My husband carries a photo of me in his wallet tucked behind credit cards, his driver’s license and carefully folded bills. I ask him to give it to me as we stand in the reception area of the jail in Tama County, Iowa, in December 2015. He looks ready to ask: Why? Then, he silently pulls it from his wallet.
It’s not a picture from our wedding or a vacation. It’s my school photo from kindergarten. My wispy, thin, white-blond hair pulled into pigtails curled into ringlets at the sides of my head, my blue eyes happy, a smart grin on my face, my tiny self in a checked gingham dress mom felt the appropriate costume for picture day. I slide the photo into my pocket and we take our seats and wait as the jailer processes my request to visit prisoner Stewart David Smith.
I first encountered Smith on the school bus 1977. I was 6 years old, and he was 16.
He had dark, curly hair and thick-rimmed glasses, was tall and thin and always carried his boom box. Because he was older he sat in the back of the bus — an honor reserved for the big kids — and played Queen’s new album every day.
The bus rattled and spit up the small hill to our family farm that still sits on a narrow gravel road two miles outside Beaman, Iowa. Every day my brother – just a year older — and I waited on the side of the road until Freda, the bus driver, pulled to a complete stop. The bus was part “Lord of The Flies,” part carnival — horrifying and raucous fun at the same time.
It was Christmastime back in 1977 when I came into my house from the school bus crying. My mom was in the laundry room, and I came to her with tears on my face and my hands behind my back. Mom asked me what was the matter. I didn’t want to tell her. She reassured me that no matter what it was I could tell her, that I had to tell her because it was upsetting me so much I was sweating through my clothes.
After some coaxing, I finally showed her what was behind my back. It was a Christmas card. Inside it read, I love you. I told mom that Stewart Smith, an older boy, gave it to me. I told her that he was scary and was always talking to me on the bus. And when he gave the card to me he told me he was also going to give me a present, and that I would have to give him one, too.
Mom calmed me down. Then she walked directly to the phone and called Smith’s stepmother, Bonnie, and lit into her. I remember being scared of what might happen to me the next day on the bus if Stewart got in trouble: Would he do something to me?
He didn’t do anything to me the next day. But he didn’t stop bothering me.
On numerous occasions, Stewart would corner me on the bus, slide into the seat next to me and not let me out, blocking my exit with his knees. In order to get away from him, I would have to jump over his lap to the safety of the aisle and another place to sit for the long ride home. He even called me once at home. This went on whenever he rode the bus.
I have no memory of him ever laying a hand on me.
But he didn’t have to touch me to frighten me. Child abuse like all sexual assault or abuse isn’t about sex. It is about fear, control and intimidation.
Decades later, I wanted to ask him myself: Why? What I didn’t know as I stood there in the Tama County Jail was that this wasn’t Stewart’s first or second time in jail for sex-crimes.
Smith is a repeat child sex offender. His first arrest in the 1980s in Minnesota was only the first time he was caught, charged and jailed. Unfortunately, like many sex offenders, his offenses predate any arrest and started in his home.
He had been on sex offender registries in Florida and Minnesota as well as the National Sex Offender Registry. After he is released from prison in Iowa, he will have to register within five days on the state’s registry. That scary boy from the school bus was just the kind of calculating predator registries were supposed to stop. But I would learn from my interview with him and following him through the courts just how difficult it can be to put even convicted child molesters on these lists.
That’s because convicted offenders can move, not register as required, begin new lives and live under the radar of a new neighborhood, as Stewart did for years. Law-enforcement experts interviewed for this story said local and national registries aren’t always linked; sometimes, entering the data takes time that understaffed police departments don’t have.
When I started this story more than three years ago, I wanted to find Stewart’s trail, see where he ended up. To do so, I found myself traveling to two states, digging up old court records from three states, talking with his family and trying to understand what went wrong.
GROOMING STARTS EARLY
A spate of child abductions in the 1980s and 1990s gave way to a national “stranger danger” panic.
This was a pivotal moment in the history of sex offender registries. It would shape a generation’s expectations for what the registries would do: provide security for rightfully scared families across the country.
But stranger danger is a myth. RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, cites Department of Justice statistics showing that 93 percent of juvenile victims know their perpetrators — 59 percent were acquaintances and 34 were family members.
