Friday, August 17, 2007

Dyess Not Getting Abuse Victims' Therapy

Below is a story from the August 4th Register on the lack of victim's counseling Tracey gets. As one of the "clergy" mentioned, the only thing I'd change is the headline. To capture the concerns, I'd make it something like "Clergy: Dyess Not Getting Abuse Victims' Therapy."

Clergy: Dyess lacks mental therapy
State prison owes sex abuse victim serious counseling, they say


State prison officials have provided no significant mental health therapy to convicted arsonist Tracey Dyess, and have forbidden her from discussing her history of molestation with visitors, according to two clergy members who have become her most staunch advocates.

"I have no sense that there's serious therapy going on in the area in which Tracey especially needs it: as a victim of childhood sexual abuse," the Rev. John Zimmerman wrote in a letter to Iowa Gov. Chet Culver. "To me, this is an outrage."

Zimmerman said his impression is that prison officials prefer docile inmates, so they don't want Dyess to work on issues that could be upsetting.

The spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections, Fred Scaletta, said: "All I can tell you is we are addressing her needs. All of them."

Scaletta said he couldn't elaborate except to say Dyess has access to all the prison resources. "Things are not going to happen overnight with the trauma she's been through," he said.

Dyess, 20, seems to be deteriorating, said the Rev. Val Peter, former director of Girls and Boys Town of Nebraska, who specializes in working with abused teenagers.

"When you look at her - I've been at this business of taking care of children for a long time - her face, you can see it's changing. There's a kind of a sadness," said Peter, who has visited Dyess since she was first jailed in spring 2005 for setting a fire that killed two of her siblings.

"I'm no psychiatrist, but it's a low-grade depression, a kind of a lessening of hope. Less energy," Peter said. "And that's taking its toll."

When Dyess wrote her victim's impact statement before her stepfather's sentencing in May for sexual exploitation, one of the questions on the worksheet was whether she had received counseling as a result of his abuse.

Dyess answered "no," the statement shows.

That's still the case, said Zimmerman, the pastor of Pleasant View Mennonite Church in Mount Pleasant, who visits Dyess regularly.

Scaletta denied a request from The Des Moines Register for an interview with Dyess, saying he didn't want her to say anything that could jeopardize the application for clemency she submitted last fall.

It was Scaletta and the warden of the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility who restricted Dyess from discussing her abuse with visitors and spelled out certain conditions in a letter and phone conversations with Peter and Zimmerman, they said.

"The official reason," Zimmerman wrote Culver in a letter dated May 25, "is so that correctional system counselors can do the counseling, but that counseling has yet to begin and I'm convinced it is unlikely to."

Their focus seems to be on keeping Dyess "calm and manageable," Zimmerman said.

For two weeks last winter, Peter and Zimmerman were banned from meeting with Dyess at all.

And two agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which helped investigate Dyess' stepfather, Brian Street, for taking sexually explicit photos of her as a teen, warned Peter "to stop trying to help her," the priest said.

Zimmerman said that in his experience with abuse victims, giving them opportunities to talk with compassionate people about their past is essential to healing.

Peter wrote Scaletta a letter dated July 16 asking for "good therapy" for Dyess.

"This is my first request so there is no good reason to let the people of Iowa know this has not been Iowa's finest hour," he wrote.

Dyess may talk with visitors only in the presence of a prison guard, Zimmerman said. This restriction was kept in place after she was transferred in January to the Mitchellville Correctional Institute for Women, he said.

After the transfer, Dyess separately told both her mother and Peter by telephone that a number of women at Mitchellville were harassing her.

"I said, 'Is that sexual harassment?' " Peter said. "She said, 'I don't want to talk about it.' "

Dyess later said she reported the women, but then was a target for retaliation.

Zimmerman and Peter are hopeful Culver will grant Dyess clemency. Zimmerman told the governor that it was "a grave disservice" for Dyess' lawyer not to push for her case to be postponed until after her stepfather's trial.

Now that Street's abuse has been proven in court, the pastor wrote, a jury in Dyess' case would likely have found that the fire was an act rooted in self-defense.

Peter is asking corrections officials to drop the visitation restrictions on Dyess, arguing that they are not imposed on other inmates during pastoral visits.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Tracey Dyess

Lest we forget the real human being who today sits in prison, here is Tracey Dyess.

New Appeal for Clemency to Culver

After Brian Street's sentencing this past week, here is a new letter (with a few names removed) sent to Gov. Culver, encouraging him to grant executive clemency to Tracey:

May 25, 2007

Dear Governor Culver,

Greetings from Mt. Pleasant.

I'm writing to you -- for the second time -- to encourage you to grant clemency to Tracey Dyess. Her abusive stepfather, Brian Street, has now been sentenced to 30 years for sexually exploiting her, so there are no outstanding court cases complicating action on the clemency application she submitted last fall.

Yesterday, I attended the sentencing as a supporter and friend of Tracey. She was present, and her victim's impact statement was read. Several things struck me as having a bearing on clemency.

