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Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

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The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned. Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

Good-Looking Murderers

A few days ago, it was reported that Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in jail. Hernandez, a famous sports star, rocketed into super-stardom when he was convicted of a brutal murder, and it came to light that he had been suspected in other murders. The reports on his death were grisly and left many questions.

When I checked my Facebook feed, a friend had posted an article about the death of Hernandez. I read the comments that followed the posted article. One, written by a gay man that I know, read, “He was hot! I wish he’d murder me!”

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As I processed through that statement and all that it implied about humanity, human consciousness, and social media, I scrolled farther down, where another friend had posted a meme about Hernandez committing suicide, a meme that also included Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, and others, with a horribly unfunny joke about suicide. The friend had just written one thing about it. “What, too soon?”

I closed my computer and stepped away for a moment. As a professional, I have worked with the loved ones of those who have committed suicide many times over, and I have seen the emptiness, the pain, the shock, and the horror on their faces after the news comes in and in the days and weeks that have followed. I have also, to a lesser extent, worked with the families and loved ones of both those who have committed murder and those who have lost someone to murder. Going through something like that changes a person forever, irrevocably haunting them for the rest of their lives.

My mind flashed back to a few years ago, when I was running an LGBT history channel on YouTube, doing daily posts on events related to LGBT people and history. One day, I had done a post on Jeffrey Dahmer, a gay man who had committed dozens of horrific murders that defy explanation or understanding. Dahmer, now a legendary and, dare I say, celebrated serial killer was later violently killed while incarcerated by another inmate. The research I had done into his life and crimes had haunted me for days. I posted the video on social media, and someone in seconds had committed, “Mmm, look at him. Getting killed by him would have been worth it.”

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These thoughts stuck with me for a few days, disturbing, hanging out in the back of my brain. These people I knew were sexualizing murderers. Passive comments, for sure, and given without much thought. But an errant joke about suicide isn’t that funny if you’ve lost someone to suicide, and an errant joke about murder–well, frankly, neither one of them are funny at all. The killers and the victims were fathers, brothers, sons. They were humans who had lives and potentials. And when they were taken, gone, their pasts were all that were left. All of their potential, all of the paths they would have walked, all of the children they may have brought into the world, all gone with them.

My brain dredged up to similar comments I had heard over the years. When Dylan Roof killed 8 black worshippers in a church, I read a comment about ‘at least he killed old people’ on social media. In high school, when stories about Mary Kay Letourneau hit the media telling of how she had had sex with a much younger student, I remember some of the guys in my high school saying how lucky the student was, how much they wish they had had a teacher like that.

I wondered to myself the kind of world that we live in, where we as a culture are more focused on how hot or how young someone is, how desensitized to the news we are that we search for the horrific and titillating details, details which ultimately have little impact on us. This is a world where a woman makes a post on social media in support of Planned Parenthood, and a stranger comments on her feed that she deserves to be raped.

As I prepared my thoughts on this particular blog entry, I took a break and clicked on the news button on my iPhone. Four featured stories popped up, as they usually did. Something horrible about Donald Trump as usual, and then a detailed report about hundreds being killed in Syria in a brutal attack. Beneath that were two more stories, one about a celebrity divorce and a fourth about a celebrity’s plastic surgery mishaps.

A cold calm came over me as I realized the programming here, the way we view the news itself, the way we are indoctrinated into seeing the world. Hundreds of Syrian deaths mean nothing to those who aren’t Syrian, but the celebrity divorce gets clicked on because we have seen these people in a few movies. And the advertisers pay more for the stories that are clicked on. How quickly we cultivate an inability to feel horrible when we read something horrible. How swiftly we devolve into unsympathetic creatures when we scan the photos of murderers and victims and we focus solely on how attractive they were. We consider the mass deaths of strangers as shrug-worthy, and the tragic deaths of the young and beautiful a true tragedy.

And we are surrounded by men and women who feel no grief at the loss of life, yet they find value in the looks of the killers.

