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February 9, 2012

Disturbing is the first word that came to mind when I read the story of 18-year-old Cole County, Missouri native Alyssa Bustamante’s sentencing this morning. Bustamante was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, the maximum sentence for second-degree murder, for the October 2009 murder of 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten. Bustamante confessed to luring Olten to nearby woods to play where she then stabbed the child in the chest, strangled her into unconsciousness and then sliced her throat. Bustamante left Olten in a leaf-covered shallow grave, a grave she had dug days in advance. The night of the murder Bustamante wrote about the experience and said, “As soon as you get over the `ohmygawd I can’t do this’ feeling, it’s pretty enjoyable. I’m kinda nervous and shaky though right now. Kay, I gotta go to church now…lol.”

Disturbing, right?

Usually when I read about murderers my feelings tend more toward anger and sadness for the victim, but in this case I don’t know that I can really say who the victim is. Certainly 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten, the girl Bustamante murdered, is the victim, but after reading about Bustamante’s life I have to wonder if she’s not a victim, too. Arguing for leniency, her lawyers told of Bustamante’s birth to teenaged, drug-abusing parents, her father’s prison sentence and her mother’s subsequent abandonment which left Bustamante in the legal custody of her grandmother. They also told of Bustamante’s suicide attempt on Labor Day in 2007 and her treatment for depression and the increase in her dosage just two weeks before the murder which, a psychiatrist testifying for the defense said, might have made her more violent and could have contributed to the murder. That theory was rejected by psychiatrists for the prosecution. The defense also cited Bustamante’s recent behavior of cutting herself with her fingernails.

I know I’m supposed to hate Alyssa Bustamante. I’m supposed to be happy she’s going to prison for what might be the rest of her life. I’m supposed to be relieved that she can no longer threaten more 9-year-olds. I’m supposed to see Bustamante as a monster because no one in their right mind plans crimes like this, commits crimes like this, brags about crimes like this and then laughs about crimes like this after.

No one in their right mind.

Say what you want about me, and I know most people who will read this will disagree with me, but as badly as I feel for the Olten family, I can’t help feeling sorry for Alyssa Bustamante as well. She’s not a normal person, but isn’t she still a person? Isn’t she also a victim of her life and her parents? She’s going to have a lot of time to think about her horrible crime and I hope at some point she’s able to get some help somewhere along the way. Not necessarily so she can return to society, but so that she can know some peace.

Bustamante will be sent to a diagnostic prison in Missouri where she’ll be assessed and then she’ll either be moved to one of Missouri’s female prisons or out of state. She’ll be eligible for parole in 35 years and five months.

“all I want in life is a reason for all this pain.” – Alyssa Bustamante via Twitter

File this one under, “It’s a Messed Up World”

21 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2012 12:56 pm

    Thank you for putting into words the confusion I felt when reading that story. The entire case from beginning to end is incredibly disturbing, with no easy answers. As a foster parent, I am honestly surprised by the kids who turn out “normal” after all they have been through.


  2. Bill Dunlap permalink
    February 9, 2012 12:57 pm

    No, you are not wrong, only intelligent. While what Bustemante did was beyond terrible, she was on psychiatric drugs and there are rare side effects like suicidal idealization, or even violence. My father was one of the first to be prescribed prozac, and it made him irritable and violent. You don’t know for sure.

    In a society still dominated by the Protestant Work Ethic, you are a voice of reason. Thank you for that post.


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      February 10, 2012 6:51 pm

      Thank you for reading, Bill, and also for the compliment. It’s the best one I’ve received in a long time!


  3. February 9, 2012 1:03 pm

    I feel bad that she has a bad life – but it doesn’t negate the premeditated murder of a child here. There’s only so long “I had a rough childhood” can be used as a shield for anti-social behaviour. And when it moves to the point that it costs someone else from even the chance of having any kind of childhood – then I believe she needs to suffer the consequences.


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      February 10, 2012 6:49 pm

      Hey Mr. Ford! I agree, her bad life doesn’t negate her crime. She planned it, she did it, she admitted it and it was horrible and she deserves to be punished for it. I just believe that Bustamante is also a victim. A victim of her family and her illness which was severe enough for her to try and take her own life so I hope that while we punish her for her crime we can also keep that in mind and treat her with compassion and not as an animal.


  4. February 9, 2012 2:34 pm

    What a great post. I agree that there are more than one victim in any crime. The only time there is hope of changed thinking in the perpetrator is if they realize the victimization includes the object of their crime and their family, friends and neighbors as well as the perpetrator and their family, friends and neighbors. Even people like me, who read about this particular crime even though far removed physically can have a reaction that changes the way I think about family and community. You can’t read about such a story and look at your own neighbors or maybe your babysitter differently. The hope is that fear will lead to positive action instead of destructive or defensive-only action in as many as possible.


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      February 10, 2012 6:56 pm

      “The hope is that fear will lead to positive action instead of destructive or defensive-only action in as many as possible.”

      I agree. The more I think about the story the more I wonder how much of my behavior might impact other people and my responsibility to try and bring about more positive energy around me.


  5. February 9, 2012 5:42 pm

    You said only one incorrect thing in your post. You said, “I know I’m supposed to hate her.” You are not supposed to hate her. Although some people, even some churches, teach that, Jesus didn’t. Hanging on the cross, he said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

    The girl you wrote about should be treated insofar as we are able to treat her, and she should be kept safe from ever again harming anyone. She is ill, and if we are unable to cure her, she might have to spend the rest of her life in a psychiatric prison. But she should be treated humanely. To do less makes us as ill as she.

