This past March, my oldest child–my only daughter– turned ten. Do you ever look at your child and think about smart they are, how beautiful they are, how good they are, and just feel so grateful that you get to be their parent? That’s what I found myself doing all day the day of her birthday– just admiring her and feeling so much love for my girl. And even with all of those feelings, I was also grappling with thoughts of Cheryll. Thinking of the horror that she was going through the morning of her tenth birthday. Thinking of how she never got to celebrate being ten. When I tucked my daughter in to bed the night of her birthday, I thought about how my child will now always be older than Cheryll lived to be. That day was such a juxtaposition of emotion– a heart bursting with joy for my daughter, and a heart feeling sheer sadness for another beautiful, smart, and good girl who was savagely murdered on her tenth birthday.
On the morning of October 19, 1971 Cheryll Spegal was dressed in a plaid jumper and a gold blouse. I have a strong hunch that it was the same jumper that she wore in her last school picture. Maybe it was her favorite outfit. Or her nicest. Either way, she was dressed up for school on the day of her birthday. Her brothers left for the bus stop at the top of Rose Avenue without their sister. Some reports say that she was running late. Other reports state that she actually arrived early to a friend’s house and when they weren’t ready to leave for school yet, Cheryll said she’d come back in a few minutes to meet them. But of course she never did. Cheryll’s dad reported that she left out of the back door of the house around 6:25 a.m. and he saw her disappear into a dense fog as she started her walk up the street to the bus stop.
Cheryll never boarded the bus. No one seemed to notice. Cheryll was not at school that day and no one called home to see where she was because that was not standard practice at the time. When school let out and the students boarded the bus to head home, her brothers then realized that she was not on the bus, had been absent from school, and was definitely unaccounted for. They knew immediately that something was very, very wrong.
By all reports, the police were immediately called and the search for Cheryll was on. The police grasped the seriousness of the situation immediately. Over 100 volunteer police and firemen showed up to help look for Cheryll. A search party was formed to fan out through the woods behind the homes on Rose Avenue. They found nothing. Cheryll’s older brother, Mickey, and her dad, Billy Joe, were frantically searching drainage ditches. They found nothing. There was absolutely nothing. No coat. No clothing. No backpack. Cheryll Spegal was literally gone in the fog.
I imagine desperate and somber scenes inside the Spegal home. Was there an uneaten birthday cake? An unopened present? Was Cheryll’s family pacing the floor, frantically calling family and friends? Did they hope she had maybe run away? Did they sleep that night? And importantly, what should be made of the fact that Cheryll disappeared on her tenth birthday? It was her birthday. Think about that for a moment. How horribly sad is that? What are the chances of that happening? I struggle with this fact and contemplate the significance to the case, if any. Of all mornings for a girl to vanish and be killed, it just so happened to be on her tenth birthday. Did the person who took Cheryll know it was a special day for her and that was why they struck that day? Did the perpetrator just so happen to abduct her on that day? Did she plead with them, telling them it was her birthday? My mind goes in circles considering the possibilities. Whether it was a complete coincidence or has some significance, it seems to me to be an especially cruel hand to deal to a child.
My friend, Bridget, and I are friends in life and investigative partners in crime. She is the Cagney to my Lacey. (Literally, we call each other that sometimes.) I am short at 5’2″ and she is probably my only friend who is slightly shorter than me. Even with her small frame, Bridget is full-of-life, spunky, and the kind of friend you want standing next to you when you’re heading into battle. She is smart, quick-witted, and very observant. And she possesses a trait that I am not sure that I have– a strong sense of intuition. Bridget navigates through life guided by emotion and is oftentimes exhausted from it. I am blessed and grateful that I have her as a friend (especially because Bridget has about a hundred other friends besides me) and she has never once wavered in her support of me. When we are working through case information, I lead with my head, she leads with her gut, and together we are both determined as hell to figure out this mystery.
About a year ago, I was only two sentences in to describing my desire to explore Cheryll’s case and Bridget interrupted with, “I’m in. I’ll help in any way you need.” And off we went! She is a cyber-sleuth. She is my road trip companion. She is the person that I text at all hours of the day and night when a thought about Cheryll’s case pops into my head. So one evening when I found myself slowly driving down Rose Avenue to see where Cheryll had lived, Bridget was right next to me in the passenger seat.
“Keep an eye out for the house numbers,” I told her as we realized that the even numbered houses were on her side of the car. I could feel my heart pounding a little harder in my chest as we slowly crept down the street on a bright, summer evening searching for Cheryll’s house– 78 Rose Avenue.
“58…..66….74….it has to be right here,” she said as she was reading the house numbers aloud to me.
I was intently peering out of the right, front windshield on the passenger side looking for a house with a 78 on it, when she let out a gasp. “Holy shit, it’s not there.”
“What?” I questioned her, confused.
“The house isn’t there. Look!” I took my vehicle from a slow, creeping speed to a dead stop in the narrow street. Bridget was right. Where house number 78 should have been, was just an empty, grassy lot with a short concrete slab of a driveway leading to nowhere. We continued on down the street for a moment, circled back around again to take another look and sat side by side, disappointed and in disbelief.
“I can’t believe it. It’s gone.” We uttered in quiet whispers back and forth again. Cheryll and her house had both disappeared–one into a fog and the other, as we later discovered, into a cloud of smoke.