The 1995 green Camaro Z28 roared out of the dark hills at 95 miles an hour, barreling east on Interstate 70 toward the coming sunrise. Behind it flashed the blue and red lights of an Idaho Springs police cruiser.
The officer had noticed a young man and woman standing by the car on a side street in the small mountain town. When he swung the cruiser around to investigate, the pair jumped into the Camaro, where a companion waited.
The chase was on.
Two more miles, up and over the last hill, and the lights of Denver would have appeared on the plains below. But suddenly the Camaro, with its three young occupants, veered off the highway at the Chief Hosa exit. The driver lost control, and the car began spinning clockwise as it swerved from the exit ramp, plowing through the tall, dry grass.
With the car moving at 140 feet per second when they reached the exit, the final 490 feet of their lives lasted approximately three seconds. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.
The car slammed passenger-side first into a two-foot-thick Ponderosa pine. The impact sounded like a bomb going off in the still mountain air.
As the Camaro slowly spun to a stop on the other side of the tree, the horrified Idaho Springs police officer called for help. It was 5:45 in the morning, October 26, 1995.
By the time the Jefferson County Coroner's office investigator arrived at the scene, two of the bodies had been removed from what remained of the car. A third was pinned in the backseat and would have to be cut from the wreckage.
All three had died instantly. The cause of death was as clear as the fresh scars on the tree and the mangled scrap metal behind it. Death by physics: speed vs. the immovable object.
The question for the coroner's office wouldn't be how, but who. There was no identification of any kind on the bodies: no purses, no wallets, no letters in the car--no hint of who they were or where they were going.
Two of the victims--the driver and the backseat's occupant--were barely disfigured. But the female in the front passenger seat had suffered a severe head trauma. She had been closest to the point of impact, perhaps looking out that side window as the car careened like a carnival ride gone haywire. Her face no longer existed.
"We knew two of them were young just by looking," recalls Triena Harper, the chief deputy coroner in Jeffco. "But otherwise we had three Does and no place to go."
The girl in the backseat looked to be hardly more than a child, and the male driver appeared to be in his teens. Many of the cops, paramedics and investigators had children of their own, and they went about their work grim-faced.
Once the bodies arrived at the morgue, Harper knew she had to get the kids identifiedEfast. Somewhere out there a mother or a father--maybe both, though statistics indicate that a runaway, as these three were assumed to be, usually comes from a broken family--was waiting to hear from a child.
Only once in her fourteen-year career had Harper failed to identify a corpse: a young woman whose badly decomposed body had been found on Lookout Mountain in the spring of 1989. Nature had done its work so well that Harper could not even determine a cause of death. But she tried to learn everything else she could about the dead woman. A forensic anthropologist reconstructed her facial features using the skull and estimated her height and weight from the remains. They'd given the information to the newspapers and submitted it to a national clearinghouse for missing persons.
Nothing had come of it. Nevertheless, Harper kept at it for another year, refusing to let go of the remains, hoping she could find a family to deliver them to. When, reluctantly, she finally gave up, Jane Doe was buried in a Golden cemetery; the services were videotaped in case her family was ever found.
Harper was determined that these three new Does would have a better ending. Their families were going to get these kids back.
The first step was examining the bodies, noting every scratch and scar. She consulted a radiologist and odontologist regarding bone and teeth development to determine age, as well as to find evidence of dental work and previously broken bones that might aid in identification.
At first glance, the backseat passenger had appeared to be fourteen or fifteen years old. Now the experts put her at closer to twelve or thirteen. She was a beautiful child--Hispanic, with dark brown hair and eyes, but no tattoos or other distinguishing marks.
The driver looked about nineteen. His head had been shaved perhaps two or three days before he died; his eyes were hazel. He did have a significant mark: a marijuana leaf tattooed on his chest. Of the three, he was the only one who tested positive for drugs or alcohol--a trace amount of marijuana residue in his blood that may have been there for weeks before the accident.
The third victim was more problematic. Judging by her body, the experts estimated her age at sixteen. There was a surgical scar on her ankle and small initials tattooed into her hand. Her hair was brown, but her facial injuries prevented Harper from knowing even the color of her eyes.
A forensic artist was called in to sketch the three victims. Two were easy; the third was not. The artist had to study X-rays of the second girl's head before he could render any kind of likeness.
Compiling the information took a week. Then the descriptions and sketches of the three were fed into the national computer for missing children. Within a few hours, Harper had received more than two dozen inquiries from across the country. But there would be no matches from those calls.
In the meantime, Harper contacted the Las Vegas police department. The car's license plate had been traced to a Camaro stolen from a parking lot in North Las Vegas the day before the accident. The keys had been left in the ignition.
Now Harper asked if the Las Vegas cops had received any reports of missing children who might match the three bodies lying in the Jefferson County morgue.
