SPRINGFIELD – The phone call came the other day as I drove to work.
A tired, sad voice said, “Scott there’s going to be another murder trial.”
My shoulders sagged. My 3-year-old daughter fidgeted in the backseat. And my mind was suddenly remembering a night of horror 24 years earlier.
I could still hear my editor’s voice from that day, Sept. 17, 1990.
The radio squawked, and he asked me to check out a small fire near a school playground. I didn’t think much of the assignment. Some kids had probably set some trash on fire. But I was a young reporter on the night cops beat chasing whatever happened – car accidents, thunderstorms and crime.
I pulled up to the school playground – right behind the first police car. Wisps of smoke were rising from the tall grass. I walked with the police officer toward the small fire.
We looked down and saw a child’s body burning. A stench filled my nostrils.
Bad things like this weren’t supposed to happen here – in a school playground in Davenport, Iowa.
I was weak to my knees. Bile worked its way up my throat.
A 10-year-old girl had been doused with accelerant – maybe gasoline.
I didn’t sleep that night. Slumber remained elusive for many weeks to come.
Even today – 24 years later – when I look in the eyes of my three daughters, I’m sometimes reminded of the horror of that night.
My daughters are sometimes afraid of “monsters” under the bed or in the closet or behind the shower curtain.
I reassure them and tell them monsters aren’t real.
But I know different. Someone killed Jennifer Lewis. A monster.
A man was arrested and locked up in the Rock Island County Jail. He got a retrial and was convicted again. And now my friend has told me an Iowa appellate court has given him a third trial.
I can’t speak to the man’s guilt or innocence.
Educated folks aren’t supposed to believe that evil is real.
We talk about mental illness, bad upbringings, poverty, domestic abuse and other factors as reasons people do bad things. That is how I saw the world before I encountered Jennifer Lewis on that playground.
She’d be 34 now.
Would she be a mom? A teacher? A waitress? An astronaut?
We will never know.
Not only was her life taken from us. A piece of our own innocence is gone, too.
Hold your children tight. Love and reassure them. But let Jennifer Lewis’ death be a reminder: Monsters are real.
• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute.