Girl Interrupted

Every Fourth of July holiday, Gene and Peggy Schmidt adorn the trees, flower beds and lawns of their Leawood street with vivid red, white and blue flags and ribbons. For 20 years they’ve done this annual fusion of patriotic colors that for many marks the celebration of our nation’s independence.

The neighbors love it.

Their daughter Stephanie would too, except that she’s not here to see it.

The Schmidts do this in remembrance of what would have been her 20th birthday if she hadn’t been kidnapped, raped, sodomized and murdered only days before. 

The memories are raw, but the celebration of her life still goes on.

 

A Predator Among Us

The scenario is all too familiar, but most of us know nothing about the sexual predators among us.

In 1993, Stephanie was a vivacious 19-year-old psychology major at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan. Family and friends described her as a loving person with a warm and giving heart. In addition to school, she worked part time at a local restaurant.

At the same time, Don Gideon was a convicted sex offender recently granted early release after serving 10 years of a 20-year sentence for raping and sodomizing a college student in Parsons, Kan. Within a few months of his release, he had raped another young woman, but that crime was not reported. Gideon was working at the same local restaurant.

The two should never have met.

Gideon shouldn’t have been released early from prison. The public should have known he was out there, living near a college campus. A proper employment background check would have revealed that he lied about being a convicted felon.

All Stephanie knew was that Gideon was a 31-year-old dishwasher who had “served time for a bar fight.” He was a loner who was very nice and helpful to everyone during the six months they worked together. She never gave another thought to accepting a ride home from him.

That’s how predators groom their victims – Gain their trust. Lay low. Wait for the right opportunity. Catch them off-guard.

The frightening part is there were numerous red flags after his early release. His family feared him and kicked him out. His repeated aggression toward women. Fighting. He was later described as a walking time bomb.

 

Life Can Change — or Stop — On a Dime

On June 30, the Schmidts had a successful business, money in the bank, a comfortable lifestyle and two beautiful daughters — Stephanie and her 17-year-old sister, Jeni.

For 27 agonizing days they worked with law enforcement, distributed missing flyers, searched remote and rural areas around the campus, hoped and prayed.

After her disappearance appeared on the television program “America’s Most Wanted,” Gideon turned himself in. He confessed to killing Stephanie on July 1 and took authorities to the field where he discarded her body. He is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 99 ½ years.

The day after Stephanie’s funeral, the Schmidts spoke on local radio, wanting to know why this happened.

“We were mad!” Peggy recalls. “Of all people, why Stephanie? She was so cautious. She did everything she should have been doing.”

They later learned that girls ages 14 to 24 are more vulnerable to sexual predators than children, yet public emphasis and laws focus on younger children.

Julie Allison, a psychology and counseling professor at Pittsburg State, who was also Stephanie’s teacher and academic advisor, says it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the small minority of men who commit these crimes (about 9 percent), from those who don’t.

“Their predatory behavior is usually disguised so they are able to be more effective in following through with their crimes,” she says.

For example, women abused by their partners are not abused until some kind of commitment is already in place.

“Before the commitment,” Allison says, “they can be most charming and witty.”

That’s why the awareness of “red flags” is so important.

“Attempts to isolate individuals, excessive alcohol use, disrespectful behavior toward women and not listening to the word ‘no,’ even for seemingly small issues, is also common,” explains Allison. “These red flags can be really hard to recognize and easy to trivialize.”

The Schmidts’ anger and grief thrust them into a life they could never have imagined — an unrelenting crusade for prevention.

Along with Jeni, they organized Speak Out for Stephanie, which later became a nonprofit foundation, about changing laws, attitudes and lives.

The family traveled the country speaking on radio and TV, and before thousands of students, families, law enforcers, legislators and others. They helped create and lead the Stephanie Schmidt Task Force for Victims’ Rights to develop changes in the laws, and through Speak Out for Stephanie implemented local commemorations for National Crime Victims’ Week, as well as other educational programs.

In 1994, their unwavering efforts led to the passing of the Stephanie Schmidt Sexual Predator Act or “Stephanie’s Law.”

The law incorporates five bills developed by the task force: The first state-mandated, public, accessible registry for first-time sex offenders; felony status for falsification of employment records by sex offenders; increased sentencing for repeat offenders; and employer notification of sex offenses.

Unfortunately, the latter failed as a law but became a policy of the Kansas Department of Corrections.

“Prior to this, the state said you had to rape somebody twice before you had to register,” Gene explains. “And the only person that had rights was the criminal. But what are the rights of victims?”

