Crime Scanner

Date Published 11.14.11
As in most aspects of life, in crime stories people respond vividly to cases with which they share identifying details.  Nancy Grace insists she labeled the Casey Anthony case "Tot Mom" because it was short and easy, but it's no coincidence that the name also applies to hundreds of thousands of women who fill sippy cups and put away toys while CNN plays in the background, women who wouldn't feel the same emotional pull to, let's say, "Party Girl Murderer."

That I identify with certain victims, and consequently their cases interest me more, has always been an uncomfortable idea for me.  Why should I remember that Anne Barber Dunlap's husband, Brad, claimed that she'd gone to the Mall of America to buy shoes when she disappeared in Minneapolis on New Year's weekend 1995?  Dunlap resembled a friend of mine.  I, too, bought shoes at Mall of America, and at the time of Dunlap's disappearance I lived in south Minneapolis, just blocks from the Kmart parking lot where her body, brutally stabbed, was found in the trunk of her car on New Year's Day.

More details have been picked over in the still-unsolved Dunlap case than will ever be in a more recent Minneapolis homicide.  Last January Krissy Bates, a transgender woman and sex worker, was found dead in her apartment.  The cause of death was "complex homicidal violence."  In the days before her murder Bates had mentioned to acquaintances that she'd recently been sexually assaulted.  A window in her apartment was broken in the incident, but she couldn't get the superintendent to fix it.  A CVS store clerk recalled that a week or so before her murder Bates, who the clerk always enjoyed seeing, came into the store on a cold day not wearing gloves and with a black eye.  Bates mentioned her apartment keys had been stolen.  When the clerk conveyed concern Bates waved it off.

"Yeah, that's life," she said.

Murder victims whose violent end goes mostly unnoticed by the public will have experienced that devaluation in life.  Shock is rarely the response to a life of limited expectations that ends in murder.  When Bates waved off her black eye and freezing hands, she may have been pivoting away from an uncomfortable conversation, but in her nonchalant shrug she was also modeling the world's response to her life, and foreshadowing its reaction to her death.

The good news is that the Bates case did strike a nerve, however small scale, in Minneapolis, especially among the transgender community.  A vigil was held in her honor.  Early on police developed a good lead, and eventually they arrested a man named Arnold Waukazo, who was charged with first-degree murder.  During the police interrogation Waukazo, who was romantically involved with Bates for a short time, demonstrated how he strangled and stabbed her, or, as he termed it, "dispatched" her.  It's unclear whether or not the fact that Bates was biologically male had any influence on motive.

Krissy Bates

Why do certain crime stories leap from the scroll of distressing news?  Recognition.  One of the first crime stories to seize me and keep me from a sound sleep was the murder, in 1985, of fifteen-year-old Kristy Wesselman.  On a muggy July afternoon Kristy headed to her neighborhood Jewel supermarket for a candy bar and some soda.  She never came home.  The next morning a detective searching for her walked along a well-known path that cut through a neighborhood field, a shortcut all the local kids used.  He spotted some trampled grass and followed it for 25 yards, where he found Kristy's body on a bed of leaves between a pair of trees.  She'd been raped and stabbed eight times in the chest.

What I remember about the story is that it was broad daylight.  Houses surrounded the field;  a family reunion was going on just 75 feet from the murder scene, and no one heard or saw anything.  This was Glen Ellyn, Illinois, about twenty miles from where I lived at the time. 

What I remember about the story is that I was fifteen that summer, too.

Kristy's killer was never identified, though they have his DNA.  Last July in hopes of reigniting the case police revealed for the first time that a ring was missing from Kristy's finger; they released a picture of the antique pearl ring, along with information about the case.  As a frightened teenager I felt some boogeyman must have been temporarily skulking through the area on his way somewhere seedier, but now, thinking about the popular neighborhood shortcut and the never-matched DNA, I imagine a classmate of Kristy's living with a terrible secret for the last 26 years.

Kristy's Wesselman's missing ring

Kristy's case made an impression on me because I saw myself, or the possibility of myself, in the story.  I'm as guilty of that constricting viewpoint as anyone, guilty of making much out of cases that aren't necessarily compelling as they are familiar.  Crime stories are important, I think, because they work like a mirror.  They show us how the criminal justice system is working; they show us, in stark relief, who is valued, and who is not.  In the next week I'm going to post about stories that stayed in the shadows, little known stories that might hold big lessons.  I don't even know what they are yet; I just know they're important.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.