Dropping rocks on passing cars is no sport

At 1 a.m. on Sunday ­- in other words, Saturday night -­ I became a crime victim.

Driving back from a long day visiting my folks with my fiancée, I passed under the Stacy, Minn., exit on Interstate 35 when my car window exploded. Small, extremely sharp shards of glass imploded, littering the dashboard, the passenger seat and my lap. I wasn’t certain what had happened…

It was completely dark, with no cars close by. Somehow, I was blessed enough to keep the car going straight and steady without losing speed or swerving. But I was scared and unsure what to do next.

Had some wheel of a truck well ahead of me spit up a rock? Had the heavily humid, hot air outside and the AC-cooled air in the car caused the windshield to implode? Worst of all, had I been shot at, either knowingly or by way of a stray bullet?

None of those possibilities seemed plausible, but my windshield was nevertheless spiderwebbed, my lap full of tiny glass slivers. Thankfully, I wear glasses or the implosion might have had more severe immediate consequences.

On the off-chance I had been shot at, I decided to keep driving until I reached the North Branch exit, where I had been planning to stop for gas anyway. Once I arrived, I climbed out and inspected my car.

The deep indentation in the windshield indicated a couple things. First, some sort of object ­ a bird, a rock, a baseball, whatever ­ had collided with my windshield, dead square center. Second, if it had impacted any harder, it would have come through the windshield completely, resulting in a lot more than tiny splinters of glass.

I could have been sliced up by the glass. The object could have struck me. I could have lose control, crossed the median, entered the ditch or even collided with another vehicle. It could have been fatal. Thankfully, though, it wasn’t.

I called my fiancee while driving up to North Branch, Minn., to let her know what was going on. Once I arrived, I placed a phone call to 911.

To my surprise, I barely needed to start describing what had happened when the operator ­ and later the state cop ­ said that they knew exactly what had happened. It seems the I-35 overpass at Stacy, Minn., has had a chronic problem with an individual or group ­ assumed to be kids ­ tossing rocks at passing cars from atop the overpass, late at night.

That night, I was only one of five or six vehicles to get hit. They remain unapprehended and unidentified. They’ve been at it long enough for it to be familiar to state cops and 911 dispatchers.

Many folks try to excuse this behavior as the misadventures of children. “It’s just a kid’s prank,” they claim.

Legally, it’s either assault or vandalism. The standard sentence would be suspended in favor of probation and restitution.

I disagree. Call me biased as a victim, but it’s more serious than that. As far as I’m concerned, it’s attempted murder.

Once they catch them, that’s how it should be charged.

They just haven’t succeeded. Yet.

Why Air America and Al Franken will fail

Looking back at the past year or so in retrospect, it’s getting easier to speak about the election year with a bit of distance and detachment. While Decision 2004 ended up with a result I favor, it took a long time to get there and there was a lot of new silliness along the way…

Well, it’s probably flippant to call organizations like MoveOn.org and Air American silly, but certainly looking back at some of the actions and rhetoric they engaged in, one must concede that it’s hard to take them entirely seriously, either. I have a lot of thoughts I’ve been mulling over about this past election cycle, but the one I want to focus on today is Air America, the “new” liberal talk radio network… Specifically, Al Franken’s role in it.

WHY I ONCE LIKED AL

It would be easy to dismiss the opinion of anyone who dislikes a particular celebrity. After all, their mind is made up and their opinion of the person in question must therefore be biased, correct? And I suppose that is a reasonable assumption.

However, in this case, I have not come to the table with a predisposition to dislike Al Franken. In fact, for a large span in his career, I have found much of his professional work to be quite enjoyable.

During his stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, Franken was a great absurdist humorist, poking fun at any number of cultural conventions. Whether he was on Weekend Update wearing a satellite uplink helmet or making special appearances with one-time comedy partner Tom Davis, Franken was wacky in an enjoyable, slapstick kind of way.

Yet for me, perhaps his greatest contribution to the culture is his self-help character, Stuart Smalley. Having grown up myself in a home with an alcoholic parent, much of the self-help/self-love/affirmation mind-set he was skewering was immediately identifiable, if not through direct family parallels than through contact with others whose problems ran along the same lines.

