law, lessons learned, psychology, true crime

More thoughts on the Turpin family…

Once again, I realize there are many topics I could write about this morning. The world is in a lot of turmoil, thanks to the pandemic. Europe, in particular, is going through upheavals as COVID-19 cases climb, and fed up Europeans take to the streets to protest new restrictions. I may write about that today or tomorrow, or maybe I’ll put it on the travel blog, which needs more love. But to be honest, what’s really on my mind is the 20/20 special about the Turpin family that Bill and I watched yesterday. I blogged about our initial thoughts yesterday, but now that we’ve had a day to discuss it, and I discovered a December 2019 book review I wrote about the case, I want to write more. The book review reminded me of some details I had forgotten, which weren’t covered in Diane Sawyer’s interview.

I’ll mention again what I wrote yesterday. I am extremely impressed by Jennifer and Jordan Turpin, and their brother, Joshua, who bravely took part in Diane Sawyer’s interview. I realize that what we saw of three of the Turpin children was heavily edited. We have no way of knowing what they are like when they’re not on camera. However, as someone who has a tendency to get very nervous on camera, I must reiterate that the adult children who did participate in the interview are astonishingly bright and resilient.

I was especially moved at the end of the interview, when Jordan and Jennifer mock interviewed each other, asking each other where they saw themselves in ten years. Jennifer Turpin said she wanted to own a house and a car, and write a book. She said she wanted to visit Paris and have tea cakes. I have no doubt she’ll be able to do that if she wants to, and I hope she does write a book.

Jordan strikes me as so very smart, motivated, and curious, and she’s clearly very courageous. She appears to be very extraverted and hungry for life. While I’m sure she’s had some tough times in the almost four years since she rescued her family, she comes across as someone victorious and inspiring. I think she will eventually be just fine.

I do wonder about the other siblings, who haven’t been identified. I don’t blame them for not participating in telling this story. The “fame” that would come from outing themselves might be very damaging. I hope they are doing well, but I am not naive enough to assume that they are.

One thing that I realized in 2018, and wrote about in my post about Elizabeth Smart’s comments regarding this family, is that their situation is more challenging than hers was, simply because the Turpin kids’ parents were the perpetrators of the abuse. Elizabeth Smart went through sheer hell, but her hellish experience lasted nine months, and she had family members, friends, church people, and really, the whole country, looking for her. The Turpin kids, by contrast, were living out their hellish experience and no one knew that they needed help. David and Louise Turpin are now in prison for the rest of their lives, and apparently no one else in the family has come forward to help the children. So they are pretty much on their own, and they don’t have the benefit of having connections with caring relatives or friends to help them navigate the world they have been abruptly thrust into.

Once those kids were finally rescued, after living so many years in that hell, the Turpins were reportedly let down by the authorities and child welfare. I alluded to that possibility in my 2018 post, too. While I haven’t worked in social work for years, I know something about the foster care system. I had a feeling that once the press coverage died down, those kids might end up on their own. In most foster care systems I’ve studied, once a child turns 18, they age out of the system. Some kids are more ready for that than others are, but when you consider that the Turpins knew almost nothing about the world when they were rescued, it becomes easier to realize why they would need more help than other foster children would. Some of the children were too old to be foster kids, anyway.

Oldest brother, Joshua, who was shown in a video that he made with his back to the camera, explains that he needed help with transportation and had asked his caseworker for assistance. She told him to “Google it”. I don’t know the qualifications of Vanessa Espinoza, the deputy public guardian who was charged with helping the six adult children, but it’s clear that she failed at her job. Espinoza also works in real estate, and apparently no longer works for Riverside County. I think that’s a good thing. She clearly didn’t care at all about her clients, and wasn’t interested in helping them. How someone could be involved with helping vulnerable adults, particularly adults from the high profile Turpin case, and let them down so egregiously is beyond my comprehension.

Turpin advocate, and Riverside County Director of Victim Services, Melissa Donaldson, reports that one of the children, who is now an adult, was told by a foster parent that they could understand why her parents chained her up. Some of the other children live in bad neighborhoods or are “couch surfing”. At least one of the minor Turpin children was in a foster home where there were allegations of child abuse and was a victim of said abuse. On the 20/20 special, which was taped in July of this year, Jordan Turpin says she doesn’t have a way to get food. At the time, Jordan had been released from the foster care system without warning, and no plans as to how she might access food, shelter, and healthcare. It was reported at the end of the special that Jordan was getting housing assistance and food stamps with help from the college where she is taking courses.

My guess is that Vanessa Espinoza is not a social worker, and was basically just working in her government job to collect a paycheck. Not to say that social workers are all benevolent and kind, but that field is literally about helping people find and navigate programs that can help them when they are in need and pursue self-determination. Regrettably, social work, as a whole, doesn’t pay particularly well. The job is often stressful and, at times, can even be dangerous. It doesn’t always attract the best and brightest, and burn out is certainly an issue.

In any case, it sounds to me like the Turpins could use a social worker in their corner who acts as their advocate– and I mean a REAL social worker, not someone who is falsely given that title, but has never actually studied social work. In spite of what some people think, social work is an actual field that requires intensive study. My MSW program was 60 hours and required two internships. Had I continued in the field, I would have had to be supervised for two to three more years and sit for two national exams to get fully licensed.