First, Judge Pratt made clear that a significant factor in his choice of the maximum sentence was the court's determination that Brian Street was indeed in a position of authority and trust over Tracey, as her stepfather. That seems to me clear. And it also seems to undercut the decision of the state to have prosecuted Tracey as an adult, even though she was seventeen at the time of the fire. The circumstances that led her to start the fire are inextricably bound to her having been a minor. She was being abused by the head of her household, who systematically isolated her by, among other things, withholding her from school and moving the family often. It was the very fact that she was a minor that put her into a desperate corner. The more the actual situation comes to light, the more it seems to me to have been hasty and inappropriate to charge her as an adult. Perhaps there is some way that decision could be de facto revisited in your decision on clemency.

Secondly, yesterday I witnessed for the first time Brian Street's attempts to manipulate and control both Tracey and the court itself. Even in shackles at his sentencing, he shouted out complaints when others were talking and berated Tracey as a "liar" who didn't "tell the truth" that they were supposedly "in love." It was sickening to watch her have to go through that, given everything else she's had to go through.

I suspect that if Street's trial had been before Tracey's, it would have cast her own situation in a whole different light. It would not have been about her "alleging" abuse. It would have been about abuse proven in court (as Street's has now been) and an abuser whose vicious, demeaning, and controlling behavior all could see. Because Street's daily sexual abuse of Tracey and her siblings is the context of the fire Tracey set in Griswold, it seems to me that her counsel did her a grave disservice by not pushing for Tracey's case to be postponed until Street's case had been completed. I suspect that -- if they had the full situation now proven in court before them and if they watched Street testify -- a jury would likely find the fire to have been an act rooted in self defense.

Shortly before serving as Tracey's counsel, her court-appointed defense counsel had represented Dixie Duty on the charge of murder for killing her abusive husband. The jury convicted her despite the overwhelming evidence of vicious abuse. Gov. Vilsack granted her a partial clemency in December, but at the time Tracey's case was before the court, her attorney seems still to have been stunned by that conviction and therefore advised Tracey to plead guilty, as an adult, to the charges that were only slightly reduced. He told her that juries in that area were likely to convict people who killed (or tried to kill) their domestic abusers. As a teenager who had known only a prison of abuse and then a jail cell, she was totally dependent on the advice of counsel.

Third, at the sentencing, a victim's advocate in the U.S. Attorney's office read Tracey's victim's impact statement aloud in court. One of the questions was if Tracey had received counseling as a result of the abuse. Tracey's answer was "no."

This is true and deeply disturbing to me. The reason she has received no significant counseling is that the state correctional system has provided none and has specifically barred her from discussing her experiences of abuse with visitors, even those who in other contexts do counsel abuse victims. The only two people on her authorized visitation list are myself -- a pastor in Mt. Pleasant, with some experience counseling abuse victims -- and Father Val Peter -- director of Girls and Boys Town of Nebraska, who specializes in working with abused teenagers.

The spokesperson for the correctional system -- in phone conversations and letters -- has specifically said to me and to Father Peter that Tracey is not allowed to discuss with either of us her experiences of abuse when we visit her. Directives to that effect have been issued. Initially, he had even ordered that she not be allowed to talk with either of us at all -- which, since we were the only people on her visitation list, meant she could have no visitors. The official reason is so that correctional system counselors can do the counseling, but that counseling has yet to begin and I'm convinced it is unlikely to.

Tracey's "counselor" of record told me directly in a meeting last December that they didn't want Tracey discussing her abuse because they were afraid it would make Tracey upset and thus a more difficult inmate to manage. This despite no evidence that Tracey is ever difficult to manage -- except as a public relations issue.

In my experience with abuse victims, giving them opportunities to talk with compassionate people about what has happened to them is essential to healing. Tracey went directly from her home -- a prison of daily sexual abuse -- to incarceration by the state, with not a single day of freedom in between, and has received no significant counseling as a victim of abuse that's been proven in court and that was so horrific that the perpetrator received a 30-year sentence. To me, this is an outrage.

If she is released, I will do everything possible to ensure that she gets the long-term counseling she surely needs.

As a side note, even though Tracey and I have completely complied with the prison system's ban on conversations with Tracey about her being abused, they require Tracey to visit with visitors only in the presence of a prison guard. Most other inmates are allowed to sit at tables throughout the visiting room, with guards present in the room but not listening in. The constant presence for Tracey of a guard listening means that she can't speak freely to visitors even regarding things like how the prison is treating her and how she's getting along with people there. This seems to be about the prison system treating her primarily as a public relations problem, with the result that they isolate her from the outside as much as possible in ways disturbingly similar to the techniques of her controlling stepfather.

I realize that the prison system is not equipped to have a sympathetic inmate like Tracey. It isn't the correctional system's fault that she was prosecuted for murder as an adult for trying to put an end to daily sexual abuse when she was 17. And it isn't the correctional system's fault that her court appointed attorney advised her to plead guilty to slightly reduced charges instead of defending her vigorously in court. But the correctional system is a bad place for her. Apparently because they're uncomfortable that she gets sympathetic press stories, they treat her worse even than other inmates.

In my previous letter in January, I shared some of my impressions of Tracey as a person, so I won't repeat those now. I will add what's new in the past four months, though.

On the positive side, Tracey -- despite having been kept out of school by her mother and stepfather -- has now completed her GED. She's a smart and hard working young woman who should be in college now.