What We Survived

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“What is the thing you are lucky to have survived? I want you to turn to the members of your small group and share with them, and later you’ll be writing a paper on the same topic.”

I felt nervous as I turned to the other three members of my group, already feeling like I didn’t fit in. I was 23 years old and, as far as I knew, the only Mormon kid in my college cohort of social work undergraduates. I was here at Boise State University in a room full of mostly white students, but there were only a handful of men. After high school, I had spent two years on a Mormon mission, and then another two years at a Mormon university. Now I was here among students who called themselves feminists and who sometimes drank alcohol and I didn’t know at all where to fit in. I felt constantly judged for being religious, and many of them felt constantly judged by me because I was religious, and both of those things were probably true. On top of it all, I was hiding the fact that I was gay, way deep down inside, not daring to tell anyone about my terrible shame.

I boldly agreed to go first, keeping eye contact with my group, hoping to find acceptance there.

“I, uh, went through some pretty tough things as a kid and teenager,” I said, sounding confident even though I wasn’t. I chose not to speak about growing up gay, or about my dad leaving, or about the sexual abuse, and instead focused on more recent events. “Um, when I was 16, I remember coming home one day and finding my 6-lb puppy, just this little black scruffy thing named Sammy, literally broken and lying on the floor in the frozen garage. During the day, my stepfather Kent said she had been causing trouble so he tried to toss her outside in the slow and then he slammed the sliding glass door closed on her on accident. He basically just put her down in the garage to freeze to death. I picked her up and could feel her ribs were broken and I cuddled her underneath the blankets in my bed. Kent came down angry and told me to put her back in the garage and I refused and for some reason he left us alone. He was violent and angry a lot during those years, but somehow that was the worst thing he had done.”

The other students in the group had pained looks on their faces, and they shared in this sadness with me for a moment, then took their turns in sharing their stories. One of the students shared a history of being sexually assaulted and then struggling with eating disorders and suicide attempts afterwards. Another student talked about being in the room when her own mother was murdered. The third talked about a horrific car accident that killed three other people and put her in the hospital, one she nearly didn’t survive.

A moment later, we opened the discussion up to the wider classroom and a handful of people shared their stories. One man had lost friends in combat only to be sent home when he was caught in an explosion, one woman had lost her entire home and everything she owned in a house fire, one had been married to a police officer killed in the line of duty.

I remember sitting there with a sense of emptiness and awe as I looked around this room of brave and incredible people. The only thing we had in common was being here in school at the same time, students in a university program. The professor talked about how humans are powerful and resilient and incredible, how we survive some of the worst things in the world and come out stronger on the other side, although we are forever changed. He talked about how, as social workers, we would be sitting with people in their most vulnerable and tragic spaces and helping them find their strength and their truth. And he talked about how even though we survive painful things, we likely have other painful things to survive in the future.

In many ways, this college experience launched my career in trauma work. Over the following years, I have sat with people in their greatest moments of pain, some of it unfathomable. I’ve sat with the woman who had a gun pointed into her open mouth during a bank robbery, the woman who watched her husband commit suicide with a shotgun right in front of her, the man who found his husband hanging over the breakfast table, the mother who woke up from a coma only to learn her entire family had been killed by a drunk driver, the man who lost his entire family during his 25 years in prison, the man who learned of his sister’s death at the hands of a serial killer, the woman whose husband came out of the closet after 40 years of marriage, the athlete who lost his job and scholarship because of one night of careless drinking, and the mother whose son took his own life because he felt rejected by a church for being gay.

If I were to sit in a group now and talk about what I survived, my answer would be much more recent. I would tell about being a home owner with a child, a pregnant spouse, a business, and major religious responsibilities when I came out of the closet and had to start my life over, rebuilding every relationship and learning how to live.

