His father murdered his mother. Now, an Angels prospect is finding the light

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MADISON, Ala. — The team-building train was easy. Early this season, coaches at Rocket Metropolis, the Angels’ Double-A affiliate, requested every participant to step ahead and share one thing private with all the squad.

Title a hero in your life, a hardship and a spotlight. 

Zac Kristofak, a 25-year-old beginning pitcher, started internally making ready for his flip. In a manner, he’d already spent greater than 10 years constructing towards this second. And whereas any cursory Google search of his final identify would have turned up the disturbing particulars from a decade in the past, none of his teammates knew the total story.

When Kristofak acquired as much as converse in entrance of his teammates, there have been no nerves. His coronary heart didn’t pound. His thoughts didn’t race. The phrases tumbled out.

It was Dec. 22, 2012, a chilly afternoon within the Atlanta suburbs. Kristofak, then 15, was getting back from baseball apply along with his pal. They pulled as much as his house to seek out a big police presence encircling the home.

At first, Kristofak thought there was a hearth. However he shortly realized there have been no fireplace vehicles on the scene. He jumped out of the automotive and raced to a police officer, who requested him about his dad and mom.

Just some hours earlier, Kristofak’s mother, Donna Nations Kristofak, had taken him to baseball apply.

He returned to seek out his mom’s black Honda Odyssey close to her storage, and blood on the bottom the place EMTs had tried lifesaving CPR.

It was too late. Zac’s mom, he would later be taught, had been murdered by his father.

After Kristofak spoke to the workforce, “everyone just had a shock to their face,” mentioned Kristofak’s teammate Jack Dashwood. “I think anyone would tell you that Zac Kristofak is one of the toughest dudes that they probably ever met in baseball.”

“This is who I am,” Kristofak mentioned later. “I’m not afraid of who I am.”

Zac (left) and Harrison with Donna Kristofak, throughout what Zac remembers as a cheerful and regular childhood. (Courtesy of Zac Kristofak)

Within the months main as much as her dying, Donna did every part she may to protect her sons, significantly Zac, her youngest, from what her life had turn into.

It was unimaginable to cover the truth that she and their father had cut up up, or that John spent seven months in jail for aggravated stalking. He’d been arrested in March 2012 after chasing Donna round a Walmart parking zone, whereas a knife sat in his automotive — days after he’d despatched her a threatening be aware.

However Zac didn’t know these particulars. The day-to-day, minute-to-minute hazard she confronted was one thing Donna tried to guard him from.

Donna, in Zac’s phrases, would do something for him and his older brother, Harrison. When the household misplaced its monetary footing after the housing market collapse in 2007, she went again to work. She supported her youngsters within the midst of financial hardship and her faltering marriage.

And for a lot of Zac and Harrison’s childhood, John was a seemingly regular and caring husband and father. He’d been married to Donna for 19 years.

John coached Zac and Harrison’s baseball groups. Each Friday night time was “boys’ night” — once they’d get a Papa Johns pizza and lease a Blockbuster film. Zac remembers his household as well-off and comfortable, as regular as regular will get.

However the monetary issues become main marital points. And marital points become a divorce in August 2011. After the divorce, John devolved quickly. He turned livid, bitter and, ultimately, violent.

Zac had a elementary understanding that the as soon as apparently comfortable relationship had turn into poisonous. He would obtain textual content messages from his father saying nasty issues about Donna. However he hadn’t been conscious of how harmful the scenario had turn into.

Beginning quickly after their divorce, John began sending threatening messages to his ex-wife. He stalked her. He left vulgar indicators in entrance of her yard. He despatched notes to different individuals in her life, claiming she was having a number of affairs. The restraining order in opposition to him was of little use.

Based on police data, John emailed her at one level, writing, “both kids would rather come to heaven than lose me” and “have you ever been hit by a car going 140 not knowing where it was coming from?,” in response to police data. There have been different notes threatening her life.

She had an emergency plan with their neighbors, the Kiebooms — a household that included Zac’s finest pal and present Nationals infielder, Carter Kieboom. If John ever got here to Donna’s house, the youngsters had been purported to run there.

Two months earlier than her homicide, she’d pleaded with a Cobb County choose to maintain him in jail. Based on an Atlanta Journal Structure account, she advised the choose {that a} restraining order wouldn’t be sufficient.

“‘May I ask, your honor, that it is on the record that I fear for my life,’” Donna mentioned.

He was launched on Oct. 29, 2012. Lower than two months later, he shot Donna twice whereas she sat in her automotive.

