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The Avenger

By Frank Kuznik
Originally published in Pursuits, Summer 1989.

Downtown Manhattan, on a sun-splashed Tuesday morning. A crisp breeze funnels through the high-rise canyons. Coffee steams in the carryouts. Outside the office of Andrew Vachss, a one-man war against child abuse, the streets are alive with Wall Street sharpies and the roar of construction. But this isn't Andrew Vachss' New York.

This is Andrew Vachss' New York—seen through the eyes of a fictional alter ego named Burke:

It's not a world out here, it's a junkyard. I grabbed a little girl once, maybe 14 years old. Working the street. She spent her nights with her eyes closed and her mouth full. Turned over all the money to some dirtbag who beat her up and sent her back for more. I was taking her to this place I know, where they'd keep her safe, and I asked her about being a runaway. I thought you ran away to get to a better place. She told me she was in a better place. —Blue Belle

Vachss is a 46-year-old bad-ass lawyer who's turned child-advocacy work into a fearsome practice and an after-hours obsession. In the courtroom he specializes in yanking kids out of the maw of hell; after hours he writes hard-boiled thrillers that support his legal crusade. The books are forays into the dark side of his business, lean and brutal fiction that doesn't exactly leave you anxious to meet the author.

When I finally reach Vachss on the phone, he's got a voice like Dr. Doom and more barriers around his private life than Howard Hughes. But he'll talk about his work—which is what takes me to the 18th floor of a nondescript office building only a few blocks from city hall. At the end of the corridor there's an open door onto a single room that is carpeted and paneled and arranged for serious desk work.

Vachss (pronounced "vax") stands up and offers a bandaged right hand that's lost nothing in the grip. What really grabs and holds you, though, is his face. First the patch, which has been on and off his right eye since he was 7, when he was hit in the face with a chain during a street fight. This one is tuxedo-black with a subtle diamond pattern. It's framed by a perpetual five-o'clock shadow and a tousled mane of black hair. The rest of the face is all sharp angles, like a predatory bird, the one good eye as intense as a candle flame.

I thought about kiddie porn. About selling little boys in Times Square. Rapists. Child molesters. Snuff films. The tape looped inside my head. —Burke in Blue Belle

We make small talk about his well-received third novel, Blue Belle, then get down to Vachss' business. Investigating child-abuse cases. Keeping kids out of the hands of incorrigible slime. Pounding on the judicial system—literally—until it performs as it's supposed to.

"How I busted this is a perfect example," Vachss says with a rueful look at his hand. "You know the [Lisa] Steinberg killing? I had a kid with exactly the same injuries who, unfortunately, didn't die. My client was only 90 days old. And one of the things wrong with my client was a broken pelvis—both sides—okay? It was the doctor's position that this was caused by shaking the baby in the following manner [shakes his hands back and forth as though he were emptying a sack of flour] to make it stop crying. It was my position that the kid was beaten.

"So I said to the doctor, 'The pelvis was broken. Couldn't that have been done by a blow?' The doctor said, 'How could it be done by a single blow, because you have two points to the pelvis.' So I said to her, 'This is my forearm. Would you please measure the width of the child's pelvis on my fist and forearm?' which she did. Then I turned around and smashed the hell out of the wall. And I said, 'Wouldn't that do it?' And she responded, 'Yeah, that would do it.'"

A Seamless Obsession

The same kind of intensity runs through Vachss' books—and for good reason. Their plots come straight from his work. Vachss says there's nothing in Flood, Strega, Blue Belle, or his most recently published novel, Hard Candy, that he hasn't run into: the baby rapist working the day-care center, the porn-photo sessions at the babysitter's, the incest, the pain freaks, the $25,000 for a transplantable, black-market baby heart—all too real. And for Vachss, the cases, the stories, the books are all part of a seamless preoccupation.

Which must make Burke, the narrator and avenging angel of the novels, a fantasy projection of Vachss himself. Right? "I have to quote the honorable Elijah Muhammad," Vachss says with a rare trace of a smile. "'Those that know don't say, and those that say don't know.'"

