No Punishment Can Fit This Crime: Jury Debating Fate of Seattle Lesbian’s Accused Rapist and Killer

teresa butz (photograph by kurtis affton)

Very early on the morning of July 19, 2009, Teresa Butz and her longtime partner had their home invaded by a stranger who spent two hours raping and torturing them. Her partner was stabbed to the point of being in critical condition in an attempt to murder her, and Butz was killed. Today, as we speak, a jury in Seattle is debating the fate of Isaiah Kalebu, the man Butz’s partner has identified as the rapist and murderer.

Honestly, to say any more about what happened to her feels wrong, especially given how openly and courageously she’s already shared it herself. If you would like to know more, you can read this honest and openhearted piece about “the bravest woman in Seattle” (which we included in a recent Also.Also.Also).

If you would not like to know more – which would be understandable as, speaking personally, this is one of the most horrific things I have ever heard of a person experiencing – you can just know that the attack was at least two hours long total, and that Butz and her partner were assaulted alternately, in the same room, in front of each other. They had gone to a fitting for a commitment ceremony dress that very day. They had made plans that night over dinner to save money to start a business together. They had spoken to Butz’s mother on the phone, confirmed that she would be coming to the ceremony despite her religious reservations about her daughter’s partner. This week, almost exactly two years later, Butz’s mother sat in the courtoom and listened to her daughter’s partner describe the murder of her child.

Honestly, there isn’t much to say because when these things happen, and by “these things” I mean those consequences of the worst parts of individual or collective humanity being visited upon the innocent, we write about them to make sense of them. To create a narrative forward and backwards, fill in the background and speculate about the future in order to try to find a place where that event fits, try to find a reason from the past why this came to be and try to find a reason in the future that will justify it having happened. In this case, there is no hope of achieving either of those things. The story of what was done to Teresa Butz and her partner is the human definition of senseless.

On Wednesday, asked by lawyers if he was at the home of Teresa Butz, Kalebu responded, “I was there and I was told by my God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to attack my enemies, and I did so.” Prior to his testimony, Kalebu had been so disruptive during the three-week trial that he was eventually barred from attending it and ordered to watch the proceedings from a closed-circuit television in a confined room. Prior antics included trying to strangle himself with a towel and swallowing a pencil.

In order to enable his testimony, Kalebu was restrained — he was wheeled into court with white mitts covering his hands and positioned so jury members couldn’t see the restraints. He was also given a wristband via which guards could administer electric shock if he tried to escape or hurt himself.

Kalebu told the court that he had been diagnosed with mental illness. The prosecutor objected, the jury was asked to leave the room and when they returned, the judge instructed the jury to ignore his answer.

Depending on who you ask, the fact that Butz and her partner were two women in a relationship with each other is either incidental or not. There are some voices in both the media and the individual commentary on those media pieces who will claim that it’s not significant – that noting that Butz and her partner were lesbians is an attempt to add lurid detail to a case that’s already plenty lurid, and that what matters here is what was done to them, not their sex lives. It’s an instinct that seems to come from a good place; wanting everyone to be treated just like everyone else, even or especially in situations like these. No one has ever written a headline that I know of saying “Straight Couple Attacked By Home Invader.”

But there are ways in which identity does seem to have a part in this story, both the story of what happened that night and the far-reaching story of its aftermath. To the extent that Kalebu has so far given any defense or explanation for (what seem to be based on the evidence, but are not yet confirmed by a verdict to be) his actions, he said to his lawyers: “I was there and I was told by my God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to attack my enemies, and I did so.”

Others have hypothesized that he may have stalked the couple for some time before the attack, and their obvious love for each other may have motivated him on some level, or at least motivated some of the specifics of the attack. The Stranger’s Aaron Bagley writes:

Maybe he… saw their love for each other, noticed it in silhouette or on a sidewalk, a love that was exploding that summer, making them inseparable, a love that had grown into plans for a commitment ceremony that fall. Maybe he realized he could turn that love against them, mercilessly, use it to control them in their own home, each subdued by the threat that he would kill the other.

There’s also a social significance that’s bigger than Butz and her partner, or this case. The fact that they were able to plan a commitment ceremony is one kind of benchmark of how far we’ve come, and the fact that Butz’s mother, despite her ambivalence, had agreed to come to the ceremony out of love is another. We’ve fought for decades, for centuries for the right to be able to love each other openly. But there’s a flip side to that, which is less heartwarming to think about but just as important: this story is a marker of how far we’ve come in being able to grieve each other openly. It’s one more right that the rest of the world doesn’t have to think about, especially not at the lowest point in their lives, but we do.

There’s Nikki Araguz, who was deprived of the right to legally call herself a widow when a Texas court invalidated her marriage to her late husband because of her trans status.