Virtually instantly after his seize, John admitted to murdering Donna, in response to police data. He defined that he’d been planning the homicide for a while.

Donna was often conscious of her environment, John advised investigators. She had weapons, and knew use them. He was stalking her neighborhood that day when he noticed her driving towards her house. This time, when she pulled into her storage, he mentioned, she didn’t shut it instantly. As a substitute she sat in her automotive, her cellphone.

John mentioned he pulled into the driveway, ran to her automotive, and shot her twice by means of the automotive window. She began honking within the hope that Harrison would come out. An onlooker heard him shout “Mom!” as he raced outdoors to assist, arriving in time to see John run again to his automotive and drive off. The very last thing she mentioned to Harrison, in response to police data, was to name 9-1-1.

For the following 5 days, with John nonetheless on the run, a police officer stood guard outdoors the Kiebooms’ house, the place Zac was staying, 24 hours a day.

They tracked John down at a Motel 6 in Union Metropolis. He spent his days on the run emailing information shops about Donna. He additionally tried to rob a Ceremony-Assist for Adderall. John claimed that he had deliberate to commit suicide earlier than his seize, however that police arrested him earlier than he may attain for his gun.

Hours after being taken into custody, he was interviewed by detectives.

At one level in the course of the interrogation, John requested, “Does all this have to come out in the newspaper?”

The investigator mentioned it was between the 2 of them.

“Good,” John mentioned, “because my kids have been hurt enough.”

Kristofak, now a pitcher with the Angels’ Double-A workforce, hopes that his story will have the ability to assist different individuals going by means of tough instances. (Patrick Breen for The Athletic)

Kieboom and Kristofak: Two final names that begin with Ok. That’s how Carter Kieboom and Zac first met.

They had been 9 years outdated at baseball tryouts once they had been positioned subsequent to one another for the 60-yard sprint.

Of their first encounter, Kristofak advised Carter that he would smoke him within the race. And he did.

“Zac’s always had a little bit of an edge to him,” Carter mentioned. “He’s had this aura of confidence that’s always surrounded him. Getting to know him, we played the whole season together, it all made sense. He was going to be a little trash talker.”

Kristofak is aware of he wouldn’t be the place he’s now with out individuals like Carter, the Kieboom household and plenty of others who gave him a neighborhood when his world had been shattered.

It was Carter’s mom, Lynette Kieboom, who drove Kristofak to the hospital, the place he discovered his mom had died. The Kieboom household was there. Carter’s father, Alswinn Kieboom, turned a father determine.

“He’s like my son,” Alswinn mentioned. “He knows I’m always there for him. And I think the relationship is pretty doggone cool in the sense that neither one of us has to advertise it.”

The individuals Kristofak is closest to are those that have been there for him. They had been all there in that hospital.

Blaine Boyer was a Main League pitcher on the time, however he was additionally a mentor and shut pal to Zac. After they first met, on the fitness center they each belonged to, Zac was a “punk middle schooler”; they struck up a friendship as a result of Zac was carrying a hat for a workforce Boyer as soon as performed on.

Now right here was Boyer, consoling the teenage boy within the hours and days after probably the most traumatic expertise of his life.

“Zac, to this day, has a room at our house,” Boyer mentioned. “It’s his room. He would stay with us. You talk about rallying people around a little. It was from high school seniors and juniors to all the parents to his grandparents to just all the community. Just rallying around this kid, who was so unbelievably loved.”

Following that terrible December 2012 day, Zac moved in with the Kiebooms briefly. Christmas morning got here three days after his mom’s homicide. His father was nonetheless on the run. The hours, Zac mentioned, had been cut up between numbness and a pointy, painful grief.

However on that morning, everybody confirmed up. Zac mentioned that they acquired greater than 300 presents. Folks got here in to ship them and pay their respects.

Zac went again to taking part in baseball simply two months after his mother’s dying. About 10 days after the homicide, his grandmother, Helen Pullium, moved to the world from Alabama and rented a house close by in order that Zac may end highschool there. At a time when every part was unsure, everybody was attempting to tiptoe round him, he may depend on baseball to remain the identical.

“He allowed people into his life, and it just made him that much better,” Carter Kieboom mentioned.

As a reliever for Georgia, Kristofak — right here pitching in opposition to LSU in 2017 — reached the NCAA event twice earlier than the Angels chosen him within the 2019 draft. (John Korduner / Icon Sportswire through AP Photographs)

Zac didn’t go far for school. He attended the College of Georgia, and helped the Bulldogs attain the NCAA Match twice in three years, working as each a starter and a better at varied factors.

