $25. "I am a believer in the idea that people can truly change if they want to," she wrote in an email. "He is trying to make amends for his crime."
The completed campaign raised little more than $1,000, so the company plans to try again on another site, Indiegogo.com, this month.
Too Nuts and Bratt hope others will be won over by Kaia's story, and Bratt's stated goal to reach the children and families of perpetrators.
"His biggest point is that children suffer the most, no matter what their fathers have done," said Val Hymes, a freelance editor and writer who serves as a coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland's Prison Ministry Task Force. "Children suffer, and he wants people to know that."
Bratt was imprisoned for the murder of John Carback and Carback's wife, Donna. Prosecutors said John Carback and Bratt were drug dealers whose relationship deteriorated. Carback and his wife were shot multiple times; she was also stabbed.
Sixteen years after being convicted, Bratt asked Anne Arundel County judges to consider his work mentoring and advocating for inmates and reduce his sentences. His plea was rejected.
Richard Carback, brother of one of Bratt's victim's, told The Sun in 2000 that "if Mr. Bratt has been rehabilitated where he is doing so much helping in the prison system, let's leave him there to do more good."
"I truly regret from the bottom of my heart … this horrific crime that destroyed two families," Bratt said recently. "I've been rehabilitated. ... I've been transformed into a loving, caring human being."
In prison, Bratt started a program in which incarcerated fathers read to their children during visits. He organized a group of prisoners who became trained hospice workers for inmates and started a prison newsletter. He also advocates for prison reform.
In 2006, Bratt wrote a draft of "Kaia and the Birthday Kites," inspired by the interactions between children and their incarcerated fathers in the reading program he founded. The main character is named after a granddaughter of his former wife.
He sent the work, about 18 pages, to more than two dozen publishers; only Too Nuts responded. As editors suggested ways to improve the story, it grew to more than 230 pages.
If it is published, Bratt said, he plans to put proceeds into reading programs that connect prisoners with their kids and into Camp Amazing Grace, an Episcopal ministry for children of Maryland prisoners.
He wants the book to bring hope to children whose parents are serving time — kids who may follow in their parents' footsteps without guidance.
"If I could save just one of those kids," Bratt said, "that would be great."