Although enjoyable as a skit character, the high-water mark for the Stuart Smalley character was a small, modest film that spun the character off into his own movie, “Stuart Saves His Family.” While the flick barely made a blip at the box office, it quickly became a personal favorite because the film moved beyond the surface caricature of Stuart and showed us his whole, dysfunctional family life. No longer as slapstick a character, the movie was successful in touching deep emotional chords that anyone who has been part of a dependency household can identify with, even if the specifics of their lives vary from those in the movie.

The film succeeded (creatively, if not commercially) because Franken’s script treated each character as valid and human – even the largely unsympathetic alcoholic father. And he had what appeared to be an uncanny understanding of the hopelessness that can often pervade life inside a family with a dependency dysfunction.

Simply for making the movie “Stuart Saves His Family,” I can never really dislike Al Franken. But I can be disappointed in the quality of his current work.

And I am.

WHY I NO LONGER CARE FOR AL FRANKEN’S WORK

When Franken was focused on comedy, or even on movie making, much of his work was sharp, humorous and witty. When I initially heard he was thinking of becoming the liberal response to Rush Limbaugh, my first thought was, “Well, here’s a funny guy, so maybe the Libs finally have the right idea here.”

That hasn’t proven to be the case.

In my view, Franken’s political punditry career got off to a bad start with his first overtly political tome, “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot.”

I was a bit taken aback. Not because Franken chose to attack Rush – for liberals, who is a riper target for lampooning than Mr. Limbaugh, after all? – but because of the level of the humor.

Big? Fat? Idiot? That’s the best a talented humorist like Franken can come up with is to call the nation’s top conservative radio host fat and dumb? Name-calling? That’s the best Franken could do?

Surely it has to be just a matter of the title of the book only, I thought. A marketing ploy. Choose an outrageous, even cheap, title to get attention, but surely a more sophisticated brand of parody would show up in the interior pages, right?

Nope. For all his bluster, Franken couldn’t scrape together anything greater than that: name-calling. Considering the heart Franken had displayed behind the movie “Stuart Saves His Family,” such base vitriol was disappointing, at the very least.

And Limbaugh hasn’t been his only target. The current president gets treated to no deeper commentary that does Rush: Franken spends a lot of time his calling GWB stupid. And he doesn’t even spend much time searching for a variety of synonyms to add some variety to the endless name-calling.

It’s disappointing, really. While I am not a liberal and never will be, I kinda liked the idea of Franken as a liberal response to Rush. If he had proven to be as humorous as Limbaugh, from the other side of the aisle, it could have made flipping back and forth between the two shows loads of fun. A nice rivalry. But Franken just isn’t cutting it.

Al, speaking as someone who really has appreciated your work if not your politics, here’s a sincere plea: Make your show funnier. And here’s the first hint: Name-calling wears thin. You’re capable of better humor than just calling W., Rush and anyone else who doesn’t agree with you stupid, fat and ugly. If you think Rush is only a name-caller, you haven’t really analyzed his show and its appeal deeply enough.

Can there be a liberal version of Rush Limbaugh? Sure. And Franken had potential.

But fat jokes and calling people stupid can only get you so far. And it really does go against the grain, Al, of much of your best work.

The upcoming NFL draft, and the Vikes…

I must be one of the least-active bloggers in the universe.

By day (and many evenings), I work as a journalist and between boys and girls basketball playoffs, high school hockey and preparing a spring sports preview, life has been pretty hectic lately. Not to mention that I’m engaged and now only a year away from my wedding. Time flies!

But, one sporting event has me captivated lately and that’s the drama surrounding the upcoming NFL draft… The Vikings have two first-round picks. One is the seventh pick overall and I forget where the other is – 18th, maybe? – but it’s above 20, also. If the Vikes choose wisely, this could be the draft that re-shapes the post-Moss Vikings for years to come.

The most exciting possibility for me, personally, is the idea that one of the top three running backs in the draft will fall to us; yes, the Vikes seem loaded at running back, but here’s the thing: three of them were injured for one stretch or another last year, and none seemed to be the go-to back late in the season.

