Erik Goth was working for Siker Furniture one day when a squad car rolled past his delivery van on Harding Street.
“That might be a fun job,” the long-haired, 20-year-old Craig High School graduate thought to himself.
He didn’t mind cutting his hair, and he found through the years that joining law enforcement was a good choice.
Goth sat with a Gazette reporter Friday, his last day on the job after 28 years of policing, most of those years as a detective with a primary focus on crimes against children.
Goth can talk about interesting cases, often remembering the dates they began.
He remembers seeing things most people would not want to see, including the people who were battered, sexually assaulted or killed. He talks of the satisfaction of catching criminals, including longtime child abusers.
But Goth may be remembered most not for catching evildoers but for saving children’s lives.
“One of the first things I noticed when I became a detective in 1998 was how often we went to infant deaths,” Goth said.
“The attitude of just about everybody was, ‘Oh, you know, babies die, it happens sometimes.”
Medical authorities alerted the public in the 1990s to unsafe sleep practices that led to crib death, also known SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Death rates dropped. There was a “Back to Sleep” campaign that emphasized putting infants on their backs to sleep.
But it remained a problem, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Janesville was seeing an average of two infant deaths a year to SIDS. Goth had been in rooms with dead babies.
“They were all sleeping face-down or co-sleeping. Like, all of them, and I thought that ‘Back to Sleep,’ that’s not a suggestion. That should be mandatory,” Goth said.
After a Janesville infant died in 2011 while sleeping with its mother on a couch, Goth approached the county health department, asking if there was something that could be done to get the word out.
The health department suggested he talk at prenatal classes, which he did—first at Mercy Hospital and then SSM Health St. Mary’s in Janesville—for the next nine years.
The basics include putting babies on their backs to sleep on a firm surface, no bed-sharing.
Janesville police have investigated only six infant deaths related to SIDS in the nine years Goth has been giving his talks.
“I don’t attribute that entirely to my program,” Goth said. “Coincidentally, there’s been a lot of social media and news media coverage and talk about safe sleep practices.”
Goth said he enjoyed detective work, something he applied for in 1998 after three years with Verona police and three more as a Janesville patrol officer.
“Sometimes people think it’s an action-packed career, and it’s absolutely not,” he said. “Once in a while it can be a little hairy, but most of the time the job really doesn’t have anything to do with chasing people or fighting with people. Those things occur, but it’s (normally) working with people and working through social problems.”
Goth was the lowest ranking detective, and nobody else wanted the crimes-against-children beat, so that’s where he started and worked for years. He continued doing child abuse cases for the rest of his career, although he did fewer cases toward the end as Detective Dennis LeCaptain has stepped into that role.
Listening to sexually abused children takes special skills, and Goth said he’s not sure there’s a detective anywhere who is fully qualified to do it.
Young children see the world differently than adults, and they may not fully understand what was done to them or why it was wrong, Goth said.
A victim who is now an adult told him recently, “I thought it was normal. I thought everybody’s dad did that.”
Goth acknowledges investigating crimes against children is not something everyone would want to do, and it’s not easy to deal with victims who are so young, vulnerable and innocent.
“I thought that I was doing something that was necessary, and I felt like I was doing a good job at it, so there’s a lot of satisfaction that does end up coming from that.
“Somebody has to do it,” he added.
He learned early on that he could not fix the terrible things that had happened. Teachers and social workers and prosecutors all have their roles.
“I can’t change what’s already happened. I’ll do my job, and if my intervention helps, good. I just want to make sure I’m doing my piece to the best of my ability, and I’m not going to take on the entire weight of the world.”
Goth is working on his third detective novel, and he expected he’ll have more time to do that, now. He wants to spend more time with his family, keep playing guitar, something he started in high school, and lots of fishing.
And he might do some private detective work, he said.