The roomful of Davenport North High School students sat in cold silence.
Some kept their eyes fixed on this day’s guest speaker while a few looked down at their desks and fidgeted in their seats.
Vicki Crompton Tetter stood at the front of the classroom, recounting her daughter’s story as she has so many, many times. She talked about Jenny, who was just 15 years old and finally settling in at her new high school and with new friends.
But that all ended when Jenny’s 18-year-old boyfriend stabbed her 63 times and killed her.
Jenny Crompton died more than two decades ago — years before any of the students now listening to her mother were even born. But while time has passed, the violence remains. So Tetter keeps telling her daughter’s story.
“You might think, ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with me,’” she told the Interpersonal Dynamics class. “But the things Jenny and her friends talked about are the same as the things you talk about.”
Mark Smith, now 42, is serving a life sentence in prison for Jenny’s murder. He continues to await word on a clemency request filed four years ago.
Tetter forgave him for her own survival. But as Jenny’s friends and classmates — now with families of their own — begin to reach out to her again with their memories of Jenny and Mark, her forgiveness is shaken.
“I know we needed to forgive him just for us,” Tetter said. “But I’ve shifted in my thoughts now since I’ve been hearing from these classmates and people who knew him.”
A daughter’s story
Tetter could have easily let the grief from her daughter’s murder destroy her. In fact, it nearly did.
She eventually channeled that grief into positive energy — working to help other families avoid experiencing her “family’s nightmare.” Tetter travels the country, speaking in countless high school classrooms and auditoriums, on college campuses and television to educate others about the problem of dating violence. She estimates she has told Jenny’s story “thousands of times.”
Jenny was a sophomore at Pleasant Valley High School. Her family and friends described her as talented, vivacious and studious. She was an honors student who was learning French and Spanish. She had just gotten her driver’s permit and driven a car once.
Mark was her first boyfriend. He was a cute senior boy she noticed very early on after transferring to Pleasant Valley as a freshman. However, they lied to her parents about his age — saying he was only 16. After what appeared to be a typical high school romance throughout her freshman year, she had been trying to break it off in the months before Smith killed her.
Tetter relives the gruesome details of the autumn day in 1986 when Smith stabbed her daughter inside the family’s Bettendorf home. Her husband, Greg Tetter, found his stepdaughter in a pool of blood.
“It’s an old story, but nearly 24 years later it still is relevant,” Jenny’s mother says today. “It’s a problem the kids tell me is still going on today.”
She tells her audiences: “Kids are so caught up in keeping secrets from their parents. They think they can handle it themselves.”
Her program includes video interviews with several of Jenny’s friends, who admit they were aware of Smith’s emotionally abusive behavior and what today would be described as stalking. But no one — not even Jenny — said anything to any adult. Instead, they ended up on the witness stand during Smith’s murder trial in 1987.
Sharing Jenny’s story and working for victims’ rights turned into a nearly full-time career for Vicki Tetter, who retired 11 years ago from the Rock Island Arsenal. She returned to college at the University of Iowa, where she earned her master’s degree in counseling. She uses that training to counsel other crime victims and teenagers, including abuse victims and homeless youth.
She has racked up thousands of miles on her cars, driving to places she’d never heard of until being invited to tell a group of strangers about the most horrific time of her life.
Her talks began after a friend at the Arsenal invited her to tell Jenny’s story to a youth group in 1988, two years after Jenny’s death. “I thought, ‘They’ll probably never listen to me.’ But they were dead silent as I talked. And that hasn’t stopped.”
Over the years, she has watched her audience members cry, shake their heads or get angry. Talk after talk, listeners gather around her afterwards. “They come up to me and hug me and tell me it is still going on.”
Najee West approached Tetter after her talk at Davenport North. He saw threads of his own high school relationship in her message. “I’ve got to make a change with it,” he said.
His is not an abusive relationship, but typical of high school students, he said. “I think a thing that goes through a lot of teenage relationships is they try to control each other.”
“We’ve got to work on our relationship,” said West, who came to class with little expectations of being moved by Jenny’s story.