Sure, Moe Williams is a reliable third-down back. But he’s not a starter.

Yes, Onterrio Smith is a burner. But he’s also a mini-Moss.

Fine, Michael Bennett has all the makings of a superstar. But he hasn’t played a full season yet.

Okay, Mwelde Moore filled in nicely for a few weeks. But he still hasn’t proven he’s capable of being an every-down, every-week, full-timer.

Together, they’re awesome. But who’s the Jerome Bettis of the group? My feeling is, we don’t have one.

So, here’s what I’d do: First, pray one of the big backs falls to the Vikes. Maybe someone goes defense instead of running back ahead of us. I don’t care how it happens.

Any of the three would be fine, although if it were Cadillac Williams, that’d be ideal. I’d settle for Ronnie Brown with no complaints. I doubt Cedric Benson will still be on the board. As long as the Vikes have a shot at one of them, they should take it, then trade away Smith or Bennett for a second-round pick.

Failing the possibility of one of the three big backs being available, then when it comes to receiver, here’s the thing: I doubt Braylon Edwards will be on the board past the third or fourth pick, so forget that. Mike Williams looks good, but he’s a risk. If you can’t get a running back, I say take a receiver with the second first-round pick and go defense on the first pick. My choice? CB Antrelle Rolle, if he’s still on the board. If he’s not, trade down a spot or two, gain extra pickes, and take DE Erasmus James from Wisconsin, to shore up the D-line.

Okay, let’s assume we still only have second pick in the first round remaining. The Vikes pick somewhere around 18. At that point, I’d take a shot at WR Mark Clayton, if he’s still on the board. If not, then let’s not forget that much of the Vikings’ offensive woes last year came as a result of their O-line being decimated by early injuries. Florida State OT Alex Barron would take care of that, if he’s still available.

If he’s not, then I’d again go defense, opting for any of the following, in order of preference: S Thomas Davis, CB Carlos Rogers, OLB Shawne Merriman, or DE Marcus Spears. That’d shift depending on who the Vikes end up with at the seventh pick overall.

Finally, in most of my scenarios, the Vikes would have at least two picks in the second round, as well; either by trading down a couple spots at seven, or by trading Bennett after gaining one of the top three backs. Either way, if the Vikes have two second-rounders, it’s time to solve the kicker position once and for all: take Nugent and be done with it for the next 15-20 years.

In fact, take him even if the Vikes only have ONE second-rounder. It’s time to stop hiring guys older than me to kick field goals, then hiring another guy to handle kickoffs… Take Nugent in the second round, Coach Tice. Settle the position, already.

And if there is a second round-two pick due to trading of some sort, and the Vikes still haven’t taken a receiver… take one then. Or in the third. I’m not as worried as some people about the Vikes receiving corps. The current, free-agency-enhanced crew can get the job done, especially if we have a 25-30 carry-per-game RB.

The wonders of MVP Baseball 2005

OK, I’ll admit it: I love videogames. I also love sports. But it takes a darned good sports videogame to pass muster with me.

The newest sports videogame obsession of mine is a little title called MVP Baseball 2005, and despite it being the best baseball sim on the market this season, we’re already holding a wake for it…

Why, you ask? Not because the company that made it is about to go under or anything. Nope. EA Sports is doing just fine, thanks.

It’s also not because we’re about to go through a change in videogame hardware, what with the next-gen launches of the PlayStation 3, Nintendo Dolphin (working title), and Microsoft YBox (also a working title). That’s not it, either.

No, the main reason we’re holding a wake for the best baseball title on the market this year is because, thanks to Take-Two Interactive, starting next season, they will be the only company that can make officially-licensed, MLB and MLBPA-approved major league baseball videogames. Take-Two, which also publishes Grand Theft Auto, is expanding into the lucrative sports market in a big way, buying out developer Visual Concepts from Sega of America and taking over the 2K line of sports videogames, just as the ESPN license and the NFL/NFLPA license has slipped over to EA Sports, exclusively.

