Highland Heights is a town in northern Kentucky that was blanketed in a dense fog the morning of the disappearance. In 1971, the city was a typical American small-town, containing middle-class, working families. The main thoroughfare through town was Highway U.S. 27 which was dotted with homes, a grocery store, a post office, a gas station or two, a couple of churches, a few small restaurants, and a roadside motel. Off of that winding four lane highway were neighborhood streets, branching off like small vines. These streets were narrow and when parked with cars, would become even more narrow–there were no sidewalks– and the homes were modest–2-3 bedrooms with one or one-and-a-half baths, and small yards. It was from one of these homes, found halfway down a street of about forty other homes, that a ten-year-old girl left for school early one fall morning and disappeared into a fog on the way to her bus stop, never to be seen alive again.
A girl’s disappearance under these circumstances would have been big news in town, right? The answer to that question depends on who you talk to. And this is how my investigation began–by talking to local people.
Some locals I’ve spoken to said that at the time, they did not know much about the girl from Highland Heights who disappeared or the circumstances of it. Maybe it’s because news just didn’t travel as fast. Maybe people were more slowly alarmed than they are today. Maybe people held tight to their own street and the people living on it and didn’t concern themselves with the goings-on of the neighboring town. Maybe this girl wasn’t from a prominent family. Maybe it’s because tragedy wasn’t screamed across the evening news to people having a fascination with true crime like it is now. Maybe children going missing didn’t set off immediate alarm bells with people. Whatever the reason, some people didn’t know much about the story besides what was sprinkled through the newspapers and shared in social circles.
My parents have lived in a town close to Highland Heights since 1977, but I was met with blank stares when I started talking about the case a couple of years ago. I’m intrigued by this fact. How does a girl go missing only to be found murdered later and people don’t know much about it? Was the case cold from the start? There wasn’t much to report so the story was forgotten?The summer day in 1996 when I found myself staring at the man on the porch…we were slowly driving down a road that I had driven down many, many times in my life–hundreds of times. I was only a few minutes from my home in a nearby-town and I still had never known. If you can’t tell, it bothered me and honestly, it still does.
But of course–and this is important– there are other Highland Heights residents who lived on the same street as the missing girl or near it, some attended the same school, others knew people involved in the search parties, and these people have very vivid memories of that time when the adults were frantically searching for a missing child. I’ve heard accounts of the terror and panic that were inflicted on the residents of the street and neighboring street. For those people living in the immediate area, they DO have stories to tell. Their thoughts and recollections are important to this case. They are the living history. More from them later….
Highland Heights has flourished over time. It is home to Northern Kentucky University which was a constructed in the early 70s. Over the last forty plus years, the university has developed into a substantial institution and thus brought with it more people which has, in turn, increased the demand for more restaurants, shops, and housing. And, slowly over time, the houses, small businesses, and quaint shops that were found along the highway have been torn down and newer restaurants, office buildings, and small strip malls stand in their place. For me, I feel like some of the charm has eroded. I think fondly back to some of the places I went to in Highland Heights as a child like Thriftway, the video rental store, the neighborhood banks where I sold Girl Scout cookies, and the pizza joint. They’re all gone now, lost to bigger developments and highway expansions. I know forward progress is supposed to be a good thing, but I’m nostalgic. I have thought a few times about whether a 10-year-old girl who was lost in a fog in 1971 would even recognize her town today if she were to suddenly reappear. And then I remember, that’s not how this story ends.
The Police Officer
Tom Rowland was a young cop when he moved his family to Highland Heights, Kentucky in 1976. At the time, he and my mother-in-law had a year-old son and were expecting a newborn daughter. Tom worked part-time for the Highland Heights Police Department from 1976-1979. During his three years with the department, he became familiar with the unsolved homicide case of a local 10-year-old girl. He was not an official investigator of the case–he was a young patrolman, but because the department was small he was privy to information about the case. And based on what he heard and what had been investigated, Tom felt strongly about keeping an eye on the man who lived not only in viewing distance of the missing girl’s street, but just around the corner from the Rowland family house. And as his young family grew (which also came to include my husband in 1979) and he went on to be a full-time police officer in a nearby town, he made sure his children knew they were to avoid “the man on the porch” at all costs.
The fact that Tom lived, worked, and for some time raised his family in the very town from which the girl went missing (and the man on the porch lived), was just one example of how his life and child victim’s life would intersect without them even knowing each other. As this story has unfolded before me over the past year, I have watched it grow tentacles and begin twisting and weaving in many different directions, all the while connecting my father-in-law with Cheryll.
Cheryll? Yes. She’s the person for whom this whole endeavor is dedicated– the girl at the center of the mystery. Her story will break your heart. Stay tuned.