I read a lot of comments from people who are outraged by how the Turpins have been let down by the system. I hope some of those people realize that social welfare programs are necessary and need government support. I’m sorry to bring politics into this, but the fact is, political parties that strip funding from social welfare agencies are partly to blame for situations like what the Turpins are facing. I suspect that California’s system is better than systems in “red” states, and obviously, that is not saying much. God only knows what would have happened to those children if they had been moved to Oklahoma, as was the plan. A lot of people think social work is “church work.” It’s not, and there are enough people who have been victimized by religion, as the Turpin children definitely have been, that my opinion will always be that welfare work, particularly as it pertains to children, should always be secular in nature.

Obviously, though, the Turpins have also run into some good people. Deputy Colace was a true hero to Jordan Turpin, and you can tell how grateful she still is to him. He’s an example of a really good police officer. And the 911 operator, Ms. Eckley, was also extremely helpful and kind to Jordan, as she called for help. It’s so fortunate that the dispatcher was calm and kind and didn’t assume Jordan was pulling a prank or something. As I listened to Jordan speak, and heard the outrageous story, I can understand how some operators might have thought she was lying. Even the deputy seemed to be skeptical of Jordan until she showed him the photos of her sisters in chains. The fact that Jordan thought to take those photos is incredible. She’s clearly a very bright young woman with a strong survival instinct.

And now… something else I want to bring up…

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I discovered a 2019 book review I wrote about the Turpin case. I had completely forgotten some of the backstory regarding the Turpins. It goes all the way back to the 1980s, in West Virginia, where David and Louise Turpin grew up.

Allow me to state upfront that I am not excusing Louise Turpin for her incredibly abusive behavior. She brutalized her children, and that is putting it mildly. There’s no excuse whatsoever for the condition her children were in when they were rescued. BUT… I had forgotten about Louise Turpin’s horrifying upbringing. She and her two sisters were basically prostituted by their mother, Phyllis. Phyllis was the daughter of John Taylor, a World War II “hero” and owner of a Shell gas station in Princeton, West Virginia. The gas station was the only place to get fuel for miles around, so Taylor made a lot of money.

Phyllis was sexually abused by John Taylor. It was so bad that she decided to get married very young, so she could escape her father’s perversions. However, her husband, Wayne Robinette, was a Pentecostal preacher, and didn’t make much money. John Taylor enjoyed “tight hugs” with his daughter and his granddaughters. So, when Phyllis needed money, she would bring her daughters over for a visit with “dear old dad”. He would get his “tight hugs”, and then hand Phyllis a wad of cash. Louise reportedly sometimes protected her younger sisters from the abuse by volunteering. John Taylor’s wife, Mary Louise, apparently either didn’t know about the abuse or turned a blind eye to it. She eventually divorced John when she caught him raping fourteen year old Louise Turpin. However, because she was worried about the family’s reputation and, I suspect, losing access to Taylor’s money, she never turned him in to the police.

David Turpin married Louise when she was extremely young, probably in an attempt to get away from her grandfather. Clearly, the cycle of abuse began again with their family. Seeing the body cam footage of the house they were living in when the authorities were finally called and hearing about Louise’s obsessions with buying toys, games, and children’s clothes, I am reminded of my husband’s former wife, who had a somewhat similar upbringing. While Ex is not nearly as bad as Louise Turpin was, there are definitely some similarities in her behaviors and Louise Turpin’s. I have noticed that a lot of people with sexual trauma in their pasts have issues with shopping addictions and extreme immaturity. They have a lot of children and treat them as possessions, rather than people in and of themselves. There’s also often religious abuse involved in these cases, as religion can make for an excellent manipulation tool, as well as a way to instill fear in the victims. I have noticed that sometimes in these situations, the perpetrators marry an obsession with childhood and childish things with extreme abuse. Michael Jackson comes to mind, too. He was obsessed with childhood and suffered horrific abuse himself, and he never quite outgrew childish obsessions. And he is also alleged to have been a child abuser.

Again, I am not excusing the Turpin parents at all… but I can sort of understand the origins of how this came about. Over the past twenty years or so, I have seen and heard similar stories from Bill about living with his ex wife. Ex, who was similarly abused as a child, is obsessed with Disney, Dr. Seuss, Peanuts, and Star Wars, among other things. She would buy mounds of crap with money they didn’t have. She forced Bill’s daughters to do the housework and raise her youngest child, who has severe autism. She refused to let her children interact with people in the world who could help them, like their fathers or grandparents. Those who escaped got no help from her, and she would do whatever she could to sabotage their efforts to become independent. Ex is not as bad as Louise Turpin, but she’s definitely on the spectrum, to use an autism term (Ex seems to have incorporated raising children with autism as part of her identity– she claims that three of her five children have autism).

This is, yet again, another reason why we as a society should be more willing to employ people who can help victims of sexual trauma so that they don’t become abusers themselves. There should be much less of a stigma about mental health care, and more money to pay for it. And social welfare programs should not be fobbed off on religious organizations. Abuse victims have enough trouble as it is, without having to deal with religious dogma and potential abuse from religious leaders, too.