After I’ve worked in trauma several days in a row, I look at the world differently. I see people as survivors, and there is a weight to my eyes. A few days off with sunshine and fresh air, hugs from my children, laughter with friends, savory food, sweat, sleep, sex, wine, inspiration from history, and chocolate in some form or combination is needed to return the optimism.

It is at times a dark and difficult world. And it is a bright and beautiful one.

And we survive both.

 

Forty Whacks

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Lizzie Borden had an axe, gave her father forty whacks

When she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one.

‘It’s amazing what can be lost to history,’ was my first thought on walking through the Lizzie Borden house. It’s been turned into a museum, and a bed and breakfast now. In fact, a few years ago, two of my sisters, amateur ghost-hunters, stayed in the room of Lizzie’s parents, Abby and Andrew, who were murdered in 1892 in their own home.

Lizzie Borden, their adult daughter, was put on trial for their murder, and the jury found her not guilty. But by the time the trial was over, ten months after the murders, Lizzie had become infamous, her trial being so sensationalistic that it made international news, everyone tuning in for daily updates in the newspapers.

And now, 120 years later, few know more than the fact that she was an axe murderer, knowing nothing of her life before or after.

It was gruesome and curious walking through the family home, where her father, who would have been considered a multi-millionaire in today’s terms, housed his family. His first wife had died, and his second wife Abby had raised the two girls, Emma and Lizzie (another sister had died at the age of 2) as her own. Lizzie and Emma lived in the small family home long after they became adults in Fall River, Massachusetts, staying in the same rooms that they had lived in as children. The sealed their door off from their parents, used chamber pots in the morning, and ate meals prepared by the family maid, Bridget, etching out a comfortable existence in  a small town where the father held the fortunes.

The tour guide shared theories of the murder, about the two daughters being angry against their parents for withholding their inheritance, about suspicion that Lizzie was trying to poison her parents, about Lizzie’s convenient excuses that while she had been home during the murders she hadn’t heard a sound. Was it Abby’s brother, John Morse, who had slept in the home the night before and had a convenient alibi, that killed them? Had he been having an affair with the maid? Had Lizzie been having an affair with the maid? Was an illegitimate son of Andrew’s who snuck into the home before fleeing, only to confess in a later letter?

All these years later, the truth remains unknown, but someone snuck into the house that morning and violently killed a helpless woman in her 60s, and then a few hours later killed her husband. There was no murder weapon, there were no witnesses, and there was no conviction.

And yet the infamy of Lizzie, an almost folk legend as a crazy murdering daughter that many picture as teenaged at the time of the crime, has endured in the country’s memory long past her death. Outside of the legend itself, the part that struck me as most fascinating about this story was not the story of the murders themselves, but instead the tenacity of Lizzie afterwards. She used her part of the inheritance to build a beautiful home. She changed her name to Lizbeth and she stayed right there in Fall River. She traveled and hosted parties, she donated to local charities, she paid for local women to get educated in college, she did charity work for lonely senior citizens, she wrote a book about her life, and she closed herself up in her home and avoided the public gossip and the taunts of the local children. Lizzie may have been a lesbian, but she never married, nor did her sister, and neither of them had any children.

After the tour, I walked the streets of her city for a time, and pictured the changes of the world over the past century. Then I thought a century ahead, and wondered how the streets would change again, knowing instinctively that at that time, the world would still remember her name, and still find her guilty.

Surviving Trauma: learning from Elizabeth Smart

When Elizabeth Smart was 14 years old, an evil man who called himself the prophet Emmanuel found an open window in her home, sliced open the screen, climbed inside her bedroom, and took her away from her family whispering threats in her ears. He marched her up to a high hilltop in the mountains above Salt Lake City where he raped her, as his wife watched. Over the next nine months, he systematically raped her, abused her, starved her, forced her to drink alcohol, kept her in isolation, and threatened her and her family again and again and again. At times, he and his wife paraded her in public in a white veil, threatening her if she spoke up or ran away. After months on the mountain in Utah, he took her to southern California, and on their journey back months later she was finally rescued by the police and returned to her family, the man and his wife going to jail (I simply refuse to use the kidnappers names in this entry).

