South Dakota Top Blogs

News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, April 28, 2023

They felt they didn't count

It's not the kind of story you will find in a college  alumni magazine.  But it has its origins on the Northern State University campus.  It is a story that gained nationwide attention.  Two women meet at NSU, marry, adopt six children, and kill the entire family in a deliberate car crash.

Jennifer Hart, from Huron, SD, and Sarah Gengler, Big Stone City, SD, met in 1999 after both had transferred to Northern State University from other colleges, Jennifer from Augustana University and Sarah from the University of Minnesota. They both majored in elementary education. Sarah graduated in 2002 with a concentration in special education; Jennifer never completed her degree.   They were lovers and developed a husband-and-wife relationship. They lived together in South Dakota as college roommates, then moved to Alexandria, MN, and decided they would reveal their relationship.  Initially, they got jobs working at a Herberger's department store, where Sarah became a manager.   Jennifer became a stay-at-home mom.  In available accounts, there is no indication that Sarah ever used her teaching degree.

The problem with this story is that some details are widely circulated but unsourced.  It is hard to know what is fact and what is speculation at times and to know where the information came from.  There is a multitude of podcasts inspired by this story in which people pose in front of cameras and prattle on and on as if they have special knowledge about the incident, but add little verifiable, clarifying information.  

Jennifer and Sarah at some point during their time in Alexandria decided to foster and adopt children.  Their first was a 15-year-old girl who, as the story gets told, gets dropped off at a therapist's office by the couple and is then informed that they will not return to pick her up.  Instead, she is taken to another foster home where her belongings had already been delivered.  She never saw Jennifer and Sarah again.  Another problem with this story is why a therapist would be party to a scheme like this.  Some unidentified sources said that the couple had complained that the girl was suicidal and they did not want her to be around to influence younger children they planned to foster.  One source claimed the young woman had been contacted and affirmed this happened to her, but people with knowledge about working with adolescents insist that a valid therapist would never be involved in such a cruel episode.   It occurred shortly before the first group of three young children came to the couple's household.

The couple received their first set of three siblings in March of 2006 and they were formally adopted by the women in September of that year.  The children, who were given the Hart last name were Markis, 8 at the time, born in 1998; Hannah Jean, 4, born in 2002; and Abigail, 3, born in 2003.  In June of 2008, they received the second set of siblngs, Devonte Jordan, 6 at the time, born in 2002;  Jeremiah, 4 at the time, born in 2004; and Ciera Maija, 3 at the time, born in 2005.  They were officially adopted in February 2009.  All of the children were black.

Nine years later, on March 26, 2018, they were all killed when Jennifer along with Sarah loaded them all up in the family SUV and drove it off a 100-foot cliff onto a rocky ocean beach in California.

The incident raises questions about how people who are care-givers become the agents of death, particularly the intentional, violent death of children.  Murder.  Some people say the potential is inherent in some personalities.  Others say it is acquired through life experiences.  Some motives for murder are understandable.  Sort of.  Others are questionable and puzzling.  This suicide-murder event was committed in the context of America being the world leader in mass shootings and shooting deaths in general.  In this case, the instrument of death was the automobile. As in all instances of mass murder, the insistent question is, what motivated it?

Many analysts and commentators on the Hart suicide-murders say it arose from mental health issues.  They gloss over the basis for the bad mental health, what were its recognizable symptoms, and what can be done about it if it is recognized.  And some others contend that the murders are a matter of defects of character, of evil.

The question is, what puts people in a state of mind that allows or induces them to kill children?  It is certainly significant that nearly all mass murderers kill themselves.  The reasons for killing others are usually left unaddressed, but it is doubtful if reason is a relevant element in such cases.  We assume that despair leads to suicide, and the person who commits suicide may think that the killing of children is a means of sparing them from such despair. Or in their rage, they simply want to express it by killing children.

Hearing of the Hart suicide and murders is the occasion for despair in itself.  The events are failures of society.  They cannot be dismissed as the rare actions of an individual possessed by a psychopathology. Jennifer and Sarah Hart seemed to have inclinations and ambitions that were positive, but other issues were at work, too.   They did comment on occasion about encountering disapproval of their lesbian lifestyle, but they seemed to have many supportive friends, too.

