Skip to main content
Original Issue

Great Escape With her father in prison for murder, rising star Toccara Montgomery found refuge on the mat

Inside the closed-security Lebanon Correctional Institution in
southwestern Ohio, inmate Paul Montgomery solemnly refuses to
calculate the days remaining before he is eligible for parole in
February 2032. "Too many," he says. "Can't tell them apart." His
personal effects are another matter. Lebanon stipulates that an
inmate's personal belongings fit in a 2.4-cubic-foot box. Once
the box fills up, a prisoner typically has to get rid of
something if he wants to add anything else, even an item as small
as a newspaper clipping. So if your daughter gets voted 2001
international female wrestler of the year, and if she's one of
the U.S.'s best hopes for a gold medal at the Nov. 2-3 world
championships in Greece--where women's wrestling will make its
Olympic debut in 2004--you carefully count and reread the growing
number of clippings about her, aware that you soon may have to
throw some away. "Won't have room in my box if she keeps making
history," says Montgomery, 42. "I'll need a good memory."

Toccara Montgomery is the talk of her sport. At 19, she is quick
on her feet and, at 5'6" and 158 pounds, stronger than any other
woman wrestler her size. She emerged as a star last year,
defeating three former world champions. After her second-place
finish at the world championships in Bulgaria, she became the
first American to be named top female wrestler in the world by
the sport's international governing body. Montgomery still needs
work on her technical skills, especially in the par terre (on
mat) position, but her talent seems limitless. When she tossed
Katie Downing, a capable foe, onto her back at the U.S. nationals
last April, some wrestling aficionados called the five-point
throw the most spectacular they'd ever seen.

If only her father could see her now.

In the 3 1/2 years since he was sent to prison for 30 years to
life for a double murder, Paul Montgomery has been sustained by
memories of his daughter. He can remember when she was eight and
he would take her to the library near their home in Cleveland so
they could both stock up on books. When he worked weekends
cleaning offices, she would join him; he can remember how she
would sit at a desk and play with the phones.

Paul calls his daughter Puff, for her chubby cheeks, and he can
remember the mornings when she would sneak up behind him and he
would flip her over and start tickling her. In a letter he
received from her last year, she wrote, "I'm bigger now and I'm
quicker. I can take you."

"That's my Puff," he says now, fighting back tears as he recalls
the words.

On each letter he sends to her, he writes ALWAYS AND FOREVER on
the back of the envelope. It signals the endurance of his love
for his daughter, but it also spells out the depth of his regret
for what happened on the night of Oct. 3, 1998.

At around nine that evening, Paul, who had served a total of 10
months in prison in the 1980s for two felony convictions--one for
assault and the other for receiving stolen property and
possession of criminal tools--rode with one of his nephews to an
apartment complex on Cleveland's east side to visit Paul's older
brother Ken. While his nephew was parking the car, Paul says two
men confronted him on the sidewalk as he approached Ken's unit
and offered to sell him drugs. Paul says he passed on the offer,
but an argument began, and one of the strangers pulled out a gun.
Paul says he wrested the gun away in the ensuing struggle, shot
the two men and ran off in a panic, unaware if either was alive
or dead. He drove the three miles home and frantically told his
wife, Tara, what had happened. Toccara, then 15, and her brother,
Patrick, then 6, were asleep in bed. Later that night Paul saw
policemen searching the neighborhood and turned himself in.

The gunshot victims had died. Police never found the gun, and
Paul's nephew and brother said they hadn't seen exactly what
happened in the scuffle, but based on his admission that he had
shot the victims and on his fingerprints' being found on a box of
bullets of the same type used in the shooting, Paul was charged
with two counts of murder. "I know I screwed up," Paul says,
referring to his involvement in the argument that he claims led
to the shooting. "There were 50 million other ways to handle it."

Tara recalls that in the weeks following the shootings, Toccara
kept her emotions bottled up. "She doesn't like to express bad
things about anybody, especially her father," Tara says. "After
the shootings she buried herself more and more. She wasn't
hurting in school, wasn't hurting socially, but she was hurting
inside. She needed to just let it out."

