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Poe Ballantine

Author’s Note

Poe Ballantine

Author of Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

Poe Ballantine on film

Posted by Rhonda Hughes on 11 Apr 2013

| Comments (20 so far)

Poe Ballantine’s memoir Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere will be on shelves September 1, 2013, and a documentary with the same title directed by Dave Janetta will be released soon after. Below Poe describes his experience being both the author of Love & Terror as well as the subject of this film.


I was working on a novel about a Lakota Indian boy who accidentally kills his stepfather, flees the reservation, and becomes a standup comedian in Las Vegas, when my neighbor, Steven Haataja, a math professor at the local college, a brilliant, funny, and generous man, disappeared one late, cold autumn day only a few months after he’d arrived.  As the weeks passed without a hint as to where he might’ve gone, I began to take notes and collect news stories (though it was rather more like no-news), presuming I had in the works some tragic essay about the cruel failure of the American Dream.  I presumed he had done away with himself in a way in which he would not be found, or that he’d started his life over somewhere else, as I had often fantasized about in my many years of aimless travel. 

When his body was found three months later burned and bound to a tree on private land a half mile south of the campus where he taught, I set aside the novel about the Lakota Indian boy.

I had never written or intended to write true crime.  The problems, technical, personal, and otherwise, were boundless: an open case, attenuated forensics, clandestine and reluctant law enforcement, tornadoes of gossip that repeatedly formed into stubbornly specious accounts fobbed off as fact.  There were the vast consequences of openly discussing, not always in the best light, the people I lived and socialized with intimately, many of whom had been portrayed as rubes and fools.  Stylistically, I couldn’t simply regurgitate the volumes of interviews, police reports, press releases, blogs, and newspaper articles without duplicating the role of journalist.  The story had to be told in my voice in color and active sequences.  The book also had to be heartfelt, thorough, and true, at all costs avoiding the cheap, titillative method of most true crime. 

As the years passed and I continued to interview people, collect evidence, counsel with experts, and construct and grade scenarios,  I came to believe that Steven Haataja had been murdered.  It seemed likely that whoever had killed him was still living in town.  I was obliged to catalogue and describe each of the possible suspects.  In spite of the case remaining open and the county attorney’s insistence on the possibility of homicide, Steven’s family accepted the popular but unofficial conclusion of suicide and urged me not to publish my book for the pain it would cause them.  Suicide made all the bad things—distrust, contradictory evidence, police incompetence, the possibility of a ruthless killer still at large, the fact that Steven was incinerated beyond recognition yet neither the tree to which he was tied nor the dry grass which surrounded him were appreciably burned—go away.  The story, perhaps the most astounding and baffling crime the town had ever seen, was too big to drop.  Too many questions had not been answered.  I had invested thousands of hours examining these questions and, since no one else was actively investigating the case, I felt that I was the only one left who might find some measure of justice for Steven Haataja.

In my fifth year of working on Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, a twenty-eight-year-old filmmaker named Dave Jannetta contacted me from Philadelphia.  Dave had made his own feature film and had worked as an assistant on The Lovely Bones. He’d read and admired my work and had discovered I was wandering the catacombs of a fascinating mystery.  He asked if he might bring out a crew and make a documentary about it.  I told him he was welcome.  The story didn’t belong to me and I could use all the help I could get. 

Chadron, Nebraska, in the dry, very western high plains part of the state, is small and isolated enough that secrets here don’t stay that way for long.  Yet what happened to Steve (whether it was suicide, accidental death, or murder), how he’d ended up burned alive in that little hollow, why his blood-alcohol content had been “extremely elevated” when all his friends described him as a “social drinker,” why his ankles were trussed like a calf in a rodeo event, why this private, reserved, eminently polite man would wander off into a hostile night deep into fenced-off land, remained a profound mystery.