Anyway… it’s heartbreaking to hear that the Turpin children are still struggling and haven’t been able to access donated money intended to help them launch. It’s very disheartening, but not surprising to me, to hear that some of the foster families entrusted with their care have turned out to be abusive. I know there are some wonderful foster parents out there, but unfortunately, there are also a lot of people who do foster care so they can collect a check from the state. And it’s especially upsetting to hear that a woman who was supposed to help the adult Turpin children learn how to function in society turned out to be a lazy, uncaring, incompetent jerk. Those kids deserve so much better!

But… I am very happy to see that the Turpin children who have come forward still have a spark and want to get beyond their tragic upbringings. They still need a lot of help, though. I truly hope the 20/20 special helps them get the assistance they clearly still need, so they can go on to enjoy the “wonderful lives” fellow victim Elizabeth Smart predicts they can have. A least a few of those kids are game to take life by the horns. And I hope that the special shines a light on America’s child welfare system. It obviously needs an overhaul.

And on a final note, kudos to Jaycee Dugard, who made headlines in 2009 after she escaped her captors, Phillip and Nancy Garrido, after 18 years of hell. Jaycee Dugard, like Elizabeth Smart, has turned her ordeal into a way to help other people. She has started a foundation called JAYC, and according to the 20/20 special, she’s vowed to help the Turpin children as they continue to heal from their ordeal and adjust to living life on their own terms. I only hope that the money JAYC is raising actually gets to the Turpin children.

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true crime

Repost: Elizabeth Smart thinks the Turpin kids can go on to have “wonderful lives”…

Here’s a repost from January 19, 2018 about the Turpin case. I am reposting it because I just wrote about Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 interview of Jennifer and Jordan Turpin.

The Turpins in court.

Far be it for me to minimize the hell Elizabeth Smart endured for nine months when she was a teenager kidnapped by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee.  I’ve read the books and seen the movies and I know Elizabeth Smart has survived a nightmare.  I marvel at her apparent recovery.   However, I was a bit taken aback when I read Smart’s comments in a recent article published by People Magazine.  Based on Elizabeth Smart’s comments in that article, I’m left with the impression that she thinks she’s the authority on survival.  (Edited to add: I have changed my mind about Elizabeth Smart’s comments after having seen the 20/20 interview. I am astonished by how bright and resilient Jennifer and Jordan Turpin are. I loved hearing them talk about their futures, and I especially loved seeing Jordan reunite with the deputy who rescued her and her siblings.)

In case you missed it, a few days ago, California authorities found the thirteen children of David and Louise Turpin living in a filthy house.  Some of the children were chained to furniture.  Oh… and they weren’t all children, either.  Their ages ranged from two to 29 years old.  However, the adult children were so malnourished that they looked younger than their ages. (ETA: Almost four years later, Jennifer and Jordan are still very tiny and look younger than their ages. Jordan could pass for 14 or 15, and she’s now 21.)

I’ve been reading up about this bizarre case.  Every day, more information comes out about this family that hid from authorities in Texas and California.  David Turpin, age 56, and Louise Turpin, age 49, apparently have a fixation with Disney, Vegas, and Dr. Seuss.  I’ve seen pictures of Mrs. Turpin dressed like Snow White.  I’ve looked at photos of their vehicles outfitted with vanity plates indicating how much they like Disney as well as family snapshots from Disneyland.  The Turpins visited Las Vegas at least twice to renew their wedding vows, their huge brood in tow.

And yet, for all of their apparent love of the fantastic perfection that is all things Disney, this family lived in several homes that they eventually reduced to squalor.  Last night, I read an account from a woman named Ashely Vinyard, who used to play with three of the Turpin kids, Jennifer, Josh, and Jessica, when they lived in Texas.  She reported that after the family moved away, she and her mother went snooping and found two dogs, a kitten, and a “dumpster smelling of death” at the house, which was littered with feces, dirty diapers, and religious literature.  

Another former neighbor reported that just before the Turpins disappeared from Texas, one of the daughters was spotted walking down the road.  The lady picked her up and the Turpin daughter allegedly asked how to get a driver’s license and a job.  She didn’t know who the President of the United States was.  Actually, it surprises me that no one called the authorities at that point.  But then, they were in Texas, where people tend to leave each other alone… unless they happen to be pregnant and hoping to get an abortion.

Although David Turpin is a graduate of Virginia Tech and once worked as a computer engineer for Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the family had serious financial problems. They lost their house in Texas to foreclosure and had to move. Billy Baldwin, the man who bought the house they’d lived in, had to spend about $30,000 just to make it livable.

These kids were living like this for years and years; seven of them are now legal adults, yet they were forced to remain in the disgusting home, tied up or shackled to their beds. They hid in plain sight, since the Turpins listed their home as a private school. Turpin’s parents in West Virginia stated that the family is deeply religious, and the children were required to memorize long passages from the Bible. Thanks to little government oversight of homeschooling in Perris, California, no authorities were ever in contact with the Turpin kids. In fact, it was rare that anyone ever even saw the kids. When they were spotted, the children acted as if they were terrified.

The Turpin kids were found on January 14th, when a seventeen year old daughter escaped through a window and called 911 on a deactivated cell phone. Mrs. Turpin was reportedly “perplexed” when the police arrived. Yesterday, they were charged with torture, child endangerment, and false imprisonment. Mr. and Mrs. Turpin have pleaded not guilty to the charges. That seventeen year old girl is a hero.