On the negative side, my observation is that Tracey is increasingly stressed emotionally from the tumultuous nature of prison life. We had all been hopeful that Governor Vilsack might grant her clemency before he left office, but he chose to leave action on her application to you. Tracey allowed herself to look ahead hopefully to ways she might, upon release, draw upon her horrific experiences to serve other abuse victims. My guess is that the realization that she may well be looking at being imprisoned for her full sentence has depleted her.

Also, she's a sensitive, wounded kid surrounded by some rough and scary people, and she seems much more on her guard and worried than when I first met her last fall. Probably related to that constant anxiety, she's lost a lot of weight, even though she was a slender person to begin with.

She's still a friendly, soft-spoken, sharp-minded, and compassionate person, of course. I was struck that, even in her victim's impact statement, she chose to talk about one day being able to forgive Brian Street and already being able to forgive him for most everything except for what he was doing to the younger kids in the home. She's a compassionate person. In fact, I think it's her compassion which stopped her from just running away or killing herself. That would have meant leaving the younger kids alone in Street's hands. My impression from conversations with her is that that fear was a big part of why she dealt with the overwhelming horror by setting the fire.

I'd also renew my encouragement of you to visit with Tracey yourself! At the moment, she's imprisoned in Mitchellville, right near Des Moines, so access would be easy. I have no doubt that you'll find her sympathetic and willing to talk with you about all aspects of her situation. She'll answer honestly any questions you have for her, I'm sure.

Already in your governorship, I've been impressed that you're a person willing to stick your neck out and do what's right for those who have less power -- advocating such things as discrimination protection for gay and lesbian people and enhanced organizing rights for labor unions.

No one can prevent the abuse that's already happened or bring back Tracey's siblings who died in the fire. The one thing that can be done to bring some justice to the situation is to treat the surviving victim decently. As our governor and as her governor, please do so.

Thank you so much for your time and attention.


John Zimmerman
pastor of Pleasant View Mennonite Church

Abusive Stepfather Sentenced to 30 Years

Here's the Register article on the sentencing:

Brian Street sentenced to 30 years in prison

May 24, 2007

Brian Street has been sentenced to 30 years in prison for sexually exploiting his 17-year-old stepdaughter, who confessed to setting her house on fire to end the abuse.

Street, who recently began a hunger strike, allegedly to attract attention to his contention that he set fire to the family home, not Tracey Dyess, was sentenced this morning in federal court in Des Moines.

He received a 30-year sentence, and a 10-year sentence, which can be served at the same time.

In a telephone interview from the Polk County Jail on Monday, Street told The Des Moines Register that on May 7 he stopped ingesting everything but coffee because he wants a new lawyer and a new trial, and for law enforcement officials to take seriously his confession that it was he, not Dyess, who started the March 2005 fire at the family's home in Griswold.

"If they want to lock me up for the rest of my life, they can lock me up for the fire," he said Monday. "But they are not going to classify me as some sick, pathetic pervert that I'm not. I can't live with that. Tracey's all I care about."

Officials investigating the fire that killed Dyess' sister and brother - Jessica Dyess, 13, and Kaleb Dyess, 6 - say Tracey Dyess confessed to pouring the gasoline and lighting the fire as her family slept. In her confession, Dyess said she wanted to stop Street from molesting her.

Investigators found a pile of nude photographs of Dyess in a locked safe in Street's charred bedroom, exactly where Dyess told investigators they would be.

Dyess was convicted of arson and four other felonies and is serving a 45-year sentence at the state women's prison in Mitchellville.

Father Peter on Tracey

Wednesday, October 11, 2006
The Rev. Val J. Peter On The Tracey Dyess Case

The Rev. Val J. Peter, in an opinion piece in this morning's Des Moines Register:

I challenge your Sept. 27 editorial, "Resist Call to Intervene in Tracey Dyess Case," which recommended that Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack take no action to lessen Dyess' 45-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter.

Dyess was the 17-year-old Griswold girl, sexually abused since age 4, who set fire to her house, resulting in the deaths of her younger brother and sister. She "couldn't take it anymore" and was trying to stop the abuse, she told a social worker.

First, my credentials. For 20 years from 1985 to 2005, I was executive director and now am emeritus executive director of Girls and Boys Town in Omaha, coming to the aid of young people like Dyess who are the road kill of molesters and abusers...

...Consider the mission of Father Edward Flanagan, founder of Boys Town... Flanagan was successful in Billy Meagher's case, a 15-year-old Denver boy charged with the slaying of his father. Pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter, Meagher was paroled to Boys Town on March 6, 1937. Billy had seen his mother's back broken as a result of one of many savage beatings administered by his father.

Flanagan stood before the judge and said: "You and I, your honor, with our many years of experience behind us would have known how to answer that problem had we been confronted with it as Billy was. We would have known the proper sources of law to appeal to. But Billy is only a boy. He took what seemed the only answer to the staggering problem confronting him."

That sounds like the plight of Tracey Dyess.

When you see the governor, tell him the petition for clemency is coming and solicit his support. I am just pleading for, as Father Flanagan did, a young person who deserves a chance at a normal life, which she has never had.

And here are comments from blogger State 29, after citing Peter's letter:

Dyess's sentence is a travesty. This girl should have been allowed an insanity defense. What else can you call her mental condition after years of this kind of abuse? Tracey Dyess probably should have been institutionalized rather than thrown in prison. It's a wonder that this girl hasn't been found hanging from a bedsheet.