More than 400 kids are reported missing each month in the Las Vegas area. And that total doesn't include the thousands of out-of-state runaways who every year are drawn to the neon lights like moths to a billion-watt bug zapper.
"It's a 24-hour town," says Sergeant Al Bechyne of the Las Vegas police department's children's unit. "The casinos have arcades and restaurants where a kid can hang out all day and night without drawing a lot of attention."
The town isn't as friendly as it looks, though, and certainly not for youths with no job skills. They often wind up in trouble--as victims or perpetrators of crimes, and sometimes both at once.
For all of its recent efforts to shape a new image as a family vacation destination, Las Vegas is still a town of hustlers and con men, a town where vice is a virtue and money buysEanything.
"There are a lot of pimps and pedophiles," says Bechyne. "They know exactly how to exploit these kids. The kids who come here alone, or maybe with a friend, are real vulnerable. These older guys come along and say, 'Hey, I'll take care of you.' They buy them dinner and put 'em up in a motel. The next thing the kid knows, she's working for some pimp.
"Just last week, the vice guys in the department picked up a couple of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls for prostitution. And if it's not prostitution, then it's drugs or some other crime. Or maybe somebody just takes them somewhere, rapes them and leaves their body in a ditch."
Too often, police end up calling anxious parents to deliver the bad news.
Bechyne knows firsthand the terrors of waiting for such a call. A few years back he was working a lot of hours, unaware that the relationship between his teenage daughter and wife was quickly deteriorating. Then the girl started running away from home--three times over the course of a couple of months. The last time she was gone three days.
Those were three days of little sleep as Bechyne unwillingly recalled images of what had happened to other runaways. "On the one hand, you dread phone callsEsomebody calling to tell you your daughter's dead, or she's been raped," he says. "But like I told my wife the second time, 'I wish one of the guys would call and say she's under arrest.' At least that way we'd know where she was and that she was safe."
After the third episode, the family went to Tough Love counseling to confront the problem and each other. Bechyne was surprised to learn why his daughter started running away: She had been skipping school so she wouldn't have to deal with gangs. Afraid to tell her parents that she'd been skipping, she instead ran away.
"I went to this program embarrassed. I mean, here I was a cop," Bechyne says. "But there was a schoolteacher, an attorney, an airline pilot, all in the same roomEdifferent economic backgrounds, different ethnicities...I wasn't alone."
When Harper called from Colorado, Bechyne immediately felt empathy for the three dead kids--and their parents, wherever they were. The kids apparently had swiped the car, but God only knew where they were going with it. When he talked with runaways, they rarely had any idea why they were doing what they were doingEor where it was taking them.
Bechyne arranged to have the Colorado sketches and descriptions broadcast by local television stations. The next morning a schoolteacher called. He thought he recognized the youngest victim as a former student, a twelve-year-old girl named Sara Padilla who had a history of running away from home.
A quick check indicated that a girl with that name had been picked up by the police at the Luxor Hotel/Casino on October 24 and taken to Westcare, a nonprofit youth shelter.
Bechyne did not expect to find her still there. In 1974, Congress had passed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which determined that runaways cannot be locked up in a secure facility unless they have committed a crime or are in danger of being physically or sexually abused at home. If they commit a crime, they can be locked up in a juvenile facility; if they are abused, child protective services agencies can take custody. Otherwise, the kids often aren't held long enough for their parents to come get them.
In Clark County, Nevada, runaways who don't belong in jail or with social services are taken by the police to Westcare. Often, the kids don't remain there for long. "It angered us because we knew that one of these days, a kid was going to walk away from that place and wind up dead or raped," Bechyne says. "We knew it, but there was nothing we could do about it...People say these kids fall through the cracks. Well, it's not a crack, it's a great big hole."
At the shelter, counselors try to contact parents as quickly as possible. "But by the time we take them in the front door and turn to leave," Bechyne says, "they're already on their way out the back door."
Such was the case with Sara. A counselor had called the girl's mother at 4:30 the afternoon she was picked up. When the woman arrived at Westcare an hour later, her daughter was gone.
Sara had left in the company of another girl: a sixteen-year-old named Marie Ward, who'd been brought in the night before. The counselors had contacted Marie's mother, too, but she lived in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and there was no way she could get to Las Vegas before Marie got out.
Bechyne realized they'd probably identified the two dead girls in Colorado.
The job of making the final identification fell to Harper. On November 3, she called the youngest girl's mother.
"I think we might have your daughter," Harper said, explaining the situation and who she was. "It's really important that we identify her, but we can't do that without your help."
There was silence on the other end of the line. Sara had been missing for so long, her mother finally said, that the thought had passed through her head that her daughter was dead. Of course, she said, she would do anything Harper asked...whatever it took to bring her baby home.