All of this brings me to the comments made by Elizabeth Smart, who offers a ray of sunshine to the Turpin kids. She told ABC News, “I would want them to know that they survived, they did it, and that life is not as dark and terrible as it has been… That there is happiness in the future, and that they can go on to have wonderful lives.”


Perhaps there is truth in what Elizabeth Smart says. Seven of the kids are now adults and they have been rescued; the youngest one is two years old and might be too young to remember much about what’s happened. They are getting some help, at least in the immediate timeframe.

However, I would submit that while Elizabeth Smart is herself a survivor of something horrendous, she has some things going for her that the Turpin kids don’t.  For one thing, Ms. Smart has loving parents who are comparatively wealthy.  She has the backing of a huge, powerful church.  She has even managed to parlay her experience into a career after attending college as a music major.  Moreover, while what Elizabeth Smart went through was horrible, the actual experience lasted nine months.  The Turpin kids have endured many years of abuse and neglect.  It’s going to be a tremendous project for them to overcome what they’ve endured.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love that Elizabeth Smart has apparently recovered so well.  I am especially glad she’s turned her experience into something that will help other people.  I also hope her prediction for the Turpin kids will ultimately come true.  However, I do think the Turpin kids’ challenges are formidable… much more so than Elizabeth Smart’s were.  There is no telling how much physical and psychological damage was done to these kids.  They are not prepared to simply pick up their lives and move on the way Elizabeth was eventually able to do.  They’re going to need a lot of help, and probably a lot of therapy, to have some semblance of normalcy.  They will need support that, given the way our current government is, may not be forthcoming. (ETA: Sadly, based on the interview, it sounds like my predictions about the government’s help was prescient.)

I’m sure if I pressed Ms. Smart on what she said, she might backpedal a little.  Or maybe not.  Maybe she would insist that her comments about the Turpin kids are as true as her evident belief in Mormonism.

I think it’s appropriate to have hope for these kids.  I also think that realism is in order.  Perhaps one bright spot is that Louise Turpin’s siblings have spoken out and they may be in a position to help these kids recover.  Of course, they are strangers to the kids, since David and Louise Turpin refused to let them visit.  But they are still family and hopefully, they will be able to step up for them and help them assimilate into the world.  It will be interesting to see what happens in this case.  I’ll be watching.

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true crime

Remembering the case of Marc Evonitz…

The featured photo is a screenshot of Richard Marc Edward Evonitz, a rapist, murderer, and coward who is no longer around to hurt people.

In early summer 2002, I was newly graduated from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. Bill and I were engaged to be married. He was working at the Pentagon. I was looking for a job.

We had just moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia. Why Fredericksburg? Because it’s a cute town, and because it reasonably offered me the chance to access work in Richmond, Northern Virginia, or Fredericksburg, itself. Also, Bill found a two bedroom apartment owned by the same (slumlord) apartment company that owned the building where he had been living in a studio apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. I think the rent in Fredericksburg was only marginally higher, and the complex offered more amenities.

So there we were in the summer of 2002. We were broke, but excited about our upcoming wedding. We had a new dog, a blue-eyed beagle/husky mix named CuCullain (C.C.). I was hopeful about the future, even if living in that apartment made me miserable. I’m definitely not cut out for communal living.

As I wrote cover letters and printed resumes, which I would then circulate, I watched a lot of TV– especially the news. During that summer, there was a true crime case that really intrigued me. It involved a man named Richard Marc Edward Evonitz.

Richard Marc Edward Evonitz is now long dead. He died by his own hand on June 27, 2002, at 38 years old. Looking back on it, Evonitz was probably smart to kill himself. He was not destined to enjoy the rest of his life. He had finally been caught, and if he hadn’t committed suicide surrounded by cops, he might have wound up on death row.

A true crime documentary about Richard Marc Evonitz’s crimes.

I remember hearing about this case when it happened, thinking it was so surreal that Evonitz and I had basically been in the same places within weeks of each other. I don’t think I would have been the type of victim he was hunting for, since all of his victims were teenaged girls. Still, I remember being really freaked out by this story. I’ve never forgotten this case after all of these years, mainly because I lived in the same places Evonitz did within weeks of his final criminal act.

Richard Marc Edward Evonitz was born and raised near Columbia, South Carolina, which was where I had lived from August 1999 until May 2002. He was born at Providence Hospital, a Catholic owned hospital in a part of Columbia near where I had done an internship. I used to drive past that hospital when I went to my social work field placement during my last semester at the university.

Known as Marc to avoid confusion with an uncle named Richard, Evonitz grew up as the oldest sibling in his family. He had two younger sisters, Kristen and Jennifer. He graduated from Irmo High School in 1980. I know where Irmo High School is. It’s not far from the university, either.

After he finished high school, Evonitz worked for Jiffy Lube for a time, then went on to join the United States Navy. He spent eight honorable years serving in the Navy, then left military service. He married twice, first to a woman named Bonnie Lou Gower, from whom he was divorced in 1996. Then in 1999, he married Hope Marie Crowley, and they were still wed at the time of his death in 2002.