Laws became overly broad, often encroaching on civil liberties. The lists included juveniles and people whose crime was urinating in public. It placed even more burden on an already taxed patchwork system of registries.
Tellingly, registries do nothing to stop recidivism of the chronic offender, such as Smith, with a long predatory history. Nor do registries keep the most dangerous offenders from moving seamlessly from place to place to offend again and again. The problem is complicated but has a few common themes: public misunderstanding about who actually offends as well as a lack of studies with empirical evidence on rates of recidivism. According to one study, 75 percent of people get “knowledge about sex offenders” from the media. That same study shows only 7 percent get any information about offenders from the actual registry.
“Stranger Danger” is far less common but it is what makes the local or national news. It is the nagging fear we all have, an image in our mind of a pedophile lurking in a panel van around the corner from our child’s school or ready to snatch a kid from the street. Instead, our abuser is already known to us, and, in all likelihood, has begun the process of “grooming” his or her victim.
The National Center for Victims of Crime describes grooming as process of identifying a potential victim, gaining the child’s trust and breaking down his or her defenses.
Grooming may begin simply and seemingly harmlessly. Maybe the abuser plays a game with a child, or even just listens to the child. In an ongoing effort to gain the child’s trust, the abuser may give small gifts or candy. Then he tries to isolate the child, offering rides or taking a kid on a walk away from a playground or neighborhood barbecue, where it is possible for sexual abuse to occur out of sight of prying adult eyes.
Once that happens, the abuser makes the child feel guilty, scared or somehow at fault, using threats of harm or even just telling children they will get in trouble if they tell.
Deputy Bruce Rhodes, the officer who arrested Stewart in Iowa, said that more than just registries, knowing the signs of grooming can help parents and caregivers thwart child molestation. Of course, no parent can be all places at once. But educating parents about grooming and its signs is another tool against predators.
Stewart is one of those offenders — the one you know or are related to who moves effortlessly from community to community.
A HISTORY OF FAMILY ABUSE
Perhaps Stewart’s path was inevitable; his father, Rex, is also a convicted child molester sentenced to prison in the early 1980s. Community gossip back then was that something bad was happening in the Smith home – there were whispers of incest, kids used to talk about them using horrible names, like The Incest Bunch instead of The Brady Bunch.
I remember the day those suspicions were confirmed. I was in the same class as the youngest Smith daughter, who died of cancer several years ago. It was 1984 or ’85 and we middle-schoolers were milling around lockers. Kids started to buzz about a police car sitting out front. What was going on? What were the cops doing at school? Then the daughter, red-faced and crying, walked out, escorted by a teacher, down the school steps and into the police car.
Since Stewart’s most recent arrest in Iowa, I have had ongoing contact via email and Facebook with one of his sisters, Tessia, who was an amazing softball player in middle and high school. We were on the team together and had a great time on the bus trekking to away games.
She told me in one of our first email exchanges that her stepfather, Rex, and stepbrother, Stewart, sexually abused her. After the abuse she threw herself into softball. It was a way for her to escape. When she saw the ball and swung the bat, she said, it was their heads — Rex and Stewart’s — she was seeing.
“We were never allowed to talk about it (the abuse) and if we did we got beat” by Rex, she told me via email. One of the sisters finally talked after walking in on Rex as he was molesting one of his girls, Tessia told me.
All but one daughter escaped the abuse. Because it was so long ago, Tessia told me, and because she just wanted to block it all out, she can’t remember which one.
Ultimately, Rex Smith was sent to the Oakdale Medical and Classification Center outside Iowa City, the same one Stewart would be sent to more than 30 years later. It is where Iowa processes and evaluates sex offenders before passing them on to another state prison for the duration of the prison term.
Tessia told me that after everything was revealed about Rex, she finally broke down and told her mom — Stewart’s stepmom — about the ongoing abuse meted out by her stepbrother. Her mother told her to not talk about it; they would handle it some other way. So they persuaded Stewart to join the Army after he graduated from high school in hopes it would straighten him out. But the Army didn’t fix Stewart.
In the fall of 1988, Stewart moved to southern Minnesota, to the small town of Waterville just down I-35 from Minneapolis where the hills are still rolling before the long flat stretch into Iowa begins. I returned last year as the leaves were turning, though it felt like summer during a long October heatwave. Waterville has a tiny main street with an outdoor store that also sells second-hand treasures, a bar and the vacant storefronts that dot so many once bustling Midwestern towns.
