part 1 of 2
In a two-week period beginning in mid-October 1993, Spencer Day went on a crime tear that was as remarkable for its workaday brazenness as it was for its repugnance. On October 19 he pulled an eleven-year-old boy off Wood Street in Fort Collins and forced him to perform fellatio, later strangling him into unconsciousness. Six days later he did the same thing to an eight-year-old boy in Boulder--although not strangling him--while the boy's sister stood just several feet away and watched. On the evening of October 29 he forced a ten-year-old boy into his Jeep Comanche pickup truck at knifepoint, drove into the hills outside Fort Collins and made him perform oral sex. He was arrested less than an hour later, after a high-speed chase with the boy still in the truck.
Spencer Day was no stranger to the local police. His criminal record dated back to 1988 and included charges of arson, burglary, criminal mischief, indecent exposure and, in 1991, reckless endangerment stemming from an incident in which Day lit a teenager's hair on fire with a cigarette lighter.
The horror of his recent crimes, combined with his long police record, earned Day a 64-year sentence from a Fort Collins judge this past summer. Two weeks later, after publicly musing that perhaps society would be better off if Spencer Day were castrated, a Boulder judge added forty more years to the sentence, although that time will be served concurrently. On the day he was taken into custody, six years had passed since Spencer Day's first arrest--and barely one month since his seventeenth birthday.
If Spencer Day weren't so young, if his crimes weren't so awful, if his prison sentences weren't so long, he would be no different from the dozens of other criminals who appear before judges every day in Colorado. But that is not the case. According to current sentencing guidelines, chances are good that Spencer Day will not be out of prison until he is fifty years old.
To his victims and their families, that is a relief. "I'm kind of glad he's put away and that he got 64 years," one of the Fort Collins boys said on the day of Spencer's sentencing. "Now I don't have to worry anymore."
That's unlikely. Anger, confusion and worry are likely to be the boys' lifelong companions. Reading through police interviews with Spencer's victims is disturbing and unspeakably sad. The clear images of the children's innocence, measured by the simplicity of their language and their utter lack of suspicion, are impossible to shake.
When Spencer approached the boy and his sister in Boulder, according to police reports, he told them he was looking for his lost dog. The girl, sitting in a red wagon, picked up a metal tube and began looking through it, as if it were a telescope, wanting to help search for the dog. In an interview after his assault, one boy described the incident by saying that "maybe a little bit of restroom came out" of Spencer's penis. Another boy said, "He put his thing in my seat."
Equally disturbing about Spencer Day's case, though, are the implications for what can be expected of the 2,300 sex offenders currently in the state's prison system (see sidebar, page 18). By the time of his spree, Spencer Day had displayed plenty of warning flags. He was kicked out of three preschools. He had gone through eleven separate treatment programs, ranging from A Clockwork Orange-like aversion therapy, complete with violent electric shocks, to group counseling, to one-on-one therapy, to stints in psychiatric hospitals.
Cliff Reidel was the Larimer County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Spencer. He calculates that the family spent more than $400,000--much of it covered by insurance--on counseling and treatment trying to get Spencer under control. Obviously, nothing worked.
That the various attempts to pry Spencer Day from his awful obsession failed so tragically is troubling. After nearly nine hours of prison interviews, one thing that is abundantly clear is that Spencer is a highly intelligent person; one of his former teachers calls him "brilliant." So what motivated him? How does a child start building a police record at age twelve?
What was Spencer Day thinking?
For the moment, Spencer Day lives in the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, a two-year-old complex crouched next to the state prison on Smith Road, directly east of Stapleton International Airport. His room, like everyone else's, is a small cinder-block affair with a tiny window tucked into a corner. Next to his bed are two science-fiction novels. On his desk is the Bible.
In addition to speaking, we have exchanged letters. "Please make mention that I have given my life to Jesus and have received his salvation into my life," he wrote early last month. "For it says in the Bible that if I confess Jesus among men then Jesus will confess me to the Father in heaven."
Initial police reports compiled from interviews with Spencer's victims describe him as being of medium height, but they turned out to be inaccurate. Spencer is a big kid, over six feet tall, duckpin shaped. The first time we meet, in September, he wears the standard prison uniform: orange jumpsuit, clunky black shoe-boots and, today, a brown canvas coat; it had snowed the night before.