There I was, back in the summer of 2002, living in Fredericksburg, Virginia, having just moved from Columbia, South Carolina, hearing about Marc Evonitz’s last crime on the news. Evonitz was of special interest in the Fredericksburg area. It turned out that he had kidnapped and murdered at least three teenaged girls who lived in Spotsylvania County, very close to the Fredericksburg area, during the 1990s. He is also suspected of a 1994 rape and abduction and a 1995 rape in Massaponax, Virginia, which is also very close to Fredericksburg.

But as of June 2002, when Evonitz died by suicide, no one knew that he was guilty of those crimes that had taken place in Virginia. At that point in time, it wasn’t known who had abducted, raped, and murdered 16 year old Sofia Silva on September 9, 1996. The May 1, 1997 rapes, abductions, and murders of 15 year old Kristin and 12 year old Kati Lisk were also unsolved. Authorities had been searching for clues for years, but they kept coming up empty handed. It took the actions of a brave and clever 15 year old girl– Evonitz’s last victim– to finally solve those crimes.

On June 24, 2002, Evonitz abducted 15 year old Kara Robinson. She had been in her friend’s front yard, minding her own business, just as the girls Evonitz abducted and murdered in Virginia had been. Evonitz approached Kara, friendly at first, offering her magazines. Then he brandished a handgun and forced her into a Rubbermaid container in the trunk of his car. He bound her hands and feet and gagged her, warning her not to scream. The whole time, Kara was paying close attention to everything. She was hyperaware of everything she was seeing, hearing, and feeling as they traveled to the apartment where Evonitz lived.

Evonitz took Kara inside his apartment, raped her, and tied her to his bed. She noticed the names on his mail, the red hair in his wife’s hairbrush, and the magnets on the refrigerator. She even thought to talk to Evonitz, and later described him as “cordial”. Prior to going to bed, Evonitz made Kara smoke marijuana with him, and gave her a Valium. While Evonitz slept, Kara managed to free herself, using her teeth. She fled the apartment in bare feet, still wearing fuzzy blue handcuffs, and went to the police, where she was able to identify Evonitz. Kara says that the police were initially kind of skeptical, but they finally called her mother. The deputies took Kara back to the scene of the crime before they took her to the hospital.

Upon discovering that his captive had escaped, Evonitz took off, eventually ending up in Sarasota, Florida, where his dash for freedom was ended by the police. As the cops surrounded him, demanding that he surrender, Evonitz cowardly opted to end his life. He put his handgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Police searched Evonitz’s apartment, and soon found “trophies” that Evonitz had collected– evidence that Kara had not been his first and only victim. Richland County police officers discovered clues that would finally shed light on crimes Evonitz had perpetrated in Spotsylvania, Virginia in the 1990s… crimes that, in June 2002, had not been solved.

After Evonitz died, the police analyzed what was left of his life. In the course of their investigation, police found that Richard Marc Edward Evonitz’s hair matched hair that was found on the bodies of Sofia Silva and Kristin and Kati Lisk. They also found blue acrylic fibers from the “fuzzy handcuffs” that Evonitz owned, that matched fibers found on the three victims from Virginia. And then, five years after Kristin Lisk’s death, investigators found her fingerprints and a palm print in the trunk of Evonitz’s car. Finally, the families of those young victims could rest assured that the man who killed their daughters would never have the chance to hurt anyone else.

I remember seeing a news report about this case soon after Evonitz killed himself. Kara Robinson was interviewed at the time, and I remember hearing her say something along the lines of “Picking me was the dumbest thing Marc Evonitz ever did.” She sounded so tough and defiant. I was astonished by her bravery and ability to keep her wits about her. She was just fifteen years old at the time. I remember what I was like at that age… and I am just flabbergasted by how amazingly brave and strong she was… and apparently still is. YouTube tells me that Kara now thrives in a law enforcement career.

Here’s a somewhat recent interview of Kara Robinson Chamberlain. She is interviewed by Elizabeth Smart, who was also famously kidnapped in June of 2002, and also managed to survive her ordeal.

Actually now that I think about it, 2002 was a terrible year for abductions. I remember there was a lot of news about girls being abducted and murdered all across the country. Elizabeth Smart probably had the highest profile case, as she was abducted in June 2002, at just 14 years old. That summer, there were so many tragic and horrifying cases of girls being victimized.

That was also around the time of the Beltway Sniper case, which also had strong ties to Fredericksburg, as a couple of people were murdered there. I remember how Bill would never let me walk behind him during that scary time in October 2002, as the snipers had been randomly shooting people at gas stations up and down the I-95 corridor, seemingly without any rhyme or reason. We actually lived a couple of miles from a mall and a gas station where people were shot on different occasions. It was terrifying, and went on for a couple of weeks before the killers were finally captured.

Looking back on our brief time in Fredericksburg– a town that is about 90 miles from where I had grown up, and had always regarded as a really cute place– now makes me think of criminal behavior. That area is also near where Erin McCay George committed murder when she shot her husband for insurance money in 2001. I went to college with Erin, and was there when she embezzled money from our alma mater.

We also lived in Fredericksburg at around the time Erika and Benjamin Sifrit committed their crimes in Ocean City, Maryland. The Sifrits had ties to Fredericksburg, because Erika had gone to college at Mary Washington College (now known was the University of Mary Washington). They committed two very bloody murders just fifteen days after Bill and I moved to Fredericksburg, and their story was all over the news in Fredericksburg at that time.