For the past several years, videogame fans have had plenty of variety to choose from. Want an arcade-style baseball videogame? Go to Midway’s product. Want a deep sim? EA Sports is for you. Want a blend of arcade action and sim-style depth? It’s the 2K line that’s your best fit.

No longer. While EA Sports may use a first-party loophole to continue their MVP Baseball series, by developing it but having Sony or Nintendo or Microsoft publish it under their banner for their platforms, EA Sports can no longer, as a third-party publisher, continue the MVP Baseball series as an officially-licensed game, sporting real teams and real players.

Of course, in the grand tradition of Tecmo Bowl Football, EA could choose to continue MVP Baseball with fictional teams and players, but really – what’s the point of that? Their motto is, if it’s in the game, it’s in the game… and for the next seven years, there’s no game that EA can get into.

The sad part is, Take-Two isn’t being evil so much as merely getting revenge. A few months ago, EA Sports struck a similar deal with the NFL and the NFLPA, barring anyone other than EA from making officially-licensed NFL videogames. That left Take-Two out in the cold on the most profitable sports videogame genre, football. Making baseball their own exclusive sport is merely payback. And to be honest, EA Sports was more thorough than Take-Two, leaving no first-party loophole that might let Take-Two, Sony, Microsoft or any other publisher wishing to do a real NFL game back in the market – the NFL is now EA’s exclusively.

The trouble with all this is, while it may be “good business” from a financial standpoint for EA, Take-Two, the NFL and major league baseball, it’s a total train wreck for videogame players. Although EA’s Madden games are king of the hill and have been for 15 years, there are many who preferred the Sega/Take Two/Visual Concepts’ 2K line of NFL games. While many fans like Take-Two’s take on major league baseball, at least as many were growing fans of EA’s MVP series.

But, starting next year, everyone’s out of luck. There will be no more choices. There will be Madden NFL on ESPN… and nothing else. There will be Take-Two’s Major League Baseball series… but no MVP, nothing else. While the surviving series are sure to see higher sales due to lack of competition, that could be the very thing that leads to higher prices and diminishing quality in the delivered product. In the past, if Madden grew stale, folks could leap over to the 2K football title for a season and send EA Sports a message that they needed to step up. If the 2K baseball like wasn’t providing enough sim-style depth, folks could opt for MVP to see how they liked that… and send Take-Two a message that they weren’t getting the job done.

No longer. Now, it’s one major-league sport = one videogame = no choices. It’s a losing formula for videogame fans, but one that’s unlikely to bite these selfish companies on the butt, because if you love sports videogames… where’s your option? You have none.

It’s a shame, too. MVP Baseball 2005 is shockingly good. It’s the first videogame to feature a full-roster minors system (A, AA, and AAA) for each club, in a way that demands that each minor league team have a workable roster, just like in real major-league ball. It’s the only videogame to feature a baseball draft during the time it actually occurs in the calendar, rather than as a post-season mini-game. It’s a masterpiece.

It’s also the last of it’s kind, at least for the next seven years.

The only “major” sports that still have competition – more than one officially-licensed company making games bearing their teams and players – are the NBA and the NHL. Want to guess how long it’ll stay that way? I shudder to think.

At least the NCAA is unlikely to go the exclusive route… so far. “May you live in interesting times,” the old Chinese curse goes.

Boy, do I feel cursed…

McHale, McCombs and more…

Things sure changed on the Minnesota sports scene, during the short week I was away.

On the Vikings front, Red McCombs has announced a potential sale agreement that would put the team in the hands of Reggie Fowler, an Arizona businessman and, potentially, the NFL’s first black owner. On the T-Wolves front, Kevin McHale dismissed his friend, Flip Saunders, and took over coaching duties himself.

This is not news to most of you. But here’s my take on both matters…

THE VIKINGS SALE

The idea of Reggie Fowler owning the Vikings is a fun one. It would be nice to see the NFL get its first African-American owner. But, I think, in the end it will be Glen Taylor, not Reggie Fowler, who owns the team.

