No one expressed anger or outrage when 24-year-old Jesse Masengale took his own life in the Champaign County jail on Tuesday, May 24. There were no letters to the editor, no protesters outside the jail, no reminders that there is a history of suicides and negligence there.
Only two people added comments to the online obituary guest book, one from a woman who had met Jesse’s family during jail visitation. There were no guestbook condolences from friends, family, relatives, or any of the many people Jesse had helped over the years.
And, I too hesitated in writing something about a man ― native of Rantoul, young, handsome, polite, socially conscious ― who had confessed to sexually molesting an 8-year-old girl, the daughter of his girlfriend. There can be no doubt about the life-long consequences of such terrible actions.
We’d rather not think about it.
I had known Jesse briefly. He was my neighbor, two houses down. The first day I met him, my wife had recently broken her arm and we needed help moving her office. Jesse and his friends ― and their truck ― were just down the street and when I asked if we could borrow their assisance, they did not hesitate. Strong shoulders moved furniture and file cabinets up and down a steep flight of stairs. They worked politely and eagerly and in half an hour accomplished what would have taken me days to do alone.
Jesse hung himself in the group shower area of the Lierman Avenue jail in east Urbana around 3:30 a.m., apparently using a bedsheet. He left a letter to his family.
Jesse’s attorney, Bob Auler, lamented that the judge handed down such a severe sentence. They had asked for 12 years and received 30. “I have a hard time with deterrence as an aggravating factor,” Auler said.
It would have been easier to sweep the entire tragedy away, out of mind, and I would not be writing this today if the day before Jesse’s funeral, his mother, Carmen McCabe, hadn’t made a profound statement about the way we raise our children.
I asked permission to reprint those comments, and added the emphasis near the end. She wrote:
Jesse has touched many lives in his short time with us. He was very much loved by many and will be missed greatly. Our sorrow is so deep it can not be expressed in words. His sentence was very harsh for someone who had done so much for society.
Something went terribly wrong in his mind and soul and he needed help not to be locked away and forgotten.
Despite recommendations from a psychiatrist, he was not allowed by the state’s attorney to be placed in the only treatment program available in our state to rehabilitate sex offenders.
Despite all the charity work Jesse had done to raise awareness for our communities homeless.
Despite his cooperation with police.
Despite having strong family support, being a high school graduate, remaining employed and all the other good things the judge said about Jesse, he still handed down 30 years.
When we went with Jesse to turn himself in we all knew that he would be spending many years behind bars but we had no idea what was in store for us. Jesse cooperated with police, confessed his crime, and did all he could to prevent any further pain to his victim and family.
Through all this we remained united as a family, we saw Jesse every visitation, and although it was hard we were working through the pain.
Jesse was very remorseful for his actions leading up to his incarceration. Even in his last moments did us a great kindness and wrote a letter to us that eased our pain.
Tomorrow I will see my son for the last time. I will have all my children together for the last time.
I hope that we can learn something from this. When all of society has such a hatred for those who did what Jesse did and our only solution is to lock them away and there are no resources for treatment or prevention then we are doing things very, very wrong.
If we want to deter people from harming our children, as the judge said, then let’s do that with prevention and treatment.
We all tell our children they have the right to feel safe and if they don’t, to tell someone they trust. We don’t tell our children what to do if they have thoughts or urges to harm or hurt. We only teach them hate for those people.
Be there for your children, let them know they have someone to talk to, no matter what.
There is wisdom in her words. But, by and large, for most of us, sometimes until it’s too late, we would just rather not think about it.
Photo by P. Gregory Springer