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November 7, 2006

The Tear Sheet: Revenge is cheap

By the time some colleagues and I showed up in Crothersville two winters ago, carrying notebooks and armed with a passel of questions, little Katie Collman had been dead nearly a month, and the town was still busy asking itself how things had gotten so bad. The murder was shocking, of course, but it was more than her death that had the sleepy Southern Indiana town on edge. The houses there seemed to sag in their frames, with the paint peeling and the downtown streets quiet. Drug use was up, wages had been falling and everywhere you looked the sheen had faded from storefront facades and faces alike. Katie’s murder — which has been back in the news following the revelation that her cousin is charged with tattooing ‘KATIE’S revenge’ across her murderer’s forehead — held a mirror to the town, forcing it to confront its own indisputable decline. In an interview last week, following allegations that inmate Jared Harris tattooed the message across Anthony Stockelman’s forehead, family spokesman Terry Gray said the murder had served as a badly needed wake-up. “The whole thing basically changed the way of life here,” said Terry Gray, who also has led fundraising efforts to build Katie’s Park, a civic gesture he and others in the town hope will symbolize a re-awakened sense of collective responsibility. “Now we don’t take anything for granted.” Dozens of law-enforcement officers — including a double-digit contingent from the FBI — descended on Crothersville in the weeks after the murder. Though Stockelman eventually was convicted of molesting and murdering Katie, the heavy police presence produced a string of other drug-related arrests in the weeks following the murder, Gray said. Thanks to that, the youths wandering around looking for drugs are gone, or at least underground, he said. Local residents are now tuned in to the presence of methamphetamine and other drugs in the area. But the clean-up occasioned by the town’s response to the murder hasn’t eased the pain of Katie’s parents, Gray said. When Katie’s mother and father learned that her killer had been tattooed in his prison cell, they weren’t about to feel sorry for him, he said. “In one of the first interviews he gave after he was in prison, he said prison life wasn’t that bad, kind of like being on vacation,” Gray said. “Well, that is a slap in the face to the parents to hear that from a man who molested and murdered their 10-year-daughter. “They are not going to feel sorry for him. .. It’s just like he is lucky he got life in prison. Whatever happens to him, they aren’t going to have any regrets or remorse for him.” I can’t argue with that. Feeling sorry for someone like Stockelman is not in my DNA — or anyone’s, really. Still, some others have spoken out to say the tattooing was wrong — and triply so because it was apparently done with help from prison employees. They deserve to be heard, too. Steve Pierson, the Jackson County prosecutor who put Stockelman in prison, said he found the tattooing incident revolting. “Looking at it objectively, if this guy was Katie Collman’s cousin, then Stockelman might have been killed,” Pierson said. “So all things considered, I am glad that it was a mere tattoo.” But Pierson said the tattooing — pictures of which were released on the Internet — was obviously the work of a group of inmates who had help from the inside. “I deplore all forms of crime.  ... It leaked through the guards. There was complicity there or that could never have happened,” he said. A spokesman for the Indiana Department of Corrections told me two guards have been fired, but that no evidence was discovered to suggest they helped with the tattooing itself. Pierson said it appears that Harris, 22, entered Stockelman’s open cell and told him to either submit to the tattoo or be killed. Stockelman submitted. Harris got a lot of praise on the Internet, and elsewhere, for his antics. But he hardly knew Katie, and he is deserving of nothing but contempt. Like the thugs who murdered Jeffrey Dahmer in his cell, or the inmates who killed former pedophile priest John Geoghan, Harris was just another cheap con looking for easy marks. Our justice system doesn’t need any help from the likes of Jared Harris, and the rest of us are better just saying so. Contact the writer at michael.lindenberger@gmail.com