The horror in Hammond didn’t have to happen

Last week, police discovered the bodies of three teen-aged boys encased in concrete in the Hammond, Ind., basement of David Maust. He has been charged with one count of murder so far.

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn correctly notes that Maust “had no business being free given his criminal history. And the fact that he was is an outrage that should prompt a thorough round of soul searching about the priorities and practices of our criminal and military justice systems.”

Maust had previously been convicted twice of killing teen-aged boys. In 1974, Maust, then serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, tied a teen-aged boy to a tree and beat him with a wooden board until he was dead. Then he left the body in the woods after perfunctorily covering it up with leaves.

He served three years in federal prison for the crime.

In 1981, Maust was convicted of stabbing 15-year-old Donald Jones of Elgin, Ill., to death. He served 17 years for that crime. He was released in 1999 and may have other victims buried elsewhere.

“More than a dozen times David Maust found himself with either a knife or a rope in his hand, ready to kill a teenage boy he had lured with alcohol or drugs,” according to a diary Maust turned over the investigators in 1983 and which was excerpted in today’s Tribune.

Family members quoted in the Trib’s story weren’t surprised by Maust’s latest atrocities:

His stepmother, Rose Maust, said the man she once remembered as a cute little boy should be locked up forever.

“I can’t believe he’s out on the streets, what’s wrong with our laws?” Rose Maust said from her Fredricksburg, Va., home. David Maust’s younger brother also believes he should never walk the streets again.

“It’s crazy that anyone let him out of prison,” Jeffrey Maust said. “He should have been put to death. … It doesn’t hurt me to say that. I believe my brother did more damage to other people’s lives and he should be put to an end.”

Even Maust, in his diary, had a good sense of the punishment he deserved:

I have ben thinking about Donald Jones a lot, and what I did to him on that Sunday, in August, and I have ben thinking about the bad thing I did in my life, and now I would like to have the death sentence, I would like to die. [sic]

Yet he was freed, repeatedly, after committing brutal murders and admitting in writing how close he came to piling up an even more monstrous record.

Illinois’ convicted murderers serve about 13 1/2 years in prison on average, according to state statistics.

Now there is talk of a “murderers registry” akin to the sex-offender registries widely used to keep tabs on criminals after they are released from prison.

But why is such a move even necessary? Zorn points to the real culprit:

As a society it seems we are so consumed with the idea of punishing offenders — including ever more youthful “adults” and those who find themselves somehow or another caught up in the web of illegal drugs — that we’ve lost focus on one of the key reasons we have prison system: incapacitation.

We lock up, or we should lock up, dangerous people for our own safety. And every reform and every dollar we can direct toward identifying sociopathic predators who simply can’t be trusted to walk among us will pay major safety dividends.

The discovery of the bodies of James Raganyi, 16, Michael Dennis, 13, and Nick James, 19, in Hammond comes hard on the heels of the apparent abduction and murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, a story that seems to prove the same point.

The suspect in that case, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., 50, has prior convictions for rape, attempted kidnapping and aggravated assault, and was such a manifest threat to others that his own sister reportedly pleaded with police to keep tabs on him.

One of the problems with one-size-fits-all and mandatory sentencing is that it looks too much at the crime and not enough at the criminal. So hapless, nitwit accomplices to stick-ups gone wrong, septuagenarians who committed murder in their teens and others who are at worst a minor threat stay locked up while human monsters cycle through the system.

It’s dumb and it’s deadly.

Here’s an idea for a comprehensive violent offender registry that actually works: the prison roll. We know where they are, who they are, why they’re there and most importantly we know that they can no longer hurt anyone on the outside.

Twenty percent of those held in the 50 state prison systems in 2001 were there for drug offenses, and due to federal mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, they are held there for grossly extended periods of time — often longer than the time actually served by murderers and rapists.

“I just hope nobody will make fun of me because of what I said in this statement, because it is not funny,” Maust concluded in his 1983 diary. “I wish I did not have to tell anybody about this.

“And I only blame myself.”

For the crimes Maust committed, no one else should be blamed. But for the repeated opportunities our system gave David Maust to commit this heinous series of murders, there’s plenty of blame to go around.