Is this because I think the NFL is full of racist owners? No. But the NFL is full of billionaire owners and, from what anyone can tell, Fowler falls short on that count. By a margin.

Here’s the math, as I understand it. To own an NFL squad, you have to have a lead partner (Fowler, in this case) who owns at least 30 percent of the team. With the announced sale price of approximately $625 million, that means Fowler would need to chip in around $187.5 million. Cash. Not credit, not loans.

But the NFL Finance Committee does not stop its stipulations there. An lead partner also needs the financial wearwithall to foot the bill for about six to eight years of operating at a deficit, in case of a financial downturn in the NFL economy. And the lead partner needs to have enough in assets to buy out any potential partners who decide they want out of the deal.

What that means is, in addition to around $187.5 million in cash, Fowler would need about another $400 million, at minimum, in assets, to make the deal fly by the NFL Finance Committee with flying colors. That means Fowler would need to be worth around $600 million. Unfortunately, reports on Fowler’s personal wealth place him at around $200 to $400 million. So unless he has some money stuffed away in a sock drawer somewhere, it’s not likely Fowler has the means to actually pass muster with the NFL Finance Committee.

PREDICTION: At the March meetings, the NFL Finance Committee will deep-six Fowler’s bid, due strictly to financial means issues, and Glen Taylor will own the Vikings by May or thereabouts. Taylor, in addition to being a native Minnesotan, is worth $2.1 billion. That’d be plenty to pass muster with the NFL Finance Committee. And if Taylor has any sense of PR value… and he typically does… once he owns the team, he’ll extend a minority partner opportunity to Fowler. Whether Fowler accepts or not is anyone’s guess.

McHALE FIRES SAUNDERS, TAKES OVER AS WOLVES COACH

I never saw it coming.

Sure, the Wolves were operating around .500 with a staff that went to the Western Conference championship series last season. Sure, a couple of malcontent, overpaid players were griping and tanking the season on purpose. But to see Saunders, a man who lasted nine and a half years in the same job, in a league where most coaches last about three seasons? And especially when the GM is the coach’s college buddy? I never would have predicted it.

In fairness to Saunders, it’s not his fault Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell got bad attitudes when, at age 35, they both wanted multi-year contract extensions that would make them both even more overpaid in the twilight of their NBA careers. What is his fault is that he wasn’t able to snap them out of it. Saunders is still a great coach, as the interest of several teams in his services, within days of his ouster, attest.

Since taking over, McHale has guided the Wolves to a 2-1 record, putting the team at 27-27, but that’s probably more the result of the intimidation factor of playing for the GM. It’s not a long-term solution, and everyone knows that. What bugs me about Flip’s ouster as coach is not that it happened… I kinda thought it might. But in mid-season? That’s where I have a problem with it.

It would have made more sense to dismiss Saunders, if that’s what McHale and Taylor wanted to do, at the end of a season. After all, you get the consolation prize of getting into the NBA lottery and infusing the team with some young talent, if the team continues to flounder. And even with McHale at the helm, the likelihood is that the Wolves still won’t be able to beat the top teams, this year, or get very far, even if they do qualify for the playoffs. So what’s the point of dismissing Saunders before the All-Star break? It’s just an odd choice.

PREDICTION: With 28 games to go, the Wolves will go 18-10 the rest of the way, just barely make the playoffs, and lose to the first- or second-seeded team in the West, in the first round. Then the team will not have much talent to choose from this summer by the time their draft pick rolls around. Oh, and by next fall, the new Wolves Coach will be… Eric Mussleman.

Hell week

The good news is, Grandma is going to be okay. Still, my trip to Chicago with my fiancee last week was basically a genuine “hell week.”

It’s hard to discuss everything chronologically, so instead, I’ll focus on themes. At least, that way, it’ll be easier to follow than it was to live through.

GRANDMA’S MEDICAL CONDITION

Although we went down on Tuesday, things really began the week before. On the previous Friday, Grandma was recovering from hip replacement surgery and seemed to be doing fine and expected to be released within a week. Unfortunately, it was not to be so simple.

