Terror times two in southwest Missouri

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the-spfd-3

The Springfield Three vanished in June 1992. Streeter and McCall graduated high school on the same day they disappeared.

Thousands of people vanish every year. Many of them are never heard from again. It’s sad and awful, but it also provides true crime writers a deep pool of material. Though I’m focusing on one case for my capstone project, there are hundreds of cases to write about.

Two of these cases can’t be classified as murders, because the victims are still missing. All four of the women involved disappeared more than 20 years ago. Both cases occurred not far from where I grew up in southwest Missouri.

angela hammond

Angela Marie Hammond

Angela Marie Hammond, 20, was abducted on April 4, 1991, in Clinton, Missouri. Angela was using a payphone in the small town when a grungy middle-aged man driving an old green pickup truck grabbed her and fled.

Angela’s boyfriend, Rob, was talking to her on the phone when she was taken. He raced into town in his car and drove past the truck as it was leaving Clinton. Rob attempted to pursue the truck, but his transmission gave out when he threw the car into reverse at a high speed.

Originally a suspect, Rob was cleared. Nearly 25 years later, Angela is still missing. Two other women were kidnapped in the area in the months leading up to Angela’s abduction. Angela was pregnant at the time of her disappearance.

The second case might be even more terrifying. On June 7, 1992, Sherrill Levitt, Suzie Streeter and Stacy McCall went missing in Springfield, Missouri. The latter two graduated from high school earlier in the day.

There are few clues in this case (and plenty of rumors). Witnesses say they saw a suspicious-looking van in the neighborhood in the hours before the trio went missing. One witness says she saw Sherrill driving a van slowly and heard a voice telling her not to do anything stupid.

At the time the Springfield Three disappeared, Sherrill and Suzie (mother and daughter) lived across the street from Robert Craig Cox, a convicted kidnapper currently incarcerated in Texas. He still is considered a suspect.

I plan to blog about each of these cases in the upcoming months. Many of you reading this, especially those I went to school with, know about this case. What are your thoughts? How about your memories? Have you heard any theories?

It began with a ‘Nightmare’

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gary ridgway

Gary Ridgway eluded investigators for 20 years before DNA evidence finally revealed he was the Green River Killer. He also was the subject of a TV show and best-selling book that hooked me on true crime. Ridgway admitted to killing dozens of women.

 

Dec. 7, 1988. I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep more than a few minutes that night. What I remember the most is being terrified.

That was the night the TV special “Manhunt: Live! A Chance to End the Nightmare” aired. It was two hours of riveting and fear-provoking programming that I could not stop watching.

My father was fast asleep after his standard 18-hour work day and my mother was running our leather crafts booth at a shopping mall two hours away. Naturally, I took advantage by watching a show a 12-year-old shouldn’t be watching.

It didn’t help that we lived in rural southwest Missouri, where every gust carries an eerie whisper, and the moonlight scatters ominous shadows in every corner. As ridiculous as it seems now, it was perfectly reasonable that a serial killer on the West Coast could be lurking in the closet of our home in the Midwest.

As it turns out, the killer wasn’t anywhere near Lebanon, Missouri. But he was watching the same TV show that night, and he didn’t stop killing for more than another decade.

“A Chance to End the Nightmare” was a desperate effort to stop the man known as the Green River Killer, who killed dozens of women, mostly prostitutes. It also was the beginning of my fascination with true crime.

GRK bookA few years later, I bought the book “The Search for the Green River Killer” by Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith, reporters at the Seattle Times and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the case.

I read the book in one sitting and will never forget the authors’ final paragraph: “In the real world things are not so neat, and in this case there is no ending, no resolution. In the real world, the unknown man is, more likely than not, very much alive, driving somewhere in America, looking for someone special to take to a very special place.”

That is the definition of an amazing ending. Horrifying, absolutely, but summed up the case perfectly.

A few years later, the Internet arrived. I started Yahooing (Googling wasn’t a thing yet) “Green River Killer.” The guy still was on the loose. There were plenty of suspects and a few interesting pages, including one by a man who claimed his late brother was the murderer (he wasn’t).

Once I started my career in newspapers in the summer of 1999, I had less time for surfing the Web or reading books about serial killers. Then, in early 2002, during a rare day off, I logged onto my computer and searched “Green River Killer” for the first time in years.

Amazingly, the nightmare was over. Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, was in jail, his DNA connected to four murders (he later admitted to nearly 50 murders and possibly killed as many as 100 women).

That night, I dug through storage and read “The Search for the Green River Killer” again. One man is mentioned as a suspect several times, though his name is not used. He drove a pickup truck covered in primer. He’d been arrested for soliciting prostitutes. He’d been identified by one of the victim’s boyfriends as her abductor. His name was Gary Ridgway.

He was no longer unknown, no longer driving somewhere in America, no longer looking for someone special to take to a very special place.

Here’s to a new face

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Me during the Washburn days interviewing historian Manisha Sinha.

 

After more than six years of the same format, “The blog about everything,” it was time for a facelift.

As the final project for my “Promotions Writing” class in graduate school this semester, I’m building a public relations campaign to promote my capstone: a few chapters in books I plan to write once I’ve earned my master’s degree. You can read more about that on my author’s page on Facebook.

Don’t worry. Those of you who love to read snarky blogs about sports and (I hope) inspiring posts about fitness will still get your fix. But much of the focus of this blog over the next several months is going to be on my classwork.

As for the books: One will be about Brenda Michelle Keller, the 12-year-old girl who was murdered in tiny Dover nearly 25 years ago (My goodness … has it really been that long); the other about my father, who has overcome a plethora of obstacles to teach his sons and grandchildren thousands of wonderful life lessons.

Another reason for the shift in blog: accountability. I’ve been talking about writing a book for a long time. I’ve been considering one about my dad for several years now, but not until recently had I considered writing about Brenda.

Why now do I want to write about Brenda? I blogged about that in October. A quick summary: I never met Brenda, but I have always been drawn to this story. I started visiting her gravesite in the Dover Cemetery in the mid-1990s, feeling I needed to be there, that we would have been friends had this hideous crime not occurred. We also shared mutual friends, including best friends. After years of thinking about this case, it finally hit me that I need to write about it.

A lot of work remains. I have no idea if the relevant parties have any interest in talking about this case. I know the murderer has never spoken to the media. I haven’t decided how to approach the family. But I’ve always wondered why more wasn’t written about Brenda.

Unfortunately, bad things like this happen all the time. That doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told. Hopefully, I can help.