On a hot night in the July of 2009, something horrifying and tragically preventable is about to unfold. A window shatters, desperate screams pierce the darkness, a woman staggers naked and bloody into the street. In an instant we are plunged into a violent disruption in the lives of Jennifer Hopper and her fiancé Teresa Butz.
Jennifer survives; Teresa does not. Their assailant is identified as a deeply troubled young man named Isaiah Kalebu. The grisly result of this episode is established unambiguously by the sixteenth page of the prologue.
While the City Slept is a detailed account of the harrowing, heartbreaking, and wholly unnecessary intersection of the lives of these three people. This work is the expansion and update of Sander’s original report in The Stranger titled The Bravest Woman in Seattle, for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize. It’s not hard to see why. It’s immediately clear how utterly devoted Sanders has been to this case. This is the culmination of years of careful research, interviews, and embedded reporting. The effortless recreation of the timeline belies the incredibly laborious process a work of this caliber would have required.
Eli Sander’s staggeringly meticulous examination of the lives of Butz, Hopper, and Kalebu–and the circumstances that lead to their encounter–leaves absolutely no stone unturned. The incredible narrative that Sanders thoughtfully and painstakingly crafted transcends the boundaries of mere true crime reporting.
The first Chapter, Teresa and Jennifer, walks us back to the very beginning. On the surface these are biographies, but they are also more. Butz and Hopper are profiled individually in a factual, not-quite-clinical transcription of their lives. There is a matter-or-fact omnipresence that is somehow able to detect emotion and dialogue between family members.
As the two young woman enter adulthood, the action jumps back and forth between them both in rapid succession, updating highlights and failures in tandem until they eventually meet and fall in love in Seattle.
Both narratives are written in the present tense. The effect is somewhat like reading fiction or a screenplay, where the characters are outlined in a daily journal then compiled at the end without adjusting for any time difference. Initially this seemed striking and oddly unfamiliar. However, in subsequent interviews, Jennifer Hopper expressed an appreciation for these chapters as an honor and wonderful gift–a beautiful retelling of the lives of two people who were very important to each other. Through Sander’s work, Teresa gets to be alive again. The narrative never feels overly embellished nor sentimental, and yet it is powerfully constructed in a way that establishes a deep connection with these lives.
The next chapter is heartbreaking, yet profoundly beautiful. It chronicles the capture of Kalebu by police after a multi-day manhunt, as well as the funeral and celebration of life for Teresa Butz–a service that’s held in the same venue and on the same date that had been planned for months in advance as Teresa and Jennifer’s wedding day.
Isaiah Kalebu’s biography is much less nostalgic.
Kalebu is highly intelligent, but instability and abuse at home lead to behavioral problems that are identified, but never treated. This becomes a familiar theme throughout Isaiah’s life. Psychotic episodes increase, and he ends up back in the court system. This pattern repeats many times. He is released each time, and wanders aimlessly, mental health degrading further and further each step of the way.
The story makes clear the difficulties of involuntarily committing an individual. Despite what seemed like sufficient evidence for keeping Isaiah at Western State Mental Hospital for treatment, his visits are brief and largely ineffective. Changes in the laws regarding institutionalization are partially responsible, but the largest problem is the extremely overburdened and underfunded mental health system. There simply aren’t resources to hold someone indefinitely in an institution, and so the courts instead must rely on the prison system.
Throughout this troubling time, no single person in the courts or psychiatric facilities ever fully connects the dots regarding Kalebu’s criminal or mental history. It’s when Teresa Butz is violently killed by Kalebu, that he’s permanently removed from society.
Much of the chapters about Kalebu’s life are constructed through interviews with family members, school administrators, members of the court and county jail. Particularly insightful is a detailed report by forensic psychiatrist Dr. Maria Lymberis. Throughout Kalebu’s story, Dr. Lymberis annotates his descent into madness and the many opportunities for therapeutic intervention which never occurred.
The Trial covers Kalebu’s high-profile court appearance for the murder of Teresa Butz. The jury selection process alone took an entire month, whittling down from a pool of hundreds an eventual jury of twelve. The selection process is one of the few parts of the book which loses momentum. Sander’s desire to convey the challenge of assembling an unbiased panel goes on a just bit too long and a few too many of the 110 potential jurors are profiled.
Things pick up immediately when the trial begins, however. Kalebu is defiant and uncooperative, and denies any wrong doing or issues with his mental health.
Jennifer Hopper’s testimony is unequivocally gut wrenching, recounting in vivid detail the rape and torture she and Teresa endured that night.
This testimonial is tough to get through and may be too much for some to handle. However, through the tears also emerges insight into the enormous strength, humanity, and spirit of present in Hopper’s being.
Kalebu is unrepentant and receives multiple life sentences. He is no longer a threat to society, but there is no way to know if he will ever receive adequate mental health treatment–another young man behind bars for the rest of his life for a crime which should have been prevented by a social safety net.
This story reminds us that, while his circumstances are nuanced, Kalebu had indeed been on the authorities’ radar throughout his life. He had been in custody and even in the mental health system, and yet still managed to slip through the cracks.
Tragedies like this are a serious indictment of a system which is decidedly defective. This is something that must be addressed if there is ever to be any hope of preventing future such tragedies. Funding for mental health services must become a priority, if for no other reason than the enormous burden tax-payers are saddled with incarcerating the mentally ill for the remainder of their lives. Sanders estimates the cost that citizens will pay for Kalebu’s life behind bars will exceed $3 million. Multiply this by the countless thousands who are destined to befall similar fates without access to effective, lifesaving treatment. The amounts of wasted potential and resources are staggering.
While the City Slept is an important work, poignantly illustrating the fragility and vulnerability of human life, while acknowledging that beauty and love can shine in the face of tragedy. It is a reminder of the randomness of existence and how quickly lives can be changed forever. It is call to action to fix a system in desperate disrepair, and It is a beautifully moving tribute to the love between Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper.
Sander’s all-encompassing dedication to telling this story is deeply apparent, and is what makes the book so utterly fascinating. His depth of compassion and understanding of this case, the people involved and the city in which it takes place is profound, and will no doubt remain the definitive history of the disturbing collision of three lives that hot summer night back in 2009.