Friday, February 25, 2011

Evil Takes Center Stage

It was 30 years ago today that Toledo police discovered a body in The State Theater that I wrote about yesterday.

The body belonged to Dawn Rene Backes - a 12-year-old seventh grader who had disappeared 4 days earlier.

Dawn was last seen with some friends at a pizza parlor at Central and Secor. When a mix-up left her stranded there without a ride around 10:30 PM that Saturday night, she attempted to walk home on her own.

She never made it.

Her frozen body was discovered in a basement corridor leading to the lounge and the dressing rooms once used by the stage performers.

Investigators say she had been brutally raped and tortured for an undetermined length of time before having her head crushed with a cement block.

An anonymous caller had told the police where to find her in the abandoned theater.

It would be nearly 20 years before her killers would be identified....

I don't recall reading any of this story when it first hit the presses in 1981. At the time I was in college, some 20 miles away. I think I was still getting and reading the Toledo newspaper every day, but it was only while I was recently researching my old neighborhood that the story really jumped up and slapped me in the face.

It was only then that I realized that this was the theater my sister and I had walked by about 15 years earlier.

It was only then that I realized that this was the theater that my then 13-year-old sister had walked by twice a day for 180 days while she was a freshman at our nearby district high school.

Although I never met Dawn (and most likely never would have even if she had lived), it seems as if she easily could have been my own sister - my own sister being one of the meekest people I've ever met and hardly a match for anyone intent on committing such an utterly evil crime.

Chilling, to say the least.

And the more I learned and thought about this crime, the more chilling it became.

I knew the area where Dawn had apparently had her last meal well. It was a major shopping center called Westgate - one of the places we shopped when I was a child and we weren't in the mood to shop downtown.

Just 2 or 3 years before Dawn disappeared, I myself had been stranded in that area at night because of a mix-up with a ride - and I had almost decided to try to walk home on my own before deciding to try to call a cab one last time instead....

And just a very few years before that, I had been stranded after dark near The State itself. The team chess tournament at the nearby high school that I briefly referred to in my last entry had ended late and for some reason I was left without a ride a home. I still lived on Cherry St. at that time and seriously thought about walking home by myself - a walk that would have taken me right by The State. I decided to head in the other direction instead and try to catch a bus....

Had things played out just a little bit differently, it could have been my body that ended up in the bowels of The State.

Needless to say, this is not the way things ought to be.

It certainly was not the way things were when The State Theater first opened back on November 29, 1927.

A Toledo News-Bee story published the next day tells me that "Capacity crowds were in attendance at three performances marking dedication of the new Fleischman-Kroetz State theater on Collingwood avenue Tuesday night. Everyone present was lavish in praise of the new theater and the excellent program presented. The house is without exception not alone the most beautiful neighborhood theater in Toledo, but excels in many ways a majority of like size theaters in the country. Beautifully appointed and decorated, it at once offers the ultimate in luxury and restful atmosphere. This is enhanced by a system of indirect lighting. Featured in the opening program were the new State orchestra.... The vaudeville specialty offered was the Rega and Teddy Caruso varieties, an act containing six experts in the realm of singing and the dance. Two short reels of color and comedy, together with the feature picture, The Cheer Leader, with Ralph Graves in the featured role, filled out the bill. The policy of the new house will be a tri-weekly change of pictures and vaudeville acts. The State orchestra and the new $25,000 organ with elevator console will be featured at all performances.... Shows will be continuous from 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. Sunday and holiday matinees will be from 1:30 p.m. continuously."

A story in the October 25, 1933 edition of the Toledo News-Bee tells me that hundreds of under-privileged kids up to the age of 12 would soon be enjoying a free performance of "The King of the Golden River" at The State. The young people putting on the show had come all the way from New York City.

How in the world did a place of such beauty and vitality become an abandoned eyesore in just 50 years? By what fiendish process are palaces devoted to comedy and song and dance transformed into the dilapidated haunts of child killers? Exactly what kind of universe allows the pleasant chatter of professional clowns and musicians and children getting ready in their dressing rooms to be replaced by the screams of a young girl being raped and tortured to death?

