(Most of my posts are light-hearted. This one is about a threat to a friendly neighborhood, and it is serious.)
Years ago a new couple moved to our neighborhood. Let's call them Brady and Betty, not their real names. Betty was a devout, well-liked member of a local conservative church. She had a brother who struggled with addiction. She came from a close family, and they had done everything they could to help their brother. But they knew they were losing him.
Brady exploited their grief. He used it as an excuse to form a sort of wildcat, no-rules Watch Group. Betty would galvanize church members to take part. Betty's motives were innocent. Her only fault was that she trusted her husband.
Since the peaceful, woodsy neighborhood had always been crime-free and drug-free, the rest of us weren't sure what they would find to watch. We were naively #MidwestNice. Watch Groups were enjoying their Honeymoon period, and it hadn't occurred to anyone yet that a Watcher might have a very nasty personal agenda.
Brady was a frustrated bully who'd never had such a great chance to abuse a bit of power and get away with it. He began having the time of his life. He swaggered around the neighborhood, securing the perimeters. He showed strange interest in following the young. He, a male stranger, offered his personal protection to little teenagers. He said he was "keeping an eye on things." He sure was. He was spotted cropping up on people's lawns in the middle of the night, peering through bathroom and bedroom windows.
Around this time, I and others began taking pictures of Brady's pervy behaviors, which we have kept.
Brady treated the police department's Anonymous Tipster phone line as his personal toy. This was a special feature which allowed him to safely lie about others. He encouraged his buddies and his wife's churchy friends to "report" neighbors who seemed eccentric, or different, or whom they just had never liked. He himself reported women he'd pursued, unknown to his wife, who rejected him.
The police do not like being treated like fools. And they don't forgive.
Since Brady was underemployed and had plenty of time on his hands, he followed women who were jogging or biking. He leered at them and took pictures of them with his camera phone. Did anyone call the cops? Nope. In those days you were supposed to just ignore a creep.
Some of the more troubled people in the area copied him. One man, a psychiatrist, trained his toddler son to shout abuse at longtime residents the psychiatrist couldn't get along with.
A teenage pothead harassed married women. His mother was told, and refused to believe her darling baby boy could ever have done anything naughty. "Good luck provin' it," she sneered, ambling away. She never forgave his victims for daring to speak up.
A person who was infatuated with a police officer fluffed up the #NonCase as an excuse to stay in touch. She also fiddled with malware.
A very ancient, very demented church member, who went to Mass every day, would stand on the sidewalk after this holy hour and shriek obscenities at her "enemies."
Praised by church ladies, hopped up on delusions of power, Mister Felonious Malicious Harassment went further. He urged his followers to follow and berate people who questioned him. He boasted about using a radio scanner, invading email accounts and forging messages, installing tracking devices in cars. He also "helpfully" warned local businesses to be watchful of certain residents he thought must be guilty of something or other.
Slander is a serious crime, a felony. Residents discussed taking legal action against him. Within a week, he and his wife moved away. Brady may have been a malicious nut, but he was smart enough to stay gone. And yet, that was not completely the end of him.
According to his acquaintances, Brady had also been a Peeping Tom who captured, and shared, intimate images of couples in the neighborhood without their knowledge or permission. The dude was allegedly all but hanging off rain gutters with video cameras dangling from his butt.
In the end, Brady was exposed by something he could never have predicted: the rise of the internet. Suddenly, anyone who could read could look up personal histories, and many did. It turned out that the people Brady had targeted had never been in trouble in their lives. Neither had their friends or relatives. Not then, not now, not ever.
Brady, however, and some of his followers, had very interesting histories. And they became more spicy the deeper you searched.
Was Brady ever punished for his crimes? No. He was protected by the times he lived in. He was smart enough to give his actions the "Watch Group" frame. And he exploited weaknesses in the social culture. The Good Old Days did not protect women and girls. Could he get away with the same behavior now? No. Not with a cell phone in every hand and a healthy readiness to call the cops on creeps. The Good New Days are a healthy improvement, in almost every way, on the old. And we have to be content with that.