No Bystander Effect Here

By Brenda Buchanan

The April 10 headline yanked me into the story.

‘No hesitation’ as Maine man rescues mother, 2 kids from sinking car.

The heroes were a 60ish couple from Steuben, Leonard and Rosemary Wallace, who were doing a little early-season trout fishing at Fox Pond in Township 10 when a car went airborne at a sharp curve in Route 182 and wound up in the 48 degree water.

The car, underwater in Fox Pond

The car, underwater in Fox Pond

The vehicle missed the Wallaces by maybe a foot. Despite the close call they sprang into action. Leonard waded in until the pond reached his armpits, wrenched open the car’s rear door and somehow managed to free both children and their mother. He handed the kids off to his wife, who attempted to flag down passing motorists while struggling to get a 911 call to go through in a virtual cell phone dead zone. When no one stopped to assist, she fired up their Grand Am and dug out some blankets to keep the freezing family and her adrenaline-fueled husband warm until an ambulance arrived.

Rosemary and Leonard Wallace next to the pond where they saved three lives

Rosemary and Leonard Wallace next to the pond where they saved three lives

The story got top billing in the media for several days, as did the unfortunate follow-up news that the mother—who was on her way home from getting treatment for her drug addiction—had been drinking. The Wallaces have since been honored by the Maine Legislature. The children were taken from their mother’s custody by the Department of Health and Human Services. I hope she gets the help she needs, which can be a complicated proposition, especially in Maine’s rural reaches.

Ten days later, I remain moved by the selfless heroism of the Wallaces. If I’d been sitting on that embankment that day, would I have dropped my fishing pole and jumped in after the sinking car? I’d like to think so, but until tested, who can say for sure?

Less than two weeks before the Black Woods Road incident I’d been pondering the same question from a different perspective.

Winston Moseley, the psychopathic serial killer convicted of the 1964 rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, died on March 28. Moseley’s obituary recounted that numerous neighbors heard the middle-of-the-night assault but ignored the victim’s screams. That horrific part of the story didn’t become known until weeks later when the New York Times ran a sensational follow-up piece claiming 38 witnesses had turned their backs. That number later was found to have been exaggerated, but the fact remained that plenty of people heard and disregarded Kitty Genovese’s cries, a phenomenon that came to be dubbed “the bystander effect.”

In my books and those by some of my colleagues on this blog, non-cop characters tend to be more like the Wallaces and less like Kitty Genovese’s neighbors. When bad things happen, they dive right in.

Barbara Ross’s protagonist Julia Snowden doesn’t hesitate to get involved when trouble comes to Busman’s Harbor. Maureen Milliken’s Bernie O’Dea considers it her mission in life to wade into controversy and crime.  Lea Wait’s Angie Curtis deserves a badge of her own for her crime-solving ways, and Dick Cass’s Elder Darrow (what a great character name, eh?) doesn’t let his troubled past deter him from investigating stuff the cops ignore. (Chris Holm, who delights in breaking rules, writes a protagonist who is neither cop nor crime-solver. His Michael Hendricks is a big-time crime-committer, albeit with a moral center.)

My newspaper reporter protagonist Joe Gale’s vigorous journalistic style inevitably pisses people off, which brings me back to the Maine road where Leonard and Rosemary Wallace saved three lives this month. Readers of this blog who’ve read Cover Story, the second Joe Gale novel, will know Route 182 by its local name—the Black Woods Road.

The Black Woods Road, which winds between Franklin and Cherryfield

The Black Woods Road, which winds between Franklin and Cherryfield

In Cover Story, Joe Gale finds himself in big trouble on Route 182 during a January blizzard. With a fearsome antagonist riding his tail Joe skids around sharp curves in near-whiteout conditions—past the very spot where the young mother’s car flew into Fox Pond earlier this month—in a desperate effort to make it through the Black Woods alive.

After this month’s drama, I’ll never drive that road again without thinking of the courageous actions of Leonard and Rosemary Wallace, who saved a troubled Mom and her two babies from a tragic ending, a story Joe Gale and every real-life reporter in Maine would have shuddered to write.

