There is a heart-breaking but brilliant article in The Observer about The Craigslist Killers and their victims.
It tells the story of Richard Beasley, his sidekick Brogan Rafferty and the stories of the men they murdered or attempted to murder after luring them to a trap with the promise of work on a farm.
The story is interesting on many levels, but the most fascinating thing – and one the author comes to focus on, is the emotional lives of working class American men – in particular the unemployed, middle-aged white men that one sees across the country. These supposed beneficiaries of privilege are in reality some of the saddest and most oppressed people in the country. They have been destroyed by the decline of the economy, they are trapped between traditional ideas of manliness (e.g. being breadwinners) and the reality of being economic losers. Many are separated from their families and children by divorce, leaving them both emotionally and financially ruined. They are discarded by society, making them the perfect victims for serial killers. Or so the killers thought.
Beasley…came up with an idea. Whereas once he had preyed on prostitutes, now he would target a member of a new class of vulnerable citizens drifting at the margins of society: unemployed, middle-aged white men.
…idea came to him. The Geiger killing had gone so smoothly that he could turn it into a career of sorts, preying on other men who’d fallen out of the economy.
Instead of trolling the shelters, as he’d done to find Geiger, Beasley came up with the strategy of placing an ad on Craigslist. After all, he didn’t want his victims to be completely down and out. He needed men on the margins, yes, but not so marginal that they didn’t have some possessions worth killing for: a truck or a TV or a computer or even a motorcycle.
One of the saddest stories was that of Timothy Kern.
On Sunday, November 13, exactly a week after the attempt on Davis’s life, Beasley and Rafferty picked up a man named Timothy Kern in the parking lot outside a pizzeria in Canton, where he’d spent the night sleeping in his car. Kern was from the Akron area, 47 years old and divorced. He’d recently lost his job as a street cleaner.
Beasley had a mental inventory of the items he thought Kern was bringing with him, and almost as soon as they got into Rafferty’s Buick, Beasley began questioning him. Did he have that laptop he’d mentioned? Kern said no, he’d left it behind with his sons Zachary and Nicholas. The flatscreen TV? Same story: Zach and Nick had it. Instead, Kern had brought an old TV. Apart from that, he just had a couple of garbage bags full of clothes and cassette tapes, which fit easily in the back of Rafferty’s car. That, and the late-’80s sedan that he’d abandoned in the pizzeria parking lot because it barely ran.
“I get half a pit in my stomach,” Rafferty later told the investigators, “because as the story goes on and on, I’m realizing that I’m about to help Beasley do this for no reason at all. Not that I even wanted to do it at all. But it takes, like, all the minimal sanity and reason out of doing this … It would be like if a lion killed a zebra just to kill it … Just ’cause it wanted, like, its hoof or something. The man literally I think had $5 in his pocket.” One other thing struck Rafferty at the time – enough so that he mentioned it to the investigators more than once: Timothy Kern had given everything he had of value to his sons, who were just a little older than Rafferty himself. It was clear that Kern’s family had broken up, but just as clear was that “he loved his kids,” Rafferty told the investigators.
In his e-mails to Jack, Kern had described himself as single and “available for immediate relocation,” but hadn’t said much about his sons. In truth, Kern was ambivalent about the caretaker job he’d been offered – he described it on his Facebook page as a “good offer” but with “drawbacks,” because he would be more than two hours away from his sons and wouldn’t have cellphone service. Kern and his ex-wife Tina had divorced in 1997, and Zach and Nick were already 19 and 17. But Kern made a point of seeing them nearly every day, even if that meant waiting around the corner from their house until after Tina left for work.
Kern’s marriage wasn’t the only thing in his life that had fallen apart. In the 1990s, he’d worked as a sound engineer at a local club, but when he lost that job in 2000, he had trouble finding a new one. He lived with his parents for a few years, but then his father kicked him out, and after that no one was sure where he slept. Maybe in his car.
But despite all that, or maybe because of it, he was never unsteady in his commitment to Zach and Nick. He focused on his children in the intense way certain divorced dads do when they’re cut off from the daily routines of their families. (He had another son from an earlier marriage, whom he didn’t see much, and that might have played a part, too.) “He only cared about these two. I mean, that was his purpose, that was his thing,” his ex-wife told me. It sometimes drove her crazy that he’d spend his last penny on cellphone bills to make sure he could stay in touch with the boys – instead of, say, keeping up with his child-support payments. “All day, texting, every day,” Tina said.
Zach and Nick present themselves to the world as pretty tough – they’re both covered in tattoos, and Zach plays in a heavy-metal band – but they had remarkably tender relationships with their father. They knew, for instance, to always answer his texts quickly, so that he didn’t get his feelings hurt and follow up with Oh, I see you’re busy or 2 cool 4 dad. The day Kern left for Ohio, Nick, who was a senior in high school, lent him $20. That night, Nick texted him before going to a party: I love you. I miss you. I’m proud of you. Good luck. When Kern got up the next morning, he wrote Nick: Text me when you wake up. Love you. Leaving soon.
They murdered him.
I was initially drawn to the story of the Beasley murders because I thought it would illuminate the isolation and vulnerability of so many working-class men, who have been pushed by the faltering economy from one way of life – a nine-to-five job, a wife, children – into another, far more precarious one: unemployed or underemployed, single or divorced, crashing on relatives’ spare beds or in the backseats of cars. At what other moment in history would it have been plausible for a serial killer to identify middle-aged white men as his most vulnerable targets?
