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Ripple effects 

Kathryn Eastburn talks about her new book

click to enlarge SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton

It's a gruesome and depraved story, even by the standard of today's all-too-frequent murderous rampages.

Boys acquire hardcore weapons, boys hatch plan, boys engage in grisly, senseless killings.

New Year's Eve 2007 marks the seventh anniversary of the date when, in the tiny mountain hamlet of Guffey, west of Colorado Springs, 15-year-old Tony Dutcher and his grandparents, Carl and JoAnna Dutcher, were executed. Over the weeks and years that followed, the details of those murders riveted much of Colorado. Arrested and subsequently convicted in connection with the murders were Isaac Grimes, Jon Matheny, Glen Urban and the described ringleader, Simon Sue. The four had attended Palmer High School in downtown Colorado Springs, along with Tony Dutcher.

This Jan. 1, Kathryn Eastburn former editor of, and my longtime colleague at, the Colorado Springs Independent will mark the anniversary with the publication of her book about the case. Its title is Simon Says, a chilling play on words that stems from that traditional American children's game in which a leader issues orders, carried out by others. In a synopsis, this is how Eastburn describes her efforts:

Simon Says is the true story of a group of young men who, under the influence of a charismatic 19-year-old sociopath, formed a secret paramilitary organization, stole guns and ultimately murdered a 15-year-old boy and his grandparents. It addresses the adolescent need to belong to a peer group, the gun culture in the United States, the unique brand of youth violence that continues in the wake of the Columbine school massacre and the limitations of a legal system that treats juvenile felons as adults.

Indy: Most true crime books tend to follow a linear path, focusing mainly on the victims, the crime and the perpetrator. Yet so much of Simon Says is told through the ancillary characters, particularly the parents. Why did you choose this approach?

Eastburn: I don't think any of these crimes happen in a vacuum. In the real world, everyone is affected to a degree. We can't just put the bad guys in prison and it all goes away. We do have to think about this, when more and more disaffected and lonely young men are picking up arms and killing people.

click to enlarge Charlie Dutcher, who lost his parents and his son in the - killings, erected a temporary headstone on the Guffey - property where the tragedy happened. - KATHRYN EASTBURN
  • Kathryn Eastburn
  • Charlie Dutcher, who lost his parents and his son in the killings, erected a temporary headstone on the Guffey property where the tragedy happened.

I worked on this book for five years and watched the parents, in particular, go through grieving and depression and hopelessness and shame and alienation in their community. And yet [they] are so resilient and came out on the other side, with their sons in prison, and still [are] putting one foot in front of the other, every day. What happened to the Dutcher family was horrendous, but what happened to these other families was horrendous, too.

A lot of literary critics would probably prefer I had written it more as a pulp thriller a lot of people who write about books want a clear victim, a clear killer and perfect justice to be meted out. But it just doesn't work out that way in the real world. These crimes have an incredible ripple effect.

We've had events like Virginia Tech and Columbine and so many of these events, where most of the killers, of course, are dead. But in this case, they are still alive. All of those crimes had tremendous ripple effects, too people who had to hide out in their churches or cars or schools and the ripple effect has tremendous consequences.

Indy: Some of the characters involved in the book are clearly better represented than others. What were some of the difficulties you encountered during your research?

Eastburn: Everybody wasn't initially open to the idea of talking to me [beyond public court transcripts and police reports]. Two of [the mothers] didn't talk to me until just last year, at which point I said, "The book is coming out, and it has the point of view of the prosecutors and the defense attorneys and possible witnesses and other people."

Bonnie Matheny did decide to sit down and talk about the case, one mother to another, and actually [earlier this month] I met her for coffee and I introduced her to Glen Urban's mother, and they were just amazing. They really have come full circle, from absolute total shock and denial to being thoughtful, concerned parents who worry about the number of juveniles living in adult prisons and spending their entire juvenile, young adult years in adult prisons. So they've taken their grief and are turning it into a passion.

With Isaac Grimes, it can be fairly said the family expected his act of confessing and cooperating with police and leading investigators to everyone else involved for that, they certainly hoped that a plea bargain would be reached. Then he received 60 years' imprisonment. He became, at the time, the youngest inmate in the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Indy: Why did this story jump out at you so intensely? Was it because it happened literally so close to your home, and that you had sons of a similar age?

click to enlarge Victim Tony Dutcher enjoyed hunting and collecting - military paraphernalia.
  • Victim Tony Dutcher enjoyed hunting and collecting military paraphernalia.

