OAKTON, Sept. 7 – The social hall of Christ Lutheran Church on Main Street is well-packed this Saturday afternoon. On a sunny day with just a touch of the first crispness of autumn, approximately fifty church-goers have chosen to jam themselves into this dark basement. The adults wear the usual casual attire of weekend leisure: jeans and shorts and tee-shirts. The only oddity about this suburban gathering is that no children appear to be present.
On closer inspection, one child can be seen in the throng. She is in her early teens and is tightly holding the hand of her mother, who offers her food and drink from a nearby table, only to be refused with a mute shake of the head. The refreshments table is littered with a variety of foodstuffs, the most prominent object being a chocolate cake with the words "Welcome Back, Tara!" written on its top.
Harder investigation is needed to find the second child in the room. The only reason his presence can be detected at all is that the corner in which he stands has been vacated by all of the other people in the hall. Otherwise, he is invisible, squeezed behind a pillar in the corner, his right shoulder brushing up against drawings placed on the wall by a Sunday School class. He is in his mid-teens, and he glowers at anyone who invades his privacy.
The minister of the church, distinguishable by his clerical collar, stands exactly halfway between the two children, his gaze shifting from the pillar hiding the boy to the girl who has positioned herself so that her back is to the pillar. He murmurs in bewilderment, "She won't even look at him."
To a stranger, the comment sounds odd. Why should a rape victim look at her rapist?
In April 2000, Janice Wood moved from Chicago to Oakton with her 11-year-old daughter Tara. Her motive for moving was to get away from big-city crime and also to establish a new life after her divorce from Tara's father. Of that divorce Wood refuses to speak, except to say that the divorce was "by mutual decision" and that her former husband willingly granted her custody of Tara, believing that she would be the best primary parent for the girl.
Wood had lived in the city all her life, following in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents. She is a fourth-generation Japanese-American, and her grandparents were among the American citizens who were incarcerated in concentration camps by the U.S. government during World War II.
Although both Wood and her daughter share Japanese looks, Wood knows little about her Asian heritage, saying that her parents were both half-Japanese and that neither made mention of their heritage except in passing. Nor did Wood speak much of the matter to Tara, whose father is not of Japanese lineage.
If Wood had moved to Oakton two generations ago, she might have found that a Japanese-American who was a single parent would receive a cool reception in a country town made up almost entirely of two-parent Caucasian families. By 2000, though, Oakton's character had changed: the town had grown more multicultural, with a substantial minority of blacks and Hispanics and a smaller Asian population. Many of the town's children, whether they were white or people of color, came from families living in non-traditional patterns.
Wood and her daughter settled easily into the community, befriending neighbors, work colleagues, and schoolmates. In August 2000, deciding that her daughter ought to receive a religious education, Wood began attending Christ Lutheran Church. Wood, who was raised Methodist, says that she chose the church because it was close by and because it had "good programs for children."
Christ Church indeed had a full range of programs for the church's children. The Rev. Matthew N. Arnoldson, who became minister of the church in 1998, had revamped the Sunday School programs in an effort to attract more families in a town that had once been predominantly Lutheran, but which was now predominantly Catholic or non-Christian.
Among the decisions Rev. Arnoldson made was to teach the senior high and junior high students together, pairing each senior high child with a junior high child, so that the older child could serve as a mentor to the younger.
Rev. Arnoldson still takes pride in this decision, which he says allowed him to pair the church's children across racial and ethnic lines. "There is more prejudice in this town than most people like to admit," he says. "By having children work together who are of different backgrounds in race, ethnicity, gender, and class, I can help to make them all 'one body,' as St. Paul puts it."
On September 3, 2000, Tara attended her first session of Sunday School. Now 12 years old and beginning junior high school, she was paired with a 15-year-old tenth-grader of Norwegian heritage, who lived in the poorer section of town. According to Rev. Arnoldson, Tara and her mentor, Erik Petersen, got along fine.
Back in the church basement, Rev. Arnoldson is trying to persuade Erik to emerge from his hiding place. The boy glares at him. "I don't know why you're making me go through this [expletive] farce," he growls.
The minister, looking round, notices that the boy's remark has been overheard by an observer and smiles apologetically.
The observer – one of only two people in the room who do not belong to the church – is a reporter for the town paper. In other words, he is myself. Most of the other adults in the room are long-time congregants, hand-picked for this delicate mission of allowing Tara to confront her rapist for the first time since her rape.
What Rev. Arnoldson is attempting to pull off here is known as victim/offender mediation, one of several practices collectively known as restorative justice. The theory behind restorative justice is that the traditional confrontational mode of justice harms the victims of the crime and increases the possibility of offenders re-offending. Advocates of restorative justice wish to replace the present form of justice – in which offender and victim are pitted against each other as perpetual enemies – with practices intended to bring healing to the victim and her community.
Walter P. Rosenbaum of the Oakton Restorative Justice Commission is an enthusiastic supporter of victim/offender mediation.
"The old idea was that a victim should never have the opportunity to meet his or her offender except in court," he says. "The new idea is that the victim should be offered the opportunity to speak to his or her offender, to question the offender about the crime, and to tell the offender what he or she thinks of the offender's conduct. Likewise, the offender should have the opportunity to express regret for what he or she has done and to do whatever is possible to provide recompense."
