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‘Catch the Shadow’

Anonymous letters become learning tool, subject of online community forum

Diogenes Ayala, instructor of criminal justice at Southwestern Community College, examines the handwriting on an envelope of a letter sent anonymously to Ben Mullen via the Creston News Advertiser. The letter was received from "The Shadow" in response to a Feb. 5 letter to the editor from Ben Mullen of Creston.
Diogenes Ayala, instructor of criminal justice at Southwestern Community College, examines the handwriting on an envelope of a letter sent anonymously to Ben Mullen via the Creston News Advertiser. The letter was received from "The Shadow" in response to a Feb. 5 letter to the editor from Ben Mullen of Creston.

A growing number of letters written anonymously toward members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community have piqued the interest of some instructors at Southwestern Community College. And this fall, students of the college’s criminal justice program will study the letters as they learn how to develop a criminal profile.

The letters have been received by members of the Creston community for more than a decade and are typically sent to people who either identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community or allies. The letters are typically styled as a collage, featuring a combination of articles and photographs clipped from the the Creston News Advertiser, messages printed on DYMO labels and Bible verses lifted from Leviticus, Corinthians and the Gospel of Matthew. Many are photocopied and sent to multiple people, yet some are personalized for specific members of the community.

“It’s intriguing to me from an academic standpoint, because we research things that are in the past,” said Diogenes Ayala, a criminal justice instructor at SWCC. “There’s a lot of information that can be ascertained about this person. We have a criminal investigation class coming up in the fall and I think it would be good for them to do a little research into how it all started ... how the Shadow started.”

Kelly Marcus, English instructor at SWCC also took an interest in the letters.

“Part of being an English major is I am big into literary analysis. I teach people to study characters ... and in doing so, I can really read people through so many different lenses,” she said.

Ayala and Marcus have studied dozens of the letter from the person, or group, which has become known as “The Shadow,” a moniker the sender started using in the past two years.

Analysis

In 2019, as members of the McKinley Park Aquatics Center sought the support of voters to pass a bond measure for facility improvements, a letter was released by “The Shadow” calling on voters to “HELP STOP LUSTING, FORNICATION AND ADULTERY” at Creston’s community pool and to “VOTE NO MPAC.”

Shortly after the Shadow letter regarding MPAC was released, Karl Franzenburg, an Iowa criminologist, was approached by Aaron Richardson of Creston to use his experience to analyze the letters. Based on a limited number of letters, Franzenburg’s analysis concluded that the writer is likely a man in his 60s or older based on the comic book reference, lack of computer skills and King James style English. He also stated that the writer likely did not continue beyond high school in his formal education.

Franzenburg’s anaysis also concluded:

“He may struggle with sexual sin and temptations, highlighted by the subject of ‘lusting.’ He is not likely to assume any responsibility for his sins and would be willing to place blame far away from himself. ... His religious discipleship is probably limited and may not currently attend a church regularly. His background may be fundamentalist.

“He wants his voice to be heard, but not be identified with it. He may have multiple sins he wishes to hide. ... “

Franzenburg wrote the writer considers himself a victim and would resort, or return to “lusting, fornication and adultery” if the MPAC bond was to pass and the writer’s would blame his return to sin on the voters.

“He may find ways to be around children ... consider same-sex attraction masked by statements of scripture mentioning women. He may be attracted to young boys. He may have experienced abuse by clergy when young. Consider the possibility of a male abuser of young boys,” Franzenburg wrote.

As Ayala and Marcus comb over the letters, they have developed ideas about the sender.

Marcus said she believes “The Shadow” is over the age of 60, possibly in or near their 80s, and could have adopted their pen name based on the 1930s pulp novel criminal-turned-superhero of the same name.

“There is a saying, ‘As you sow evil, so you shall reap evil – Crime does not pay.’ So whoever is writing these letters thinks they are doing good. They are sending these hate letters, but they have an agenda that they think is right. It’s kind of ironic because they are sending hate and reaping hate, really,” she said.

In Ayala’s opinion, the main person behind the letters is an older adult as many clues suggest the writer is not technologically savvy. He said it’s also less typical for younger adults to send mail through the postal service, as most of them conduct their business and bill paying online and use social media.

In some letters, upside down stamps caught the eye of Ayala and Marcus, as the intentional misplacement of stamps was commonly used among those mailing letters to servicemen during the Vietnam war and earlier war eras.

“My grandmother was a postmaster and she told me all about stamps. An upside down stamp can mean ‘I love you’ and so I don’t know if that’s an ironic message. But usually, if you put a stamp on upside down, you notice it and it’s a mistake you don’t make two more times,” Marcus said.

‘Catch The Shadow’

In November 2019, Heather McNichols created a Facebook group called “Catch The Shadow,” where the profile by Franzenburg was shared.

“It just seemed like a lot of different people were getting letters and it was basically kind of a thing where everyone could get together and compare, maybe brainstorm and talk about who they thought this was,” said McNichols.

McNichols received her first letter on July 8, 2015, which she remembered because it was the due date of her son with her former wife.

“It basically said we were sexual deviants and we were going to raise him into being a pervert. I figured it was someone I knew,” McNichols said.

McNichols also received letters with photos clipped from the CNA that featured her son’s first Christmas, and later a photo of him wearing a matching costume with a female classmate.

“We were furious,” McNichols said.

McNichols was not the only person to have received the letters. The letters have also been received by staff at the Creston News Advertiser, staff and administrators at SWCC, law enforcement, and mothers featured in birth announcements that appeared to have birthed a child out of wedlock.

“Whoever it is, I feel like they know these people. I feel like it is a well-known person in town, because they know a lot of these people that are getting these and they know their life style and things that happened in their families. I don’t think it’s some creepy old man doing this in his free time,” said McNichols. “The police don’t seem to care. It just gets swept under the rug. I know it’s not murder or anything, but it’s still harassment.”

Law enforcement

Creston Police Chief Paul Ver Meer said the CPD has turned in nearly a dozen Shadow letters to the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation over the past several years. He said the letters are sent to the DCI for DNA analysis, but nothing definitive has been sent back.

In response to a rumor of the writer’s DNA being determined female, Ver Meer said male DNA had been identified, too.

When asked if he believes it could be one or multiple people based on the letters he has seen, Ver Meer said he didn’t want to speculate.

“Whoever it is has some issues, but they’re doing it because they’re getting rise out of people when they do it. They’re getting some weird pleasure knowing they are upsetting some people by sending ... letters out to them,” said Ver Meer. “People that do things like this have other issues going on with themselves that makes them unwilling or unable to accept others.”

While there is not an active investigation into the letters by law enforcement, Ver Meer said any letter received will continue to be forwarded to the DCI.

Copies of the letters can be directed to Ayala, ayala@swcciowa.edu and originals should be forwarded to the attention of Ver Meer at the Creston Police Department .

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