Although the Dixie Shanahan Duty case is different in nature, that case, along with the Dyess case, shows that women in Iowa who have been horrifically abused and who eventually cause the deaths of others get disproportionate sentences compared to a rich doctor's wife who stabs him in the heart after he announces plans for a divorce.

Lifetime of Secrets

Part one of the Register features:

Tracey Dyess Part 1: Deadly plot reveals lifetime of secrets
Copyright 2006, Des Moines Register and Tribune Company

January 25, 2007

This piece was first published in September 2006

Griswold, Ia. — The quickest way to get rid of something was to burn it, Tracey Dyess’ stepfather told her more than once.

As her family slept one night in spring 2005, Tracey doused the carpeted floors of their Griswold house with gasoline. Her starting point: just outside her mother and stepfather’s bedroom.

The 17-year-old girl poured gas up to the living room couch where her sister, Jessica, 13, was asleep, according to state investigative reports obtained by The Des Moines Register. She tipped gas down a hallway past her 6-year-old brother Kaleb’s bedroom and up a staircase.

Then she flicked a lighter.

“She said it went up — poof,” said Cass County Sheriff Bill Sage in an interview. “It was chilling how she sat here afterward and described how she did it.”

Eighteen months after the fire a priest is pushing for Gov. Tom Vilsack to commute her 45-year sentence. Tracey has repeatedly said she only meant to kill her stepfather, Brian Street, who is awaiting trial on charges that he sexually exploited Tracey and Jessica. Tracey told investigators she had been molested by other men since age 4 and “couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Life failed Tracey,” the Rev. Val Peter said in an interview. “Not at the end and not at the middle but right at the very beginning, and the punishment does not fit what she did.”

But newly available information also gives insight into why Cass County prosecutors pressed for a long prison term for Tracey, who pleaded guilty in November to five felony charges, including two counts of voluntary manslaughter.

Investigators’ reports from the arson case conclude that Tracey plotted her actions: She made a list of tasks she had to do before setting the fire and wrote letters to out-of-town relatives saying she regretted to inform them that her entire family had died in a fire. The day of the blaze, she calmly interacted with her mother, stepfather, brother and younger sister until they all fell asleep, then she splashed gasoline in front of all the doors.

She did not shout a warning before she climbed out a window to safety.

“The investigators told us she wanted us all to die,” her mother, Debbie Dyess Grothe Street, said in an interview with the Register.

Her paternal grandmother, Frances Dyess, who is the only family member Tracey regularly telephones from prison, said in an interview that the girl was simply scared and traumatized.

“I do know she loved Jessica and Kaleb,” said Frances, who lives in Texas. “I just can’t get it straight that she would do that unless she was trying to rescue them from something horrible. You know, there are worse things than death.”


Those closest to Tracey Dyess were clueless she was upset, according to her mother, Debbie, who now lives in Hastings, Neb., and her stepfather, Brian Street, who was interviewed by telephone and by letter from the Polk County Jail.

After 15 moves in three years, partly to escape police attention after several check-writing scams, the family settled in the tidy, 10-block town of Griswold, Ia., in November 2004. They paid cash to rent a 114-year-old house at 307 Main St.

Townspeople noticed that Brian treated Tracey more like a girlfriend than a daughter. According to Brian, when he and Tracey were out in public, they would “hold hands, laugh, kiss.” When the family picked out a dog, Penny, at a humane society in Omaha in 2005, the staff mistook them for a couple — and figured Debbie was Brian’s mother-in-law, he said.

The stepfather told the Register in an interview that he and Tracey pledged their love and longed to marry each other.

Meanwhile, the teenager wrote poetry laced with pain.

“If these walls could talk, you would know my body is dead, my mind has been taken over, that’s why I’m so scared,” she wrote on an undated piece of paper that’s now part of the investigative reports. “I can’t control it, anger is making me blind, I’ve been left here on my own, chained to a hate of some kind.”

In early March 2005, Tracey went to the annual firefighters’ dance at the Griswold Community Center and sat by herself, silently observing. She politely refused to be drawn into conversation. A couple weeks later, she brought home the movie “Ladder 49,” a drama about firefighters’ valiant attempts to rescue one of their own from a warehouse blaze.

March 30 was a regular day. In the morning, the family ran errands together: to Toys R Us in Council Bluffs; to Kmart in Atlantic, where Tracey charged a $50 PlayStation game for Brian to her credit card; then to a veterinarian in Atlantic for a sick cat the family had rescued.

It was a Wednesday, but the three children were not enrolled in school.

That afternoon Debbie painted her daughter Jessica’s new bedroom. After months of listening to Tracey and Jessica argue over the upstairs front bedroom, the biggest in the house, Debbie and Brian created a bigger bedroom for Jessica by ripping out an upstairs wall. Until the room was painted blue and dolphin wallpaper was hung, Jessica was sleeping downstairs on the couch.

The neighbor kids came over to play with Kaleb and Jessica.

In the master bedroom, Brian and Tracey tested the new PlayStation game, “Cold Fear,” until Brian paused it to watch a rerun of his favorite TV show, “Highway to Heaven.” Then Brian entertained the younger kids by pretending to be a monster, stomping around the house as they chased him.

Debbie would be driving to Hastings the next day, as she did at the end of every month, to pick up government checks direct-deposited at a bank there. Jessica and Kaleb usually went with her; Tracey never wanted to go.