As a result, Kansas became a national pioneer of victims’ rights.

“With the law in place and continued help from Bob Stephan, the attorney general at the time of Stephanie’s death and the developer of victims’ rights in the state about eight years prior, and that of later Attorney General Carla Stovall, we worked for victims and their families to be treated with dignity and to have a voice inside and outside of the courtroom,” says Gene.

Angela Wilson, an assistant district attorney with the Sedgwick County Prosecutor’s Office in Wichita, has worked in law enforcement for well over a decade. She, too, was deeply affected by Stephanie’s murder, as they both worked on the college newspaper at Pittsburg State.

Even today, she clearly remembers the haunting feeling of the search for someone on a missing poster, who this time was not a stranger.

“After we learned Stephanie was dead and that a paroled rapist was charged with her murder, I wrote an opinion column for the newspaper,” Wilson says. The Schmidts read it and called her.

“I was sitting at the desk where Stephanie once sold advertising, talking through my tears to Gene,” Wilson recalls. “I told him that I was going to be a lawyer and a prosecutor, and that I was going to try to prevent what happened to Stephanie from happening again.”

Wilson, who has also worked hard to put, and keep, criminals behind bars, maintains that no matter how much has been done to raise awareness, incarcerate offenders or prevent future violence, there is always more to do.

“Ultimately, if we could have as much effort, time and money in prevention as we have to prosecute sexually violent offenders, I think our society would benefit,” she says.

 

Rehabilitation for Offenders

The most important and controversial part of Stephanie’s Law continues to be the use of civil commitment. After completing their sentence, if it is determined that sex offenders are highly likely to re-offend and pose a danger to the general public, they can be indefinitely committed into a special mental health facility for treatment.

“This policy keeps dangerous predators off the streets but also gets them into a mental health program where they can get proper help if they want it,” Gene explains.

The important distinguishing issue is defining someone as suffering from a mental illness, as opposed to what the Schmidts pushed for with the law, as a “mental abnormality.”

“We felt there needed to be that distinction, because we didn’t want offenders put into an institution where mentally ill people would be at risk,” Gene says. “We wanted a separate facility for those with mental abnormalities that made it highly likely they would re-offend.”

The policy was highly controversial and difficult to get passed. In fact, the Kansas Supreme Court initially overturned it, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it — twice.

The Larned Correctional Facility in Larned, Kan., has a seven-step rehabilitation program for sexually violent predators. The last two steps allow for gradual reintegration into society. To date, 216 sexual offenders have been civilly committed and few have been released.

“We can force them to go into Larned with Stephanie’s Law, but they don’t have to participate,” Gene says. If offenders decline treatment, they are there for life. “But if they do want help, then it’s available.”

Oddly enough, a great deal of the opposition comes from the mental-health community.

“There is a sex-offender treatment program available in prison, so the mental-health advocate attitude is, ‘Why don’t people take care of it in there?’”

Peggy says. “People have to understand that in order to participate, offenders must admit to their crime. But because a very high percentage are on an appeal, admitting their guilt would erase it.”

In Larned, offenders have served their prison sentences, admitted what they’ve done and are taking steps to possible rehabilitation. Despite the challenges, the Schmidts are somewhat sympathetic.

“Releasing a convicted sex offender into the general public is almost unfair to the offender as well,” Gene says. “He is an ex-convict, nobody knows what happened, and he’s put in a situation — without prior mental help — where he is likely to re-offend. In Don Gideon’s case, if he had gotten some help, maybe he wouldn’t have become a serial rapist and murderer.”

 

Changing Laws, Attitudes and Lives

This is really the heart of the Schmidts’ new life work.

A Lifetime Commitment

The Schmidts have been honored with numerous state and national awards in the past 20 years, including:

•  The National Crime Victims’
Service Award (the highest honor for victim advocacy)
•  The Attorney General’s
Distinguished Service Award
•  The Kansas Attorney General’s Crime Victims’ Service Award
•  The FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award
•  The Kansas Woman of
Achievement Award
•  The Significant Sig Award by
Sigma Chi International Fraternity
•  Leawood Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame Award

Two chapters of the bestselling book “Obsession” by John Douglas, a retired legendary profiler for the FBI, and Mark Olshaker, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, speaker and consultant on criminal justice and victims’ rights issues, are devoted to Stephanie’s story and the Schmidt family’s relentless activism.

In the halls of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, former Director Larry Welch implemented a permanent display case for archive materials related to the passing of the Stephanie Schmidt Sexual Predator Act.

