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Originally published April 16, 2012 at 9:57 PM | Page modified April 17, 2012 at 9:07 PM

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The Stranger's Pulitzer-winning story told of Seattle's 'bravest woman'

One of the first people Eli Sanders, associate editor of The Stranger, contacted shortly after noon Monday to tell he had won a Pulitzer for feature writing was the woman whose harrowing courtroom story he depicted in his prize-winning account.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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One of the first people Eli Sanders, associate editor of The Stranger, contacted shortly after noon Monday to tell he had won a Pulitzer for feature writing was the woman whose harrowing courtroom story he depicted in his prize-winning account.

Later, the woman, Jennifer Hopper, 39, stopped by the alternative weekly on Capitol Hill to congratulate Sanders.

"I gave him a hug," Hopper said. "He's such a good writer, and I find that sometimes the best writers don't always get the accolades."

Pulitzer jurors said "The Bravest Woman in Seattle," published by The Stranger last June, was a "haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner, using the woman's brave courtroom testimony and the details of the crime to construct a moving narrative."

Isaiah Kalebu last year was sentenced to life without parole for raping and killing Teresa Butz, and for the rape and attempted murder of Hopper in the couple's South Park home. In July 2009, he had broken in through an open bathroom window as they slept.

In a letter to the Pulitzer jurors, Hopper said of Sanders' story:

"I remember reading the finished piece and crying the whole time. Not just because it was an honest portrayal of an intensely emotional couple of days, but because he was willing to say what no one else would ...

"Rape is ugly. Fear is devastating. Witnessing a murder is a life-changer. But on the other side of that was the joy of the relationship I had been in with Teresa, an upcoming wedding, our plans to have a baby and live happily ever after. He spun these two tales together, and it was as if someone reached inside my heart and pulled out the truth — all of it.

"Finally, and possibly most importantly, his truth telling inspired my own. After two years of being nameless in the media, and after an outpouring of loving and support from complete stranger, I wrote my own article and The Stranger kindly published it."

Sanders, 34, is a low-key individual, a 1995 Garfield High School graduate. In 1999, he earned a bachelor's degree in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University, initially taking those classes, he said, because he needed to fulfill a language requirement and a friend dared him to take Arabic.

Beginning in 2000, he was a three-year newsroom resident at The Seattle Times, then freelanced for publications including Time magazine and The Boston Globe, worked as a bike messenger and, for a year, was a news assistant for the Seattle bureau of The New York Times. He started at The Stranger in 2005. So he's had experience with both alternative and mainstream media.

"If I'm remembering right, alternative weeklies have won Pulitzers. We do serious journalism," he said. "Alternative weeklies can be one of the rare and lucky places allowed to do work like this in terms of length of story and extended involvement with the subject."

Sanders said he wrote the story at home the weekend after the trial, and it appeared in the next issue.

"It was not an easy piece to do," he said.

Christopher Frizzelle, editor of The Stranger, said he didn't want the story to be "about blood and guts."

"This was a story about the horrifying thing that happened to a real person in our city," he said. "We didn't want it to be sensational. We talked a lot about how it should be presented. There is no blood in the art at all, no violent presentation of the event."

Sanders said when he checked the Pulitzer website and found out he had won, he went into Frizzelle's office and had him click on the announcement.

"We jumped up and down, and then we told everybody," Sanders said.

To celebrate, the paper's general manager, Laurie Saito, went to a nearby liquor store for three bottles of Ballatore Gran Spumante that sell for $7.99 each.

Dan Savage, the sex columnist who is the paper's editorial director, said he was in rural Pennsylvania when a New York Times reporter called him for comment on the Pulitzer.

"I thought somebody was pulling my leg," Savage said.

But he checked, then called the Stranger offices and congratulated Sanders.

"I told him he should go easy when he asks for a raise," Savage said.

He said that these days, he doesn't draw much distinction between alternative and mainstream media. "We're all 'alt' these days," he said.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237

or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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