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Before her kidnapping, Elizabeth was an innocent and spiritual Mormon teenager, who played the harp and loved her family. And after her rescue, Elizabeth took a bath, hugged her family, slept in her own bed, and woke the next morning ready to live. Using horseback riding as her therapy, as well as her belief in God and family, she has gone on to be an advocate for girls and women rescued from captivity, and she is speaking out against the “rape culture”, where systems are set in place that increase sexual assaults against women by doing things like teaching abstinence only in schools or teaching children to follow spiritual leaders at all costs. Now a wife and a mother, Elizabeth has written a about her kidnapping, and she details how she never gave up hope, how she healed, and how she has moved forward.

Toward the end of her book, Elizabeth discusses how she has much to be grateful for. She survived and returned to her family after only months; her kidnapper was a stranger and not someone in her family, someone whose photo hangs on the wall of her home to be looked at every day; her kidnapper was apprehended and locked away; her family surrounded her with love and hope and support and optimism.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited children, roughly 800,000 American children are reported every year; that is about 2000 per day. The majority of these are runaways or family abductions, with nonfamily or stranger abductions happening far less frequently. While I can’t personally verify these statistics, it is safe to estimate that hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year, and most of them we never hear about. That means there are hundreds of thousands of families every year who sit there in pain, wondering, hoping, going on with their lives feeling broken and empty with no answers. It is hard to sit back and realize the vast extent of things like child pornography, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, but all of these are alive and well in our country and the numbers are much more vast than we can simply comprehend.

Many of my clients come in to therapy because they have undergone a trauma. Trauma is a difficult thing to describe or quantify. Three women may get into a minor car accident: one may walk away completely fine and never think of it again, one may walk away and have nightmares for a few weeks, and the last may walk away feeling fine only to realize later she has panic attacks when she tries to get into the car again. We can understand each of these reactions, and we recognize that trauma impacts each person differently at different times in their lives.

In my therapy office, I see so many examples of trauma, all of them sad and devastating. A woman who saw her mother murdered by her father, a man who had a gun put in his mouth in a bank robbery, a teenager disowned by her parents for being transgender and kicked out into the streets, a woman who was hit in the eye by her husband when she found out he had been cheating on her, a woman whose husband and only child were killed by a drunk driver while they walked to the park, a young child whose parents were both killed in a car accident, a college girl who was sexually assaulted by her best friend. On and on and on.

We all have some traumas in our lives. Sometimes we rebound quickly, and sometimes it takes a much longer time. And at times, traumas change us forever, alter us into a different person. Yet traumas don’t have to ruin us or break us, even when they change us. A man who loses both his legs in combat can have a happy healthy life with full relationships, but he is altered and changed from who he was before. A woman whose 16 year old son takes his own life can heal and embrace life even as she forever aches for her lost son. A woman who experiences a double mastectomy in order to survive breast cancer can go on to be healthy and happy with healthy relationships and confidence and sex appeal though she is forever different.

Some traumas completely heal in a brief time. When I was 20, I was pretty violently mugged and knocked unconscious (I’ll have to tell that story here sometime). For a few months, I was scared and in pain. But in time, I was completely healed, both physically and emotionally. Growing up in a religion that promised a cure for my homosexuality has taken me much longer to overcome; it tainted my self-esteem for decades and impacted all of my relationships through childhood, adolescence, and college, and through my early adult life. That trauma changed me, yet I still have a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted life.

Elizabeth Smart is a hero of mine. It takes a special person to tell her trauma to others, to stand up and fight back, to raise awareness, to save lives. I can think of other heroes, Judy Shephard and Dave Pelzer come to mind. But Elizabeth tops that list for me. She is a courageous and powerful force for good in this world.

