Last edited: December 08, 2004

Sex-Crime Panic: Could It Happen Today?, January 21, 2002

By Marc Moody

Sex-Crime Panic, the newest book from author Neil Miller, chronicles the true events of the round-up of homosexuals in Sioux City, Iowa, and their institutionalization as sex offenders following the horrific murder of two children who were sexually assaulted and brutally slain in 1955.

The book could as easily have been titled You’re Pinched, the phrase used by many an officer after a successful "sting operation." Also referred to by law enforcement as "fruit picking," officers would solicit men at the local gay bar’s bathrooms and sometimes go home with them. One incident even had an officer having sex with a man he was trying to frame, from start to finish, then pulling out his gun and arresting him. After being arrested an individual would be pressured into giving names of others he had been involved with sexually, creating a gay McCarthy-style witch hunt in the heart of the Midwest.

After 45 years, Neil Miller now opens the records, and wounds, revealing a dark moment in the history of America, penetrating the psychological accouterments of midwestern life that remain with us even today. The book is broken down into neat segments—at least emotionally—for the reader. Sex-Crime Panic details the murders of Jimmy Bremmers, 8, and Donna Sue Davis, a 22-month-old child. Both children were abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered.

From court documents and interviews with people still living in the community, Miller takes us through the events. A drifter named Ernest Triplett is accused of killing the boy. The murderer of Donna Sue Davis was never found. Her death remains an open case. Through Triplett’s arrest and trial, Miller spells out the inconsistencies of a small town arrest of a man who has no means, financially or educationally, to defend himself. Triplett is a simpleton with a propensity for pot smoking, possible sexual interests that go beyond the missionary position and a liking for the entertainer Liberace—Triplett hasn’t a chance.

Yet keep in mind, this does not mean he is not guilty. Miller’s journalistic reporting makes this clear. Triplett’s innocence is questionable. Also brought into question are local law enforcement, local politicians and the judicial system. Triplett would be found guilty, but a judge set aside Triplett’s conviction when the case was retried in the seventies.

Yet there is another story to these events, thus bringing attention to the heart of the tale. A small town in the heartland of America is in pandemonium by these hideous murders. In order to quell public hysteria, the political and law enforcement communities take action by eventually arresting 20 men the authorities never claimed had anything to do with the crimes. Labeled as sexual psychopaths under an Iowa law that lumped homosexuals together with child molesters and murderers, these men would eventually be sent to a mental institution until "cured."

Miller takes us on a journey of discovery. We become acquainted with the men arrested. All names are pseudonyms, with the exception of one. Other names, those of people who were prominent figures in the community and prominently covered in the newspapers at the time, were not changed. Yet even though their names were changed, the window is not closed on the personality and thoughts of the innocent men who were arrested and put through anyone’s worst nightmare.

As the story unfolds, readers are forced to come up with their own conclusion or closure. There is no Hollywood ending. We do not have our hero jumping off the page, fighting for the injustice done to him concerning his budding, sexual preference. However, the book describes two round-ups of homosexual men, one in 1955, the other in 1958. One young man arrested in the second round-up does challenge the court and the injustice done to him. Here, one is given a sense of relief. At least one person is trying.

Yet the probe into this terrible account goes beyond the men, the murders and the corrupt acts committed by individuals of power whose actions were dictated by the times. Many of these men, the community and the city of Sioux City, Iowa, wish to forget about this event. There is no discussion for healing. It’s let bygones be bygones. To this day, most people in Sioux City, even the very small gay community that exists, do not know about this story. Some over the age of 50 can remember the murder of the two children. Yet remembering the round-up of homosexual men who were sent to a mental institution as sexual psychopaths is not remembered.

This in itself is Miller’s dissection, as well as, the area of its dissection—the Midwest.

It is the urban areas of big city life that are dark and demonic. The South, in its failure with civil rights, is a prisoner to its own tunnel vision as it churns out book after book of its own self reflection. Yet the Midwest, by and large, has been spared such probing. Yet here we’re dealing with the time frame of the ‘50s. Also, we’re dealing with homosexuals.

Through the telling of this true story, we’re trying not only to understand the atrocities of such an event, but the makeup of the Midwestern lifestyle itself. There is no blubbering, fat southern sheriff who uses racial slurs. Instead, we’re dealing with a culture that is hard to read. Even the victims themselves, in some way, on some level, felt that maybe they deserved what happened to them. Maybe their behavior was just plain stupid and they had to pay the piper. Also, not only is this a reflection of Midwestern culture, it also reflects the adoptive attitudes of gay men from that generation.

With that said, Miller is kind to Sioux City. He is not judgmental of the area or of its people. If anything, he gives it a certain respect. No one is excused, yet no one is judged, either.

Probably the most disheartening event of Sex-Crime Panic is the event itself, and knowing that it is still so close to home. Round-ups of homosexual men continue today. Maybe not like the 1955 events, but policemen still patrol rest areas, sting operations still exist and if apprehended, there are still many newspapers across the country that will print names and addresses. Hate crimes against gays and the countless sodomy laws that still are on the books in many a state need not be forgotten, as well.

Sex-Crime Panic shows us the important history of gay America, how tragic this event was, and how important it is to know that even today, someone can still be "pinched."

  • Sex-Crime Panic, published by Alyson Books, is being released today, Monday, Jan. 21, 2002.
  • Marc Moody is an independent filmmaker and an Assistant Professor of Film at Morningside College, Sioux City, Iowa.

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