Today, almost exactly one year after his arrest, the bowl haircut of his police mugshot has grown down to his shoulders. He has blue eyes, thick, heavy eyebrows and a shadow of a beard handling a weak chin. His skin is remarkably pale, and it sets off the black hair on his arms. His fingers are practically translucent. They fidget and press and rub his face when he can't think of the right way to phrase something; he seems to be trying to loosen an inner tightness.
After speaking to countless counselors, psychologists, social workers, evaluators and psychiatrists, Spencer has absorbed their language. His formative relationships were not "age appropriate"; counseling "never taught me to how to ask for help"; if he were a psychologist presented with himself as a client, "I would have given myself hands-on therapy in the environment I'd be living in, not an environment that was clinical."
A decade of counseling also has made him comfortable with talking about himself at length. The combination of candidness and psycho-euphemisms causes a sort of unsettling time lag: Although he speaks frankly about his behavior, it occasionally takes a moment to realize you have just spent fifteen minutes listening to a story of kidnapping and molestation.
He seems open and truthful. But it is difficult to check his version of childhood events. Most of his therapists, probation officers and teachers decline to talk about him in detail, citing client confidentiality and other legal concerns.
Spencer's adoptive mother, Susan, declines to be interviewed at length. She is going through a divorce and has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by one of her son's victims. The suit claims that Spencer's adoptive parents were partially to blame for his behavior because they did not adequately supervise him.
His adoptive father is unavailable for comment. Last year, Edward Day, a former U.S. Forest Service employee and amateur archaeologist, left Fort Collins and moved to an isolated mountain cabin on the Western Slope, outside of Gunnison. (This past spring lawyers had to wait several weeks to serve him with papers in the negligence lawsuit because his cabin was accessible only by snowmobile.)
Court documents confirm that Spencer Day was born on September 6, 1976, to unnamed parents. Two days later he was adopted by Susan, the daughter of a local physician. She'd been waiting three years for a child. "I'd always wanted to be a mom, and was very pleased when I got a chance to have a baby to love and nurture," she said in a court hearing seventeen years later.
At the time, she was married to another man, whom she subsequently divorced. Edward and Susan Day were married on September 12, 1983. Edward later adopted Spencer. Apart from those details, Spencer Day's biography is largely self-written and, where possible, corroborated by court documents, interviews and other public records.
He says that Susan has told him she knows nothing about his biological parents, save that his mother was only fourteen years old when she gave birth to him. His biological father is a blank face. At the time Spencer was adopted, Susan was married to another man who, she has told her son, left soon after Spencer's arrival, cleaned out the family bank account and moved to Las Vegas. Spencer says the man committed suicide soon after.
He speaks haltingly, in a flat voice. "All my problems basically started when I was in preschool," he begins. "The first counselor I saw told me I had hyperactivity. I had more energy; I was always going. I'd have night terrors, screaming, thinking I was going to die. My mom didn't know what to do."
His uncontrollable behavior appears to have been a problem from the start. He says his tantrums and habit of wandering out of classrooms got him dismissed from three local preschools. "I spent most of my time in the back office facing the wall in preschool," he recalls. By the time he was in kindergarten, he'd already become a veteran of several psychologists' couches and had been put on Ritalin, a drug prescribed to help children concentrate.
After Spencer was booted out of his first elementary school for what he describes as behavioral problems, Poudre School District officials quickly channeled him into the district's EBD (Emotionally and Behaviorally Disordered) program. He continued to act destructively. For instance, he recalls, "I was having problems setting fires." When he was seven he burned down a nearby fort constructed by some neighborhood kids.
He still remembers his early schooling. "The EBD program was K-6 all in one room," he recalls. "I saw a lot of people going off there, kicking the walls and stuff. They had more of an emotional problem than I had."
Perhaps, but Spencer's behavior was enough of a problem that, in 1986, when he was nine years old, he was sent to the Cleo Wallace Center. According to interviews and to his testimony in court, that is the place where Spencer says he developed his attraction to young boys and the powerful impulse to act on it.
A private, nonprofit facility located in Westminster, the Cleo Wallace Center treats adolescents and children with behavioral problems. Its residential facility houses 160 youths. Patients are referred there by doctors, social-service agencies, schools, hospitals and the courts. According to Spencer, when he arrived he was assigned to live in a room with several other young boys.
