While the City Slept

Cover image for While the City Slept by Eli Sanders

ISBN 9780670015719

“They had feared him, and it was fear of a certain kind. Not the primal, salable fear of violence, not fright of the unexpected arriving with sudden brutality from an unknowable beyond. Theirs was fear of a known man and an outcome not yet known but likely to be grim. Fear of a person who, regrettably, had lived and delivered pain already, a man intelligent enough to impress yet with seemingly no handle on where his disjointed thoughts, speech, and actions might be headed.”

In the early hours of July 19, 2009, a man entered the home of Teresa Butz, and her partner Jennifer Hopper in Seattle’s South Park neighbourhood. He raped both women, and slashed and stabbed them with a knife. Eventually they were able to escape screaming into the street, where neighbours came to their aid, and the police were called. Their assailant fled into the night while Teresa Butz lay dying on the pavement of South Rose Street, and her fiancée was transported to Harborview Medical Center. A four day man hunt led to the arrest of Isaiah Kalebu, a mentally ill man who had been living on the streets since his family became too afraid to continue to care for him. While the City Slept recounts Jennifer and Teresa’s love story, Isaiah Kalebu’s descent into madness, and the terrible violence with which their paths crossed.

Eli Sanders—who received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his coverage of the South Park attacks in Seattle’s weekly newspaper, The Stranger—begins by characterizing the South Park neighbourhood in which Jennifer and Teresa lived. It was blue collar and ethnically diverse, as well as friendly and supportive. When glass was heard breaking, and there were screams in the street, several neighbours rushed to their aid, and still more called for emergency services. From this crucial moment, Sanders circles back to examine the childhoods of the two women, as well as how they met and fell in love.

Jennifer and Teresa were only two months from their wedding day when Teresa was killed. Though same sex marriage would not be legal in Washington State for another three years, the two women were determined to seize their happy ending with a commitment ceremony. Teresa came from a large and loving, but religious family, which had struggled with her sexual orientation. At the time of the attacks, Teresa was not sure if her parents would be coming to her wedding. Jennifer’s single mother became addicted to prescription drugs for her back pain, and as result Jennifer was largely raised by her grandmother, who did not accept that she was a lesbian. Friends and family on both sides, as well as Jennifer herself, cooperated with Sanders for this book.

After carefully chronicling Jennifer and Teresa’s lives, meeting, and romance, Sanders turns to Isaiah Kalebu, the man accused of raping them and murdering Teresa. His story is an education in the results of deinstitutionalization, the conditions for involuntary commitment, and mental competency to stand trial. Kalebu was raised in an abusive home, where his parents were constantly fighting with one another. When he was a teenager, they would go through a messy and prolonged divorce. Although his teachers often noted his behavioural problems, his parents refused to accept these observations, or chose to ignore them. Because he was smart and made good grades, they were satisfied that he was doing well at school. By the time of the attacks, Kalebu would be living on the streets because he had alienated his relatives. His aunt and her partner died in a fire he was suspected of setting, and his mother and sister took out restraining orders against him because they were frightening by his extreme reactions to their efforts to have him committed. It is the story of one missed opportunity after another, of a young man who slipped repeatedly through the cracks in the system, despite his family’s best efforts to get him the help he so desperately needed. His family agreed to cooperate with Sanders for this book, but after a few initial emails, Kalebu himself ceased communicating.

Sanders does not recount the attack itself until it comes to Jennifer’s testimony at trial. There, he gives enough of her account to illustrate exactly how brutal and terrifying the events were, but not so much as to be prurient or salacious, though it is a delicate balance. What shines through is Jennifer’s grace and courage under pressure, as well as her path towards forgiveness and healing. One lawyer would describe her time on the stand as the best witness testimony he had ever seen. After only two days of deliberation, the jury would convict Kalebu of Butz’s murder, the attempted murder of Jennifer Hopper, as well as rape and burglary. The sentence was life without parole.

While the City Slept is a love story, a tragedy, and a gruesome murder mystery. But it is harrowing not merely because of the violence it recounts, but because of the way it methodically exposes the flaws and failures of both the mental health and criminal justice systems in Washington State.

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