    No, I’m not a religious fanatic. I’m not even a very good Christian. But I’ve lived a few years, and I’ve observed some things. Just passing on what I think some of it means.


  6. February 10, 2012 8:52 am

    You need a license to get married , to drive a car, you need a license to catch fish, but any swinging dick can have a kid. My feelings get tied up in a society that is so wrecked by lack of values or morals that this poor child was ever created. This doesn’t start with Alyssa Bustamante it goes back many years I’m sure, I hope she is the end point of this terrible cycle of events.


  7. Marlana permalink
    February 10, 2012 5:24 pm

    Michael, as usual your thoughts are intelligent and fair, and I almost always agree with you. This time, even though I feel somewhat the same, I have to add that as much as Alyssa is a victim herself, it does not excuse murder. There are millions of people who have been brought up in abusive homes who do not commit murder, just as there are thousands of people who grew up in ‘good homes’ who have. We can feel sorry that Alyssa grew up with her own set of problems, but what she has done was either evil-hearted or psychotic. I hadn’t heard the story until now, so I’m not sure if her lawyers took the angle to try and give her an out pleading mental instability, but obviously it they tried, it failed. No, this girl is not a victim if she has taken her own problems to execute a horrific crime. There are people who find strength to overcome their issues, or find God, or whatever can get them through. But murder? No. Because of that, she’s canceled out any pity she would have had from me.


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      February 10, 2012 7:01 pm

      I didn’t read anything about her lawyers trying for a mental illness defense other than when it came to sentencing. Maybe victim is the wrong word, or too strong of a word, but I can’t help seeing Alyssa as a girl whose life took whatever turn it took because of circumstances beyond her control. So, yeah, she’s guilty and belongs in prison, but she’s still a human. I don’t use that thought to justify her crime or excuse her for the crime but just to help me remember that not so much different than everyone else.


    • Bill Dunlap permalink
      February 11, 2012 1:12 am

      Marlana, with all due respect, there is a major fallacy in your argument.


      This is called a false comparison. We are not comparing Alyssa to other people as people do not come out of cookie cutters. Each and every person has separate issues. For instance, you cannot compare David Berkowitz to other people because he suffered from a rare condition called early onset Schizophrenia. The poor kid started hearing the voices when he was nine years old, and he grew up in the 60s and 70s back when they hadn’t the first idea what Schizophrenia even was, much less early onset. While Berkowitz is under control thanks to modern medication, he cannot live unsupervised.

      The sad fact is, despite the magnificent advances psychiatry made in the last 40 years, we are still in the dark ages when it comes to genetic problems in the brain. We still do not know enough about the subject to make a judgement call on this. There is no doubt that the child is dangerous, and like Berkowitz, will have to live under close supervision for the rest of her life. This does not mean that she should be treated without pity or mercy. After all, a society is judged on by how it treats the most miserable of our members.


  8. February 14, 2012 3:38 pm

    Whoa. You are an intelligent, compassionate man – which I already knew – and this story is, as you said, disturbing on every level. The quote you attribute to Bustamante at the end just about blew me away.


  9. March 8, 2012 10:30 am

    This has been a very intelligent and compassionate discussion for what was obviously a horrible, horrible execution.

    Without actually getting into the head of another, we cannot accurately judge that person. Society will judge her actions, and rightly so, but we cannot judge her as a human being because we do not have all the facts.

    Still, it can be hard to reconcile one’s logic with one’s emotions over such an ordeal. My logic says Alyssa got what she deserved. Adding to this—my emotional reaction of what the poor child must have undergone during this heinous crime, let alone her family and friends.

    But the other side of my emotional reaction, my compassion, such as it is, agrees that Alyssa is still a human being, a child of God, and deserves some sort of support. If she had gotten that support and the love she deserved while growing up (well, she never really did grow up, did she?), would she have committed this atrocity?

    I wonder.


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      March 8, 2012 1:50 pm

      Those are tough questions. On the one hand we want to see the person punished, but on the other hand it’s impossible to not recognize they’re human and not so very different from us.


      • Bill Dunlap permalink
        March 8, 2012 1:55 pm

        What possible good will punishing her do? There was a similar case in Japan some years ago. A girl of roughly the same age went after a classmate with a box-cutter, and killed the poor thing. The Japanese authorities jumped into action, took the girl, and put her in a mental institution while the authorities examined her family, her teachers, and her parents with a microscope. The girl’s name was never released,and she has grown to adulthood and rejoined society.

        Because the Japanese were thorough, efficient, followed their legal procedures, and did not allow religious morality to influence their actions, a life was both saved and redeemed.


        • Michael Fishman permalink
          March 9, 2012 6:35 pm

          For me, punishing her does no good. But as a nation it seems that we’re more interested in punishing people than helping/rehabilitating people.


          • Bill Dunlap permalink
            March 9, 2012 10:03 pm

            That was the point that I was trying to make, Michael. It’s one of the problems I’m seeing in the OWS movement. People are so determined to look for somebody to blame and punish, it gets in the way of making positive changes.


            • Michael Fishman permalink
              March 10, 2012 6:16 am

              I agree. I like OWS but it means nothing to point fingers at the 1% and simply create more enemies while making headlines. Solutions are what we need, not enemies.


      • March 8, 2012 8:31 pm

        But for the grace of God go I, right?


        • Michael Fishman permalink
          March 9, 2012 6:36 pm

          Absolutely, Cris! I try and remember those words every day.


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