First of all, I’d like to dedicate this episode to the late Norm MacDonald, one of the greatest comedians of all time, who gave me the subtitle for this script. If you are unfamiliar with the story of Vince Champ, all will become clear in a moment. But if you are familiar with Vince Champ, then you know why I mention Norm MacDonald, since you can’t look up Vince Champ and go more than 2 minutes without finding a Norm reference or quotation. Type the words “Vince Champ” into Youtube, go to the comment section of any video that comes up, and you’ll see what I mean.
Norm MacDonald, who passed away earlier this year from cancer, frequently liked to make blatantly idiotic jokes in order to watch people’s reactions. He didn’t care if the joke made you laugh (though it often did), he just wanted to amuse himself at your reaction. An awkward silence, groans of frustration, or scowls of anger, suited him just as well as peals of laughter. All would be met with a look of pure joy and indulgence on Norm’s face. He didn’t cater toward the sour-faced, the thin-skinned, or tiptoe around the more humourless fusspots in the audience. He loved jokes for the jokes themselves.
One of Norm’s blatantly idiotic, and oft-repeated, jokes was to raise the name of one of history’s monsters in conversation: Adolf Hitler. Or Albert Fish, “The Werewolf of Wisteria”. Or today’s eponymous villain, the former stand-up comedian Vince Champ, whom Norm utterly despised as a traitor to his profession’s central calling – to lift the dark feelings of the audience for a while, not to unload your own darkness upon the world just because you think you can get away with it. Norm would then give you a straight-faced and grim account of who this monster was and their horrific crimes against humankind and nature. He’d be unnecessarily detailed. He would use high-flown and biblical language to underline the travesties the person in question had imposed upon “the indelibly blood-stained pages of the history of human crime.” He’d go on for a bit too long. Staring at you in the eye. His face impassive. His voice cold. And just when you’d start to wonder how this pot-stirring comedian was going to wrap this up and actually make this catalogue of atrocity funny, he’d interrupt himself in the middle of recounting the details of a genocide or murder or rape, and bluster, “y’know, I mean, this guy was a real JERK!”
The punchline was stupid. It was an anti-climax. It was an obviously inappropriate understatement describing the deeds of an atrocious person, couched in the archaic 1930s radio language that Norm was so fond of using. It wasn’t designed to unleash howls of laughter. Just a grin or a chuckle. But it was with this cheeky punchline that Norm MacDonald transformed any kind of horror into something gleamingly funny within seconds. Norm was the embodiment of the idea that anything can be laughed at, with just a little bit of introspection, intelligence, and childlike joy. The exact opposite of the squeaky clean comedian, Vince Champ, who stayed away from all controversial topics, never cursed, never pushed the envelope, and never offended anyone. And in private turned out to be one of the worst people ever. Or, in Norm’s words, “a real jerk.”
For Norm, no monstrous topic in the world existed, so fierce and evil, that it could not be slain by a little bit of immature gallows humour. It was small acts of genius like that joke, which made dozens of comedy legends, from Jerry Seinfeld to Bill Burr, and millions of fans worldwide, dub Norm MacDonald one of the greatest comedians of all time. Conversely, if it were not for Norm’s joke, Vince Champ, whose tepid comedy can barely be found anywhere today, would have long since faded into obscurity.
Interestingly, I reflect, we could make Norm’s same joke after every episode of the Casual Criminalist.
And we shall certainly need a liberal dose of gallows humour to approach the twisted tale of a man as psychologically revolting as Vince Champ – a hack comedian, with what Norm MacDonald called the “world’s worst gimmick”, who provided humanity with one of life’s darkest punchlines.
Atrocity in Omaha
It is the evening of 5th of March 1997. The University of Nebraska in the city of Omaha is certainly not in the American Ivy League. It is a decent little university, in a fly-over state, with a relatively small enrollment of students. Omaha itself is a rather unassuming city. A population of a few hundred thousand. Clean. Safe. Pokey. Omaha is a city retaining that countryside aesthetic, that unashamedly corny community spirit, and that can-do attitude which is one of the greatest virtues of chronically underappreciated US cities, and among the most attractive qualities of everyday Americans. And, as a humble backdrop to our story, Omaha is not the sort of place you usually see many students (or criminals) migrating to.
Heidi Hess, a part-time grad student teacher, was working by herself in a computer lab on the University of Nebraska campus. Getting late at night, most other people had gone home. Her anonymity would usually be protected by convention, but Heidi has bravely chosen to sacrifice her anonymity, claim ownership of her story, and freely share it in order to overcome what was done to her and also let other victims of such crimes know they are not alone. A tough decision which should be commended and applauded.