In an attempt to glean some deeper understanding of what is going on here, I've collected and studied the following series of photos:

Circa 1935

Circa 1945



No matter how long or hard I stare, understanding of any kind continues to elude me....

And of course there's more - there's *always* more.

On September 30, 1991 - some 58 years after young people performed and enjoyed a fairy tale play on the stage and a decade after Dawn's body was discovered in the basement - a 16-year-old student from nearby Scott High School was stabbed to death in front of The State while his friends watched helplessly....

After numerous attempts to restore the theater to a usable condition ended up going nowhere, The State Theater was demolished in 1995. The site is now an empty lot.

Circa 2007

There are worse things in life than empty lots, of course.

Still, I can't help but feel that such a place with such a history deserves much better than this.

If people have been moved to erect a huge church on the site where they believe Jesus was crucified, why haven't they been moved to erect even a small memorial on the site where a 12-year-old girl suffered what seems to have been an even worse form of death?

If 2000 years haven't been enough to erase the brutal demise of Julius Caesar from the mind of man, why have a very few years apparently been enough to erase the brutal demise of an innocent child?

An aerial view of the area reveals that a path has been worn across the empty lot, perhaps by students taking a short-cut from Collingwood to the nearby high school.

How many of those traveling this path have any inkling that a man-made hell existed there, just a few feet beneath their feet, in the not-so-distant past?

In the final analysis, perhaps ignorance and forgetfulness are for the best. Indeed, perhaps they are the only things that allow us to keep going. A world full of markers commemorating each and every act of fatal violence might soon become a world in which movement is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

If that's what you believe, by all means please feel free to unread this entry.

If you'd rather ponder the extremely problematic and fragile nature of life on this planet instead and then share any insights you might have, please feel free to do that, too.


  1. I'm surprised the web doesn't seem to offer any legible images of the multitude of "Life is Fragile, Handle with Care" posters that decorated mid-Michigan in those days.

  2. Interesting Blade article about Mrs. Thatcher's husband on the same front page with murdered Dawn.
    The saying tells us, "Idle hands are the devil's workshop." It seems more apt to say idle buildings are the devil's workshop. Idle hands just supply the labor.
    Speaking of Labour, Mr. Thatcher is described as a retired oil executive, which I take to mean he was a spy, like Bush the Elder. The oil bidness lets a person encounter sleazy people in sleazy countries so it's the perfect cover for intelligence gathering without drawing attention.
    It's also interesting to see the headline about the Fed calling for a reduction in government spending. Just the opposite of today. Also, on page 2, a bank is advertising 6-month money market CDs for 13.861% interest. I assume there is a catch, but what we now know as the APR is probably still well over 10%.
    Gold was probably selling for around $300 as an inflation hedge.
    I'll stop now. Did Dawn have any brothers or sisters?

    1. No Dawn was an only child

  3. *Shudder*

    I'm of the opinion we should make note of those who've suffered, but.... not to the point of obsession and paralysis. Would a marker noting her agonized death help other children become more aware of their surroundings and who lurks with dark thoughts? I dunno. That poor child! Do future articles say who killed her?

    And point taken about her massive suffering, with no parents or friends standing by to give comfort to her in her last hour, like Jesus supposedly had, he who was, if the Bible is to be believed, a full-grown adult.

    I also read that article about Reagan calling for a freeze on govt. hiring, retroactively! And for SMALLER GOVERNMENT. Feh! Do we NEVER learn? (I guess not...)

  4. FYI: Dawn Backus and the other 8 victims who were taken from us by the Cook brothers are not forgotten. Just because there hasnt been a marker erected in her memory doesn't mean Dawn and the other victims families and loved ones have erased them from their memories. More than 30 years have passed and the pain and heartache still remains. Some of Dawn's friends held a remembrance for her and the other 8 victims at Gesu tonight. It is obvious that Dawn and the others have not been forgotten. How could you forget such pain!