Into the Wild with Jim and Hannah: a belated retrospective

Before it slips my mind again, I should follow up on the James Lee DiMaggio/Hannah Anderson saga and its gruesome but predictable enough outcome.

DiMaggio’s rampage itself was a fairly pedestrian wilding fugue by one disturbed man, an irresistibly macabre story, perhaps, but not one of any particular significance to those who aren’t interested in observing dear departed father’s meth-fueled Passion with a murder and arson rampage against the immediate relatives of their romantic interests. The salient things about this case have to do with the law enforcement and media response to it. This response, not DiMaggio’s personal nuttery, says a lot about the dysfunction and prurience of American attitudes towards white girls in distress. As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t usually get so worked up about the disappearances of black girls. As Joe Bageant put it, “hologram don’t serve no dark meat.”

Although I single out my own country for this racism, we aren’t that unique for it. Specifically, our furry friends north of the border shouldn’t close the browser window yet, eh. More on this in a bit.

It turns out that I was right in my suspicion that Hannah Anderson was unaware of her mother and brother’s fate when she and DiMaggio headed north. I didn’t write anything about this at the time, but I was struck that if Anderson had been forcibly kidnapped by a man whom she had watched kill her brother and mother and then cremate them in a house fire, she would not have been functional enough to hike into the woods with him. It’s just a gut feeling. Some people can adjust to severe traumas, but still.

I was apparently wrong in my speculation that Anderson was comfortable around DiMaggio and possibly taken with him. That said, there was no way for any outside observer to know better based on information available at the time. None whatsoever. The official narrative was too trite and moralistic to be believed absent case-by-case confirmation of specific facts. The notion of a sixteen-year-old girl with no criminal record helping a forty-year-old boyfriend murder her immediate relatives and then eloping with him seemed incredible. The notion of a law-abiding sixteen-year-old girl having a forty-year-old boyfriend and eloping with him in ignorance of his having just murdered her immediate relatives is perfectly plausible. So is the notion of his keeping her in the dark about his crime through nearly a week of saturation coverage of her disappearance. A lot of people have no interest in listening to the news. Hannah Anderson seemed like one of them. She had apparently been exceptionally close to this friend of her parents’ in the past. There were photographs to that effect, some of them ridiculous. I don’t think I erred in putting more stock in the implications of mall selfies with the “uncle” smirking in the background than in hearsay statements from a peer that Anderson had expressed her discomfort with DiMaggio after he confessed his crush on her. Anderson and her friend would both have had strong motives to lie had either of them felt comfortable about DiMaggio’s behavior in the circumstances. The social consequences for teenage girls expressing their comfort with guys regarded by others as dirty old men can be severe.

There was a fairly strong consensus early on that DiMaggio was a psychopath. It’s a nice thought for those who enjoy moralizing about evil men who prey upon pretty young women, and one that most certainly gives wood to the projectile pervert Chris Hansen. Still, there’s no reason to blame total depravity when batshit insane sentimentality with a flair for violence fits the bill. He wasn’t the first person in his family to kidnap a sixteen-year-old; dad beat him to it years earlier. His rampage took place in the anniversary week of his father’s last dance with the crank pipe; according to a friend, he was killed by federal agents on the very anniversary of his father’s suicide. He was apparently into commemorating that kind of thing. It stands to reason that such sensibilities would make a man look well weird to his fellows.

Like father, like son. Also. like father, like “uncle.” Brett Anderson may be even weirder than I thought at the time. Would a normal person be so close to the hella weird son of a tweaker who offed himself? Would a normal person be totally cool with such an odd friend hanging out with his teenage daughter all the time? I’m starting to wonder whether these guys weren’t birds of a feather. My initial feeling was that Brett Anderson was off in a fairly different way from Jim DiMaggio, but maybe not so much. I have trouble imagining Scott Simon hanging out with DiMaggio, but for that matter, I have trouble imagining him hanging out with Brett Anderson, and for more or less the same reason. Well-adjusted people with strong social skills tend not to become bosom buddies with oddities of either of those ilks.

Hella weird people, on the other hand, aren’t particularly averse to the idea. It’s assortative free association. It’s a bitch if you’re Robert Philip Hanssen and you’d like to associate with Rod Blagojevich, and not just because you are not free to move about the federal prisons of the Front Range.

Actually, Blago enjoys a good freak show and a good yarn about G-men. He’s tasteless enough that he and Bob might hit it off. All the same, Jerry Sandusky, Graham Spanier and Bob Filner are much more in Agent Hanssen’s league. Now, there’s a good San Diego city slicker I can imagine fitting in just fine with his East County boys Jim and Brett.