As an educator, I, as do my teaching colleagues, like to tell stories about people who have met adversity and triumphed.  Our job is to present information that secures and enhances life.  However, we cannot ignore those who are defeated by the vagaries of human society.  While our society has developed tolerance and understanding of people with differences from the conventional, it retains pockets of cruel bigotry and intolerance.  It is the ill will that comes out of those pockets that sends people over the edge.  

In the Harry Bosch detective stories by Michael Conelly,  in his pursuit of justice, the detective often says, everybody counts, or nobody counts.  That is a definition of what equality means.  Tragedies of self-destruction like those committed by Sarah  and Jennifer Hart are triggered when people are made to feel they don't count.  As a society we are are responsible for making people think they don't count.  The tragedy is ours to own. 

                                        The Hart family killed in a deliberate car crash March 26, 2018.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

When there is nothing to lose...

The feature editor of the newspaper I worked for started a series in which he interviewed some very young people who had been convicted of crimes, and detailed their objectives and techniques.  It attracted a vast readership.  It also inspired outrage in some readers who thought it glorified criminals and gave lessons in how to commit crimes.  The editor of the paper saw an opportunity and decided to provide balance to the series with stories on the criminal justice system from the viewpoints of various participants in it--the criminals, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, and clergy.  I was assigned to interview a prison chaplain who had himself served time.  As a young man, he had been involved in gang activity for which he was sent to prison.  While there, he became a trusty and assistant to a prison chaplain, during which time he joined a religious order.  After release from prison, he entered a monastery and eventually was ordained a priest.  

The interview was lengthy, and he provided me with more perspectives on the working of the justice system than I had opportunity to use.  He did focus on the dangers posed by convicts.  One of my questions was, who did he think was the most dangerous kind of convict?  He said, a person who is wrongfully convicted.

He explained that good law enforcement officers operate on the principle that when apprehending violators they should never, if possible, put them in a position where they have nothing to lose.  When perpetrators  think they have nothing to lose, they have no restraining considerations, nothing to really live for.  They have no reason to submit to any kind of authority or accept any compromises.  They are explosively dangerous to the people around them, because they think they have nothing to lose.  In their minds, they have already lost everything.

People who are wrongly convicted experience a failure of the justice system.  They have substantial reasons to think it is just another destructive force in their lives.  Even those who find eventual exoneration retain skepticism about it because of their experience with it.  Some who find eventual release from prison express gratitude for gaining their freedom, and they work at continuing their lives in a positive manner.  However, others, the chaplain said, can never overcome the discouragement and bitterness at having their lives demolished.  Some acted like model prisoners so they could get out of prison to avenge the wrong that had been done them.  

The chaplain recalled the case of a man who was exonerated by another's  confession.  The man had never engaged in any kind of criminal conduct, but had been convicted of a particularly brutal crime.  He was so obsessed  with obtaining some retribution for his ruined life that the prison authorities were reluctant to release him from prison in fear of what he might do.  There was no legal means to retain any kind of supervisory control over the man, so the state made extensive and generous attempts to help him resume a productive life.  But the man devoted much of his efforts to keeping watch over people involved in his conviction to find any  wrong doing that might be used against them.  The man told people trying to help him that there was no justice; only revenge.  He made clear that his remaining purpose in life was to never let society forget what had been done to him and who did it.  The chaplain said the man succeeded in putting misery into many lives.

He said the unforgiving persistence of the man was a reminder of the burden that all the wrongfully convicted people live with. This interview happened in the mid-1960s, long before there were any organizations devoted to justice for the innocent.  In order to generate interest in helping the wrongfully convicted, the priest worked actively with organizations such as the America Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, law schools, and social organizers.   He said that people who are wrongly convicted undermine all of a free society because they provide hard evidence of its failure.  He worked to find and eliminate wrongful convictions.

When DNA analysis became usable in determining guilt or innocence, a multitude of projects were formalized and made active in finding and correcting wrongful convictions and in refining the criminal justice system to prevent them.

When the chaplain talked about people developing a nothing-to-lose mentality, he said that was a problem he found in people in ordinary life who had no associations whatever with the justice system.  He mentioned that they were the most troubling people that priests and social workers had to deal with.  They were often suicidal and they had no hope or purpose to grasp. 

