Monday, February 28, 2011

The Rest Of The Story

As I mentioned in my last entry, those responsible for the 1981 murder of Dawn Rene Backes back weren't identified until nearly 20 years later.

It turns out that the culprits were two brothers who were also responsible for the brutal murders of at least 8 other people.

Most of those people were killed in or near the neighborhoods where I spent the first 20 years of my life. Although I can't prove it, it seems highly likely that my path crossed those of the murderers and their victims many times.

I do know that our paths crossed at least several times.

The earliest known victim was Vicky Small, a 22-year-old woman who lived about half a mile away from me. On a cold December night in 1973 just a few months before I took the pictures of The Big House that was being demolished across the street from me, Vicky's car got stuck in the snow at the corner of Mark and Cherry a few blocks to my south. While I slept, a man stopped to help her. Vicky's badly abused body was found the next day in Ottawa Park.

I was a freshman in high school at the time. The bus I rode to and from school took me up and down Cherry past the site of her disappearance twice a day.

The area of Ottawa Park where her body was found is across the street from St. Francis High School, a place I played chess at with my high school team - just as I played chess at the high school close to where Dawn's body was found.

Three years after Vicky's murder, I moved to an apartment quite close to Ottawa Park. I walked through that park - once - completely ignorant at the time of her murder. While on a trail that went through the woods, I noticed a branch a few yards off the path shaking wildly. I stopped and stared. There wasn't any wind. There weren't any birds or squirrels or other animals to be seen. There was just this bush or tree branch rustling crazily, then stopping, then going crazy again. I thought at the time that someone must have tied a hard-to-see fishing line to the branch and was fucking with me - maybe trying to distract my attention so they or an accomplice could attack me from behind, or maybe in an attempt to lure me off the path. I quickly walked on. I was glad I did at the time. I'm even gladder now....

The murderers seem to have struck next in May of 1980. That's when Tom Gordon and his girlfriend were targeted just two blocks east of Cherry not far from the Moose Lodge I've written about before here and here. It was an area just a few blocks away from where an aunt of mine used to live, an area I'd visited often. Miraculously, Tom's girlfriend survived being stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick but Tom's body was found near Central and McLean. During junior high, my class traveled right by that site once a week as our school bus took us to a school that had the shop and home economics facilities that our home school did not....

In January, 1981, the murderers targeted Connie Sue Thompson, a 19-year-old girl who was hitchhiking along the same area of Cherry St. where Vicky Small had last been seen alive trying to get her car out of the snow. Connie's brutalized body was eventually found in a culvert in western Lucas County.

In February, 1981, Dawn was brutally murdered at The State Theater (as previously detailed in my last entry). It turns out that she was snatched off the street near the University of Toledo while trying to walk home by herself at night from Westgate (probably following a route that I myself had taken while learning how to drive).

In the winter or early spring of 1977, I attended an evening banquet at the University of Toledo with a teacher and a few of my peers from high school. When it was over, I was disturbed to discover that our teacher-driver wouldn't drop me off at my home a few minutes away by car to the north. I seriously considered walking the mile or so by myself in the dark. Had I done so, I would have crossed the path Dawn (and her murderers) would take a few years later. Instead, I allowed the teacher to take me along with my peers back to our school in a near-downtown urban wasteland. That teacher quickly abandoned us. As most of the others scattered, I was offered a ride home by my sole remaining dinner companion - a companion whose wreck of a car refused to start the first ten times he tried. I honestly never expected to get home again. I was surprised back then that I actually did. I'm even more surprised now.

In August, 1981, Stacey Balonek and Daryle Cole were attacked on Doyle Street. Stacey and Daryle were exactly my age. Doyle Street is only about twice as far east of my old Central home as The Ohio Theater and quite near Woodward High School (which my mother graduated from). I can just make Woodward out in the top center of the aerial view I posted here. (Woodward is straight up from where I have The Ohio marked.) Doyle Street runs left to right about where the top of the photo cuts off. Stacey and Daryle were beaten to death with a baseball bat. Their bodies were found by the railroad tracks that run under Central - once again, the same general area that my school bus took me past week after week during junior high....