Minnesota has 10,000 lakes and is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from our hometown; many Iowans vacationed there, including my own. The Smith family, it turns out, did as well.
Sally Jones, another of his sisters, agreed to meet me last October at a restaurant in Ames, Iowa. Home to Iowa State University, Ames was a good meeting place, we decided during a phone call. Just off of I-35 it is not far from where Sally now lives and where I make the familiar eastward turn onto Highway 30 toward Beaman and home. Sally told me Stewart moved to Waterville near where she and her young family were living at the time. He was 27.
He settled in at La Canne’s Trailer court near Cedar Lake. He made friends with the neighbors and was a likable guy. People asked him on occasion to watch after their kids, like neighbors do. He didn’t have any particular job that Sally remembers. He was just making ends meet with little jobs, she guessed, here and there.
Not long after he moved to Waterville Sally began to have concerns about Stewart’s behavior. Sally’s son was still in diapers, and Stewart started changing them too often and lingering on the task a little too long.
“He (Stewart) would change my son’s diapers and then just a little bit later, he was changing them again and I knew my son couldn’t possibly need to be changed again that soon,” Sally recalls. It concerned her enough that she didn’t let Stewart do it anymore.
She said someone in the community told her that Stewart had started babysitting for some little boys. This person also told Sally that there were rumors that Smith was doing things to the boys, sexual things. She didn’t know how bad things were but didn’t care to wait and find out; Sally reported Stewart to the Rice County Sheriff.
On Monday, May 8, 1989, a 13-year old boy, “W.R,” was asked by a police officer if he knew the difference between a “good touch” and a “bad touch,” between “truth” and a “lie.” He indicated he did. When asked if anyone had touched him in a bad way, “W.R.” responded “Stewart Smith.”
W.R. told officers Smith “touched him upon his penis on numerous occasions,” according to a police report.
W.R. was one of several boys listed in Minnesota State Investigator Robert Sletten’s (now deceased) Report. There was D.W., age 7; A.W., age 2; another A.W., age 3; and T.A.S., age 12.
Smith was charged with five counts of “Criminal Sexual Conduct” in the first or second degree. The children’s statements were graphic, specific and sickening. The boys interviewed described Smith touching them, bathing and drying them, fondling them, forcing them to have oral sex. One child said Smith threatened to beat him if he told anyone.
Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree Criminal Sexual Conduct and was sentenced to 82 months in jail with credit for already serving 220 days as he awaited trail in the Rice County Jail. He was released after 18 months in 1991. He was placed on the newly created Minnesota registry as well as the national registry.
After his release in Minnesota, he moved to Florida, where Stewart’s father and stepmother lived. He moved around a bit, living in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Palm Harbor along the Gulf Coast.
Then in October 1994, just north of St. Petersburg in Pasco County, Smith was arrested on a flight-to-avoid first-degree sexual conduct warrant from the State of Minnesota. According to arrest records he was granted release on his own recognizance and the case was discharged three months after arrest. There is no record of Smith reentering the Minnesota court system as a result. Further information from online filings suggest he failed to register – or report his move – to Minnesota officials. His arrest record in Florida in the early 1990s includes a few traffic violations, illegal U-turns and selling tobacco to minors, then nothing for the rest of the decade. Sally said it must have been the late’90s or while Smith was still in Florida when he met and married his then wife. They later had two daughters.
SMITH FACES NEW CHARGES IN IOWA
Stewart and his family returned to Iowa sometime in the early 2000s moving into an apartment across the street from a middle school in Marshalltown. Marshalltown is 18 miles from where I grew up and was the largest town within about 40 or 50 miles – today its population is around 27,000. Marshalltown is where my favorite Grandma lived, where my family went to mass and afterward the mall where my dad would give us all four of us kids pennies to throw into the fountain. Not long after Smith’s return to Iowa her starts amassing minor but numerous offenses like passing bad checks, traffic violations, and being served with collection notices.
In the fall of 2013, Stewart Smith was the focus of a local news investigation. WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, carried the disturbing story under the headline: SCARED PARENTS: Sex Offender Moves Near School. The report came several months after he was charged with trying to entice young children to have sex with him. He pleaded to a lesser charge, was given a 10-year suspended sentence and released. It was the local grapevine, not a sex offender registry, that alerted neighboring parents that Smith was a convicted sex offender.