Janice Langbehn and her children weren’t allowed to enter the hospital room where Lisa Pond, her partner and mother of her children, died slowly.

Nothing will ever, ever, in any possible way make the assault and murder on July 19, 2009 okay. But if there is any possibility of finding small instances of grace in unimaginable tragedy, maybe it is that an entire courtroom of people, mostly straight, was absolutely devastated by hearing Butz’s partner describe on the stand the experience of trying to find a neighbor to help the love of her life, who was dying on their front lawn. The moral triumph, however paltry, of the recognition that grief and love are inseparable, and honoring one means honoring the other.

The horror of what happened… made the court reporter’s eyes well up, made the bailiff cry, had the whole room in tears. The jury handed around a box of tissues. The prosecutor took long pauses to collect himself. The family and friends in the courtroom cried (though, truth be told, they had been crying throughout). The Seattle Times reporter seated next to me cried. I cried. The camerawoman who was shooting video for all the television stations in town cried—and later on hugged Butz’s partner as she left the courtroom for the midmorning break.

Maybe none of that makes sense. Maybe it’s all in our own heads, a desperate scrambling to find a foothold of meaning in an event designed to rob Butz and her partner and those of us who care about their wellbeing, by proxy, of any sense of meaning at all. But that doesn’t make the detail of their relationship, or any other detail of the lives of Teresa Butz and her partner, meaningless. They were in love. They watched a musical that night, it made them cry. Teresa Butz ordered a bourbon and water with dinner. These are the things that make a life, that allow us to define a person by how they lived rather than how they died. To ignore them, and to choose to assign the last two hours of Teresa Butz’s life primacy instead, is also a kind of robbery of meaning. Those last two hours happened and can never be undone, but before that were millions more hours of the deep and indescribable joy of sharing everyday ordinary life, and those were real too, and in that time they loved each other, they loved each other.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 744 articles for us.

43 Comments

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    This is absolutely horrific… My heart goes out to Butz’s partner, and both of their family and friends. Whether or not Kalebu is mentally ill, I can’t say. Either way, it is a supremely disturbing crime.

    Also, I wanted to thank AS for putting trigger warnings on these types of articles. I haven’t ever seen another publication do so, and I appreciate it a lot.

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    I cry all the time, mostly because of the medication I’m on and the fact that I listen to a lot of NPR and awhile ago there was that little girl that sang that one “Home” song on Ellen with her dad and I sobbed at that.

    But I cry at this every time I read it, and this is exceptionally well-written coverage of it, not a copy-pasted blurb from the Associated Press.

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    Yes, words fail me. Horrifying, and no: no punishment can fit this crime. I ended up reading “The Bravest Woman in Seattle”. I didn’t know I was capable of feeling such cold anger. I want to know why this madman had already been released from custody several times before.

    My heart goes out to Teresa Butz’ partner, friends, and family.

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    I read the full report on this when you guys posted it last week. I was in shock. After reading it I was speechless and so heart broken for these two women. I have thought about it many times since I first read it and I still cannot believe a human being is capable of bestowing such horror on another. But I very much appreciate the ending of todays article. Pointing out that yes the last two hours of her life was horrific but that should not be what is dwelled upon and remembered most is something I needed to take away from this story. Wether it is a brutal murder like this or a natural passing of a loved one, we have to focus on the big picture and every moment they had to live life on this earth. Thank you for that.

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      At first I thought I didn’t have any words, either. But I want to thank Rachel for writing this in her words and Autostraddle for existing because when I read about it I want to do so on a site like this. So thank you again, Rachel, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in that courtroom and my heart goes out to you, too.

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        thank you! i feel like i should clarify that i actually wasn’t in the courtroom, and have had no direct contact with anyone involved in this story – it was put together from a variety of sources that were. but thank you for your thoughts, both for me and for Teresa’s loved ones. i wasn’t in the courtroom but i did cry alone at my desk, so.

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    This has absolutely rocked me to the core. I haven’t been able to shake this all morning. I feel angered, disgusted, horrified, scared, shocked, and frankly just so fucking sad.

    I can not even begin to fathom the pain and trauma Butz’ partner, family and friends will have to live with for the rest of their lives. It’s just. I’d like to believe that fundamentally human nature is kind and pure, and that it’s a mixture of circumstance, upbringing, society, experience etc. that place individuals in situations where they are capable of inflicting pain and suffering onto others. But I don’t even know anymore. Anyway you cut it, it’s just plain tragic.