Kara Robinson Chamberlain went on to become a police officer in Columbia, South Carolina. Below is a video of Kara speaking in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a community that is no doubt so grateful to her for helping to solve the cases of Sofia Silvia and Kristin and Kati Lisk. She truly is a heroine in every sense of the word.

What an amazing, brave, young lady she was, and still is.

I still think it’s so weird, how close I’ve been to some pretty horrifying true crime cases. After my car was broken into at our crappy apartment complex in Fredericksburg, and we had a brush with a creepy guy who was going door to door, casing the area, I started paying a lot more attention to the crime statistics in Fredericksburg. I discovered that the apartment complex where we lived was a hotbed of criminal activity ranging from drug busts to rapes.

I feel pretty fortunate that I managed to escape living there having only had my window busted in my car, as some lowlife thieves tried and failed to steal my aftermarket CD player. We moved not long after that happened. I see that now, the Fredericksburg Police Department has an office next to the complex where we used to live. It’s probably a good place for them to be, given the historically high crime rate in that neighborhood. Looking on Google Maps, I can see that where there used to a big field where I walked C.C., there’s now a landscaped road leading to the police station. The boulevard running past the complex is now a four lane highway. It had been a two lane road when we were there.

I’ve often thought that in another life, I might have been a true crime writer… and now I’m so grateful to live in Germany, which has its crime issues, but none as dramatic as those in Fredericksburg. I’ll never again think of it as a quaint, picturesque town.

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book reviews, LDS, religion

Repost: My review of Bringing Elizabeth Home…

Here’s a repost of an Epinions review I wrote in 2004. It appears here “as/is”. A whole lot has happened since 2004– to include Ed and Lois Smart’s divorce and Ed’s coming out as gay. I’m reposting the review for the sake of history, and because I think some people might find it interesting.

The first time I saw Ed and Lois Smart’s 2003 book Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope, I was tempted to purchase it. Their beautiful fourteen year old daughter Elizabeth was kidnapped from their Salt Lake City, Utah home on June 5, 2002. The Smarts’ other daughter, nine year old Mary Katherine, witnessed the abduction and alerted Ed and Lois Smart after Elizabeth and the kidnappers, later revealed to be Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, were gone.

I remembered how the summer of 2002 was a summer plagued by a rash of child abductions. A couple of those abductions had ended tragically– five year old Samantha Runnion was killed soon after she was taken, but not before she was brutally molested by her captor. Elizabeth Smart had, against all odds, survived her abduction, reuniting with her family in mid March 2003. And Elizabeth Smart’s story is a bizarre one indeed. Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee were revealed to be believers of a fundamentalist branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. According to news reports, Brian David Mitchell meant to make Elizabeth one of his wives.

The Smart family fascinated me. On the front cover of Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope there is a lovely picture of Elizabeth and her parents, and on the back cover, the whole family of eight is pictured. The Smarts seem to espouse the epitome of the American Dream. Ed and Lois Smart are well off financially, and they have six beautiful children. I wanted to know what lingered beneath the surface of the Smart family’s attractive facade. Nevertheless, I had read negative reviews about Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope, so I passed up the book.

Then last week, my husband went out of town for a meeting and I found myself with some extra time to do some reading. It wasn’t long before I found myself purchasing Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope. I finished the book in a few days and am left with my own feelings of ambivalence about the Smart story. On one hand, Ed and Lois Smart are not professional writers and they were telling the heartwrenching story of their daughter’s abduction. On the other hand, Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope was ghost written by Laura Morton, who, according to information on the book jacket, has written a total of eighteen books, six of which were New York Times bestsellers. Unfortunately, I would have expected more from someone who has had such an auspicious career in writing.

While at times, I found Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope to be a warm, touching story, the writing is sometimes awkward and repetitive. Also, although the book is supposed to be written entirely from the Smarts’ point of view, the authors don’t seem to be very selective about their usage of pronouns. For instance, the chapters that are supposedly written by Ed or Lois as individuals read like personal narratives and employ the pronoun “I”. In other chapters, “we” is used, but so is “Ed and Lois”, as if the story is being told from a different point of view. It makes for awkward reading.

This book doesn’t shed a lot of light on the case, either. Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope doesn’t offer many more details than what was already printed in the news or portrayed in the television movie that was made about Elizabeth and broadcasted last fall. There are, however, a couple of interesting chapters about Ed and Lois Smart’s extended family. There’s also a lot written about Elizabeth’s love for playing her harp. Mary Katherine also plays the harp. I don’t know of any kids who play harp, so it was interesting to read about that. The book also offers some very nice pictures of the family. Again, however, it seems like I had already seen some of them in magazines.

The thing I liked the least about Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope was the “preachy” tone in the book. Yes, I understand that the Smarts’ faith had a lot to do with keeping them sane while Elizabeth was missing, but the book, particularly at the beginning, is very heavy on quoting scriptures from the Book of Mormon and the D&C (Doctrine and Covenants), which is another LDS document. If readers aren’t members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, they might not understand some of the significance of the quotes.

