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Stone Creek, 1997
When the citizens of Stone Creek woke up on September 9th, 1997, it was an ordinary day.
Don Brecker got up at four that morning to milk and tend to his cows. From his small farmhouse he could see that it was still dark outside, and he could feel the wind coming hard and fast from the west. As he pulled on his boots and coat, he caught a glimpse of something hanging in the tall Sycamore tree across the road. He dismissed it as a loose branch that had been jerked around in a storm and continued out the door.
He walked against the wind to his barn and milked his three cows, taking his time to do the job right.
“I wasn't in much of a hurry, who is in much of a hurry at four in the morning?” He said later.
When he was finished he headed back to his house to get some of the breakfast he could smell his wife cooking already.
“Eggs and bacon, like clockwork,” he recalled and smiled.
As he walked he could see the tree again, and as his eyes focused on the hanging object he got the feeling that it was not a lose branch hanging from that tall sycamore.
“I don’t believe in ghosts or hauntings or any of that horse s***. Anything and everything can be explained through God and His power, and that's a fact. Still, I felt kinda funny as I got closer to that tree. I got real cold even through my coat. My heart started beating so fast, I thought I was having a damn heart attack,” Don said, his eyes wide.
When he saw the man hanging from the tree it took all of his strength to not faint. The man in the tree was about thirty years old with a heavily receding hairline and a five o'clock shadow covering his slim jaw line. His clothes were soiled with a mixture of blood and dirt, and he was only wearing one black converse sneaker.
His neck, while thick and strong, had a noose of braided rope around it. His torso was covered with a torn white tee shirt, and his toned arms hung limp by his sides. Where his arms stopped and his wrists should have begun there was nothing. His assailants had cut off his hands, leaving him with bloody stumps. “It was a crude job,” said Don, “They didn’t take too much care doin’ it.”
“I didn’t know what to do, I just froze. I knew him. Yeah, we all knew him,” he shook his head with a bitter smile, “Part of me said ‘Dear God what has happened in this little place’, and another said ‘Thank you Lord. Thank you for whoever brought this bastard to justice’. I kinda wished I’da done it.”
Hours later the cops crowded around the body, leaving it to hang in the air for a little while longer. The guys from the mortuary had been told to take their time, the body wasn’t going anywhere.
The officers took turns spitting on the ground beneath the man’s hanging feet and resisted the urge to use his swinging corpse as a punching bag. They could have, but as men of the law they were bound to do better. Each man stood there thinking about what they would do if it were not for their badge.
The police chief arrived last, and as he sauntered up to the body he could have cried of joy.
“I don’t take calls about dead bodies with a smile. The kind of sicko who does is one nasty son of a b****. I guess I made an exception for this waste of life. Seeing him swinging up there, all helpless and whatnot, made me almost giddy. I tried not to be, but I just couldn’t help it,” Chief Stoller told me. He said he didn’t like taking interviews, but he made an exception for me. “I think we all gave one big sigh of relief seeing that bastard hang. It felt like justice to me.”
When the medical examiner finally came to take the body away, the police officers took no care in cutting him from the tree. They slashed the rope in one quick motion and let the body fall to the ground. For a moment they just let him lie there untouched. They stood in a trance, staring with eyes full of hatred at the corpse. When the moment passed and the trance ended, they loaded him into a van to be taken to a dark mortuary.
The autopsy report showed that he’d been beaten with something, maybe a hammer, and then perhaps thrown down a flight of stairs. By the time he'd been strung up in that tall sycamore four of his ribs had been broken, and his right knee had been used for batting practice. He’d hung in the tree for maybe a few seconds, and then his neck broke and he ceased all living.
The dead man’s name was Steve Heller. He had moved to Stone Creek in 1995 and opened up a small grocery store.With no sign of a wife, kids, or family, he lived alone in a small house not far from his shop. No one quite knew exactly where he'd come from; some swore he was from Cincinnati, other believed he'd lived farther south. I couldn't dig up much on him besides a birth certificate from Ford County, Illinois and a handful of W2’s from all around the Midwest. It was as though he had never really existed before arriving in Stone Creek. Maybe he'd wanted it that way.
