by BJW Nashe
Dear M—- :
You never knew me. You never even met me. But I know about you, because I have had the good fortune to be close to people who knew you and loved you. So I know what happened. That’s why I wanted to write to you about it. Your story needs to be told.
In 1973, you were four years old, living with your father in Berkeley. No doubt you were a lovely little girl, full of fun and games. You were drawing and painting pictures, learning how to read, playing dress-up, doing all of the things that lovely little girls so love to do.
During June of that year, you and your father were staying with friends in a house on Russell Street, located south of the University of California campus. You were lodged in a room downstairs. Your hosts, a man and a woman who made pottery in their home studio, had the upstairs room to themselves. The woman had an 11 year-old daughter who was very close to you, much like an older sister. She had her own room downstairs.
On June 16th, at 5:23 a.m., Berkeley police officers were dispatched to the Russell Street neighborhood to respond to reports of a prowler in the area. The officers were unable to locate the suspected prowler, so they all left the scene except for one. Sergeant Jimmie Rutledge, a 23-year veteran on the force, remained in the area to keep an eye out for the suspect.
Shortly thereafter, Sergeant Rutledge noticed an African American male loitering nearby. He suspected this man might be the prowler. The sergeant then made a terrible mistake. He approached the man and tried to arrest him single-handedly. When the suspect resisted, a struggle ensued. During the altercation, the suspect somehow managed to seize Sergeant Rutledge’s gun. He fired at the officer, fatally wounding him. He also shot and wounded a neighbor who ventured outside after hearing the commotion on the sidewalk.
You were just a young girl tucked in bed in a house down the street. You knew nothing of police outside looking for prowlers. You and the three adults in the home were still asleep. Your “big sister” — the young daughter of your host — wasn’t there; she just happened to be spending the night at a friend’s house. The tragic death of Sergeant Rutledge need not have concerned you, or any other four year-old. It was just bad grown-up craziness. There was plenty of that going on in those days. And there still is. No kid should have to be involved in it.
The man who shot Sergeant Rutledge, however, was familiar with the house you were staying at. He was an acquaintance of your father’s, and he knew the owners of the house. He was considered something of a friend. He knew you. I’m not sure how close he was to you. Berkeley has a big reputation, but it has never been a very large city. The locals often know who the other locals are, especially in the Telegraph Avenue area. You tend to know the regulars. You know the neighbors, the merchants, the riff raff. Many loose connections are formed. And Berkeley has always been a free-wheeling place, to say the least.
Anyway, the suspected prowler panicked after he shot Sergeant Rutledge, and he ran straight to the house you were in, probably just because he knew the people who lived there. I don’t know if he was on drugs or battling some form of mental illness. I don’t know what he was doing wandering around the neighborhood in the early morning hours (although this is not really strange behavior, by Berkeley standards). I don’t know about his previous experience with law enforcement. But he must have known this was a bad scene. Killing a cop is about as bad as it can get. So this guy was probably running on pure fear and adrenaline. Maybe he was desperate for help — just trying to get off the street so he could plan his next move and somehow get out of this mess. Most likely he was too confused to think clearly about much of anything at that point.
In any case, he managed to get inside the house you were staying in. I don’t know if he broke in, climbed through a window, or simply pounded on the door in order to be let in. But he ended up inside, and he was still carrying the dead officer’s gun. Nothing good could come of this.
I don’t know what exactly transpired inside the house. I’m not interested in recreating the scene through dramatization. I don’t want to fictionalize. I can only speculate, in an attempt to seek clarity. I imagine the suspect was frantic. I imagine the owners of the house, along with your father, tried to figure out what was going on. What happened? Why was an acquaintance of theirs waving a gun around inside their house, all wild-eyed and raving? I imagine they tried to talk him down, tried to persuade him to turn himself in. One of them must have slipped away to call the police. I’m sure there were harried negotiations over the phone. Yet the intruder would not cooperate. He was probably too deranged to listen to reason. Maybe he thought his friends had turned against him. He refused to leave, and he wouldn’t let anyone else leave either. As police arrived to barricade the house from outside, they were calling it a hostage situation.
I can only imagine how frightened and confused you must have been — just a child in the midst of all this madness. Likewise, I can only imagine the anger and fear and frustration felt by the three adults, who were being held captive by a guy they never imagined could be capable of such madness. Nothing in this scenario makes sense, or can be easily explained away.
Who knows what the intruder was thinking as time dragged on that morning? What demons had been unleashed inside his mind? Perhaps he had already been to prison, and was so terrified of going back that he became lost in a frenzy of desperation. Perhaps he had some wild idea that he might be able to escape, that he might be able to use hostages as a way out of this nightmare. I don’t know. His actions on that night were insane. And inside the house, things spiraled out of control.
At some point — as tension mounted to unbearable levels, with a small army of cops outside contemplating if and when they ought to storm the premises — the intruder crossed the line and did the worst thing he could possibly do in this scenario. He ended up firing Sergeant Rutledge’s gun again, right there inside the house where you’d been sleeping peacefully just a short while ago. He fired the gun, and he committed the worst crime imaginable.