A man slipped quietly through the door of the lab. Quietly but swiftly he walked up behind Hess, who was so engrossed in her work that she had not looked up at him, and the man put a gloved hand over the woman’s eyes. He then pulled a ragged cloth cap over the woman’s entire face so she could not identify him. In the days before CCTV cameras were placed all over university campuses for the express purpose of student safety, no footage would capture the man entering or leaving the premises either.
“I’m here to rob you,” the man muttered. Ripped from what she was doing, still disoriented, Heidi Hess panicked. The man gripped the woman and held her firm until she stopped struggling. He told her in a deep but perversely apologetic voice that if she did as he said, no one needed to get hurt. Gradually, Heidi stopped moving and, in an adrenaline-muddled flash, she came to the foul, ugly, and traumatising conclusion that her best chance of survival was to comply with her attacker. It is this cold realisation of potential powerlessness and loss of agency, where nothing you can do will avert the harm being done to you, which causes the most mental damage and can take decades or even a lifetime to repair.
The man’s voice sounded deep, resonant, and oddly formal, like a newsreader. Trapped in that room with her attacker, the man proceeded to sexually assault her, in multiple ways, for over an hour. And with it being late at night, it seemed unlikely that anyone would hear a scream for help. Not that the victim dared, because she feared that non-compliance would cause the rapist to turn violent.
The entire time, the man peppered his victim with questions, expecting a response, which Heidi was too terrified not to give. He asked where she was from, he asked about her parents and siblings, he asked about her past sexual experiences. A very strange and twisted modus operandi. Heidi gave the sort of brief terrified answers that anyone in her position would feel forced to give. She was overwhelmed by the feeling that she might die if she did not comply. A shockingly cold, venomous, and paralysing feeling that anyone who has gone through a sexual assault must deal with for the rest of their lives.
Afterward, the assailant did not immediately flee. Instead the man asked his victim if she would pray for his soul. A strange request. One that may imply guilt. But also a putridly selfish act. By forcing his victim to pray for forgiveness for him, he was in a sense coercing an implied forgiveness out of his victim. And also implying that the victim was somehow complicit in his crime.
Then the man finally left. But not before politely requesting that the victim wait an hour before alerting the authorities. To add insult to injury, the man did indeed rob her of what little cash and what few valuables she had on her at the time. After what seemed to her like an eternity, but in a superhuman display of endurance that was actually just a few minutes, Hess got up and alerted the police. The victim had not properly seen her assailant. But he sounded white. Given the percentage of the Omaha, Nebraska population of the time that was Caucasian, this sounded like a safe bet.
The Omaha police sent out an alert of a recent sex crime, along with a description of a white man in his 20s or 30s as the perpetrator who might still be in the area. The police then set about the task of investigating male students on campus and scouring the sex-offender’s registry for nearby ex-cons who did not have an alibi. They ran the assailant’s DNA in the hope that the criminal database would find a match. No such luck. As with so many rape cases like these where the rapist is not known to the victim, the unknown assailant was not found, and there was little hope he would ever be found. And Hess thought she would have to go her entire life repairing the damage he had done, without closure and without justice. And forever feeling anxiety about heading out her front door or ever trusting the average man she happened to meet again.
Justice in Pasadena
It is the late evening of the 6th of May 1997. Just a couple of months later. And the rapist was now 1550 miles or 2500 kilometers away in the city of Pasadena, California, not too far from downtown Los Angeles. Pasadena is a typical laid back and sun-kissed paradise, with exorbitant property prices and just a little bit too much of a seedy underbelly. Pasadena is composed of luxury shops, cultural institutions, and interesting architecture combined with a high crime rate and almost Third World profusions of drug addiction and homelessness which the rich inhabitants are at pains to avoid and ignore. The city itself is small, but for many decades in the 20th century it was slowly drawn into the orbit of the much larger city of Los Angeles, and today it is little more than a de-facto suburb. Pasadena City College, like the University of Nebraska, is not Ivy League. It is a mid-tier educational institution with a relatively small student enrollment rate. This is exactly the sort of institution at which our perpetrator frequently found himself. The hour was late, it was dark, and most staff and students had already gone home.
A female student, whose anonymity is protected, was walking across the campus when a man came up behind her, grabbed her, and covered her eyes with a gloved hand. The woman managed to let out a scream before the attacker shifted his hand down to her mouth to silence her. He said “this is a robbery” and for the woman not to struggle. If she did exactly what he said, she wouldn’t get hurt. He then pulled a cloth hood over her head so she could not identify him. Gripping the woman’s arms, the attacker then proceeded to frog-march her toward a poorly-lit area.