People sometimes tell me that they believe things happen for a reason, that God allowed a trauma to happen to them so that they might learn. Personally, I can’t line myself up with this premise, that a God allows rape, kidnappings, murders, wars, and suicides in order to teach small personal lessons. I think sometimes things just happen, sometimes as a result of our life choices and sometimes as a result of the choices of others, but they happen nonetheless. I do believe in resilience, however. I believe that no matter what a person goes through, they can rebound and learn and grow and come out stronger.

Elizabeth Smart assuredly has.

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the Museum of Death

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A Siamese turtle! An actual Siamese turtle. About the size of my two open hands together, were they joined on the same wrist, the turtle swam  carefully in its large aquarium, positioned on a rock, both its heads above water. The large shell was conjoined, divided in the middle, so the two turtles each had their own heads, front legs, and front shells, but shared the back of the shell and the back legs. It was simultaneously adorable, mystifying, and absolutely frightening.

“How old is this turtle?” I asked the man behind the desk.

He looked up from his phone. “Turtles. Two of them. Twenty years old. The owner got them when they were babies, and they are healthy, so they could live another twenty. Heck, they will probably outlive me.”

I ended up in the Museum of Death on accident. I had been walking around, and literally wound up on its doorstep. Not one to question fate, I walked inside and bought a ticket.

The museum was crowded, with poorly organized displays and walls covered in photgraphs, newspaper clippings, and wordy biographies. The rooms twisted into each other like an old antique shop, with random collections of things shoved haphazardly into each space. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason except for the primary theme: Death. And I had to admit, a lot of the content was startling.

The first room seemed to almost romanticize and celebrate serial killers themselves. There were framed photographs of letters written by serial killers in jail, trading cards with their photos on them, and original artwork done by the killers during their life spans. Busy wordy posters told their life stories, including terrible details about their murders.

By far the most disturbing in this room were the photos of John Wayne Gacy, a gay serial killer who murdered dozens of men, in his clown uniform. Apparently, he used to host children’s birthday parties as a clown named Pogo. He drew himself as Pogo multiple times while in jail, and there the art hung, next to the massive shoes he wore during those days. On the opposite wall, stories about Jeffrey Dahmer, another gay serial killer. I’ve recently researched both men as I look into gay history, and their stories absolutely haunt me.

In the next room, it got worse. An entire room dedicated to the Manson Family murders, along with detailed stories and something I was completely unprepared for: the crime scene photos and the autopsy photos of Sharon Tate and the other victims. In another room, more photos of the like, including the Black Dahlia victim.

More autopsy pictures. Pictures of dead babies and beheaded soldiers. Crash crashes with corpses. Bodies found decomposing in the woods. It was all shocking, horrifying, sadistic, and stomach-turning. I wondered how I was even able to look at these pictures, and then remembered that I watch the Walking Dead and American Horror Story, shows that glorify horror and violence and murder. The difference here: these were real.

I left rooms discussing mass suicides and assassinations and suicides and mass graves and concentration camps. As I walked away, nodding at the Siamese turtle one more time, I contemplated death. Everything dies and decays. Stone cracks and splits, mountains erode, and humans live their lives and pass on to the next, returning to the earth they came from. Death doesn’t bother me. It’s tragic death that gets to me. It’s human cruelty and lives cut short. It’s lost potential and broken relationships.

When I slept, I didn’t have nightmares, I just felt sad. And then I remembered the Siamese turtle, a little creature that defied all odds and has lived decades, in an aquarium in the front of a museum that celebrates and glorifies death. And suddenly that irony brought a smile to my face.

Cold Case

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DAY 1

It’s Sunday, June 28, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it is unseasonably hot, over 100 degrees. I’m grumpy and a little bit mopey today, and the heat just makes me not want to be outside.

I turn on some music and find some projects to keep me busy around the house. Eventually I turn on a few old cold case files online, listening to solved missing persons and murder cases years after the fact due to dedicated detectives, new information, or DNA results. I’ve always been fascinated by these stories, and I love a good mystery, so long as it has a good resolution.