When Dave Jannetta and his crew arrived in Chadron, they were within the week the subject of several news articles, including an extensive story in the Rapid City Journal.  They were feted and met wherever they went with looking-glass curiosity and enthusiasm.  While I’d roamed the campus for years talking with janitors, students, and the colleagues of Steven Haataja, had never once been mentioned in a news article, and many of the town’s residents were not even aware I was writing a book, Dave after requesting permission to shoot on the college was met instantly by a campus-wide email discouraging faculty from participation along with an edict preventing him from filming in offices or classrooms.  The language in the email was strong enough to frighten off several potential interviewees.  The power of the camera works both ways.

I have always preferred to work behind the scenes.  I fall into that group of writers who should be read and not seen.  For forty years I had a pathological fear of speaking publicly.  But it’s never too late to grow up, and it is hard to make a good documentary without a likeable, intelligent narrator, so I reached down, swallowed my pride, and faced that 1080P HD lens as if I had been doing it for years.  I led Dave and his crew over hill and dale, showed them the key locations, and introduced them to all the players.  In the passage of five years, memories had fogged, accounts had fractured, gossip on many fronts had won the war.  Several times we trudged out onto the cattle ranch where Steven’s body was found, on one occasion a cold, windy, moonlit night, not half as cold as it had been the night he’d gone missing, but forbidding enough to convince me that even if on the very small chance he’d taken his own life or died somehow accidentally, he’d not been alone.

After a month of shooting Dave returned to Philly to begin the arduous process of editing.  He thought he might assemble the film within the year and have it entered into several film festivals by Christmas, but he ran into many of the same problems I did, structural, personal, the leviathan tasks of treating people fairly and of building a true-crime narrative that did not violate the memory of Steven Haataja.  Obstacles, I reminded him, were a good thing.  If it’s easy and everyone lets you in, you’re doing something wrong.

It might be another year before Dave’s film is done.  My book, after six years, is coming out September 1, 2013 from Hawthorne Books.  We both hope for wealth and accolades.  We also hope that our work will shake loose the grip of secrets, urge forth that confession, eye-witness or missing piece of evidence, illuminate once and for all what happened on that frigid, terrifying, and desolate night on Andy Curd’s cattle ranch six years ago.  We believe that someone out there knows.

Comments

I’d be curious to know Poe, whether the family’s wishes are still the same now as publication nears as they were when they initially urged against it?  Also, have you remained in contact with them throughout the process?

Jason Beem from Portland, OR on 11 Apr 2013

Having worked on many murder

cases curious to know if you have a suspect or suspects you are not revealing at this time?

Rhonda from California on 11 Apr 2013

As fact turns to speculation and progress to stagnation perchance the truth will yet find a way to surface from the swamp-gas bubbles of memory.

Chuck from United States on 11 Apr 2013

Hunter S. Thompson said “Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.” Poe Ballantine has proven to us that civilization does not necessarily exist on the dry side of the waterline either.

Chuck from United States on 11 Apr 2013

You are to be congratulated for using your talents to pursue this case and keeping it alive and hopefully justice will be served!

JJT from NY on 11 Apr 2013

“Obstacles…were a good thing. If it’s easy…you’re doing something wrong.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. And thank you for being so forthcoming about how long it’s taken you to write this book. It sounds like an overwhelming amount of information and organization, and I can’t wait to read what I know will be a riveting, beautifully written story. This re-energizes me to work on my own thesis project, also a true crime story, but very different. Thank you!

Jaime from NY, NY on 11 Apr 2013

I don’t talk to the family, Jason Beem.  They kind of follow me around to discredit whatever I might say about my book (see the interview at http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com as an example), since they’re convinced it’s a sensational treatment performed in a purely mercenary spirit.  Both Dave (the filmmaker) and I have received some nasty letters from them as well, and we’ve lost several key interviews at their urging.  Their minds are set that we’re evil, though I’m flabbergasted that they would not only accept their loved one’s death as a suicide, but turn down the help of the only people left who might help them find his killer.

Poe Ballantine from Portland, Oregon on 12 Apr 2013

I have seven suspects, Rhonda, and a number of people who I believe may have been involved in an ancillary and quite probably accidental and innocent way.

