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Personal Essays

The Demands of Cold Blood

When a crime reporter is told an outlandish account, his first obligation is to establish the facts. But when the story turns out to be far more shocking—a conspiracy, in fact, of appalling darkness—it can knock his sense of duty until it cracks.

L'Atlas, Cosmos. Courtesy of the artist and gallery nine5.

The letter on my desk was from a family, a husband and wife. They had written to me after reading a short news article I’d done about a 26-year-old convicted child molester who had been arrested that week and charged with raping a 14-year-old girl. The girl was their daughter. She had been raped by the man two months earlier but had been locked away in juvenile detention for more than a month—longer than her attacker had been in custody.

Their story seemed unbelievable to me. They claimed that a local judge had sent their daughter to a private juvenile detention facility hundreds of miles away from their home in northeast Pennsylvania without notifying them. She had been on probation for a simple assault charge the year before (a mild altercation with a neighbor), and when she showed up to school intoxicated a week after she was raped, she was arrested for violating the conditions of her probation. The parents also claimed that she’d had no legal representation at the time of the sentencing. Like most reporters, I have a knee-jerk skepticism about people and their problems, especially people who write letters to newsrooms, and it didn’t seem possible that this had really happened—at least not in the way they described it.

The couple wanted to meet with me and explain everything in hopes of getting their daughter’s case reconsidered, or getting her moved closer to home. I thought meeting with them was a bad idea. Even if they were telling the truth, I didn’t have time to investigate Luzerne County’s juvenile justice system and I didn’t want to promise them a story or an outcome I couldn’t deliver. And if even half of what they’d written were true, then they had suffered enough without some reporter dragging their private tragedy into public.

I rarely went to people’s homes unless there was a fire or a shooting, and I almost never went inside. Most people don’t want reporters in their house; we’re bad omens.

But I agreed to meet with them anyway, out of a mixture of pity and curiosity. I had been a reporter long enough not to act on pity alone or let my pity push me into advocacy journalism, which I eschewed. It was my curiosity that tipped the scales; something didn’t add up—especially if their story were true—and I wanted to find out what it was. They wanted me to come to their home, a small house off a narrow street stacked in with other small houses on a steep hill a few towns away. I rarely went to people’s homes unless there was a fire or a shooting, and I almost never went inside. Most people don’t want reporters in their house; we’re bad omens.

As soon as I stepped out of my car, I didn’t want to go into their house. It was a typical working-class neighborhood in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.—cracked streets and crumbling houses and overcast skies. I knew I could not help these desperate people who were suddenly standing in front of me, ushering me in. They took me through a yellowish kitchen and down a dark hallway into a low-lit living room with a couch covered with afghans and pillows. Their other, younger daughter peeked her head out of a doorway and then withdrew. I was ashamed to be there, and took out my notebook and turned on my tape recorder to create some distance between us, to signify that I was all business and this was all on-record and I was not necessarily an ally. But when I sat down the couch swallowed me like I was settling in to watch a movie, and I had to struggle out of it and perch myself on the edge of the cushion and lean forward precariously, pen and notebook in hand, just to maintain a professional appearance. 

“Thank you so much for coming. We just don’t know what to do anymore,” the mother said as we all got settled. She was a large woman with a worried face. Her husband was tall and thick-limbed and sat staring at the floor while his wife explained everything.

Their daughter had showed up to school one morning drunk and sobbing, and claimed she had been raped the week before. She named her attacker to school officials and the police, but because she was on probation she was arrested for being intoxicated and locked up in juvenile detention. No one offered her counseling and no one asked about the sexual assault until, four days later, the district attorney requested a written affidavit about the attack. She wrote an account by hand while still incarcerated and a month later police arrested the accused man at his apartment on charges of statutory sexual assault, corruption of minors, and furnishing alcohol to minors. 

The girl, however, remained locked up for two months just waiting for a hearing with a judge named Mark Ciavarella Jr. When the hearing finally took place, Ciavarella summarily sentenced her to a juvenile rehabilitation program called Vision Quest—400 miles away in Franklin County. She had no legal representation at the hearing and her parents were only notified of it afterward.

At Vision Quest, which the girl later described to me as a kind of military-style boot camp where they “screamed in your face,” instead of receiving counseling to help her deal with the rape she was given powerful prescription drugs like Zoloft and Prozac. Her parents were never consulted about the medications beforehand or notified when staff doctors decided to change them. The first time they went to visit her they pulled up and saw TV news vans and police cruisers lined up outside the facility. There had been a riot the day before. About 30 girls had filled their socks with rocks and attacked staff members. Some of the girls escaped into the woods amid the fighting but were later caught.

The mother became increasingly upset as she breathlessly told me all this. “When we saw her the first time she was real agitated and couldn’t sit still, and she told us the drugs they were giving her were making her angry and depressed, and we asked what they were and she said she didn’t know, so we asked the counselor and he said they were giving her Zoloft. Now I did some research on my own online and I couldn’t believe they gave her something like that without telling us—Zoloft, and we’re her parents. How can they do that?”