At the other, far end of the hallway, he says, boys who'd been identified as having high-risk sexual behavior were roomed together. Because his bed was near the doorway of the other room, Spencer says he would look out at night and see the other boys sneaking around and having sex with each other. He soon began joining them.
"Before that, I didn't have any sexual history at all," he says. "That got me started. This was happening all the time. I guess the staff there figured it was just acting out; they let it go on.
"That was where my sexual gratification started. It just kind of went on. With the people I was around, that's what was normal. By the time I had got out of Cleo Wallace, it had stuck." Also he remembers: "I was the biggest kid in the school; all the kids were smaller than me."
Mike Montgomery, chief operating officer at Cleo Wallace, doesn't buy the notion that a child would pick up a pedophilia habit at his facility. Although he says patient confidentiality laws prevent him from commenting on Spencer's case specifically, he adds that "I would not, by any stretch, accept those statements as being true."
He continues, "If somebody said, `I never had a thought or feeling like that before,' my first question would be: `Why are you here in the first place?' You would want to dig a lot further." Finally, Montgomery insists that the center has enough supervisors to prevent the patients from having sex with one another.
Today, Susan Day is reluctant to speak about her son to a stranger. "Let me speak to my lawyer and get back to you," she says, and then stops returning calls. But before hanging up, she says she is convinced that Cleo Wallace was a huge mistake.
"I know for sure that one thing didn't work for him, and that was Cleo Wallace," she says. Adds Spencer, "My mom blames herself for all this. She blames herself for not taking me out of the Cleo Wallace Center."
If Spencer Day's life was uncertain and erratic before he went to Cleo Wallace, it became considerably less stable afterward. In the seven years since his release from the residential treatment center, he has spent less than half of that time actually living at home.
Although police began hearing his name earlier in connection with some minor incidents (besides torching the neighborhood fort, he'd swiped some mail from neighbors' porches), his first actual arrest didn't come until 1988. The incident started when Spencer, on his way home from a local burger joint, walked past a gas station.
The station was closed, but there was still some gas in the hoses. He dribbled it into a pool on the ground and lit it. He says he ran to a nearby phone and called the fire department. After they arrived, he approached some cops and said he'd witnessed the fire. They recognized his name and, after not very much questioning, determined he'd started it.
He was required to view a fire-safety video and received two years' probation; he says he continued to break the law, mostly shoplifting and minor vandalism. In August 1989 he was arrested again, this time in connection with breaking into a local business and vandalizing it, and later for masturbating on top of a neighbor's roof. "I don't know why I did it," he says today. "Just impulse, I guess."
Spencer's second arrest got him sent to the Adams County Youth Services Center, a detention center in Brighton where he says for the first time a counselor asked him whether he'd ever been sexually abused. The question confused him. "I said, `What do you mean?'" he recalls. "I didn't know, I didn't understand. So they told me, and I said, `Yeah,' and they sent me to the police to fill out a report."
The incident, which Spencer did not report at the time, allegedly occurred in early 1989, when he was at the public library. "I was looking at some books upstairs, the sex books, grownup anatomy. There was a guy there. He took out a knife and made me go with him. We tried the bathroom, but it was locked. So we went outside in an alley. I was scared, but I enjoyed it. Basically it was what I had been doing, anyway." No one was ever arrested in the assault.
He was released from the Brighton detention center after one month and was required to wear an electronic ankle monitor that would alert authorities if he strayed outside the area. He was twelve years old.
According to Spencer, workers at Brighton had recommended that he be sent to the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a maximum-security residential facility run by the state's Division for Youth for juvenile offenders ages twelve to eighteen. But the Days convinced them that Spencer would be better off at a private psychiatric facility that Susan passed each day on her way home from work at Hewlett-Packard, called Charter Hospital (it has since gone out of business).
Spencer stayed there for three months, beginning in September 1989--"We did some group counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous, stress management," he says--after which he returned home and re-entered one of Fort Collins's junior high emotional- and behavioral-disorders programs. He kept up his interest in sex, particularly with younger, smaller children. "I began ditching school and going to the elementary schools looking for victims," he says. "I was looking for victims."