Fortunately, two people walking nearby had heard the woman’s scream. They quickly located the source of the cry, and saw a deeply troubling sight. A man in a black ski-mask was shoving a woman, whose head was covered with some kind of fabric, into a darkened part of the campus common, obscured from view. One of the witnesses shouted at the man to stop what he was doing.
The man in the ski-mask immediately let go of the victim and ran away. The witness followed him and saw the rapist leap into a black four-door BMW. As the attacker sped away, the witness managed to take note of the man’s license plate. When the number was later given to police, the owner of the vehicle came up as one “Vince Champ”, a stand-up comedian and resident of Los Angeles, who had recently performed at Pasadena City College. Champ was arrested at his Hollywood apartment the very next day.
When questioned, Vince Champ denied the charges, claimed the witnesses must have gotten the license number wrong, and claimed to have been heading home at the time of the attack. While this was not a great alibi, and Champ’s car was identified at the scene, the police would have a hard time pinning the attempted rape on Champ so a jury could convict beyond a reasonable doubt. The victim had not properly seen her attacker. The two witnesses had seen only a man in a ski mask. And because the sexual assault had mercifully been stopped before it could be carried out, there was little in the way of DNA or physical evidence. Attempted sexual assaults of this kind have a very low conviction rate.
Nevertheless Vince Champ was charged with the attempted rape. He paid his bail, and fully intended to appear in court, to refute the charges made against him and clear his name. Indeed if he was convicted of this crime, his entire career in the entertainment industry, built up over 12 years, as a clean-cut comedian, might be completely ruined. But, in a pre-MeToo and indeed largely pre-internet era, if Champ managed to get the charges quashed there were good odds he could go on with his career largely unimpeded by these allegations. Most of his fanbase would never even hear of them. And by the time social media vigilante justice fully became a thing, these allegations would be quite old and Champ, walled off behind publicists, could merely give them the “silent treatment.”
After all, this was Hollywood in the 1990s. Strong and ugly allegations might be brought up from time to time in hushed circles or in the tabloid press, but if they were not proven in a court of law, they did not prevent people from winning Oscars, much less having a career. Hell, even convictions or open warrants don’t seem to always scupper a Hollywood career, if it is spun the right way. All one needed was a good lawyer, a skilled agent, and perhaps some powerful friends. It is really no wonder that Hollywood was the sort of place where a manipulator, narcissist, sociopath, and sex pest like Vince Champ managed to thrive.
Meanwhile, as Champ fought his legal case, the comedian would continue to tour the college circuit and do shows in comedy clubs and cruise-lines in order to make a living. He also occasionally made television appearances, though these were more hit-and-miss in terms of the man’s still mediocre career. In what I consider exorbitant generosity, the presiding judge did not consider him a flight risk. And so mere days after being arrested, Vince Champ departed to work as an on-board comedian on a cruise of the Caribbean. Our suspected rapist just temporarily left the country.
While he was gone, detectives looked into exactly whom they were dealing with…
Meet Vince Champ
Vinson Horace Champ was born on September 6th 1961. His background details are suspiciously sketchy, and even his place of birth is frustratingly difficult to pinpoint. We do know his father was born in Cleveland, Ohio but then moved to California to serve in the US Army and later US Airforce. Vince’s father was 34 at the time of his son’s birth and, given his father’s movements at the time, that places Vince’s likely birthplace and majority of his upbringing in the modest city of Stockton, California.
If not Stockton, then Vince was born wherever in California his father was briefly posted before the family settled in Stockton long term. Either way, this places Vince Champ as a California resident for pretty much his entire life. This may come into play later.
We also have precious little information about Vince Champ’s upbringing or family life. Vince had 7 siblings, one of whom, a brother, died some years ago. Some former colleagues of Champ have speculated he had a strict upbringing, which wouldn’t be surprising being a son of an Airforce serviceman. We have no information on whether the family was highly religious or secular (though with the number of children, and Champ’s later use of “prayer” during his rapes, I’d place my money on tending toward the religious).
We also do not know whether Vince Champ’s family life was stable or abusive. Sure, the Airforce father may have been strict, but there are varying degrees of strictness and not all of them entail abuse. While many criminal profiles have the trauma of an abusive childhood as a contributing factor to later adult behaviour, there is no evidence one way or the other in Champ’s case. An abusive childhood is certainly not required for criminal activity and there are plenty of people who go on to do twisted things who seem to have had a perfectly decent upbringing. And a stable home life does not eliminate the possibility of undocumented abuse by a teacher, pastor, or other trusted adult authority figure. Specific to serial rapists, statistically, more often than not, most perpetrators of sexual assault were somehow sexually abused themselves as children. We simply don’t know in Vince Champ’s case. Nature or nurture? Or both?
