It was nearly 20 years ago when The New York Times Magazine riled the waters of suburbia with a cover story. “The Devil in Long Island” was writer Ron Rosenbaum’s review of the seemingly large amount of crime and strange doings in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. That’s home to a collection of bedroom communities with 2.6 million residents stretching eastward for 100 miles from New York City along the continental U.S.’s largest island. Published on August 22, 1993, the much-commented-upon 9,000-word article distressed local leaders who, among other things, thought it would hurt economic development by unfairly stigmatizing the area.
Now that I am New To Seattle, I think I have found the Pacific Northwest equivalent of the diabolic suburban inferno Rosenbaum described. It is the lesser populated Pierce County, immediately to the south of King County, home of Seattle. Like Long Island, the 800,000-person jurisdiction, dominated by the looming, haunting, snow-capped presence of Mount Rainier–a volcano that some day could erupt again–is often in the news for terrible reasons.
It was from the Pierce County military installation of Joint Base Lewis-McChord that Army Sgt. Robert Bales was deployed to Afghanistan. Last month, authorities charge, Bales murdered 17 civilians, including children and women, in Kandahar. Two years earlier, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes called Lewis-McChord “the most troubled base in the military.”
It was in the Pierce County town of Graham that Josh Powell, suspected of foul play in the 2009 Utah disappearance of his wife, Susan Powell, blew up a home in February, killing himself and their two young sons. Authorities suspect Josh’s father, Steven, who lived in the Pierce County town of of Pulyallup and is now under arrest on voyeurism and child pornography charges, knows something about Susan’s disappearance.
It was in the Pierce County town of Parkland in 2009 that four police officers from neighboring Lakewood were shot dead in a coffee shop by Maurice Clemmons, a habitual criminal who had been facing new charges and was out on bail. Two days later, police in Seattle killed Clemmons. (More recently, a former Lakewood policeman pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $150,000 from a fund set up for the slain cops).
And that’s just multiple-murder stuff. Single-victim cases are pretty numbing, too.
A Mount Rainier National Park ranger killed at a roadblock by a fugitive. A Tacoma woman who murdered her two-year-old son after hearing voices. A man advertising a ring for sale on Craigslist killed by a home-invasion gang. A videotaped torture and murder case. A landlord killed by her tenant. A friend who used her SUV to run over a friend in a dispute over gas money (and left the scene).
Then there are near-misses.
A nurse accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill her estranged husband. Another Lewis-McChord military man arrested on charges of threatening to kill (1) his estranged wife, (2) his girlfriend and (3) his commanding officer.
Finally, there’s just the truly strange.
A bigamist outed when his undivorced first wife learned on Facebook about his second wife. The theft of Miss Washington’s crown from a parked car. Anti-tank weapons (apparently not from Lewis-McChord) found in a house. A guilty plea in a pollution case. Capture of a loose wallaby. A lake closed due to toxic algae. The sinking of the Pierce County sheriff’s only patrol boat. Two sheriff’s deputies convicted of perjury.
It’s gotten so bad that at the county courthouse in Tacoma, authorities are arranging for a specially trained yellow Labrador retriever to be on duty so stressed-out people can pet her and chill out.
Tacoma, which like Seattle hugs Puget Sound, is the county seat, and with 200,000 residents, the county’s largest town. Tacoma called itself the City of Destiny in advance of the 1883 arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway, linking its ocean-going ports with Chicago. But City of Disaster seemed more like it in light of the spectacular 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, then the world-third longest suspension span, just four months after its opening. By that time, Tacoma and Pierce County and had lost their regional dominance to Seattle and King County.
These days, while still a major port, Tacoma is known outside the Puget Sound region mainly because its name is on a major airport. But it’s located miles away in King County. By light rail you can get to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from Seattle, but not from Tacoma or anywhere in Pierce County.
The crescent-shaped Pierce County is named for one-term (1853-1857) U.S. President Franklin Pierce, who, thanks to alcoholism and bad decisions, routinely is ranked among the country’s worst-ever leaders. Clearly, the devil is a time-traveler who lurks in a lot of places.