Rosenbaum stresses that the meeting between offender and victim is only part of a larger process intended to bring about healing on both sides. "Typically, the mediator will have many, many meetings with the offender and victim separately, before they're given the opportunity to meet each other. In this way, the victim can work through his or her feelings about the crime, and the offender can be brought to understand what damage he or she has committed."
One common misconception about victim/offender mediation, Roseubaum says, is that the victim must forgive the offender.
"That's not at all the case," he says. "The offender's job is to apologize for what he or she has done. The victim may accept the apology, and if so, we believe that the victim's healing will be furthered by this willingness to forgive. But it's not a requirement. The only requirement is that the offender be willing to listen to what the victim has to say and to offer his or her regret for the crime."
Rosenbaum's office was not consulted concerning the meeting between Tara and her rapist. When told that such a meeting had been arranged by a minister who had no formal training in mediation, Rosenbaum expresses his concern.
"I don't think that's at all a good idea," he says. "Mediation is like any other profession – it takes training to be good at it. Trying to practice mediation without training is like trying to practice medicine without training. The results can be disastrous."
By the time Rosenbaum says this, however, the meeting between Tara and Erik is only two hours away.
Erik Petersen is a sixth-generation resident of Oakton, his family having moved here soon after they emigrated to America, attracted by the town's large Norwegian Lutheran population. Like Tara, Erik's parents are divorced, though in his case the divorce took place when he was a baby. Erik's father, Ed Petersen, has offered the press various versions of how that divorce occurred, none of the versions matching the others.
Neighbors and classmates testify that Erik has always been a quiet boy. This is in stark contrast with his father, who has been prone to disturb his neighbors with shouts in the evening and beer parties for friends on the weekend.
At school, Erik was a poor scholar, barely managing to pass his classes each year. Daniel Drake, a geometry teacher at Oakton Senior High, said he initially thought the boy's poor work was due to laziness.
"Then I saw him and his father together at a supermarket," he told the press later. "Erik was looking the same way he did in my classes, sulky and defiant. And his father was screaming at him at the top of his lungs because Erik had taken margarine off the shelf rather than butter."
After visiting the Petersen home to discuss Erik's work with his father, Drake says he began to suspect that Erik was the victim, not only of emotional abuse, but of physical abuse as well.
"There was something about the way the boy shrank back whenever his father came near him," says Drake. "His father was being affable to me, expressing regret that his son wasn't doing well in class, and promising to discuss the matter with Erik later. And he smiled at Erik as he said this, and the boy shrank further against the wall."
At school, Drake questioned Erik privately about his family life, but the boy stonily maintained that all was well between him and his father. Lacking proof that any abuse was taking place, and fearing that the boy would lose trust in him if he involved the authorities, Drake instead invited Erik to join his extracurricular math club.
Erik did so, but from the start, matters did not go well; the other members of the club, who were gifted in mathematics, resented the "clod-brain," as one of them put it. They spread word that Erik was a teacher's pet, and soon Erik had become the object of derisive laughter from the other students at the school.
Drake's attempts to repair the damage he had done were cut short when, in November 2000, Erik abruptly quit the math club and began avoiding Drake. Drake would later learn that Erik no longer desired his teacher's company because he had made new friends.
In the church basement, Rev. Arnoldson emerges from behind the pillar in a state of excitement. "Erik has agreed to grant you an exclusive interview," he announces and pulls me by my sleeve toward the corner.
Sensing that this interview will be short, I send away the minister and cut to the quick with the boy. "Do you regret what you did?" I ask.
Erik is silent a moment, then mumbles something about being drunk that day.
"But do you regret having raped Tara?" I persist.
I return to the rest of the gathering to find that Rev. Arnoldson has paused at the refreshments table to pour himself a cup of punch. He surveys the room, evidently satisfied with the turn-out.
I ask Rev. Arnoldson why he chose to have Tara and Erik meet at a public gathering, rather than in private, as is traditional in victim/offender mediation.
It turns out that the minister has strong opinions on the subject. "The family is often present in victim/offender meetings, especially in cases involving crimes by or against young people. But secular mediators interpret the word 'family' to mean the nuclear family. From a Christian point of view, the church is our family. When this terrible event occurred earlier this year, the first people that Janice turned to were the members of her congregation – that shows the central place that the church plays in her life."
Arnoldson adds that he believes a large gathering like this is easier on both Tara and Erik. "They're not immediately forced to talk with one another – they can stay on separate sides of the room until Tara is ready to talk. At that point, if Tara wishes, they can meet in private, with only their immediate family members present."
I ask whether Erik's family is here, and Rev. Arnoldson frowns. "We invited Erik's father, of course," he said. "But an emergency came up at his workplace, and he only had time to drop Erik off at the church. Employers are making it harder and harder for fathers and mothers to keep a stable family life."
He discusses this for several minutes before I steer the conversation back to its previous subject. Why, I ask, was the press invited to this gathering?
Rev. Arnoldson's face lights up; I have evidently hit upon another of his favorite subjects. "This story was a religious one from the very start, though the secular media ignored that. The fact that the children first met in Sunday School, Janice's desire to draw assistance from her church community, Erik's comment about deserving to go to hell . . . God and God's community permeate this tragic tale, in a way that I hope you will be able to make clear to the world."
I ask him why, if he is concerned solely with the religious aspects of what will happen today, he did not invite a reporter from his own denomination's publications, rather than a reporter for a secular paper.
