While South Park Slept
A Gruesome Murder, a Beloved Bar, and a Week on the Edge
At the frayed southern edge of Seattle, hard against the city limits, squeezed between a bend in the toxic Duwamish River and a curve in Highway 99, is the neighborhood of South Park. On one side: rushing traffic heading out toward the airport and back into the city center. On the other: slow-moving sludge in water so contaminated it's on the federal Superfund list. The two barriers isolate this flat land, once farmed by Italian immigrants who sold their produce at the Pike Place Market, now polluted by heavy industry and frequently forgotten, residents say, by the distant downtown government. This is a neighborhood accustomed to a tougher brand of urban life. People do for themselves when they can. When they can't, they carry on anyway. At night, scattered streetlights fail to light much of anything and the markers of civic order—the little library, the community center, the health clinic—go dark. Unpredictable characters wander in from the dilapidated budget motels across the river, and airplanes on their final descent howl past overhead.
The best way to get to South Park involves crossing a nearly broken drawbridge. This span over the Duwamish has been declared one of the worst in the state, recipient of a score of 4 (out of 100) on a federal safety ranking. Its pilings, now 77 years old, don't reach solid ground. Its two halves are moving in opposite directions. Its decks swell in the summer heat, making it hard to open and close. An earthquake could easily bring it down, but no one in power is rushing to have it fixed or replaced. Across this bridge, past the taquerias where the waitresses greet everyone in Spanish, is a bar called Loretta's, one of the last places where Teresa Butz, 39, was seen alive.
In a neighborhood of bright oranges and blues and signs that loudly offer Multiservicios and Notarias, the exterior of Loretta's is painted a flat olive green. The bar's interior, too, is different: dark, refurbished lumber; an open-air patio out back, where a sitting room has been arranged inside an old Airstream trailer; signs of nostalgia and irony and tasteful reappropriation throughout. The clientele: Boeing workers relaxing after a shift, longtime residents having an Oly after a game of dominos, newly arrived home buyers dropping by for a game of ping-pong and a bowl of chili, a local prostitute ducking in to complain of people throwing rocks at her.
Late on Friday, July 17, Teresa Butz, a downtown property manager and a volunteer board member for a group devoted to helping the homeless, walked into Loretta's with her 36-year-old partner. The two women sat in the second booth from the door. They ordered drinks: bourbon and water for Butz; margarita, no salt, for her partner. They had the steak sandwich and the tavern salad. They shared both. They told the bartender, Amee Shepard, that they were getting married and that they wanted to have their rehearsal dinner at Loretta's. "They said this was their bar and they loved it here," Shepard said. She recognized them as regulars. She wrote down their information on a yellow pad. She joked that no one would forget the date of their celebration; they hoped to have it on September 11.
While Butz and her partner were eating and drinking and making plans, a black man with a thin mustache came into the bar. "He's just one of those people who walked in, and the minute he did I felt sick," Shepard said. He talked rapid-fire, bouncing quickly across disparate topics. He said he'd recently been released from prison. He said he'd tried to get into "Nickelsville," the homeless camp named after the mayor, but had been turned away. He had only five or so dollars to his name. His stories and demeanor suggested he had nothing to lose.
Shepard served him one Oly, then another. Then he went back out into the night.
Sometime after that, Butz and her partner left Loretta's. Maybe they walked home, to the dead-end street on which Butz had purchased a tidy, one-story red rambler in 2006. Maybe they drove. Either way, it would have been a short trip. Everything in South Park is a short trip. It's impossible to go more than a few blocks in the neighborhood without leaving the small core of businesses and tree-lined residential blocks and bumping up against the neighborhood's edge, an edge on which the detritus of the far-off city has washed up. A storage lot holding giant spools of marine-grade rope, metal buoys, and steel containers. A fenced-in area full of lengths of red construction cranes lying on their sides, one atop the other, like toys awaiting huge children. A transfer station, constantly receiving Seattle's garbage and recycling and hazardous household waste. An old taco truck, retired from service to the grave of an overgrown lawn. A park marking the spot where, until 1937, another bridge crossed the Duwamish, and where now old pieces of the Fremont bridge have been tossed about to evoke bridgey-ness. A sign at the park suggests uses such as picnicking and canoeing but the harsh smell of chemicals—nose-stinging, like creosote being boiled in ammonia—suggests fleeing.