Jim DiMaggio was obviously violent and antisocial. This was not a good enough reason to stop the world and drag the entire West Coast into the manhunt. God knows he isn’t the only thug in his league. At the same time that Hannah Anderson was missing and presumed kidnapped by DiMaggio, a federal defender’s investigator from Oakland named Sandra Coke went missing. Relatives and police suspected foul play, and on August 9, the day before DiMaggio’s last stand, Coke’s body was found in Vacaville. Although no criminal charges have been filed in Coke’s disappearance and death, she apparently had an odd and ambivalent relationship with the main “person of interest,” a convicted rapist, kidnapper and murderer named Randy Alana. My guess: he dunnit. I’d refer to him as the suspect if the prevailing legal jargon weren’t so prissy and confusing.

Coke’s disappearance was a big news story in the Bay Area, where I was staying at the time, but there was no reverse 911 Amber Alert to plead with every cell phone user in California to help in the search. Alana was a career criminal who had stolen Coke’s dog, a dodgy motherfucker whom Coke alternately tried to mentor, dated (maybe; Alana says it was so, and it’s plausible, but I’ll be agnostic about it until I hear corroboration from someone with a shred of credibility), and reported to the police and the courts as a dangerous stalker. The police had very good reasons to round that guy up, but instead of declaring an official regional freakout, they did what any good, sensible cops would do. They conducted an investigation, determined that Alana was dangerous and in violation of his parole, located him, and arrested him. No stranger’s phone clanged like a sick fire engine late at night on Sandra Coke’s behalf.

Will I blame racism? Why, yes, I will. Not all white girls in distress are honored with a multistate, drop-everything-now Amber Alert and regional reverse 911 call, but all who are thus honored are white girls in distress. Sandra Coke was black, middle-aged, and, in fairness, pretty street-smart when she wasn’t unduly entangled with former clients. So she her disappearance was handled with standard and, it appears, fairly competent, police work, unlike Hannah Anderson’s, which was treated as a case of Oh dear Lord a cute honky chick from a good family at the mercy of a sexual deviant. Sandra Coke just did not have that made-for-TV psychosexual hotness.

That reverse 911 Amber Alert set a dubious precedent. A free citizenry is right to be wary of messages of civic encouragement from the Telescreen. That kind of intrusion into the personal electronic devices of private citizens is just dangerous. It’s one thing to make such an intrusion in times of imminent natural disaster. It’s quite another to do so to demand aid in the search for one specific crime victim believed to be in danger from one specific suspect. That’s a government power that’s easily abused.

And think of the concern fatigue will set in. Children go missing all the fucking time. Often, it’s a runaway who is sick of living with the main custodial parent. Most “child abductions” are in fact custody reassignments by other means, spats in which no one’s really going to harm the kid, even though the parents don’t have the manners not to be total assholes about custody. The psychological trauma to the child at the center of one of these disputes may be genuine, but it isn’t usually serious enough to give anyone at Dateline NBC a stiffy. No one will take reverse 911 Amber Alerts seriously if they become a regular occurrence. They’ll turn into entertainment, the Starr Report of missing and exploited children, the government’s very dry attempts to compete with Nancy Grace for sheer prurience.

But don’t worry: they’ll be used selectively. You won’t have to worry about being bugged about the disappearance of some First Nations streetwalker a few blocks from the Vancouver police headquarters. After all, she was just a redskin druggie whose friends were all on crank and smack, too. Why should the detectives have to waste their time listening to the speculation of some drugged-out hooker that something just doesn’t look right about her friend’s disappearance, and by the way, have any of your beat cops noticed what a weirdo that pig farmer is? The Mounties didn’t do much about Robert Pickton, either, eh. The women he targeted were disposable, after all. No one knows for sure how many women he abducted and murdered. There are still quite a few unsolved disappearances from the streets of Vancouver and the highways of Western Canada that are probably his doing, but even Pickton himself may not remember all the details.

One of the reasons that no one cares about these women is that they live in low-trust environments. Very low-trust. They’re lucky to have the ear of a sympathetic beat cop. Truthfully, many people regard them as subhuman. Maybe a couple dozen relatives and colleagues give a shit when they go missing; everyone else figures that they had it coming for doing drugs and turning tricks in the alleyway. People who contact the police for welfare checks and missing person investigations are dismissed as total cranks.

So where did Jim DiMaggio flee with Hannah Anderson? Into a low-population, high-trust part of rural Idaho. That’s how they came across a retired sheriff on a wilderness trail while Anderson was wearing pajama bottoms and carrying a cat. That encounter was not, as the sheriff later said, a one-in-a-trillion event. If he wanted them to fade into the woodwork, he would have done better to drive to Tijuana. TJ is teeming with weird-ass honky gringos who dig teenagers. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is a good place to go if one wants to run into people who know the local cops and will have no trouble being heard out by the police if they think they’ve seen something weird. It’s a poor place for flatlanders to hide; there’s just too much plain sight to be had.  The think-of-the-missing-children constituency won’t be happy to hear this, but DiMaggio might not have been caught so quickly had he not practiced such a shoddy tradecraft.

Would that Robert Pickton had been so blatant when he first started murdering hookers. Would that the cops had given a damn.

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