"Oh, but it's important to break down barriers between religious and secular life," he says. "Just as it is important to break down barriers between amateur and professional work, in a way that you say disturbs Mr. Rosenbaum of the Resotrative Justice Commission. That is what Christianity is about: breaking down barriers between rich and poor, black and white, offender and victim. What you will see in this basement today," he predicts, "is the personification of why Christianity is necessary in our troubled world."
Trying to bring the conversation back to a more mundane level, I ask him whether he had the opportunity to talk much with Tara and Erik before this meeting.
"Tara has been a bit shy about talking with me," he admits. "But I've spoken at length with her mother, and I think I have a good understanding of what the girl is going through. As for Erik . . . Well, he's difficult to talk with under the best of circumstances. But I'm quite convinced that he regrets what he did.
"You will see," he adds. "And through your witness, you will be able to bring balance to the never-ending series of news articles on church scandals. Your presence here today will bring benefit to the church."
He is hailed by one of his flock and walks away before I can ask whether my presence will bring benefit to Tara.
Lola Tyson, a juvenile parole officer with the state police, says that Erik's experiences at home and school are by no means unusual these days.
"A couple of generations ago, communities were closer knit," she says. "Neighbors knew neighbors, and schools were smaller. If the kids began to have troubles, everyone around would know it at once. That was why a lot of parents chose to move to towns in the country: they wanted to remove their children from the anonymity of the big city. But that's all gone now. I hate to say it, but Oakton's change from a homogenous community to a multicultural one has coincided with a sharp rise in juvenile delinquency. It's not for the reasons that people say, that minority children are less well behaved. It's because people in the town no longer look out for each other. The town has become divided into little ethnic enclaves, and if a kid's troubles don't happen to be noticed by his particular ethnic group, he falls through the cracks. Most of the kids, lacking community support, end up joining gangs."
None of the boys who befriended Erik in the fall of 2000 regarded themselves as a gang. They later insisted that they were united only by a shared interest in the military, with three out of the group's five members planning to join the armed forces once they graduated. To an outsider, though, the group clearly shared other features. All of the boys came from working-class families, and most of them had parents who were either missing from home or occupied with work. All of the boys were white, and all shared the Norwegian ancestry of the town's founders. Four came from Lutheran families, although they no longer attended church. And all of them were in their senior year of high school, seventeen or eighteen years of age.
Erik, only fifteen, was invited to join this elite because his father had recently given a talk at the local VFW post about his experiences in Vietnam. The boys had attended the talk and had noticed Erik in the audience. They decided that, by virtue of his descent from a real soldier, Erik deserved to join the group. Amidst the mockery of the other children at school, the boys offered Erik their friendship.
The group – now expanded to six members – met several times a week, usually in the garage owned by the family of Leo Svensen. Leo was the unacknowledged leader of the group, being older than the rest and the first to declare his intention to join the military. He guided the other boys into lively discussions of military tactics, though occasionally the boys' conversation would wander to other topics, such as girl troubles. Two of the group's members were dating steadily; one was gay, though this fact would not emerge until later; and the other three, including Erik, were not dating anyone at present. Erik, in fact, had not yet dated anyone.
The boys kept Erik busy quizzing his father for information about the war in Vietnam. This interest on Erik's part seems to have lessened the amount of conflict between Erik and his father; neighbors reported later that Ed Petersen had fewer shouting sessions during this time, and Drake noticed that Erik's schoolwork had improved. Drake made a few enquiries about Erik's new friends and learned nothing worse of them than that they had unsuccessfully tried to start a firearms safety club at school. He let the matter go, glad that others had been able to help Erik where he could not.
Meanwhile, Erik's Sunday School classes continued. Although not a practicing Lutheran himself, Petersen insisted that Erik attend church and Sunday School each week, and apparently Erik's new friends had no objection to this activity, considering his reasons for staying connected with the local Lutheran church to be ethnic rather than religious. Erik continued to work with Tara on their assignments, though it was becoming increasingly clear that Tara, who had high grades in her classes, was doing more of the work than Erik. It is not clear how Erik regarded this reversal of roles.
On March 4, 2001, on a cold, cloudy Saturday morning, the six boys assembled in Leo's garage. All of them had reports to give. Charles Bergsvik had seen Glory, a movie about a black regiment in the American Civil War, and he wanted to discuss the military accuracy of the film. Guy Gjerdsbakk had been turned down for the spring dance by Ivy, a popular Korean-American girl. Leo had bookmarked some online news articles about the Navy that he wanted the others to look at, while Nathan Olsen and Joseph Hansen had gone to a firearms demonstration at the local police station and wanted to talk about what they had seen.
As for Erik, he had sneaked to the boys a case of his father's whiskey. He also bore the news that his father had told him that some of the American soldiers in Vietnam had raped enemy women.
What happened next is disputed. Leo claims that he tried to turn the subject back to the news articles about the Navy. Erik, on the other hand, said that Leo responded to his comment by saying, "Well, it's not the same when you rape slopes."
Both boys agree that the conversation then veered into a discussion of the Asian-Americans at school. Joseph expressed his anger that he might not get a B in his English class because the instructor graded by the curve, and the class was filled with Asian-Americans who, Joseph reportedly said, "have an unfair advantage." Guy, apparently still steaming over his failure to get a date with Ivy, expressed the opinion that Asian girls were just naturally nasty.
