SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–One morning in 1988, on a mostly deserted street in Fullerton, Calif., 14-year-old Kelly St. John was walking to summer school when she saw a man who gave her a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Despite her best instincts, she kept walking towards him. He approached her and forced her into his station wagon.
Terrified, she asked where he was taking her. “To the hills,” he replied.
In those deserted San Bernardino hills, he made her take off her clothes.
He raped her.
Then, miraculously, he placed her pile of clothes in the dirt next to her, allowed her to fetch her schoolbooks out of his car and drove away. She memorized the license plate, then took a pen and paper from her schoolbooks and wrote it down.
By the next day, a 27-year-old methamphetamine addict named Raymond Barthlett was arrested. He pled guilty to kidnapping and other charges and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. There was no trial.
St. John went on with her life, finishing high school and attending Scripps College in Southern California. Then, in 1995, her parents got a call from the Orange County district attorney’s office informing them that Barthlett’s DNA was linked to a strikingly similar crime: the rape and murder of another 14-year-old girl from Orange County named Wendy Osborn, who was killed a year before St. John’s abduction and rape.
Like St. John, Wendy was kidnapped while walking to school and taken to those same hills. But DNA evidence to Wendy’s murder sat on a shelf for eight years before it was finally tested against St. John’s rape kit.
“I felt like a living ghost,” St. John recalls in her documentary “Forever Fourteen,” which won an Emmy Award last month for outstanding informational programming.
In the film, which she made for her thesis project while a student at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, St. John tells the heartbreaking story of Wendy’s murder and of her own survival. Never sensationalistic, she quietly interviews Wendy’s parents and her own family while exploring the themes of loss, luck, and violence against girls and women.
“I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to tell everybody about this,’ ” St. John says. “It was the exact opposite. But this is the story I felt that I needed to tell.”
Filmmaker Avoids Sensationalism and Exploitation
It’s the story of two 14-year-old girls, one who grew up and one who did not.
“It’s a beautifully conceived and executed film,” says Deborah Hoffmann, documentary film professor at UC Berkeley and St. John’s former instructor, whose own film about her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s was nominated for an Oscar.
“When Wendy’s father starts to cry, you know if it were Court TV or a show like that, they would zoom right in on the tears, going for the sensationalism,” Hoffmann says. “But the restraint and respect she shows is amazing.”
Today, at age 28, St. John is a general assignment reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. She always loved writing and storytelling, so journalism was a natural path for her. She says that it’s not surprising that her ordeal has had an impact on her stories.
“It shapes the way I approach people,” she says. “I tend to err on the side of caution. If someone doesn’t want to talk to me, I respect that. As reporters, we don’t need to harass people to death.”
This past summer, St. John covered the abduction and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion in San Diego for the Chronicle, but didn’t have much time to reflect on her own past.
“There’s a detachment you have while being a journalist,” she says. “I was so busy covering the story, I didn’t have time to think about my own experiences.”
That detachment helped her to speak to her own parents about her rape. In the film, her mother occasionally forgets that it is her own daughter interviewing her, saying “Kelly” instead of “you,” and then correcting herself. Through this forum of interviewer and subject, St. John was able to learn her parents’ intimate thoughts and feelings about her ordeal and ask the questions she may have not been able to ask otherwise.
Through her journalism, St. John hopes to tap into those intimate moments without exploiting her subjects. While she was a senior at Scripps College in Southern California, she agreed to be interviewed for a Sunday feature in The Orange County Register about her rape and Wendy’s murder. The reporter’s approach clearly had an impact on her.
“I really respected that reporter,” she says. “Rather than pushing for an immediate story that day, he waited until I was ready, and ultimately he got a better story.”
Whether working in print or through film, St. John hopes to continue covering social issues while getting beyond that sensationalism and dramatization that permeates so much of the media today.
“I’m attracted to stories that have emotional resonance,” she says, citing a recent story she wrote about a heroin-addicted baby and how his death affected the hospital nurses who cared for him.
“There are still social ills that haven’t been resolved,” she adds. “I’m interested in putting a human face on them.”
Rebecca Vesely is West Coast bureau chief for Women’s Enews.
For more information:
Rape Abuse and Incest National Network: