When Eli Sanders sat in court listening to the testimony of a rape victim, he didn't know if the material would result in anything beyond a blog post. He certainly did not expect it would lead to a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
But "The Bravest Woman in Seattle," his June 14, 2011, story for The Stranger, an alternative Seattle newsweekly, indeed was awarded a Pulitzer last week. It is a chilling yet beautiful and vivid feature that tells the narrative of Jennifer Hopper's rape and her partner, Teresa Butz's, rape and murder, entirely through the lens of Hopper's testimony.
Hopper, 39, now calls Sanders a close friend. When she received his thrilling text message informing her that the piece had won a Pulitzer, she was, well, thrilled.
"I feel like we went through the process together, and it was an incredibly difficult, painful thing," Hopper says. Sanders "has seen the darkness of that night and almost expressed it through my eyes. It can't be taken lightly – he is a wonderful person."
It was his telling of her tale that inspired Hopper to emerge from anonymity. Shortly after The Stranger published "The Bravest Woman in Seattle," Hopper, who wasn't named in the story, wrote her own article about her ordeal (under her own byline) for the publication.
Before hearing Hopper's testimony, Sanders, 34, did not know he would write the emotionally driven feature that came to be, but her words and the courtroom mood allowed for no alternative.
Eli Sanders (Credit: Kelly O)
"I thought the goal was to convey the horror of what [Hopper and Butz] experienced and the bravery of what she told in the courtroom," Sanders says. "I didn't need to give every word she spoke or every single detail of what happened that night."
And without actually writing all of them, Sanders was able to artfully communicate Hopper's words and feelings. He writes in the piece, "The jury handed around a box of tissues. The prosecutor took long pauses to collect himself. The family and friends in the courtroom cried (though, truth be told, they had been crying throughout). The Seattle Times reporter seated next to me cried. I cried."
The tears spread past the courtroom. In her letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board on behalf of Sanders' article, Hopper wrote, "I remember reading the finished piece and crying the whole time. Not just because it was an honest portrayal of an intensely emotional couple of days, but because he was willing to say what no one else would. He was willing to say what actually happened that night."
In the early morning hours of July 19, 2009, Hopper and Butz awoke in their home in Seattle's South Park neighborhood to discover a man, naked, standing over them with a knife. He would rape them countless times, promising it was not his intent to hurt either one of them, that the women would be safe if they cooperated.
He lied. Soon, he would try to kill both of them with his knife. After a struggle and many wounds – many non-physical – only Hopper would survive.
Though the attacker, Isaiah Kalebu, fled before authorities arrived, DNA samples linked him to the bloody scene in South Park. On July 1, 2011, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Prior to his Pulizter-winning feature on the episode, Sanders wrote about the attack in two other pieces. In a July 2009 article, just days after the attack took place, Sanders wrote about the event to highlight the changing world of South Park. In September of that year, he profiled Kalebu.
The two articles caught Hopper's attention. She wanted to meet the reporter who she felt had captured her story in a way others had not – honestly and compassionately. In late 2009, she contacted Sanders and met him for a long coffee date.
While she was careful about with whom she spoke, Hopper says she could feel Sanders was trying to tell her story without sensationalizing it. But she felt she should not speak on the record due to Kalebu's upcoming trial.
The two did not talk again until after the trial, about a year and a half later. They didn't speak at the trial itself, but shared moments of comforting mutual recognition through eye contact.
After Hopper testified about the attack, which Sanders noted in his piece "probably lasted around 90 minutes, but took close to six hours over two days to retell in court," he took a a long weekend to write the 5,200-word story that would garner exponentially more words in emotional reaction from readers.
Sanders never formally interviewed Hopper. He based his piece on what she had said in court. That, he says, was "enough."
"There are a 1,000 ways you could have done that story wrong, and [Sanders] did it right the first time," says Christopher Frizzelle, editor of The Stranger. "I could tell it was a special piece the moment he turned it in."
Since the trial, Hopper and Sanders have met several times to talk about their lives, relationships and Hopper's late partner, just as Hopper says any two friends would. "I couldn't be happier for him," Hopper says.
Two days after Pulitzer day, Sanders may have been drowning in e-mail, but he seemed otherwise unaffected by his new fame. He was stressed and delighted, but attributed neither of these emotions to the award. It was The Stranger's weekly deadline and the Rain City Riot's – Sanders' gay soccer team – big win the night before that were on his mind.
After graduating from Columbia University in 1999 with a degree in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, Sanders moved home to Seattle for an internship at the Seattle Times. In college, he knew he wanted to write. But he says he would not have majored in journalism even if it were an option at Columbia.
"You don't need to go to college to be a journalist," Sanders says. "The basics – telling the truth, telling stories, conducting interviews, the fundamentals – are things you can pick up. A wider understanding of the world is not something you can pick up."
Thanks to a three-year, entry-level stint at the Seattle Times, stringing for The Boston Globe, freelancing for The Stranger (before acquiring his current position as associate editor), reporting for the Seattle bureau of the New York Times, being a bike messenger, a delivery person and valet car parker, Sanders has certainly had a well-rounded life education. Now, he remains comfortable and happy at The Stranger.
"How many places would cut a writer lose to disappear into a courtroom for weeks to maybe write about a trial, but maybe not?" Sanders asks. "It's a rare and wonderful and weird place. I feel lucky to have been able to do this."
For the first time since 2007, when the LA Weekly won, the Pulitzer Prize Board recognized an alternative newsweekly, one that uses "the f-word every two paragraphs," Frizzelle says.
"It's a really good day for journalism when a story like this can get such a reaction," Frizzelle says. "Eli has shown you can get humanity out of [crime reporting] and get the important aspects of reporting. We are just elated."