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How a Seattle murderer slipped through the cracks of the mental health system

In 2009, Jennifer Hopper and Teresa Butz were attacked and sexually assaulted in their home; Butz did not survive. In “While the City Slept,” Eli Sanders, a Pulitzer winner for his reporting on the case, examines the troubled life of their attacker, a mentally ill man who had repeatedly slipped through the cracks of the mental health and justice systems. William Brangham talks to Sanders for more.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: the harrowing account of how a mentally ill man attacked and raped a young couple in Seattle and how it exposed gaps in our system.

    Since the great recession, an estimated $4.3 billion has been cut from mental health services, and only a fraction of those funds have been restored. Most often, this leaves people to suffer quietly and alone, but on rare occasions, that illness can lead to violent behavior, as Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Sanders recounts in a new book.

    William Brangham talked with Sanders and with the surviving victim.

  • JENNIFER HOPPER:

    I think most people who know me, they think of me as this, like, gregarious, outgoing person. And with Teresa, I was the quiet one. She'd walk into a room, you couldn't not notice her. She just lit up the room with her personality.

    ELI SANDERS, Author, "While the City Slept": Jennifer and Teresa were two women who took a long time and long roads towards finding themselves and then each other.

  • JENNIFER HOPPER:

    We knew we wanted to be married. We knew we wanted to spend our life together. The night before the attack, we went to our favorite bar. We had this incredible conversation about what life would look like and what we wanted to create for ourselves.

    And she went to go get us another drink, and she just turned around and just mouthed, like, "I love you."

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The very next night, Jennifer Hopper and Teresa Butz's plans would come apart in the worst way imaginable. They went to sleep in their home in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle.

    They had no warning of what was to come.

  • ELI SANDERS:

    A young man named Isaiah Kalebu came in through an open window in the house that Jennifer and Teresa shared.

    He sexually assaulted each of them under the threat that, if they didn't do what he wanted, he would harm the other. He used their love against them. He raped both of them. And he began to cut both of them, and, as they resisted, he stabbed Teresa in the heart. She ultimately died. And Jennifer was able to escape out into the street in front of their house.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The attack and murder shocked the city. An immediate manhunt for the suspect began. Thanks to DNA from the crime scene which matched DNA left at this 2008 break-in attempt, Isaiah Kalebu was arrested.

    Eli Sanders reported the story for Seattle's alternative weekly The Stranger. In 2012, he won the Pulitzer Prize for this feature, "The Bravest Woman in Seattle," which was about Jennifer Hopper. And now, Sanders has widened the story into this book, "While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent Into Madness."

    In it, Sanders tells the stories of Jennifer Hopper and Teresa Butz and their life together. Sanders spent months with Hopper and other family members. But he also examines the troubled life of their attacker.

  • ELI SANDERS:

    He was, at the time of this crime, a nearly 24-year-old young man who came out of very difficult circumstances and had been living for quite some time with a serious mental illness that wasn't well-treated.

    And he had bounced in and out of the criminal justice and mental health systems in the years before this crime, and had actually been engaged in a series of escalating violent acts.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Your book documents so many different instances where people spent some time with Isaiah and clearly recognized that this was a young man who was in serious trouble and needed some help, and yet that help was never coming.

  • ELI SANDERS:

    Yes.

    I mean, as young as elementary school, he had teachers showing signs of concern. But it wasn't clear exactly what was going on with him. So, as an adult, for example, his mother at one point, when he was acting very worrisome, and when she urged him to get care, he turned on her. He threatened her. He told her, she said, to enjoy her last day on earth.

    And the day after that, he was smashing the windows of her van with a rock and swinging his dog's chain at her and hit her in the head with the metal end of his dog's leash.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    As Kalebu's mental state deteriorated, he got into more and more trouble with the law, and cycled through courtroom after courtroom.

    Just days before the attack, a fight with a police officer landed Kalebu in district court. But the system couldn't see the looming threat.

  • ELI SANDERS:

    In Washington state, the state that birthed Microsoft, a district court judge's computer cannot speak to a superior court judge's computer in another county in a way that was sufficient for the district court judge to see who he had in front of him. And so Isaiah Kalebu was released.

    And not long after that, he scared his aunt so badly that she filed for a restraining order against him. And that again failed to set off any alarms in these fragmented, fractured, unintegrated systems.

    The day after, she was killed in an arson. And he was a suspect in that arson, but was then released. And as his defense attorneys later put it, he wandered after that, homeless for days, accompanied only by his dog and his delusions, until early in the morning of July 19, he encountered Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    At Kalebu's trial, where he had to be restrained in a chair because of his regular outbursts, Jennifer Hopper relived that terrible night on the witness stand. One of the prosecutors said she was the strongest witness he'd seen in 20 years.

  • JENNIFER HOPPER:

    There was never any question as to whether I would or could testify. There wouldn't be justice for my family without speaking the truth about what happened, but there would never have been justice for her.

    I mean, I got to survive, and her family had to bury her. I can't — I can't imagine what that was like for them, so how could I have ever not given them that peace? I think it helped complete that night for a lot of people, including myself.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Kalebu was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

    As Eli Sanders spent the next years researching Kalebu's life, how he'd slipped through the cracks so many times, he became convinced that our system for dealing with mentally ill people in America is terribly broken.

  • ELI SANDERS:

    I believe that if you just look at this one case of Isaiah Kalebu in Washington state — but Washington state is, in the end, a microcosm of the failures of our nation's mental health and criminal justice systems around the country — you can see how relatively little, potentially, it might have cost to steer him or forcefully nudge him in a different direction much earlier on.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    It seems like we have this conversation every time someone with clear mental illness goes on a violent spree. We always talk about how we need to address this. And it seems like we never do.

  • ELI SANDERS:

    Yes.

    And, in a way, it is unfortunate that we only have this conversation in conjunction with violent incidents, because the vast majority of people who live and struggle with mental illness are nonviolent and more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

    But if you want to add up the cost to taxpayers, which we are constantly doing in this country, so let's add it up. It cost more than $3 million for the taxpayers of Washington state to jail Isaiah Kalebu before his trial, and then try him at public expense. And now we are going to pay to put him in prison for life and keep him there. It wouldn't have cost more than $3 million to have tried to intervene.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Today, Jennifer Hopper, who is a lifelong classically trained singer, is using those talents to help other victims of sexual assault. She's part of the Angel Band Project, set up by Teresa Butz's best friends.

    Their records and concerts help other survivors get the care they need. Jennifer says this work and Eli Sanders' book telling their story have helped honor Teresa's memory.

  • JENNIFER HOPPER:

    Through Eli, in the book, she got to be very alive. To have that relationship and that joy that I had told in his voice, like, the way he told it, it's just — it's so beautiful. Like, she is still here. She still gets to be, you know, alive.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Again, the book is called "While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent Into Madness." It's by Eli Sanders.

    We will continue our Broken Justice series tomorrow on the "NewsHour" with a conversation with Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates about the challenges the newly released face after leaving prison.

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