At some point, Tracey “stormed out of the house,” Brian recalled later. “She slammed the door.” He said he didn’t know why. Debbie remembered some small arguments during the day, mainly between Brian and Jessica, who kept telling her stepfather that she wanted to move back to Hastings. Brian responded that it wouldn’t happen.

Tracey rode her bicycle to the self-service BP gas station with two antifreeze containers, she later told investigators. Her Capital One Platinum credit card records show that at 7:26 p.m. she bought 2.085 gallons of gas. She lugged the containers home in a shoulder bag and hid them in the garage.

In the house, her mother smelled gas on her clothing and quizzed her about it. Tracey said she fell into a puddle on Main Street.

According to Debbie and Brian, the neighbor kids wanted to spend the night, but their mother said no — it was a school night.

Jessica flopped on the couch in front of the TV.

Debbie said she gave Kaleb a bath, read him a story, then tucked him into his bed wearing gray sweat pants, a blue sweat shirt and a diaper. The 6-year-old had curbed a bed-wetting problem for a while — Brian said he paid him $1 if he stayed dry and in his own bed instead of crawling into his and Debbie’s — but he was wetting again.

In the master bedroom, Tracey watched TV with Brian until her parents decided to go to sleep, sometime between 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.

Tracey did some Internet shopping, using her credit card to order a shirt for Jessica’s birthday in April, just a few weeks away. Jessica pestered Tracey to get off the computer, so after midnight Tracey let her use it. “I kept telling her to just go to bed because it was late,” Tracey told investigators.


About 1 a.m. on March 31, 2005, when everyone was asleep, Tracey lighted the gasoline. She said she wasn’t thinking about the children at that moment.

Nor was she thinking about the dog, Penny, locked in a kennel in the front hallway, or the five family cats — Patches, Jake, Tigra, Mittens and Princess — for whom she felt a deep affection.

Upstairs, Tracey hid one of the gas containers in her sister’s bedroom closet. She waited five minutes as flames raced through the house, she told investigators. Then she climbed out a window onto a lower roof and dropped the 10 feet to the ground.

The shrill beep, beep, beep of the smoke detector — or maybe the sound of Tracey’s feet on the roof over the master bedroom — awakened Brian. He jolted upright, sloshing the water bed.

“What the hell is that?” Debbie heard him say.

A fierce light shone from the crack under the door.

When he opened the door, it looked like a giant flaming circus hoop had fallen inside the house.

Brian told investigators he found Jessica in the living room, jumping up and down on the couch and screaming. He remembers batting at the flames with a pillow.

Tracey, unseen, was outside the bay window, looking into the living room.

“I knew the pillow Brian had wasn’t going to be big enough,” Tracey told a social worker during one interview four months after the fire. However, during other sessions with investigators and the same social worker, Karla Miller, Tracey denied that she stood outside watching the fire.

Brian said he grabbed Jessica’s hand and told her to jump over the flames.

“I have trouble living with this fact, but I let go of her wrist,” he said, voice heavy with tears, in a telephone interview with the Register. “I thought she was going to follow me out.”

Debbie, wearing only a sweat shirt and underwear, fumbled for her eyeglasses in the master bedroom. She broke the shade getting her window open, and remembers worrying that Brian would be angry about that. She could hear the children’s high-pitched cries of pain and terror.

“Go to a window!” she yelled to them. “You have to go to the window!”
Brian made it out the front door, in stocking feet and sweat pants.

Tracey, he said, was already in the front yard. She was wearing shoes.

“The smoke was yellowish red color and smelled like burnt rubber and burnt wood,” Tracey wrote in a police statement. “You could hear the kids screaming and then it was so quiet.”

Tracey asked Brian if she should wake up the police chief, who lived across the street.

Yes — go, Brian told her.

At the sound of his doorbell, Griswold Police Chief Clarence Waddell rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. The mystery doorbell, as he and his wife, Jan, called it, sometimes chimed for no reason.

Then they heard a girl calling out: “My house is on fire!”

Records show Jan Waddell called 911 at 1:10 a.m. She told the dispatcher she could hear “lots of screaming.”

In the yard of the burning house, Brian kicked open the side door trying to reach Kaleb. Roaring heat from 5-foot-tall flames knocked him back, singeing his eyebrows.

He smashed Kaleb’s bedroom window, and, according to medical records from Cass County Memorial Hospital, sustained second-degree burns on his fingers.

Kaleb was invisible in the smoke that had swallowed his room, but Brian said it sounded as if he was on his mattress, backed as far away as possible from the fire chewing at his bedroom doorway.

Brian told investigators that he called to the 6-year-old: “Come to the window!”

“I can’t!” the boy answered.

The heat was like a blowtorch.

No one heard Kaleb’s voice again.

Brian pounded on a neighbor’s door, in a panic for someone to call 911.

At some point, Tracey asked Debbie: “Where’s Jessie?”

“I said, 'What do you mean, where’s Jessie? She’s not outside?’” Debbie said in an interview with the Register, her words cracking with hysteria at the memory.

She said Tracey broke out a living room window and called Jessica’s name.

But 307 Main St. was an inferno, so hot it was melting the neighbors’ flower pots and bubbling their house paint. Debbie collapsed in the yard, weeping.

