Seattle writer Eli Sanders’ “While the City Slept” indicts a mental-health system that failed to prevent two Seattle women from assault, rape and murder by a disturbed young man. Sanders discusses his book Wednesday, Feb. 3, at Town Hall Seattle.
“While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness”
by Eli Sanders
Viking, 316 pp., $28
On July 18, 2009, an unusually warm summer evening, 23-year-old Isaiah Kalebu climbed through the open window of a small house in South Park, a working-class neighborhood in south Seattle. Over the course of the next two hours, he brutally attacked the two women who lived there — Jennifer Hopper and her fiancée Teresa Butz — raping them both and eventually murdering Teresa. Kalebu escaped but was captured within days at Magnuson Park.
In “While the City Slept”, Eli Sanders tells the story of how these three individual lives came to fatefully intersect that evening. Sanders, who writes for Seattle’s weekly newspaper, The Stranger, won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the murder. Drawing on court records and exhaustive interviews, Sanders compiles an arresting narrative, first of the two victims, then of Kalebu himself. It’s heartbreaking all the way around.
Jennifer Hopper and Teresa Butz came from different backgrounds. Teresa grew up proud, tough and stubborn in a large St. Louis family. Jennifer was born in the mountains near Santa Fe. They fell in love, moved in together and planned a wedding (technically, a commitment ceremony since same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Washington) for Sept. 12, 2009. Teresa even bought a wedding dress.
The author of “While the City Slept” appears in conversation with Jennifer Hopper and KUOW’s Marcie Sillman at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5, and available at the door starting at 6:30 p.m., or in advance at townhallseattle.org (1-888-377-4510).
Isaiah Kalebu was a troubled young man. He was raised in a household with a distant authoritarian father who had fled a civil war in Uganda and favored corporal punishment with “broomsticks, belts and sticks.” Kalebu started off as an intelligent child who loved to read but slowly began to dissolve into mental illness.
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As he grew from a troubled child to smoldering young adult, he appeared in court on numerous occasions. Each appearance was an opportunity for mental-health counseling that could have addressed his mental-health issues. Overworked Superior Court judges with only a partial record before them and grossly underfunded mental- health resources, however, combined to ensure that Kalebu never received the counseling that might have diverted him from the path before him, the path that led to Teresa and Jennifer’s open window and all that followed.
Sanders’ research is meticulous and his writing demonstrates the strength that won him the Pulitzer. He uses vivid imagery to bring the story to life: The polluted Duwamish River snaking through South Park, the neighborhood’s decaying bridge to downtown, and the slumbering mountains in the distance.
As Sanders comments, “Some stories are worth assembling. Some crimes cry out for an accounting. Some offenses indict so much, and reflect so much, that they demand attention — to what was taken, to the taker, to the trials that preceded and followed.” This is certainly a story worth telling with lessons well worth learning.
Unfortunately, the effort is marred by two flaws. First, in recounting Teresa and Jennifer’s life and romance Sanders awkwardly reverts to the present tense, presumably in an effort to infuse immediacy in the telling. The device is more distracting than useful. Second, Sanders devotes the final pages of the book to an extended denunciation of inadequate funding for mental health services. He’s right beyond a doubt, but the discussion seems oddly out of place here, like an opinion column mistakenly tacked onto the end of the book. And it’s unnecessary in any event. Sanders’ superb account of Kalebu’s voyage through the criminal justice system, and its devastating denouement, speaks far more powerfully to our shameful failure to fully fund mental-health resources.