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Our View: Horrible crimes can catalyze a community

Some prospective jurors being interviewed for the Kevin Coe civil commitment trial remember in detail what it felt like to walk the streets of Spokane during the time when a rapist was loose in South Spokane. They remember the constant state of alert. Women worried for their personal safety. Husbands and fathers worried for the safety of their wives and daughters.

Coe was charged in 1981 with six rapes. He ultimately served a 25-year sentence on the one conviction that stood up following appeals. The civil commitment trial has begun; jurors are being selected now. The trial will determine whether Coe is at risk to rape again and should be held in custody indefinitely. (The judge in the trial ruled that prosecutors cannot label Coe the South Hill rapist.)

The story of the “South Hill rapist” is one that old-time Spokane residents often tell to newcomers. It is not one of the city’s positive stories. But a community’s darkest stories matter, too. According to the Center for Digital Storytelling, “Every community has a memory of itself. Not a history, nor an archive, nor an authoritative record. A living memory, an awareness of a collective identity woven of a thousand stories.”

Spokane has its share of horror stories.

 In 1959, Candy Rogers was selling Camp Fire mints door to door. She was kidnapped, raped and killed. She was 9 years old. This incident ended Spokane’s sense of innocence. People started locking their doors. Children no longer sold things door to door alone. The state passed a “Candy Rogers Bill,” strengthening criminal sanctions against adults who communicate with children for immoral purposes.

 In 1979, when a series of rapes began to occur on the South Hill, rape was a taboo topic, a source of secrecy and shame for victims. The high-profile South Hill rapist case helped people understand that rape is not an act of sex, but of extreme violence. Programs were created to help victims report the rapes and recover from trauma and shame.

 In 1991, Nicki Wood, 11, and Becky West, 12, were abducted in the West Central neighborhood. Nicki’s body was later found; Becky never was. The struggling neighborhood organized in rage and pioneered community policing.

 In 2000, Robert Yates, a factory worker and former military helicopter pilot, confessed to killing 13 people, including 10 in Spokane County. The serial killer targeted prostitutes. The law enforcement officers working the case, as well as the media, made it a priority to tell the stories of the victims as women, mothers, daughters and friends. They believed that every victim deserves protection from predators, no matter the victim’s chosen lifestyle.

A community is ultimately judged, not on its worst stories, but on how people react to the stories. Obviously they can’t bring those murdered girls and women back to life. They can’t erase the horror of rape.

But that doesn’t make them helpless.

In Spokane, people funneled their pain and anger into child safety measures, rape prevention programs, victim awareness and neighborhood action. That’s the power of the stories woven into a community’s collective identity.

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