Poe Ballantine from Chadron, Nebraska on 12 Apr 2013

Overwhelming is the word, Jaime, and good luck with a true-crime core, because it’s very hard to steer away from the natural base appeal of the graphic and the lurid.

Poe Ballantine from Chadron, Nebraska on 12 Apr 2013

Poe is correct that the “power of the camera works both ways.” I spent a total of two months filming in Chadron (February 2012 and February 2013) and the people couldn’t have been more welcoming and accommodating. But we did run into some resistance trying to get a few interviews - some of which may have been valuable to telling the complete story. It was at those times that I envied the writer’s ability to operate sub rosa and realize any imaginable scenario with a few strokes of the pen rather than a camera, crew, and “actors”. I’m not sure we were “feted” but anywhere a film crew shows up it can’t help but call attention to itself and elicit a curious reaction. Not many people notice a “homeless looking guy” (in the words of Poe’s wife) wandering the streets as he collects bits and pieces of information for a book. But once you plant a tripod in the middle of the sidewalk you’re announcing your arrival and intentions very publicly.

Dave Jannetta from Philadelphia, PA on 12 Apr 2013

His family just found out about this post today due to a Google alert I’ve had for Hughes (Poe Ballentine) ever since we found out about the documentary last year only due to a friend reading about it in the newspaper.

We have never been happy about the idea of Steve being in his book, and have not helped him in any way. After one attempt at contacting us he never tried again.  Steve’s mother did write him a letter telling him about her displeasure and he never responded to it.

I seriously doubt he knows what he’s writing about. He never knew Steve, no one in town really knew him well, and newspaper articles about him and his death were filled with inaccurate information.  We knew him, and we know what happened.

You cannot understand what that is like having something like this keep coming up in the news for months, and because of this now it’s years. 

We quite frankly would appreciate everyone not buying this book or watching the movie.  But we know we can’t control the actions of others; the existence of the book and movie are proof this.

Emily Haataja McAllister from United States on 12 Apr 2013

I am the other sister of Steven Haataja.  We did not want a book or anything published with my brother’s name.  Ed Hughes aka Poe Ballentine went against our family wishes for monetary gain.  He only contacted me once and I have not heard from him again. 
    If you can begin to put yourself in our shoes you would understand the sick feeling we have about all this be in the media again.  We had people who gave us excellent information on what all happened with our brother.  We are not vain or stupid.  We are a family who wants our business to stay as our business. 
    I am sure Ed will fill everyone’s head with his theory as to what he thinks happened.  We have the facts.  We know things very few people know.  We have kept it to ourselves in respect of our brother.  He deserves to be respected even in death. 
    Ed did not know my brother.  He never met him.  I knew him my entire life.  This would be something Steve would never agree to do.  So instead of letting him rest in peace, Ed is trying to stir things up for money for himself.  Shame on him and all those that think they helped him.

Sharon Haataja Taylor from United States on 12 Apr 2013

The more I think about what Hughes has written here, the more insulted I am.

We had hoped that no news was good news; that by not trying to contact our family a second time he had abandoned his idea of a book.  Not only did he decide to write a book about our brother whether or not we approved, but now he has the gall to act offended when we publically or privately voice our objections. 

I do not think he is evil, but I do think that he has truly never tried to look at this from our point of view.  We must certainly be wrong because he is so certain that his opinions are right.  Using his own words, he believes he “became the natural repository for this story”.

I have been nothing but polite no matter how hard that has been.  This does not mean that the thought of this book and movie hasn’t continued to cause so much pain and trauma for one member of our family that civility was quite honestly impossible for them.  They never put any of their comments out in a public forum, however. Hughes apparently though it would be a good idea to bring it up here as some sort of defense.

I have never received a phone call, e-mail or letter from Hughes at any point during the last six years.  After months of dealing with the press which was putting out news articles filled with information that frequently did not reflect the truth, it’s no wonder my sister wasn’t receptive to the one phone call she received.  Once again I wonder if it ever occurred to him how his call made her feel?

