Dead Reckoning

On the day Peyton was born -- February 6, 1975 -- Pat Tuthill cuddled her sleeping daughter, promising to protect her and keep her safe. "And I will love you forever," she whispered.

Peyton was a child any parent would be proud of: loving, intelligent, athletic, talented, adventurous -- but not entirely angelic. She had a mischievous streak, exhibited the day her sister, Cara, two years younger, ran into the house crying. Seven-year-old Peyton had found a dead frog and told Cara that if she kissed it, it would turn into a handsome prince. Of course, all Cara got out of the deal was a taste of dead frog, but Peyton got a good laugh.

In high school in Florida, Peyton was a good student, a cheerleader, athlete and lifeguard who belonged to community-service organizations and church youth groups. At Charleston College in South Carolina, she continued to display her giving spirit, working as a drug and alcohol peer counselor and taking four underprivileged children under her wing for the four years she was there. As a senior, she volunteered at a convalescence home for the elderly, accompanying herself on the piano as she sang old songs -- "Shine On, Harvest Moon," "A Bicycle Built for Two," "Over the Rainbow" -- that calmed even the crankiest patient.

For a graduation present, Peyton's parents, who'd divorced several years earlier, offered their eldest daughter a trip to Europe. But Peyton asked instead to use the money on a four-week course at the Wyoming Outdoor Leadership School.

Peyton made the right choice: Pat knew that whenever she looked at the photograph of her daughter at the wilderness school. In the picture, Peyton was on horseback, wearing a beat-up cowboy hat and a yellow slicker in the falling snow. The weather hadn't dampened her smile. Few things did.

Back home, Peyton decided that she wanted to move to Denver and attend the Colorado Institute of Art. Her father was against her living so far from Florida, and Pat initially was wary of the move, too. "Why don't you wait until spring?" she asked, pointing out that ice and snow could make it dangerous getting around.

But Peyton was adamant that she wanted to go -- and soon. So she and Heather, her college roommate, and Maggie, the small springer spaniel Peyton had gotten freshman year, packed up and moved west in the fall of 1998.

They didn't have jobs or even a place to stay. Peyton solved the first problem by signing up with a temporary-services agency, and the second when she located a duplex in the 1600 block of Gaylord Street. It was an old part of town that reminded her of similar neighborhoods in Charleston, she told her mother, right down to the racial mix of residents. Since Peyton didn't have money coming in yet, Pat talked to the landlord and said she'd be responsible for the rent. She asked the landlord if the neighborhood was safe. This was the first time she hadn't checked out a place where Peyton would live, hadn't installed extra locks. She was relieved to hear that there'd never been any problems.

Peyton loved Denver, and she soon met a nice young man. Over the holidays, they went to Florida to see her parents. Although the couple was already talking about marriage, Peyton assured her mother that they were a year away from making any firm plans. But Peyton had always dreamed of getting married, of having kids of her own as well as a career; she'd even found a photograph of the wedding dress she wanted in a magazine and stashed it in a small wooden box that contained her "treasures." She was full of plans.

During one conversation -- Peyton talked to her mother almost every day -- she said that she might volunteer at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, the Stout Street Foundation, which was just a couple of houses down the block. She'd already talked to Stout Street administrators; she said she was told that the residents were there voluntarily. "They said if I ever had any trouble to just give them a call and they'd be right over to help," Peyton reassured her mother.

Before she started volunteering, though, Peyton wanted to get a real job. And on February 23, she told her mother that she had an interview the next day with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Peyton promised to call her mother and tell her how it went.

When she hadn't heard from Peyton by 6:30 p.m. the next evening, Pat called her daughter. No one answered, so she left a message. Four hours later, when Pat was heading to bed, she still hadn't gotten a call from Peyton. She must be out doing something, she thought. Maybe celebrating her new job.

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Steve Jackson