    Thank you for your words Rachel.. you are so right about creating a narrative to try make sense of what happened, even if it may seem fruitless, inconsequential… and I know it’s not worth much, but I hope hope hope that Butz’ partner continues her incredible show of strength and hopefully, one day finds peace. Because one thing about human beings: sometimes incredibly awful awful awful things do happen to people – it’s sadly almost a given – BUT often by our very nature, we are also incredibly resilient to suffering, and over history we have shown the ability to endure so much.

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    thank you, rachel, for writing about this, and my heart goes out to butz and her family.

    about a year ago, brandi carlile created this organization called Fight The Fear (www [dot] fightthefearcampaign [dot] com) that provides self-defense lessons free of charge to people who need it, free of charge. it’s in commemoration of teresa butz and her partner. it’s awesome, so.

    thank you.

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    to think that someone could do that to me and liz makes me never want to kiss her in public again. the whole f*cking block knows we’re a couple, the whole f*cking block includes homophobes,born agains, muslims, catholics, blacks, puerto ricans, whites: everyone. anyone. anyone could just up and decide to fuck up an entire life and how do you even deal with that?

    god. help. us. and if god can’t do it then we just need to fucking help each other.

    thank you rachel for sharing this. god damn.

    this is some shit you see in a scary movie like the strangers with liv tyler and think: nah that’s just a movie, we’ll be ok.

    and then, it’s not and then you’re sitting in your crib looking at your woman like “holy fuck, lord please, don’t let this happen to us.”

    my heart and soul go out to this woman and her family and family through love, if there’s anything we can do to help, please let us know.
    if there’s anywhere to donate or send flowers or letters, please let us know.

    may we all be safe tonight.

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    I second all the compliments to Rachel, and echo the sentiments about trigger warnings, and just being able to read about something like this on a site like AS. It’s not all just about the witty sarcasm and entertainment. You ladies are amazing. Thank you.

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    First off; this article is perfectly written and captures exactly what should be taken out of this, so thank you.
    I live in Seattle and this attack affected me in more ways than I can even say. It has stuck with me and I am glad that it is sticking with others. I feel that by being affected by this, we are in some small way taking some of the pain from Butz’s partner. If we all hold a tiny piece of it, maybe she will feel a little less alone.

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    this is an awful, awful thing that has taken place. and i have no words beyond that.

    i have read ‘reaction’ pieces to many awful events, but of all of those that i have read this is the best by far. thank you for saying what you said, for the way you said it, and for recognizing that it needed to be said.

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    This is just totally shattering to read.

    I just want there to be so much love in the world. Its like you look at Teresa’s face and its like fuck you can see the love in her face and you love her too and I cry for her and for Nikki Araguz and Janice Langbehn and everyone. I don’t understand people and how love can be offensive or possibly hurtful to anyone else, I’m not even involving them, I’d even love them too, I just want everything to be better. People are so crazy and there’s tragedy and I just want to hug everyone.

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    “… and by “these things” I mean those consequences of the worst parts of individual or collective humanity being visited upon the innocent….”

    Whenever I read or hear about “these things” happening, I have to shut a part of myself off, as though I’m watching an episode of “Law and Order: SVU” or something, because if I don’t, I literally feel as though my chest would collapse under the pressure of my heart imploding. That reminds me of an Andrea Gibson Poem – “A doctor once told me I feel too much, I said, ‘So does God, that’s why you can see the Grand Canyon from the Moon.” Anyway, I digress. All the shades of humanity that you have painted in this gut-wrenchingly real story leave me utterly speechless. The reasons, emotions (for want of a better term), and consequences of this single event create enough reflection to last a lifetime. Thank you.

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    “Those last two hours happened and can never be undone, but before that were millions more hours of the deep and indescribable joy of sharing everyday ordinary life, and those were real too, and in that time they loved each other, they loved each other.”

    Thank you for this. It was beautiful. What a horrible tragedy.

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    I…I can’t even process how horribly tragic this is so I decided to just cry at my desk at work and look quite pathetic in the process. Beautifully written, Rachel. Thank you. We need to know these stories.

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    I didn’t sleep for three nights after I read the original article that you quote here. I can’t stop picturing what happened and what could happen to my girlfriend and I. I didn’t cry while reading the original article but I teared up at this one and I just wanted to say thank you for writing about it because somehow it helped me process it more and I feel like you are sharing my burden and it’s just important to me. Thanks Rachel.

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    Rachel, you are a very good writer. After reading the origial story a while ago I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I almost wished I hadn’t read about it, it disturbed and scared me so much. Nothing can make this okay, but your writing was comforting to read. I wish I could do something to help Butz’s family and partner, I can’t imagine what they must be feeling.

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    I just don’t even know what to say. Thank goodness Rachel is so eloquent and thoughtful at a time when I’m completely incapable of doing that myself. Someone needs to say something meaningful about such horrific events and I’m just glad Autostraddle exists to publish it.

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