Years later I would find out just how dark the entire story was, but at that point it was already difficult to face the bare facts.

I was careful to treat what they were telling me as true even though it seemed impossible. I took notes and nodded. “They never told you this was a possibility when they admitted her?”

“They didn’t tell us nothing.” It was the first time the father had spoken since we sat down. “She’s our daughter. We should’ve had a say but they didn’t tell us nothing.” His voice was measured and soft and his eyes were glued to the floor.

The parents both had health problems that made driving 400 miles to Vision Quest difficult, they said. The father had hurt his back some years ago and couldn’t work anymore, saying something about a workers’ comp lawsuit, but I didn’t press them about it. The mother said she’d been calling and writing to Judge Ciavarella and the D.A. and state and local politicians, but no one would listen to them. They showed me mounds of paperwork, appeals forms, copies of dozens of letters they’d sent, offered to me as evidence of their hopeless situation. Going public was the last thing they wanted to do, but they were desperate. I knew I could not help them but I said that I would try. When I left their house I felt sick to my stomach. No matter what had happened and no matter if I were ever able to write this story, I felt in my gut that nothing good would come out of this.

Years later I would find out just how dark the entire story was, but at that point it was already difficult to face the bare facts. The man accused of raping the girl had himself, along with his brothers, been repeatedly raped and sexually abused as a child by his own parents, who were eventually found out and sentenced to decades-long prison terms in the 1990s. As a teenager, the man was incarcerated for molesting his 5-year-old nephew. None of that made any difference to the girl or her parents, but telling the girl’s story in all its detail, making public everything we could find out about it—even at the family’s request—weighed on my conscience.

I didn’t feel like it was any of my business to share in this family’s suffering and use my power as a journalist to advertise their plight. So what if they wanted me to? They were grief-stricken and not thinking clearly. They had no idea what was best for them. There are things I’ve had to do as a reporter that otherwise I would never have done, but I justified them by telling myself it was for a greater good, that it was just part of the job, that it didn’t have anything to do with me personally, and that I was only responsible up to a certain point. The longer I was a crime reporter, the harder it was to convince myself of this.

 

I once interviewed a 13-year-old boy the morning after his father was murdered. Late the previous evening, his father’s best friend had come to their house drunk, wanting to talk about how he thought his long-time girlfriend was cheating on him, only to find her car parked in the driveway. The man snapped. He got a .357-caliber revolver, kicked in the front door of the house, went up to the bedroom and found his ex-girlfriend in bed with his best friend. He then blew his friend’s head off. The gunshot and splattering of blood on her face woke the ex-girlfriend, who managed to wrest the gun from him and escape. The shot had also woken the boy, who’d been asleep downstairs and called family members.

At the arraignment the next day I approached the boy but his family told me to get away, he doesn’t want to talk. But the boy said no, I’ll talk, it’s OK. He was calm and polite and answered my questions matter-of-factly. He was probably in shock. I thanked him and left the courthouse hating myself, knowing that the only reason I’d interviewed him was to make the story more dramatic, more sensational, more vivid. The facts were the same, with or without a quote from the boy. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had made things a little bit worse for that family; I had certainly not done any good. No matter how I spun it to myself, the story I ended up writing, complete with harrowing quotes from the now-fatherless boy, was essentially for our readers’ entertainment.

I kept thinking about that boy as I tried to figure out what to do about the girl and her parents. Would I make things worse for them or not? Had I already? Part of me thought that just by going to their house and allowing them to share their helplessness with me, I had done them harm. I had let them pour out their hearts to me, a complete stranger, and in doing so had implicitly given them hope that I could help get their daughter back, which of course I could not.

I wanted to call the parents and tell them that printing the truth would not change anything, it would only harm their daughter and provide newspaper readers with some twisted form of entertainment. But now I had to write the story.

I told them when I left their house I would look into the case and be in touch. Their suffering was too raw for me not to follow through. The only way to find out if they were telling the truth, or not leaving out crucial details, was to talk to their daughter myself and read her case file.

Because the girl was a minor, no judges, district attorneys, or cops would speak with me about the case or even acknowledge its existence. It was convenient for them that way; they could tell themselves they were protecting her by not speaking to the media. The only person who ever said two words to me about it besides the girl and her parents was Judge Ciavarella himself. I called and asked to see her file, and he said if I got a notarized, signed release from the girl and her parents I could see it. Otherwise he had no comment on the case, he said, and hung up.

When he said he would let me see the file, he’d meant that literally. I was led to a small windowless room in the Luzerne County courthouse annex furnished with a table and one chair. On the table was a pad of paper and a pencil and the girl’s five-inch-thick file. A surly juvenile probation officer explained that I was not allowed to copy or photograph anything in the file or remove any part of it from the room. I was not allowed to have a cell phone or a laptop with me in the room. I was not allowed to reprint or directly quote any part of the file. I could stay as long as I wanted but I could not leave the room with any part of the file. That was all.