If we were to interpret Champ’s faux-polite behaviour during the sexual assaults and the requests for prayers being connected to some kind of sexual repression and a strict upbringing, then some combination of childhood abuse may definitely have been a factor. “Allegedly.” A word which I’d really like to see on a Casual Criminalist t-shirt someday. I don’t know about the audience, but I’d buy it and wear it with pride.
There is only one other strange indicator of something amiss in Champ’s upbringing. The fact that Vince Champ’s background is so difficult to unearth and that his relatives have never rushed to claim him. Sure, they did not fly to his defense when he was charged with rape (which is completely understandable). But they didn’t seem to engage with him for the years he was making waves in his comedy career either. Which may imply that the family was indeed strict and that they did not approve of Champ’s moving off to LA to pursue an entertainment career. Or it is possible that Champ’s darker behaviours manifested themselves earlier than we know and that is the reason why his family had little contact. Regardless, at some point either before or after his crimes, his family appears to have disowned him. But that is largely speculation on my part. Again. Allegedly, allegedly, allegedly.
Vince Champ started doing stand-up comedy in 1985 at the age of 24 and was active until 1997.
A sample of Vince Champ’s comedy is decidedly rare to come across, since he wasn’t very famous at the time of his arrest. The 1980s and 1990s VHS footage of his work was largely scrubbed clean before it could be immortalised on the internet. However, you can see one of Vince’s full sets on Youtube by simply searching his name, where you can see him perform on VH1 in 1990, where Vince is introduced by Rosie O’Donnell, who surreally calls him her friend. Scroll down to read the inevitable Norm MacDonald references in the comments. If you want to dig a little deeper for Vince’s act, it is still possible to find footage of him competing in the 1992 edition of the American Idol forerunner, StarSearch. Champ actually did quite well in that competition coming out of it with a $100,000 prize.
To use the lingo of the biz, Vince Champ’s act was what you’d call “hack” or “hacky”, in that he was extremely predictable, formulaic, and never pushed the boundaries of his comedy. It’s a term comedians reserve for people who only tell jokes or work angles that are guaranteed to get a cheap laugh. If there’s one label you don’t want to receive in comedy from your peers, it’s being a “hack”.
Another trait you’ll notice about his act is the amateur mistake of just plowing through his pre-prepared lines. He works slightly too fast and generally doesn’t give the jokes enough time to marinate. This is a mistake frequently made by less-seasoned stand-ups who think they need to constantly force “high energy” on stage, rather than just relaxing and doing what comes naturally in tandem with the audience. You can’t be naturally high-energy every night. Audiences can spot usually fake energy pretty well. And sometimes a slower, world-weary approach can work well with the same material on evenings where you’ve had an exhausting day. In short, a bit of on-stage honesty can be the best policy in a performance (a great example of this is Bill Burr) but honesty isn’t something Champ really excelled at.
You’ll also notice that Champ’s act hinges on his being perceived as intelligent and quick-witted. Even debonair. Other comedians deliberately make themselves appear low-intelligence (like the actually quite intelligent Norm MacDonald, for instance) usually to win over the audience, because people generally don’t like being spoken down to in a comedy show. Some other comedians like to come off drunk or troubled or otherwise broken to enhance the feeling of chaos as they deliver material. Champ’s category of male comic is to come off suave, handsome, and intelligent. Any male comic will tell you this is by deliberate design, since it helps a comedian pick up women at the bar after his set. And apparently Vince Champ had great success at this. Clean cut, articulate, tall, handsome, people who knew him have said that he was leaving with a new woman almost every night. So in Vince Champ’s case we already know we’re dealing with that category of predators who have no problem getting sex, but who go out of their way to commit sexual assault anyway as a way of satisfying a pathological need for control.
Vince Champ was also a clean comic. And he immediately goes out of his way in every act to let you know it. And I quote, “Can you believe it? I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. Occasionally do a little heroin, ha ha ha.” What this means is he doesn’t swear, he doesn’t make too many lude remarks (though he does make a few tame innuendos), and he doesn’t engage with edgy material. By design, Champ wanted to lull mainstream audiences into accepting him. He wasn’t like those other comics in those smoky night clubs. He was good clean fun for the whole family. And with his clean cut and polite exterior, how could anyone doubt him?
Finally, it is widely accepted in comedy circles nowadays that Vince Champ was something of a “race traitor.” Not my words. That is how he is depicted by other comics. And not without merit. Champ openly disdained other black comics while doing his act. One of his most overused lines was “unlike most black comedians, I don’t have a white girlfriend,” which plays on an African-American stereotype that when black men make it rich or famous, they stop dating African-American women. A slightly nasty thing to say, and sort of weird flex. This was also by design, to appeal to predominantly white audiences. Champ didn’t bother producing comedy for black audiences, and stood deliberately apart from the comedy Renaissance that currently was sweeping through African-American stand-up with the likes of Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Patrice O’Neal, and the breakthrough show In Living Color. Champ’s strategy was to side-step all this competition and become the clean, accepted, token black comedian who could tour the Mid-West and the Bible Belt. Though why he felt it necessary to open most of his acts by immediately distancing himself from his peers just to deliver hack jokes, I could not say.