But that's the edge. Life within the neighborhood is something different: a collection of previously run-down blocks that are now thriving, restaurants serving up some of the best (and cheapest) Mexican food in the city, people defying low incomes and lower expectations to create a welcoming oasis. On quaint, quiet streets like the one Butz and her partner lived on, the diverse groups that make up South Park's roughly 4,000 residents—white lesbian couples, Spanish-speaking immigrants and their Americanized children, African-American families—all live and talk and look out for one another. Maureen Carroll, a lesbian who moved to South Park after being priced out of Ballard, said: "In areas like this, people don't have time to worry about sexuality."
According to Seattle police, at around 3:00 a.m. on the morning of July 19, just over 24 hours after Butz and her partner left Loretta's, a black man with a thin mustache climbed through the bathroom window of their house. They were sleeping. He was armed with a knife. He raped both women, stabbed them repeatedly, and then fled as Butz broke through her bedroom window and ran, naked and screaming and bleeding, into the street.
Butz's partner ran, too, out the front door of the house, also naked, also screaming, also bleeding. She shouted into the darkness, crying out what had happened to them. Butz collapsed on the concrete, bleeding. People on the block say Diana Ramirez, 14, the daughter of a neighbor across the street, was the first to get to the couple. Ramirez tried to stop Butz's bleeding with towels and her own clothes. She couldn't.
Butz died there, in front of her house, in front of her partner and her neighbors, pleading for people to tell her mother she loved her and saying: "He told us if we did what he asked us to do, he wouldn't hurt us. He lied. He lied."
The news spread fast, and a sharp terror descended on South Park. The neighborhood had seen brutal crime before, but the collective sense was that those rougher times were receding. This assault indicated otherwise. Sidewalks cleared of the usual pedestrian traffic. Business at Loretta's slowed. Windows, previously thrown wide to cool a string of exceptionally warm nights, closed. "All of them were open before this," said Judy Mills, 50, who's lived in South Park for 15 years. "No more." Mills, a single woman, began sleeping between two golf clubs and two guns.
With the help of Butz's partner, who was released from the hospital the day after the attacks, police produced a sketch of the suspect: a black man with a thin mustache, in his late 20s or early 30s, about six feet tall, with a muscular build. Immediately, a copy of the sketch was in the window of every business, on lampposts, even on the fence posts of houses sitting right next to each other—as much information for residents as a repetitive warning to the suspect should he happen to walk down the block: We all know what you look like. Don't you dare.
Amee Shepard saw the sketch when she came in to work at Loretta's on Sunday evening. She was shaken. She wondered if it was the same man who had come into the bar on Friday when Butz and her partner were there. Her mind leapt ahead to what she'd feel if the attacker did, in fact, turn out to be him. She saw herself thinking: "If I wouldn't have served him that beer, maybe he wouldn't have seen them." She called the police, but the number she dialed didn't answer after-hours. The next day, she went to a community meeting that authorities had organized, and after listening to fears and questions and complaints about the amount of police usually patrolling South Park, she pulled an officer aside. "I said, 'I think I could have some information.'"
They took her into a nearby alley, recorded her statement, and told her not to talk to the press. The next day, detectives showed up at Loretta's and took the bar's surveillance tapes. The department had made solving this crime a top priority. Detectives were following every lead. They wanted the man found as badly as anyone. Though they didn't reveal this publicly, they knew he'd been brazen and sloppy in committing the rapes and murder, leaving fingerprints and DNA evidence at the scene. It suggested a man with no restraint, a man who might have no compunction about attacking again. "I prayed for the victims," said an officer who works South Park regularly, describing what he did after hearing details of the case. "I prayed for the survivor. And then I asked God: 'Can I be in on the arrest?'" He did not sound as if he asked because he wanted to gently help the suspect into a squad car.
"I'm not the guy," said Art Clemens, a 39-year-old black man with a thin mustache, smiling.
He was seated at the end of the bar at Loretta's on July 22, three days after Butz was murdered. The suspect was still at large. Everyone was on edge. A few moments earlier, a bartender had watched as two other black men walked in. The bartender said he really hoped the killer was caught soon, in part so that every black man in the South Park area wouldn't have to get eyed suspiciously.