The other boys were reluctant to frame their opinions in racial terms, but they all agreed that girls were more trouble than they're worth.
Erik, who had said little throughout the conversation, appeared not to want to pursue a conversation on the mystery of girls' ways. Instead, he suggested that they check the Web to see what information they could find on the American soldiers' rape of North Vietnamese women.
The other boys readily agreed; they often checked the Internet for information on military history. All of them trooped into the house and up to Leo's bedroom, clutching their bottles of whiskey. The house was otherwise empty, as Leo's parents were both at work, and his younger brothers had been sent to the neighbors to be cared for.
The boys did a keyword search on a search engine. The first link they turned up was an academic article about American atrocities in Vietnam. Perceiving a liberal bias in the article, the boys went on to the second link. This proved to be a group of pornographic pictures purporting to show American soldiers raping Vietnamese women.
At that point, Leo would later report, "things got real quiet."
It was not the first time the boys had looked at pornography together, but their previous pictures had been relatively tame pin-ups from magazines that Leo had bought at chain bookstores during occasional visits to the city. This was the first time the boys had ever looked together at pictures depicting what appeared to be sexual violence. No one made any objections to the content of the pictures, though Charles would later claim that he turned his eyes away to look at other objects in the room.
Nathan, who was the typist, changed the keywords to narrow their search to pornography. The boys turned up more pictures and soon discovered they had an expert navigator in their midst: Nathan, unbeknownst to the other boys, had amassed a large collection from the Internet of what he described as "fantasy rape pictures." He was able to tell the boys where to find the major archives of such images.
At the end of two hours of searching, Nathan sat back in his chair, exhausted from typing. A pause fell upon the group. Then Leo said, "This is boring. Let's go do it for real."
Leo would later claim that his remark was misunderstood by the other boys. He said that he believed the pictures they were looking at all featured consenting models, and he was only proposing that they find a girl who would be willing to pose for such pictures.
None of the boys replied, apparently nonplussed by Leo's suggestion. Then, by the testimony of both Leo and Erik, Erik spoke for the first time since they had begun surfing the Internet.
"If you want a slope," he said, "I know where to find one."
Janice Wood has been unsuccessfully trying to persuade her daughter to eat some of the French Vanilla ice cream that is slowly melting in the container next to them. Tara shakes her head, but she seems to have a harder time refusing the petitions of nearby adults to speak with her. She listens to their friendly words, staring at the ground and occasionally nodding and answering in monosyllables.
Her mother, taking a few steps away to slice a piece of cake for her daughter, emits a sigh. She is modestly dressed in a sack dress that ends just above her knees, a cotton sweater, low heels, a faux pearl necklace, and a handbag that matches the dark blue of her dress. She wears no makeup.
By contrast, her daughter is wearing stiletto heels, a tight miniskirt, a sleeveless blouse that is bare at the midriff, hoop earrings, silver eyeshadow, and red lipstick and nail polish.
I ask Wood, as tactfully as I can manage, whether this is Tara's normal way of dressing.
Wood sighs again as she looks back at her daughter. "It's not the best outfit for this type of gathering, is it? She wanted to look her best, though, and I was afraid to say anything about her choice of clothes in case she'd think I was saying that she was to blame for the rape, because she used to wear clothes like this around Erik. It's not her fault in the least. It's never the victim's fault."
She says these words as though they are an oft-recited mantra. I express sympathy with her for the problems of getting teenage children to dress properly, and she relaxes.
"They grow up so early these days," she says. "At six, Tara was begging for earrings because many of the other girls at school had them. At eight, she wanted to wear makeup. I finally told her that she could wear a young woman's clothes when she went to junior high. I started dating in junior high, so I figured that would be okay. . . . I wonder sometimes whether it was my bad judgment that helped bring about this whole mess."
She is gazing at Tara now with pain in her expression. I again express sympathy with the difficulties of parenting, then ask her whether this meeting was Tara's idea or Rev. Arnoldson's.
"Matthew proposed the idea," she said, "but I discussed it with Tara. I think she thought at first that, if she forgave Erik, it had to be because he really hadn't done anything wrong. So we read the New Testament together, especially the scene where Jesus was being taken off to be crucified, and he forgave his tormentors. That was the worst crime in the world, to murder the son of God, and Jesus knew this when he forgave the men who were torturing him. In the same way, St. Stephen knew how evil the men were who martyred him, yet he forgave them. You know, one of the men who stood by while Stephen was murdered was Paul. If Stephen hadn't forgiven Paul and the others, perhaps Paul wouldn't have gone on to repent of his sins and to help found the Christian church."
It is an attractive image, of a wicked man being struck down by a flash of light revealing to him his evil nature. The image is made all the more attractive by the quiet strength of Wood's voice as she speaks her simple defense of the power of forgiveness. Then her voice falters again as she looks at her daughter, who is refusing another offer of ice cream from a church member. "I thought she understood our conversation," Woods says. "I'm not entirely sure now."
I ask Wood whether she welcomes having the press present at this event.
She does, but her reason is different from Rev. Arnoldson's.
"I want closure," she says. "For me and for Tara. Even though the worst of the media circus is over, it still goes on, endlessly. Because Erik wasn't sent to prison, the media keeps waiting for there to be a follow-up story: they're expecting Erik to rape Tara again, or Tara to murder Erik. . . I'm sorry to be so cynical, but it's hard when you arrive home from a long day's work to discover that your daughter, while playing in the neighbor's yard, has been surrounded by a camera crew that is trying to interview her. Some of those people are just vultures."