For the purposes of surgery, Grandma had been given a blood thinner, but the dosage was off and then, to make matters worse, interacted with a diabetes med she was on and things started to get bad.

On Thursday, she had been up and around, doing a lot on her own. By Friday, she was back in bed and becoming nonresponsive. By Saturday, her blood sugar was up to a dangerous 180 and she was even less responsive and completely bed-ridden. No one was called. No doctor was brought in.

By Sunday, Grandma was completely nonresponsive and her blood sugar was up to 300. Finally, late in the day, a doctor was called in to look at her. This, despite her blood sugar being checked four times a day. The doctor was shocked he had not been brought in earlier, but it was still Monday before she was hospitalized and Tuesday before my fiancee and I received word about what was going on.

When we were called, we had one doc saying relatives should “be on the next plane out,” while another said, “you can take up to 24 hours to get here.” Grandma was, by then, nearly comatose and in danger of organ failure, with emergency dialysis procedures underway. By the time we arrived and saw her, she was bleeding from everywhere it was possible to bleed and, although she was starting to become responsive on occasion, had every appearance of a woman about to shuffle off the mortal coil – at least, that was our unspoken fear.

My fiancee and I prayed with her, a first for Grandma, who typically doesn’t like to be prayed for, except by her priest. Grandma and my fiancee had an important meeting of the minds. But the mood still seemed to be one of “waiting for the worst to happen.”

But on Thursday, things turned for the better. The Vitamin K started taking effect to stop the internal bleeding and – despite being exhausted – Grandma was more coherent. By Friday, she was more alert and had the spark back in her eyes. And the doctors said it was just a matter of a room opening up before she’d be moved out of ICU and into the regular part of the hospital. That happened Saturday. She now only has to regain her strength and begin her rehabilitation… all over again.

MY FIANCEE’S HEALTH

Due to the stress of the situation, my fiancee, who has asthsma, went into a full-blown asthma episode. Stranded far from home and without a rescue inhaler, in desperation, we bought over-the-counter Primatene Mist, which is probably all that saved us from having her join Grandma in the hospital.

The next day, we were able to get her prescriptions transferred down, but by then the asthsma was set in and by the end of the week had developed into an upper respiratory infection. For those not in the know, when in a full-blown asthsma episode, the worst place for a person to be is… you guessed it… in a hospital full of sick folks. But, you do what you have to in a situation like that, I guess.

While down there, neither of us got more than three hours of sleep a night and, of course, it was all book-ended by eight or more hour trips to and back from Chicago. So exhaustion played a factor, too.

OUR RETURN

As if all this weren’t stressful enough, when we returned home, my fiancee’s apartment had been trashed by the cable company. Their disrespect included:

1) Not cleaning up their own mess
2) Leaving toxic chemicals on the floor for her cat to walk in, and possibly lick.
3) Not moving her rat’s cage, letting the debris fall on it, polluting the rat’s cage, which caused the rat to chew deep scars into its skin.
4) Stealing food, a chair, a book and perhaps a couple other items from her apartment.
5) Leaving the place in a shambles.

Wonderful customer service, eh? Thanks, Comcast.

To add icing to the cake, while we were reacting to the trashed apartment, someone stole her wallet, which had been left out in the hallway with our bags. It was eventually returned, three days later, but not before adding even more stress as we went through the process of canceling check cards and such.

We were able to have our Valentine’s Day dinner, two days early. But for the final insult, while cleaning up, the candle-holder I gave her as a V-Day gift tipped over and broke. Sometimes, you just end up feeling like Job, the tragic Old Testament character. Truly, it was a hell week. We can only be glad that it’s finally over.

Hit by the unexpected

A lot of people talk freely about “the best laid plans of mice and men” often going awry.

I don’t know a whole lot about that. What I do know is that sometimes it feels like, just as you’re getting your bearings and things are looking up, BLAM! You get hit by the unexpected and everything falls to chaos again…

No, this isn’t another dry essay about September 11. The ‘net is filled with those. This one hits closer to home. At work today, I got a call from my fiancee. It seems her grandmother is hospitalized and in serious condition. Things are looking grim. So we’re headed down to Chicago in a few hours to visit and pray and hope for the best while bracing ourselves if “the best” doesn’t happen. Needless to say, it won’t be a fun trip to Chicago.