Shortly after that interview one of the early mass shootings occurred.   Marine veteran Charles Whitman carried a rifle up to a building tower at the University of Texas and shot to death 15 people and wounded 31 others.  Just before that he had stabbed his wife and mother to death.  He was killed by police.  

An autopsy showed that he had a small growth on his brain, but the examiners could not see how it would have affected his behavior.  Follow-up stories revealed that Whitman had a very abusive father and had consulted a campus psychiatrist about pressures he was feeling.  In our newsroom, those of us who worked on the criminal justice series talked over what the prison chaplain had said about people who had developed a nihilistic attitude.  Whitman certainly went on his violent rampage knowing he wasn't going to come out of it alive.

That is a constant in mass shootings.  The two killers at Columbine took their own lives after killing 13 and injuring 21.  Mass shooters have no intention of surviving their attacks.  They commit suicide by themselves or by cop. Very rarely are they captured alive so that there is any chance to probe their motives.

Mass shootings are a pandemic.  105 days into 2023, and the U.S. has had 146 mass shootings.  Our gun control laws have been shaped to insure that any would-be mass shooters have easy access to highly effective means to carry out their tasks.  And, of course, beyond offering thoughts and prayers, people will mutter about mental health.  And that will suggest it's all a matter of recognizing individual cases of mental pathology.

But mass shootings are too common at this point to be isolated incidents unconnected to the way our society is conducting itself.  We experienced those people during the Covid-19 epidemic who acted out against masks and quarantine while scientists worked frantically to develop and produce effective vaccines.  Today, we've had almost 103 million cases of covid-19 in the U.S. with 1,118,800 deaths.  Those who whimpered and whined and flouted the control measures have a lot of responsibility for those high numbers.  But they give us insight as to why mass shootings have become part of everyday life in America.

A mental pathology is being cultivated and passed around.  What makes some people so nihilistic and angry that they devise plans to kill masses of people?  Why would some choose to gun down school children?  What is there in American society that makes mass murder a common event in our daily lives?  This is unique to America, so it is possible to isolate and identify the causes.  We can put science to work on it like we put it to work on covid.

Mass murder can be controlled. There are people who should not have guns.  People who think that carrying guns will protect them from the miscreants with guns have seen too many westerns.  The fact is that the more guns, the more shootings.  The habitual carrying of firearms will create killing fields, not sanctuaries of peace.  But guns are the means of killing, not the motive.

Some shooters have indicated that they intended to make a name for themselves for killing the most people.  The question is, how did they get the notion that making people dead, especially children, is an accomplishment?  How did they arrive at that as some kind of a cultural mindset?  We have avoided pursuing that question because we know the answer will not reflect favorably on the culture we have created.

It's a question we will have to ask, quickly and persistently, before we as a nation have nothing to lose.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

"we look like stupid and cruel hicks"

Greg Brown, a well known folk-singer who works out of Iowa City, rented a theater and put on a retirement show in February. He told the press that he would no longer perform except for some benefit events.  He wrote much material that celebrated life in Iowa, but he said he can't celebrate it anymore.  One line from "The Iowa Waltz," which he wrote is "‘We take care of our old/We take care of our young."  He says that's not true anymore.  And he said he'd move out of Iowa if he wasn't so old.

He told the Cedar Rapids Gazette:  “Iowa has turned into a toxic mess due to the Republican administration.  The water is some of the worst in the country.   Our schools used to be respectable, including the college (University of Iowa) but those schools now are in the middle of the pack or are lower. People still say that Iowa feeds the country. Well, I hope the nation loves high fructose corn syrup and ethanol because that’s what we’re making here.”

In commenting on Brown's assessment of Iowa, the Storm Lake Times Pilot  editor said of Iowans, "we look like stupid and cruel hicks." But, of course, Iowa is not the only place experiencing a deterioration of its state ethos.  What happened to Iowa  happened to the nation.  When Trump was elected president, the democracy fell flat on its face into the muck of degeneration.  The character of Trump is an expression of the values that possess half of America.  That half does not merely "look like stupid and cruel hicks;"  they are stupid and cruel hicks.  They share Trump's perfidy (he's on record for telling more than 30,000 lies during the course of his presidency); his malice and vindictiveness; his greed; his predatory morality; and his willful ignorance. When Trump became president those Americans who resent other people having liberty, equality, and justice assumed it permitted them to unleash their own tendencies.  They emulated Trump in their behavior.

