October 2008

There is a man, whose name I don’t have, who’s been creepin’ all over town.

I got this e-mail from an editor, who got it today from an observant reader:

We have several SE side parents in our department and we got to discussing the guy known by Washington High School students as the “creeper.” He’s a man in his 20s with his face painted white, wearing a long black trench coat.


 Apparently he was hanging around Washington this week when several teams were practicing. The story goes that he eventually yelled at security “I’m going to kill you,” and he was taken down. Police were called and he was taken away.


 This, of course, is all second hand. I will say that I saw him loitering at a strip mall on Collins Road Sunday, staring into cell phone store. I drove by an hour later, and he was still there. This week I spotted him walking across the Rockwell Collins parking lot.Kind of a scary Halloween story.



The Cedar Rapids Police Department agrees. Sgt. Brian Been said Thursday that their officers are aware that this guy is hanging around, although he was not arrested — he WAS given a warning that if he is found trespassing near Washington again he will be arrested. He said the man hasn’t done anything except be creepy, basically.

“Halloween really brings the characters out,” Been joked. Let’s just hope “The Creeper” stops being so creepy soon…


I’ve heard enough speculation about the second fire at Breitbach’s Country Diner that my head could explode. Let’s think about this critically:

Fact #1: An explosion in the kitchen started the restaurant burning last time, although what caused the explosion wasn’t really determined. Fact #2: This was a new building. Fact #3: Balltown does not have a community water supply — people have to have a well to get water. Fact #4: You cannot maintain an affordable fire sprinkler system with a drinking water well.

Ok. So last time was probably an accident. Breitbach’s employees said it would have been nice to install a fire sprinkler system this time, but they couldn’t do it without the right water supply or a very expensive system. That isn’t negligence. And no investigators have said on the record yet whether the fire looked like arson. State fire investigator Mark Sand said there was no way to tell immediately what caused the blaze — that may take months.

I met Mike and Cindy Breitbach for the first time when I went to cover the second fire at their restaurant in Balltown. They are quite possibly the nicest people I’ve ever met. They didn’t know me, but they and two of their sons took time to talk to me the same day they lost a lot of their family heritage. And Cindy even ordered me to eat a piece of Breitbach’s blueberry pie before I left (the most excellent pie I’ve ever had, mind you).

I watched them talk to people who came from as far away as Davenport to offer their condolences and invite them into the Wine Shack next door to the smoldering heap of their restaurant, where everyone ate and talked together. There was a positive energy emanating from that overwhelming sadness. So let’s wait for some official word before we dampen that spirit with our judgement. It’s rare to find the kind of community strength and purpose that I saw in Balltown that day.

It’s an issue I struggle with at least once a week, if not more — weighing the public’s right to know with a child’s right to privacy.

In my job, I run into a lot of kids in trouble with the law for many reasons: drunken driving, burglarizing, robbing, stealing, beating up their parents/teachers/counselors, and the worst, sexually abusing their siblings or neighbors. These are the kids who need the most protection and care. But these are also the kids from whom other children — and sometimes the public at large — need to be protected. Really, who wouldn’t want to know the identities of the five teenagers who, for no reason, beat up 24-year-old  Alex Morwood so badly that his jaw was broken? Morwood was just out walking his dog, for crying out loud.

The latest issue is one I have the most trouble with: Kids who are charged with sexually abusing other kids, either relatively close to their age or younger. Just last week, I had to write a three-sentence brief about sexual abuse charges against Brandon Topping. I am all too aware that a mere three sentences can turn someone’s life around for the worst, and in Brandon’s case (as well as every other child I’ve encountered in this situation) I had to step back and really think about things. I knew his 11-year-old brother, Travis, was run over by a truck Aug. 20 in the Road Ranger parking lot and is just starting physical therapy. I considered the fact that, as one commenter on my story said, other students would probably turn against him if they knew what was going on.

