I write about crime because I came upon it in the most unlikely of circumstances...
June, 1983. I was seventeen. School was almost out for summer and for a long weekend I’d leave my neighborhood behind and stay with my friend in the city. My hometown, even though just ten miles away, was a different planet altogether; my house barely a mile from farms dotting the hills, and where I lived there were no factories, no trains, hardly any traffic to speak of, really. From my room I heard roosters crow and birds chirp on a nearby wire.
My friend's apartment building was on a busy street with four lanes of steel and tires bumper to bumper, traffic moving like blood flowing through veins. The neighboring houses sat in neat rows like books on a shelf. There was a brewery nearby from where a grain-like scent wafted toward us; a train station with graffiti on concrete walls where garbage blew about; beyond the tracks was a park littered with syringes and empty bottles.
During the day we lathered ourselves in coconut-scented sun lotion but at night, we sneaked past my friend's mother’s bedroom to roam the streets with no specific goal in mind, for thrills, nothing more. The summer of 1983 was my first taste of freedom and, in hindsight, it was also my last. Those few scorching days would prove to be more important than the next ten years of my life.
At night, we left the window open to allow cool air to come into the room. There was a rumble and I wondered if it was thunder but then lights spilled through the window and the noise increased by the minute; a train approached from the distance. First there was a chugga chugga chugga sound, then a horn. As the carriages rumbled over the bridge a stone’s throw from the window, the wheels on the tracks went clink clink clink. The train made it across the bridge and the sound faded and there was silence until the next train approached. All night, in perfectly timed intervals, they’d pass by, their roaring sounds like a call to arms; life, they seemed to say, it’s yours for the taking. Once, we awoke to strange chirping sounds and wings flapping against the ceiling. We switched on the light and a strange fluttering bird scurried out the window—it was leathery and lean and its skin was stretched tightly over its body—a bat. A bat is a symbol of rebirth after all, and the nightly intruder had nothing on our resolve to let in the darkness, we were undeterred, we longed to live dangerously.
On the fourth floor of my friend’s apartment building, we slipped down hallways, tiptoed past her mother’s door, bold and invincible and surrounded by walls made of thick red bricks. The screeching wooden stairs had nothing on our determination to spill into the night, and during those hours, dark as velvet, we smoked and drank and kissed boys in dark alleys with no concern for tomorrow.
We returned home in the early mornings, before the sun came up, and like vampires we avoided the daylight, slept all day and then repeated the same stunt, night after night. And every morning I’d lie awake and listen to the sounds of the city becoming less unfamiliar. The trains, the smells, the bats, the sounds of freedom.
One afternoon we spent in a small yard between buildings where, for a few hours in the afternoon, the sun reached a patch of grass. We spread out towels, turned up the radio, and gossiped the day away. Soon, my pale skin took on a honeyed-dew glow and freckles appeared on my cheeks like constellations in the night sky. On that patch of grass, on top of a towel, I dozed off, but awoke to my friend, breathless, saying “a girl’s gone missing,” and pointed in the general direction of the bridge. “Right over there.” She named the street. It sounded familiar. I don’t remember my reply, but given the fact that we were teenagers, we probably went about our day, not thinking much more of it, believed the missing girl would be found, returned home safely after having wandered off on a whim.
The next day the rumors swirled in the neighborhood; the missing girl as five years old and went to play in the courtyard of her house in the late afternoon. An hour later her parents found the courtyard abandoned and the girl was gone. They called the police. A search team was deployed; police, firefighters, volunteers.
They told us the girl had begged her mother to go outside and play and her mother had given in. Just until dinnertime, she had told her, supposedly, we can’t be sure. There was lots of talk, speculations of what happened, getting lost was one of them, she’s over a friend’s house and has forgotten the time was another. I watched mothers grip the hands of their children tight as they turned away from us to wipe away their tears. I had a sinking feeling myself.
They first spotted her abandoned tricycle, then they found her toys and her clothes in the gardens behind the building. A firefighter discovered the girl’s body in a culvert less than a quarter mile from her house. We asked endless questions no one had answers to. We got bits and pieces though; she was raped, they say, someone else told us she was beaten to death. There were stories we heard from the other tenants in the building; they say the father went mad the second the police told him, and that grown men wept at the sight of her body, and that he will strike again. He took on a menacing vision in my mind of a monster with bloody fangs and a limp as he roamed the streets of the city.
Police begun a search spanning the entire neighborhood. They stopped every car passing by on the busy road in front of the girl’s house, every male between the ages of fourteen to eighty was suspect. The police went door to door interviewing potential witnesses. They came to my friend’s house but there was no interview; she lived with her mother and women weren’t suspects, and I came to understand the concept of a fourteen-year old boy posing a bigger threat than a grown woman.