It’s amazing how fast you can grow attached to people. Although I’ve known my fiancee for close to a year and we’ve been engaged for about four months, I’ve only been down to Chicago to visit her relatives there three times. Yet the news that one of them is in serious condition has me as shaken as I’d be if it were one of my own relatives. And they want me there, with them.

Three visits, none longer than three days. In all, maybe a week of knowing Grandma. Not that long, when you think about it. Yet we’re all wrapped up in each other’s hearts. And now, facing the possibility of a loss of someone I haven’t yet come to know as well as I’d like to.

I wish I could connect this to some deep insight, make a connection to a bigger issue that everyone can relate to. But the wound is fresh and the outcome too uncertain.

I know this much: Even though a year ago I didn’t know Grandma, I don’t want to think about losing her quite so soon. Our hope had been for her – and my parents – to be around in 13-14 months when we get married and the possibility that now that might not happen? It’s no fun to think about.

So excuse me if this post is an incoherant ramble and, if you could hear me, I sound a little bit like Mushmouth from Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. It’s just that I’ve been hit by the unexpected.

I’ll be back.

Justice?

One of the events I covered during my day-job as a journalist is also one of the reasons I decided to create a blog. One of my beats at my current paper is covering the county court beat.

I live in a fairly rural county in northwestern Wisconsin and we have a lot of lakes and woods, perfect for tourism and sportsmen and the like. Despite the ideal setting, I’ve covered more murder trials than you might suspect, but what is really rampant up here is child sexual abuse. Sure, compared to the population we have, it’s less than a handful of offenders, but the problem seems to be on the rise and it’s become disturbing how often I see that as the lead charge on a court docket.

But one case stands out in mind. For the sake of legalities and protecting innocent relatives of the accused, I’ll simply refer to him by the fictional initials of A.B.C.

A.B.C. was first arrested and charged in this case back in October 2001. After a November 2001 initial appearance, a motion for “change of judge” was filed. That’s because we have a local judge who actually sentences… you know… according to the law. As his replacement was a neighboring judge, who I’ll fictionally name Judge Talk Tough, who served on the case for the remainder of the legal process. The replacement judge’s fictional name should clue you in on all you need to know about him. From the January 2002 preliminary hearing and on, it was all Judge Talk Tough.

When the complaint was initially filed against A.B.C, it included no less than 42 felony counts, including 37 counts involving illegal sexual activity with a minor, including repeated sexual assaul of the same child (multiple victims), causing a child between the ages of 13-18 to view sexual activity and exposing a child to harmful material. The remaining five felonies were related to illegal deer hunting. Naturally. Hey, we’re a hunting region, right?

Anyway, after reading deep into the case files, the story behind the charges soon became clear: this fellow had worked with children through two local churches as a lay-staff volunteer. Some of them, he’d invite over to his house from time to time. Eventually, with several victims ranging in age from seven to 17, sometimes more than one victim at a time, he’d pop in some porn videos, initiate sexual touching and, in some cases, full-on sexual activity.

The nature of the crime sounds bad enough, right? Lock the guy up and toss the key into Lake Superior, right? Nope.

The guy was released on a mere $15,000 cash bond, maybe a lot for local standards and incomes, but postable. And post it he did. And then the legal delays began, as well as the negotiations. Time ticked by. Finally, on December 10, 2003… do you think he had his day in court? No. Sorry. Not even close.

During the interim, the local district attorney – admittedly overworked and overwhelmed – got brow-beaten by A.B.C.’s attorney over his chances of winning at trial. And, with A.B.C. free on bond… several of the victims decided not to testify. Thus, 42 total felonies with 37 child-sex felonies ultimately became… eight total felonies with seven child-sex felonies included. The rest – 34 felonies in all – were never even pressed forward.

Well, that’s fine, right? I mean, eight felonies is certainly enough to send the creep deep into the state prison system till he’s old and gray and exiting in a casket, right? Again, no.