I don’t think of the people I write about as words in print. I see them as human beings, imperfect, just like me. How would I feel if that person was me? My child? Of course I’d want to protect them. But the First Amendment, the public’s right to know the truth, is the most important thing there is. Rumors and gossip can run rampant, and schools are like a hyperactive game of Telephone — what one day is merely a rumor that so-and-so’s arm brushed so-and-so’s breasts on accident can easily turn into the raping and pillaging of half the Sixth Grade class. If someone is facing criminal charges, though, that’s a fact.

As a journalist, I have to trust that our prosecutors and Juvenile Courts are considering all the ramifications when they move forward with serious criminal charges against people — because it’s then, and only then, that we write anything. Most of the time, the courts keep key parts of the case confidential, which is why I can’t share them unless the people involved are willing to talk. Most of the time, they’re not.

I know that three sentences in a newspaper aren’t going to tell you the whole story. But in the end, I do the best I can do for you. I will tell you when anyone of any age is facing a serious criminal charge and what becomes of that charge because I care about that person, and I care about you.

Cedar Rapids police Capt. Steve O’Konek didn’t actually let me drive the Avenger, the bullet-stopping, Hulkish armored tactical vehicle that the police department is borrowing. Which is probably a good thing. But at least I got to have my picture taken in it. If they had only let me wear some SWAT gear and pose with an AR-15 semiautomatic…

Seriously, though, photographer Cliff Jette and I took a spin in the thing with O’Konek at wheel, and I have to say it’s something that would be great to have if there is a use for it here, which is debatable. Anyway, the thing rides like a diesel truck and is just as easy to handle. O’Konek was able to back it into a parking space with only one hand on the wheel. It could easily run over small obstacles and get up to where it could rescue victims. And it could comfortably fit about half a police SWAT team inside it.

It left us this week. Sad. We never got to run over anything in it, either.

Near the heart of Wellington Heights recently, residents have been telling me their car and house windows are getting broken. Funny thing, though — some of them who try to report the vandalism to police are getting little response. I saw in the police call logs at least one call Sunday from a resident in the 300 block of 16th Street SE that was listed as “handled by officer.” That same person said in an e-mail that two rocks were thrown through their bedroom window.

To be fair, they are taking notes on the suspicious fires that keep happening around here. But that’s vandalism, and the police didn’t take a report. Nor have they issued any kind of “warning” about what’s happening.

Now today, the police department issues a vandalism alert for residents in the area of Ashford Drive NE. Basically, it’s the same stuff that’s happening. What gives? Is it just because this is a more affluent neighborhood? Anyone have any other thoughts?

UPDATE: The next day police issued a vandalism alert for the 1800 block of Washington Avenue SE for stuff that happened that week. It didn’t include any of the stuff I talked about from the week before, though. Boy, that just must mean there’s a lot of it going on.

Cedar Rapids police are searching for this man, who is accused of “skimming” bank account and PIN number information off of three peoples’ debit cards in September. He did it by placing an electronic device over the card slot that can read the cards’ magnetic strips.

If you have information on these crimes, call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-CR-CRIME. Callers may remain anonymous and be eligible for a small reward if their information leads to an arrest.

The intrepid police of Marion are investigating the folks who live at 1225 Fourth Ave. there for drug activity following the alleged kidnapping and beating of 18-year-old Joseph Darden last month.

Overnight Sept. 13 to Sept. 14, Marion police said in an application for a search warrant of the residence that they got two 911 calls regarding a white van with four men were in possession of guns and making threats. Officers identified and questioned the people inside the van, and they told officers an occupant of the Fourth Ave. house stole money from them. Well, that was the van full of people Darden went with to buy a half pound of marijuana that night. It may also help explain why they didn’t get it.

Apparently, a resident at 1225 Fourth Ave. known as “Huffy” has been a good source for the ganja for a while, police said in the search warrant application. The house is near Vernon Middle School. Officers found some marijuana in the residence when they searched it, and a plastic straw with white powder residue in it.

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