Unlike Hughes, Dave Jannetta contacted me while he was in Chadron.  I could tell he had done some soul searching as to whether or not it was a good idea to proceed against the wishes of Steve’s family, and he apologized for not contacting us before beginning the movie.  Despite his deciding to continue, I appreciated that. 

But nevertheless, it has always been our wish that Steve would be remembered for his life by the people who knew and loved him.  This will instead make him remembered for his death by strangers.

I am sorry Steve put Chadron through this, but I can’t do anything about that.  Hughes and Jannetta can hope all they want that we will sit quietly and accept what they are doing, but it isn’t going to happen.  While I know I have to accept it because I have no legal recourse, I will not do so quietly. 

This reminds me of the many times I’ve heard people in the news complaining about how they exercised their “freedom of speech” and are stunned and upset that others are voicing their disapproval of what was said.  Freedom of speech goes both ways.

Try to imagine that a book has been written about someone you love with the word “terror” in the title.  It’s making me cry just writing that.

Hughes is right; the story doesn’t belong to him.  Will you remember the price we are paying for your potential, “wealth and accolades”? 

Emily Haataja McAllister from United States on 13 Apr 2013

Sharon made it plain from to me from the beginning in my several phone calls with her that she did not want this book to be published and that she and her mother were not going to participate or cooperate, so I stopped pursuing it.  It would’ve been useful to have family participation in light of the fact that I believe that Steven was murdered.  If my son or sister or brother were murdered I would welcome help from all quarters in finding out who was responsible.  If you doubt that Steven was murdered I suggest you read my book or at the minimum speak with any of the homicide detectives who reviewed the evidence with me.  You already know Loren Zimmerman.  Perhaps Detective Kevin Warren, a homicide detective in the Portland Police Department, would like to weigh in here at some point (he’s currently in Bangladesh).

Poe Ballantine from Chadron, Nebraska on 13 Apr 2013

I only remember talking to Ed once.  It served no purpose to talk to him anymore.  This book wasn’t made for us.  It wasn’t made for Steve.  We know the truth.  Loren was not on the team of investigators.  Yes, I have talked to Loren but he knows probably as much as Ed thinks he knows; not very much.  I do not know Kevin Warren.  I seriously doubt he has anything to say that I need to hear. 

It’s easy to have one’s words to be twisted to fit what others want to hear.  I had to learn to stay quiet and be patient to get the truth.  I did and I got the truth.  Obviously needing the family input wasn’t needed.  It was going to be written regardless of what we had to say or do. 

Shame on you once again Ed for trying to make the family who loved Steve look bad for this book.  What do we gain from it?  Steve back?  Money?  Fame?  We gain nothing as we have lost someone that Ed was never able to know: our brother and son.  In reality, reading about Steve’s life and accomplishments would be more important to us than his death.

Sharon Haataja Taylor from United States on 13 Apr 2013

It’s difficult answering the same rigid, prejudicial, and hysterical letter over and over (with my name misspelled), so I will make a few general remarks for the record.

No one knows “the truth” about Steven Haataja, which is why the case remains open seven years later.

I am not ashamed nor I do apologize nor do I feel the need to defend my right to document Chadron, Nebraska’s story of the century.  I hope it sells.  That’s how I make my living.

The phrase “reviewed the evidence” should not be confused with “an official investigation.”

It’s true that I didn’t know Steven Haataja.  He lived two blocks away from me.  I spent two hours with him at Dr. Deane Tucker’s summer screening of Tarkovsky’s orphan-in-war masterpiece Ivan’s Childhood. I didn’t know Steven Haataja but I talked to many of his friends, colleagues, and students who did, including Deane Tucker, Kathy Bahr, Steve Welch, Phil Cary, Beth Wentworth, and Amy Stone.  I learned that Steven was a great, brilliant, sweet, generous, talented, funny, and dedicated man.  I have never wavered in my intentions to preserve and honor his memory.