Despite his initial outsider status, he was able to break the barrier around the close-knit community and become one of them. He'd walked in seamlessly, blending in with his surroundings so well that people couldn't remember a time before they'd shopped at Heller’s store. After all, it was so much more convenient to shop there than to drive twenty minutes to the nearest Walmart. It was not only his store that drew people in, but also his charm. He chatted with the old men about the war and flirted innocently with the young housewives until they were eating out of the palm of his hand. He proved himself worthy of belonging, and for almost two years he did belong. Up until June of 1997, he was the model Stone Creek resident.
Since no next of kin was found, the medical examiner took it upon herself to cremate the remains and hand them over to Chief Stoller. I heard that he and some of his men tossed them in a dumpster outside of city limits as to rid the town of every trace of Heller. When I asked him about it he didn’t give me a straight answer.
“My memory is a bit foggy, you’ll have to forgive me, “ he said, a trace of smile on his face. “I’ve slept quite a few hours in the past twenty years.”
The investigation was slow going. The cops had few leads, and the handful of suspects they questioned had sturdy alibis. The lack of forensic evidence was blamed on the strong winds and rain that blew away any footprints or hairs that could have been left. After a few months, the case turned cold. A slim folder of a few documents was all the police gathered on the case, and that was thrown into storage less than a year after the murder.
“You can’t get em all. You just can’t. It’s the hard part of the job,” Stoller said to me. When I asked about whether or not Heller’s severed hands were ever recovered, Stoller’s posture tensed ever so slightly. “Can't get em all,” he repeated.
Life in Stone Creek went back to normal. Heller’s grocery store was closed and cleaned out only a month after his murder. It remained vacant for a few months, but by mid 1998, it had been renovated into a beauty parlor.
“I didn’t know how people would react,” Barb Wilson, the owner of Cuts and Curves told me, “I thought they’d either embrace it or ignore the place altogether.” The women of Stone Creek welcomed the salon, and in the nearly twenty years since, an addition had been made to fit more chairs and a manicure station. The patrons laughed and gossiped just as their parents had so long ago in Steve Heller’s store.
“Every year on September ninth we have a little party here. Most of the town tries to fit in this little place. Fewer people come every year, but the ones who know and remember always do. Grace’s family never did come. We never quite expected them to though.” When Barb saw the look of confusion on my face she laughed. “You don’t know about Grace, do you? S***, you’ve been talking to all of us, thinking we were cruel freaks. You probably thought he was some poor soul who the justice system failed.” She let out a deep sigh. “You don’t know anything then.” Then she preceded to tell Grace’s story.
The good Doctor and Mrs. Ballinger were the best of the best as far as Stone Creek citizens were concerned. When he first started his small clinic it had just been him, a revolving door of nurses, and his wife as his receptionist. The practice had grown over the years, and the couple had made quite a bit of money. They lived comfortably but never extravagantly, and for years they longed for a child. After years of trying and two miscarriages, Mrs. Ballinger gave birth to the most beautiful baby girl anyone had ever seen. She was perfect in every way, from her ten tiny toes to her cornflower blue eyes, and they named her Grace. She became a little celebrity, and whenever the little family walked around town together everyone stopped to admire the pretty, dark haired girl. Grace grew up in the clinic, playing with children in the waiting room, entertaining patients, and even helping with the front desk as she got older. She was an integral part of Stone Creek, more vital and recognizable than city hall or the water tower.
When she reached her teens, the eyes of every boy and man in town followed her wherever she went. She'd grown into a beautiful young woman, dating some of the nice boys in town but never having a boyfriend. They all waited for their chance to try to steal Grace Ballinger’s heart, but few received more than a kind smile from her.
She often frequented Steve Heller’s store, and she liked him. She thought he was attractive and kind, and she didn’t feel uncomfortable around him. He’d gone hunting with her father and his friends, and he had even been over for dinner a few times. He was like an uncle to her. So, when he offered her a job at the store, she jumped at the opportunity.
He told her that he needed someone for the hectic summer days when every citizen in town was running out for cold beer and Popsicles. Her parents thought it was great for Grace. It would look good on college applications and give her something to do during the day. Besides, they respected Steve. They trusted Steve.
One hot night in June of 1997, only a few weeks after Grace had started, she was closing up with Steve. They were alone in the store. Grace never worked with the handful of other employees he had, only him. She thought it was a coincidence.
