Jessica and Kaleb Dyess are innocent victims.
There are lots of other victims in the tragic story of Tracey Dyess, but only those two are innocent. In fact, separating the good guys from the bad guys in this story of abuse and murder is nearly impossible.
Jessica, 13, and Kaleb, 6, died horribly in a March 2005 fire deliberately set by their 17-year-old sister, Tracey, who said she really wanted to kill her abuser/lover/stepfather, Brian Street.
Street and Tracey’s mother, Debbie, made it out of their tiny Griswold, Iowa, home safely but were unable to rescue the two younger children.
For deliberately setting the blaze that killed her siblings, Tracey pleaded guilty to five felony charges and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. She’ll be eligible for parole in 2022.
“I intended to kill Brian. I set the fire,” she confessed in court “My mom was getting ready to leave the house, and I knew what was going to happen. He was going to force himself on me.”
That’s what Tracey said in court, and having sex with an underage child is a prima facie case of sexual abuse, but the relationship between Tracey and Street was much more complex than just victim and victimizer.
The story of how Tracey Dyess came to kill two of her siblings begins a long time before she poured gasoline around the house and set a lit match to it. It is one of those stories of neglect, cruelty and incomprehensible stupidity that makes us wonder how such things could happen in this day and age.
“Life failed Tracey,” the Rev. Val Peter told Des Moines Register reporter Jennifer Jacobs. “Not at the end and not at the middle but right at the very beginning, and the punishment does not fit what she did.”
Peter, a Catholic priest, has been seeking a commutation of Tracey’s sentence from the Iowa governor, arguing that she was one of the innocent victims in this case.
When one really looks at it from the priest’s position, “life failed Tracey” even before she was born.
Tracey’s mother, Debbie, endured a life of sexual abuse and abandonment growing up, eventually hooking up with a Texas truck driver named Mike Dyess, who married her in 1987 after getting the 17-year-old pregnant with twins — one of whom was Tracey.
Dysfunction breeds dysfunction and eventually the Dyess family moved to Texas where Mike pimped out his wife by posting “massage” advertisements in bar toilets. With the family living in a motel, Mike collected the cash from the customers and took the twins for a walk while Debbie took care of the johns.
Debbie told the Des Moines Register that sometimes the twins slept in the other bed while she worked, but she was sure that the toddlers never woke up while she was occupied.
When Debbie was busted for prostitution, the twins first went to foster care and then ended up with Debbie’s mother and stepfather. Tracey went from the frying pan into the fire; the girls had to be removed from that home when Tracey alleged that her grandfather was molesting her. He denied it and although charges were filed, they were later dismissed.
By the late 1990s, things were beginning to really get weird.
Having completed some parenting classes, Debbie reentered her daughters’ lives when they were six years old, bringing along a 2-year-old sister — Jessica — for them. In effect the twins were turned over to a stranger.
“I was scared to death of them,” Debbie said later.
The Dyess family was living in a beat-up car in Arizona when Debbie and Mike split up. Debbie took the three kids and headed up to Nebraska, where she moved in with an old friend, Steve Grothe. Around the same time, Debbie felt the need to share her parenting expertise with a troubled young pregnant girl who gave birth to a baby boy she named Kaleb. Debbie Dyess was listed as Kaleb’s mother on his birth certificate and was later named his legal guardian. The three girls were raised thinking Kaleb was their brother.
Debbie married Grothe in 2000, despite never having divorced Mike Dyess. Grothe later admitted that he molested Tracey and in 2001 he was charged with two counts of sexual abuse of a child. The charges were later dismissed.
Why? Take your pick of the reasons offered: Tracey recanted, the prosecutor said. Tracey wouldn’t testify, Debbie said. Debbie refused to let her testify, Tracey said.
After Grothe admitted to police that he had molested Tracey twice, Debbie moved out of his home. When the charges were dismissed she made Grothe apologize to his stepdaughter and Debbie and the girls moved back in with him.
Not surprisingly things didn’t work out so well after the Dyess women reunited with Grothe. By 2002 Debbie was looking to get out and when she met Brian Street she jumped at the chance to leave Grothe.