Then she remembers that she is talking to a member of the media, and she begins to apologize at length. I glance over at the girl, compliantly listening to another church member. I had thought that her passiveness was due to the effects of her rape, but now I am beginning to suspect that the source of her inaction lies deeper.
On March 4 at 12:40 p.m., at the same moment that six boys were busy rifling through a church telephone directory that Leo's parents owned, Janice Wood, who worked as a sales clerk at a mall store, received a call from her supervisor. The supervisor told her that the regular sales clerk for Saturday had fallen sick, and Wood would need to come in to substitute for a few hours. Since jobs were scarce in town, Wood readily agreed.
Normally, during the two hours between the time school let out and the time Wood returned home, Tara was cared for by the next-door neighbor, who had several children of her own. Today, however, the neighbor and her children were attending a picnic sponsored by their Baptist church. Tara insisted that she could take care of herself, pointing out that she had begun to babysit recently. Her mother reluctantly left the house, showing urban caution by leaving orders that Tara should not open the door to anyone.
At 1:30, a heavy thunderstorm descended upon Oakton. At 1:50, the doorbell rang at the Woods' house. Looking through the peep-hole of the front door, Tara saw that Erik was standing outside, plastered to the skin with water. Apparently interpreting her mother's command to mean that she should not let strangers into the house, Tara opened the door.
Erik told her that he had been caught without an umbrella in the thunderstorm, and he asked permission to come inside until the rain stopped. Tara willingly let him in, though she thought to ask how he knew where her house was.
"I saw your address in the church directory once," he replied.
Tara gave him her mother's raincoat to keep him warm, then went into the kitchen to make hot cocoa for him. As soon as she was gone, Erik opened the front door and let the other boys in.
I am one of two people in the church basement who is not a member of the church. The second person is the Woods' next-door neighbor, Beth Walsham.
Walsham eyes me with suspicion when Rev. Arnoldson introduces us, then leaves us to talk together. "Do you carry a camera?" she asks abruptly.
I assure her that the only object I am carrying is my recorder, which is in plain view. She nods, satisfied. "Can't stand those reporters who flash their cameras through people's windows," she says. "I think they all ought to be locked up for being peeping-toms."
Walsham has scathing remarks to make about all aspects of the media coverage of Tara's case.
"Let me tell you something, she says. "I'm a woman, I'm black, and I was beaten by my father when I was a child. I think I know when people are prejudiced toward someone because they're of another gender or race or age. But you media people have been ignoring what's right in front of your nose in this story. All that talk about racially motivated crimes. . . Do you know what Erik's father was giving a talk about the day that Erik first met those other boys? Petersen was praising the work of the South Vietnamese soldiers he fought alongside. Whatever else Petersen may be, he's not a bigot, and he didn't teach his boy to be a bigot. And Leo, he won an award in school for an essay he wrote about the benefits of having blacks and women in the Navy. As for Guy, if he was so taken against Asians, why was he trying to date one? No, all that talk about hate crimes is just red herrings. The things those boys said against Asians and women was just superficial talk. It wasn't the real reason they attacked Tara."
Fascinated, I ask her what she thinks Erik's real motive was for committing his crime. Glancing at Rev. Arnoldson, who is talking nearby, she beckons me to lean toward her. I do so.
"Evil," she whispers, pointing at the corner where Erik can just barely be glimpsed. "That boy's evil – can't you see it in his eyes?"
Erik's parole officer, Lola Tyson, is similarly skeptical of media explanations for the crime.
Speaking in her office on the day before the church social, she says, "The media, like the courts, like people to fit into simple categories. In their eyes, a person is either a victim or he's a victimizer. In a case like this, where the victimizer is also a victim, the media is confused. Their tendency is to try to put the offender in one category or the other."
Tyson argues that either/or categorization is doomed to failure. "There are just too many things we don't know about what causes people to become criminals. We know that children who are abused are at higher risk for abusing others, but we also know that most abuse victims never commit crimes. We know that some children who come from picture-perfect families commit horrendous crimes. We're still trying to figure out all the factors that go into making up the criminal mind, and in the meantime we struggle."
I ask her what the prospects are for someone like Erik, who has already committed a crime.
While declining to speak specifically about Erik's case, Tyson confirms that violent offenders tend to re-offend.
"This either/or categorization is hard on the offender who wants to live a straight life henceforth," she says. "If, for example, a juvenile offender is in a bad family situation and should be moved out, it's unlikely that, if his crime is publicized, the state will be able to find a foster family for him. There's an overall tendency by society to ostracize offenders, even young offenders, and to treat them as irreformable. Once a juvenile is classified as a criminal, it's difficult to get people to see that he could be anything else in his life. If he has the support of family or friends . . . But without that, I'm afraid that the prospects for recovery into a normal life are quite low."
She adds, "I don't want to make it sound as though the offender is a passive instrument in the hands of society. A great deal depends on his mind-set. I've seen offenders spend thirty years in prison and emerge determined to live a lawful life. On the other hand, some folks give up so early on. . . Ultimately, it's up to the offender. If he's not willing to put his heart into turning his life around, then nothing that I or anyone else can do will help him."