One incident stands out, although he doesn't remember the exact day. "It was snowing out. I got off the bus but didn't go into school. I just started walking. The first school I went by, I really didn't think anything. The next school, though, I saw a little girl there, and I asked her to come with me. She was small. I told her to come with me on a roller coaster ride. But the intent was for sex. It just was on impulse."
Spencer was unable to convince her to go with him, and the girl, who was in second grade, reported the incident. A witness pointed police to Spencer, who denied speaking to the girl. Still, the cops remained suspicious, telling him to stay away from playgrounds. And he says their visit got him thinking.
The following day he had to report to the school counselor because he'd skipped school. While there, he says, "I explained to her what happened the day before, and I told her the sexual thoughts I was having, being attracted to little kids. She got up and left, and she didn't come back into the room until my mom came to school. They brought me right over to Charter again. They admitted me right then, about one hour later."
This time, he says, he stayed at Charter for about six months, during which time he demonstrated some of the same behavioral problems he'd had earlier--violent outbursts, ignoring instructions. Once, he says, he worked himself up into punching a light bulb, then threatened to slash himself with the glass. "I don't know what I was mad at," he says. "Maybe [it was] some chemical disorder in my brain."
After six months Charter's counselors recommended Spencer be sent to Desert Hills, a private residential facility in Tucson, Arizona. Spencer and his parents drove back home, quickly packed up his bags and headed south. "They told me to do a good job so I could come home," he recalls of his conversation with his parents on the drive to Arizona. "My mom always wants me home."
He stayed at Desert Hills for one year. Again, angry and destructive outbursts plagued him. The facility had a step system, one through five, with five representing exemplary behavior. Although Spencer says he once obtained a level three, he stayed mostly at a two.
Oddly, despite his background, he was not given any treatment specifically for pedophilia, according to later court testimony. In fact, according to a later review of Spencer's treatment history done by Spencer Friedman, a Denver psychologist, the first time he received any attention for his pedophilia was at the Griffith Center, where he was sent after being discharged from Desert Hills, in December 1990.
The Griffith Center, Inc., is a private, nonprofit group home in Larkspur used occasionally by the state to treat severely emotionally disturbed boys ages 10 to 21, including those with sexual disorders. "I hated it there," Spencer says. "They hit me with big guilt trips, like, `This is really wrong, it's more of a problem than you think.'" When therapists asked him to write down each time he'd had sex with a child, he was able to count five separate incidents.
Although he'd abused both boys and girls, it was the encounters with the boys that disturbed him the most--not because they were young, but rather because of what the urges suggested about him. He says, "People there would just tell me, `Why don't you accept the fact that you're gay?' But I didn't want to. I didn't really think of my sex offenses as a problem. I thought the homosexuality was wrong. But I never really saw it as being a sex offender."
At Griffith, his acts of destruction turned increasingly inward. He pushed staples into his arms, punched out windows. He swallowed an entire bottle of iodine pills and had his stomach pumped. He tried to run away.
In February 1991, after less than two months, he was "negatively terminated" from Griffith. "The Griffith Center felt like they couldn't provide the structure that Spencer needed or the treatment that Spencer needed," Cathy Mulcahy, Spencer's probation officer at the time, explained at a subsequent court hearing.
Although Spencer's molestations were sexual abuse by any definition, up to this point they seemed to have been crimes of predilection rather than power. His friends generally were younger, and he preferred the company of children, he says. Yet the first hint of what was soon to veer into simple rape came immediately after his discharge from Griffith.
Mulcahy, the probation officer, recalled in court last year: "We were trying to arrange transportation for him back to the court setting, and one of the counselors was going to do the transporting, and she was threatened by Spencer. He threatened to rape her." The center quickly called the sheriff's department to drive Spencer north.
Because of his suicide attempt at Griffith, Spencer was shipped up to Denver General Hospital's psychiatric unit. He says he stayed there for two weeks, much of it on a suicide watch. "Mostly I just sat or played Foosball," he recalls. "People there are kind of crazy. I was kind of used to being in places like that, though."
The next stop was Brighton again, where he stayed for another month waiting for probation officers and other professionals there to decide what to do with him. Although he says they again wanted to send him to Lookout Mountain, his mother, on her own initiative, found another private treatment center, in Boise, Idaho, called Northwest Passages. The facility, Spencer says, was much like Charter Hospital, with one exception: It relied heavily on aversion therapy.
end of part 1
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.