Look, man, let's all be telling the truth here. The word's been out a long time—you got a kiddie problem, you call Burke. I know you ain't no social worker. You an outlaw, like me. You just work a different side of the street. —Marques the pimp talking to Burke in Blue Belle

Some things about himself Vachss hides; others he doesn't care what you think. But there's one or two things he wants clear—like how he launched into his line of work. "I'm not some middle-class kid who said, you know, 'I'm 19 years old; I think I'll be a lawyer.' I didn't get to go to law school until I was more than a decade out of college. When I did, it was malice aforethought. I knew what I wanted to do and was pretty damned well prepared to do it."

Vachss grew up not far from his 18-story perch, in a neighborhood he describes as "working-class, nice, friendly, pleasant." He says he went to college to escape factory work, then did time in a succession of social-service jobs with the idea of making a contribution. "The common denominator was to try and do something that to me was important, something significant, something that would count."

His very first job—as a public-health investigator tracking sexually transmitted diseases—introduced him to an appalling world. "The trail always ended with kids. That's actually the first time I realized that they could be sexual targets. I wasn't raised in a prep school, but it had never occurred to me that people would have sex with babies."

The Heart of Evil

Eight years later Vachss was wrapping up a stint as the director of a maximum-security pen for violent juvenile offenders and feeling as though he was still chasing symptoms instead of the real problem. "I had an is-that-all-there-is feeling. I wrote a book about treating violent juveniles. I established some things that I thought were very important about juvenile corrections. But there was no power there. I had power with individual kids and their lives, but it was always too little too late," he says, stubbing out a cigarette and emptying the ashtray. He empties it after every smoke, like a man who's seen too many spent things sitting in front of him. "That's when I got the idea to go to law school and represent kids."

I know people so cold, so evil, you meet them, you'd swear they came out of their mothers' wombs like that. But that's not the way it is. All the human monsters have to be made—they can't be born that way. —Burke in Blue Belle

Going to court for kids finally put Vachss at the source. In his universe he stands at the cold, dark heart of evil itself, the spawning ground for America's nightmares. "There's only one way to prevent crime in this country, and that is to stop the production lines that create the monsters we're afraid of," he says, his voice sharp with anger. "You can see the monsters being hatched in abusive households. And if we were to intervene intelligently and quickly and seriously in what permits the creation of a monster ..."

But we don't. In New York damaged kids are given law guardians, a fancy term for the court-appointed lawyers who represent children in abuse and custody cases. Since that gig doesn't even pay a living wage, it tends to attract mostly second-rate talent. Vachss is a wolf among sheep in that crowd.

"I relish having a lawyer of his caliber in the courtroom," says Westchester County family-court judge Howard Spitz. "Andrew is knowledgeable; he has medical, psychological, and sociological expertise. He's a person who digs for the truth and doesn't quit until he finds it. He'd stick with a case for 15 years if he had to."

Even opposition lawyers place Vachss in a class by himself, "He's on a higher level than anybody I've ever seen who represents children," says Jeffrey Salant, a Westchester County lawyer who has squared off against Vachss plenty during 14 years of family-practice work. What makes Vachss so good? Salant cites his dedication, aggressiveness, and propensity for bullying the bench.

"There's no question that he intimidates judges," Salant says. "I think he's able to get away with it because a lot of times he knows the law better than the judges do. So when he's standing there with that patch and deep voice, reciting the statutes, I think the judges just assume he's right."

War in the Courtroom

Vachss tells me that tenacity is what gives him an edge in the courtroom, but I figure it's something else: anger. It runs all through his work, from his ferocious courtroom manner to nearly every page of his novels. Even Vachss' wife, Alice, shares his intense contempt for sex offenders. She's the chief sex-crimes prosecutor in the Queens County D.A.'s office.

"I believe that only anger gets something done," Vachss says. "I absolutely hope my books make people angry."

There's a qualifier, though. "My anger is very narrowly focused. I don't spread it all over the map; I'm not angry at George Bush. I'm real angry at a whole list of people that I'm in active warfare with, and those are the people I'll deal with.

"My clients are playing for life-and-death stakes. Every year so many kids are killed who were returned to the people who originally attacked them. To prevent that is war."