My mind wanders a bit. I’ve been in Utah for four years now, and I find myself fascinated by its rich and complex history, the clash of community with religious culture. I begin wondering about unsolved cases here, and what they might be. I’ve grown familiar with some of the terrible murders that have taken place here over the years. There are some truly horrific stories that come out of this place: Mark Hofmann, Frances Schreuder, Gary Gilmore, the execution of Joe Hill, and, worst of all, the horrific Hi-Fi Murders. Ted Bundy even made some stops here. But what about the unsolved?

I find an attachment to the Utah police department’s website, a section of ‘cold case’ files, unsolved murders and missing persons. Brief photos and paragraphs about unsolved crimes with a number to call with tips. I spend a few hours reading through these sad stories, feeling intrigued, sad, and maybe a little tired at these tragic endings to human lives. Fontella Galloway, age 63, found raped and murdered in her home in 1969. Jan Marie Stavros, age 43, who went missing from her home mysteriously in 2001. Marty James Shook, age 21, who was murdered while hitchhiking in 1982. Rachael Marie Runyon, age 3, who was kidnapped from a playground and murdered in 1982. Carla Maxwell, age 20, who was brutally murdered while working a shift at a 7-11 in 1986. Othea Duncan Wamsley, age 43, who was kidnapped from the grocery store where she worked, killed, and dumped near a canal in 1976.

As I scroll through these cases, I find myself pondering the human condition, how we hurt each other, how we lie and cover things up. How easily we forget those who are lost. How fascinated we are by the salacious and the cruel.

I close my computer and run some errands, but my mind keeps wandering back to one case among the dozens I read. Maybe it’s the wording that intrigues me. Wallace Thornton. Age 25 at the time of his murder from multiple gunshot wounds. Body discovered in a field, frozen. No mention of family or loved ones, but a line that states “was known to have been involved in a lifestyle that brought concerns to him for his safety.” What kind of lifestyle? That word haunts me a bit, and I’m not sure why.

There are three photos linked. One is a face shot of Wallace, looking pleasant, content, blonde hair parted, eyes wide, a small smile on his face. Then two shots of the field where he was found.

As I fall asleep, I find myself wanting to learn more about Mr. Thornton.

(The following from website: https://secure.utah.gov/coldcase/casedetail.html?id=63

Wallace Thornton

MISSING SINCE: 27-01-1975

CASE #: 75-4826

AGE: 25 (DOB: )

HEIGHT: 6′ 0″

WEIGHT: lbs

HAIR: Blond/Strawberry

EYES:

RACE: Caucasian

ABOUT THIS CASE

This is a Unified Police Department cold case homicide. If you have information regarding this case please contact the Unified Police Department, 801-743-5900 or tips@saltlakeupd.org. Case Synopsis: Wallace, age 25, was last seen or heard from on or around January 23, 1975. Wallace was known to have been involved in a lifestyle that brought concerns to him for his safety. Wallace’s body was found on the afternoon of January 27th by county highway workers at approximately 7800 South and 5200 West next to the road in a dry-farm field. Wallace died as the result of multiple gunshot wounds. The specific time of death was indeterminable due to freezing conditions but it is estimated he died several days prior to the discovery of his body.

DAY 2

“Hi, ma’am. How are you today?”

I stand in a back corner of the Salt Lake City library that I’ve never been to before. It’s over 100 degrees outside and it feels great to be in an air-conditioned room. A man who looks like he hasn’t showered or washed his clothes in weeks sits at a computer behind me, singing the lyrics to a Tina Turner song out loud, ear phones in his ears.

The woman behind the records desk is five feet tall and likely in her mid-sixties. Her hair is disheveled and she looks tired and a little grumpy. “I’m just okay. How can I help you?”

“I’m looking for issues of the Salt Lake Tribune from the first two months of 1975.”