A local medic who was driving home along Main Street at 1 a.m. had not noticed smoke. When firefighters arrived at 1:16a.m., holes were burned through to the basement.


For the next hour, Tracey distracted herself by wandering the neighborhood looking for her dog, which Brian had seen galloping out the front door. Tracey’s cries of “Penny! Penny!” unnerved Griswold Fire Chief Jim Wyman, who kept thinking he was hearing one of the victims in the house.

When the flames were mostly out and the smoke vented, Assistant Fire Chief Kent Gade spotted the children’s charred bodies. Kaleb was sprawled on his bedroom floor, inches from his window.

Jessica’s body was in the living room — not on the couch, but sitting upright in an overstuffed chair, Gade said. Maybe she had furniture-hopped, trying to get to her mother. Burns covered 90 percent of her body, according to the autopsy report.

A medic at the scene said that when Debbie and Brian were told the bodies had been found, they became more distraught, but Tracey displayed no emotion.

At the hospital, Brian curled up in a bed with his wife, who was being treated for breathing problems. Tracey tucked into a ball in an empty bed and fell asleep easily, a nurse told investigators.

Brian, who later said he was worried about warrants for his arrest, told all the police and hospital officials his name was Mike Dyess.

After sunrise, as investigators sifted for evidence in the blackened house, Penny the dog limped in the front door — one ear burned off and blind in one eye — and laid down near the melted kennel.

Just after 8 a.m., an accelerant-sniffing dog named Rocket alerted officials to the scent of gasoline two feet from the master bedroom door. Authorities immediately shifted into a criminal investigation and sought a search warrant.

At 10:30 a.m., a state fire investigator asked Brian and Tracey about flammables in the house and garage. Brian said there were only normal household items like WD-40.

“Anything else you can think about that may have caused the fire?” asked Raymond Reynolds of the Bureau of Arson and Explosives, according to a transcript.

“I wish I knew,” Brian said.

Tracey volunteered: “I collect lighters.”

The investigator asked her why. She said it was a hobby.

“This is so weird,” Brian said, referring to the fire.

“I know,” Tracey said. “And we just watched the movie 'Ladder 49.’”
Later that day, Brian tried to go inside 307 Main St., but police barred him from entering. Brian said he had hoped to find the car keys.

When taking a closer look at the living room floor, arson investigators discovered a disturbing pattern to the scorch marks. The deepest burns were along the traffic pattern, but a clear branch went to the couch on which Jessica had been sleeping, according to the fire marshal’s report. The pour mark ended at a deep scorch on the couch. The rest of the couch was not burned to that degree.

At 6:30 p.m., Brian gave parental consent for investigators to question Tracey alone.

Within minutes, she confessed.

“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she told Special Agent Don Shreffler of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

When Shreffler asked what she meant, she said: “Being made to do things I didn’t want to do.”

Sexual abuse? he asked her.

Tracey nodded yes.


Tracey told investigators that Brian’s name was not Mike Dyess, and that there were photographs in a fireproof safe in the master bedroom that proved he was abusing her.

Investigators put Brian and Debbie in separate rooms and told them Tracey said she set the fire because her stepfather had been molesting her for three years.

Debbie broke down in tears. She said Tracey had been abused by two other men.

Brian, however, acted dumbfounded and said his relationship with Tracey was consensual and that he didn’t believe she would ever try to hurt him. “I told them they were full of (crap),” he said.

At 8:30 p.m. in the hospital chapel, Tracey balled up in a chair under two blankets.

Agent Shreffler sat across the room, mainly to keep an eye on her, he said, not to interview her.

But after a few minutes of silence, she opened up to him again. He was puzzled when the teenager smiled at inappropriate times, like when she revealed that she’d last had sex with her stepfather about a week and a half earlier.

Tracey asked what would happen next. Shreffler explained that she was going to be charged with two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of Jessica and Kaleb, with a possible punishment of life in prison. Prosecutors later added charges of arson and two counts of attempted murder for trying to kill her mother and stepfather.

The next day, Brian was charged with sexually abusing Tracey. His fingers were so burned he couldn’t be fingerprinted that day. Federal prosecutors later charged him with six counts related to child pornography and sexual exploitation of both Tracey and Jessica.

Investigators found the charred safe that Tracey had told them about. Inside it were five pairs of women’s underwear, two letters from Tracey to Brian expressing her love for him, and 65 Polaroid photos, some of which showed Tracey nude or semi-nude engaged in various sex acts, according to court documents. At least one clearly showed Brian, court records show.

There were also checkbooks from three checking accounts. In police interviews , Tracey and Debbie said Brian had taught them how to create the false documents needed to open scam accounts, and recommended they burn any evidence. Brian acknowledged to the Register that he wrote “a bunch of bad checks out of my own account.” He was charged four times with check fraud in Nebraska between 1997 and 2003 and convicted once, court documents show.

Investigators never found the originals of Tracey’s list of things to do or the “regret to inform you” letters she wrote relatives, but captured imprints of the letters from blank notebook pages.

Authorities also obtained undated letters from Jessica telling her family she was running away. In a letter to Brian, she told him if he tried to find her, she would “tell the cops that u raped me and it’s the truth.” The Register obtained a photocopy of the letter from the investigative file.