"In group one day Babette told us how she happened to get free of her pimp," Lily said. "She said you shot the man."

"I thought he was reaching for a gun," I said lamely. Shooting a pimp should only be a petty misdemeanor anyway—like hunting without a license. —Burke in Strega

War's a pretty ugly business, particularly when you're fighting in a trench like Yonkers Family Court, where I rendezvous with Vachss the next morning. The court is a human zoo jammed onto the fourth floor of a seedy office building near a ghetto. Police officers guard a metal detector at the door, three holding cells, and a courtroom off the hallway. One of the cops invites me into a back room, where he opens a file cabinet. "You can't believe what people bring in here," he says, pulling out a cardboard box filled with an assortment of drug paraphernalia, knives, blow darts, and plastic guns.

Vachss is here to try to keep a convicted abuser from regaining access to his kids. A court-ordered zone drawn around their home didn't keep him out; he audaciously found a job in the area. Now the abuser wants the order amended to let him back in to work. The county prosecutors say it's okay with them. Vachss is the only one who seems outraged at the idea of putting the kids in jeopardy again.

During a heated pretrial conference in the judge's chamber, Vachss lets everybody know it's hardball time: the deviant is going nowhere but to an in-patient alcoholic treatment program. If he refuses, then Vachss puts him on the stand in court and nails him for violating the zone order. The guy can take his pick—jail or the treatment program.

Waiting to Pounce

By the time the hearing gets under way, the deal is done. The courtroom is a small makeshift affair with discount-store paneling on the walls, brown industrial carpeting, and an elevated judge's bench at one end of the room behind an imitation wrought-iron railing. Some battered wooden furniture rounds out the decor.

Vachss, poised like a hovering hawk waiting to strike, sits alone at a small table just a few feet from the deviant and his lawyer. But it's clear that no one wants to take him on. For a few minutes the only sound in the courtroom is the hiss and bang of the radiators. The abuser, his shoulders stooped, finally agrees to go dry out. His lawyer follows with a fumbling speech asking for compassion for his client.

That brings Vachss to his feet. "I'm not certain what he just said, so I'm not sure how to respond to it," he begins.

"So don't bother," the opposing lawyer mutters under his breath.

Vachss whirls around as if somebody's just insulted his mother, locks the lawyer in a death stare, and injects acid into his voice: "Did you say something?"

The lawyer shakes his head no and tries to disappear into his seat.

"I thought not," Vachss says with a tone of finality.

After the hearing he lights up a cigarette in an empty office and explains his strategy. The deviant would probably have gotten off with no more than 30 days for the zone violation. "So I terrorized them by huffing and puffing about a trial, for which none of them are prepared. Now he enters an in-patient alcoholic program. If he's unfavorably discharged, he heads for jail. If he completes it, he has to go to an inpatient pedophile treatment program that rejected him previously because he's an alcoholic. Either way, he's off the streets for a long time."

"So you backed him into a corner until there was only one way out."

"Yeah," Vachss says, emptying the ashtray. "And I'm always there."

I pulled him away from the fence, bringing my right hand around in a short hook to his gut. He made a gagging sound, dropped to the ground. I went down on one knee next to him. His face was against the pavement, vomiting. "We know your face, freak," I said quietly. "Next time we see you, you're done." I stomped my heel hard into the side of his face; it made a squishy sound. —Burke in Blue Belle

Blurring Fact and Fiction

"I don't think too much should be made of the surface similarities between Burke and Andy," Jim Procter later tells me. A reporter for the Post-Tribune in Gary, Indiana, Procter has been a friend of Vachss' for nearly 20 years. "Burke's a violent guy; that's not Andy. Andy's fight is in the courtroom. That's where he shows his intensity and purposefulness."

Maybe so. But the parallels are striking. Both Vachss and the protagonist of his novels are aficionados of blues music and the racetrack. Both smoke too much and eschew alcohol. Both clocked time in Biafra; Vachss went there during the civil war in 1969 to track child-relief funds, and Burke has reoccurring nightmares about his experiences there.