The moment Steven disappeared his became a public story, the event seared in the mind and memory of every person who lived in Chadron at the time.  Because Steven was consistently mischaracterized in the newspapers and the local police were not diligent in their pursuit of the facts, few of the residents of Chadron (and the world for that matter) have any notion of who Steven was or what happened to him.  The bloggers and rumormongers have elaborated with lavish irresponsibility upon tales that were never true from the start.  I’ve attempted to set the record straight.  At the very least the residents of Chadron are due an explanation, especially since a killer, in my opinion, is still at large in their midst.

Poe Ballantine from Chadron, Nebraska on 14 Apr 2013

When I began making the documentary I had no clue what paths the story would lead me down. As with any work of non fiction, however, I knew that I needed to keep an open mind and allow myself to be guided beyond any preconceptions I might have. Like Poe, I never intended to make a true-crime piece and my hope is that the film transcends the archetypes of the genre. While the unfortunate death of Dr. Haataja is central to the narrative of the film (and Poe’s book) it is not the central aspect. Sharon is correct in saying that I did not know Dr. Haataja. In fact, I did not set foot in Chadron until 6 years after his disappearance. But if my film were only about the disappearance and death of Steven, it would be a story without a heart and soul.

The story is about Steven, yes. It paints him as a genial and brilliant man, as seen though the eyes of the people who got to know him during his brief time in Chadron. But the film is also about how his disappearance effects a small, isolated, American community, and how rumor and conjecture solidify into legend when mystery prevails. It’s about Poe Ballantine’s life and writing (which is how I came to the story); his and his wife’s struggles in America; and his purportedly autistic son. The central challenge is making all of these seemingly disparate themes and story lines work as coherent and meaningful narrative.

One of the more difficult questions early in the process was how to approach the Haataja family about the making of the documentary. I knew from Poe’s experience that they were not amenable to his writing a book and I didn’t expect they would view the film any differently. So I put it off. The Haataja’s live a few hours from Chadron, and although I hadn’t contacted them by the time of my arrival in Chadron, I fully expected to. The small town press intervened, however, and the Haataja’s were alerted to the film after the Rapid City Journal picked up on a story written in the Chadron Record about the film. They were incensed. I do regret the way the events unfolded but I’m also not sure it would have changed much.

According to county attorney Vance Haug the case is still open. In my mind that means there is no resolution. And there are details that lead me to believe Steven was either murdered or that someone in town at the time of his disappearance knows something that could definitively close the case. I have done my best to put myself in the shoes of the Haataja family but I have never experienced a loss like theirs, so I don’t pretend I’m able to empathize. Because of the manner of the disappearance and the way his body was discovered it became a very public story. One which I was compelled to tell. I regret that in telling the story I am causing his family pain and suffering but I am doing my best to honor the memory of Steven and I know that Poe is doing the same.

Dave Jannetta from Philadelphia, PA on 18 Apr 2013

Now I have to wait until September to read this book living in Chadron with the possibility of the killer still being here? Can I pay you to read it early? haha. I always believed he was murdered.

Jim from chadron on 24 Apr 2013

The book is superb!  It held me spell-bound from beginning to end.  My copy was given to me; today I ordered one to give.  The death of Steven Haataja was a horrible tragedy.  I didn’t know him, but from reading in your book all the wonderful things his friends said about him, I wish I had.  What an exceptionally fine person he must have been!  I’ve lived in Chadron for about 10 years and had read about the case in the news through the years, but because I keep pretty much to myself I hadn’t heard many of the rumors surrounding the case.  Now that I’ve read your book, I’m very much looking forward to seeing the documentary.  I hope that whoever is responsible for Steven Haataja’s death either will someday ‘fess up or be flat-out caught.

El from United States on 06 Jul 2013

I bought the book at O’Hare airport several weeks ago so it’s already been published.  I have just visited Chadron for the first time this summer and really enjoyed it.  I’m sorry for your family’s loss but the story is excellent and the fact that the case is not closed makes it newsworthy.  I think Poe did an excellent job of honoring your brother’s memory.

LC from USA on 10 Aug 2013

Well?

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