This degenerate behavior showed up in the Tennessee legislature.  After a mass school shooting in Nashville in which three staff members and three children were killed, people flocked to the state capitol building to demonstrate in favor of gun laws which address the slaughter of children in school.  Three legislators added their voices to the demand to do something to stop the killing of children.   The GOP members

The Tennessee Three adding their voices to the demand to stop the shooting of school kids.

were so enraged by this attempt to get legislative attention and action that they called for the expulsion of the three.  The one white woman of the three was one vote shy of being expelled.  The two young black representatives were expelled.  In its vote to expel the members, the GOP caucus effectively expressed its approval for more mass shootings and more dead children on classroom floors.

For those in the nation who want to understand how America became the only nation in the world in which mass shootings are common and frequent occurrences, the Tennessee legislature provided a strong indication of who creates the conditions that make it so.  The nation is dealing with an irony that jeopardizes its survival.  Despite the fact that a Gallup poll shows that more than two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with abortion laws with many considering it a constitutional right that should be left to individuals and their doctors to decide, a large faction of the GOP is expending maximum efforts to ban abortions even as a life-saving measure for the mother.  These same people refuse to address the mounting deaths by gun violence and the killing of children in schools.  They are not people with whom intelligent discussion and compromise are even possible.  The talk of unity with them is absurd.  What person of conscience and good purpose wants to associate with them?  Reconciliation with malevolent idiots is like trying to compromise with rattle snakes.  Facts and reasoning cannot penetrate the reptilian cortex which is where they do all their thinking.  If you can call it that.

In recent years, a number of books have been written about how democracy is put in peril and lost.  We are at a point of loss.  Mass shootings in America are a disease that ravages Americans:  more than 600 were killed and 2,700 wounded last year alone. In Tennessee, a peaceful call to take action on the scourge was met with an act of destructive ill will.  One of the young men, a divinity student,  who was expelled said that the legislature was “holding up a mirror to a state that is going back to some dark, dark roots.”  Tennessee is where the Ku Klux Klan was founded.  The legislature showed the rest of the nation how a bunch of stupid and cruel hicks can take over.

God bless America.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The country that kills its children

America failed.  It promised to recognize equality and give everyone the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  It has shown itself incapable of protecting life.  

Our failure is not spectacular in the ways that other countries have taken lives.  Right now we are much occupied by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but mostly unaware of a previous invasion and its consequences.  Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941 and on Sept. 29 and 30 of that year lined up almost 34,000 Jews in a ravine outside of Kyiv and gunned them down.

We haven't approached that magnitude yet, but we have gone a step further:  we're doing it to our own people, including our children.

Other nations experience mass shootings on rare occasions, but in America, they have become routine daily occurrences.  As of the 87th day of the year, America has had  130 mass shootings.  Thirteen of them were at schools.  Gun violence is the leading cause of death for American children.

Who cares?  Not many Americans.  At a news conference about the school shooting in Nashville this week, a woman repeated the contention that America loves guns more than it does its children.  The history of school shootings and the body counts of children killed in them show that statement to be true.  Government and research organizations have been tracking mass shooting incidents for a half a century, but the country has shown neither the ability nor the desire to do anything about them.  Gun violence has become a characteristic of the American identity; the refusal to address the security of the people as a condition essential to the pursuit of life, liberty, justice, and happiness is a failure of democracy.  The primary responsibility of a government is to keep its citizens safe.  America has refused to deal with the proliferation of guns and their role in the violence that has become a national trait. 

For every 100 Americans, there are 120 guns.  What we don't have is a well-regulated militia, but the Second Amendment was created to serve that as its purpose. We do have an epidemic of armed people who use their guns to kill other people, and we are the only nation in the world who has that plague as part of its national character.  Our national legislature has authorized mass murder as the  American way.  It let the ban on assault weapons lapse.  After the Nashville shooting, The New York Times posted this headline:  After Mass Shootings, Republicans Expand Access to Guns.

That headline explains how the United States became the world leader in mass shootings and the extermination of children.  It also designates the major political party that staunchly values the right to bear any kind of firearm over the lives of children.