It was during a September, 1981 attack on three people that one of the murderous brothers slipped up badly and was caught. That attack was one of the few that occurred in a part of town I had no connection with.

In the late 1990s, the development of DNA testing allowed authorities to re-examine the evidence and connect the dots in a way that hadn't been possible in the 1970s and 1980s. The murderous brothers struck a bargain: We'll confess and reveal how we killed all these people if we're only charged with killing Tom Gordon. Prosecutors agreed. The details and impact of this deal can be found in a set of stories that were published by the Toledo Blade on April 7, 2000.


What conclusions do I draw from all this?

1) The world is not only a dangerous place - it's a more dangerous place than we realize. Is that ignorance a good thing? If we had it within our power to discover *everything* that has ever happened in *every* house on our street, would we want to use it or would we quickly come to the conclusion that a certain amount of ignorance is necessary to preserve our sanity?

2) When the horrible becomes a regular occurrence, we adjust and forget just how horrible it really is. I am reminded of the story about the frog that jumps out of hot water when dumped into it but calmly allows itself to be boiled to death in a pan of slowly heated water. I first read that story in Thomas Friedman's book, From Beirut To Jerusalem. For him, it summed up the situation of people during the Lebanese civil war. At first, people in Beirut were shocked to know that fighting was occurring anywhere in the country; in the end, they only sat up and took notice if the gunfire was occurring in their own building. Growing up in Toledo now seems uncomfortably similar to having grown up in Lebanon. It's only after having lived for many years in neighborhoods where murders almost never occur that I realize just what a violent place Toledo really was - and remains. (This webpage sharpens the point.)

3) One small neighborhood can give rise to both very good and very bad people. We as a society don't seem as interested as we should be in finding out what factors are responsible for creating the good and the bad and then doing all we can to increase the former and reduce the latter.

(SIDE NOTE: The murderers were black; all the victims were white. The police investigators seem to believe that race played a role in who was targeted. The sort of racial hatred that seems to have motivated these attacks is the same sort of racial hatred I sensed existed in the black man who casually attempted to run me down one morning when I was attempting to cross Cherry. [For more details, see the entry I posted here. For all I know, the driver might have been one of the serial killers.] In retrospect, it's clear that Toledo was one of the most racist and racially tense cities I've ever lived in. As long as such racial tensions exist, Very Bad Things are bound to happen.)

4) Mental illness needs to be treated, not ignored. According to a book written by the lead police investigator, the main culprit in these murders attempted suicide when he was 16. In the 1970s, that culprit was diagnosed as schizophrenic. While in prison for armed robbery, he does not seem to have received the treatment he needed. As has happened many times before and since, our society ended up paying a terrible price as a result.

5) Poverty breeds killers. The brothers responsible for these terrible crimes grew up poor in a family of 9 kids being raised by a divorced mother. Is anyone surprised to discover that these killers weren't millionaires - or even from the middle class? Healthy, happy people generally don't go on killing sprees. Money increases the odds that people will be healthy and happy. It seems to me that it's an extremely short-sighted society that tolerates pockets of extreme poverty. (And it's an extremely confused and self-destructive society that simultaneously tolerates pockets of extreme poverty AND demonizes contraceptives and abortion.)

6) Not all murders are granted the same amount of attention. New York's David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam") killed 6 people and got a lot of publicity. The two men I've been writing about killed more people, yet I've only recently realized the extent of their crimes despite being a native of the very area where they committed their awful deeds. WTF? How is that we we often hear more about a killing in Iraq or Afghanistan than we do about a killing in our own town?

7) Not all murderers are punished the same way. Some kill a single person and are executed; some kill many people and aren't. In this case, one of the culprits is scheduled to be released in 7 years (at which time he'll be about 60). How is justice served by such wild discrepancies? How can anyone claim that the death penalty serves as a deterrent when its application seems so inconsistent and random?