Sara had been born in Mexico, the middle child between an older brother and younger sister. According to Las Vegas police, there had been trouble between the girl and her stepfather that resulted in a long record of social services' involvement and a history of Sara's running away, although she'd never been in trouble with the law.
This time Sara had been gone from home for three days when her 37-year-old mother, also named Sara, got the call from Westcare. The mother left to retrieve her daughter as soon as she could, only to be told when she arrived that the girl was gone.
"They should have held her," she now complains. "I thought that she was safe."
Sara's mother went home to wait for the next telephone call. It came two weeks later, when Harper phoned.
The mother agreed to send her daughter's dental records to Jefferson County. Those records proved conclusively that the dead girl was Sara.
Still, her mother flew to Colorado to check for herself.
"She couldn't believe her little girl was dead," says Harper. "She had to see her."
Although the note on her door offered little information, Vida Ward knew exactly what had become of her daughter.
Vida had married her second husband after all their kids from previous marriages--three offspring each--were grown and gone from the house. They planned to live out their golden years in Iowa, alone in a small home.
Vida was fifty when those plans changed.
Four years earlier, one of her husband's kids had given birth to Marie. The little girl was born three months premature. She suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome caused by her mother's drinking. Tubes were inserted in her ankles to provide nourishment, leaving scars that would still be visible sixteen years later. Every day, she had to fight for her life.
Things never got much easier.
"She was an unbonded child because of how she got started in life," Vida says. "Then she was abused at home. She was four when her parents decided they were ready to put her out with a stranger...That's when my husband said to me, 'I'd like to know my granddaughter.' And I said, 'Okay. I'll help.'"
The Wards brought the little girl home to Council Bluffs and legally adopted her. She was a pretty child with green eyes who loved to go fishing with her adoptive mother on the banks of the nearby Missouri River. "She always was happiest out-of-doors, camping and hiking and such," Vida recalls.
School was another matter. Marie's tough beginnings had resulted in a hearing loss, and she was also diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Although bright, she couldn't remember what she learned from one day to the next. She resented being told what to do, by both teachers and her parents, and often didn't seem able to differentiate right from wrong. "Right to her was anything she wanted to do," Vida says.
"We loved her, she never really knew how much because love wasn't something she could understand," she adds. "She never once told us that she loved us, though sometimes she tried to show it."
Becoming a teenager only exacerbated Marie's problems. She couldn't go to the grocery store because she couldn't remember how to count. Frustrated at school, she began skipping classes and finally dropped out, though Vida kept re-enrolling her in alternative schools in the hopes that Marie would somehow find the help she needed.
"We kept begging the authorities," Vida says. "But there was nothing that could be done."
Marie's temper grew violent, and she fought with Vida. She would run away for days at a time and then return for a week or two, or maybe just long enough to change her clothes before disappearing again.
Vida didn't know what to do. Her husband's health was failing, and the situation with Marie didn't help. Her own children had been easy to raise; if they didn't come home from school immediately, they would meet her at the doors of the church where she went nearly every day.
But twenty years later, kids were more difficult, insolent and angry. And not just Marie, but also the riffraff she hung out with. Marie refused to go to church with Vida and once, just to shock her mother, told her, "I plan on being Satan's best friend."
When Marie was fifteen, the Wards decided to place her in foster care for a while. She was there when her adoptive father died.
"I think it broke his heart," Vida says. "And he just gave up. He really did love her."
Her husband gone, Vida brought Marie back home. Sometimes she was her old sweet self, and she was appreciative when her mother insisted--though they could ill afford it--on $1,000 worth of dental work.
But the fighting continued. It was clear even Marie didn't understand what drove her so fiercely.
One Sunday evening in early October, she came to her mother and held out a small box. "Mom, I got something for you," Marie said.
There was something about her tone that worried Vida. Suddenly she was afraid for her daughter. The box seemed too much like a parting gift. "I don't want it," Vida said.
"It's something for you to remember me by when I'm gone," Marie told her, still holding out the box.
"I don't want it," Vida repeated. "I don't want you to go."
Marie turned and went back to her room. That night, she left the house for the last time. In the morning, Vida went into her daughter's empty room and knew that life had changed forever. She saw the box on Marie's dresser. Lifting the lid, she found a necklace with a small heart pendant. It was engraved "#1 Mom."
"She still didn't know how to say, 'Mom, I love you,'" says Vida, her voice barely above a whisper. "She never could."
Two weeks later, Vida saw her daughter one final time. Marie was standing with a young man on the sidewalk outside a vacant building known as a hangout for homeless street kids. Vida didn't like the boy's looks: the shaved head, the insolent smile, the glassy eyes.
"Marie, you ain't gonna live to be seventeen if you don't get some help," Vida cried out. "You're not gonna make it."
Rather than reacting angrily, Marie tried to comfort her mother. "I'll be all right," she said. "I'm just not ready yet."
