Looking for Mr. Goodrape

Posted: April 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

Renee Brown’s fate was a cautionary tale.

Vanessa Renee Brown and her son circa 1980

The ending of this story is definitive: on Valentine’s Day, 1984 scrap metal scavengers discovered a nude female corpse in a vacant lot in Philadelphia.
Found face-down among the weeds and rubble, Vanessa Renee Brown—Renee to friends and family—had been strangled, stabbed and her throat slashed.
Although she exhibited no evidence of sexual assault she had been mutilated: large chunks of flesh were hacked from her shoulder and two words carved deeply into her back: “GOOD RAPE.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, some background: Renee was twenty-two years old, a single mother of a five-year old son.
A 10th-grade dropout, she received government benefits and lived with her parents three blocks from the lot where her body will later be dumped.
This vacant lot, incidentally or not, held some significance to Renee;
she liked to party—a not-uncommon trait in twenty-two year olds everywhere—and the lot was the site she preferred to be dropped off so her late-night arrivals would not wake her family.

This story begins—or maybe it doesn’t—in the wee hours of the morning on May 12th, 1983, eight months before the murder.
Finding herself short of funds while leaving a Market Street nightclub, Renee exited a licensed taxi and hailed a gypsy cab driven by William Kemp, age thirty.
Instead of driving her to the lot near her home Kemp drove to a shuttered canoe-rental establishment on the Schuylkill river. There, according to Renee, Kemp raped her and fled.

Renee was able to flag down a patrol cruiser a few minutes later; she provided a description of Kemp and his vehicle and officers spotted him shortly thereafter.
He was arrested, charged with rape, and subsequently released on $10K bail.
Agreeing to press charges, Renee identified Kemp in court while testifying at a pre-trial hearing.
Several trial dates were postponed; the proceedings were ultimately rescheduled for March 16th, ten months after the incident.
In a Philadelphia Daily News article Harold Tindal, father of Renee’s son,
describes her attitude towards testifying at the upcoming trial as “nervous” but “determined.”

Renee didn’t live long enough to appear in court; she disappeared on February 28th, two weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin.
She was last seen at a birthday party where partygoers described her as being in high spirits;
as Renee left she informed a friend she was going to meet someone but gave no further information.
Four days later, on March 2nd, her benefits check was cashed;
in the pre-surveillance state, however,
it was unclear who cashed the check and the location of the processing bank has never been publicized.
Ten days later the scrap metal scavengers made their grisly find.

The ultimate disposition of the rape charges against Kemp are unclear. The 1980s were a different time; the media coverage of Renee’s case was an extravaganza of victim-blaming and -shaming about her late-nights and economic status.
Although Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Schiffman vowed to continue Kemp’s rape prosecution—a conviction might be easier to obtain in Renee’s absence,
he told the Philadelphia Daily News, since she was “no pillar of the community”—but there’s no record the case proceeded to trial.
(The 6th Amendment guarantees the right to confront one’s accusers; further prosecution without Renee’s live testimony would have likely raised Constitutional issues.)
Renee’s story swiftly slipped from the headlines.

Oddly, to me at least, investigators were adamant Renee’s murder and the upcoming rape trial were unrelated.
According to several media accounts,
District Attorney Edward Rendall (later governor of Pennsylvania) stated Kemp,
free on bail at the time of the crime, was not a suspect but declined to reveal the means by which Kemp had been eliminated or which other avenues of investigation were being pursued.
“It would’ve been foolish for him [Kemp] to do it and sign his autograph like that, wouldn’t it?” Detective Ernest Gilbert opined in the Philadelphia Daily News,
as if making smart decisions was a violent offender behavioral hallmark.

Renee’s slaying, whether related to her rape or a random act, has never been solved.
Maybe I want to believe her rape and murder are connected because I don’t want to live in a world where a woman could suffer two unrelated attacks in less than a year.
Violence, I like to believe, is doled out sparingly.
Maybe Renee lived a different truth; after all, she lived in a world where an assistant district attorney would bad-mouth a murdered rape victim, mother of a young child.
To me the most horrific aspect of Renee’s death isn’t the “GOOD RAPE” mutilation;
it’s the way she was treated in the press.
A woman was stabbed, strangled and her throat was cut; but the media seemed far more appalled by her late nights and benefits check than her murder.