In the summer of 2009, South Park couple Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper awoke to an unknown man standing over their bed, knuckles taut as his hand wrapped around a long knife. His name was Isaiah Kalebu, and over the next 90 minutes he would brutally rape and stab both women repeatedly, ultimately killing Butz.
Eli Sanders won a Pulitzer Prize for his unflinching 2011 story in The Stranger detailing Hopper’s courtroom testimony of the attack. His new book, While the City Slept, delves deep into the lives of the three people in the house on South Rose Street that night, offering insights into the inspiring mechanisms of survival, the confounding complexity of madness, and the systemic failures that can lead to senseless tragedy. Sanders and Hopper will talk about the book on February 3 at Town Hall.
What made you want to revisit this story?
In every direction I looked, there was something very important and consequential to explore, whether it was Jennifer’s history and path forward, or Teresa’s history and actions on the night of the attack, or Isaiah’s experience before and after the crimes. I’ve written about a lot of crimes in this city and never felt satisfied with what I put out there. I’d always wondered what would happen if you could take a sustained look.
What surprised you most?
One of the most remarkable parts of this story to me was Jennifer’s curiosity towards Isaiah’s circumstances and what led him to become someone who could do what he did to her and to Teresa, who she was planning to marry not long after the crime happened. Her empathy and her interest in his path are remarkable to me—inspiring. Something that I hope I would be able to do if I were in similar circumstances, but I’m not sure.
What kind of light do Kalebu’s circumstances shed on this crime?
There are a large quantity of lessons that we can take from the course of his life and the way that he bounced in and out of our criminal justice and mental health system, which was insufficient to meet his needs.
Kalebu’s sister, Deborah, seemed to be a major source for you. Was it difficult to get her to open up about her brother?
Yes. The first time I called up Deborah, she was very upset with me for a headline that ran in an early story that I wrote about the attacks [for The Stranger]. The headline was “The Mind of Kalebu” and she said, “How do you know the mind of Kalebu?” She was right. She continues to be right.
This is, in many ways, a story about Seattle. Has it changed the way you see the city?
We are ostensibly very liberal and very caring, yet we are able to look the other way in the presence of tremendous need and suffering. The policies and lack of preventative measures or funding that are a major force in this book, they are, yes, a result of decisions by politicians. But the presence of those politicians is our responsibility. This traces back to us.