In Real Life, Violence Hits Close to Home...And Work

11/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last month, crime story watchers like me sat riveted as police announced the eighteen-year-delayed discovery of missing child turned grown woman and mother, Jaycee Dugard. Why the fascination?

Maybe it was the human desire to celebrate something that resembled a happy ending. Even after nearly two decades of captivity and abuse, the release of Dugard and her daughters back to her family was at least happy-ish compared to the more familiar endings to these stories.

Or maybe the source of fascination was less noble: a prurient curiosity about lives lived in a Rube Goldberg backyard-compound; the derangement of a sex offender who insists the case is "a powerful, heartwarming story;" the role of a wife who not only condoned but participated in her husband's crimes.

But certainly part of the story's appeal was the closure it brought in a case that epitomized the kind of violence we fear most: wholly random, unpredictable, uncontrollable, predatory. Jaycee was abducted before her stepfather's eyes as she walked up a hill toward her school bus stop.

Like the 1993 abduction of Polly Klaas from a slumber party in her own home, the case chilled us to the bones at least in part because of its arbitrariness. Organizers of a parade to celebrate Dugard's return -- many of them children at the time of Jaycee's kidnapping -- said they lost their innocence when she disappeared. They were haunted by a boogeyman whose face they couldn't conjure.

But now a few short weeks later, we watch what began as another missing person case -this one without the happy ending, and this one reminding us that most crimes aren't random and most predators aren't faceless strangers. Yale graduate student Annie Le disappeared less than a week before she was to be married. Her body was found stuffed behind a wall of a university research building on what was supposed to be her wedding day.

Although only time (and evidence) will tell the full story of what happened, police have arrested Raymond Clark, a Yale lab technician who worked in the building. They have executed search warrants at Clark's home and seized DNA from him to compare to physical evidence in the case. Several news sources have reported Clark had defensive wounds and failed a lie detector test. More recently, whispers have emerged that Clark had an unrequited romantic interest in Le.

The media are comparing Le's murder to that of Suzanne Jovin, who was stabbed on the Yale campus in 1998. But the case brought to my mind the July murder of Eridania Rodriguez. Rodriguez disappeared while working her evening cleaning shift at a downtown New York office highrise. Her body was found stuffed inside the skyscraper's air conditioning shaft, her head wrapped like a mummy in construction tape. The building's elevator operator has been charged.

I also find myself thinking about actress and director Adrienne Shelly, whose body was found in her Greenwich Village office after a chain of tragic events the commenced with an ordinary complaint about construction noise and ended with a fatal blow to the head.

I find myself remembering that Elizabeth Smart was snatched from her Salt Lake City bedroom not by a total stranger, but by a drifter who'd worked for her family as a handyman for one day a year earlier.

According to FBI statistics for 2008, only twenty-two percent of murder victims were killed by strangers. More than thirty percent were slain by family members, boyfriends, and girlfriends. Nearly half of all murders were committed by friends, neighbors, and casual acquaintances. And even as violent crime rates decrease, workplace homicides are on the rise -- up thirteen percent in 2007.

As New Haven Police Chief James Lewis said this morning, "[T]his is not about urban crime, university crime, domestic crime but an issue of workplace violence, which is becoming a growing concern around the country."

With no shortage of sad details to emerge from Le's death, as a writer and as a woman, I shook my head as I read about an article Le penned in February for a campus magazine. The article was called "Crime and Safety in New Haven."

Not unlike pieces I've authored myself, the story extolled the values of street smarts when living in a city with crime. She interviewed the Yale campus police chief, who advised women, "pay attention to where you are," and "avoid portraying yourself as a potential victim." In summary, she wrote, "New Haven is a city, and all cities have their perils, but with a little street smarts, one can avoid becoming yet another statistic."

This story has no happy ending, and Le did become a statistic. Her death reminds us: As much as we fear the stranger on a city street -- the faceless predator who can strike out of nowhere -- crime is more likely to strike closer to home or work. And the predator could be a friend, neighbor, or the seemingly harmless lab technician down the hall.