By NICOLE BRODEUR
We sat in the sun to talk, which made us both happy, since so much of what brought Eli Sanders and me to this meeting was steeped in darkness:
The sweltering July night in 2009 when Jennifer Hopper and Teresa Butz were repeatedly raped, tortured and knifed in their South Park neighbourhood home in Seattle by an intruder who had appeared in their bedroom at 3am, naked and holding a large blade.
The death of Butz, who was stabbed in the heart and died in the street after throwing a nightstand through the bedroom window and scrambling out.
The mind of Isaiah Kalebu, the man convicted of the crimes, dimmed by dysfunction, mental illness and evil.
And America’s mental-health and judicial systems, poorly equipped to monitor the sick and dangerous, or to make the connections that could protect and save lives.
Sanders, the associate editor of The Stranger, a weekly news magazine in Seattle, has written about it all in his new book, While The City Slept: A Love Lost To Violence And A Young Man’s Descent Into Madness.
Sanders, 38, covered the case for The Stranger from the beginning, and in 2012 won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for The Bravest Woman In Seattle, a riveting narrative lynchpinned by Hopper’s unflinching testimony at Kalebu’s murder trial.
Sanders took Hopper with him to New York when he collected the Pulitzer from Columbia University.
“That story could not exist without her testimony,” Sanders said of Hopper then, “and without her having gotten up there and having the strength and will and capacity to speak so bravely.”
He recalls being “awe-struck” at her composure, and how, at certain points during her testimony, he and others in the courtroom were moved to tears by what Hopper and Butz endured.
“It was immediately clear that something needed to be written about it,” he says now.
The book goes beyond the courtroom drama – which ended with a life sentence for Kalebu – and delves into both women’s background, through interviews with relatives and friends.
Butz, 39, was from St Louis, and was raised in a large, boisterous, musical family. Her brother was a Broadway star, her parents devoted Catholics who struggled with her sexuality. Hopper was from New Mexico, raised by a single mother and her grandparents in Seattle. She found stability and a sanctuary in singing. Her voice was noticed early on, and while her Broadway dreams didn’t materialise, she continues to perform.
The book also chronicles Kalebu’s troubled childhood. His strict Ugandan father, who beat him. His mother, who suffered her own anguish.
Through the stories of these people, and that awful, fateful night, the book points out the flaws in the mental-health and legal systems that allowed Kalebu to slip far through the cracks. So far, that he made a court appearance on another charge just days after the attacks. He still had the women’s blood on his jacket. And he remained free.
“He had a very challenging path,” Sanders says of Kalebu. “And mental-health issues. And he encountered failure after failure of the system to help intervene.
“These are our systems,” he says. “We can get mad at them, but we create them. We elect the people that run them. And we don’t demand more of them.
“If we did, they would change.”
There has been some progress in Washington state’s Assisted Outpatient Treatment Program, which allows those with mental illness to remain free while also being monitored.
It is similar to New York state’s Kendra’s Law, which established a clear system for when mentally ill people decline help but show a threat. They can be monitored or involuntary committed.
“There’s a model out there,” Sanders says. “New York has proven that it saves taxpayers’ money to invest in preventive interventions.
“Washington state has increased its investment in mental-health treatment. But it’s not enough.”
The state’s court system, too, is in dire need of repair, especially the computer networks that failed to track Kalebu’s status.
“It’s outrageous that in the state that birthed Microsoft, judges’ computers can’t talk to each other effectively,” Sanders says. “At the same time, we have given Microsoft billions in tax breaks.
“To me, that crystallises the backward thinking behind our tax structure and spending priorities,” he says. “So maybe human stories bring that home, somehow.”
Sanders isn’t sure who will read the book beyond those in Seattle who remember the case, criminal and mental-health professionals; those who know and love Hopper and love and mourn Butz; and Kalebu and his family.
“I would hope lawmakers in the state will read it,” Sanders says. “I would love if state lawmakers would realise the cost of slashing mental-health resources every time they run out of money.
“If we’ve succeeded, bad things don’t happen.”
Spending this much time with the story, and the details of it, had an impact on Sanders, who married his doctor husband, Colin, last summer.
Trouble sleeping. Anxiety. A lingering sadness.
“It has not been easy,” he says, “and one way that I cope is to remind myself that there are other people – Jennifer, Isaiah’s mother – living with this much more than I am. And they are getting up and moving on in much more inspiring ways.”
Whether it has changed him, well, “That answer is going to reveal itself in time.”
“I still feel inside this project,” he says. “I still feel a rawness around it that can be difficult.”
But today, there was sun. – The Seattle Times/Tribune News Service