Clemens, at the end of the bar, was plainly not the suspect. He's the vice president of the South Park Neighborhood Association—and, as he pointed out, the suspect was described by police as thin and "there's nothing thin on me." He wore a brown baseball cap stitched with a gold Seahawks emblem and, in his right ear, a silver Bluetooth. He drank Oly.
The police had not yet released the details of what happened the night of the murder, so anxiety reigned and speculation about the motive ran the gamut. Could it have been an anti-gay hate crime? Had there been a sexual assault? Was it random or premeditated?
Clemens was following the chatter on the community association's Listserv, where theories were trending toward the idea of premeditation. "They're saying on the Listserv that other people on the block had either a dog or a man there," he said. "So they wonder if he did some surveillance."
Born in Rainier Valley, Clemens moved to South Park for the same reason as just about everyone else: "affordable housing." In 1994, he bought a one-story, two-bedroom home for $87,000. Then he used his earnings as an electrician to buy another house, which he began renting out. As squad cars passed by on the street outside Loretta's every few minutes, he remarked: "If they keep up this kind of police presence, the property values will go up."
Could the killer have been someone from the sex-offender housing in the area? Maybe. Could Clemens think of other violent crimes that had happened in South Park in the past? "Yeah."
He recalled that about a month ago, while he was working on his car in his driveway, a man ran by bleeding from the ear. Later, he heard there had been a stabbing at Juan Colorado, a Mexican restaurant on the main strip just a few doors down from Loretta's.
On July 23, a Thursday, a stream of people dropped by the low black fence in front of Teresa Butz's house to leave flowers and pay their respects. They were on their way to an early evening memorial on the lawn in front of the South Park Community Center, just around the corner from the house. Loretta's was shut down; the bartenders and kitchen staff wanted to attend. Police were finished collecting evidence inside the home, but they kept up a visible presence around South Park and near the house. A loud, vacuumlike noise could be heard coming from inside its walls. Lettering on a white truck out front suggested the source: "Puroclean, the paramedics of property damage."
Juanita Rivera placed white lilies on the black fence. She recalled how, in 1996, two years after her family had moved to South Park, her daughter Raquel had been murdered when two men broke into the apartment she was staying in. It's a well-known case in South Park and around the country. The two men also shot and killed Raquel's boyfriend, as well as a dog in the apartment—because it bit one of them. They were ultimately caught through what is thought to have been the first forensic use of dog DNA.
"It's getting much better than it used to be," Rivera said of her neighborhood. "Up until now."
Over at the community center, a couple hundred people gathered in the bronze light of the predusk hours to remember Butz. In the crowd there was fear about the suspect, still on the loose, and an undercurrent of tension. When a black man is being hunted by the cops for assaulting two white lesbians inside a home that one of them bought recently in a slowly gentrifying but often ignored neighborhood, it triggers a lot of normally unspoken feelings.
But above all, there was a profound sadness and a desire to celebrate an irrepressible do-gooder who had been a warm and feisty presence in many lives. Speaking through a rickety microphone-and-podium setup provided by the community center, a friend said that in St. Louis, where Butz's large family is from and where her remains were ultimately sent, there had been a line out the door at the wake.
Here, on the community-center lawn, were all types of people, a preponderance of them women: lesbian couples holding each other in grief, volunteers from the Seattle Women's Chorus singing mournfully to start things off, two women in UPS uniforms, tough softball players from the team on which Butz played third base, Seattle council member Sally Clark.
A US Airways jet passed low overhead, muting everything for a moment.
Diana Ramirez, the 14-year-old who was the first to help the victims the night of the murder, stood up to speak, escorted by her father. "I wasn't the only one out there trying to save her," Ramirez said. "But I did as much as I could. To the man who did that—he must have no heart."
She seemed unsteady, hounded by grief and survivor's guilt. A woman seated on the grass in front of her shouted: "You're a hero."
People spoke of Butz's strong sense of right and wrong, and her dogged pursuit of the right. How she tracked down someone who had stolen her purse, immediately calling her credit-card companies to find out where the latest charge had come from, then putting down the phone and rushing from her downtown Seattle office over to Westlake Mall, scouring stores until she came upon the thief carrying her purse, grabbing her, and shouting: "Stop, I'm making a citizen's arrest!"
