Twenty years ago, one child’s tragic story of strength and survival touched the lives of Memphians and millions of people around the nation.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Travis Butler has never told his story, but for the first time he’s breaking his silence, and sharing his story only with News Channel 3.
He made a decision in fourth grade to keep a secret about his mother — a secret that would change his life forever.
“I’m a living breathing testimony,” Butler said. “If she was looking down on earth right now, she would be proud of me, you know, because I’ve been through some things.”
Butler was 9 years old when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Crystal Wells had been ill for a while.
“I heard a loud thud, a loud boom, and I rushed and saw my mom,” he remembered. “At first she was OK, and then she fell again. I guess she had a seizure. I wasn’t too sure at the time because I was afraid.”
His mother was dead. But rather than tell anyone, he kept her death a secret.
“My mind when blank,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know who to call.”
That memory still brings him heartache.
“He had a fear of leaving his mother, leaving his apartment, or people taking him away, strangers,” his grandmother, Shirley Wilder, explained.
So he did the unimaginable. For 33 days, he lived in their East Memphis apartment with his mother’s body lying on the living room floor, covered with only a coat.
“At that time I figured, ‘Travis you can do it for yourself, Travis you can take care of yourself, you learned from your mom by watching and observation,'” he recalled.
He convinced others that everything was normal.
“I did what I had to do as a normal kid at that time, go to school, do your homework,” Butler said. “At that time, teacher sent certain documents home, I signed them as if my mom was still living.”
He even paid bills and went grocery shopping.
“I cooked food for myself, I tried to groom for myself, the little that I do know.”
Butler spent most evenings at a neighbor’s apartment, playing with the neighborhood kids.
But one day, Nathaniel Jeffries — a family friend from church — stopped by.
“He knew something was up,” Butler said. “I don’t know if he could see it on my face — you know, after 30 days, the body, the decomposed body started to smell. I tried my best to mask the smell with different scents or burn candles.”
Just as Jeffries was about to leave, Butler found the courage to tell him what he hadn’t shared with anyone else.
“He was in disbelief of what happened,” Butler said. “He called and let people know, the authorities, and that’s how all this came about.”
His nightmare wasn’t over. Butler had to spend the night in state custody until his grandmother arrived the next day from Carthage, Mississippi.
“I lost my childhood at a very young age, so I never really developed a true childhood,” he said. “For me, you have numerous cameras in your face, you can’t really experience life because people look at you as a charity case, some people look at you as a trophy to win some type of money, or whatever.”
Suddenly, Butler said, a young boy who seemingly had no one suddenly had others battling to be a part of his life.
“Wake up , 5 o’clock in the morning to catch a flight, or just wake up early enough to put on some clothes to put up a front to smile and let your grandparents or other people speak for you on your behalf,” he said.
And that brought Butler to his next hurdle: Who would take care of him and protect his money?
After months of court hearings, Butler was placed in the custody of Nathaniel and Dorothy Jeffries, his mother’s friends from church.
“I’m so appreciative of my parents, my step parents, the Jeffries, because they really wanted me to grow up as a child,” he said. “I have people who love me in my corner and I respect them, and I’m loyal but at the same time, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Crystal Wells.”
Butler says memories of his mother gave him the motivation to go to the University of Memphis and graduate in 2016, with a sociology degree.
These days he’s looking for a job in hospital administration or accounting.
He’s gone from being a scared young boy to man with a testimony he wants to share in his own words.
“I have no regrets of what I’ve done in the past up to now,” Butler said. “It shaped me and molded me into the person I am today.”