Victim reported predator, but he remained free for decades
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tara Benson doesn't live a day without thinking of the pain Jack E. Gravenmier inflicted on her as a child.
What's worse, she said, is that reporting Gravenmier, who sexually abused her more than 20 years ago, to the police did not stop him from sexually abusing other children for decades.
Gravenmier, 80, of Charleston, was caught in February 2012 when federal authorities said he drove to St. Louis to sexually abuse a teenage boy. That's when authorities uncovered hundreds of images of child pornography in Gravenmier's home depicting more than 45 victims across four decades.
Benson said she hopes sharing her story will empower Gravenmier's victims to feel safe again and also spark a discussion about how the man went unnoticed for so long.
"What happened?" she said. "I honestly think [an investigation] got stopped along the way. There were too many people who knew, too many victims."
Benson, 40, said she first reported Gravenmier to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Charleston in the early 1990s. She told agents about how Gravenmier abused her and how he would mail child pornography to other predators. An agent told her he would monitor Gravenmier's mail, she said, but he found nothing during the surveillance.
"A couple of years later, I gave it another shot. The FBI told me that he had passed away and 'Sorry, there's nothing we can about it,'" Benson said. "I learned sometime in either 2000 or 2001 that he had not passed away. I got very, very angry and I went back."
That's when FBI agents told Benson they had no record of an investigation or her earlier statements, she said. An agent told her the statue of limitations had expired in the case, she said.
Gravenmier pleaded guilty in January to two counts of production of child pornography, one count of attempting to persuade a minor to engage in sexual activity and one count of travel with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct, for crimes in Missouri and West Virginia. He was sentenced to 160 years in prison.
According to a federal indictment, Gravenmier induced three minors to "engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual description of such conduct" between 2002 and early 2003.
In February 2012, FBI agents arrested Gravenmier after he traveled to St. Louis to sexually abuse a teenage boy. According to an affidavit filed in the case, Gravenmier already had abused the boy several months before. Gravenmier sent the teenager sexually explicit images and claimed to have child pornography at his home.
Prosecutors searched Gravenmier's house at 833 Beaumont Road in South Hills and his 1995 Ford Cutaway RV. Gravenmier, a retired chemical engineer for Union Carbide, taught skiing and sold skiing equipment from his home.
Gravenmier's former son-in-law, Larry Mundy, said he discovered a child porn collection inside Gravenmier's house in the late '70s.
"I was downstairs washing clothes and I noticed a little room leading under the stairwell. I thought, 'What the hell is in here?'" Mundy said. "I turned the light on and couldn't believe what I saw."
Mundy said Gravenmier knew his collection had been discovered because Mundy took a photo and hid it in the house, but Gravenmier noticed the photo missing and found it.
That's when Mundy said he went to the Charleston Police Department, reported Gravenmier and offered to take a lie-detector test.
"They didn't investigate it, because if they had, they would have found everything," Mundy said. "They came back and said there was no substance to [the allegations], or something to that affect."
Charleston police have no record of an investigation into Gravenmier from the '70s, according to the department's records division. Mundy said he tried to tell Gravenmier's wife about the abuse he uncovered but she stayed with her husband.
"She just gave me this look like, "'I know,'" he said. She died in 1998.
Mundy said he later divorced Gravenmier's daughter because she stood by her father.
During a sentencing hearing in April, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Livergood in Missouri said Gravenmier had abused children since the early '70s and would hand out candy in hopes of abusing them. Sometimes, he threatened or intimidated his victims, Livergood said.
Benson said she's undergone extensive psychological counseling to live with the pain that Gravenmier caused her. After the FBI caught Gravenmier in 2012, Benson gave agents a photo album of her and her childhood friends to help identify victims in Gravenmier's collection.
Benson said she wants to meet other victims, to share the trauma.
"I guess you don't know until you've lived it," she said. "I think about it every single day, I swear to you -- every single day."
Reach Travis Crum at email@example.com or 304-348-5163.