“This case helped convince lawmakers that sexual predators must be treated differently than other criminals”
TACOMA, Wash. — For years, few people knew Ryan Alan Hade’s name.
But what happened to him on a May afternoon in 1989 changed American law forever.
For privacy reasons, he became known as “the little Tacoma boy” who was raped, strangled and mutilated by a convicted sex offender. His tragedy garnered worldwide attention and support.
On Wednesday, 20 years later to the day and on the site where the attack occurred, two dozen family members, friends, community leaders and safe neighborhood advocates gathered at Celebration Park at South D and 80th streets.
They came together for a moment of remembrance.
“What we are here for is not in sorrow, but in celebration of a tragedy that occurred on this site,” Tacoma City Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg said.
She lived a mile from the site in 1989 and became active in South End neighborhood issues and in reclaiming the site as a park after the attack. She announced that she will ask the City Council to rename Celebration Park as Ryan’s Park.
“I don’t expect anyone to be against it,” she said. Ladenburg also read a proclamation from Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma declaring Wednesday to be Ryan Hade Day in the city.
Hade survived the attack that left his penis severed. He healed and grew into a young man with a zest for life. He died in a motorcycle accident in 2005. He was 23.
Over the years more than $1 million poured in from around the world into a trust fund to help him pay for medical and counseling expenses. Hade left the remainder of his trust, more than $800,000, to the Tacoma Community Foundation to administer.
The painful bookends of his short life were not talking points this day in the grassy park where blackberry bushes once grew 20 feet tall. The stories told by those who lived them were how a tragedy transformed itself into something good and lasting.
Ladenburg’s husband, John, was Pierce County prosecutor in 1989 and handled the case that put Ryan’s 39-year-old assailant, Earl Shriner, away for 131 years. Shriner now is in an out-of-state prison.
“Most people do not recognize the profound effect this case had on American law” in the past 20 years, John Ladenburg said.
It helped convince lawmakers that sexual predators must be treated differently than other criminals, he said.
He ticked off other changes connected to the case: longer sentences for sexual predators, creation of special civil commitment centers for sexual predators, a two-strikes-and-out law for sexual predators, and neighborhood notifications when convicted predators set free are living in their midst.
John Ladenburg said he was aware of Shriner before the attack on Hade and had put him in prison once before. He recalled being told by state prison officials that Shriner had told others in prison that when he was released he would offend and mutilate little boys.
He even drew pictures of what he would do.
Ladenburg said the county worked with prison officials to make sure Shriner served every day of his prison term without time off for good behavior. The former prosecutor said he tried to have Shriner committed as mentally ill but “the law would not allow it.”
Changes in the law came too late for Hade.
Dick Mansfield, who still lives across the street from where the boy was attacked, recalled finding Hade that day. Huddled in some bushes, the 7-year-old was naked and covered with mud.
“I knelt down beside him,” Mansfield said. “He was so scared. He couldn’t respond to questions.”
Mansfield picked the boy up, carried him to his house and called 911.
On Wednesday, Connie Ladenberg recalled the day 600 people, including 300 students from nearby Baker Middle School, showed up to clear the area of blackberry bushes.
The neighborhood turned “The Trails,” as the area was known to local kids, into Celebration Park, which today is a grassy meadow with a creek and play equipment.
“Ryan was something else,” said his mother, Helen Harlow, “so energetic, so adventurous, so outgoing. He never lost his smile.”
The attack on her son turned Harlow into an activist on behalf of abused children and changes in sexual predator laws. She formed the Tennis Shoe Brigade that famously dumped thousands of kids’ sneakers on the state Capitol to push for those changes.
After Wednesday’s ceremony, Hade’s grandmother, Betty Foote, recalled bringing her grandson home from the hospital for the first time. On the way they drove by the site of the attack.
“He ducked down” she said. “He didn’t want to see it.”
Later, after Shriner was placed in prison, Foote said her grandson told her he finally felt no fear anymore.
Connie Ladenburg ended the remembrance with a charge to all who were there:
“Remember when you go back to your neighborhoods, keep your eyes open; keep your doors open; and take care of our kids.”
“25% of all sex offenders re-offend within 15 years”