The boy let them know he was growing impatient. He was no teenager; Vida pegged him for twenty-one. "Get lost," she said. "You better get your tail to Nebraska, 'cause in Iowa it's illegal to be with a sixteen-year-old girl."
When Vida threatened to call the authorities, the boy ran off in one direction. Her daughter went in another.
Hoping Marie might return to the building, Vida called the police. "They told me that when they raided the place, it was like turning a light on cockroaches," she remembers. "Kids went climbing out windows, through cracks in the wall. But Marie wasn't there. One of her friends called me a few days later to tell me she'd gone to Las Vegas with that boy."
Somehow Vida knew she'd never see Marie again. The third week in October, she woke up sure that she'd heard Marie calling out "Mom! Mom!" as she had when she was a little girl having nightmares. But the house was empty.
Vida was with her youngest son when she walked up to her door in early November and found a note. It was from social services and said she needed to call regarding Marie.
"She's dead," Vida told her son as she opened the door.
"Mom, you don't know that," he argued.
"Yes," she said, walking to the telephone. "Yes, I do."
The $1,000 worth of dental work, complete with recent X-rays, was enough for a positive identification of Marie Ward. And through Marie's friends, Harper was able to track the boy to a small town outside of Omaha, Nebraska.
Christopher Reinke was 21 years old when he drove the stolen Camaro off the interstate at the Chief Hosa exit and into a tree. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. But he'd been heading for trouble much, much longer than that.
Nebraska police had records on him for drug sales, theft, receiving stolen goods and, before he became an adult, as a reported runaway. He had never done any jail time, but his police fingerprints positively identified Christopher Reinke as the third corpse in the Jefferson County morgue.
Calling the Reinke home, Harper reached an uncle. She told him why she'd phoned, only to learn that Christopher's father had recently suffered a massive heart attack. The uncle said he'd tell Christopher's mother about her son. They'd have to wait for his father to recover before they could tell him; otherwise the shock might kill him, too.
They had all been worried about the boy, the uncle told Harper. But though they loved Christopher, no one seemed to know how to get through to him.
Like Marie, he'd been adopted and had a hard time fitting in, especially at school. As Christopher grew older and started periodically disappearing, the family had tried to stay optimistic. After all, he kept in contact during his wanderings, even if it was just a brief call from some pay phone. They had hoped that Christopher would grow out of this rebellious stage.
But time had run out--in a matter of seconds--for Chris, Marie and Sara.
Almost five months later, not even a trace of snow hides the marks where the Camaro's tires tore through the dry grass off the Chief Hosa exit. The tall Ponderosa at the tracks' terminus is scarred; beads of sap hang from the wound like teardrops. Someone has planted a small white cross at the base of the tree, a reminder of how short and fragile life can be.
"Who could forget?" Harper says. "Frankly, I thought it might take months to identify them. Maybe never. We didn't know how long they had been missing. It was really important to us to find the families so we could send their children back home."
Stuart Nay, the chief of >>police in Idaho Springs, says the officer who pursued the Camaro is still recovering from the trauma. "Physically, he was okay," Nay says. "Emotionally, it has taken him some time to recover. They were just kids.
"What a loss, what a waste."
In Las Vegas, the tragedy has given added impetus to a Nevada task force on runaway children. Among other things, the task force wants to get the law changed so that kids can be detained until their parents or guardians take them into custody.
But, Bechyne admits, new laws and modifications of old ones won't stop kids from running away. His daughter is nineteen, enrolled in college--and living at home.
"Now I can't get her to leave the house," Bechyne laughs, then grows somber. "She tells me she looks back on that time and it's like a dream. We were fortunate--we got our daughter back.
"As much as anything, she grew out of it. Most kids do if they just have the time. All I can say is love 'em, and whatever you do, don't give up, never give up."
Those words come too late for Vida Ward and Marie. "They wouldn't let me see her," Vida cries softly. "They wouldn't open the casket so that I could touch her and know that it was really her and not some horrible mistake.
"I mean, I know it's her, but I haven't been able to put her to rest."
Vida was surprised by the large turnout at Marie's funeral. She was buried next to where Vida will one day lie beside her husband. "One of her teachers came up to me, he was crying and said, 'She was a beautiful child. I tried to work with her everyday, but she just couldn't remember.' It was like he blamed himself."
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She pauses. "I blame myself, too. I tried and tried, but she was a free spirit and couldn't be held down. She had to fight from the first day of her life; I think it was just her nature to keep on fighting."
Vida has moved out of the house in Council Bluffs. There were just too many memories, many of them bad. The anger. The fights. The lonely hours waiting for Marie to retu>r>n.
She's moved into a small house in a nearby town, where it's easier to remember the good things about Marie.
"Sometimes I'm scared to death about where she is now because of the things she used to say," Vida reflects. "But I have to believe that she's in the hands of a just and loving God, and he'll understand that she was just a child.