We sat glued to the TV and through the window suspiciously eyed the neighborhood we used to roam at night. We were thankful for the flickering screen and commercials disrupting the trance we were in. We barely followed movie plots, we didn’t laugh at the funny parts, and I didn’t sleep at night. I didn’t tell anyone but I was convinced that if I closed my eyes, the face of the monster would materialize.
We were curious and we came up with a plan: let’s go see the house, look at the courtyard. We wanted to know how it felt to stand in front of the building, we wanted to see the culvert where they found her body.
How odd. We had passed by this building hundreds of times before on our way into the city, yet there it sat, a witness to a horrible crime. It was rather unassuming, painted in a pale yellow, somewhere between vanilla, lemon chiffon, and butter. It was three stories high and a large gate led into a courtyard. Every corner and every angle of the building seemed to be in a semi-shadow in stark contrast to the cheerful color and to the white and gray buildings beside it with their ornate windows and stucco designs.
I tried to conjure up some sort of image of how it happened.
I see the girl at the gate, just standing there in the square opening, looking left and right, unsure if she should move away or remain in the safety of the courtyard. Maybe she was defiant, didn’t listen to her mother, ventured out to dark places where she had no business being. I imagined her skipping down the sidewalk, and by then I was convinced she must have defied her parents’ rules and left the safety of the courtyard without permission. Did the monster happen to walk by, spot her and make an impulsive decision to take her? Did he approach her, smiling? “Are you lost?” maybe he asked. “Let me take you back home.” Did he reach out and she willingly extended her hand and together they walked through the courtyard and out the back into the gardens, and from there to the culvert?
I wanted to remember how it felt to be five years old. I imagined it to be a time of defiance, when children weren’t particularly obedient, refused to come to dinner when called, ignored requests to pick up their room. What I did remember was that I’d dart ahead of my mother, letting go of her hand despite her rule never leaving her sight but there were so many rules and all of them longed to be ignored.
I tasked myself to imagine the horror of her last moments. It was the least I could do, standing there like a dark tourist, but I had no reference point, I couldn’t imagine the panic and the fear she must have felt. I couldn’t be her, all that came into focus was the killer kneeling over her body, his eyes cold, unwavering in his pursuit to kill.
We all have a story about that summer of 1983. I was on vacation, I visited my grandmother, I took the train to Paris. I was so close to where she was killed—a quarter mile, the way the crow flies, if that—and I wondered what I did the moment the monster shoved her body into the culvert.
The weekend came to an end, I went back to school but the images of the girl remained in my head, had a grip on me.
The horrendous death of the five-year-old girl remained unsolved. There was no arrest. Not in the days to come, not ever. There were no witnesses, there was only an abandoned tricycle and discarded toys and clothes, a beaten and abused body in a culvert, and a phantom of a killer. The police assumed she knew him, given the fact that she so willingly abandoned her tricycle and followed him behind the house and toward the sprawling gardens. In 1983, forensic science was still years away from DNA testing solving crimes, particularly those involving sexual assaults. DNA would be recovered years later, once science caught up, but there wasn’t a match to any profile. The killer’s DNA remained in a box somewhere on a shelf and the fact that police had and still have part of the killer while he continues to remain elusive, is mind-boggling.
Years later, I attended university in the same city, less than a mile from where it all happened. On a nice day, on the top floor, we opened the windows and when the traffic died down, I heard trains crossing the bridge in the distance. The sound still started out inconspicuously, with an almost hypnotic clickety-clack in the distance followed by metallic raucous shrieks as the carriages made their way across. Sometimes I caught a waft of fermentation from the nearby brewery and immediately I was transported back to the summer.
The facts of the case are that the girl’s mother moved away, unable to remain where her daughter was so brutally killed. Her father’s story was as cruel as it was tragic and the rumors we had heard were true: he was committed to a mental institution shortly after her murder where he died two decades later.
For all I know the girl’s death saved my life. Something shifted inside of me; barely lit tunnels and venturing out into the night became a sure guarantee for life to take a dark turn. The feeling sloshed over me with the aroma of beer, the sound of a train approaching, the scent of sun lotion. I was no longer carefree, safety was an illusion, parks were menacing, what looked inconspicuous one moment was hidden by the darkest light the next. Danger was everywhere, could strike at any time, and no one would be the wiser as who’d done it. Little girls didn’t always make it home alive.
It’s been over thirty years and that summer still clings to me, refuses to loosen its grip. Even decades later, when I became a mother, I never learned to trust the world with my daughter's life. I still don't. And every day I don’t know what to do with the evils of the world. And so I write about them.