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Paul Coates

March 20, 2008 | 12:57 pm

March 20, 1958

Paul_coates Barbara Ridley is 25. She's the mother of four sons, ages 6, 4, 3 and 1.

She's also part of the unpleasant headlines you've been reading this week.

She's the wife of 36-year-old James Vernon Ridley, who yesterday confessed to the brutal raping of two girls, 11 and 9, in the San Fernando Valley.

I talked with Mrs. Ridley shortly after her husband confessed to the crimes. It wasn't a pleasant conversation for either of us. But the more we talked, the more I got the feeling that it was an important one.

Not just to us. But to everybody.

Barbara told me that she was 17 when she married Ridley. She'd known him two months before they ran off and eloped.

1958_0319_ridley It had to be that way because Barbara's parents were against the marriage.

Her husband, she told me, was quite a nice guy -- good-natured, generous, wonderful with the kids.

"He was more patient with the children than I was," she said.

But he was sick and, little by little, it became apparent to Barbara that her husband needed help.

A couple of years ago, his nervousness increased alarmingly. At Barbara's urging, he visited a doctor -- a medical doctor.

The doctor said he was suffering from a vitamin deficiency. James Ridley took his pills regularly, but his nervousness increased. Everyone was against him, he'd confide to his wife.

The next step was an obvious one: a psychiatric examination.

Barbara suggested it, but her husband said he was all right, he wasn't crazy.

But a few weeks later, after James Ridley had walked out of the house supposedly to go to work, his wife received a phone call from General Hospital. Her husband -- she was told -- had committed himself for examination.

In two more weeks, he was home again.

"They told me he was suffering from schizophrenia--to have him committed to Camarillo," she explained.

The Christmas holidays came, so the Ridleys waited. They wanted a family Christmas.

They had it, and shortly afterward Ridley was committed to Camarillo for 90 days.

"Then they put him out -- on indefinite leave, they called it," Mrs. Ridley told me. "I said I didn't think he was ready. I felt it especially after he told me that he never got to talk to a psychiatrist. Just shock treatments -- that's all they gave him, I guess."

Then Barbara Ridley tried to get her husband some outpatient psychiatric care -- with no success. "We couldn't get it from the county and couldn't afford a private psychiatrist," she said.

What happened after that is ugly current history. Two young girls have been attacked.

You can blame James Ridley. He's not sane.

But you have to wonder if somebody else isn't to blame too. And wonder if some terrible tragedies could have been averted if some of the persons we pay to represent us and protect us hadn't ignored James Ridley when he wanted and needed help.

In a community of millions, there's bound to be more than one James Ridley. And until our officials decide to protect us from them -- either to cure them or keep them locked up -- we're going to have more tragedies.

When I talked with Mrs. Ridley, I asked her if she planned to stand by her husband.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't want the kids to know. If it's a choice between my children and my husband, no, I can't stand by him.

"I'll just pray to God that he finally gets the help he needs. For his sake and for the sake of children like those little girls...."

For the first time, Mrs. Ridley broke down.

"If he gets help, he can take care of himself.

"My children -- they can't."

"Your children, of course, don't know," I said.

"The oldest boy overheard us today -- talking about it," she answered. "My father-in-law was saying, 'They're taking Jim to the County Jail.'

"And my boy said to me, 'Mommy, is that where Daddy is? Is he in jail?'

"I told him, 'No, baby, that's somebody else's daddy. Your daddy is in the hospital.'

"But he shook his head. 'Mommy,' he told me, 'I just can't understand what's going on.' "