I sat down and read for six hours taking notes until my hands cramped into claws.

Everything the parents had said was true. The prescription medications, the absence of defense attorneys or guardians at the sentencing, the lack of counseling at the detention facilities—all true. The straightforward tragedy of this family was just what the girl’s father had said to me in their living room fighting back tears: “My girl was acting out because of what that man did to her. It should be obvious. But no one wanted to talk about that at any of her hearings. Like it never happened. They just wanted to send her away.”

I didn’t leave the courthouse that day excited about having the scoop on a big story. The truth of it all made me want to quit, to get away. I wanted to call the parents and tell them that printing the truth would not change anything, it would only harm their daughter and provide newspaper readers with some twisted form of entertainment. But now I had to write the story. This family had taken me into their trust and asked for this. No matter how much I thought it would harm their daughter and their family, I was bound. I had gone to the courthouse looking for a way out and had found instead only the horrible truth.

Eventually I went to see the girl. It was about a month before she was to be sent home and placed on indefinite probation. She was skinny and quiet and wore her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her parents were there, too. The mom took pictures and the dad held his daughter’s hand. At her request, they had brought McDonald’s. She ate while we talked. She said all she wanted now was to go home, that she felt much closer to her parents and her little sister, and that she wished someone would have listened to her and respected her enough to understand what was going on all this time.

I had been working on the story, on and off, for about three months. I told them it would finally be running as the main Sunday feature in next week’s paper. I told them that if for some reason there were any delays I would let them know ahead of time so they could be prepared. I didn’t tell them I had taken a job in Philadelphia and would be moving in a few weeks. I was ashamed; it seemed cowardly to publish their nightmare and then let them fend for themselves against whatever might come after. But I couldn’t help them anyway. The article quoted no official sources aside from citing information we found in the girl’s case file. It drew no definitive conclusions about the county’s juvenile justice system as a whole and leveled no accusations. It’s not that the family’s story wasn’t itself a damning indictment of the system—it was. But I didn’t have enough evidence to show systematic corruption or official malfeasance. No one would go on record, and I wasn’t able to prove that Judge Ciavarella had acted outside the bounds of the law, as outrageous as that seemed. My editors wisely decided not to publish any photos of the girl; I questioned the wisdom of running the story at all.

A girl had been raped by a sick man, a family had been ripped apart by a cruel judge, and I wanted out of it. I never wanted to know about any of it ever again. If I had seen that father or mother once more after the story ran, I wouldn’t have been able to meet their eyes. I was a usurer of their tragedy, theirs and dozens of others. That was the last story I ever wrote for a daily newspaper, my last filing as a crime reporter. In Philadelphia I would be covering lighter subjects like arts and entertainment, urban design and development; I would not be meddling in the lives of others. I left that town and told myself I would never return, and I never have.

 

About three years later I moved from Philadelphia to Austin. Although I was still doing journalism as a freelancer I hadn’t thought about the girl and her family in a long time. One day a headline about a “kids for cash scandal” in Pennsylvania caught my eye. I scanned down and saw the words, “former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr.” The story and the family and the girl came rushing back.

Ciavarella and another judge were on trial for racketeering, bribery, and extortion. Prosecutors claimed they’d funneled thousands of teenagers into two privately run detention centers, often doling out harsh sentences to first-time misdemeanor offenders who had no legal representation at their hearings, in return for cash payments totaling more than $2.5 million. The builder of the centers and the owners paid Ciavarella to keep their for-profit juvenile prisons full, and he obliged with ruthless sentences. Suddenly it all began to make sense.

The story broke not because of some intrepid reporter but because the FBI issued a press release announcing the charges. But it still felt like I’d failed.

The article also said the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had ordered thousands of juvenile convictions overturned and criminal records expunged. I hoped the girl was included in that, but I didn’t try to find out. It was enough that she was home with her family. 

I read and re-read the story, trying to see if there had been something I’d missed or something more I could have done. I blamed myself for not discovering the truth, but I also didn’t see how I could have known or found out about Ciavarella’s scam on my own. The story broke not because of some intrepid reporter but because the FBI issued a press release announcing the charges. But it still felt like I’d failed—failed the girl and every other kid that had been sent away in the three years since my story ran. It reminded me of the nauseating sense of futility I used to have working on these stories, and why I walked away from them. 

One of the two private detention centers was called PA Child Care. The name sounded familiar. I looked up the address and realized it was where I had interviewed the girl several years before. We had sat in one of the classrooms with her parents while she ate McDonald’s and told me about her ordeal. The family’s meaningless tragedy now made more sense. There had been a reason for their needless suffering after all: simple greed. There would be justice, too, even if it came too late. This past August, Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison. He will be 85 years old before he is eligible for release.

John Davidson is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He accompanied his wife to Fez, Morocco last year, where she studied Arabic for seven weeks at a language school in the Ville Nouvelle. More by John Davidson