Brenda Buchanan’s Joe Gale mysteries feature an old-school reporter with modern media savvy who covers the Maine crime beat. The first three Joe Gale books—Quick Pivot, Cover Story and Truth Beat—are available in digital format wherever ebooks are sold. Brenda can be found on the web at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @buchananbrenda



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16 Responses to No Bystander Effect Here

  1. Thanks for the insight Brenda. We’re all bystanders until we’re not! One note on the Kitty Genovese story. It was determined that the accounts of people hearing her cries for help and ignoring them was largely exaggerated. I won’t go into all the details but some bad 1960s journalism became the apocryphal story. That said, it also spurred action both legislative and human to make sure that type of thing doesn’t happen again.

    • Right, as I said in the post, the 38-witness story was later debunked. But the Genovese story did cause a lot of reflection about the “I’d rather not get involved” attitude.

      In my experience, most people do follow the instinct to help. While all may not be as selfless and heroic as the Wallaces, few people would actually walk away. That said, it was reported in this case that a couple of people drove past when Rosemary was trying to flag them down to help. I am curious about who they were and why they did that.

  2. Gram says:

    Amazing couple. Kudos to them. I hope I never have to face a situation as dire.

  3. C.T. Collier says:

    Thought-provoking post! You drew me in to this complex set of questions and motivations. Besides admiring the Wallaces, I’m deeply concerned for the mom and two children. That’s a story worth pursuing, too.

    • It certainly is. This had to have been a life-changing experience for her. With good support, it could be a catalyst for good, but getting that support can be difficult, especially in the rural parts of the state.

  4. Lea Wait says:

    Excellent post, Brenda! Good reminder to all of us.

  5. Peter Murray says:

    Just an excellent, excellent post. These are the quiet heroes. We had two more this week. The men, who stopped and helped a troubled man who had shot himself with a flare gun along the roadway, are heroes, too.
    These are the people that make Maine a great place to live.

    thank you!

    • That was a tragic situation, and my heart goes out to the family of that man and my gratitude to the two men who kept it from becoming a much worse situation. You are right Peter, in Maine, people step up.

  6. Amber Foxx says:

    There was a bystander incident in the news this morning, a man left to die in Chicago. Psychological research has found that the bigger the crowd, the less likely people are to get involved, but when they are alone or in small groups, they are more likely to help. (Studies done back when you could fake an accident–someone falling down on a college campus–and not have an IRB review deny you.) In large groups, people may think someone else has already made a call, done something, or that someone else will step in. The lone person knows–it’s me or no one. Not to undermine the heroism of those who help, because this couple was truly brave and admirable, just thinking about realism in fiction. I once helped in a crowd because I knew of the bystander effect and assumed no one else would act. I helped a kid who’d stopped breathing in a swimming pool at a hotel. His parents were in a panic. After he was breathing again, a woman from the crowd took me aside and criticized my first aid skills. People are more afraid to do something wrong when they help in a crowd, too.

    • That is so interesting, Amber. That makes sense, that people are more likely to jump in if they are the only one (or one of few) who could do so. How awful that that woman found fault after you helped that kid. That’s as bad as ignoring someone who is in trouble, because it discourages not just the good Samaritan but all who overhear the criticism.

  7. Skye says:

    Brenda, how interesting, and I am hearing all different stories of things like this; some valiant and others less. I am sorry to hear about the Chicago incident, Amber, and I wonder if locale has anything to do with it. I do personally recall the Kitty Genovese nightmare, and so many studies were then conducted as to how this possibly could have occurred. Of course, Chicago and NYC are different than a small town, but nevertheless, it is unforgiveable and very sad.

  8. Jeanie Jackson says:

    Your comments sent me on a tangent. Among the people I know, there are many I believe would act and others, that I am not sure about. As a school librarian who has worked Pre-K through twelve in small to large towns, I find it fascinating that the young people who seem to have the worst attitudes or who create the most discipline problems are often the first to step up and help others in real trouble. I don’t know if it would be true of gang members but these kids don’t wait for someone else to take action. Of course many of the Mr. and Miss America kids step up too; I don’t intend to downplay the typical great kids.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience as a educator, Jeanie. That’s such an interesting perspective in this discussion. It’s not only the “good kids” who show leadership in this way.

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