Eastburn: The truth of the matter is that, of course, it was a fascinating story. Initially, all of the press picked up on this story. And honestly, the house full of guns was a block and a half away from my house, and the boys who were arrested attended the same high school as my sons. They were not friends of my sons, but in Colorado Springs, there are only a few degrees of separation.

My initial feeling was, "Oh my God, that could have been my children," and, of course, not everyone felt that way. Parents tend to think that, "I am such a great parent," or, "I know everything that goes on in their lives," and it seemed that everyone wanted it to be over and done with that those kids were bad eggs, were bad seeds. They wanted to get it out of their minds and not have to ask, "How did anything like this happen in our beautiful North End neighborhood?"

Indy: Your book is coming out seven years after the Guffey murders, more than eight years after the Columbine High School killings, less than a year after the Virginia Tech massacre and just a few weeks after the shootings at the Arvada-based Youth with a Mission and at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. What are your thoughts on the culture of violence pervading youth in America?

Eastburn: I think everyone in the United States has to be asking themselves those questions about their kids, and the kids in their communities. I don't think I did that a lot in the book. I just asked a lot of questions and put it in narrative form; I didn't uncover any great mysteries, but did hint at the complexities, that this doesn't happen out of nowhere. Violence doesn't just erupt.

I don't know what we need to do as a nation, but we need to pay more attention, and we need to make it a lot harder for disturbed young people to get their hands on AK-47s and SKSs. Shouldn't we at least, as a civilized society, ask the question, "When we are feeling weak and vulnerable, why we are turning to weapons as a solution?"

We're supposed to be an advanced society, and it seems primitive and brutal to me. It's not acceptable to me to say, "That's the world that I've brought my children into."

Indy: In the initial stages of the police investigation and early media reports, much was made of Simon Sue's alleged connection to the People's Progressive Party of Guyana on behalf of which his so-called Operation and Reconnaissance Agents (OARA) organization was supposedly working. In your mind, has the OARA connection ever been fully explained?

Eastburn: Simon is the wild card in this story. His idea was off-the-wall and bizarre, to form a secret paramilitary organization and to train young men to be soldiers. But really, the fact that he was able to find three boys who had never been in trouble before Jon Matheny's mother told me he had never even been to the principal's office before the fact that [Sue] was able to go around his high school and find three people and say to them, "This is going to give you meaning and structure in your life and we will take care of you" ... [and] sign them on to senseless crime says something to me, that something was really, really missing in these boys' lives.

click to enlarge Then and now (left to right): Isaac Grimes, Jon Matheny - and Simon Sue. A fourth OARA member, Glen Urban, is - no longer incarcerated in connection with the crime.
  • Then and now (left to right): Isaac Grimes, Jon Matheny and Simon Sue. A fourth OARA member, Glen Urban, is no longer incarcerated in connection with the crime.

In some cases, it is a missing father, or in a big school where everyone has a group to belong to except you, or being really fascinated with violence. Sometimes you see maybe a combination of all these things, but maybe not. Maybe it's just a strange and isolated violence. It just keeps coming up again in our society.

One of the best pieces of advice was from an adviser I had who, when I told him the story, said, "Sometimes you start with a mystery and you end with a mystery."

Indy: What is your next project?

Eastburn: In March, I have another book published, on a completely different topic: It's called A Sacred Feast, and it's a happy cookbook about singing together.

Beyond that, I don't have a special project, but want to continue writing about [society and youth violence] and hope we start having better communications about these things between children to children, and adults to children, and children to adults, and adults to adults in this country. I'm not saying that sitting around and talking about it is simply the solution, but not talking about these things is not helping, either.

Contributing editor Cara DeGette first started working with Kathryn Eastburn in 1993, the year the Independent was founded. She served as Eastburn's editor on several Independent news stories and cover packages about the murders of the Dutchers. Reach her at degette@csindy.com.


Kathryn Eastburns upcoming Colorado readings and signings:
Thursday, Jan. 3
Poor Richards Bookstore,
320 N. Tejon St., 6 p.m.,
578-0012

Friday, Jan. 4
Hamlets Bookshoppe,
306 S. Main St., Breckenridge, 7 p.m.,
info@hamletsbooks.com,
970/453-8033

Saturday, Jan. 5
Explore Booksellers,
221 E. Main St., Aspen, 5 p.m.,
970/925-5336

Wednesday, Jan. 9
Tattered Cover Highlands Ranch,
9315 Dorchester St., Littleton, 7:30 p.m.,
303/470-7050

  • ... and what else we might take from the Guffey murders.

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