As an aside, the line “unlike most black comedians, I don’t have a white girlfriend” turned out to be bullsh*t. According to comedian Ron Bennington, almost invariably the women Champ went home with after his set were white. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that a serial rapist turns out to be a hypocrite.
When it came to the question of race in his act, Champ never really made fun of white people. He did not reference historical or present racism. Nothing to make a predominantly white audience uncomfortable. When he did poke fun at race, he was almost always self-deprecatingly making fun of himself. Many have compared Vince Champ’s comedy style to that of Bill Cosby, another notorious rapist, but from what I’ve seen I would say Vince Champ was even more apologetic and self-deprecating about his ethnicity than even Cosby was.
One frequent joke is Vince Champ would point out that he had a “Caucasian-sounding voice” which would be, quote, “very useful when it came to getting that bank loan over the phone.” Champ’s voice itself sounds reminiscent of a radio announcer or TV newsreader. It is no wonder that some of Champ’s victims, not properly seeing him during the attacks, reported him as a white man.
There is another interesting thing to note about Champ’s voice. It sounds fake. Like Dave Chappelle putting on an exaggerated cliché white man’s voice. Certainly there is no regional accent like it in Stockton, or California more widely, or even in his father’s birthplace of Ohio. Certain accents might get close to that, but these were the soupy, melodic tones of radio announcers or TV newsreaders. Unnatural. And if Champ just used this voice on stage, that would be one thing, but he persisted using the voice offstage as well. It wasn’t just a performance gimmick. It was an assumed identity.
In short, everything about Champ’s act was designed to hide who he really was and to manipulate his audience into accepting him. As such, Champ wielded his polite, clean-cut image as a means of exerting social control. Oh, how art imitates life!
The Feigned Banality of Evil
Vince Champ started in comedy in 1985 doing the small club circuit. Here he met many comedians who would later make it big. Rosie O’Donnell we’ve already mentioned. Marc Maron did some of his first mid-weeks with Vince. Jason Stuart, a gay comic, who didn’t get an easy ride of it back then, said one of his biggest supporters and kindest confidantes was Vince Champ, who even helped Stuart score some early gigs on the road. Comedian Ron Bennington described Champ as, “A guy everybody liked. He comfortably moved in and out of white society. He was everybody’s best friend.”
Although Norm MacDonald competed in StarSearch two years earlier than Champ, I have not found any indication they knew each other well, but Norm was aware of Champ’s existence as a comedian coming up around the same time as him. In a travesty of justice, Norm did not win StarSearch the year he competed. But he landed a spot on Letterman soon afterward. So screw StarSearch for not being able to tell the difference between a comedic genius and a serial rapist.
Vince Champ’s career is best described as mediocre. A high point was definitely StarSearch in 1992. He also opened for Jay Leno, Gary Shandling, Pat Paulsen, Joe Cocker, Leon Redbone, and Chuck Mangione. He had TV spots on Into the Night, the Byron Allen Show, and briefly had a recurring role on The Match Game. In case you are wondering, some of those things are decently respectable while others are a real who’s-who of who-gives-a-f*ck. But by the mid-1990s a flagging career made the college circuit an appealing prospect and money-maker for Champ.
Shortly after his arrest, some newspapers wrongly referred to Vince Champ’s act as “raunchy” because it fit the story of a serial rapist. But nothing could be further from the truth. Vince Champ had cultivated himself as a clean comic. And he was particularly in demand in the Mid-West, where he toured two months of each year from 1993 to 1997.
Archie Graham, director of student life at Milwaukee [mill-walky] Area Technical College said that Champ “assured me he supported school policy and didn’t use inappropriate behaviour in his act.” What an edgy badass. Carlita Scott, student activities coordinator at Illinois [ill-ah-noy] State University said, “He was never raunchy or offensive at all. His humor was geared toward college students, and one agent told me that he was so popular and personable that some schools invited him back 3 or 4 times”. Indeed Champ was popular on the college circuit with both students and administrators. He was clean but just daring enough, in a lame 1990s Mid-West kind of way, to keep the students entertained as they got hammered off of cheap beer. He was risqué sometimes, but not edgy or controversial. That was enough for college-age students who in those days, deprived of the general pit of filth that forms the internet, were starved for anything they could get that was even remotely naughty. This was the era where you could make a fortune off a cheesy boner-comedy film. Students wanted comedy and it was in short supply. Quite unlike the quasi-Victorian “children of the corn” shtick we see on many college campuses today.
But there were already a few cracks in Champ’s squeaky clean façade. In 1996, he was placed on probation and ordered to attend domestic violence counseling for beating up his 17 year old girlfriend. He also busted up some property during the incident. Apparently it was an expensive stereo and some crockery. There’s also some anecdotal evidence that Champ spent large amounts of money on prostitutes, ALLEGEDLY, which in 1990s LA was the furthest thing from safe, clean sex-work, and attracted all sorts of unsavory customers. Given he was already pulling regularly at comedy clubs, the prostitutes and serial rapes certainly point to a clear and troubling pathology. As an entirely unrelated note, also in 1996, Champ had filed for bankruptcy despite making good money from his middling comedy career. Which might imply that Champ’s extracurricular pursuits were already destabilising an otherwise fairly solid lifestyle. I’m gonna throw in another “allegedly” there for good measure.
Which brings us back to the rape of Heidi Hess on March 5th 1997.
Throughout the entire atrocious act, Champ seemed oddly calm, polite, and even at one point asked why Heidi was crying. Which is an odd question for a rapist to ask, assuming they have an IQ slightly higher than a racoon’s. As it turned out from the attacker’s psychological profile, the rapist had completely disassociated himself morally from what he was doing. He had justified his actions in his own mind. He thought a woman could not possibly refuse a sexual advance from someone as handsome and as charming as him. He was a textbook narcissist with a pathological sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.
In his own mind, the assailant thought he was irresistible and a woman had no need to cry from anything he did to her. Worst of all, he thought on some level that his victim would secretly enjoy what was happening. Additionally, Champ thought he was simply “cutting to the chase” by using physical coercion rather than a couple hours of smooth-talking in a bar somewhere. It was through this thinking that the rapist had half-deluded himself into thinking what he was doing was on some level “consensual.” And, in the most f*cked up bit of logic I’ve ever read, the rapist “thought” it was at least partly consensual, even if, and I put this in the biggest air quotations ever constructed in human history, the woman “didn’t agree.” Needless to say this sort of solipsistic bullsh*t doesn’t usually stand up in court. I hate that I have to insert the word “usually.”
And, as a way of diminishing the severity of his atrocity, the rapist thought he was making up for his aggression by remaining polite and apologetic the entire time. As if he had accidently stepped on her foot or asked to borrow some spare change. He thought by being polite, he was softening things and doing his victim a favour. Which is possibly the ugliest trait of this entire pathological way of thinking. And he asked her questions as though they were simply on a date somewhere, as if this would somehow relieve the tension and keep the woman calm and distracted.
As bizarre as this modus operandi may seem at first, the act of being polite in the situation was this particular rapist’s way of maintaining “control”, in the way another rapist might use threats or a weapon. As we know from countless studies in criminology, sexual assault is first and foremost about power and control, not solely about the sexual gratification of the perpetrator. In this case, the assailant had a track record of exerting power over people by using manipulative charm, tactics, and politeness in his real life, with a reasonable degree of social success, and so the rapist thought he could somehow use the same tactics during his crimes. In reality, however, the two contexts did not translate to each other. All the rapist managed to do with his display of pseudo-manners was to make an atrocity all the more bizarre and creepy, and, one could definitely argue, more traumatising for the victim.
Furthermore, beyond Champ’s overwhelming drive to commit sexually heinous acts, and the backward logic that influenced his behaviour, the attacker was not altogether completely deranged. In regular life he was a high-functioning individual, albeit with some carefully concealed impulses and opinions. He knew on some level what he was doing was wrong. At least in the eyes of the law. And he simply didn’t care. All signs point to either psychopathy or sociopathy, with a heavy dose of self-absorbed rationalisations.
Which brings us to the extremely f*cked up parting shot of asking his victim to pray for him.
And while it could also imply the rapist on some level felt guilt for what he had done, this turns out to be incorrect. Later psychological evaluation would reveal that the act of prayer was the criminal’s way of seeking cheap absolution so he could brush off his guilt as easily and carelessly as he would dandruff from his shoulder. The physical assault being concluded, Champ had not run out of psychological blows.
The man in question wasn’t particularly religious. Not for at least a decade. He just knew that it was what some people did to win sympathy and forgiveness – admitting they are sinners who had committed vile deeds. And this was 1990s Mid-West America. Perhaps his approach would delay the reporting of the crime by the victim or somehow contort the prosecution should he be identified. If he happened to be convicted for one such crime, it might get sympathy from a jury or a lighter sentence from a judge.
