LINCOLN — One would think the last place Keith Smith, even in adulthood, would want to visit is his hometown.
After all, this is the place where — at age 14 — he had been abducted, beaten and raped by a warped pedophile who had a penchant for violence and sexual abuse against children.
On the contrary, Smith indicated he reveled in his return to Lincoln on this October night. Surrounded mostly by close friends during his childhood and teen-age years, Smith explained to his audience the happenings of that horrifying night — March 1, 1974 — and why he kept it a secret for over three decades.
More importantly, he wanted to use his experience — including the crimes against him and how he had come to write a book entitled “Men In My Town” — to educate adults as to how they may help their own children and grandchildren avoid such wrongdoings.
There he stood, in front of old pals such as Lt. Col. Denis Riel, Tim Tapley, Mary Catherine Dalton and Arthur Jacques in a Courtyard Marriott conference room, offering his presentation, called simply “Reasonable Steps We Can Take To Keep Children Safe.”
“You know, I’ve wanted to host a formal event in Lincoln ever since I published ‘Men In My Town’ (in March 2009),” he stated after the program. “Although I moved away in 1982, Lincoln has always been home to me.
“In the past year, I’ve told my story to newspapers and magazines, hosted public readings (of the book) and discussed the ‘Reasonable Steps’ on radio and television programs,” he added. “I wanted to return to Lincoln, to where my secret started, to put an end to my silence; to tell my story to friends, family and fans; and offer hope to others who have shared a similar experience of sexual violence.”
Smith read the first two chapters of his novel, inspired by own facts of his abduction, then discussed rather scary statistics before driving home his five basic steps. They included “Know the facts;” “Be aware of the signs;” “Be aware of what to do;” “Know where to go;” and, finally, “Know what to say.”
Beforehand, though, Smith provided attendees some details behind that hellish crime.
He talked about how he had been “thumbing” home after a hockey coach’s meeting at his barber shop that night, and felt guilty because he knew he shouldn’t have been. Once the assailant picked him up, and the youngster figured out something was seriously wrong, he tried to escape from the front passenger door, but the criminal had rigged the locking mechanism.
Likewise, he maintained he felt shame because he didn’t try hard enough to fight back.
He then explained to the audience that he had discovered via a newspaper article that his assailant had been beaten to death in August 1975, and police never did solve the murder.
“I sincerely believe that he was killed because of what had happened to me,” he noted. “There was a chance he could’ve grabbed another kid. People in the business told me he had been arrested (for similar crimes) a number of times, and I’m concerned he would’ve killed someone to stay out of jail if not for me.
“Why did I break my silence? I couldn’t take the fear, guilt and embarrassment anymore. Two years ago, I hit the wall. I jumped out of bed one night, freaking out. That guilt was killing me, and that guilt came to an end that night. Was I guilty because I hitch-hiked? No! Because I didn’t fight hard enough? No!
“You’ve got to get to a point where you understand the guilt is misplaced — no more,” he continued. “Rape is not a sex crime but a random act of violence. I’ve met hundreds of men, women and children who had been repeatedly attacked for weeks, months and years by people who were supposed to protect them. What happened to me was a random act of sexual violence.
“I’ve talked to a lot of guys, and explained I had a predator with a rigged car driving down Smithfield Avenue, I’m a 14-year-old hockey player with a thumb out to get a ride, so (the situation) is like a huge gorilla against a wounded gazelle.”
The author, now 51 and living in New Jersey with his family, revealed under the “Know the facts” segment that 30 percent of child victims are sexually assaulted by a core family member or relative; and 60 percent by someone known to them.
“That would be a neighbor, coach, teacher, friend of the family or clergy,” he said. “Just under 10 percent are assaulted by strangers, and fewer than one percent are abducted and sexually assaulted by strangers. The odds are 50-50 if a child is abducted or sexually assaulted by such a stranger, and that abduction lasts over three hours, the child will be murdered.”
Smith then forcefully stated the risk to your child isn’t with the stranger at the park, but may very well be with the person you allow to take to them.
He detailed how to “Be aware of the signs” — and that, sometimes, there are none at all. He spoke of the physical signs (bruises, swelling, pain, rashes, cuts and self-mutilation); emotional signs (a happy, healthy child suddenly becomes sullen, sad, depressed, has nightmares, can’t sleep, ponders suicide); and the behavioral (combative, defiant, unusual changes in friends or things they once enjoyed, age-inappropriate sexual behavior or drug/alcohol abuse).
Under the “Be aware of what to do” portion, he indicated parents should minimize the amount of “alone” time your child spends with adults, and demand that adults involved in extracurricular activities, sports, summer camps or educational lessons be subjected to mandatory background checks.
“Don’t leave children in the care of adults with known alcohol or drug problems,” he said. “Understand why a child may not tell — guilt, shame, fear — (and/or) to protect others. Use positive stories in the news as a catalyst for discussion. Tell your child now that you believe in them, they can trust you and you will help them, no matter what.”
As for “Know where to go,” Smith told attendees either to call 1-800-4ACHILD (all information will remain confidential and anonymous), or visit the Web site www.childhelp.org .
And “Know what to say” dealt with the same as No. 3 — “Tell them I believe you, you can trust me and I will help you. If you tell them those things regularly, they won’t keep quiet, and the perpetrator will get arrested.
“I’m speaking out to raise awareness of male sexual assault, to let other boys and men — seven or 70 years old — that they are not alone,” he stated. “I want to help people, help kids, learn the ‘Reasonable Steps …’ My hope is that other victims of sexual abuse, boys or girls, can come to realize that they aren’t responsible for what happened to them.
“Once they truly believe it wasn’t their fault, they may be able to shed the dangerous, misplaced guilt they carry and begin the transition from sexual assault victim to sexual assault survivor.”
After his program, Smith first hugged his brother, Ken, then greeted most of the approximate 30 in the audience the same way.
“I came here because we were best friends,” noted Tapley, who grew up in the Fairlawn section near the Smith homestead. “I remember my sister calling me over a year ago and saying, ‘Did you here about Keith?’ and I said, ‘No.’ She told me he had written a book, and I asked her, ‘On what?’ She said, ‘He was sexually assaulted as a boy.’ I just responded, ‘Get outta here!’
“I never knew,” he continued. “Nobody spent more time with Keith than I did. When I found out, I called him in New Jersey, and we had an emotional conversation. I asked him ‘How did I not know this? We were together in high school all the time.’ He told me had been ashamed and embarrassed, and felt guilty.
“During his presentation, I could see the emotion in him. For him to do this here, it had to be hard for him, but I could also tell by his body language that he was retracing his steps that night. It showed me he’s at peace now.”
“There’s no doubt that that discussing my story with the press, media and during public speaking engagements this has helped me heal,” he offered. “But the real healing was achieved when I started to sincerely believe. I’m not responsible for what happened to me.
“When I was able to shed the guilt, shame, embarrassment and fear — by truly believing it wasn’t my fault — I was able to make the transition … But it’s not about my personal healing. It’s about using my personal experience, and my story, to help others.”