Littleton police detective Bryann Lynch unlocks the storage building, slides open its metal garage door and surveys, once again, the ninety-odd wedding dresses that hang there, their trumpet beads winking in the dim light. A few trains have drifted to the concrete floor. A bag of what Lynch calls "those big butt bows" is stashed neatly in the corner.
"You wouldn't believe how much space wedding gowns take up," she says. "We used a city flatbed truck to get them here, and we had to do two loads. We've kind of tried to organize them. You can see we have the ivory ones here on this side and the white ones on the other. No," she decides, "it's not your usual evidence."
Lynch has driven the three blocks from Littleton Police Department headquarters to this storage locker more times than she can count since the Twice Around Wedding Gowns case exploded on the scene last October. Since the investigation has yet to be concluded, she can't divulge too many details. Suffice it to say that one Heather Wilkening, owner of the downtown Littleton used-wedding-gown shop, took a number of white dresses on consignment, sold many of them during the spring of 1998, then quietly folded up her business and attempted to slip away to Europe. Few of the women whose gowns were sold received their agreed-upon share of the sale. Others, whose repeated phone calls and inquiries generated no response, visited the shop in person, only to find that their dress--and everyone else's--had magically disappeared.
"Most had cost $900 to $1,000 originally," Lynch says, "and she was selling them for between $250 to $350, which is a huge deal." If you could get your percentage, that is. And even then, the circumstances that lead a woman to sell her wedding gown are seldom made better with a hundred bucks.
"A lot had gotten divorced," Lynch relates. "The saddest were when the wedding was canceled for some reason. That's upsetting enough--to have your wedding called off. And then this."
By November 1998, Lynch had located about 120 of the phantom gowns and had run a small ad asking women whose wedding dresses were missing to give her a call. At the height of the frenzy, she was getting twenty calls a day. Finally, she hit on an elegant way to reunite the women and their gowns: a social get-together, with all the dresses hung on racks in a large meeting room at Littleton's City Hall.
"I kinda wanted to make it a party--tea and cookies," Lynch remembers, "but I guess that was inappropriate. I mean, we are the police department."
Refreshments or not, fifty women came to the December 5 "open house," as it ultimately was called, each bringing along a picture of herself in the gown she hoped to recover so that detectives would know a positive identification had been made.
"So here's what's funny," Lynch remembers. "On the phone, they all said, 'I'd know my gown anywhere.' But when they saw how many we had, they were like, whoa...and I was no help. They'd say, 'It's ivory satin with a beaded bodice,' and I'd be, like, 'What? I haven't worn a dress in at least three months.'"
Still, five hours into the open house, fifteen women had found what they were looking for. The leftover gowns were then hauled off to the Littleton storage unit, where they still hang today. "At times I thought, great, I'm gonna spend the rest of my career on this case," Lynch says. "But when some woman calls up who didn't hear about the open house in time and she wants to see the gowns, I never have the heart not to take her out here to have a look. At this point, all who were going to find their gowns have found them. Where are all the others? They've moved? They don't want their gowns?"
It's a mystery, and not the only one in this small room.
"Like, who would wear this Vegas-y, foofy thing?" Lynch asks, displaying a ball of tulle and satin that would be right at home on the set of The Bird Cage. "And what's going to happen to all the gowns? Our regular unclaimed property gets auctioned, and whatever money comes out of it becomes part of the city's general fund. In this case, I'm going to propose that the funds be divided among the victims, as some kind of restitution."
Lynch thinks that would be nice--but then, she has come to feel a certain affection for the fifty or so women who are still looking for their missing gowns. "What was so sweet was, they thanked me for doing something," Lynch recalls. "They thought because it wasn't a horrendous, violent crime, it wasn't important."