Speaking of quotes, the Smarts start most chapters off with one, and they are generally from LDS sources– either the Book of Mormon, or the D&C, or perhaps from a well known LDS leader like church president Gordon B. Hinckley. Again, it seems to me that the Smarts might have forgotten that they might have readers who have no understanding of the LDS Church. On the other hand, the inclusion of the LDS quotes may have been by design– to get more people to investigate the church. All one has to do is contact LDS missionaries and they can start learning about the church and possibly become a member. In any case, it seems to me that some folks might find all the LDS stuff included in this book off putting, particularly if they don’t believe in God or going to church. That said, I will also mention that before I picked up Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope, I figured I would be reading something about the Smarts’ faith, so this aspect of the book didn’t surprise me much.

The Smarts continually contend that they want to protect Elizabeth’s privacy, and I respect that. On the other hand, I do find it curious that they published Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope, if they truly wanted to protect Elizabeth’s privacy. They write that they were hoping to put some of the false information to rest. It seems to me that the Smarts’ book is really more about how Ed and Lois Smart dealt with Elizabeth’s absence than Elizabeth’s ordeal, and to the Smarts’ credit, they do seem to convey that idea in the book. However, they had to know that people would buy this book expecting to read about what really happened to Elizabeth. The Smarts include a few details, but those who want to buy Bringing Elizabeth Home should realize that they won’t get the whole scoop.

I don’t think that Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope is a terrible book. It’s just that it doesn’t reveal that much more than what the public already knows about the Smart case. The writing is not as strong as it should be and there’s some preaching in this book that might turn some people off. Nevertheless, the Smart case is fascinating and if you want to know everything that’s out there about the Smart family, you might find reading this book worthwhile. On the whole, however, I think that most people would probably do well to skip it.

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book reviews, LDS, true crime

Repost: Elizabeth Smart’s My Story…

I wrote this post for my original blog on October 12, 2013. It includes the Epinions.com review of her book, My Story, which I posted on the same day. It appears here as/is.

I really hesitated before reading My Story, the book Elizabeth Smart wrote about her experiences being kidnapped by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee.  I have written a review, posted below.  This post is going to have less to do with the book and more to do with some things I realized while reading Smart’s book.

First off, Elizabeth Smart endured hell for nine months.  There’s no sugar coating it.  Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee put that girl through sheer hell.  When I think about what it must have been like for Elizabeth Smart to endure daily rapes, constant threats on hers and her family’s lives, the outdoor elements while wearing filthy rags, and, in fact, the very loss of her identity since Mitchell forced her to change her name, I am truly amazed that she has been able to recover as well as she apparently has.  I have some new respect for her.  She is certainly a strong and courageous woman.

Secondly, it occurred to me as I read her book that she was kidnapped at age 14, which is the age Helen Mar Kimball was when she “married” Joseph Smith.

I don’t know if that has to do with Brian David Mitchell’s decision to kidnap Elizabeth Smart when she was fourteen.  Certainly, at fourteen, Smart was still very much a child.  She was especially naive and sheltered and was, no doubt, easier to control than she might have been had she been older and more worldly.  Smart reveals that Mitchell planned to kidnap more girls and make them his wives.  Elizabeth Smart calls him a pedophile, but I think it’s more likely that he just wanted gullible, obedient, easily controlled girls who had not been defiled by anyone else. 

Certainly, it was easier for Barzee if Mitchell had younger girls around who didn’t compete for her place as the alpha bitch.  In any case, though, it did occur to me that Mitchell, who had proclaimed himself a “prophet”, was doing something very similar to what Joseph Smith did.  Yes, Joseph Smith did it many years ago.  Does it make it less wrong that he was fucking fourteen year old girls and “marrying” the wives of other men?  Why should anyone admire Joseph Smith on that basis alone?

Finally, once again, I couldn’t help but feel horrible for Elizabeth as she described feeling like a beautiful vase that was shattered.  I had read an account of a speech she had given some time ago about feeling like a “chewed up piece of gum”, in part because of an object lesson she had taken part in at church.  She was taught that no one would want her after a man had put his hands all over her.  As a fourteen year old girl, she certainly had no choice but to let Brian David Mitchell defile her.  Of course he overpowered her, though she is careful to point out that she did try to fight him off.  I’m sure that line was added for those who might fault her for not fighting harder to protect her virginity.  Anyone who would fault her for that, by the way, is an enormous asshole. 

In any case, Elizabeth Smart felt like a shattered vase or chewed up piece of gum after Mitchell forced her to “marry” him and then raped her.  She felt like she no longer had any value.  That rape took away her self-worth because she was taught that sex before marriage is filthy.  Certainly being raped can be described as filthy, but a person doesn’t lose their intrinsic value as a person because they have been raped or because they have had intercourse before marriage.  Plenty of good people have been raped.  Plenty of good people have had premarital sex.  What happened to Elizabeth Smart was not her fault.  It grieves me to think that even for a moment, she felt worthless because she was victimized.  I think many religious organizations need to do a better job instilling self worth in girls.  That goes for any restrictive faith that places a high premium on chastity and modesty.

