Sunday, June 12, 2011

Vandals in Amber

Five years ago, there was a new X-Men movie in the theaters and the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat were in the NBA Finals. Since these occurrences have repeated this summer, I have had the occasion to reflect back upon the summer of 2006. I was living in Kentucky at the time, but I was able to take a couple weeks in June to come back to Wisconsin for a visit. So I was in the Badger state on June 6th, which happened to be the date that two young people, in commemoration of the numerical happenstance of 6-6-06, decided to spray paint Satanic graffiti at a prominent Catholic Shrine (Holy Hill).

Considering the extent of the damage (over $30,000, since it involved fragile old statues) and the popularity of the shrine, this qualified as a big crime. It is hard to get away with big crimes in small towns, even moreso when you are the type of person who spray paints things like "Hail Satin" [sic]. So the culprits, a 17-year-old (David Groth) and his 21-year-old cousin (Tyler Groth) were apprehended just days after the vandalism. What was already a sensational story for the local news media went into overdrive when the 21-year-old agreed to an interview with a Milwaukee TV station. When asked why he did it, he was quoted on-camera as saying "I'm a punk. It's what I do." And since the concept of a "budget repair bill" had not been hatched and the Green Bay Packers were not making a Super Bowl run, this became the hottest topic of conversation in the state of Wisconsin. For about two weeks or so, anyway. But in those two weeks, the topic was inescapable. People went beyond talking about these two "punks" to discussing youth and the decay of society. Columnists were inspired to come up with grand theories about the overall meaning of this incident, one of which inspired me to write a blog post.

After awhile the story faded away, then resurfaced briefly a few months later when the two were sentenced (the younger cousin received 18 months in prison, the elder six months in the county jail). Holy Hill briefly resurfaced in the news a couple of times, once when the Vatican upgraded its status, and again in 2009 when someone stole over $200 dollars in coins that had been thrown into a pond (this story did not lead to heavily philosophical newspaper columns about society).

So five years on, I found myself curious to know what the two culprits have been up to. Are they incarcerated? Are they in a punk band? Do they still commemorate anomalous calendrical occurrences? Are they now on Twitter, live tweeting acts of vandalism? Google isn't a lot of help. The summer of 2006 is preserved in amber, multiple news accounts easily accessible. But their electronic trail since then is sparse. A search of Wisconsin court records turns up some information. Tyler, the one who gave the TV interview, has managed to stay out of trouble for the most part. He was apparently sued as the result of a car accident, but has not faced any criminal charges. David started his 18-month prison term in January of 2007, meaning he must have been released in mid 2008. Since then, he has received two separate jail terms (of two and three months) for resisting an officer and illegal possession of prescription drugs.

Digging a little deeper into Google results, I did manage to find a particularly fascinating nugget. In a blog post dated exactly five years ago, entitled "Tyler Groth, Worlds Biggest Dumbass" [sic], a blogger put forward the pretty standard argument that the vandals are irredeemable reprobates that should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law (in so many words). The fascinating nugget is found in the comments section, in a comment posted nearly a year later (presumably the author was conducting the same kind of Google investigation that I did). He wrote: "Tyler is a friend of mine. All I've got to say is that drugs were involved. But it was not an attack on Catholicism. It was a dumbass thing to do and he realizes The thing is he has trouble saying "No" to people. Painting stuff was David's idea but Tyler was the one with a car so David had him drive out there."

Three things about this post intrigue me:

1. While it was widely reported in the media that David already had an extensive criminal record at the age of 17 and Tyler didn't have a rap sheet (which became the attribution for their varied sentences), the media essentially portrayed them as co-conspirators. I realize it is presumptuous to take a blog comment at face value, but assuming it is an accurate account, it strikes me as provocative that for all of the media attention on the case at the time, it is only a fleeting, obscure blog comment almost one year later that captures a central aspect of the situation that was otherwise unreported. This makes me wonder--how much are we missing with any news story by focusing so heavily on the initial glare? Given time for stories to breathe, how much deeper and fuller could we understand things? (I actually wrote about this not too long ago).

2. The author of this comment is not anonymous. He posts his real name. But nobody in the media would have known to contact this person for his perspective. How many people are out there who have knowledge that would be of interest to the public, and are willing to share that knowledge, but are never contacted? Given the technology and ways of communication at our disposal, should our media outlets be doing a better job attempting to locate these people?

3. If this version of the story is true, it puts Tyler's TV interview in a whole new light. It comes across as false bravado by someone who knows he too easily gave into peer pressure. He didn't do it because he was a punk, he did it because he was weak. And that's an awfully difficult thing to admit to the world. It's much easier to present an attitude of smugness. And in the short term, it's probably easier to be cursed and scorned than laughed at and scorned, or even pitied and scorned. But perhaps now, with more perspective, Tyler would do a different TV interview. Maybe he would even tell us things that we could learn from. I'm sure that many of those closest to him would want the media to leave him alone, that his reputation has been damaged enough, that we should leave the Google searches frozen in amber. But if we all wanted to know what he was thinking five years ago, why wouldn't we want to know what he is thinking today? And if we aren't interested in knowing what he is thinking today, should we have been interested five years ago?


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