Birth of a Murderer Buff
By Meghan Stanton, Ensemble Member
When I was four or five, my bike was stolen out of our front yard. We were packing the car up for a trip, and in the confusion of packing, unpacking, and loading we left the bike out by the front walk. By the time we realized it was missing, then realized it was actually missing and not just tucked away in some corner of the yard, we had no idea how long it had been gone.
My parents, being adults, knew the statistics on this situation. The moment my bike was snatched, it was gone. If we had seen someone take it, or even knew when it had last been seen, we might have a chance of getting it back. But, lacking any evidence or, more precisely, any confidence we would ever see the bike again, they were more inclined to hit the road than lose hours to the process of reporting the bike stolen.
This injustice was too much for me. A crime had been committed. My only bicycle had been stolen. I insisted the police be called. My understanding of criminal justice at this age was limited to a Mary-Kate and Ashley straight-to-video series in which the Olsen twins, with faithful basset hound, Clue, pledge to “solve any crime by dinnertime.” I knew it could be done!
We reported the theft; my dad and I sped down to the police station. I was escorted into a large, surprisingly modern, open-concept bullpen. I proceeded to deliver a description of my bike so detailed, it was located immediately. I was commended by the detectives, and sent home, proud that I had done my part to stamp out crime.
What actually happened was this:
Hours earlier, the police spotted a man walking two children’s bikes down our busy street. They stopped him, arrested him, and – when we reported my bike stolen – brought me in to confirm that this purple, sparkly monstrosity was, in fact, my bike.
When I trace my fascination with true crime backwards, I think it all started that summer day. Not so much with the disappearance of my bike. Though that trip to the police station remains a vivid memory, it’s not really the heart of it.
I think about that man a lot. The man who took my bike – and someone else’s. I wonder who he was.
The recent explosion of true crime entertainment – tv shows, Netflix movies, and especially podcasts – has been analyzed to death. Many people who share my obsession with the genre attribute it to anxiety – a form of self-soothing that comes from a constant acquisition of knowledge. The idea that somehow talking about a crime, knowing all the details, will make you- safer? More prepared? Less vulnerable?
What pulls me in, though, are the gray areas. The light that shines, not on a gruesome crime scene or a grotesque description of violence, but on the cobwebbed corners of our legal and justice systems.
The first season of In the Dark was supposed to be a story about a cold case. Unexpectedly, however, the case was solved, nearly 40 years after the crime was committed.
Jacob Wetterling, who was taken by a strange man while biking home from the movie store with his friends, was finally found. He had been killed the night he was taken. His bones had been resting just one town over. A case that had captured national attention, and had partly led to the creation of the sex offender registry, was closed.
It was not the investigation of podcast host Madeleine Baran or her team that solved the case. In reality, the case was barely solved.
Jacob’s killer, faced with DNA evidence that could convict him for life in another case, struck a deal.
He was not charged with murder. He was not charged with sexual assault or assault of a minor. He was eligible for both of these charges, and more.
Instead, he pleaded guilty to one count of child pornography, with a maximum sentence of 20 years. In exchange, he confessed in open court to the sexual assault and murder of Jacob, and the kidnapping and sexual assault of another young boy, now an adult, Jared Scheierl.
Unlike my bike, Jacob Wetterling was not gone when he was kidnapped. His friends – having been threatened at gunpoint by Jacob’s kidnapper – sprinted home. Within minutes, the police had been called. Within the hour, the search was underway in earnest.
That night, after only a few hours, the search was called off.
It’s one of many decisions that seem unfathomable. And it is these decisions – the failure of the law enforcement to complete basic investigative steps – neighbors weren’t interviewed, witnesses on the boys’ route home were never contacted, tips about a man one town over who followed local kids were ignored – that becomes the ultimate focus of In the Dark.
There are no good answers to be had. Jacob’s murderer was compelled to confess, but that confession is all the closure the public, and Jacob’s family, can ever expect. This man will be old when he gets out of jail, but he will get out.
It is this space of wondering, the space of unsatisfaction, that so many true crime stories occupy. It is one that theatre occupies.
There are no answers – or at least, not clear ones. There may be questions, interpretations, offerings. But rarely is there finality.
These are the poison pills that pull us into gruesome stories, horror-inducing retellings, stories of kidnappings, murders, and violent crimes. A barrage of information, an endless parade of facts, that do not add up to understanding. I could tell you everything I know about the Jacob Wetterling case – including the culprit and his confession and to some extent his motivations – but I will never be able to understand why he did it. Not really. I will never understand what Jacob felt on the final night of his life. Not really.
But we can try to tell the truth of these things. What it means for a child to be lost. What it means for a child to be found again. What it means to empathize with another person –criminal, victim, or bystander.
I think about the man who stole my bike a lot.
I wonder if he was a father, hoping to surprise his kids with new bikes the only way he could.
I wonder if he was an opportunist, who saw a chance to make a quick buck and took it.
I wonder why he was stopped in the first place. I wonder what was so suspicious about a man walking two bikes in a residential neighborhood that meant he was stopped and arrested.
I wonder if he needed my bike more than I did.