Not that the perpetrator expected that to happen. He had been very, very careful in the execution of his crimes. Enough to prompt smugness under interrogation.
In a word, the man was a fake, a phony, and a liar. A man who coldly lived his life by an impersonal algorithm of correct actions seeking the corresponding responses. People weren’t people. They were objects to be prodded and poked for a predictable response. He would say or do whatever needed to be done to suit his own advantage, compel compliance in others, or exculpate himself from a crime. He’d manipulate and control in order to get what he wanted. What he felt he deserved.
Vince Champ viewed his audience this way. He viewed his peers this way. And, pathetically, this was also how he viewed women.
An Unsurprising Twist
While Vince Champ was working his Caribbean cruise, catching some sun, certain facts had come to light.
Way back on February 16th 1997, Captain James van Fossen of Davenport, Iowa, had been investigating a college campus rape of his own. He had entertained the idea of an itinerant serial rapist, but suspected a food server, or a professor traveling around giving talks, or maybe an athlete going from school to school. It never occurred to him to look into the clean-cut comedian who had recently performed there. Far away in Lincoln, Nebraska, Detective Jeff Howard had been investigating another campus rape that had occurred ten days earlier. “We thought it was isolated at first,” Howard said, “It just didn’t make sense that someone would be travelling and just stop through.”
After the March 5th rape of Heidi Hess in Omaha, investigator Mike Hoch thought to send out a teletype to other police stations in the Mid-West inquiring after similar attacks with the same modus operandi. Over the next months, the attack was linked to others in Lincoln, Kenosha, Omaha, and Davenport. Further towns followed. All of them matched the profile of the perpetrator. “That is when we realised there was a pretty good possibility that we had a serial rapist,” said Sgt. Ken Koziol [cozy-all]. The police in all these districts sent out for help to the FBI to coordinate the investigation across state lines.
All told, the police linked the unknown perpetrator to 7 rapes and attempted rapes in Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, and Wisconsin. All of them occurred on college campuses.
But they did not have a suspect. Then Pasadena happened and Vince got caught. If we count Pasadena the suspected offense total increases to 8. I am told that what clinched the issue was one of the victims heard Vince’s voice on a radio show, but I cannot confirm this. Either way, police looked into Champ’s touring schedule between September 1996 and May 1997 and, to quote one of Champ’s booking agents Scott Bass, “it looked like a roadmap of where these rapes had occurred.”
When the Mid-West cops heard of the Pasadena case, they knew they had their man. According to Jeff Howard, “once that last piece snapped into place, everything just made sense.”
Omaha put out a warrant for Vince Champ’s arrest. Hearing of this, Champ abandoned his gig and flew home. The Mid-West cops got wind of this and put out an all-alert. Champ was arrested when he arrived in Newark, New Jersey, May 13th. This time the judge was not generous. Bail was set at one million dollars. At which point I bet Champ wished he hadn’t blown his wad messing with chronically abused LA sex-workers. Allegedly.
The idea of a touring stand-up comedian raping college students immediately set off the jackals in the media. It was splashed across the front pages of the entire USA for several days from the Hollywood Reporter to the Washington Post to the New York Times. Whoever said that all publicity is good publicity deserves to be shot. I bet Champ wasn’t feeling too good at this moment. But there is some poetic justice in that this was the biggest publicity the hack comedian ever got.
Budd Friedman, owner of The Improv chain of comedy clubs, quite prestigious for comics, said, ““There are a lot of violent comics out there that you might think would do something like this [nice way to talk about your employees, Budd] but Vince was not one of them. Everybody I have spoken to is shocked. He is a very nice guy, very polite.” The feigned banality of evil indeed. If I don’t see a post on the sub-Reddit dedicated to “nice guys” at some point I will be crushingly disappointed.
Ron Bennington later said when he first heard the news he thought, “This is some kind of mid-western ‘grab the first black guy you see and string him up thing’… it’s not like he was running through town frothing at the mouth.” Alas, this was one of the few cases were I would like to think it was police racism. But we’ll see in a moment why that is unlikely.
In 4 out of the 8 cases, Vince Champ was positively linked to the crimes by DNA analysis. In a few of the other rapes and attempted rapes there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against him. Nevertheless that was enough to convict Champ and put him away for life. He was thrown into the Nebraska state pen, where he has been slapped with a 30 to 40 year sentence for the Lincoln rape and a 25 to 30 year sentence for the attack on Heidi Hess in Omaha. Allowing for parole and good behaviour (which there certainly has been an absence of), Champ might get out in 2033. Should he survive beyond those sentences, he will be shipped off to Iowa where he will face two more consecutive life sentences. Without question, according to that sentencing, the man will die in prison.
