By Tanuja Jagernauth, Strange Heart Beating dramaturg
If one of your loved ones disappeared today, are you confident that investigators would take their disappearance seriously? If they were murdered, are you confident that their body would be found, honored, and their killer brought to justice? What would justice look like to you and your family?
These are questions that none of us want to ask, but we are invited to with Kristin Idaszak’s play, Strange Heart Beating.
In Chicago, we do not have access to specific data about the number of children that go missing each year and how many cases are cleared.
What we do have access to is the 2017 murder clearance rate. (The clearance rates for Chicago in 2018 and 2019 are not available on the Chicago Police Department’s website, unfortunately.)
The national clearance rate for murder in 2017, according to the FBI, was 61.6%.
Think of ten people you know and love.
In Chicago, based on this clearance rate for 2017, if they all went missing only two of their cases would be cleared. Maybe.
Strange Heart Beating focuses on the investigation of Teeny, a sheriff whose power is systematically undermined. The play is in part inspired by the Jacob Wetterling case. Jacob went missing as a young boy in Central Minnesota. His case wasn’t closed for nearly 30 years. Madeleine Baran explores the failures of that investigation in her true crime podcast In the Dark. She points out that a clearance rate does not represent solved cases. It just means that an individual has been identified as the offender and punished in some form or another.
The process of solving cases of missing children is most often under the auspices of the sheriff, who runs the investigation. In general, across the country, sheriffs are elected every few years. Outside of that, they answer to no one. That’s right. No one. How well do you know your sheriff? If you haven’t met ours, let’s get you acquainted.
Thomas J. Dart is the Sheriff of Cook County. Unlike Teeny in Strange Heart Beating, Dart brings to his role of Sheriff experience as a prosecutor, an appointed Illinois state senator, state representative elect, and chief of staff to Cook County Sheriff, Michael F. Sheahan. Having declined the offer to run for Chicago mayor, Dart opted to run for Cook County Sheriff, an office he has held since 2014.
We would have loved to share with you some statistics on missing and murdered children in Cook County; alas, the only first and only annual report that the Cook County Sheriff has made available online is a two-page PDF that reports on the weight of collected drugs in 2017.
As Baran reports, “The way our country handles law enforcement with complete local control and no oversight means that you could live in a place that hasn’t solved a single crime in 50 years, and nothing would happen. Your sheriff’s office could have a zero percent clearance rate, and no one from the government would step in and say, ‘That’s unacceptable. Here’s what has to happen’ or even just ask the question, ‘What’s going on down there?’”
Baran’s views on what all this means are pretty bleak:
“If you or someone in your family is murdered you just have to hope the place where you live has a law enforcement agency with a good track record of solving crime, and if your case is never solved nothing will happen. No one will come in and take over the investigation, and eventually your name will be forgotten.”
In Strange Heart Beating, nobody asks questions when the people disappearing are outside of their in-group. It’s only when a young, white girl from town goes missing that the community seeks accountability. The play asks us to consider what might be possible if more of us heeded the advice of Lake, looked beneath the surface, and saw more than what we want to see. It asks: what if we really held those in power and ourselves accountable for the well-being of our entire community? What if we started asking more of the questions we don’t want to ask and demanding real answers to them?
It has been an honor to work with the Cloudgate team on bringing this story to the stage. I truly hope you’ll join us for this play, which is not just a beautiful and haunting piece of theatre, but a powerful call to inquiry.
Baran, Madeleine. In the Dark. Episode 8 “What’s Going On Down There?” American Public Media. https://www.apmreports.org/story/2016/10/18/in-the-dark-8
2017 Annual Report. Chicago Police Department. https://home.chicagopolice.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Chicago-Police-Department-Annual-Report-2017.pdf
2017 Crime in the United States, National Data. Federal Bureau of Investigation. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2017/crime-in-the-u.s.-2017/topic-pages/clearance-browse-by/national-data