Friday, July 18, 2008

"It was better than hurting myself"

That quote's pretty much the worst thing I've ever heard. It's the explanation Adam Peterson gave his mother for having committed murder.

A while back I posted about 3 then-unsolved Madison murders in-and-around the student part of town. One of those murders has now been solved, and the murderer turns out to have been a baby-faced college student. It's a sad story.

But first, to recap: a year ago Kelly Nolan disappeared after a night out on State Street (Madison's main bar area running from campus to the capitol). Her body was found 2 weeks later in a field a few miles south of Madison. This is still unsolved, and very few details have been released by the police.

In January, Joel Marino, a young-ish Madison resident was stabbed to death in his home at lunchtime. He lived slightly south of what I would call the area of predominantly student-focused housing. He also lived about a block from Brittingham Park, which is a frequent hangout for the homeless, and drug dealers (and others; frisbee and soccer games take place there most summer days). An eyewitness saw someone running from Marino's home, and another eyewitness saw the same person dump a backpack in a garbage bin. After a month or so, a sketch of the suspect was released. The person in the sketch was wearing a UW stocking cap, and didn't look particularly homeless; indeed it turns out to have been a college drop-out.

In April, Brittany Zimmerman, a UW student was murdered in her home at around 1PM. She lived about 3-4 blocks north-northeast of Brittingham Park, in a neighbourhood that is mostly inhabited by students, but also has an assisted living facility, and more recently a bunch of new condo's for young professionals. This is also still unsolved. In the days following the murder police "rounded up" a lot of homeless/jobless people known to frequent or live in that neighbourhood. I think that all arrests were made, technically, because of outstanding warrants for other crimes.

(There was also a shooting death on State Street, in May of last year, literally right in front of my apartment building, but that case was "solved" right away, and wasn't really murder. It did however involve Madison's street people and/or homeless, which I'll come back to later.)

The Marino murder is now solved, and a 22 year old kid, Adam Peterson, has been arrested. The kid's story is pretty sad. By all published accounts he was a nice if somewhat quiet kid, and his family comes across as being fairly decent, honest people in the few interviews they've done. Court transcripts of recorded jailhouse phone conversations include this exchange:
"If I did (tell you), you'd like turn me in," Peterson said to his mom. Her response: "Oh probably."

He joined his twin brother at UW Madison after a year at UW Lacrosse, but he dropped out half way through his first semester. Then the news reports get a bit fuzzy. At some point in time he apparently got into some serious drug problems including cocaine use. But it's not clear if that was before or after the murder. Now it seems that Peterson will file an insanity plea. From interviews with his father, it seems that he was being treated for depression but, again, I'm not sure if any of that took place before the murder.

A lot of people were expecting that the Marino and Zimmerman murders would turn out to be connected since both stabbings occurred in the early afternoon, in the victim's home. Public speculation focused on the homeless, probably due to the growing number of homeless in those (residential) neighbourhoods, and the increasingly aggressive behaviour of panhandlers on State Street, and door-to-door soliciting in that neighbourhood. (Only something like 10% of the homeless are panhandlers, but they're also the only homeless most people are aware of.) At around the same time (on the same day) as the Zimmerman murder, a homeless man (and convicted sex offender) was arrested for home invasion a block north of the crime scene, adding to the speculation. And of course, Madison's professional activists were up in arms about the negative attention the homeless were getting.

My own feelings are somewhat mixed. Obviously, I'm relieved that Peterson's been caught. But he seems to have been out of town when the other murders took place, so those cases are still very much open. Also; if the murderer had turned out to be a homeless person I think the city's response would have been much more complicated. Students are easier to deal with: I think we'll see some increased emphasis on taking care of students' mental health, probably just by increasing awareness on campus of the resources available (freely, and readily). That won't be enough to calm people's nerves though, because the other two murders were closer to campus, and are still unsolved.

I should also add that there have been a few, still-unsolved murders in other parts of the city, including the horrific shooting of Marcus Hamilton in his home, while (his?) four children were also home. Update: A couple of days after I wrote this, news came out that the case had been (mostly) solved. It also appears to be drug related.

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