Walsham has another way of putting it. "That boy has a made a pact with the devil," she says, "and not all the tortures of hell are going to make him regret what he's done."
What exactly happened after Erik let the other boys into the Woods' house is not publicly known. Because the victim was a minor, this portion of the testimony was sealed by the courts, though it was widely reported in the media that the boys used a kitchen knife to subdue their victim into submission.
Erik and Leo agree that two boys left the moment the attack began. One of the boys was Leo, who would later tell police that he had planned to report the crime, but that his father had trained him never to speak to the police without a lawyer present. Leo says that he wasted much time trying to track down his father at work in order to ask his advice on how to locate a lawyer. By the time his father told him he should go the police at once, the police were already searching for Leo. Leo was arrested and became one of two boys who cooperated completely with the police.
The second boy to quickly leave the scene of the crime was Charles. Although he refused to speak to the police, he testified at his trial that he had not gone to the police because he feared that the police would question him about sexual matters and it would become publicly known that he was gay. Referring to the other boys, he said, "They'd just kill me if they knew they'd been hanging out with a fag."
The other four boys remained at the Woods house until approximately 4 p.m., at which point they went their separate ways. Nathan and Joseph went to Nathan's house; when the police arrived, they discovered that the boys were surfing the Internet for more images of rape. Guy went home and passed out in his bed, apparently from the effects of the whiskey. He was still asleep when the police arrived.
This odd lack of concern by the three boys as to the consequences of their actions was not mirrored in Erik's case. What happened to him, though, is disputed by the two primary witnesses.
Erik's father claims that he came home from work in late afternoon to discover his son sitting on the living room couch, awaiting him. He says that Erik's first words to him were, "I've done something I should go to hell for." Erik then confessed his crime, whereupon his father urged him to give himself up to the police. According to Petersen, they were on the point of leaving the apartment to go to the police station when the police arrived.
Marie Hernandez gives a different story, though. At about 5:30 p.m., the same time at which Janice Wood arrived home and phoned 911 to report that her daughter had been raped, a disturbance began in the Petersen household. Hernandez said that this was only one of many fights she had overheard between Petersen and his son, but she had ignored the others, since her cousin had been shot dead when he tried to interfere in a domestic quarrel at his city apartment building.
According to Hernandez's testimony in court, the fight began over the missing whiskey. Hernandez says that she heard Erik say over and over, "I didn't do anything!" Petersen is said to have replied to this, "Don't you try your [expletive] with me, you little [expletives]! I can smell the [sperm] on you. Which of those boyfriends of yours f—ed you?"
Hernandez says that Erik hotly denied the accusation. Hernandez did not hear the next few minutes of the conversation, since she went downstairs to the basement to retrieve her laundry. By the time she came upstairs again, the fight had reached an elevated level, with Petersen bellowing invectives at his son.
Apparently Erik had been persuaded by this time to confess to his wrongdoing, for Hernandez heard Petersen shout, "You deserve to die and go to hell for that!" Hernandez says that Erik's response to this was to scream.
Although she had heard many arguments between her two neighbors, never before had Hernandez heard the boy scream. She told the court that "it sounded like the noise a rat makes when you're about to do it in." Filled with momentary courage, Hernandez rapped on the wall with her laundry detergent bottle and shouted to her neighbors that she had called the police.
Then, in the silence that followed, Hernandez fled to her bedroom, locked the door, and called 911, as much for her own safety as for the boy's.
At 5:55 p.m., the police arrived at Oakton Central Hospital, where they would eventually be told that the rape victim who had just been admitted for treatment refused to speak to them. Although Wood would testify to what little she knew, her daughter refused to tell the police the identity of her attacker, saying only that she "wanted to forget it all."
At around the same time, a second squad car descended upon the Petersen apartment, alerted by Hernandez's phone call. When the police knocked, Petersen opened the door to a scene of deceptive calmness. Under his father's watchful eye, Erik proceeded to confess to the crime he had committed. A police officer who was present later told the papers, "There was no emotion in the boy's voice as he reported what he'd done. And his eyes were colder than those of any hardened criminal I've ever known."
Tara huddles against her mother's side as Wood tries, yet again, to persuade her to eat some of the now-softened ice cream. Several church members, sensing a developing crisis, come over to ask whether they can help. Tara's gaze darts around the room like that of a furtive animal, finally falling upon me, standing nearby as I murmur notes into my recorder.
She appears to make a decision. Taking from her mother's hands the proffered Styrofoam bowl and ice cream, she pulls away from the crowd gathering around her and begins to stalk across the church hall. Silence abruptly falls as people notice where she is headed. Rev. Arnoldson's vision of an inconspicuous first meeting between rapist and rape victim has been shattered by the reality of people's curiosity.
Erik, no doubt alerted by the sudden silence, peers round the pillar, just as Tara reaches him. He takes a step back, then holds his ground, his face chill as he stares at the young girl. For a moment, the two of them are frozen that way, like figures in a stained glass window. Then, without warning, Tara flings the bowl at his face.
The bowl falls short, but the ice cream splatters against Erik's face, covering his mouth and nose. He has not moved, not even to make an instinctive duck. As the yellow-white globs of ice cream trail down his face onto his neck and shirt, Wood runs forward and pulls her daughter back, as though fearing the consequences of what has happened.
