Jerry Keller retired last week after 36 years as a Spokane police officer. For 20 of those years, he was a detective in the sexual assault unit.
He interviewed hundreds of suspects and hundreds of their young victims. He has come to understand pedophilia as a form of evil. Yet Keller did not end his career a cynical man.
“He worked on the most horrifying cases, where you turned over a rock and thought you had one victim and you had generations of children,” said Spokane District Court Judge Patti Walker, who worked with Keller when she was a deputy prosecutor. “He saved many children.”
Keller said adults who abuse children fall into two categories: sex offenders and pedophiles.
Sex offenders are opportunists, coercing a child because it’s easy; they usually don’t have multiple victims. Pedophiles can have hundreds of victims and are nearly impossible to rehabilitate.
Keller explained: “Say it was against the law to be heterosexual. So you go 10 years to prison. You go through counseling. You are still going to be a heterosexual. Same thing with a pedophile. No matter how much counseling, children are still their choice.”
Of the 900 registered sex offenders in the city of Spokane, about 30 qualify as pedophiles, Keller said. Their reoffense rate is about 90 percent, compared with 14 percent for sex offenders. But adults in both categories share similar excuses.
“I think there’s a book that tells them if you’re questioned by police, tell them. ‘I was drunk. I was on drugs. She’s the one who started it. I was a victim, too.’ ”
Pedophiles construct elaborate schemes. One man, who was eventually arrested in Spokane, posed as the Easter Bunny and walked though a California mall greeting children, naked beneath his costume. One childless predator built an elaborate train set in his backyard.
Many befriended lonely women with children.
One day, Keller checked up on a registered sex offender and found “two kids in the house, a Barbie Jeep and a heavy-set mother. The woman told me: ‘I found it funny he never had sex with me.’ It was the little girl he was having sex with.”
Others alter their appearance to look like child-friendly characters. Keller thinks most Santas are safe, but he’s leery of men who purposely look like Santa year-round to attract children.
Only 2 percent of sexual predators are women, but they can be equally conniving. One sweet-looking 16-year-old girl walked door-to-door offering baby-sitting services, Keller said, and another women offered to hold babies on the bus.
“What causes pedophilia? I don’t know if anyone knows,” Keller said. “But molesting children is not normal. It has to be an evil.”
Gregory McCrea told children to call him “Papa Smurf” – like the cheery animated character he purposefully resembled.
Of all the cases Keller worked on, the Papa Smurf case is the one that haunts him.
Six of McCrea’s victims were Spokane girls, ages 6 to 11. Keller spent hours with them, listening to their horror. One drew a rose for him.
“It was a perfect rose,” he said. “I hope she’s an artist now.”
Walker remembers the case, too. There were hours of sexually violent videotapes to review, and Keller needed help from others in law enforcement. The material was so disturbing that the others were able to watch for two hours, Walker remembers, and “then they were done.”
In 1999, McCrea was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Carla Stamatoplos, who worked as an administrative assistant for the sexual assault unit for 10 years, said Keller put children at ease immediately.
“When the children came through, he would stop and show them the police dog (photos) on the wall.”
Jim Nicks, the department’s assistant chief, said Keller dedicated himself to educating people, in community meetings and at national trainings, about the true nature of sex crimes against children.
“He saw the victimization of children. It tugged at his heart. So he became an expert,” Nicks said.
Keller ended his career in awe of the all the abused children he met.
“Most of them are a lot smarter than the predator gives them credit for,” he said. “The kids are very intelligent, even if they come from bad backgrounds.”
Many were manipulated into sexual contact, believing in the honesty of adults and unable to put dangerous requests in perspective because, as Keller noted with sadness, “some have only been on Earth six or seven years.”
Keller handed in his badge, his cell phone, his uniform and his ID on Thursday. It was a week of goodbyes. The unit’s sergeant, Jim Faddis, retired last week, too. Keller credits his sexual assault unit co-workers with keeping him sane because he could talk with them about things no one else could bear to hear.
Keller has been a police officer more than half his life. He’s anticipating some “who am I now?” moments. But he has plans. He’ll spend even more time with his two grown daughters and four grandchildren. He’ll climb more mountains.
“The outdoors saved me,” he said. “I’ve been with the Spokane Mountaineers since 2001. My ultimate goal is Denali, the highest spot in North America.”
It might be harder to retire his vigilance.
“You see a child in a car who looks somewhat scared. You see a guy walking a 6-year-old girl and think, ‘Is this OK?’ Most people probably wouldn’t think anything of it.”