Seared for life by the invasive gaze of a peeping tom
FINN ROCK, Ore. – My daughter Mary, 14 years old, was undressing for bed one night when she noticed a light in her window. She stepped onto her chair to read a word hanging in the dark night air: Panasonic. Nine floating letters. She saw knuckles, a curled fist around the handle of a video camera, and an arm dropping away as the person who had been filming her disappeared.
I jumped into the hallway when I heard her scream. I found Mary crawling on her hands and knees. While she managed to get out a halting account of the man at her window, I grabbed my phone to punch 9-1-1 and, though my thumping heart warned me not to, hurried across our cool grass in bare feet, to the side yard outside Mary’s window.
No one was there. Whoever had spied on my daughter was gone. The bucket he’d taken from our carport was upside down in the flower bed. Twenty minutes later, a policeman picked up that bucket and tipped his flashlight toward the ground, illuminating circle lapped upon circle in the soil. The bucket had been used many times as a step there.
I hadn’t protected my daughters – neither Mary nor her three sisters – in their own home. That’s a failure I’ve had to live with for more than a decade now. Reading recently about the young victims of sexual abuse in the Penn State case, my old anguish returned, rushing in as raw and frightening as when I first discovered the predation my daughters had been victim to. I remembered the unimaginable bind I’d struggled with: whether to become involved in the prosecution of the man who had invaded our privacy, or to avoid it, utterly – to look the other way.
A year and a half after Mary saw the man at her window, in the spring of 2001, a reporter friend of mine sent me a fax about the arrest of one William Joseph Green. He lived in Eugene, Ore., the small city where I was raising my family. He had turned in a roll of film for processing that contained images of a young girl lying on top of him; when the police searched his house, they discovered dozens of troubling videotapes. I called the police, and the following day, I met with a detective who showed me a stack of still images captured from the videos. The third one was of Mary. I didn’t have to go on, and didn’t, but the detective wondered if my daughter would look at all the pictures and help sort out the identities of the other girls.
This moment was the crux, the Y in the road. I could have refused the detective, gone home and said nothing to my girls. We could have forged on, at least for a while, in the seductive comfort of avoidance. It was tempting to believe that Mary would move on, soon forgetting about the man at the window. But would my daughter forgive me if she discovered years later that I had learned his identity and thwarted her chance to be involved in bringing him to justice?
I did tell Mary about the arrest and the detective’s request, a choice I have sometimes regretted. I remember the sores around her fingernails, her chewed-up flesh, which made me want to keep her at home, away from any police station or courthouse. But Mary stared me down, determined to let other girls find out, too, that William Green had been caught.
The detective came to our house to lay out the photos, cut so that only faces showed, on our kitchen table. Some of the girls were unaware that they were being taped, delighted in that crystallized moment in their rooms, while others seemed to sense a presence outside their windows. Their expressions, to my eyes, betrayed a terrible fear.
Mary recognized in the images her younger sister – a devastating discovery – and also about 10 other girls she knew, from school, from dance class, from hanging around a neighborhood that would never again feel safe to her. Although many residents had filed peeping-Tom complaints with the police over the years, no officer had ever linked those reports. Green was caught only after he dropped off the film for developing. The girl in those photographs turned out to be 11 years old.
Green would often wait in a van outside schools or private dance and gymnastics studios in the afternoon, watching children emerge. He’d choose one to follow, seeking single-mother homes like mine. Police officers discovered a page filled with neat notes written in pencil: addresses and descriptions of girls, each given a grade. Blond, thin, A-minus; brown hair, preteen, C-plus. After dark, he returned to the house he’d scouted, moving to a window to collect on his obsession: the girl changing into pajamas and climbing into bed.
William Green’s earliest video recording dated to 1996. His crimes went undiscovered for five years, I am convinced, because we didn’t want to know that someone like him was one of our neighbors. After the full extent of his acts was disclosed – that he had taped more than 100 girls, including all four of my daughters – there was no outrage, really, little fury, even among the victims’ parents. Denial was rampant. They’re only pictures, was a frequent comment. At least he didn’t touch them. I understand this response far better than I want to admit.