But what I discovered in the course of my reporting was something quite different. As traditional family structures are falling apart for working-class men, many of them are forging new kinds of relationships: two old high-school friends who chat so many times a day that they need to buy themselves walkie-talkies; a father who texts his almost-grown sons as he goes to bed at night and as he wakes up in the morning.
Christians often talk about a “God-shaped hole,” a need inside us that can be filled only by faith. But perhaps we share a “family-shaped hole.” When the old structures recede for men, they find ways to replace them with alternative attachments, bonds with one or two people that offer the warmth and intimacy typically provided by a wife or significant other. If anything, these improvised families can prove more intense because they are formed under duress and, lacking a conventional domestic routine or a recognized status, they must be constantly tended and reinforced.
While researching a recent book she co-wrote about working-class fathers, Doing the Best I Can, the sociologist Kathryn Edin noticed something surprising. The men she spoke with were exceptionally emotional when it came to their children – children whom many of the men did not live with and were not steadily providing for. They had taken the ethos that fathers should be involved with their children and “kind of gone overboard with it,” Edin explained to me, “so they were even more expressive than middle-class men.” Often this emotiveness spilled over into other areas or landed on children who were not their own, or even on other adults – a sibling or cousin, a childhood best friend – as if the men were inventing a new language of intimacy. In some cases, when a man was courting a woman, Edin found that he would court her child so intensely that it seemed “the child was the main audience for his affections,” not the mother.
Edin concluded that for men who are failing the traditional tests of marriage and parenting, this kind of intense emotional connection “is the last form of identity available.” It’s a way to maintain a sense of family if you can’t be a reliable breadwinner, or even keep up with child support.
So as families collapse, these poor devils, find something anything to pour their love into: They kids if they have them, or surrogates and adoptees. Those bonds are real and lasting. Strong enough to foil the murderous Richard Beasley’s murderous plans, carried out with his own surrogate love object.
Richard Beasley had believed that no one would come looking for the divorced, unsettled, middle-aged men he was targeting. But he should have known better. Like his victims, Beasley was himself divorced, and lived apart from his child, and was only sporadically employed. And like them, he too had created an intense surrogate family relationship, with Brogan Rafferty.
Rafferty’s story is also bleak and utterly sad, especially the depiction of his childhood.
At the trial, the local press seized on the story of how, at age 5, when he was in kindergarten, Brogan would eat breakfast alone, get himself dressed, and make his own way to the bus stop. “He raised himself, in my opinion,” one grade-school counsellor who knew him told the jury. But things weren’t quite so simple: Michael explained to me that he worked an early shift at a machine shop and had to leave the house by 6.30am. Before he left, he laid out clothes for his son, poured his favourite cereal in a bowl, and left him a little pitcher of milk. Then he gently woke him up and left for work.
I find this scene so unbearably sad. This poor little boy eating and dressing alone. This poor father doing the best he can: Working hard, looking after his kid, struggling to bring him up in the absence of his junkie mom.
Rafferty’s lawyers wondered whether Beasley and the boy had a sexual relationship. Rafferty’s dad wondered too. How else to explain a bond so intense it led Rafferty to pick up a shovel and dig four graves? But Rafferty rolled his eyes when his dad asked and said, “It wasn’t like that at all.” The real explanation seems less complicated. Michael represented an old vision of fatherhood: strict, manly, and reliable, working the early shift to put food on the table but coming home worn and agitated. Beasley, by contrast, had no such parental obligations and was free to represent a newer and in some ways more appealing vision: expressive, loving, always around to listen and give advice. It was easy for Beasley to be a hero to Rafferty – and, to a lesser degree, to Rayna and the other kids at their church. He did what their distracted, overworked, and somewhat traumatized parents couldn’t do, Rayna says, which was “really connect to us.”
There you have it. The struggling parent – exhausted by work and care – is an unattractive and stern figure easily deposed in affections by an affable if murderous surrogate. There is something so wrong here, but it is a common story.
In 2010 I fell into the habit of watching the US TV show “Cheaters” in the evenings after work (Reality TV, I still hate you). I started to notice a common theme in many of the stories. The wives and girlfriends were cheating because they claimed the men were not paying them enough attention to them, usually because they were working too hard. That’s right, because the men were working two jobs or overtime, their women felt justified in cheating. Men with time to pay attention to them easily trumped the hard working suckers they had for boyfriends or husbands.
The Craigslist Killers is a sordid tale. Saddening and maddening too. It is also hopeful. People grow bonds, people sow love.
David Pauley had his friend Chris Maul and his twin sister, Deb. Timothy Kern had his sons Zach and Nick. Scott Davis was fortunate enough to live to tell his own story, but even if he hadn’t, his mother was eagerly waiting for him to arrive in Ohio to help fix her house.
Even Ralph Geiger, the first victim, had Summer Rowley:
Rowley met Geiger in 2004, when she was 19 and he was 49. A friend had set her up with a job cleaning his house, and after a few visits he asked her whether she wanted to try painting some drywall. Rowley didn’t know how to do that, but Geiger taught her, and after a while they began working together regularly. He taught her how to fix a drain, caulk a hole, and perform various other plumbing tasks. He taught her how to cook a roast and make soup. “He was like a father,” Rowley told me. He helped change her from a wild teenager into a young woman who was ready, at 25, to have a baby with her fiancé. When her daughter was born, she presented Geiger as the little girl’s “pa-pa.” On the mantle beneath Rowley’s TV is a picture of Geiger nestling the infant, barely a week old, against his big chest.
Go and read the article, is is superb piece of work.
Postscript, the title of this post comes from this poem:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
T.S. Elliot, The Hollow Men