He saved in contact with the individuals who had been there for him. And everybody was thrilled when Kristofak was drafted by the Angels in 2019, within the 14th spherical.

Merely reaching Rocket Metropolis, taking part in in Double A, is an accomplishment. The primary few years of Kristofak’s professional profession had been robust. COVID disadvantaged him, and plenty of others, of competitors in 2020. The yr after, he struggled, posting a 6.14 ERA in 44 innings out of the bullpen. He left that yr not realizing if he’d get one other shot.

Since then, Kristofak has steadily risen by means of the Angels system. The entrance workplace was so impressed with him that he was in consideration for a major-league call-up earlier this season earlier than an elbow damage shelved him in June. He watches and follows each Angels sport. He needs to be part of it.

Making the majors sometime is about greater than fulfilling his personal dream. It’s about altering the narrative of his household’s identify.

“I’ll get to write my own story,” Kristofak mentioned this summer season, sitting on a restaurant patio overlooking his house advanced in Alabama. “I think that what I want to do, more than anything in life, is rewrite the Kristofak name.”

Kristofak needs to be often called a baseball participant. He needs to be recognized for the neighborhood that lifted him up after his mom’s homicide — not for the person locked up in Hays State Jail for the remainder of his life.

“I know that if my mom were here right now,” Kristofak mentioned, “she would be really proud of my brother and I.”

Whereas Kristofak is now snug discussing his mom’s homicide, the remainder of his household nonetheless isn’t. Harrison declined to speak for this story, as did Zac’s different members of the family. However Harrison and Zac discuss weekly, and often go to one another.

“He’s the only person that really understands what I’m going through. So there’s …” Zac mentioned, earlier than pausing to attempt to determine the best phrases. “It’s hard to explain, honestly.

“There’s a mutual understanding that no matter what, we will always have each other’s backs. I could go my whole life without saying it, and we would both know it.”


One in all Kristofak’s most vivid early reminiscences is watching a Braves sport along with his mom, and telling her that he needed to be an MLB participant. (Patrick Breen for The Athletic)

When Kristofak completed sharing his story along with his teammates earlier this season, Dashwood, considered one of Kristofak’s closest buddies on the workforce, approached him. He was the emotional one, telling Kristofak that sharing his story that manner revealed his character.

“He gained an unbelievable amount of respect — on top of the respect everybody already has for him,” mentioned Angels prospect Kenyon Yovan, Kristofak’s Double-A roommate. “Everyone is always there for him.”

Kristofak needs to be an open e book. He believes his story may assist individuals get by means of their very own painful moments.

“I think he understands his purpose a little better than most of us,” mentioned Boyer. “I think Zac truly wants to help people that are hurting.

“His scars are what make him incredible.”

It’s not all the time straightforward for Kristofak after video games. He sees gamers celebrating with their dad and mom. On Moms Day, Fathers Day.

Rocket Metropolis would have been an ideal place for him to play. It’s so near the place he grew up. As a substitute, he’s continually reminded that his father is a two-hour drive away, serving a life sentence after pleading responsible to malice homicide and possession of a firearm throughout fee of a felony.

Kristofak has by no means visited his father in jail, and whereas he says he has forgiven him, the anger and frustration are nonetheless palpable.

“It’s not fair,”Kristofak mentioned. “Even though he’ll never walk a sidewalk again or never be a member of society ever again. He gets to breathe. And she doesn’t. That’s not fair.”

A lot of the protection of the case centered on the breaking information — the stunning homicide and the fugitive seize.

It by no means centered on Donna, and what she meant to her kids. That’s how Kristofak remembers her. He acknowledged that he’s scared to get older and have these reminiscences fade. However he plans to have a household of his personal in the future. He needs to be an unimaginable father. And he needs to have youngsters who will study, and respect, the grandmother they may by no means meet.

The day he turned 18, he memorialized her with a big “D.N.K.” tattoo on his left wrist.

One in all Kristofak’s most vivid early reminiscences of Donna is sitting subsequent to her, watching an Atlanta Braves sport. He was 5 years outdated, watching Chipper Jones play in opposition to the Florida Marlins, when he turned to her and mentioned: “I want to be a Major League Baseball player.”

Making the large leagues definitely received’t change what occurred. However reaching that degree — placing on an Angels uniform with Kristofak sewn on the again — will imply one thing that maybe solely Kristofak and his mom may absolutely perceive.

“I can put the light into it,” Kristofak mentioned of his story. “Because there is light.”

(High picture: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; Photographs: Patrick Breen for The Athletic)

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