They were laughing about a rude customer when all of a sudden he touched her arm. At first she thought it was a friendly pat, but when he didn't move away she started to sweat. The voices of her mother and teachers echoed in Grace’s ears with the lectures she'd been given about situations like this. She'd been told to run and scream and kick, but in that moment she couldn't even whisper. She tried to move away, but he followed, backing her up against the counter.
She cried, she begged for him to stop, but nothing helped. When it was all over she tried to wrap her torn skirt around herself, but it did not cover much anymore.She stood there as he walked to the back of the store, whistling, completing the rest of his closing procedures.
Grace ran the three blocks back to her house, afraid to scream or even speak. When she arrived home her mother took one look at the torn skirt and her daughter’s eyes and started to cry.
The police arrested him, and he nearly died that night in jail. His nose and wrist were broken, and had he not gotten out the next morning, he might not have survived another beating. Grace Ballinger was untouchable, and Steve Heller had broken that cardinal rule.
His lawyer got the case thrown out due to lack of physical evidence. This was true; the rape kit did not pick up any DNA. Any skin under her fingernails or hairs could be from working in close proximity with Heller, claimed his lawyer. When the police checked the surveillance cameras to see if the attack had been recorded, Heller told them the cameras had stopped working about a week prior. It was her word against his, and in the eyes of the law it was not enough. Within a few weeks he was walking around Stone Creek as a free man, but the air of the welcoming town changed for him.
Heller remained in his store, replacing broken window after broken window and dusting shelves that hands never touched. He was picked up by a group of men a few weeks before his death who roughed him up, but then sent him home. The men were never identified, and no real report was ever made about the incident. Why they let him live that night is a mystery. Maybe they knew there were bigger things coming for Heller.
I asked Barb who she thought killed him. “I don’t know,” she said. “The only people who knows that is them and God.” She paused for a moment. “I don’t really think we care anymore. It’s done, we’ve made our peace with it. I don’t think it helped Grace, but I think it helped the rest of us.”
Tracking down Grace Ballinger was harder than I had expected. In the years that had passed she had moved away from Stone Creek and gotten married to an accountant named Charlie. They lived about an hour north of Stone Creek in a house with a blue mailbox and toys scattered around the front yard.
At first refusing to speak to me, she allowed me to come one day in April. It was unseasonably warm, and through the open windows in the living room we could hear her three children playing outside in the yard.
She was as beautiful as everyone in Stone creek had proclaimed, and then some. She had aged well, and I could tell that she was the same girl who'd won prom queen so many years ago. She smiled at me, but the way she kept darting her eyes to the window showed her nerves.
“Um, I guess I was shocked when I heard that he was dead. I remember that I was eating breakfast with my parents.” Her voice was soft and gentle in that bland way that all Midwestern voices are. “Someone at the police station called my dad and when he told us what happened my mom dropped the glass she was holding. It shattered everywhere, and I was picking up tiny shards from it for days.” She paused and thought for a moment. “Well, maybe shocked isn’t the right word actually. Maybe I was relieved? God, doesn’t that sound bad? I guess I wasn’t really the same after what he did. Maybe I stopped being so nice.” She laughed to herself and pursed her lips together. “It’s so strange to think all that happened in Stone Creek. We were our own little corner of the world. Nothing touched us.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, and I noticed the gray roots peeking out from her dark hair. She wasn’t even forty yet.
When she opened her eyes again she looked past me and fixed them on her daughter. She was about four years old with dark ringlets and a round, baby face. Outside the window she was playing with a hula hoop. It was too big for her tiny body, but each time it fell she picked it back up and tried again. She tried again and again until it almost hurt me to watch her fail over and over.
"I don’t really care who did it. I don’t care anymore.” She sighed, and for a moment I thought she was going to cry, but she didn't. Instead she sat up straighter in her chair. There was a change in her, as palpable as the way the air changes when a storm rolls in. “I still see him. I still do, everytime I close my eyes." She laughed."Isn't that funny? Some people you haven't seen in years still pop in your mind at every waking moment.Thinking about him, what happened to him, it almost makes me wish I'd been the one to kill him. Isn't that a crazy thing? I wish I'd killed someone. Crazy thing."