One other thing I noticed in Smart’s book was her description of the food Mitchell would steal.  I have never been LDS, but I have read a lot of accounts of the type of foods many Mormons eat.  They seem to be big on casseroles, Spam, and Jello.  For instance, Utah is the world’s leader in green Jello consumption.  Here’s just one thread on RfM about odd cuisine.  Mitchell apparently was very fond of mayonnaise and would mix it with carrots and raisins.  Just the thought of that makes me want to retch.  And Elizabeth washed it down with warm water from a plastic canteen shared by her captors… when she wasn’t forced to drink cheap wine or beer or liquor… Or smoking cigarettes…  Yeah.  I can see why she’d want to forget that time in her life. 

To add insult to injury, when she was finally found, the cop handcuffed her before he took her to the police station.  Why he cuffed her, I don’t know.  It must have been procedure.  Maybe he thought she’d have some kind of Stockholm Syndrome and might bonk him on the head.  Poor Elizabeth.  That was just one more thing she never should have experienced.

Anyway, I think the book is worth reading if you want to read Elizabeth Smart’s perspective of the horrible experiences that made her famous.  It’s definitely gotten me to thinking.   

Below is my reposted review.

I really debated purchasing Elizabeth Smart’s 2013 book, My Story.  I have read other books written by crime victims and, generally speaking, have found that victimhood does not necessary make one a good writer.  But Smart had help writing this book from ghost writer, Chris Stewart, and having seen her in the media in the eleven years since she was abducted from her home in June 2002, I figured I might as well. 

I managed to read Smart’s account of her abduction and nine months in captivity at the hands of Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee in one sitting.  The book is written in the first person, as if Elizabeth Smart is standing at a lectern relating her story.  She begins with the story of the first time she laid eyes on Brian David Mitchell.  It was a chilly day in November 2001 and Mitchell was on a Salt Lake City street begging.  Elizabeth Smart was out shopping with her mother and a couple of her siblings.  Smart’s mother, Lois, felt sorry for Mitchell.  She gave him five dollars and her husband’s cell phone number so that they might offer him work.  Elizabeth Smart explains that she made eye contact with Mitchell and gave him a slight smile.  She, too, felt sorry for him.  At that moment, Mitchell determined that Elizabeth Smart would be his “second wife”.

Many people already know what happened next.  On the night of June 5th, 2002, Mitchell broke into Smart’s home and awakened the sleeping fourteen year old by pressing a knife to her neck.  Smart, who had been sleeping next to her younger sister, Mary Katherine, silently got out of bed and, wearing nothing but her red satin pajamas and a pair of running shoes, left her home with Mitchell.  She was gone for nine months.

Smart explains that after being forced to “wed” and then repeatedly raped by Mitchell, she felt like a priceless vase that had suddenly been smashed to bits.  What do you do with a shattered vase?  You sweep up the pieces and throw it away.  Smart writes that Mitchell had defiled and demoralized her to the point at which she felt like her life was meaningless and no one would ever want her.  Smart writes that Barzee treated her like a slave and seemed to have no empathy whatsoever for Smart’s plight.  In fact, Smart writes more than once that Barzee had “given up” her six children so she could be with Mitchell.  I’m not sure that giving up access to one’s children automatically makes someone *bad*…  After all, in divorce situations, men are asked to do it all the time.  However, I definitely see how Elizabeth Smart made that determination about Wanda Barzee, under the circumstances.

Aside from the cruel treatment and neglect she received at the hands of her captors, Smart writes of the very uncomfortable living conditions she was forced to endure.  Mitchell and Barzee were derelicts who lived outside; consequently, Elizabeth Smart, who had grown up privileged and comfortable, found herself going days without eating, going thirsty, and wearing filthy clothes that were cast offs from other homeless people.  Mitchell also forced Smart to drink alcohol, smoke, and view pornography, activities that were strictly against Smart’s Mormon beliefs.

My thoughts

I had read Bringing Elizabeth Home, a book written by Ed and Lois Smart in 2004.  I wasn’t very impressed with that book because it was very sanitized and offered little information that wasn’t already in the news.  Moreover, it also included a lot of religious “preaching” related to the Smarts’ belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I was a little afraid that Elizabeth Smart’s book would contain more of the same, although I had read that the book was going to focus much more on what went on during her actual captivity.

My Story is, in fact, about what happened to Elizabeth Smart during those nine months she was away.  I have to admit, after reading this book, I have new respect for Elizabeth Smart.  Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee put her through hell.  Smart makes it clear that given a choice, she would certainly favor Barzee over Mitchell, whom she describes as a narcissistic pedophile who was unspeakably cruel to her. 

I finished this book in a couple of hours.  It’s printed in large type and written in a conversational style that includes a lot of sentence fragments which I think was supposed to be engaging.  Personally, I find one word sentences annoying.  I also noticed at least one instance in which Smart’s captor was referred to as David Brian Mitchell.  That’s not a big deal, but I did catch it.  There are no photos, not that I really expected Smart to have pictures from that time period.  This book is not nearly as graphic as it could be, which is certainly understandable.  For many readers, I’m sure the lack of graphic details will be a relief.   

Overall

I don’t think the writing in My Story is the stuff of Pulitzer Prizes, but it’s not bad.  The book was a quick read and doesn’t include a whole lot more information than what has been printed in the media already, though it does give Smart’s perspective more so than any news article could.  I admire Elizabeth Smart’s fortitude during that ordeal.  I think My Story is worth reading if you’re interested in what really happened to Elizabeth Smart.  The writing could be better, though.

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