until last week, orange park, florida was another nondescript town on the fringes of a large american city, rife with ordinary civic troubles such as petty theft, squabbling neighbors, and in-state college football rivalries. on monday, however, orange park, like so many cities before it, was thrust into the spotlight when its collective innocence was lost.
i have been regularly visiting orange park for over a year now. it is my girlfriend's hometown, and the place in which she has lived her entire life. the town is a patchwork of neighborhoods, strip malls, canals, creeks, and railroad tracks: a portrait of slow, bible belt life where the southern pines fade to wetland cypress and the boggy banks of the st johns. an official estimate places the population at 9000, although the town proper is home to roughly twice that amount. to the north you will find jacksonville naval air station, an austere arm of military resourcefulness that spawns dozens of drab gray planes wheeling maneuvers in weekend skies. to the southwest lie camp blanding, the headquarters of the florida national guard. orange park is a town of sports bars, honkey tonks, movie theaters, sushi joints, skate shops, ink jet cartridge refill places, and a cemetery that, come tomorrow, will inter someone whose name the world should never have known.
somer thompson was just another child, and perhaps that is what is so troubling about her death. in the sickening media blitz that follows the wake of unspeakable tragedies, much of the details of human life are lost in the coloring of an untimely death. in writeups found in the array of media blocs, you will be told of the investigators' disturbing uncovering of a single, tragic leg in a mass of garbage, or that candles left in the lawn had metaphorically burned out as sick-hearted longing turned to abject grief. these tragic renderings raise nancy grace's eyebrows and lower the voices of local news anchors, but what's lost in the scrum is a community's daft attempt to find meaning in the pall of an event that it cannot truly understand.
coming into town, knowing of the crime that had been committed days before, it was difficult not to scan the white message boards that line the roads to advertise for commercial establishments. most were standard faire, advertising bacon burgers, bail bonds, or 'moved to 324 blanding'. but the first sign that followed the inevitable trend was perhaps the most heart-rending; it read 'in memorey of somer thompson'. there were cheery banners publicizing a fundraiser for the family. there were small cardboard signs punched into the ground for a gun show on saturday and sunday (its attendance no doubt bolstered by this weeks events), a class for nra concealed weapon permits, and churches suggesting that somer be prayed for, as well as 'all of our children'. the strangest sign lie on one of the main roads, which read, 'if you have a secret, keep it'.
yet orange park is not necessarily as innocent as it seemed. just two nights before somer thompson was taken, two young men were stabbed to death in front of a bar in that town. no one seems to have seen anything. weeks earlier, at a sports bar in town, an eccentric local woman spoke to my girlfriend and i as we ate, claiming to know, with clairvoyant powers, where the murder weapon was located with regards to an unsolved murder committed last year against one of her friend's children. every town has its secrets, of course. but should they be kept, as the odd sign suggests?
people in this town (and many others) have been upset by the murder of a young child, but seem to know nothing of names of the endless victims of black on black crime in jacksonville, or the names of other children lost across this country to crimes of a similar nature. that stuff just wasn't real. the idea of leaving the garage door open or letting the children go down to the corner store for sodas has become frightening and unthinkable. everyone seems to remember a time when no one ever murdered one another, stole anything, or crept about in the shadows.
up the road a half hour is the town of starke, home to florida's state penitentiary, and its death row. 'monsters' such as aileen wuornos, ted bundy, mark dean schwab, and danny rolling have all met their end within its walls. and only a half hour south is the town of satsuma, where another missing child has sparked countless hours of vigils, manhunts, speculation and drama... that being the case of young haleigh cummings, a girl left with her father's girlfriend as he went to work... a woman who miserably failed a lie detector test, yet can in no way be definitively linked to the disappearance. haleigh continues to be listed as a missing person. all of this still contrasts with the circus that has become the caylee anthony murder case, just two hours south in Orlando, and the murder of jessica lunsford across the state, the latter being chillingly similar in scenario to the current crime.
what is it about north central florida that garners national attention for these cases? is there some disgusting prevalence of child abuse and murder in this area? this doesn't seem to be the case; children are missing and exploited around the country, and every state has offices to assist in the search and recovery of kidnapped or lost children. is the difference the acute hysteria and public outrage of a region that has seen these cases before, yet has not become jaded or indifferent to their occurrence?
media outlets reported that there were over a hundred registered sex offenders within a five mile radius of the thompson household. in a town that claims to have 9000 residents, that is a shockingly large number. the lunsford case sparked the passage of new laws that claim that a sex offender cannot live within three miles of a school, and the 1991 murder of junny rios-martinez in cocoa, florida, also rewrote legislation making it more difficult for sex offenders to receive early releases from prison (mark dean schwab was executed last year for that crime), yet hundreds of sexual predators still live in our communities. last year a detective knocked on my door in rockledge, as he was handing out fliers that informed the community that a sex offender had moved in around the corner. there are websites and iphone apps that allow you to track the locations of sexual predators in your community. but has all this done anything to protect the children?
unfortunately, i, like the rest of society, have more questions than answers. the american fascination with murder and other violent crimes becomes clear after quickly perusing the tv guide... csi, ncis, cold case, law and order, and a myriad of other spinoffs and knockoffs run nearly constantly; whether it be to reinforce the belief that the police are after these scumbags or entertain our violence-thrill bone is up in the air. do these shows also teach predators how to get away with their crimes? does it give them the satisfaction of knowing that they will become notorious or live a more interesting life by becoming involved in crime?
there are endless issues to consider when contemplating why a predator acts. psychologists offer stacks of books regarding their skewed sense of power and control or their troubled upbringings. true crime novels sell millions of copies a year. but i ask the same question again: has this done anything to protect the children? what can be done to protect the children? is it worth thinking that our children are unsafe?
on the way back to tampa from orange park, i always pass by camp blanding. yesterday the troops were out in formation, while a hundred yards away were a formation of men dressed in middle eastern garb. they must have been simulating a battle scenario or terrorism threat. it's all done in the interest of keeping america safe, but what we cannot forget is that america is safe. compared to most places in the world, america is a beautiful and serene place to live. orange park is a safe place to live and raise your children. america cannot afford to let isolated cases of tragedy taint our collective dream of a wonderful place to raise our children. we may never answer the question of whether we can prevent these cases of crime from occurring; the best that we can do is be vigilant and do the best we can to live clean and happy lives. when orange park is done grieving, and when justice is fulfilled (as it typically is), this sensation will return to that community... but how long that will take is simply another unanswered question.