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Opinion :: Pebbles in our shoes: Addressing the pain of having an accused killer among us
· 2:16pm January 27th, 2014
Fortunately for those of us who live in small town America, murder is still a very rare event.
Still, in a span of just under five years -- From Nov. 8, 1995, to Nov. 3, 2000, three murders took place in areas of eastern Iowa where I was working as a newspaper reporter.
I covered all three cases. I attended the funeral of Independence teacher Janine Venzke. I sat with the family of rural Fayette County farmer Gehlen Quandt during the sentencing of his killer. I spoke to neighbors of David Clark in Washington, Iowa.
I wrote about all three of these murder trials, from jury selection to opening arguments to the sentencing of the killer to life in prison. I even watched one of the suspects ride away from the murder scene in the back of a squad car.
And while my stories about the trials naturally focused on the suspect, I also tried to memorialize the victims: Who they were, what they did and the loved ones they left behind.
Janine Venzke was a beloved elementary teacher. One of her two sons created a unique moving Christmas light display (not nearly as large, of course, as the Kersten/Koopman display near Vinton, but still it was creative enough to be featured in many newspaper and TV stories). I actually stood in the front door of that house in December of 1994, a year before it became a murder scene.
Gehlen Quandt seemed to be a lot like my grandfather: An old-fashioned farmer who loved his vocation, lived by himself and didn't like to ask anyone for help. He was trying to help a group of young people who had rolled their car in the ditch when one of them shot him to death in 1977. The suspect, Jeff Sawvel, was 22.
David Clark, in Washington, was a young father going through tough times when his neighbor walked into his house before sunrise on a Friday morning, saw him sleeping on the couch, shot him in the head and then drove away in Clark's vehicle.
I still have in my files, the story I wrote after the teacher's funeral. The pastor, Rev. Jack Weida, tenderly talked to the audience, which included many of that teacher's young students. He encouraged them to acknowledge their pain, and crying to God for help, the way David did in The Book of Psalms. The pastor went on to say that hiding our pain would be as pointless and painful as trying to hide pebbles by placing them in our shoes.
A new challenge; a new discomfort
Last week's news concerning murder left many Vinton residents feeling a different kind of pain: Realizing that someone who lived among us has confessed to a brutal murder.
"Creepiness," wrote a woman who works at a local convenience store, on the Vinton Today Facebook page, in response to our story about Clint Mackey, who was accused of stabbing a young woman to death in Indiana in 1998. "He was a regular."
"Why yes, I AM totally creeped out that a guy who stabbed a woman 33 times has been living 2 blocks from me the last 5 years," a man who lived near Mackey posted on his Facebook page.
I knew Clint Mackey, too. Two years ago, one of his children was in my weekly Jr. Journalism class at Vinton-Shellsburg Middle School. At about that same time that I met that student, Clint began coming to the same church and Bible study classes that I attend. Clint seemed candid as he talked in our small group of men about his past, which included drug and alcohol abuse and related problems. He seemed sincere in wanting to live a good Christian life, and never seemed to try to hide his struggles. After his arrest, other friends said they often saw Clint at a local bar. He never pretended to be a teetotaling ex-addict.
I even watched him get baptized. I remember this event so clearly because I took photos, which I still have on my computer. I listened to Clint testify about what God has done for him. I saw him playing in the water with his children afterwards, and heard his wife thank him for taking this step in his spiritual journey. It's hard to look at those photos and imagine the horrible things we have learned from the news this week.
If you would have told me Clint had a criminal record, I would have guessed it included only alcohol or drug arrests, maybe something like assault. I never would have suspected him of sexual assault, or murder. He didn't have any kind of criminal record at all during the five years he lived in Iowa.
Although I have written several stories about the history of murder in Benton County, I hadn't dealt with an active murder case since that verdict in Washington late January and early February of 2002.
"You are going to freak out," said Mrs. C in a voice mail she left while I was at the eye doctor on Friday morning.
While the pain of knowing a murder victim is something that can remain a lifetime, the pain of learning that someone you considered a friend is a murderer can also make you re-evaluate just about everything.
I have heard and read some words of the family members of the victim in this case. Their pain is still intense; their mother committed suicide a few months before Clint confessed. To know that I knew the guy responsible for this makes me ask myself if maybe I should or could have done anything differently. I really don't think so, but I still keep asking.
I was never afraid around Clint; I never worried about him living across the street from my son and his young bride. He also lived across the street from a good friend of my wife. Another neighbor only remembers him helping her after the massive wind storm of July 11, 2011. But then I wonder if those living around him 15 years ago would have said the same thing.
Confession and punishment
In November, authorities asked Clint to come to the Benton County Sheriff's Office. He denied committing the crime then. The investigation continued, and as officers interviewed relatives and other acquaintances, they would contact Clint to ask what was going on.
I saw Clint a church a couple Sundays ago, just a few days before he turned himself in. I shook his hand and said hello; he said nothing to me that day to indicate that something monumental was happening in his life. I never dreamed that a few days after shaking my hand in church, he would walk into a law enforcement center and admit that yes, he did in fact, during a night in which he used alcohol, marijuana and LSD, stab a young woman to death in the most horrifying manner possible.
Authorities say Clint did the right thing by turning himself in and confessing, but they also say that the pressure he felt was a major factor in that decision. Officers say Clint knew that on Feb. 14, his name would be mentioned on the "Cold Justice" TV series on the TNT network.
I have always had the same reaction to the verdict and sentences I heard pronounced while sitting in the courtroom: "Good." Murderers deserve life in prison, no matter who they are, who they murdered, or why.
And the fact that this accused murderer was among my circle of friends does not change my opinion; justice demands the most severe punishment for those who take the life of an innocent victim.
I am aware that this means that three children --including that bright, energetic, friendly former student in my class -- will have to grow up without a father. If his family remains in the area, I will do what I can to help them.
I will also, as a friend, do what I can to help Clint while he is in prison, if he asks for my assistance.
But neither his new faith nor our casual friendship merits any other recommendation from me than the most stringent penalty.
A while ago, I was called to jury duty. While I did not end up on the final jury, I followed the case of a man who had abused and kidnapped his ex trapping her in her house overnight. I discovered that his mother was not happy that he was going to plead guilty. So she got his defense attorney fired and paid for a new lawyer who would take the case to trial.
When I found out all of the things this man had done, I told friends that I would not have come to his aid, like his mother did.
At some point, we need to say to our friends and relatives, "I love you, but if you do something that wrong, I cannot help you. You pull something like that and you are on your own."
My initial reaction, when something painful comes along, is to write nothing. And often, nothing is the best thing to write, or say.
But in a case this public, lots of people who read this are pondering the same feelings that I am, and there's no reason to walk around with pebbles in our shoes.
The good news for Clint is that many people have devoted themselves to helping prison inmates. I do believe his faith is sincere and that he honestly wants to live a good life.
But justice for his victim, Erika Case, and her family, as well as that Indiana community scarred by his crime, demands that he pursues that kind of good life while living his life behind bars.
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