HOW did he manage to get away with it for so long? The people of Antioch, California, will be asking themselves this as details emerge of the horrific alleged crimes of Phillip Garrido that have been unfolding in their midst.
It is the same question still being asked in Amstetten in Austria more than a year after it emerged that Josef Fritzl had raped and incarcerated his daughter and fathered seven children with her, all in the cellar of his home on a busy road in the town centre. And perhaps in Gloucester, where Fred and Rosemary West murdered at least 12 young women at their house in the 1970s and 1980s.
In Garrido’s case, some commentators have attempted to put the community’s lack of suspicion down to a modern sense of alienation from society or, alternatively, to California’s traditional tolerance of unorthodox behaviour. In a culture whose perception is satiated by the excesses of reality television, goes the argument, the reality of one’s own backyard blurs into insignificance.
The phenomenon is not rooted in any one culture: crimes ranging from those of the Wests in the UK to those of the paedophile Marc Dutroux in Belgium and similar cases in Japan, Russia and Brazil testify to that.
What many of these cases have in common is the apparent failure of law enforcement agencies to exercise basic scrutiny. The California police — who are calling Garrido’s pathetic makeshift prison a “compound”, lending it an air of some sort of military precision — claim that the sheds and tents next to the house in a densely populated area were somehow invisible just because they were surrounded by trees and a fence.
Similarly, Austrian police claimed Fritzl’s underground bunker was perfectly concealed when it was not. In Belgium, officers inspecting Dutroux’s house did not investigate further when they heard children’s cries and failed to question the freshly painted plasterwork that concealed his dungeon in an otherwise decrepit basement.
The chilling truth is that the ordeal of Jaycee Lee Dugard and her daughters was a preventable one, as was the suffering of Elisabeth Fritzl at the hands of her father Josef. Or that of another Austrian woman, Natascha Kampusch, who was snatched at the age of 10 and kept in a purpose-built cellar prison for eight years by her captor, Wolfgang Priklopil.
In the Austrian cases the media, and even the authorities, were quick to create a myth of a highly intelligent villain who operated with diabolical precision. A closer look always revealed that the perpetrators were in fact sloppy and predictable, compulsive criminals of limited ability.
Garrido, like Fritzl and Priklopil, managed to get away with his crimes for many years not because of any sophistication or superior intelligence, but simply by sticking to his brazen lies long enough for people to avert their gaze from what should have been plain. How else can anyone explain the failure to question a known sex offender who was seen playing with two young girls in his front garden?
The perpetrators had something else in common — a belief in their own lies.
In a rambling interview from his cell last week, Garrido told the world how raping and impregnating a 14-year-old had “turned his life around” and how in fact there was a “powerful, heart-warming story” behind his actions. Fritzl similarly claimed that he was acting in his daughter’s best interests. There is little reason to doubt that both men believed firmly in their versions of reality.
Another feature of these cases is the apparent resignation of the victims to their fate. Why didn’t they try to escape?
The truth is that by combining violence with affection, albeit of a twisted variety, the abusers were easily able to break the will of their child victims, sucking them into their version of reality. Indeed, in some sense the victims are the only ones apart from their tormentors who have an interest in hiding the truth from society.
That is why Jaycee Lee Dugard told her family that she felt “really guilty” for bonding with her captor. Like Kampusch, who never reached for help despite frequent outings, she too was forced into a dormant existence and after a time knew no other life.
Some commentators have referred erroneously to Stockholm syndrome, whereby hostages bond with their captors. But science has yet to come up with a description of what happens to a child growing up or spending decades in the hands of a sexual predator.
The Crimes of Josef Fritzl: Uncovering the Truth, by Stefanie Marsh and Bojan Pancevski is published by HarperCollins
If you want to see real evil, one of the most hellish places for me, is 161 Elgin Street Ottawa.
For real devils, try sitting in on the Dishonourable Justice Allan Sheffield, Denis Power or the real madam of hell, Madam Justice Feldman of the court of Appeal of Ontario. These judges have a next to pathological hatred of men and it begs the question of how they can continue to leave a trail of criminal destruction.