Everyone on the lawn laughed at this.
The friend recounting the story continued: "This skinny little lady is like dragging Teresa out, but Teresa is holding on and not letting go." Butz got her purse back, and her credit cards.
Another friend recalled that when Butz's partner, a musician, played a show in Bellingham earlier this year, "After each song, the very first thing you could hear was Teresa's voice going, 'Woo-hoo. Yeah!'"
Some spoke of their friend as T., or T-Butz, or T-Buzz. The previous night, the softball team—filled with people who called her T-Buzz—had worn black armbands to its game. "We really tried to win the game for her," one of the players said. "But we didn't. We got 10-runned and the game had to end early. We gave it our all."
A woman with impaired vision spoke of how Butz read to her and how the two came to love talking trash to each other about rival Major League Baseball teams. "She will be missed for a long, long time," she said.
"The very first time I met Teresa, she hugged me like she'd known me for 10 years. She squeezed me like we were best friends."
"If you didn't know her, you missed out."
"Someone like this doesn't deserve it. No one deserves it. But she was a great person."
The next day, Friday, July 24, police released two surveillance videos, each showing a black man skulking around a dark alley in an unknown location.
"We want this man found," said police spokesman Sean Whitcomb at a hastily called press conference at police headquarters downtown. Television stations, blogs, and newspaper websites quickly pushed out the videos, along with warnings from Whitcomb that the man should be considered dangerous.
Shortly thereafter, police knew his name: Isaiah M. K. Kalebu. Prosecutors and authorities in other jurisdictions had immediately recognized the person in the videos and picked up the phone to tell Seattle police about the man they were hunting. According to law-enforcement accounts in court records, he was an unstable 23-year-old who in March of 2008 threatened to kill his mother after she demanded he take his bipolar medication, flashing a knife at her to make his point, breaking the windows of her van with a rock for good measure, and stating calmly: "Enjoy your last day on earth."
While facing domestic-violence and harassment charges for that incident, Kalebu was sent to Western State Hospital for evaluation, found mentally incompetent, and then, after about four months, found mentally competent. After this, King County Superior Court judge Brian Gain released him into the care of his aunt.
Almost a year passed. The date for Kalebu's trial on charges of menacing his mother approached. Then in early July of this year, his aunt died in a suspicious arson in Pierce County. Kalebu was questioned and released, but remained a "person of interest" to authorities down there. The next day, July 10, Kalebu failed to show up for a hearing on the charges related to his alleged harassment of his mother. When he did show up for a rescheduled hearing on July 13, prosecutors asked that he be held in jail based on his mental instability and on the fact that, just prior to her death, his aunt had filed for a restraining order against him.
Again, Judge Gain set Kalebu free.
Six days later, Seattle police say, Kalebu crawled through Butz's bathroom window.
Within an hour of his name and face going everywhere, a Metro bus driver near Magnuson Park spotted Kalebu walking with his brown-and-white pit bull, Endo, and called police. They swarmed the area. Officer Dana Duffey found and arrested him.
Kalebu matched the sketch that was still hanging in the window of Loretta's. His fingerprints and DNA matched evidence gathered at Butz's house, according to police. On his green jacket was what appeared to be blood.
That night at Loretta's, bartender Amee Shepard asked someone to watch the bar, grabbed her cigarettes, and walked to the back of the patio where she could talk privately. Shepard said police had shown up at her apartment earlier that day to see whether Kalebu was the same man who she'd seen in Loretta's on the night when Butz and her partner were in making plans for their rehearsal dinner. "It's not the same guy," Shepard said, relieved. "I know it's not." Maybe she was being paranoid that Friday, caught up in a terrifying moment. But she's worked in bars a long time. She has a pretty good sense for these things. "I told the police, even if that guy I saw didn't do it, you're probably going to be meeting him soon."
Inside the bar, no one was toasting the news. Business was slow, and those who'd showed up and wanted to talk about the case were simply hoping that after five days of waiting anxiously, this was, in fact, the guy. In the back of the patio, Shepard praised the police. "I think the cops have been on it," she said. "I think maybe they realized that they had forgotten about the neighborhood a little bit." Then she wiped her eyes, stubbed out her second cigarette, stood up, and went back to work.
This story has been updated since its original publication.