The man in the fogWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
At what point does sensible caution turn into gnawing paranoia? Is there an exact moment when concern transforms into drama? When does vigilance teeter toward vigilantism?
About 16 months ago, we learned that a registered sex offender was living a street away in our Tecumseh neighborhood.
Marvin Lee Ruppert, according to the state registry, has been convicted of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree with a person under 13 and possession of child sexually abusive material. He came to our attention after being seen on our street “acting suspiciously” around a group of girls all younger than 9 years old, who were in swimsuits playing in a yard sprinkler.
On our street, there are six consecutive houses with children ranging from 2 to 13 years old. After news of Ruppert’s alleged behavior surfaced, the kids on our street were no longer playing in front yards, bicycling, pulling each other in wagons or walking dogs along the sidewalk. All the kids were in backyards, sealed within fences, under watchful eyes. The moms in the neighborhood were anxious and watchful. There was a low hum of protective energy running through the men on our street; we talked and agreed to be on guard.
But within weeks of the incident, life returned to a relative normal and everyone resumed their routines. Ruppert kept to himself and receded into the background, just one of dozens of vague dangers that circle life in its unstoppable ebb and flow.
Just after Labor Day, public schools started in Michigan and the familiar yellow buses began their slow journeys through the neighborhood. As our son Evan, who is 5, is the youngest rider in our area, the school moved the bus stop to our driveway. Each weekday morning, Evan and four or five other elementary school students gather to chatter, sing, hop and play while they wait for the bus. At least one adult —my wife Shannon, our neighbor or I — waits with the kids, close enough to watch them but far enough back to avoid helicoptering over their games.
Oct. 6 was a foggy, dreary morning, but the fog was not thick enough in the school district to warrant a delay. Shannon was on bus stop duty, talking with the kids and staying close, as the fog clung to the area, obscuring the driveway from the street.
As the kids, subdued by the situation, waited for the bus, my wife saw a man emerge from the fog, right into the small crowd of children. She immediately believed it was Ruppert, who is supposed to avoid all contact with those younger than 17 and who should never be near a school or school area like a bus stop.
Shannon, bravely and without hesitation, stepped between the kids and the walking dude and said, “We don’t talk to strangers here. Please keep moving.”
And he did, shuffling away into the foggy morning.
As soon as the kids were safely on the bus, Shannon went into the house and looked at Ruppert’s photo online. Convinced it was him, she called me at work and we agreed we needed to report the transgression to the police. I am exceedingly proud of Shannon’s resolve and clearheadedness in dealing with the situation.
I am also pleased at how quickly the Tecumseh police responded. Literally within minutes, an officer was at our home to talk to Shannon, and within minutes after that, an officer was with Ruppert.
While police investigated and we worked with the prosecutor’s office, Ruppert was detained for the night. There was discussion that the bus stop incident — coupled with the earlier report of staring at children as they played in the sprinkler — might be enough of a probation violation to return him to prison.
The next afternoon, the authorities decided there was not enough evidence to pursue that punishment. An adult was present when he approached, and as there was no apparent intent to harm, the case would not be pursued. (It should be noted that Ruppert denied the incident, saying he was at a doctor’s appointment. Police told us there was video of him at the medical office, but the timing left ample opportunity for him to have returned, walked through the bus stop and be at home when police arrived).
Authorities did adjust Ruppert’s electronic tether so that he is not to leave his home until well after the buses have come and gone. I have also noticed, since the report, Tecumseh police cars in our neighborhood during school bus times.
We have had long and repeated talks with our sons (Sean is now 3) about “stranger danger” and what to do if they are approached. It makes my heart ache to have to introduce “bad apple” concepts to our youngest son, who has had trouble sleeping and refers to “the man in the fog” in hushed tones.
The system responded, but we are now dealing with a registered offender who has at least two alleged transgressions, when a zero tolerance policy makes a lot more sense.
Shannon and I have been jarringly reminded of our parental roles as lifeguards, sentinels overseeing a calm ocean invaded by dead-eyed sharks with nothing but pain and shredded flesh on their minds.
Caution turns into paranoia.
Concern transforms into drama.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Call him at (419) 241-1700, Ext. 223 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.