Da Capo Press, $25 / hardcover
A black-and-white photo of an idyllic mountain scene spans the cover of Kathryn Eastburn's new book, Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns, and Murder. In the picture, a quaint log cabin sits nestled in a grove of trees piled high with mounds of pristine snow.
It's the type of place that draws us to Colorado, where we relish our mountain getaways, our quiet streets and our clean-cut neighborhoods. But if we look closer at the photo, what seems to be black-and-white really consists of many shades of gray.
It is precisely these shades of gray that Eastburn asks readers to examine in her true crime book. How could smart boys from decent families in nice Colorado Springs neighborhoods believe they were part of a secret paramilitary organization? And how could they murder three people at the command of their leader, Simon Sue?
Those who remember the murders of 15-year-old Tony Dutcher and his grandparents Carl and JoAnna, as 2000 turned to 2001 in Guffey, may have asked these questions when four Palmer High students were arrested in the days that followed. These acts seem incomprehensible, but Eastburn attempts to help readers understand how they happened.
As an editor at the Independent when the murders took place, Eastburn reported on the story as it unfolded. But she may be best-remembered in Colorado Springs for her weekly "Domestic Bliss" column, which featured her sensitive observations on daily life. In the book, she uses both her reporting skills and her sensitivity to get inside not only the lives of the victims, but also the minds of the boys who committed the murders, and the families devastated in the aftermath.
As a reader, this can be a disturbing place to be, and not simply because of the violent nature of the crimes and the youth of the perpetrators. It's one thing to feel empathy for those killed, but it's another to feel something for Isaac Grimes, the then-15-year-old who took a knife to his former best friend Tony's throat. Yet you might, as Eastburn describes the cult-like atmosphere enveloping the boys and the charisma of Simon Sue, the oldest in the group, who is said to have ordered the murders.
Eastburn brings us inside Grimes' world leading up to the crimes; he claims he participated because he feared for his life and his family's safety. Whether you side with Grimes' mother, who says, "Isaac's hand did it; his heart didn't do it," or the judge who tells Grimes that explanations of cult dynamics do not absolve him of personal responsibility, the story will give you much to ponder.
If the book's lacking anything, it's more complete pictures of Simon Sue and Jon Matheny, the boy thought to have shot the elder Dutchers. Readers get one chilling, tantalizing glimpse of Sue, preserved in a police interview following Grimes' confession. Throughout the interrogation, Sue attempts to charm and manipulate the officers, at one point telling them, "I look up to you guys. You inspire me."
He drives much of the story. What made him so powerful that he could command his friends to commit murder while he was out of town, celebrating the holiday? Though it may have no straight answer, it is a question worth exploring.
With today's headlines, readers may be tempted to shy away from a tale of adolescent violence. But it may be only through examining such stories that we begin to understand how they can happen, and maybe how we can help prevent them from happening in the future.