The North Country faces a constant drum beat of sexual assault and violence against women and children. Stephen Howells (left) was accused of abducting two Amish girls last month in the St. Lawrence Valley; he was hardly alone. Michael Geraci (center) is accused of choking and threatening to kill a woman in Oswegatchie. Eric Davis (right) is accused of engaging in sexual behavior with a 9-year-old child. Photos: NYS police agencies
The last few months, North Country Public Radio has reported extensively on the heroin and prescription drug epidemics here in our rural region. We’ve seen law enforcement ramp up its arrests, calling for task forces, better coordination and new funding. Lawmakers have held public hearings and the scourge has dominated headlines.
The weird thing is that there’s another, arguably far more serious epidemic in the North Country that doesn’t get talked about much, doesn’t get treated as a pattern or as a problem that needs an ‘all hands on deck, boots on the ground’ response.
I’m talking about rape, sexual and domestic violence, and the sexual assault and exploitation of children.
This issue drew big banner headlines last month, when two Amish girls were abducted and allegedly sexually assaulted in St. Lawrence County, a horror that drew national headlines. But the reality is that this horror is a near daily event, and a constant danger in our small towns.
A drumbeat of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence
Scroll through the New York State Police bulletins for our region and you find a flood of sickening accounts of men — and yes, they’re almost always men — facing accusations of horrific sexual violence toward women and children.
On September 16, 2014, State Police arrested 27-year-old Daniel A. Horacek of Jay in Essex County for “forcibly engaging in various sexual acts with two female victims. The abuse occurred over the course of several years, prior to 2004.”
That same day, State Police arrested and charged 43-year-old Ralph E. Planty of Liverpool, New York, allegedly engaging in “inappropriate sexual contact with a 12-year-old female victim at a residence in the town of Potsdam.”
The day before, State Police arrested 23-year-old Derrick J. Terry of Keeseville for allegedly raping a 30-year-old victim. “Terry forcibly raped the victim at a residence in Ausable Forks in the early morning hours of June 4, 2014,” according to their report.
A couple of days before that, State Police arrested 30-year-old Michael T. Geraci of Oswegatchie following a domestic dispute in which Geraci allegedly “choked the 32-year-old female victim, and punched her in the face, causing visible injuries.”
Geraci allegedly chased the woman through the neighborhood, threatening to kill her and snatching her cell phone away so that she couldn’t call for help. Fortunately, a neighbor intervened.
That same day, State Police in Watertown arrested Chad Lacey, age 25, after a two-year-old child was hospitalized with a “facial injury” that was “attributed to Lacey.” Two days earlier, on September 9th, Eric Davis, age 41, from Evans Mills in Jefferson County was arraigned for allegedly “subjecting a 9 year old female to sexual contact.”
We still have a week to go but September has already been an atrocious shameful month and it’s not out of the ordinary.
On August 29, State Police in Alexandria Bay arrested 25-year-old Tyler Reason for rape in the first degree after “a 24 year-old female victim reported to investigators that Reason had sexual intercourse against her will.”
Two days earlier, State Police arrested Jaquine Ali-El, 23 years old, for allegedly striking his wife with his car “causing physical injury” during an incident in Evans Mills.
It’s important to note that all these men are innocent until proved guilty. But the cycle of arrests goes on and on and on, week after week, month after month. And it’s hard to believe that we’re not just scratching the surface.
Are doing enough? Hell, no.
We as a society are beginning to think more seriously and aggressively about dealing with this shameful problem. We’ve come to realize that sexually predatory behavior goes well beyond the Roman Catholic priesthood, or college campuses, or the US military, or the Boy Scouts, or the NFL. There is in our society an epidemic of sexual and domestic violence.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has made these kinds of assaults and rapes — particularly on campuses and in the armed services — a major part of her agenda in Washington. “[The] price of a college education should not include a 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted,” Gillibrand has argued.
The truth is, we have a long way to go. While local and state police are getting better at targeting sexual predators and domestic abusers, there is still a lot of resistance. Many organizations still insist on dealing with accusations of sexual criminality “in house,” without reporting alleged assaults to police.
But even in the law enforcement community we haven’t created the same kind of big-picture, coordinated strategy that we’ve seen with drugs. It turns out that nationwide there’s a backlog of more than 400,000 rape kits — evidence gathered after women were assaulted — that have never been processed.
“There is good evidence that pulling out old rape kits makes a difference,” reported the New Republic earlier this year. “After New York City processed its 17,000-kit backlog in 2001, the arrest rate for rape cases jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent,” the magazine found.
But the rape kit issue is only a symbol for the larger lack of a zero-tolerance, coordinated strategy.
Why don’t we just say No to sexual violence?
It’s important to ask why this is. Why do we regularly trot out statewide campaigns against things like prescription drugs, cocaine, and marijuana, or driving while texting? Why do we see protest marches around abortion issues and the environment? Meanwhile, we fail to take on a desperately overdue crusade to sharply curb rape, domestic and sexual violence.
How is it that we’ve spent decades talking about performance enhancing drugs in college- and pro-sports, but we haven’t had a big conversation about the role that athletic departments have played in minimizing or covering up sexual violence by athletes on campuses?
Why are there huge cash incentives and rewards for law enforcement agencies that crack down on even small amounts of illegal drugs, while there are almost no resources or rewards available for cops and police departments who focus their energies on stopping rapists and child molesters?
I suspect that in part it’s because so many of the most dangerous predators are people living in our neighborhoods, in our homes, and in our bedrooms.
We hate to confront the fact that so many of the men in our communities and our families — a small minority, but still a dangerous minority — are predators. These are people we know. They’re our sons, our brothers, our fathers. In some cases, they’re our sports heroes, or our pastors, or our teachers.
The intimacy of this threat makes it one we would rather ignore.
But I think the long, dreary chapter of willful blindness is coming to an end. We’re starting to think bigger about ways to make our families and our schools and our streets safer from sexual and domestic predators. We’re starting to hold people accountable when they fail to create safe environments.
These are baby steps. With more rapes and sexual assaults being reported every single week in the North Country, we need to push aside sacred cows and small town pride and all the old squeamish barriers and ask ourselves tough, self-critical questions.
The alternative — the price for complacency and silence – is just too awful for any decent community to tolerate.