“Please fill out that form and I’ll get you the microfiche.”

As I fill out my name and request information, I make small talk. “It sure is hot outside.”

“I hate it!” Her response is sharp and startles me. “It’s June, for God’s sake. I can’t take heat like this all summer.”

I give her an appeasing glance as I hand over the paper. She brings back the microfiche for the two months requested and shows me how to load them into the viewing machine, how to print, and how to sharpen the image.

I think I’ve used microfiche before, back in high school perhaps, but now here I am scanning old newspapers for information on an unsolved murder. I feel like some kind of investigative reporter. Truly, I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I can be innately curious. I have a writer’s brain that won’t let go of ideas sometimes.

The information on Wallace Thornton’s murder in 1975 was scant and full of curious holes. It says he was last heard from on January 23, 1975, and that his body was found in a frozen field by county highway workers on January 27; he may have been dead, from multiple gun shot wounds, for several days, but it was cold so they weren’t sure how long at the time. It also mentioned him being involved in a potentially dangerous “lifestyle.”

I begin searching through the newspaper one page at a time, scanning headlines and articles. I begin on January 23 and go all the way through about February 5. There is no mention of Thornton as a missing person the first several days, and no mention of his body being found on the 27th, which seems strange, as it seems a noteworthy discovery, a 25 year old male dead in a field, murdered.

The paper is comprehensive. Sports, lots of ads, reports on stocks and weather and politics. Fashion tips (“Springy curls, big look in hairstyles”), recipes, reports about the Relief Society being concerned about the pending Equal Rights Amendment.

And the paper isn’t afraid of salacious or violent stories. I read about 18 year old Mark Chandler Austin in Provo who killed his 16 year old wife, Catherine Lorraine Duke, her 7 month old “fetus” in her arms, both stabbed. I read about the brutal killing of 2 Mormon missionaries, Gary Darley and Mark Fischer, killed in Austin, TX by taxidermest Robert Kleasen, age 42, who cut up the bodies with a band saw. I read about the Los Angeles Slasher’s ninth victim, a man with his throat cut, and how they had no suspects.

But no mention of Thornton, not until the 29th, where his name flashes in the funeral announcements.

“Sandy. Funeral services for Wallace Mayo Thornton, 25… who was found dead in West Jordan Jan 27, 1975 of causes pending medical examination… Born April 4, 1949 Salt Lake City to Mayo and Florence Nielson Thornton.” It goes on to mention that he had been married and divorced twice. That he was a truck driver. That he was LDS. It mentions two daughters as well as his brothers, sisters and grandparents.

Dead of causes pending medical examination? Multiple gunshot wounds seems somehow mentionable. I’m baffled by this omission.

I keep searching the paper. Only one more mention, on the day of the actual funeral, simply stating where the funeral and burial were to take place. No more mentions of this in the two weeks after his death.

As I wind the microfiche back up, I feel more curious than ever. What happened to Thornton? Why wasn’t it reported on?

I decide maybe my next stop will be the police station.

DAY 3

I feel funny pulling up to the police building in western Salt Lake City. I run it through in my mind: I’m sure I have been to police stations in the past, yet I can’t recall when. With my work as a social worker, surely, to request a record of an arrest on a foster parent or biological parent. But this is definitely among my first times in one of the buildings.

This is a big one, it feels a bit like a distribution center. It’s enormous and full of rooms. I walk in the main door, and thank goodness for air-conditioning because this week in Utah continues to be unbearably hot.

A good-looking cop in his forties greets me, in uniform, his sleeves rolled up to show tattoos of Chinese characters on both his forearms. He instructs me to set my things down on a belt, empty my pockets, and walk through the metal detector. I ask him about his day and he mumbles something back, hands me my things, and sends me down the hall.