Finding Street wasn’t difficult; after all, he was Debbie’s stepbrother and the son of the first man accused of molesting Tracey. He was also a felon, convicted of robbery, car theft, and burglary.
After leaving the kids with Grothe for a few weekends in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Debbie hung out with Brian Street. When Street promised a better chance at a peaceful life, Debbie packed up the family and moved in with her new boyfriend.
“Brian said, ‘I have a stable life, I have a home, you can share the house, my sister’s there, you’ll be safe, the kids’ll be safe, everything’ll be great,’ ” Debbie told the Register. “But that wasn’t the way it turned out.”
For the Dyess family, especially for Tracey, now 15, things went from weird to bizarre.
By all accounts Tracey had a “special” relationship with Street that in any other situation would have raised red flags and every other type of warning sign imaginable. She picked up his interest in wolves and eagles, began dressing like Street, and even got a similar haircut. She took clothes from his closet and even her moods began to parallel Street’s.
The family thought it was nice that Tracey seemed to have a strong male influence in her life and believed her imitation of Street was somehow healthy. This odd behavior was likely Tracey’s reaction to the attention she was receiving from Street. In fact, Tracey was simply behaving in a manner frequently seen in sexual molestation cases.
“One of the things that happens with people who are victim of molestation is they try to ‘de-sex’ themselves, to look like the opposite sex,” said Lauren Howard, a social worker familiar with Tracey’s case.
After the fire that killed her sister and brother, Tracey said the sexual relationship she had with Brian Street was not consensual (not that it would matter because of her age anyway), and that he forced himself on her. In Iowa, a 14-year-old can consent to sex provided the partner is under 19. Street was far older than that.
Street admits that he had a relationship with Tracey, but denies it was non-consensual.
“We all know the woman makes the rules in a relationship,” he told the Register, asserting that Tracey had a choice in everything they did.
In early 2003 the clan piled into a van and a car — Tracey and Street in the car and everyone else in the van — and headed west to see the Grand Canyon. Along the way they ran out of cash and were forced to beg gas and food money from strangers.
They worked with a carnival for a few weeks and somewhere in Arizona Debbie married Brian Street — while still being married to Mike Dyess and Steve Grothe. Being married made it easier to get benefits from the state and begin the type of scam that would support the family until the murderous fire.
The group landed in California where Debbie and Street opened some bogus checking accounts and began hanging bad paper across the Southwest.
After finding a trucker who was willing to drive Tracey’s twin sister back to her father, Mike Dyess, the remaining members of the clan headed back to the Midwest. Passing bad checks was the order of the day and that led to Tracey’s first arrest for trying to return a $200 piece of plumbing bought with a bad check.
Brian Street ran the home in a manner typical for a serial abuser. In fact, because of his chosen career as an utterer-and-publisher, he was even more audacious than most abusers — he refused to let the children enroll in school because he was afraid that this would lead the police to his door. He controlled who had access to house keys, who could go to the store, and who was allowed to have money.
“It’s what I would expect of a father who is preying upon his daughter repeatedly to keep from being captured, and known, and discovered,” said one convicted child molester who was interviewed by cable news when Tracey’s story broke.
After 15 moves in three years, the family landed in Griswold in November 2004. There, townspeople figured Street and Tracey were a couple.
From jail, Street told the Register that he and Tracey would “hold hands, laugh, kiss,” when out in public. He also claimed that he and Tracey were star-crossed lovers who longed to marry each other.
“Yes, I am romantically involved with an underage girl, but I did want to — and still do — marry her and spend the rest of my life with her,” he told the Register after the fire. “She was my partner, my equal, my lifeline.”
By this time Tracey was living with a terribly damaged psyche. There’s probably a diagnosis for what she suffered from — some sort of traumatic stress disorder/Stockholm Syndrome kind of thing that left her twisting in the wind.
For example, in one letter to Street she wrote “I love you with all my heart and I never want to hurt you. You are the only one that I will ever love or do anything with.”
However, she was also writing things like “If these walls could talk, you would know my body is dead, my mind has been taken over, that’s why I’m so scared. I can’t control it, anger is making me blind, I’ve been left here on my own, chained to a hate of some kind.”