Jenny is forever a cute teenager with the 1980s big hair. Smith now is a grown man.
Greg and Vicki Tetter have visited Smith multiple times in prison over the years, she tells her audiences.
In fact, they were the first survivors to meet face-to-face in prison with their offender through a Victim Offender Intervention Session, known as VOIS (pronounced Voice), launched in Iowa in the early 1990s. Tetter provided the inspiration for the Iowa Department of Corrections to expand its services for crime survivors.
Through her many appointments to state boards, she has advocated for more assistance for victims and better communication about offender status.
It was a crusade she had to undertake.
“The grief was overwhelming. I would sit at her grave. I just was not getting better. I simply did not have a life,” she said, recalling how Greg almost single-handedly raised their children — Jenny’s sister, Kate Crompton, who now is a mother herself, and their son, Steven Tetter, who was a baby when Jenny died.
“I lived like that for eight years. I have very few memories of my little boy growing up,” she said.
Fred Scaletta, corrections department spokesman, grew very familiar with Tetter and her work as a victim’s advocate. He will never forget the day she came to him and said, “I really, really need to sit down with Mark.”
“Of course, my mouth dropped,” he said. “Not to be disrespectful, but I just couldn’t understand why someone would need to come in and meet the person who had murdered her daughter. But Vicki always thought she missed seeing something and that she could have prevented this. She wanted to ask him ‘Why did you do this?’”
Such a request was extraordinary, Scaletta said. “Victims were never anything that we thought about in the Department of Corrections. Vicki really opened my eyes. She was a big inspiration in getting our victim services going.”
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Corrections leaders questioned: “What can we do for them and why would they want to be part of our system? But once we listened, we thought, ‘Yeah, maybe this is something we need to be doing,’” Scaletta said.
The Tetters put new legislation regarding restitution to the test. “At one time, there was no assistance for victims. Now they get $10,000 for burial costs, (restitution) for cleanup of the crime scene. I can’t imagine them not having that.”
Friends in a stranger
While forgiving Smith did help Jenny’s mom, she also found a lifeline in Dora Larson, who lost her daughter, Vicki, in a brutal murder. Larson’s 10-year-old was raped and murdered in 1979 in Andover, Ill., by a 15-year-old boy with a history of child abuse. Her killer, a Moline native, was on release from a juvenile detention facility and had lived with his grandparents in Andover for about a month.
Larson called Jenny’s family as soon as she learned of her murder in the fall. She left a message with Vicki’s mother, Joan McAdams.
“It usually takes several weeks or months for someone to call,” said Larson. “I remember Vic called the day after Christmas and she wanted to know, ‘How did you survive?’”
The two now are best friends. “But we also say we wished we didn’t ever have to meet,” Larson said.
Larson is vice president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, which successfully blocked legislation that would free juvenile offenders from their life sentences.
“What Vicki has to say is so important,” she said. “Even though it happened so long ago, we still have teenagers and young adults who are being murdered by their boyfriends.”
Larson, who sometimes accompanies Tetter at her speaking engagements, said, “If it’s not the victim in the audience, their friends are and they are being taught how to help their friend.
“If we can just save one, then our child’s death can have meaning,” she added.
In the past couple of years, Tetter received unsolicited e-mails from Jenny’s old friends and strangers who say they went to Pleasant Valley High School with her.
Jenny’s classmates are now in their upper 30s, many with families of their own. Her 20th high school class reunion was last summer.
“I think all of a sudden they are realizing how horrific it all was. I feel they are trying to work it out and that’s why they are writing me,” she said.
In the e-mails, some have said they wondered why Jenny was with Mark. One e-mail earlier this year was more disturbing, talking about Smith’s behavior as a young child and “early signs” of the violence to come.
Tetter admits it causes her to question her forgiveness. But that questioning does not mean she stops speaking. In fact, she will be at Davenport Central High School on Monday for another talk.
She makes it quite clear to her audiences that all of Jenny’s friends and other students knew exactly what was going on in that relationship.
“Nobody said a word,” she said. “If Jenny could just be here, I know she’d tell you, ‘Don’t lie to your parents.’”