Rev. Arnoldson, the second to arrive on the scene, goes over to Erik and places his hand on Erik's shoulder, though whether in comfort or to hold the boy back is not clear.
The boy moves finally, wiping some of the ice cream off his face with his sleeve. He says in a disgusted voice that he does not bother to lower, "This is all sh—. Can I go home now?"
His eyes have not moved from Tara. The girl has buried herself in her mother's arms and is crying.
Four out of the six boys refused to speak to the police, although Charles would later offer testimony in his own defense at the trial. Even without Tara's evidence, though, the police had a strong enough case to proceed forward, for the independent witnesses of Erik and Leo matched except in small details.
Despite the fact that Leo and Erik agreed that Tara's age had not been a factor they considered in choosing her, the police decided to treat the rape as a child abuse crime, turning the testimony over to the state's child exploitation unit. This became a turning point in the handling of the case, for the town newspaper, which ordinarily underplayed news about crimes committed against minors, could not ignore a case that was being handled by the state police. An investigative reporter was assigned to the story, who managed to obtain a copy of Leo's and Erik's testimony to the police concerning the fatal conversation about "slopes" that had taken place in Leo's house.
This news was reported in large headlines on page one of the paper, causing the town to erupt, not so much with concerns about children's safety, as to concerns about the police's handling of the case.
The local Asian-American Anti-Defamation Consultation submitted to the police their strong objection that the case was not being treated as a racially motivated hate crime. The Oakton Alliance for Women's Concerns told the town paper that the boys were obviously motivated by misogyny, as was clear from their remarks that girls were more trouble than they were worth. The Liberals United League argued that, on the contrary, the boys' unhealthy interest in the right to bear arms showed where their true motives lay, and the league stressed that greater restrictions should be placed on the ability of civilians to obtain the firearms that had undoubtedly been used in this crime. The Conservative Caucus responded with a radio show about the manner in which liberal views on sexuality lead to divorces and juvenile delinquency. Meanwhile, rumors had begun to travel around town that one of the boys who had not taken part in the rape was gay. This prompted the university's gay student club to hold a rally in order to bring public attention to the destructive effect of anti-gay sentiment. If gays did not fear for their own safety, the club members claimed, they would be more ready to report crimes committed against others.
In reaction to all this, the director of the Tri-County Save the Kids Foundation wrote a lengthy editorial in the town paper, arguing that the police had been right in the first place in their belief that the victim was targeted because she was young and would therefore be more powerless to resist her rapists than a grown woman would have been.
All of this publicity was more than the big-city papers could resist, even had it been possible for them to resist the combination of child abuse, racial tension, gender bashing, political ideologies, and sexual orientation. City reporters descended by the dozens upon the town of Oakton, quickly followed by journalists from the national news services. "White Supremacist Pedophiles Molest Young Asian Girl" was a typical headline.
In all of the news reports, the papers were careful not to publish the name of the victim. Her identity, though, was well known in the community, which resulted in the "media circus" that Wood would later complain about.
On May 16, 2001, in the most crowded courtroom that Oakton had ever seen, the six boys were placed on trial for their crimes. Under the advisement of the state police's child exploitation unit, all six were tried as adults.
Three of the boys – 17-year-old Guy Gjersbakk and Nathan Olsen, and 18-year-old Joseph Hansen – had refused to cooperate with the police and had issued pleas of not guilty. They were all found guilty of molestation of a minor and sentenced to ten years imprisonment each.
Leo Svensen, 18, and Charles Bergsvik, 17, had both been charged with criminal conspiracy. They both offered testimony in their defense and were sentenced to only six months imprisonment each.
The fourth rapist was Erik. Since he was less than four years older than the victim, state law required that he be charged with simple rape rather than child molestation. Because of his age, his willingness to cooperate with the police, and the testimony offered by Marie Hernandez and Daniel Drake concerning his troubled relationship with his father, Judge Randolph Clarke elected to suspend Erik's sentence and to order that his records be cleared at age eighteen if he should keep out of trouble with the law until that time.
The trial over, the media lost most of its interest in the case. The convicted young men were sent to prison, Erik was sent home to the man whom two witnesses had openly accused in court of abusing his son, and Tara and her mother received fewer enquiries from the media. Tara's next appearance in public would not come until nearly four months later, when she and Erik would appear at a church social held in her honor.
The church social ends swiftly after the ice cream has been thrown. Rev. Arnoldson disappears into the men's room with Erik, while Wood takes her daughter into the women's room at the other end of the hall. The guests depart relatively quietly, though several have started to dial on their cell phones.
Walsham joins a few remaining church members in clearing up the mess. As Walsham scoops up the last piece of cake for Tara to take home, she mutters, "Pact with the devil. I could see it in his eyes."
I hand her an empty box for the piece of cake, and she frowns at me. "What's your name again?"
I tell her, and she says, "I know that name. You're the one who wrote the first story about this, the story that got everyone so riled up and sent the media swarming down on us like wasps. Is that why the reverend chose you for today?"
I reply that I don't believe the minister is aware I wrote the original article. I pair investigative reporting with covering the religion-and-ethics beat, and I wrote an article about Rev. Arnoldson's first service at this church. He cited that as his reason for wanting me to be present today.
Walsham frowns yet deeper as the last of the church members disappear through the door. "Well, this article will need to be better than your last one, that's all I have to say."