All of which leaves at least one issue I haven't been able to come to any conclusion about yet: Was I cursed by Fate to have had to grow up in such a violent and dangerous world or have I rather led a charmed existence because I've managed to make it past the age 50 relatively unscathed? Have I been shadowed by evil or blessed by luck? Or both? I guess my answer depends on the mood I'm in at any given time.

When you review the events of your own life, how do YOU answer those sorts of questions?


  1. Can we call it luck that you didn't have a girlfriend? Most of the murdered boys were with girls, weren't they?

    " I guess my answer depends on the mood I'm in at any given time. "

    Dude. Is this a test? Where is AAUB and what have you done with him or her? It's March 1st, not April 1st.

    I hope you can reason your way out of those moods you mentioned. I know moods can be stubborn things that resist logic.

    How do I answer those sorts of questions? Analytically, like you normally would.

    What is luck? Luck doesn't cause anything to happen. Luck is a description of what DID happen. Luck's only reality is adjectival about the past.

    I can relate to a feeling of relief at surviving a perilous situation, especially after finding out it was more dangerous than was known at the time.

    But luck? Did you beat any odds? Even if you did beat odds, didn't you do it by employing sufficient intelligence and agility at key moments to evade the peril. That's what I think. And the girlfriend thing.

    While I was reading this I was constantly tempted to leave a comment like this: "I'm going to go say a prayer of thanks to God for watching over you every day on those dangerous streets."

    Then you said practically the same thing.

    On the other hand, if you want to feel even more meloncholic and ambivalent about life, try reading Lincoln's recent diary entries.

  2. Luck in the funny papers:

    My last captcha was proode.

  3. Did ancient Buckeyes construct that lamp post to align with something at the Equinox?
    You should check where the tip of its shadow falls on the last day of Winter.
    Maybe you'd find a geocache-like message in a bottle foretelling doom in 2012 if a Croation-American is governor at the time.

  4. Your reflections concluding this saga are thoughtful and don't deserve glib answers. Poverty does breed crime, and perhaps mental illness, too, but I also think that racism is behind the poverty, born of both discrimination, lack of resources, limited opportunities, possible malnutrition making for stunted intellect...

    It's an odd coincidence, but I found myself concerned with the effects of blatant racism just recently, and I'm unsure how exactly to deal with it. My one ray of hope is that I'm sure that future generations will bear less racism than we've had in the past.

    "(And it's an extremely confused and self-destructive society that simultaneously tolerates pockets of extreme poverty AND demonizes contraceptives and abortion.)"

    Hear, hear! My thoughts, exactly!

  5. I don't know if I would call it luck per say. I can remember one time when I rightfully should have died, if not for the kindness of 3 anonymous women I may not be here today.

    There are days when I am happy I was rescued by those women and there are days when I hate the fact that they took the time to return me to a place where I was obviously not being cared for and abandoned me there. However, that is just life.

    Good or bad life is what we make of it. I am of the mind that what happens will happen and there isn't any way to avoid it if it is meant to happen. Not fate per say but a rational progression of our choices such as they are. Some people call it callous or cold, I prefer to think of it as realism.

    I, for one, can state in no uncertain terms that I am grateful you are here. Without you I may not have made it through some very turbulent times so perhaps you were meant to be here.

    we can all while away our days wondering "what if?" What if I had walked? What if I had turned left? What if I had taken the blue pill instead of the red? Ultimately, it won't provide us with edification on where we are now. I believe it is better to mourn the passing of those who are gone, seek justice on their behalf if it is warranted, and then move on with our lives.

    Forgetting is important to humans, blinders are something most people cannot bear to live without. Those of us without blinders are doomed to forever see the ultimate cruelty of the world we live in but dwelling on it will only hold us back.

    It is up to us who see things as they are to try and fix them, an insurmountable task surely, but one we can at least try to advance in our lifetime.

    I agree with everything you said.

    Answering questions such as you asked is impossible because we won't ever have enough information to adequately examine the evidence. I've learned that slogging onward through our troubles in hopes of a better tomorrow is sometimes the only thing we can do. =)