It was only a matter of time before something really, really bad happened, and when it did no one who knew what was going on should have been surprised. What is surprising is how Tracey went about wreaking havoc on her world. The steps she took make it hard for some people to put her in the category of innocent victim. Because of this she stands to spend much of her life inside prison walls and razor wire.
March 30, 2005 was an average for the Dyess/Street clan. Debbie was preparing to go to a distant town the next day to withdraw cash from bank account where the state aid was direct-deposited. Kaleb and Jessica were planning to go with her. If everything else went according to the routine, while Debbie was out Street would rent a motel room where he and Tracey would go and have sex.
“Even when my mom and everyone else was out of town he would still rent a motel room because he said it made it more romantic,” Tracey later told investigators.
However, Tracey had other plans.
That day she had purchased two gallons of gasoline and hidden the container in the garage. Earlier she had written letters to relatives informing them of the tragic deaths of her family in a house fire.
When evening came the family began preparing for bed. Jessica was sleeping on a couch in the living room because her bedroom was in the process of being painted. Debbie and Street were sleeping in a downstairs bedroom and Tracey’s room was above theirs. Around 11:30 p.m. Debbie and Street turned in and Tracey decided to do some shopping online. She bought a shirt for Jessica’s birthday, just a few weeks away.
Once everyone was asleep, Tracey began to pour the gasoline around the house. She started in front of Street and Debbie’s room, then poured some near the couch where Jessica slept. Finally, she left a trail of accelerant from Kaleb’s bedroom up the stairs.
At 1 a.m. she lit the gasoline.
Tracey waited five minutes in her room on the second floor before she climbed out a window onto the lower roof atop the room where Debbie and Street slept. She told investigators later that she was not thinking of anyone but herself at the time and gave no warning after leaping 10 feet to the ground.
By the time the smoke detectors woke Street, the house was fully engulfed. He rushed from the bedroom into the living room where Jessica was standing on a couch and yelling. Unobserved, Tracey stood outside the house watching them through the window.
“The smoke was yellowish red color and smelled like burnt rubber and burnt wood,” Tracey told authorities. “You could hear the kids screaming and then it was so quiet.”
Firefighters arrived 15 minutes after Tracey started the blaze. While they battled the fire and Street and Debbie tried unsuccessfully to rescue Jessica and Kaleb, Tracey was wandering the neighborhood looking for the family dog which had escaped through the front door.
Kaleb was found inches from the window of his room; Jessica was sitting in an overstuffed chair, her body burned over 90 percent of its surface. While Street and Debbie collapsed in hysterics, Tracey appeared numb — some would say nonchalant.
The investigation of the fire quickly revealed arson and by the end of the next day Tracey had confessed to starting the fire. She blamed the sexual abuse as the reason she started the fire.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she told an investigator, revealing that Street had been sexually assaulting her and that there was evidence of this in a fireproof safe in his bedroom.
In the bedroom police found the safe which contained Polaroid photos of Tracey and Street in sexual poses, five pairs of woman’s underwear, and two letters from Tracey to Street expressing her love for him.
But the sexual abuse allegation didn’t explain everything. Why had Tracey poured gasoline where her brother and sister were sleeping if she only wanted to kill Street? Why didn’t she take any steps to save Jessica or Kaleb?
Since the plan was for Debbie and the two children to stay overnight in Hastings, where the bank was, why didn’t she wait until the 31st to kill her abuser?
“Well, I was just so mad that night,” Tracey explained to authorities.
After her interrogation Tracey was charged with first degree murder of her siblings.
“It was chilling how she sat here afterward and described how she did it,” Cass County Sheriff Bill Sage told the Register
In the end the fire brought everything and everyone down. Debbie was convicted of bigamy and felony check fraud and received probation. Brian Street was convicted in federal court of sexual exploitation and possession of child pornography and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2037 when he is 77 years old.
The story is perhaps best summed up by a sexual abuse counselor who is familiar with the case:
“No one can understand what it was like to be in her shoes, can understand what got her to that place. When kids have to go into their own head for their safety and develop skills that kids shouldn’t have to know, the result isn’t always what they intended…and can have tragic results,” she said.
Abuser, Lover, Stepfather
Jessica and Kaleb Dyess are innocent victims.