It was the particulars that made Diane Ballasiotes' death especially disturbing. She'd left her job at a downtown Seattle advertising agency one evening at 5:30 and just disappeared. The missing-person posters her friends nailed everywhere described her as 5 feet-5 inches, 110 pounds, 29 years old, with curly shoulder-length auburn hair. Last seen, the poster said, leaving the 1st and Yesler area of Pioneer Square, heading toward the 3rd and Yesler U-Park garage, dressed in a navy skirt and tennis sweater. A Park Department employee had found the body a week later, while looking for garbage being dumped in another part of town, along Cheasty Boulevard South.
Diane Ballasiotes' murder alone would not, however, have brought the present upheaval. Even when a group called Friends of Diane began staging rallies and circulating petitions, the state government's response was muted. Then came two more violent sexual assaults, involving circumstances with a familiar ring.
First, in December of 1988, a man broke into the apartment of a 23-year-old Pierce County woman, removed a light bulb and lay in wait in her darkened bedroom. When she returned, he tied her to the bed, raped her and slashed her with a knife. The assailant was Gary Minnix, who'd been charged with four vicious knife-related rapes in 1986 and linked by Seattle police to 22 other such cases. He'd never been convicted though--he'd been found incompetent to stand trial because he was mentally retarded, with an IQ possibly as low as 48. He'd eventually ended up at Western State Hospital, but authorities there had no legal basis to keep him under tight security. He was a "gravely disabled" person, after all, not a convicted criminal. He was on his sixth weekend furlough when he assaulted the Pierce County woman.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 11, 1990 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Sexual predators--A headline in Thursday's editions erred in saying that a new law in Washington state would mean that so-called sexual predators could be kept in jail indefinitely. They would be confined in locked treatment centers.
Then, five months later, in May of 1989, a 7-year-old boy riding his bike near his Tacoma home was dragged into the nearby woods, raped, choked nearly to death and sexually mutilated. Before leaving him semi-conscious in the dirt, Earl K. Shriner cut off the boy's penis. Shriner's history, and his heinous crime, proved the most disturbing of all to people in Washington.
Shriner had a 24-year record of assaults on young people, dating back to an involvement in the killing of a 15-year-old schoolmate when he was 16. Diagnosed at the age of 3 as being mentally retarded, he'd spent his youth in juvenile centers, schools for the disabled and--when he became too violent--a mental institution.
Upon his release in his mid-20s, he'd kidnapped and assaulted two teen-age girls and subsequently had been sentenced to prison for 10 years. Aware of his history, authorities never considered him for parole--he served his full sentence. Faced finally with the prospect of releasing Shriner in May of 1987, corrections officials still balked--they tried to get him committed involuntarily to Western State Hospital. But doctors ruled he didn't meet the legal criteria, because he wasn't mentally ill or, just then, acting in a violently dangerous manner.
That didn't mean he wasn't a likely danger in the future. A psychiatric evaluation at that time said Shriner "has unusual sexually sadistic fantasies and plans to carry them out." This was an accurate enough appraisal, since Shriner had once told a cellmate he wanted a van with cages so he could pick up children and imprison, sexually abuse and kill them. By law, though, Shriner couldn't be confined for an ominous statement or a sinister psychological profile.
At the time, the state could only commit people if they suffered from a distinct, recognized mental disorder making them immediately and substantially dangerous to themselves or others. The state couldn't commit a dangerous person who wasn't mentally ill. The state also couldn't commit a dangerous person if his mental illness wasn't the cause of his dangerousness.
"He had served every day of his sentence," a corrections official explained later. "He served all the time he was supposed to serve."
There are those who now ask bitterly why it took a boy's rape and mutilation before a male-dominated system responded. "It's because the Legislature is male and could relate to it," concluded Helen Harlow, mother of the mutilated Tacoma boy. But it might also have had something to do with the particularly ferocious public outrage aroused by Shriner's assault.
Last July, Friends of Diane and a new group called the Tennis Shoe Brigade marched on the state capitol in Olympia, where they dumped thousands of tennis shoes--a symbol of children's vulnerability, they explained--in Gov. Gardner's outer office. "These are the shoes of a beautiful 18-year-old girl who was murdered last summer," read the unsigned note attached to a pair of white exercise shoes. Holding aloft her son's red high-top sneakers, Helen Harlow said: "He could be anybody's child. He could be anybody's grandchild."