‘You couldn’t put a price on it’
Maxine Fullerton was a 55-year-old grandmother, genealogy enthusiast and occasional gambler. Being a Christian woman, she’d pray for her family as much as she prayed for the Lord’s touch on whatever slot machine you played. “Aunt Macky” as they called her also loved to sew. She crafted jean purses, lovely quilts and crocheted afghans.
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‘You couldn’t put a price on it’
November 1, 2020
Fullerton worked as a laundress at the Helena State Training School for Boys, a facility built before Oklahoma statehood serving as a school and orphanage before being transformed into a medium-security prison in 1982 and renamed the James Crabtree Correctional Center, after former Ouachita Correctional Center Warden James Crabtree.
On June 6, 1980, while working a shift, Fullerton bought a soda and a candy bar for Keith Armstrong, a 16-year-old boy who was sentenced to serve time at the training school for attempted rape.
The snack was his reward for running an errand.
In turn, Armstrong knocked Fullerton backward out of her sewing chair, raped her and stabbed her with scissors 28 times in the chest and neck. She was found dead in the basement of the laundry room.
Armstrong pleaded guilty to the crime.
Now a white-haired inmate who stands 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 315 pounds, Armstrong is serving a life sentence. His birthday is Dec. 25.
woman he murdered.
Honoring a mother
When her mother was killed, Robbie Fullerton was 23 years old, just out of college and working as a parole officer.
The family lived two houses away from where Mom was murdered. Fullerton worked nights, had completed a shift and went home.
Around 10:30 a.m. an undersheriff knocked on her door.
Moments later, Fullerton looked on as armed police and highway patrol troopers surrounded the Helena State Training School for Boys. Rumors were that a riot broke out.
“I don’t comprehend it,” she said. “And I don’t know of any of my friends or other survivors that I talk to — the question is always 'Why?' and for the most part there is never an answer.”
The course of her own life was set. Fullerton spent years working in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, spearheading the victims services program, communicating with crime victims throughout the state and keeping them abreast of a convict’s whereabouts.
She’s been in every Oklahoma prison.
Those who walked the same tragic path as Fullerton said her work was a lifeline at a time in Oklahoma when they got little information about people who murdered their loved ones.
“There was never a time when you didn’t have access to what was going on in the Department of Corrections,” said Cheryl Huffmaster, whose husband, Darrell E. "Jack" James was murdered in 1985. “I can’t say enough for her program. It’s like you take the weight of the world off a victim’s shoulders. It’s always on the back of your mind. Where are they? What’s going on? You don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
It was Fullerton’s personal and compassionate touch that got so many people through dark days, Huffmaster said.
“You couldn’t put a price on it,” she said. “Robbie had a unique perspective on what DOC could do to help victims that they weren't doing before. She was the victims’ voice to the DOC and DOC’s voice to the victims’ families.”
In some cases, victims wanted mediation — to hear from the offender and muster the strength to accept any apologies offered. Many cases involved a family member committing a crime against another person in the home, and loved ones wanting broken ties mended. It was rewarding but heartbreaking work.
Most recently Fullerton served for a short time on the state Pardon and Parole Board.
“Anything I could do to honor my mother’s memory, I was going to do,” she said.
The other side
Fullerton partakes in a quiet fellowship of grief and grit. For loved ones of murder victims, the sorrow never dies but the determination to honor the dead lives on. One day it’s a hug for the heartbroken. The next day it’s legislation blocked or passed.
The amendment gives constitutional protection to a victim’s right to be notified throughout criminal justice proceedings. It also requires that they receive information about services available to crime victims.
In 2019, lawmakers passed a bill updating existing statutes to mirror the new constitutional rights established by Marsy’s Law.
The legislation requires the attorney general's office to post on its website a comprehensive set of Marsy's Law victims' rights. Those rights are now posted on an updated victims' services page, along with resources that law enforcement agencies across the state can download.
But little victories are largely left unnoticed. No one holds a news conference for those who quietly press on. Sometimes all they want is for someone to listen.
“We’re not looking at the other side,” Fullerton said. “I’m not sure how it’s all going to work out. But I've gotta try.”
In Oklahoma, criminal justice reform advocates celebrated the recent mass release of those imprisoned for so-called “low-level” crimes. The offenders were met with transition fairs and other services.
Fullerton says there are no victimless crimes. She wants to know where the services are for victims and their families. They often need counseling. Many lost a provider and are struggling to pay bills, buy food and send children to college.
Meanwhile, a prisoner can walk out of the penitentiary with job skills, and advocacy groups will help them land employment and go to school.
Like so many others whose lives have been shaped by murder, Fullerton remembers small details about her mother. Maxine Fullerton used to sing and hum around the house. Robbie Fullerton said Mom sounded like a trumpet.
Her favorite Bible verse was Isaiah 54:17 from the King James Version: “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.”
Decades after her mother was murdered, Fullerton’s purpose hasn’t waned. She honors her mother’s life with a website and a newsletter about what she calls “victims’ justice reform.”
Unfortunately, she has an ever-expanding audience. Every day someone new suffers the same fate as her mother.
"It’s a sad story and always will be,” she said. “But I like to think of it more as not just a story, but a life. It did start sadly with no other choice than me and my family embraced it and we made it our destiny. That’s where our story starts, where Mom’s life ended.”