Five years ago, Frank Yeager pleaded guilty for planning to sexually assault a Realtor. But it was his facial disfigurement that appeared to be put on trial.
On November 25, 2012, 29-year-old Frank Yeager from West Rockhill Township, Pennsylvania, was arrested by State Police for attempting to rape a real-estate agent during an open house for a secluded model home—an act he had been planning for months.
According to court documents, Yeager spent the months prior to the attempted attack, compiling a list of potential victims and their personal information. “I did a massive online search of these people (Realtors) … I had a plan of action … For three months, I drove around every Sunday. I used my truck-driving skills to map out my route. Once I lost my job, I really put myself into it. It was full-time work. I want to attack every girl I see so I was drinking all the time … I had a profile. I wanted someone, one of them pretty-looking Paris Hilton–type thing. I had a very specific guideline … The urges were so compelling, I was fighting it with alcohol,” Yeager said in a court statement.”
The victim, who worked for Pulte Homes in Upper Macungie Township, was alone in the office at the development. When Yeager arrived, he asked the Realtor to show him the model home. The woman grew uncomfortable and had Yeager tour the home alone. Once inside the house, Yeager closed the curtains, turned off the lights, and waited for the woman to enter. Forty-five minutes later, when she didn’t show up, he returned to her office, saying there was a water leak, and asked her to accompany him to the property so he could show her. She was suspicious and refused. Then a male colleague entered the office, so Yeager left. He later confessed he had intended to lure the woman to the bedroom of the home to attack her.
When the police searched Yeager’s home and truck, they found knives, a ski mask, gloves, rope, guns, duct tape, chain, padlocks, and realty brochures. They also found a suicide note.
Yeager pled guilty to attempted rape in April 2013. Months later, in October 2013, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. After Yeager’s conviction, media outlets across the nation covered the case of the “Real Estate Rapist,” focusing on his facial disfigurement, and without disclosing or specifying a particular disability, referred to him in headlines as being disabled, salaciously declaring: “‘I ENJOY THE HUNT’ Disabled man Frank Yeager plotted the rape and murder of an innocent female estate agent in revenge for a lifetime of cruel taunts by strangers” and “Disabled man plotted to rape and kill estate agent.”
Yeager appealed the conviction, claiming his lawyer provided ineffective assistance by not contesting whether his confession was obtained legally. But in June 2017, Superior Court Judge H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr. upheld the ruling, portraying Yeager as a “dangerous, full-blown psychopath.”
An article published on June 29, 2017 by KCRA, titled “‘I truly enjoy the hunt and cannot wait for my prize’: Court Upholds would-be rapist’s sentence,” even attempted to provide an explanation as to why Frank Yeager tried to rape a woman, saying, “Yeager’s parents told the Morning Call that their son’s appearance caused him to be teased throughout his life and that he became reclusive, desperate and unable to form relationships with women.” The idea that Yeager was troubled and tried to rape a woman, because he was upset about the appearance of his face, is extremely damaging to others living with similar conditions.
Every story written about Yeager’s conviction was met with comments from angered and disgusted readers. While the disturbing details of the crime would understandably elicit such a response, readers based the majority of their verbal attacks not on the crime itself, but on the appearance of Yeager’s face, which, due to an undisclosed medical condition, has been disfigured since childhood. “If I had seen such a disgusting crazy scary face, all things would be clear to me. I would know that he wants to rob or to kill,” one Facebook user commented on the story. This commenter was not alone in their belief that the appearance of Yeager’s face automatically made him a violent predator. Hundreds more echoed this sentiment, with statements like, “But his plans showed such strategic planning we have to question if he was mentally impaired at all or just ugly and evil.” Though this case is undeniably chilling, these ignorant responses are indicative of a larger issue plaguing individuals with disabilities and facial differences: Physiognomy—the belief that a person’s appearance (particularly the appearance of their face) is indicative of their character or morality.
The belief that one’s appearance is representative of their moral character has roots going all the way back to ancient Greece. Even the word physiognomy stems from ancient Greek, with gnomos meaning character and physis meaning nature, the phrase literally refers to “the character of one’s nature.” Aristotle wrote about concepts related to physiognomy, stating that “soft hair indicates cowardice and coarse hair courage.”