I pass a wall of pictures of fallen officers, men killed in the line of duty over the past 100 years. I see plaques for men who have won awards, photos of community leaders. There are a few officers in the hallways having quiet conversations. I have always had a lot of respect for the police. I know a few personally, both in my family and friend circles, and know how hard they have to work, even in the smallest of towns. Few people are happy to see a policeman–they are either interfering with a crime or arriving after something terrible has happened, and they are rarely thanked for their hard work.

I make my way down to the records room, where a man with a red-headed girl stand in line in front of me, waiting for a file they have requested. The girl looks back at me, then away quickly, then back again. I finally wave and she ducks her head, shy, her face turning bright red. She’s unkempt in a dress she has probably worn for several days in a row. The man she is with, presumably her father, has grease-stained arms and clothing, likely working as a mechanic by day, I think.

After a few minutes, I step up to the window. A beautiful brunette woman asks how she can help me. I explain that I’m seeking information, if it is available to the public, on a 40 year old unsolved murder. She looks baffled. I’m guessing she gets a lot of strange requests for various records, but not many like this. She instructs me to fill out a request form, that requires my name and address, the case, and a few other basics.

The woman then takes the form and asks me to wait for a moment. She gets on the phone behind her desk and stays there for several minutes in an animated conversation. I can’t hear her, but suddenly I wonder what I’m doing here, getting involved in something that has nothing to do with me. Is she calling the homicide detective about me? The case is forty years old, but surely there is a homicide detective still assigned, with a room full of cases in cardboard boxes.

The woman finally returns to the window. “Thank you for waiting. This was an unusual request, so I had to call the assigned homicide detective.”

Oh, crap, I think.

“Even though this case is decades old, there is no statute of limitations on homicides, so it remains an unsolved murder. Records requests are usually for basic police reports or minor crimes. We don’t allow copies of higher status cases out there for several reasons. If you were a family member, you might be entitled to some basic information. As it is, we wouldn’t want to put you in any danger or get you involved.”

I think through everything she has said and it all makes sense. She asks if I want to pay ten dollars to get an official statement from the detective basically saying he can’t give me anything, and I decline. She tells me to have a nice day, and as I walk to my car, I realize my name and request will now be filed in Wallace Thornton’s unsolved homicide file.

A few days later, I realize I’m not done yet. I don’t know why my thoughts are on this case, but I feel drawn to it, like I’m supposed to help somehow. Or maybe I just can’t let go of an idea once I’ve latched on.

I call the local newspaper, the Salt Lake Tribune, and ask if there is a way to do an online database search for Thornton in the past four decades. They give me access to an online search database, and I punch in his name. I see, again, the death announcement and the funeral announcement that I had seen a few days ago when I did my microfiche search in the library. Then I come across one additional article, on the same day as his death announcement, that actually mentions his murder. How had I missed this my first time through?

The very short article showed up on January 30, 1975, next to a one panel cartoon with a father and son driving, and seeing a billboard that reads “Double up, America!” In the cartoon, the father explains, “That refers to carpooling! It’s got nothing to do with co-ed dormitories at school!”

The article reads, spelling mistakes included: “Death Study Continues. Sheriff’s detectives in Salt Lake County continued their investigation Wednesday, following up numerous leads in the death of a man, whose frozen body was found Monday. Wallace Maya Thornton, 25, 5400 S. 3rd West, had been dead about two weeks when Salt Lake County Highway Department employes spotted his body near 7800 South at 6000 West. The victim had been shot three times and lawmen said several suspects are due to be questioned.”

The search of decades worth of newspaper never mentions Thornton again. He’s forgotten, and it makes me sad.

As I go to bed, I turn on Solved, a television show that discusses the closing of cases and details the detective work involved. It randomly shows a story based in Wood’s Cross, Utah, and tells how Lt. Brad Benson opened a 25 year old case that had laid dormant for decades. Karin Strom had been violently murdered, and decades later Brad used DNA from under the fingernails to tie the crime to Edward Owens, who was arrested and convicted. It is possible, it does happen.

Where is justice for Wallace Thornton?

I’m not done yet.

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