When investigators asked Tracey after the fire if Brian was molesting her sister Jessica, Tracey said she didn’t know. But in a letter she wrote in July 2005 from the Cass County Jail, Tracey said she woke up one night and heard her stepfather “doing things to Jessica.”

Brian Street is adamant that he never molested Jessica — or Tracey, a woman he says he’s in love with.

“I have never forced or threatened anyone into sexual compliance,” he told the Register.

In the remains of Tracey’s bedroom, investigators found anguished poetry she’d written, as well as notebook paper where she had jotted down the lyrics from “Independence Day,” a Martina McBride song about a mother and daughter who are freed from an abusive man by burning down the house.

Tracey copied only the third verse:

“Well she lit up the sky that fourth of July, By the time the firemen came, They just put out some flames, and took down some names, And sent me to the county home, Now I ain’t saying it’s right or wrong, But maybe it’s the only way, Talk about your revolution, It’s Independence Day.”


The relationship between Brian and Tracey was complicated. Several of Tracey’s relatives said it seemed evident she enjoyed his company.
Brian argues that she is not his stepdaughter — his marriage to convicted polygamist Debbie Dyess Grothe Street was never legally valid.

“Yes, I am romantically involved with an underage girl, but I did want to — and still do — marry her and spend the rest of my life with her,” he told the Register. “She was my partner, my equal, my lifeline.”

Brian said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Richards “throws a fit if I tell people that I love Tracey. I’m not going to deny my feelings for Tracey.”

In July 2005 at the Cass County Jail, Brian’s lawyer at the time, Angela Campbell, asked Tracey why she hadn’t waited to set the fire until Debbie and the children left for Hastings.

“If you really wanted to hurt Brian during the fire why didn’t you wait until the next day?” Campbell said.

“Well, I was just so mad that night,” Tracey answered. She didn’t explain.

And when federal agent Shane Nestor asked a similar question, Tracey said her mother always stayed with her second husband, Steve Grothe, when the family visited Hastings. Tracey couldn’t stand Grothe. Nestor asked her if staying with Brian was like the lesser of two evils; Tracey agreed.

The Rev. Val Peter of Girls and Boys Town believes it’s possible Tracey was convinced for a while that Brian truly cared about her, but as soon she suspected he was harming Jessica, her feelings for him evaporated.

Peter told Tracey if he was going to advocate for executive clemency, he had to know the full truth. He asked her: Did you light the fire because you were jealous of Brian’s relationship with Jessica?

Tracey looked at him like he was crazy, he said. She said that was not the case at all.

The priest believes Vilsack should commute Tracey’s sentence, making her eligible for parole within months instead of 16 years.

“Seventeen-year-olds are not mature adults,” Peter said. “It wouldn’t be at all unusual for a 17-year-old to write things down at one point but not carry them out. Adult premeditation is not what Tracey had.”

A few days after the fire, Tracey wrote her mother a letter:

“Mom, I am so sorry for everything that has happened. I am sorry I could not tell you. Things have been so hard for me lately. ... My heart is breaking right now and I don’t know what to do.”

Tracey said she couldn’t explain all that happened with the sexual abuse because she didn’t know how to say it. “Can you tell everyone that I am sorry for everything and tell Brian that I am sorry that I told but I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

As time passed, Tracey reached out to investigators she had grown to trust. In a letter, she wrote that she had a whole lot of stuff to tell, that she’d been told her whole life not to tell, and that she’d always been afraid something would happen to her family if she told.

Now she felt the urge to talk.

The words were inside her, she said, but the words were not nice.

Where Are They Now -- from fall 2006

The Dyess case: An epilogue

January 25, 2007

This piece was first published in September 2006

She has lost her parental rights to her three children, ages 9, 7 and 3.

A juvenile court judge in Shelby County terminated Duty’s parental rights in August. Duty promptly appealed the decision to the Iowa Supreme Court.

After her murder conviction two years ago, Duty wanted the state to place her children with her new husband, Jeff Duty, but in fall 2004 she agreed to stop fighting their placement with her sister Dianne in Texas. Duty is in prison at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women at Mitchellville.

[note: Since the original publication of this article, out-going Iowa governor Tom Vilsack acted on Duty's clemency application by reducing her sentence significantly.]


He is still emotional about the death of Kaleb Dyess, who moved into Grothe’s home in the arms of Debbie Street shortly after his birth.

“I was his Daddy,” said Grothe, who services hottubs in Hastings, Neb.

By age 6, Kaleb lived elsewhere, but Debbie brought him to visit often. Grothe would hide a packet of strawberry Bubblicious somewhere in his clothing.

Kaleb would pounce on him, searching all Grothe’s pockets until, with delight, he’d find his bubblegum.

After the fire, Grothe purchased a double headstone for Kaleb and Jessica and made payments on the $2,200 bill every two weeks for a year.

He bought the locket of ashes Debbie wears around her neck, and paid the $400 to restore a large oval portrait of Jessica salvaged from fire.

Debbie Street thinks he’s trying to assauge the guilt he feels for molesting Tracey — a charge that was filed in Nebraska, but later dismissed with prejudice, meaning Grothe can't be charged again.

Asked if that’s true, Grothe answered: “Yes, I’m ashamed about it, but how can I make amends? I don’t know. (Tracey’s) life has spiraled and there’s been so many accusations and so many lies.”

