A former police chief explores how the system failed her sister — and rural Missouri
In 2013, Betty Frizzell’s sister was charged with murder. Frizzell’s 2021 memoir, “If You Can’t Quit Cryin’, You Can’t Come Here No More,” explores the aftermath of the crime that left her brother-in-law dead, Frizzell’s investigation into what really happened, her growing doubts about her sister’s culpability and her interactions with the man she believes really did it.
But more than that, Frizzell’s story is the story of her family — a small-town Missouri clan so dysfunctional, Frizzell ultimately decided she had no choice but to move far, far away. As she explains in the introduction to the book, her sister is far from the first Frizzell to face a murder rap: “Murder is generational in our family.” Combine the family’s tendency to a quick temper with huge amounts of opioids, and violence was inevitable.
Frizzell is the former police chief of Winfield, Missouri, and now works as an investigator for the state of Washington. As she explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, her sister Vicky Isaac had been involved in the regional pro wrestling circuit, and both she and her eventual husband, Chris, had no problem getting painkillers in large quantities.
“She kept telling me these are prescribed pills, this is a doctor that prescribed them,” Frizzell explained. “But I knew from my time in law enforcement what a rabbit hole that can be, what a person can fall into.”
For Isaac, opioids soon became a debilitating addiction. Frizzell tried to intervene, as she tried to intervene when Isaac was beaten by both her husband and grown son. But nothing worked. It wasn’t until Isaac was charged with murder — a murder Frizzell is now convinced she didn’t commit — that she was able to escape the abuse and also detox in jail.
Isaac is now serving a life sentence plus 25 years. Despite her sister’s advocacy, the judge didn’t cut her any breaks for her history of mental illness, low IQ or the abuse she’d suffered. Ironically, Frizzell acknowledged, Isaac is actually in a better place today than she was before her incarceration.
“The first time I saw her in prison was in Chillicothe,” she recalled. “She was prettier than I had seen her in years. She was happier, there was a glow about her — and that’s sad that your outside world was so terrifying that going to prison brought you happiness.”
Frizzell believes the system failed her sister, going back to when she was a child suffering physical abuse at the hands of their mother. Never once prior to prison, she said, was Isaac able to get help.
“She had issues that were being dealt with [by way of] corrections sentences instead of, like, ‘Let's see what the root of this is, let's get you into therapy and try to find out why you're this person,’” she said. “There wasn't a mental health court. Missouri is lacking in a lot of mental health courts. I'm glad there are some in the bigger cities, but in the rural part, there's nothing.”
As the youngest of eight children, most with different fathers, Frizzell grippingly recounts growing up poor and becoming aware that others considered their family “white trash.” In some ways, she was blessed in a way her older sister, Isaac, was not; her mother singled Frizzell out as the one marked for big things. And sure enough, she was able to make her way out of the dysfunction and to a successful career.
She credited church and school as refuges that helped her see there was another way to live. “When you're in that situation, you don't see it as violent. It's just Tuesday. It's just Wednesday,” she said. “You know, I didn't understand how much post-traumatic stress disorder I had until I got older.”
The title of Frizzell’s book comes from something Isaac said the first time her sister visited her in prison: “If you can’t quit cryin’, you can’t come here no more.”
Said Frizzell, “In our family we were conditioned not to cry. We're country Missouri girls. We don't cry. We hunt, we fish, we’re strong. But something about seeing her so desperate and so vulnerable in a system … I know what happens when people go to prison. I know how people can get abused and I know what goes on. I couldn't quit crying.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.