On trial, Vince Champ had a tendency to plead no contest given the mountain of evidence against him, but in prison he maintains his innocence. And I’m dating Margot Robbie. Get f*cked, mate.
While in prison, Vince Champ has committed indecent exposure on several occasions, has masturbated in front of a female guard, is frequently in fights with inmates, once biting off a chunk of a dude’s ear, and has stomped on a few people’s faces, causing abrasions and bleeding. The sex stuff is inexcusable and fits the perp’s form. In regard to the fights, one could speculate whether in prison the once clean-cut and debonair Vince Champ is finally showing his true colours, or whether he’s simply evolved to become a tough bastard to survive as a sexual offender in the US prison system, where sex pests are placed at the bottom of the totem pole. By the way, I’ve never understood how rape in the prison system is just permissively viewed as “part of the punishment.” But maybe that’s just me. Norm MacDonald has also made a few jokes about this hypocrisy, if you want to look them up.
Speaking of Norm MacDonald and hypocrisy, he once referenced his friend, that sanctimonious Twitter-hound, Patton Oswalt, who said in reference to Bill Cosby that the worst thing about that case was Cosby’s hypocrisy. To which Norm famously included in his stand-up that he “didn’t think the hypocrisy was the worst part. It was probably the rapes… hypocrisy was way down the f*cking list, probably on page 20 or some sh*t.” It is a real pisser that Vince Champ, of similar age, is still alive in prison and Norm MacDonald is dead. But to quote another set of comedy geniuses, Monty Python:
Life’s a piece of sh*t
When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true.
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ‘em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.
I’m not going to close by repeating Norm’s “he was a real jerk” punchline. I’m not a comedian. But I will point out that Champ’s body of work has been largely lost to time or scrubbed by the networks. I wonder, as he rots in prison, if he realises that his lasting legacy to the world of comedy is being a punchline to a much better comedian’s joke.
1. Vince Champ’s spree of campus rapes and attempted rapes between 1996 and 1997 may have been the worst of it, possibly triggered by the tumultuous events of break-ups, violence, and bankruptcy the previous year. It is also possible that the man’s record goes back much further than any of us realise. Obviously the first place to look is any other unsolved sexual assaults that coincide with his tour schedules going back into the 1980s. And given that it takes time for a serial rapist to fall into a pattern, one might look into unsolved cases further back where Vince Champ might still have been sloppy. To any fellow researchers out there, I’d suggest starting with Stockton, California and gradually widening your search to encompass the whole state. Given his conduct in prison, the man’s got form to be involved in far more than what has currently been linked to him.
2. As part of the Black Lives Matter movement, some people have argued that the sentencing Vince Champ received was inspired by racism and was far too harsh. This certainly would hold firm with the Clinton policy at the time to relentlessly pursue what the administration called “super-predators”, which is widely regarded as a racist form of classification and policy. Is life in prison deserved for four confirmed sexual assaults and probable links to others? Certainly there have been far lighter sentences for far more severe offenses in criminal history. But I’m also of the general opinion that predatory leap-from-the-bushes serial rapists should be buried underneath the prison. Either way, I sure as hell am not brave enough to wade into the morass of American race-based politics. But feel free to slug it out in the comments.
3. What is perhaps more uplifting is the story of Heidi Hess. When Champ went down, she was asked what sort of punishment she thought he deserved. Hess replied, “What’s the number that’s going to make me feel better, I don’t know. I just don’t want him on the streets. I don’t want him doing this to other women.”
For two weeks after the attack, Heidi’s father would come to her apartment every night, armed with a shotgun, where he stayed on guard till morning. Heidi’s friends bought her groceries so she could stay inside. She became a shut-in. Then one day, on TV, she saw the father of Ronald Goldman talking about his likely murderer, OJ Simpson, and how he wouldn’t rest until OJ was behind bars.
Quoting Heidi: “I sat there and thought, ‘that poor man has no control over that. His whole life has turned into the day his son was murdered.”
Heidi didn’t want to be Goldman’s father in 10 years. One of her friends said, “You’ve given more than a month of your life to the man who attacked you. How much more do you want to give?” None, Heidi decided. The same day, she walked outside, turning back several times. She made it to her car. She drove to a friend’s house where she sat on the driveway for two minutes until she could work up the courage to walk inside. She had dinner and drove home. It took months before Heidi had to stop forcing herself out of her own apartment and longer before the nightmares stopped. “That was really how I started to heal. I made a decision I would not let this man have any more control over my life than he already took.”
Heidi has lived a happy life with her partner and with a thriving career. She rarely thinks about Champ anymore. But she occasionally talks about her experience with those in need.
Good show, Heidi. You’ve got my admiration. I wish I were half a strong as you.