He said he admitted in 2001 that he had inappropriately touched Tracey, but a couple months later his lawyer told him the sex abuse charges had been dropped.

“I don’t know why,” said Grothe, who has missing teeth, and wears the back of his hair long enough to curl over the collar of his dusty work shirts.

He said he has checked the Nebraska sex offender registry a couple times. He was relieved to see his name is not on it.


Throughout Debbie Street’s marriage to Mike Dyess, his mother, Frances Dyess, dispensed cash and advice, but felt helpless to divert them from what she felt were bad lifestyle choices.

Every time she saw her grandchildren, Frances Dyess said, she stressed manners and the importance of a good reputation. For years, she had no idea where the family was because Debbie switched addresses so often.

Tracey never told her grandmother she and Brian Street were having sex, according to Frances.

After the fire, Tracey cringed at her Grandma Frances hearing about the sex, and told investigators it would “break her heart.”

Frances Dyess wept at the news.

She told Tracey she had failed her granddaughter.

“I said, ‘Didn’t I let you know I loved you enough that you could tell me?’ She said, ‘Grandma, you didn’t let me down. I didn’t know how to tell you.’”

Tracey still hasn’t told Frances all that happened.

“She said, ‘Grandma, at some point I will tell you in person what was on my mind,’” Frances Dyess said. “She didn’t want to write it in a letter or say it on the phone.”

For now, Frances Dyess offers Tracey almost daily encouragement: take care of your blemished complexion, get your GED, plan your future.

Tracey said when she’s released she’s leaving Iowa and Nebraska behind and will go straight to her grandmother in Texas.

“I said, ‘We’re going to go on an adventure, did you know it?’” Frances Dyess said. “‘We’re going to teach you the life skills you never learned.’”


Although investigators remain baffled that Tracey didn’t report the sexual activity with Brian Street instead of lighting the fire, her mother thinks she understands: her daughter had told in the past, but little happened.

“When you’re being abused and you want out, does it matter how you get out?” Debbie Street said.

“Everybody says, ‘How could she kill them?’ You have to understand, the kids are not being mistreated anymore, they’re not starving, they’re not being dragged around the country. She didn’t want to see us get split up. Until Tracey tells me otherwise, that’s what I’ll believe: She wanted to set us free.”

Debbie Street, who was convicted of bigamy and a felony for fraudulent check writing, said the reason she hasn’t tried to contact Tracey at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility is that it would violate the conditions of her probation.

She said she can’t stop analyzing her own actions as a parent.

Each time a new live-in boyfriend entered her life, she filled them in about prior molestation because she wanted them to understand if the children exhibited “inappropriate boundaries,” she said.

There’s no way of knowing whether those details planted seeds for future molestation.

Debbie Street said she feels the glare of public opinion that she was a rotten mom.

“They don’t know what my kids mean to me,” she said as she and her daughter Amy Dyess flipped through photo albums carefully arranged with family snapshots of birthday parties and visits to a pumpkin patch, a cave, swimming pools.

“My kids are my life,” Debbie Street said, then paused. “They were.”

She is trying to do better with Amy, she said.

Amy nestled her head against her mother’s shoulder and blinked back tears.


After the funeral, Amy — Tracey's twin sister, now 19 — returned to Arizona, where she was living in a friend’s trailer in the desert, unemployed and in extreme poverty.

In October 2005, seven months after the fire, she gave birth to twin boys during an emergency C-section.

Jake Dyess was stillborn.

She gave Tyler Dyess up for adoption.

“It was best for him,” said Amy, who has no high school diploma and no job.

About a month ago, her mother drove south and fetched Amy back to Nebraska.


He pleads for a pardon for Tracey, writing letter after letter to Gov. Vilsack, President Bush, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and others.

He hopes it will come through before his Nov. 6 trial, when he said he will have to pick apart Tracey’s statements and use words like “liar.”

Brian Street said he refused U.S. Attorney Richard Richards’ offer of 20 years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. He is determined to go to trial despite stiff penalties if he’s convicted on all six counts, which include sexual exploitation of two underage girls, possession of child pornography and transporting the girls across state lines.

“I’m facing 140 years in a federal prison all because I fell in love with a teenager,” he said in a telephone interview from the Polk County Jail.

Three months after the fire, in July 2005, Diane Street contacted an investigator about a Polaroid photograph her sister-in-law had found of Jessica in a box in the basement of the Griswold house.

Shane Nestor, an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wrote in an report that “the picture is sexual in nature and clearly depicts Jessica Dyess’ genital region.”

Brian Street said his lawyer told him the photo shows Jessica sitting in a computer chair, wearing a tank top and underwear, with her legs spread.

“Jessica was not very lady-like,” he said. “I never touched Jessica in any inappropriate way.”

He was reluctant to talk about the Polaroids of Tracey, but said he didn’t want a judge to look at them during a detention hearing.

“I was like, ‘No! That’s not anybody’s business to see her without any clothes on.’”

Street said he is not allowed to contact Tracey.

“Richards and Nestor call that tampering with a witness,” he said. “But I just want Tracey to know that I am keeping my promise to her when I promised her ‘my full love and devotion and unyielding support of her.’”

He chafes at his lack of control over what he considers an unfair incarceration and has fired two court-appointed lawyers because of disagreements over his defense. His trial has been postponed eight times.