At horning Middle School last week, some girls painted cat whiskers on their faces with liquid eyeliner, in tribute to a fellow sixth-grader who loved cats but who is now recovering from 19 stab wounds that the authorities say were inflicted by two friends who wanted to kill her.
Overnight, this upper-middle-class Milwaukee suburb, where the school plaque promises that “success is a tradition”, has been forced into self-examination about unfathomable violence — brought on, perhaps, by an obsession with a macabre Internet figure. The police chief, Russell Jack, called the attack on the girl, 12, a “wake-up call for parents” and urged them to monitor their children’s use of the Internet, which he said can be “full of dark and wicked things”.
Among these things is Slender Man, a fictional character the two other girls, also 12, cited as the impetus for the attack. They told the authorities that they believed Slender Man was real, that he lived in a mansion in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and that they needed to kill to prove themselves worthy to him. They were charged as adults with attempted murder.
School leaders here are reeling while parents are stunned, some considering new limits on play dates, sleepovers, even church youth group gatherings. Students, already wrestling with the painful social structure that is middle school, seem left with a new wariness about friendship.
“They were super tight, like best friends,” a 13-year-old classmate said of the victim and one of the two girls accused of the attack. “I mean, I’ve always had a hard time with trusting people. Now I’m not sure what to think.”
The three girls at the centre of the case met up on May 30 evening. They went roller-skating, then returned to celebrate the 12th birthday of one with a sleepover at her family’s home in a condominium complex. In the morning, the three got permission from the birthday girl’s mother to go to a nearby park.
Just before 10 am, a bicyclist came upon one of the girls, who was crawling in a wooded area only a few blocks from the condominium complex and tidy park. She was bloodied and barely able to talk. “Please help me,” she said.
Medical authorities found wounds in her chest, abdomen and legs, and the girl almost dead. When a police officer asked the girl who had done this, she said it was her best friend.
More than four hours later, the police found the other two girls walking near a highway. A purse belonging to one of their mothers held a kitchen knife. A backpack was full of clothes, granola bars, water and photos to remember family by, they told police, when they walked to the mansion of Slender Man.
In this community of about 70,000, many parents said they had never heard of Slender Man, but students had. Some described the tales as comparable to ghost stories. “Why do you watch a horror movie?” Josh Lisiak, 18, said. “For the thrill of it.”
In the hours after they were found, the two Waukesha girls provided horrifying details to the police of all that had happened. They had begun planning to kill their friend months earlier, and in February settled on a date in May.
They whispered about the plans, and even devised code words, including “cracker” for knife or killing. They believed they needed to kill someone in order to become a “proxy” to Slender Man and to prove to doubters that he was real.
At first, the girls said, they intended to kill their friend in bed during the sleepover; then they decided to do so in the bathroom at the neighbourhood park. Eventually, they settled on a game of hide and seek in the woods. “People that trust you are very gullible,” the girl whose birthday had been celebrated told the police.
At various points, the two girls tried to calm each other down and offer chilling encouragement, calling out: “Go ballistic, go crazy.” In the end, the police said, one girl told the other, “Now”, and one or both of them stabbed their friend — a moment one of the girls described as “stabby, stab, stab”. The victim, who classmates say was far smaller than the other girls, screamed. “I hate you,” she told the birthday girl, her best friend. “I trusted you.”
Police have talked of a stunning callousness. “It was weird that I didn’t feel remorse,” one told officials. The other girl said: “The bad part of me wanted her to die. The good part of me wanted her to live.”
While four schoolmates described the birthday girl as somewhat “odd” — sometimes drawing spooky figures and appearing aloof — they said the victim and the third girl seemed ordinary, fun-loving and popular. One of the accused girls was in Flight Academy, an independent learning programme in the school. The other accused girl was a soprano in the choir, while the victim was an alto who took French class and volunteered at the local humane society for animals.
By the end of the week, the victim had been discharged from hospital.
While the two accused girls are being held in detention facilities, questions are being raised about whether they should have been treated differently because of their age.
The girls have been charged as adults and their names made public, the district attorney said, because under Wisconsin law all murder and attempted-murder charges must start in adult court if a child is over 10. Brad Schimel, the Waukesha County district attorney, said he would have had to charge the girls with lesser crimes to keep the matter in juvenile court.
“I don’t know what other charges would have fit these circumstances,” he said. Schimel, who has young daughters, said, “I don’t take this lightly at all.”