Longform

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF LITTLE BIT

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Belinda's dwarfism worried him at first, says Rodney, who with his long, thinning hair and graying mustache looks every bit the "old hippie" he claims to be. "I thought, `Oh, man, she's already starting out on the wrong foot.' But the more I was around her, the more I realized she was a great kid." He still carries in his wallet a handful of pictures of Belinda as a toddler. Now faded and worn, the photos show a bright, blond baby with a beautiful smile.

Those pictures are Rodney's only real connection to his daughter's early years. When Belinda was a year old, Rodney and Sandy parted ways. Just who left whom, and why, depends upon the teller. Sandy says she left Rodney. He claims he got out of the relationship because of his battle with the bottle. "My stepfather was a drunk," he says. "I decided I wasn't gonna raise kids if I was drinking."

For Belinda, that rift was the beginning of a peripatetic existence. Sandy moved with her daughter to Las Vegas, to Washington state, to Wyoming. When Belinda would get to be too much for her to handle, Sandy would farm her out to relatives in Tennessee or Alabama. One time, Rodney says, Belinda ended up in a foster home in Nebraska. And sometimes Sandy would send the girl to him. It wasn't until Belinda was eight and Rodney had quit drinking that she and her father became close.

Belinda, Rodney says, was "a good kid." She seemed to like school. She got decent grades and did her homework. The constant moving took its toll on her education, though, and she quit school after finishing the tenth grade. "The same thing happened to me," Rodney muses. "We were always moving. I ended up quitting school and going to Vietnam."

Outwardly, Belinda gave little indication that she suffered the sting of being different from other kids. Belinda "never let anybody push her around," her mother says. "Only a couple times did somebody tease her, and she put them in their place."

Life wasn't hard for Belinda, says her grandmother, Lucille Bridgmon of Lutts, Tennessee. "She was a happy little girl. She always had a smile on her face."

Rodney, however, believes Belinda used that smile to hide her true feelings. He'd seen people give her a hard time, and she always tried to act as though it didn't matter. "I think she was just hardened," he says. "She wouldn't let her feelings out." But the street people accepted Belinda, he says. Maybe that's why she stayed.

Belinda spent much of 1992 and 1993 with her grandmother in Lutts, just ten miles or so north of the Alabama state line. Belinda had a lot of friends there, most of whom she knew from her high school days in nearby Collinwood. "She was a little ladylike thing," her grandmother says. "She sat at home and minded her own business. She'd spend the night with her friends."

But Belinda had seen the bright lights of Vegas, and she didn't want to spend her teenage years in a backwater farming town miles from nowhere. She left in the summer of '93 to join her mother in Cheyenne, where Sandy was trying her hand at running a bar. When that didn't pan out, Belinda called her dad, who was then living in a small town in Nebraska, and said she wanted to stay with him. But then she decided she didn't want to live in Grand Island. It was too boring there.

So Rodney told his daughter that he'd move to Denver, get a job, get settled and then send for her. "I said, `Wait a couple months and let me get things squared,'" he says. "I was living in a dumpy place on Franklin Street. I was only here a week when--boom--Sandy sent her down to me."

Rodney was doing shift work as a foreman at a Denver manufacturing plant. He'd started drinking again (though he claims it wasn't a problem), and Belinda--who was just a few months shy of her eighteenth birthday--was left to her own devices. She began spending her time hanging around the seedier parts of East Colfax.

Rodney claims to have tried every drug there is in his younger days, and he says he knows darned good and well when someone is high. Until Belinda got to Denver, he'd never seen her high. After she hit town, it was a different story. "She ran into some guy on Colfax, and he got her into that crack," Rodney says. That's how it began.

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Karen Bowers