Both men share a tough anticrime stance. Burke complains, "In this city a pit bull bites two people, they gas it. A human cripples his own kid, they give him another bite." Vachss says, "This is a country where if you grow your own victim, you get a certain kind of immunity. If a person rapes his daughter, we say he's sick; if he rapes his neighbor's daughter, we say he's a criminal and should go to prison."

Fear looms large in both men's lives. Burke lives behind an elaborate series of paper fronts—false addresses, fake identities—and electronic protection in a fortress-like loft in Manhattan that he shares with a Neapolitan mastiff the size of a panther. Vachss also owns a Neapolitan mastiff as well as a Rottweiler, a German shepherd-mastiff cross, and a retired seeing-eye dog. "They're all man stalkers," he notes.

Vachss won't say where he lives. His wife's job in the Queens County D.A.'s office comes with a residency requirement. When I ask Vachss if that puts him in Queens, he snaps, "I tell every reporter a different thing, because it's nobody's business where I live. I mean, look, let's say you had a friend in the Motor Vehicle Bureau—this is my driver's license." It shows an address for his downtown office. "I've gotten lots of threats. I have no way to evaluate their seriousness, but I see no reason why I should take a chance.

"Besides, I don't see why it should bother anybody. If you don't mean me any harm, you won't get hit by a tripwire or blown up by a shotgun or attacked by a dog—none of that stuff can happen, right?"

Does he really have a tripwire set up at home? "I will say only that my house is not a safe place for you to enter."

I avoid running the Burke-Vachss analogy much further. For one thing, Burke is an outlaw, an ex-con dispensing justice in a manner that has little to do with upholding the law. Most people don't notice that he's also an archetypal rendering of an abused child. He never feels safe; his "family" is an adopted group of misfits instead of real parents and siblings; he's mistrustful by nature and has nothing but hatred and contempt for systems and agencies.

Still, Vachss reaches deep into his life and work for material—a dangerous posture for someone who values his privacy. The books are his one unprotected flank. But it's hard to tell whether the barbed-wire perimeter around his personal life is Vachss' attempt to minimize that exposure or a sly way of fueling the speculation his writing and legal work seem to invite.

New York Newsday, for example, asked him point-blank if his angry crusade was the result of being an abused child himself. He denied it.

The Path to Hell

This much seems clear: Vachss turned to fiction primarily to get his message to a wider audience. Given that, he feels obliged to stick close to reality. "If I did white-knight, fantasy kind of fiction, then when I talked about child sex abuse, people would think that was fantasy, too," he says, adjusting his eye patch with a thumb and forefinger.

I tell him that Blue Belle reads like the real thing.

"That's the goal. That's the feeling you get if the book succeeds, and I don't care about any other take on it. Because once you say that it's real, when you get to the part about selling kids' body parts, instead of saying 'Who the hell made that up?' you'll believe it."

If the original idea with the books was to expose the horror and make more people angry, how about celluloid? At the very least, Vachss' private war would reach a wider audience in movie theaters.

"I've gotten more movie offers than you've had birthdays," he says. "The full spectrum, from the people who make slasher films to the ones who make these incredibly sensitive Silkwood kinds of productions. But no offer has satisfied me, so there's been no movie."

It seems that every movie producer wants to put his own spin on Burke, turn him into a vigilante or private detective or urban Rambo. Vachss has had some tempting financial offers—six figures plus points. But nobody's really talking his language yet. "Hollywood's more than plenty interested," he says. "I'd rather have a movie than not, but I would never risk having my life's work perverted—no way.

"There's part of me that says, 'Well, if I had this money, I need this new computer and research system that's going to cost me about $90,000. I need a lot of other stuff to do my work.' But once you start reasoning like that, that's the path to hell."

So Vachss and Burke make do with the hell they're already in. Wrestling with the kind of nightmares that don't disappear when you wake up.

FRANK KUZNIK is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
His articles have appeared in Playboy, Regardie's, and Washington Dossier.

Excerpts from Blue Belle by Andrew Vachss. ©1988 by Andrew Vachss. Excerpt from Strega by Andrew Vachss. ©1987 by Andrew Vachss. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf.


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