That November, with her father awaiting trial, Toccara found her
release. An honor-roll sophomore at East Tech High in Cleveland,
she heard an announcement over the school's P.A. system that the
new wrestling coach, Kip Flanik, was looking for students to join
his team. Thirty boys and five girls showed up for the first
practice, and Flanik was especially impressed with Toccara, who
was not only naturally talented but also eager to learn. While
other kids used the sessions for freelance scrapping, Toccara
listened, adjusting her stance and grip as instructed.

The day after the team's first intrasquad competition, Toccara's
neck hurt so badly that she had to tilt her head as she spoke to
her concerned mother. "I thought wrestling was Toccara's way of
dealing with the situation," Tara says. "I thought it would end
as soon as it started."

Toccara's neck pain subsided in a week, but her urge to wrestle
didn't. Not that her new hobby was easy. At practices she felt
singled out by Flanik, who seemed to be driving her harder than
other team members. "When he pushed me, I said, 'This man is not
going to make me quit.' Once I realized he was trying to make me
better, I not only respected him, I liked him better."

Her progress was extraordinary. In early 1999 Toccara won a
silver medal at the girls' nationals in Lake Orion, Mich., and
Flanik told her mother that wrestling could one day earn Toccara
a college scholarship and open doors to a larger world. A man of
few means (to supplement his coaching income, he cleaned
abandoned buildings for a foreclosure company), Flanik began
digging into his pockets to pay for Toccara to travel to meets
and training camps. He drove Toccara to tournaments in Amarillo,
Texas; Napa, Calif.; and Guelph, Ont. When they had to fly, he
found $400 flights for $100 through Priceline, and $150-a-night
hotel rooms for $30.

Flanik had grown up in Cleveland, the fourth of six children. His
father, Robert, was a 6'3", 280-pound music teacher who worked
for a vending company on the side. Kip says he dreaded the days
when his father would drag him along to service the machines,
because Kip always seemed to get beaten for doing something
wrong. One afternoon while the two were out servicing machines, a
man robbed Robert at gunpoint and killed him with one shot.

"It's cold to admit this," Kip says, "but that was one of the
best days of my life. No one has any concept of the incredible
abuse I had to take. He would kick us kids, stomp us, hit us with
anything he could find. When I was 10, he hit me so hard in a
restaurant that I peed on myself, and he made me sit in it. When
my father was killed, I began to have a life."

Kip started wrestling in eighth grade, the year Robert died, and
the wrestling room became his oasis. Now he was hoping it would
become Toccara's.

His financial burden eased in the summer of 2000, when Sunkist
Kids, an Arizona-based wrestling club, agreed to fund Toccara's
equipment and travel expenses. USA Wrestling also began providing
a $400 monthly stipend. That year, as a senior at East Tech,
Montgomery won her first national open title, in Las Vegas, at
149 pounds.

Toccara earned an athletic scholarship to Cumberland College in
Williamsburg, Ky., and last fall became the first in her family
to attend a university. Flanik took a job there as a graduate
assistant, for $600 a month, and later as coach of the women's
club team in order to work with her.

During his four years working with Toccara, the father figure has
never met the father. Flanik wants to but worries he might upset
the family dynamic. Not until June did the two men speak by
phone. They complimented each other awkwardly on Toccara.

Until last summer Toccara had had little more than perfunctory
telephone talks with her father since he had gone to prison and
had visited him only once. She was still angry about what he had
taken from the family. "Who'll be there if my mom needs something
when I'm away?" she said in June. "Who's going to be the male
role model to tell Patrick what's what?" Only recently have their
conversations warmed as she has gradually accepted his remorse
over the toll his imprisonment has taken on his wife and
children. "He wants the best for us," she says.

Inside the prison Paul tries to imagine the life he is missing.
He looks forward to the day during the 2004 Olympics when he
might sit down in front of a prison TV with the Kool-Aid and
popcorn he buys with the money from his job making bumper
stickers. There, he hopes, he will watch his daughter wrestle for
a gold medal. "Puff turned out so beautiful," he says. "I live my
life vicariously through her. Her life is the life I have left."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN HARRISON WORLD-BEATER The 158-pound Montgomery (top) is the first American to be named international wrestler of the year.

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: CHUCK SOLOMON (3) HELPING HANDS With her father (bottom) serving 30 years to life, Toccara has leaned heavily on her mother, Tara, and Coach Flanik (below, left) for support.

Paul dreams of the day when he'll turn on a prison TV and watch
his daughter wrestle in the Olympics.