Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Every Mother's Nightmare

Steve Jackson, Bogeyman

In the middle 1980s, four little girls in two states vanished. Ranging from three to ten years old, they disappeared utterly, leaving behind scanty clues—one dropped lunchbox, a sweatshirt. Only one girl narrowly escaped, witnessing her attacker’s face, but lost her friend to the anonymous monster. Bodies appeared months or even years later, across jurisdictional lines. Before networked investigation databases, police never noticed the connection between various crimes. Without evidence, cases languished for decades.

Veteran true crime author Steve Jackson channels the well-established In Cold Blood tradition of absenting himself from the plot, like a journalist, while constructing a narrative, driven by action and dialog, influenced by novel-writing technique. Jackson’s gradually unfolding story feels familiar to anybody accustomed to reading police procedurals and crime thrillers. The horrifying aspects of Jackson’s narrative, of the very killer every parent dreads their children encountering, become only more eerie because they really happened.

Garland, Texas, police detective Gary Sweet became interested in the unsolved murders one decade later, shortly after earning his detective’s badge, when he discovered the case documents buried inside the building. One decade already cold, the Roxanne Reyes murder had gone cold, lacking evidence. Sweet, a seasoned lawman and Christian convert who considered police work a religious calling, adopted the Reyes murder as personal campaign. But he had no clue how connected this case was.

The killer who murdered Roxanne Reyes proved crafty. He stalked victims assiduously, abducting only those whose absence wouldn’t be missed during those critical hours. He deposited bodies in secluded places, inside somebody else’s jurisdiction, ensuring they wouldn’t be discovered until critical evidence decayed. Everybody assumed his victims, all girls, were sexually assaulted, but evidence rotted away. Some bodies were so deteriorated, families could only identify their daughters by their clothing. No adult ever saw him.

David Penton: literally the man
your mother warned you about
Jackson describes Detective Sweet’s apprenticeship in crime’s most repellent side. Though outsiders often consider Garland just another Dallas suburb, it’s actually a fairly large, self-contained city, with big city crime problems. Sweet, with the dedication common to people who consider themselves on a mission, learned to befriend the most reprehensible criminals, unlock their secrets, and coax confessions from people who have committed acts so heinous, even dedicated crime fans couldn’t tolerate ten minutes beside them.

TV police make crime-solving look like lots of fieldwork, high-tech databases, and combing evidence to build incontrovertible cases. In Jackson’s telling, Detective Sweet actually spends hours, even days, running paperwork, engaging in jurisdictional politics, and finagling advantage wherever he can. Sweet needed to unpack this case gradually, working part-time over a decade while carrying a full load of active cases. Neither glamorous nor exciting, Jackson makes Sweet’s dedicated investigation look remarkably like hard, thankless work.

But humans’ natural tendency to talk proved Robert Penton’s undoing. Imprisoned elsewhere for a murder uncomfortably similar to Roxanne Reyes, Penton began building jailhouse credentials by boasting to fellow inmates of various crimes he purportedly committed, outwitting police and skating scot-free. He managed to offend and disgust even hardened sex offenders, until one finally turned informant. If even a fraction of Penton’s boasts proved true, he surely counts among America’s most prolific child killers ever.

Prodigiously smart but violently damaged, Penton represents every parent’s nightmare, the sexual predator smart enough to outwit police, game the system, and remain perennially undetected. Personally unassuming, Penton travelled widely, following work beneath his intellect. Bosses remember him as an industrious but undistinguished employee. But jobs, for Penton, mattered little. The travelling offered him opportunity to stalk new victims, prolong their torture, and amble away with absolute impunity. Life-altering trauma lingered everywhere in his wake.

Just because he had Penton’s jailhouse braggadocio, however, didn’t mean Sweet had his killer. Lacking physical evidence, and building only from the hearsay testimony of another convicted sex offender, Sweet had an unusually difficult case to construct, connecting Penton to not just Reyes, but four other cases Sweet could identify (others certainly went unidentified). The sketchy evidence, two-decade time lag between crime and conviction, and Penton’s tendency to fabricate, made this Sweet’s hardest case ever.

As police procedurals often do, Jackson starts with an acknowledgement of who committed the real crime, an acknowledgement shocking in both its nature and its specific detail. The only question remains: will Sweet get his man? We know, because we’re reading, that he already did, but Jackson’s telling emphasizes just how tenuous, just how contingent, any criminal case actually is. Even knowing the outcome, the tension leaves us sweating, because Sweet could be us, too.

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