My reply is cut short as Wood and her daughter re-emerge from the restroom. The girl is carrying her high-heeled shoes now and is wearing her mother's sweater, which hides her bare shoulders and midriff. Her face has been cleaned of tears and makeup. She looks like what she is, a 13-year-old girl.
Wood thanks Walsham in a distracted manner for saving the cake, then turns and formally thanks the reporter for coming. It is a dismissal, and the reporter takes care to stay several paces behind as the two women and girl leave the hall and make their way upstairs to the corridor that leads to the church parking lot.
Upon walking through the door to the parking lot, however, they find that an unpleasant scene awaits them. The local television station has set up its equipment in the parking lot and is interviewing some of the church members. There seems to be no way to leave the parking lot except by running the gauntlet of the media.
Wood quickly turns to her neighbor. "Will you take Tara round to the front, Beth?" she asks Walsham. "If they don't get an interview with one of us, they're likely to follow us home. Take Tara back to your place, and I'll throw a sop at the beasts."
Tara makes no protest until her mother is gone, then she begins to argue that she should return to the church.
"They're sure to have sent some people to the front of the church as well," she says, her voice tight with anxiety. "We'll have to stay here till they're gone."
Walsham tries to reason with her, but the girl is insistent. "I can hide in the handicapped restroom just inside," she says. "It has a lock – they can't get into the restroom unless I let them in. And you can guard this doorway and tell anyone who comes here that I left already."
While the argument continues, the reporter, who has been standing at the doorway all this while, slips back inside the church.
The corridor lights have been turned off; the only sound is the faint noise of Rev. Arnoldson speaking nearby. I go over to a nearby dark corner, cluttered with coat racks and a large waste can labeled, "Throw your trash and your sins here."
A few minutes later, Tara comes back into the church. She does not notice me, but neither does she enter the handicapped restroom. Instead, she starts down the dark corridor that leads back to the basement.
I follow her at a distance. We pass Rev. Arnoldson's office, but the door is closed and the minister is absorbed in his telephone conversation. From the angry words he speaks, it appears that Petersen has not spent the afternoon at work after all – instead, after depositing his son at the church, Petersen returned home to watch a football game. Erik, if he is present, makes no comment.
The girl reaches the basement, making her way down the dark steps silently in her bare feet. The only light in the basement comes at the far end of the hall, where two ground-level windows high up on the wall shed dim light onto the remains of the refreshments, which have been piled atop one another on a table next to the overflowing trash can.
The girl, without hesitation, walks over to the table, picks something up, and inspects it. Walking cautiously forward, I come close enough to see that she is holding the box that contains the leftover cake, and she has opened the box to make sure that the cake is still there.
A flicker of movement catches my eye; at the same moment Tara sees it and whirls to face the corner of the hall, pressing the edge of the cardboard box hard against her heart, as though it is her only defense.
Erik, nearly invisible in his corner next to the pillar, moves again, but only to shrink further back against the wall. He says nothing; in the dim light, his eyes are as cold as before.
Neither child notices the reporter, who is trying to decide whether to intervene. In the end, it is Tara who speaks.
"You were right," she says in a wavering voice. "This is sh—."
The boy says nothing. His gaze has moved to the box in Tara's hands, as though he is wondering what new weapon his opponent bears.
Tara's voice grows more firm. "All these people—" She waves one of her hands in the direction of the empty hall, as though embracing everyone who had stood there before. "They're just here to see a drama. A storybook ending."
For a moment, Erik continues to stare at the box. Then his eyes rise to meet Tara's.
"Yeah," he says in a voice that is husky. "We're like puppets on their strings. They want us to scratch each other's eyes out so they can have more blood and gore to gawk at."
"Or hug each other and bawl on each other's shoulders, so that everyone can say, 'Oh, what a happy ending!'" Tara's voice grows stronger. "And that way, they can stop thinking about what's happened. They won't have to think about the real reasons it happened, or how it could happen again to other kids."
The boy says nothing. It occurs to me, for the first time, that in all these months he must have heard more than one news commentator who shares Walsham's view that he is irredeemably evil. I wonder whether he has found the commentaries persuasive.
Tara takes a step forward, holding the box up at chin level. Erik's eyes go swiftly back to the cake. He makes no attempt to move as Tara comes forward, bearing her weapon.
She stops an arm's length from him. Holding the box forward, she says, "Would you like to share?"
And then, unwatched by family, friends, strangers, and media vultures, Erik Petersen begins to sob. He does not do so in the manner of most men and boys, with an uncertain choking sound that suggests lack of practice. He cries easily, like a water pipe that has been damaged and gushed, damaged and gushed, over and over until the water flows freely. Yet he puts his hands over his face, as though trying to hide what he is doing.
Tara quickly puts the box down on the floor; then she goes over to her rapist's side. "It's okay," she says as she awkwardly pats his shoulder. "It's okay, I won't tell anyone you cried."
Erik begins to speak, broken words half-muffled by his hands and the continued sobs. I can barely hear what he is saying; then I realize that I ought not to hear what he is saying. I back out of the hall, leaving the children to speak alone of their pain and regret.
Rev. Arnoldson is still on the phone as I make my way down the corridor. I pause next to the door to the parking lot long enough to pull my recorder from my pocket, taking out the tiny cassette inside and dropping the cassette to the floor. I crush it with my heel and scoop it into the waste can. Then I leave the church, knowing that I will never write this story, except in my mind.