“We’ve changed a lot of laws and saved a lot of lives,” says Peggy. “The hardest part is changing attitudes.”

One of the obstacles is the focus on “stranger danger,” which essentially defines a kidnapper or rapist as someone who jumps out from behind the bushes. Gene warns that 95 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

“No one is talking about relatives, close ‘friends,’ personal relationships, co-workers with a past,” he says.

Conversely, only 5 percent of rapes are committed by strangers.

“That’s where self-defense programs sometimes create a false sense of security,” Peggy says. “Once girls take the class, they think, ‘OK, I’m safe. I can take care of myself.’ Those classes are good, but we feel that awareness is the best self-defense.”

The biggest challenge, the Schmidts say, is changing the attitude around parole supervision. For instance, if a felon is released and gets a job or enrolls in school, they are looked at as rehabilitated.

“It’s assumed that if sex offenders don’t have a job, they are going to recommit a crime,” Gene says. “But it doesn’t matter whether they have a job or not.

Crime is not a matter of finance, particularly rape.”

It’s important to note that the Schmidts are not advocating vigilantism.

“We don’t want you to go and burn a registered offender’s house down,” says Gene. “But if your neighbor is an offender who is married and has kids, you don’t want your teenage daughter baby-sitting over there. All we want is for people to have the knowledge. Some people choose to be criminals; being a victim is not a choice.”

“It’s not about being afraid of people, rather being vigilant,” Peggy adds. “You have to know your risks and take precautions.” That’s where the sex offender registry comes in. “It’s a tool that we’ve given everybody to check and see who is on it.”

According to Allison, if something does happen, it’s important that people believe and support victims and their families.

“There is no shame in being a victim,” she says. “With support, victims (who are not killed) can become survivors; they can be strong again and live happy lives. But they shouldn’t have to go through this process alone. It’s going to take all of us to step up and say ‘No more!’”

 

Life Goes On

Life for the Schmidts is very different now. Their business has long since closed. Their life savings are gone. Anger and grief still rise from time to time.

But their resolve to save lives has not diminished.

Information is Key

There are many ways the public can stay informed and protected and help foster change in the criminal justice and mental health systems.

Speak Out for Stephanie

In the early years after her murder, the Schmidts started the Speak Out for Stephanie Foundation, a 501c3 organization designed to raise awareness of sexual predator laws, serve as a grief support network, and provide legislative testimony on the state and national level. Supporters are invited to stay connected on the Speak Out for Stephanie Facebook page at facebook.com/pages/Speak-Out-for-Stephanie/174117435976343.

Kansas Registered Offender Website

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation has established a registered offender website that facilitates public access to information about persons who have been convicted of certain sex, violent and drug offenses at kbi.ks.gov/registeredoffender.
 

Work as legislative watchdogs and grief counseling with victims, their families and law enforcement keep them busy. They’ve also written two books: “Missing Still,” a memorial to Stephanie, and “Skeleton Key Thinking,” about changing outdated mindsets around crime awareness and prevention.
Allison, who had just written her first book about rape, stopped her research for several years after Stephanie’s murder.

“It was simply too much for me, too emotional,” she says. Today, “PSU peer educators and advocates are involved in raising awareness, educating and preventing crimes related to rape and domestic violence. Collaboration is imperative.”

Wilson has witnessed significant changes in prosecuting and sentencing sexually motivated and repeat offenders, and remains committed to preventing future victims.

“There are many of us committed to public service careers, working long hours and taking home much more than a paycheck as an exchange for our time,” she says. “When I think of the Schmidt family, I think of Margaret Mead’s statement: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’”

Many of Stephanie’s friends are in their 40s now. Some are married with children, including Stephanie’s younger sister, Jeni, who is married to Kansas City’s own Jim “Mr. Stinky Feet” Cosgrove and has two young daughters.

Although the Schmidts’ victims’ rights advocacy efforts have lasted a very long, arduous — and successful — 20 years, they would do it all over again.

“Among the blessings are the people we’ve met and the changes we’ve made,” Gene says. “We’ve made history, which was never our mission.”

To that Peggy adds, “We’ve pulled so much strength from our family and friends. Before Stephanie’s murder we had a very private life, and I would never have thought of standing up and giving a speech to an audience of 4,000 people.”

What they miss the most, of course, is Stephanie.

“We feel her in our presence all the time,” Gene says. “I just wish we could see her, talk to her a little more.”

“There is nothing more we can do for her,” Peggy laments. “But we see lots of Stephanies and can do something to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. Because no one is immune.”