Out of the Box

Her parents kept her prisoner in a storage unit, but words set Jodi Jill free.

She wrote down her story and posted it on her Web site. And then last March, at a writers' conference in Houston, Jodi stood before 285 authors, editors and publishers and spoke for the first time about her life. Afterward, audience members rose to their feet and applauded.

"It was very moving," recalls Glen Graiser, a Houston writer. "It was one of the better speeches I've heard."

After another presentation in Chicago several months later, an older woman approached Jodi and enveloped her in a tight embrace. "I know I'm black and you're white," the woman said. "But if I had my choice, I'd love to be your mother."

 
John Johnston
 
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.
John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.


Jodi started telling her story publicly, but she didn't know the whole story. She says she still doesn't.

It turns out that at least one nearby business owner did report the family to the authorities. "I'm a parent, and I know the signs," this woman explains. "Things just weren't right. Their living conditions were not what most families have. We thought they lived in a car. People just don't do that. They knew how to talk themselves through a lot of things. They looked and acted as if they were hiding something. What that was, I don't know."

In May 1990, Larimer County sheriff's deputies showed up at Loveland Self Storage, investigating a report of a stolen Ford Granada. One deputy spoke to Jodi's mother and saw kids running in and out of Unit 151. He asked her if they were living in the shed, and she said no; he asked if he could go inside to make sure everyone was okay, and she said no; when he asked again, she accused him of harassment. In his report of the encounter, the deputy noted that the kids seemed dirty but otherwise healthy.

A month later, Loveland police officers, a county social services worker and a health department official arrived at Unit 151, acting on a tip that some kids were living there and were often alone. No one answered their knock, but they heard a dog barking. It was hot, and they thought kids might be inside -- so they cut the lock and went in. The unit was empty except for the dog. They took photos of its contents, including bedding, food and cooking utensils. Then they shut the door and left, filing a report with the sheriff's department, which had jurisdiction.

Later that summer, Jodi's parents filed reports of their own, accusing the authorities of burglarizing the shed -- which they claimed was used for a printing business -- and ransacking their belongings, beating their dog and stealing personal items. When a sheriff's deputy -- the same one who'd investigated the car theft -- arrived to check out their complaint, Jodi's father accused him of harassing his wife. During their encounter, Jodi's father fell down, and he accused the deputy of pushing him and hurting his back.

In the months that followed, according to police reports, Jodi's parents continued to accuse the cops of burglarizing their unit. Fliers charging assorted authorities -- the Loveland police, the sheriff's department, social services -- with wrongdoing began appearing around town. Some named Larimer County social worker Kathryn Bryer by name.

In 1991, Bryer sued Jodi's parents for harassment -- buying advertisements and magazine subscriptions in her name, posting slanderous fliers. In 1993, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld an earlier injunction against Jodi's parents.

By then, they'd left the shed -- and each other.

"There's a lot of things that happened in the past," Jodi's father says now. "An awful lot of things. I choose not to discuss them. Things are not the same now and probably will never be the same. I'm very fortunate that my ex is an ex. Outside of that, I do not want to go into the past. That's an extremely rough thing. At this point, it's 180 degrees, and I don't want to go back to them. A lot of things have changed. The ex is so deranged that anything I say will be twisted. No comment is the best comment. I don't want to give her ammunition.

"It's been a long and grueling time getting away and making changes. Things are not the same. I'm very, very proud of what [Jodi's] been able to do. I don't feel in my position, with minors under my roof, I dare do anything. I really supported her efforts. I have. The best thing I can say is that the past has got to stay in the past. I don't want to dwell on it. Things are not the same and never will be."

He also asks that his name not be used. But since he left the shed -- put that past behind him -- Don Wubben's name has appeared in the papers a number of times. There were stories about Bryer's lawsuit. He wrote a letter to the Denver Post around Father's Day 1995, which urged, "Let's say something upbeat about dads." And he touted his work on parental rights, as well as his role as a single father with custody of his children, in a Loveland Reporter-Herald story when he ran for the Thompson School District Board of Education in 1999.

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