The movement was also influential in Europe in the early 1600s. The original “father” of physiognomy, Giambattista della Porta, an Italian scholar during the Scientific Revolution, spread the idea that one could determine a person’s character just by looking at him. In his book De humana physiognomia, della Porta placed illustrations of human heads and animal heads next to the other. With these images, he claimed the more animalistic a person’s facial appearance was, the more animalistic he was.
Image Source: The Public Domain Review
In the 18th century, Johann Caspar Lavater, a swiss theologian, philosopher, and writer, built upon the work of Giambattista della Porta. In his book, Essays on Physiognomy, Lavater evaluated the meaning behind facial expressions and facial proportions. In fact, this is where the idea of someone being “stuck up” came from. “The expression “stuck-up” comes from… when a person with a nose bending slightly upwards was read as having a contemptuous, superior attitude,” Sarah Waldorf wrote in a blog post for the J. Paul Getty Trust.
Though it’s now largely viewed as a pseudoscience, physiognomy still plagues our society and our justice system. Society favors those who have the luxury of blending in. The pseudoscience of physiognomy has led to bias and the perpetuation of harmful prejudices. Groups of people have been, and continue to be, labeled and judged by their physical appearance—and it isn’t just emotionally damaging to the person experiencing it; it can also be deadly.
Physiognomy, and the judgment of individuals based on their appearance, plays a huge role in issues like America’s crisis surrounding police brutality. A March 2016 study on Media Coverage of Law Enforcement Use of Force and Disability from the Ruderman Family Foundation, found that half of people killed by police have a mental or physical disability. This is not a new problem. In 2013, the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs’ Association released a study revealing that between 1980 and 2008, “at least half of the people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.”
Following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Missouri teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014, a statement released by over 30 disability activist groups was released. The statement titled, “A Call for Solidarity with the Community of Ferguson, Missouri,” called for people to oppose “the tragedy that is criminalization and dehumanization of our citizens,” especially those from “communities viewed as ‘other’ to the American majority—young men of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ individuals,” because following incidents involving individuals with mental and physical disabilities, phrases like, “they didn’t comply, they were ‘bad kids,’ they were being belligerent, they looked suspicious,” are all too common.
From negative, biased media coverage that too often focuses on blaming mental and physical differences as a cause for a crime, to a justice system that perpetuates marginalization, discrimination, and stigmatization, the public’s response to Frank Yeager’s case highlights societal issues that desperately need to change. In Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Martha C. Nussbaum examined the role of emotion and disgust in our legal system, stating that the “projection of animality onto a particular group has often been the predicate for cruel and dehumanizing treatment, in examples from Nazi Germany to the trial of Oscar Wilde.” Though, as Susan Bandes’s states in The Passions of Law, “emotion pervades the law,” how can we have any semblance of hope for a justice system that is fair, for a society that is fair, when they’re ruled by ignorant human emotion that stem from harmful and inaccurate stereotypes?
While in the case of Frank Yeager, the perpetrator was proven guilty and sentenced to prison, what happens to those who are never fortunate enough to get a trial? Who never have the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law, because their appearance has automatically deemed them to be a threat to themselves or to society? What about individuals who were judged simply based on their race like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Philando Castile? Or due to mental illness like Quitonio LeGrier and Laquan McDonald, or mental disability like Ethan Saylor, who had Down syndrome? What about people who never did anything to deserve the punishments they received? What about the people who are killed simply for being who they are, for looking the way they do? Classifying individuals that look or act differently as “bad,” or as someone to be feared, simply because of their physical appearance or disability status, is not only discriminatory, it’s devastatingly dangerous.
The bottom line is this: The judgment of Frank Yeager should be based solely on the heinous crime he was convicted of. To assume judgment of people with physical and mental disabilities based on their appearance not only undermines the legitimacy of our legal system, but also serves to perpetuate harmful, negative stereotypes surrounding individuals with disabilities and facial differences, while promoting a system in which the most vulnerable people continue to suffer.
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