One autumn night in 1973, a few months after I was born, and a few miles up the road, Barbara Gibbons was murdered and sexually mutilated in a crime that remains unsolved to this day.
It was the sort of crime that just didn’t happen in rural Litchfield County, Connecticut — and yet it did, and would even become famous, quickly, thanks to celebrity intervention and Joan Barthel’s book-turned-TV-movie, A Death in Canaan.
Growing up in its aftermath, the story of Barbara’s murder seared itself into my psyche. Her numerous stab wounds were only the beginning: the medical examiner also noted “deep penetration of the vagina with an unknown object.” He believed some of Barbara’s wounds were inflicted post-mortem. Her ribs, even her thigh bones, had been broken. Her throat had been slashed several times, one a “gaping horizontal incised wound” that exposed her vocal chords and nearly removed her head.
Joan Barthel’s book is excellent, and I own an original shooting script for A Death in Canaan. That said, however, Barbara Gibbon’s murder, and Peter Reilly’s conviction and exoneration, are most comprehensively explored in Donald Connery’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent.
Barbara’s only child, Peter Reilly, 18, who had been at church youth-group meeting at the time of his mother’s murder, was promptly arrested and wrongfully convicted. After more than 24 hours of interrogation in the absence of legal counsel, police had managed, unsurprisingly, to scare a confession out of the traumatized teen. Peter would later be exonerated — but only after the State’s prosecutor died of a heart attack, leaving behind exculpatory evidence, which he’d withheld, to finally came to light.
Partly because of the shear horror of it all, and partly for reasons to which I’ll return in a moment, Barbara’s still-unsolved murder continues to haunt me to this day.
Eight years after Barbara’s murder, in 1981, I was molested by a male police officer who lived next door to me. A budding entrepreneur, I’d stopped by his house with my red Radio Flyer wagon, selling pens and stationary.
The first time I showed up, his wife answered the door. She told me to come back the following day, when her husband would be home.
In hindsight, I can only speculate that she liked to watch. The day I returned, she baked cookies while he molested me right there in the kitchen.
I eventually told my mother what happened. I told no one else until I was an adult.
The officer was never prosecuted for his crimes. His son, however, was arrested years later, as an adult, for possession of child pornography.
The author’s synopsis for his 5th-grade short story: “School of Satan,” which shocked his teacher less for its content and more for requiring her to read over 20 pages (while adding “Satanic Accult” to the lexicon, apparently). Fellow historians of the Panic will note the coincidence of the use of name “Franklin” here, several years _before_ the now-infamous Franklin child prostitution ring allegations. (Note, too: although the author’s story in centered in Kansas rather than Nebraska, the two cornfield states might as well have been the same, in the mind of this Yankee author at age 10.)
Beginning in the 1980s, child sexual abuse became a national media concern, featured in nightly newscasts and on daytime talkshows alike. Prosecutions for “child-sex rings” and “ritual abuse,” even “satanic ritual abuse,” also began to make headlines. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, prosecutions for these alleged crimes led to several hundred people being sentenced to lifetimes in prison — and most of them were innocent. [See my essays “The Cost of False Cases of Child Sexual Abuse” and “Believe the Children” for a historical perspective.]
At the time these cases were unfolding, few people in the U.S. questioned either the media reports or the prosecutions they covered. An era glibly referred to now as the “Satanic Panic,” these dark days were indeed my formative years as a writer, influencing my work (see 5th-grade story synopsis in photo) both then and now.
It’s also a grave mistake to believe that everything has changed since the 1980s. Prosecutors in wrongful child-sex-crime cases today use precisely the same methods that were effective then. They are less likely to invoke the specter of diabolism, but they are also less likely to need to do so. What was “shocking” about child-sex crimes in the 1980s is now taken for granted: juries today have little trouble believing that every school principal, every priest, every Scout leader, is a secret pedophile, despite the statistical rarity of pedophilia; just as television would have us believe that child abduction and murder is a near daily occurrence in the U.S., despite the fact any given child here is approximately as likely to be struck and killed by lightning.
In 2003, out of fear their incestuous household would be exposed, a family in Sharon, Connecticut, claimed that a neighbor, seventeen-year-old Jeremy Barney, had beaten, tortured, and raped all three of their children (as well as their family pets) over a period of several years. Although the State’s own forensic medical examinations contradicted these claims, while corroborating incestuous molestation, the prosecution had already committed to the family’s fabrications, and — as is so common in wrongful cases — prosecutors simply refused to admit they had the case all wrong. As a result, in 2005 Jeremy Barney was sentenced to twenty years in maximum-security prison, where he remains.
Jeremy Barney, it so happens, is my sister’s only son, and my only nephew.
It so happens, too, that Jeremy’s case and the Gibbons / Reilly case of 1973 share remarkable similarities. In addition to unfolding exactly thirty years apart, both cases were investigated by the same small police department, and in each case, detectives botched the job by focusing on one suspect alone, despite all evidence pointing elsewhere. In each case, the suspect was a gentle, skinny, bespectacled white male in his senior year at Housatonic Valley Regional High School. Both suspects had little-to-no money to mount a defense, and each was interrogated and polygraphed in the absence of an attorney.
Both wrongful cases were tried successfully in Superior Court in Litchfield, Connecticut, home of the oldest law school in the United States.
In each case, the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence but was nonetheless certain they had the right man — or, rather, the right kid.
To this day, in fact — despite Peter Reilly’s exoneration by the same judge who’d convicted him, admitting a “grave injustice” — the official stance of the Connecticut State Police is that they caught the right
man kid in 1973. [See this article, coincidentally written just days after Jeremy’s arrest.]
These incidents have helped to shape much of my research and writing in the last decade. The fruits of which are my forthcoming novel, Angela’s Story, primarily, along with a handful of essays on crime in general, and specifically sex crimes.
Below are a selection of posts regarding various cases, both active and historical. Of special note is the alleged molestation case against Robert Adams, which all but destroyed the defendant and his family at the same time that it shut down a beloved, 35-year-old private gradeschool. Behind this, too, is the larger issue of corruption in law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office in Sacramento, CA.
More information on Jeremy Barney and Angela’s Story can be found at their respective links.