Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward.
The Tony Award-winning actor Norbert Leo Butz was rehearsing “Catch Me If You Can” in Seattle in July 2009 when he received devastating news: His sister Teresa, a resident of a tight-knit working-class neighborhood at the city’s southern edge, had been raped and murdered in an apparently random act of violence. Butz stayed with the Broadway-bound musical, channeling his grief into his performance as a dogged FBI agent and eventually winning a second Tony. He dedicated the award to his father, who was his model for the character, and to his sister.
Eli Sanders’s coverage of the tragic incident for the Stranger, a Seattle weekly, earned him a Pulitzer Prize. In “While the City Slept,” Sanders delves more deeply into the story, portraying the events surrounding the crime with deftness and intimacy.
Sanders begins with a scene-setting prologue on the South Park neighborhood and its response to the attack. He then traces the peripatetic lives of Teresa Butz and her fiancée, Jennifer Hopper, who survived rape and knife wounds to become a key witness at trial. Relying on interviews with Hopper, Norbert Leo Butz and other family members, Sanders paints a tender and revealing portrait of these two young women and their romance.
Sanders also offers a sympathetic account of the blighted life of their convicted attacker, 23-year-old Isaiah Kalebu. With cooperation from Kalebu’s mother and half-sister, Sanders describes a bright but troubled man from a family scarred by violence, neglect and mental illness.
Rather than demonizing Kalebu, Sanders chooses to see him and his family as victims. He directs our anger at what he convincingly depicts as the dysfunctional nexus of the criminal justice and mental health systems in the state of Washington and, by extension, across the country.
To some extent, his indictment is a familiar one: The emptying of mental hospitals over the past few decades, coupled with more stringent requirements for involuntary commitment and the underfunding of community alternatives, has caused a slew of unintended consequences, including a rising prison population of the mentally ill.
Sanders is very good at detailing just how badly the system failed Kalebu as well as those who had the misfortune of crossing his path. Before Kalebu murdered Teresa Butz, he gave abundant indications of his potential for violence. He threatened and attacked his sister and mother and was a suspect, though never charged, in an arson that killed his aunt and a boarder after the aunt evicted Kalebu from the house.
Sanders introduces us to the many judges, psychiatrists and social workers who failed to intervene effectively. “No one could pay enough attention,” he writes. Along with systemic constraints, including overburdened courts and shrinking hospitals, inconsistent psychiatric diagnoses arguably played a role.
As Kalebu cycled through mental hospitals and prisons, he was variously diagnosed as bipolar, narcissistic, borderline, sociopathic and suffering from “really bad affective instability,” which made him prone to mood changes. He was nevertheless repeatedly declared competent to stand trial. His mother, herself depressive and intermittently suicidal, believed that her often delusional son was schizophrenic, like his grandmother and other relatives.
Further complicating the situation, some doctors became convinced that he was feigning mental illness when convenient — even though he rejected his lawyers’ attempts to use insanity as a defense.
The muddled diagnoses, along with Kalebu’s resistance to psychotropic medication, ensured that he would never receive adequate treatment. Behavior that began as merely erratic was destined to spiral downward to the ugliest sort of violence.
Counterpointing the tale of Kalebu’s deterioration is Sanders’s exploration of Hopper and Butz’s romance. Butz grew up with 10 siblings in a St. Louis Irish-German-Catholic family; tenacious, athletic, tough but soft-hearted, she led an itinerant life, bouncing among schools and jobs.
Hopper, an only child, was raised by grandparents and a single mother addicted to painkillers and abusive boyfriends. Gifted with a rare soprano voice, she had a less-than-svelte figure, Sanders reports, that diminished her chances of a stage career.
Both women came of age at a time when lesbianism was mostly closeted and stigmatized. Each struggled with her sexual identity, dating men and women; their families struggled, too. The two met in Seattle, fell in love and were planning a commitment ceremony in September 2009. With Butz, Hopper says, “I felt at home.” Then Kalebu, wielding a knife and a lifetime of rage, crawled through an open window and into their bedroom.
The book’s emotional climax is Hopper’s testimony about the crime’s horrific details. Sanders exercises restraint and cuts short what could have been an even more gruesome recounting. Still, he relates more than enough to make Hopper’s compassionate stance toward Kalebu intensely moving. “I wish you peace every last day of your life,” she tells him in the courtroom.
“While the City Slept” is an expertly crafted nonfiction narrative, marred only by Sanders’s unwieldy use of geological metaphors and his predilection for sentence fragments. His even-handed reporting and emotional commitment to the story make for gripping reading — and the systemic failures he highlights cry out for remedy, even if it’s hard to know just where to begin.
By Eli Sanders
Viking. 316 pp. $28