The interview opens. Smith sits comfortably on a couch in his living room. The reporter asks him, “Are you a pedophile?” Without hesitation Smith responds, “Yes.”
Smith had been charged in 2012 with three counts of child endangerment and enticing a child, and two counts of a crime called child stealing, a lesser charge than kidnapping that involves luring a child away with intent to cause harm, including sexual abuse.
According to court records, Smith had lured underage schoolgirls, one as young as 8, to an undisclosed location on the pretense that he and his wife were concerned about their welfare. According to Tama County officials, Smith tried to get at least one of the girls to sit on his lap.
Smith, said to the interviewer he was only trying to help. “We were helping families in need, my family and I,” he said, adding that he gave friends of his daughter shoes and clothes and let them hang out. Smith didn’t deny trying to take the girls.
“My wife and I believe that the kids were better off with us and we could take better care of them than their parents,” he said.
Smith’s wife was never implicated in any wrongdoing.
The county prosecutor couldn’t prove any inappropriate contact had taken place and Smith hadn’t been read his Miranda rights. The result: Smith’s lawyer obtained a plea deal that included keeping him off the sex offender registry in Iowa.
Then in 2014, my mom sent me a link to another news report about Stewart Smith, which said he had been arrested again.
He had moved back to Florida, where his parents now live, near Tampa. He had been picked up by Florida law enforcement on an Iowa arrest warrant. This time, Smith was charged with multiple sexual abuse counts, including incest, allegedly assaulting his own daughter. Smith’s parents did not respond to requests for an interview.
The Florida authorities were livid that Iowa had let Smith go after the 2013 plea deal.
“He had various instances where he was a part of youth groups, Girl Scouts,” said Cristen Rensel, who was then spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
The arresting officer in Florida, Detective Mark Kolenda, told me that with repeat offenders like Smith authorities worry about new cases of molestation turning up at some point down the road. Kolenda said he couldn’t wait to get Smith “out of his state.” As of now, no new victims have come forward.
THE BOY ON THE BUS BEHIND BARS
The Tama County Jail sits behind the stone work courthouse in the town square decorated for Christmas: holiday greetings painted on store windows; wreathes over doorways; and lighted lamppost decorations shaped like snowmen, candles and Santa Claus.
The procedure to visit an inmate in a county jail is incredibly simple — at least in my experience. I handed over my driver’s license to be copied, signed a few papers and was ushered into a room.
I expected it to go much differently, maybe like something out of “Law and Order.” In fact, I wasn’t planning on seeing him at all the day I went to the courthouse. I was just visiting to see if I could collect some papers I had requested.
But it turned out visiting hours were on, and I didn’t know if I would get another chance to see him. When the worker pointed me to a door off the reception area, I opened it and in front of me was Smith. I had to steel myself. I had to remind myself I was a grown woman, not a scared 6-year-old in a gingham dress on a dirty, old, school bus.
I looked at him. He appeared harmless and confused. Who was this woman in front of him? He was 55, bald, hunched over a bit, dressed in prison orange and behind a thick wall of Plexiglas. I sat down across the divided table from him. We picked up our respective phones.
I wrongly assumed the jailer would have written down my name and passed it along, as in “Andrea Kopsa is here to see you.” But that wasn’t the case. After an awkward moment of silence and staring at one another, I simply asked, “Do you know who I am?”
No. He didn’t. He kept looking at me, searching it seemed. Knowing what he had done, his history, the depth of his sickness, I had to steady myself again.
I told him my family name — Kopsa. If anything, he would recognize my last name. In small towns, even if someone doesn’t know you personally, the last name will likely click.
I asked him: You remember, we used to ride the school bus together? Yes, he said, and then he said my name — Andy — and said he remembered me. He held his palm up about 3 feet from the floor and said: “You were about this high the last time I saw you.”
I got down to it. I told him: “I was scared of you back then. Do you know any reason that I would have been scared of you?” No, he shook his head, there was no reason I would have been scared of him, he told me.
I went on to detail the card, me crying, sweating through my clothes, his offer of a Christmas gift and his demand for reciprocation. I could tell by the look on his face all of it was starting to ring a bell. I asked him if he remembered getting chewed out by his stepmom after the phone call my mom made demanding he leave me alone. He said, “Oh, yeah, I think I remember that deal.”