Because the case never got to trial. Even after dropping all but eight counts, the local DA decided not to go to trial and accepted a plea agreement. And it was one that certainly favored A.B.C.

When the dust of the plea agreement settled, A.B.C. was found guilty of… get ready for it… one felony count. One. Just one. Out of 42 originally. Pretty nifty plea bargain, eh? But it doesn’t end there.

Judge Talk Tough, at sentencing in April 2004, after the mandatory presentence investigation, gave a hellfire and brimstone speech that would make Johnathon Edwards shiver; then he sentenced A.B.C. to… get ready for it… 25 years in state prison. 25 years. Not even one year for every felony originally filed. Just over three years for every count pressed forward. But it gets better… for A.B.C., at least.

In accordance with Wisconsin’s “truth in sentencing” guidelines, a judge can apportion how much of a prison sentence is spent in the slammer, and how much is spent on “extended supervision,” a euphamism for living back in the community where you committed your crime, with an electronic monitor on your ankle so the cops can find you if you’re not where you’re supposed to be. And despite his hellfire-and-brimstone speech, Judge Talk Tough decided that a guy who at one time faced 42 felony counts only needed to spend … six years in confinement in a state prison facility and the remaining 19 years on “extended release.”

Six years in. Six. For a 42-count set of charges. That’s a mere 1.7 months per count from the original criminal complaint. Then he’s out in the community, on a monitor.

But it’s not really six years, either. He’d already spent, over the course of time, two-thirds of a year in local jail. So it’s five years and four months. But it’s not even that, because with good behavior he can earn his way out of state prison steel bars even earlier. He’ll likely be back in the community on “extended release” before 2010.

Way to make the victims feel safe, eh?

But, sadly, this isn’t the worst part. The worst part was buried deep in the court file, among the documents considered in the pre-sentence investigation. Among the various pleas for leniency from family and close friends – too close to see the darkness of A.B.C.’s actions, apparently – were two letters. From local pastors. And not just any local pastors, but pastors of the churches from which he met and selected his victims.

Were the letters pleas to the court to protect their children, as one might expect? Get used to hearing this: No.

Instead, both letters, in nearly carbon-copy language, begged the judge not to sentence A.B.C. to any jail time at all. Their reasoning? A cliche so annoying I hate even repeating it here…

They wrote, “The embarrassment of these charges going public and being published in the local paper is punishment enough. He’ll have to live with this guilt and what he did for the rest of his life. He needs counseling, not prison time. So please, don’t put A.B.C. in prison. He doesn’t belong there.”

Look, you expect that from relatives and friends who might be in denial. You expect it. But from pastors? Men of God? What are we coming to? It’s things like this that make it hard not to become a wonderful pessimist.

Sure, I can imagine a rationalization for this: “Well, he’s a member of our flock, so we have to shepherd him. Christ never abandoned his flock, he died for them.”

But that’s misleading; a shepherd’s first job is to keep the flock safe from the wolves. And Jesus said, of anyone who harms children, “It would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he was cast into the ocean.”

What about shepherding the kids this guy violated? Maybe that should be somewhere on the list? Maybe? You think?

Sorry, but I choose to disagree with these so-called “men of God.” The embarrassment of his crimes being known isn’t punishment enough. “Living with what he did” isn’t punishment at all. Does the man need counseling? Sure.

But he also needs jail time. And a whole lot more than six years inside a prison and 19 years on the post-prison version of probation.

Anyway, that’s the way I see it. But I’m just a wonderful pessimist.

Welcome

Welcome to my blog.

Probably the biggest question to answer right away is, “Why wonderful pessimist?” Well, it comes from a Ronald Reagan quote that I try to use as a reminder to myself never to get too discouraged by life. And, it seems, it’s a reminder I need more and more often lately. Future posts will make the “why” clear, but let’s just say that despite George W. Bush sitting in the White House for a second term, there are things happening in the world, this country and my own neck of the woods that I find disturbing and sad.

This is where I’ll write about them. Hope you enjoy.

No one has ever been fondly remembered for being a wonderful pessimist. –Ronald Reagan