by Kristine Erickson
After the Oregonian story was published on June 8, 2017, my first reaction was unreasonable anger at Luke’s parents for allowing their son to plead guilty to something I am certain he didn’t do. If I had only known about this when the charges were filed, I could have made sure Luke got a top-notch lawyer. One of my cousins, Anne Bremner, is a nationally known attorney who specialized in prosecuting sex crimes during her early career as an assistant district attorney in Seattle, where she successfully tried over 200 cases. When I discussed Luke’s situation with Anne after the story broke, she told me she had never prosecuted a child sex-abuse case associated with a custody dispute, due to the risk that the allegation might have been prompted by an angry parent.
Luke’s parents didn’t know of my family connection, and I soon realized why they hadn’t told me what was happening to them in 2012. During that time, I was focused on taking care of my dying father. My mother had passed away six years earlier, and our 100-year-old family home had fallen into disrepair in my father’s old age. I was living and working 40 miles away in Seattle at the time. When my father became incapacitated and had to enter a nursing home, I asked Luke’s father to inspect the vacant house. My family knew the home needed extensive renovation, but we didn’t anticipate the discovery that the concrete block foundation under the oldest section was starting to crumble.
Do you know anyone you can trust to do major renovations on your vacant home with a blank check and minimal guidance? I am blessed to know one such person, and his name is Mark Heimlich. Luke became his father’s helper on construction jobs for family friends by the time he was 10 years old. During 2011 and 2012, while the Heimlich family endured the most stressful time of their lives to that point, Luke and his dad were shouldering one of my burdens while I cared for my dying father. No wonder they didn’t tell me of their troubles.
I now realize that during August 2012, while Luke was wrestling with the hardest decision of his young life, he was on my burning hot roof fighting hordes of odorous house ants that swarmed at him from all directions when he ripped off the ancient cedar shakes. It was a metaphor of things to come.
Luke was effectively trapped by the timing of the Oregonian story, because it was published 12 weeks before he would be allowed to petition the court to seal his juvenile record. He had agreed to plead guilty based on the promise of a clean slate in five years, and a public assertion of innocence at the 11th hour might jeopardize that outcome.
With the media hounding Luke for a response, someone issued a statement on his behalf. Whoever wrote the statement may have done the best he could under impossible circumstances, but it ultimately damaged Luke’s credibility by making him sound like he was confirming he had committed the alleged offense.
No one can really imagine what it is like to have your life blown to pieces by the media. Within a few days, the inaccurate, inflammatory terms the Oregonian used in describing Luke’s juvenile court record were propagated online by hundreds of media outlets and hundreds of thousands of people. (See Vigilante Journalism page on this site.)
Within a week, this seemed to be the most viral story on the planet. A Google search on Luke Heimlich’s name produced more than 700,000 hits, and a new item was posted every few seconds. What does a large, loving family do when one of their own is bombarded with condemnation by 700,000 people? How do you fight back against such a many-headed hydra? The Heimlich family did what most of us would probably do: close ranks, batten down the hatches, and try to deflect the blows.
For days I kept trying to reach Luke’s parents, to see if I could do anything to help them. I later found out Luke’s mother had to leave her beleaguered son in Corvallis and drive straight to Portland to get to her elderly parents before they saw the news. Have you ever had a family tragedy you kept from your elderly parents, because you thought, why break their hearts at this stage of their lives? Luke’s grandparents, who are in their 90s, had never known what happened to him in 2012.
This kind of media coverage draws despicable lowlifes out from under their rocks. When Luke’s parents got back to their home in Washington, they got calls from some east coast con man diverting their attention and trying to get his hooks into them. In the midst of all this they learned from their oldest son that his daughter had been questioned about the media story by some kids in school.
When I finally managed to reach Luke’s parents, I couldn’t do much more than offer my sympathy. I arranged a meeting with my attorney cousin, who confirmed what we already knew, that Luke should have been defended back in 2012.
From then on, Luke’s parents focused on taking the legal steps to get his juvenile record sealed at the end of August. The public defender assisted them with that process, and they were further heartbroken when she told them she would never have recommended that Luke confess to something he didn’t do. If only they had asked for the public defender in 2012 instead of hiring a lawyer who convinced them to give up without a fight.
The terrible dilemma for Luke’s parents now is that anything they say in his defense also focuses more attention on their granddaughter. Just as he did in 2012, Luke has done everything in his power to alleviate stress on her. He has asked his family and friends not to defend him, and for nearly a year, he didn’t even speak up for himself.
Luke focused on school and baseball, prioritized his team, and continued to have faith that the world will ultimately judge him based on the character he has demonstrated. When he finally did a couple of media interviews in May 2018, he was widely condemned for saying he is innocent, and he was criticized for the timing a month before the draft.
As Luke’s mother lamented in a recent message to me, “Why is there never a good time to tell the truth?”