I asked him why he gave me cards, promised me gifts? Because it’s just what he did, he said. It was to be nice. I asked him if he thought it weird that a 16-year-old boy would give a 6-year-old girl cards and ask her to return him a favor? No, it’s just what he did, he said.
I asked him about the current charges he was facing. He sat up from his hunched position and leaned forward as he spoke. He appeared immediately confident, his affect clearly shifted.
He was confident that he would get a plea deal because there wasn’t any merit to the charges, he told me. I asked him what plea deal he thought the county was going to offer him? He laughed. I didn’t understand, he said, it would be his attorney making the deals — not the county. That’s how it worked, he told me.
He was defiant, amused by my ignorance of how the system, in his view, really worked.
I reminded him that he had told a television news reporter flat out that he was a pedophile. Here, he brought me up short. The media took that comment out of context — he was very assertive on this point — pissed-off even. What he really told the media, he said from behind the Plexiglas, was that he was a pedophile — as in, no longer.
He didn’t elaborate, though I asked him what that meant. Instead he launched into a quasi- good-old-days conversation, asking if I had heard one of his sisters died and that another was battling cancer. He said he had survived a bout of cancer and so had his father, Rex.
I asked what he was going to do after he got his plea deal.
He told me there was nothing left for him in Iowa — his wife divorced him, didn’t want anything more to do with him. So he would probably move back to Florida near his parents and take care of them because they were getting old.
I was amazed at how familiar he was with me. How forthcoming he was with his personal version of the truth.
I actually told him “take care” before I hung up the phone. I rubbed the surface of my kindergarten photo stuffed in my coat pocket. Because the jailer on duty couldn’t allow any recording devices or even a pen and paper into the visiting booth, I stopped to talk to a sheriff’s deputy who had listened in to the conversation. I wanted to make sure I had heard Smith correctly because I had been so shaken by the brief conversation.
I told Tama County officials I planned to come back for the trial. They expressed regret that because of the statute of limitations I couldn’t file charges against Smith for trying to “entice” me as a minor. I was told I would be welcome to speak at his sentencing hearing. Authorities were confident they would get a guilty verdict; my story from nearly 40 years ago would help illustrate Smith’s long-standing pattern of pursuing of young children.
But there wasn’t a trial.
After months of pre-trial conferences, depositions, fact-finding and continuances, the case of Stewart Smith was suddenly over.
On March 19, 2015, Smith pleaded guilty — after entering a not-guilty plea — to a Class D felony offense of Solicitation of a Child to Engage in a Sex Act.
This was a surprise. Perhaps because his own daughter had accused him of abuse this time, he decided not to go to trial. In addition to the indeterminate term not to exceed five years, he was fined $750 plus court costs. He has the possibility of parole and is expected to be released in 2019.
It is unlikely Smith will serve more than three to five years of his initial sentence, according to Connie Haughey of the Tama County prosecutor’s office.
In a phone interview with Brent Heeren, the Tama County attorney, I said that I felt like I had dodged a bullet back on the school bus.
“The truth is, you probably did dodge a bullet, but I bet somebody else didn’t,” Heeren said.
“Pedophiles will take gifts to say, 10-, 6-, 7- and 8-year-old girls, and if they get success with one of them, they’re happy.”
When released, Smith once again will be required to be on the sex offender registry, this time for 10 years.
He will file in Iowa and his status, theoretically, will be searchable on the national database.
If Smith moves to a new county after he is released, he is required to register and notify the local sheriff within five days. The same is true if he moves to a new state.
Given his history and the cracks in the current registry systems, if Smith leaves Iowa, the only time we may ever know where he is would be after he is arrested again.
Andy Kopsa is an independent journalist based in New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Nation, Foreign Policy and others. She won a 2012 Society of Professional Journalists Award for Reporting Events of Public Importance and was a fellow in USC Annenberg’s Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion in American Public Life. Follow her on Twitter at @andykopsa
The Investigative Reporting Workshop, a project of American University’s School of Communication, is a nonprofit, professional newsroom. It co-publishes with mainstream media partners and nonprofit newsrooms in-depth stories about government and corporate accountability. It is a member of Institute for Nonprofit News to which IowaWatch also belongs.