In the 1960s, the nation put school children through drills on what to do in case of nuclear attack. Now they are drilled on what to do when an active shooter comes to their school.  Since the Columbine shooting in Colorado, 348,000 school children have experienced gun violence.  We lost no children to nuclear attack.  The enemies who attack our children come from within the nation.  And those enemies are served by people in Congress who make sure that they can get anything they need to carry out their attacks.

Gun safety has turned out to be the ultimate IQ test which designates the mentally and morally incompetent.  Rather than deal with the gun crisis, many Americans take refuge behind incredibly stupid sayings, such as "guns don't kill children, people do."  Some posit having teachers carry guns.  Others suggest having armed guards posted in every school.   Those who utter such inanities are in need of special handling themselves.  They are too mentally incapacitated to understand the problem.  Or they are too morally bereft to care, and some might even take pleasure in the killing of children.  America's gun problem will not be solved until its stupidity problem is.

Some experts on what the possession of guns means for America, suggest that there are so many guns out there that it is too late to devise any effective control measures.  They see America descending into a state of violent confusion that effectively ends the republic.  One expert said that America is committing suicide by cop.  

With guns being the leading cause of death in children, that is a sign that the nation does not have a peaceful future. The gun displaces books as the basis for what governs us.

How the American experiment in democracy failed: Donald Trump

 I have an old colleague, a political scholar, who claims America ended when Donald Trump was elected president.  He is what some people call a political scientist, but he prefers to call himself a professor of political theory and practice.  He  is among the growing number of political analysts who see that America has made a major movement away from the democratic goals of freedom, equality, and justice for all.  He was not surprised when the Jan. 6, 2021, mob invaded and took over the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 election.  They did it at the behest of Donald Trump.  But, my colleague says, Trump did not convert these people against democracy;  they found a voice and leader that represents their values in Donald Trump.

My colleague thinks Americans fool themselves with patriotic babble.  They believe America is a better country than it actually is.  He says we talk about the divide among Americans, but the divide has always been there.  There has always been a faction that hates freedom for anybody but themselves.  They resent that people they hate on a racial, ethnic, religious, economic, or sexual basis are considered equal with them.  They think that justice is the oppression and punishment of the people they hate.  Hatred to them is a driving virtue.  We are living in an age when some gains in civil rights and social progress are being reversed.

A few years ago, we were instituting measures to increase the vote.  Now many states are taking measures to restrict it by claiming widespread voter fraud.  Racial oppression and anti-semitism are notably on the rise.  Reports of police killings of unarmed Blacks and anti-Jewish propaganda fill the news.  And school systems are beset by people who want only their ignorance and bigotry taught in classrooms.

Trump has been indicted and Republican are rushing to his defense.  Tump's personal lawyer and the chef financial officer of his company have received prison sentences for what they did under Trump'a direction, but the GOP leaders claim the indictments against Trump are political vengeance.  In his former home base of New York City, Trump is despised for being an obnoxious jackass in his social life and a shyster in his business practices.  The fact that he holds the Republican party in thrall, however, says more about the intellectual and moral deterioration of America than it does about Trump's quality of personhood.  My former colleague says the large segment of the American populace that adores Trump suffers from Mafia envy.  What they admire in Trump is the freedom and power to do wrong.  They regard organized crime as entrepreneurship.

Good South Dakotans would be quick to say that if that is what my colleague thinks of America, he should leave.  He has. When he retired, he moved to a university town in a Scandinavian country from where he monitors what he regards as the demise of America.  Many fellow political scholars in Europe share his views.  To them, America chose to end the democratic enterprise when it chose Trump as its leader.  They think that Jan. 6 iwas the first major event in the disintegration of the American republic.  It and the support of Trump in another run for the presidency are a deliberate rejection of the American experiment in democracy.

While there are forces in charge that pursue the goals of that experiment, the adversaries have gained ground in recent years.  And while there are hordes of people at the borders waiting to get into America, a significant outmigration is in process.  An article in Wickpedia, notes the trend:

According to a Gallup poll from January 2019, 16% of Americans, including 40% of women under the age of 30, would like to leave the United States.[69] In 2018, the Federal Voting Assistance Program estimated a total number of 4.8 million American civilians lived abroad, 3.9 million civilians, plus 1.2 million service members and other government-affiliated Americans.[70]

Whatever happened to America?   For one thing, Trump did.  And the GOP stands with him.

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States