In 1978 when I was twelve, my classmate and friend Ann Ellinwood was abducted in broad daylight as she took part in the March of Dimes Walk-a-Thon in Corvallis, Oregon, and was never seen again. The details of this horrific crime were never revealed, though enough evidence was found to name a suspect. The alleged murderer committed suicide the day he was to appear before a grand jury. Her body was never found.
I was also on that 20 mile charity walk, though with a different group of girls than Ann. Apparently Ann had stopped to sit on a bench because her feet were sore and she was tired. The other girls in her group continued on without her. A man in a red pick-up truck pulling a teardrop-shaped camper was seen in the area around the time she disappeared. The story circulating amongst my friends at the time was that the man in the pick-up truck had asked her to help him put his dog into the camper, then pushed her in and shut the door. I cannot find any such account in the archived news reports from the Corvallis Gazette Times, nor does it appear that there were any eyewitnesses. This Hansel and Gretel-esque detail must have been fabricated by my friends. Indeed there was something intriguing in a fairy tale-ish sort of way about the word “kidnapped”, but the words “ABDUCTED” and “MURDERED” were just plain terrifying.
The night Ann was taken I was recovering from the walk at the home of a close girlfriend. We huddled together on the floor of her family room in our sleeping bags all night long listening to updates about the frantic search for our friend on her transistor radio. Each time the announcer came on, I expected to hear that she had been found. I was sure she would be cold, hungry and wandering somewhere off the trail where she had last been seen, and that she would be delivered safely back home. Though as the hours and days passed, this expectation began to melt away and was replaced by a sense of eerie, dream-like detachment. The ground beneath my feet had dropped away like a trap door, and I had only my denial to break the free-fall. This was my first experience with a life-altering event of this magnitude, and the first time my perception of what was “real” had been challenged to this degree. I could not begin to comprehend how such a terrible thing could happen to an innocent person like Ann, so I began to fantasize about possible scenarios that could explain her disappearance.
I knew of nothing about her life that was uncomfortable or sad, and in fact it seemed she was a happy person. Still, I imagined her kidnapper taking her away to an enchanted life or some kind of alternate reality. I wondered if perhaps like Sara Crewe, the orphan heroine of my favorite Frances Hodgson Burnett book “A Little Princess“, she had been swept away by a wealthy father-substitute to live a life of comfort and luxury. I also wondered if she might have been taken away to serve some higher purpose, like a young Dalai Lama, or if perhaps God had spirited her away to heaven ahead of time for a special angelic assignment. I could NOT imagine that she was dead, and for that matter, couldn’t even imagine what “dead” could really mean. The finality of it was unthinkable, and since there was no public funeral to attend and because her body was never found, there didn’t seem to be any closure. Even to this day I am not alone in this feeling. In an article in the Corvallis Gazette Times in 2009 recalling the events of that time, one of my former classmates is quoted as saying “For a moment you catch yourself thinking she could be out there. There’s always that little bit of hope.”
Nicky, my third child, turned 12 a few weeks ago. Once again I am revisiting vivid memories of this time in my own life. Forever emblazoned in my mind is Ann wearing denim overalls, a calico shirt and clogs, hanging on her locker door in the hallway of Highland View Junior High School with her beautiful auburn hair and freckles and a warm smile on her face. This is the way I will always remember her.
Twelve year olds are delightfully naive, capable, curious, and heartbreakingly earnest. They aren’t jaded like older teens, yet they are on the cusp. Though I don’t believe childhood ever truly ends, twelve seems like a bookend for its purity and innocence. My mother says my younger sister slept on the floor of my room in her sleeping bag for months after Ann’s disappearance. I do not know what I could have done to protect her from monsters like the man in the red pick-up truck. I cherish every moment of this time in my son’s life. My sweet memories of Ann and of that time will always override the horror of what happened to her and teach me lessons I could never know otherwise.