He shot and killed you, an innocent four year-old girl.
He shot and killed you for no reason — other than the fact that he was caught up in a deadly situation in which he had lost all control. It makes me sick to think about it. I can’t conceive of anything more pointless and horrible.
Still brandishing the stolen gun, he then chased the other adults out of the house. On the front porch, he was shot dead by the police before he could harm anyone else.
By now the entire block had been sealed off. When the 11 year-old daughter who’d been away at a sleep-over returned later that day she found her house turned into a crime scene. She discovered that you’d been killed, shot by somebody she knew, with a gun taken away from a policeman who now was also dead. I can’t imagine how this felt for her at the time.
Sergeant Rutledge was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. He is one of only two police officers ever killed in Berkeley in the line of duty. At Berkeley City Hall, he is memorialized as a “fallen hero” who died while bravely fighting to protect the citizens of the town.
You are not memorialized anywhere, except in the memories of those who knew you, and in the thoughts of people like me, who know about your story. In searching the Internet for information about the incident, I note that Sergeant Rutledge is typically identified by name and praised for his service. His biography is spelled out in some detail. I find that you are barely mentioned at all. In the official story, you are merely noted in passing, a faceless victim who happened to be associated with the death of the “fallen hero.”
I am writing this letter because I know that you are not just a footnote to a “larger story” involving “heroism.” You are the story.
For the 11 year-old daughter who came home that morning to be confronted with a shocking tragedy, you will never be a footnote or a statistic. She was devastated by your death. Who wouldn’t be? She was troubled by the bizarre stroke of luck, or strange twist of fate, whereby she was not in the house that night, while you were. How does one come to terms with such a thing? She struggled to make sense of it all. I know that she went on living in Berkeley. She graduated from Berkeley High School six years later, and then attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, which is where I met her in 1984. That’s how I learned about your story. She told me about it. It wasn’t easy to talk about, but we were close. We were a couple. We got married in 1989, and spent many years together before we eventually got divorced, which was too bad. But we still have a beautiful daughter together. She will turn 13 next month. She’s in the seventh grade at Albany Middle School, and she performs as an acrobat and a trapeze artist for a professional circus troupe. You would like her.
I never met your father, and don’t know any further details of his life. I understand that he was a good man, a kind man. I can’t pretend to know what he went through after that fateful night in 1973. How does a parent ever recover from such a loss? Likewise, I can only imagine how difficult it was for the other adults to deal with this tragedy. I don’t pretend to speak for them. But I’m sure they felt awful because they were not able to save you, and to keep you out of harm’s way. I’m certain you know it wasn’t their fault, though.
I know that my ex-wife thinks of you every day, as she raises her own child in this dangerous world. Her mother still lives in the same house in Berkeley. She chose to reclaim the place as her home, as a sanctuary for a life of peace, rather than treat it as the scene of a crime one should flee from. Both women are strong individuals who have persevered. I know they will never forget you.
I often wonder how anyone can possibly believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful God, when someone like you, an innocent child, has her life snatched away so soon, for no reason. I don’t understand it; it makes no sense to me. So when adults talk about God, I don’t pay much attention. Spare me the grown-up theology; better to take a child’s perspective, when it comes to spiritual matters. One of my favorite writers, Jack Kerouac, may have summed it up best. Toward the end of his best book, in the midst of a high-spirited improvisation, he simply asks: “And don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”
You did not deserve what happened to you, and the people who knew you did not deserve to lose you. But then again, perhaps we as a society were not good enough to deserve you. Maybe you were too good for us. Maybe all of the children who are senselessly killed in our society are too good for us. Thousands of children and young people are wounded or killed by guns every year in America. (Precise statistics are not even available, due to idiosyncrasies in reporting.) If we are not able to prevent these atrocities from occurring, then perhaps we do not deserve to be blessed with the miracle of children. It is our tragedy. We have to live with it. And it’s up to us to change.
Maybe telling your story, and the stories of others like you, can help make a difference. Another one of my favorite writers, Joan Didion, wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Stories did not help you go on living. But your story might help others to go on. Perhaps your story can help us strive for clarity and wisdom in our lives, and to choose peace and sanity over the madness of violence. Every time I hear about another school shooting, or another accidental gun death, I think about you. Every time I hear someone say that guns can keep us safe, or that our best solution to crime is “a good guy with a gun,” I think about you. Every time I hear someone say that we need armed guards at schools, I think about you. Every time I notice children who are killed in wars being described as “collateral damage,” I think about you.
And I didn’t even know you. But I know your story. I used to resist a full appreciation, because I was ill-equipped to deal with it. It is easier to block out certain information, than to confront the full truth. After the tragedy occurred at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, however, I found myself thinking about you and your story, and began to understand its importance. As with all of the children who have been taken away from us, you have challenged us to at least try to live — in spite of all our flaws — in something akin to a state of grace. For that we are grateful to you.
That’s all I wanted to say for now. I think you know that God is Pooh Bear… Don’t you? Yes.
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