I could hardly bear the subject in our home, my children’s jagged emotions causing me to quell most discussions of William Green. One night, my second daughter, Stephanie, exploded over dinner, angry that I hadn’t called legislators, marched to the jail demanding justice, anything. If that’s what was required to bring about change, I didn’t have it in me. I sat paralyzed. Wasn’t it enough that I’d taken Mary to grand jury hearings, met with the detective for hours, spoken to a local newspaper reporter? Couldn’t others do the rest?
The prosecutor had told us parents that she would charge Green with felony molestation - of the 11-year-old - and could throw in misdemeanor charges of invasion of personal privacy. It is not a felony in Oregon to videotape someone surreptitiously, even an unclothed minor. And because Green had not distributed or sold the images of our daughters, he was not accused of promoting child pornography.
But then the detective, acting on a gut instinct, petitioned the judge for a second warrant to search Green’s house. Officers discovered a secret cache in the garage, containing yet more photographs and videotapes. The detective called to ask me to come look over the new evidence.
Once again, I considered leaving, running, forgetting. I’d sell my house, move to another city. Take my children away from those schools, those dance programs, those classes, anywhere Green had parked his van.
But I stayed. The detective entered the police station waiting room with a box and a photo album. In the box were panties, bras, swimsuits, tangles of human hair. In the photo album, a montage of stolen pictures of my daughters. Green had broken into our house and taken any image that featured the girls in scant clothing, shorts and a tank top, bathing suits, a nightie on Christmas morning. He’d cut them out, tiny paper dolls, and had glued them into a salacious blur.
Green did this to other families, as well. But that wasn’t all. He also entered his victims’ bedrooms, removed his clothing and taped himself as he masturbated on their beds, panties wadded in his fist. Back at his house, he crudely spliced images of himself in sexual acts with images of the girls – the children getting into bed without a clue that a man had that morning slipped between their sheets.
The detective sat in a chair next to me, having closed the album and laid it on a table. He nearly touched my shoulder, but didn’t. I nearly told him that if I had acted on a niggling intuition months earlier – by crumpling up the fax, and never coming forward about Mary’s sighting of the man at her window – I wouldn’t be facing what William Green had done to us.
“Now I can promise you he will never leave prison,” the detective said.
But in 2014, William Green will likely leave prison.
Just before his trial was to begin, he pleaded guilty as part of a deal with prosecutors and offered, to my mind, a weak statement of contrition. At his sentencing hearing, which fell on Sept. 11, 2001, my four daughters testified – the only victims to do so. The judge gave Green half the time the prosecution sought. I fear that when Green is freed, his first action might be to buy a video camera to carry in the palm of his hand.
Eleven years past his conviction, are my daughters over what Green did to them? Spot them on the street – vivacious, happy, self-possessed young women – and you’d no doubt say they’re fine. But in some ways, the five of us will never get over what happened. We’ll not get over the violation of our most private sanctuary by a man who said that as long as he wasn’t seen filming girls, he felt he was inflicting harm on no one. And we’ll not get over our abiding concern that he may, in the not too distant future, go after other children in the same way. A few months after he was sent to prison, I filed a civil lawsuit against William Green, hoping he’d be left with no assets, no money to buy film and editing equipment, upon his release. But that effort never got much traction, and we quickly agreed to a small settlement. Another disappointment.
Maybe the last time the girls and I deeply, intimately, addressed the William Green situation was the night a friend came to our house to help us gather up sheets, pillowcases, underwear, swimsuits – anything, everything, he might have fondled or merely brushed against. I started up our living room fireplace, and we held each other as we cut up the cloth to throw into the flames. The last thing we burned was an oil painting Stephanie had created of William Green, a picture of his face and his fiercely dark eyes. She tore the canvas to strips, handing them to the rest of us. We fed those pieces to the fire, watching his image curl and melt and finally disappear.
Debra Gwartney is an essayist and the author of the memoir “Live Through This.”