One of the most challenging parts of this endeavor is knowing how exactly to pursue getting Cheryll’s case file and corresponding with the police. Last summer, I wrote an open records request letter to the Kentucky State Police and that first request was denied due to not having listed specific enough information about what I was hoping to get from the police. So with the help of an attorney friend, I wrote a second letter, this time with specific requests listed and more legal lingo contained within. Recently, I received another letter of denial. In part, the letter stated, “Premature release of any records related to an ongoing investigation in a public forum could result in prejudice to the witnesses and may adversely affect their recollection of the events.” I understand this, I really do. But I also felt aggravated–I don’t like being told no. Ha! So upon further exploration, I learned that the police will sometimes share information with family if the family requests to speak to the police. At this point, I have only spoken to extended family members so the question became….Who will help me? I was mulling this over in my mind and like usual, found myself asking Cheryll what to do next.
I have found that whenever I need help moving forward, another door opens and a new person enters the narrative. Luckily, I have been able to work with a distant cousin of Cheryll’s who volunteered to be the family member to contact the police. I believe Cheryll knew who I needed to help me so she sent me the most-determined, bull-dogged, persistent relative she could find. Together, we penned a brief letter to the state police requesting information and this cousin took it upon herself to call the police department EVERYDAY until a detective called her back.
Her persistence paid off. She received the return phone call that we’d been waiting for, five days before Cheryll’s birthday.
Here is what we learned in a nutshell: A cold case officer is “looking at” Cheryll’s case due to a renewed public interest. (Insert celebratory jumping up and down here). He stressed that unsolved murder cases are not closed. Cheryll’s case is open, but hasn’t been active. He shared that there is very little evidence that still exists and quite possibly nothing that would contain DNA. The officer took notes, asked some questions, asked and noted what questions we had, and assured Cheryll’s cousin that he’d get to work and be in touch. The vibe was positive. The officer seems genuinely interested and enthusiastic. How do you get a cold case to warm up? You get people to care and a detective to look into it. We now have both. This is such a positive step in the right direction. But realistically, this process is a slow one. Cheryll’s case is one of many cold cases and investigations take time. So now we wait….and we pray.
October 20th was unseasonably warm this year. It was a beautiful day. My family and I loaded up the car to drive to Crittenden, Kentucky for the annual Spegal family reunion to which, this year, we had been invited. I was honored to be included in the gathering and very much looking forward to meeting Cheryll’s extended family. As we drove off of the exit ramp on our approach to the country town of Crittenden, my daughter called from the back of the vehicle, “Look, mom– a cardinal!” I looked out the window, searching for it. Realizing I hadn’t yet spotted the bird, she said, “There! On the sign.” And sure enough, as we sat at the red light waiting to turn, I gazed straight ahead out of the passenger side of the windshield and saw the City of Crittenden sign, where a red cardinal adorned the marker. Seeing this brought a smile to my face and I took that to be a very positive sign for the day to come.
Like I expected, the Spegals were gracious, kind, and welcoming. I met cousins and more cousins of Cheryll’s and her dad’s and her grandpa’s. We discussed the headstone and how we were looking forward to seeing it installed. The family thanked me for telling Cheryll’s story, asked me questions, offered suggestions, volunteered to help if needed, told me they’d continue to pray, encouraged me to keep pressing ahead, and told my family and me to grab a plate of delicious, home-cooked food. I reflected on the paradox of being there– feeling grateful to be appreciated for my efforts while also acknowledging that I would never have been there or had the opportunity to meet these people if Cheryll hadn’t been killed.
As I finished my meal and after my husband headed outside to let our kids play in the park, my attention was drawn to a set of large 3-ring binders filled with information about the various branches of the Spegal family tree. And there are a lot of branches! I paged through the binders and eventually found Billy Joe’s section. My eyes were met with photographs of Cheryll’s brothers, newspaper clippings about Cheryll’s disappearance (a couple of which I had never seen), funeral information for Billy Joe, and to my delight, a colored copy of the school picture of Cheryll I had only ever seen in black and white. I uttered, “oh, WOW” aloud as I quickly snapped a photo of the photo while continuing to stare at her looking back at me. I realized that this was the first time I had ever seen her in color. In addition to the hospitality shown to me by the Spegals, seeing that photo warmed my heart on that already warm day. I can’t help but suspect Cheryll had a hand in orchestrating such a lovely gathering that day.
The phone call came in late afternoon on a weekday. I saw the number and eagerly answered it. “The headstone is in place”– the words I had been waiting to hear. The first opportunity I had, I drove to the cemetery. This day, my family happened to be along for the ride. As we pulled down the lane next to the section in which Cheryll is buried, I began scanning the grassy land looking for it.
“There it is….” my husband said as his eyes fixed on Cheryll’s headstone from the front seat of the car, looking out the side window to her resting place. I didn’t see it at first. My eyes were excitedly bouncing around trying to remember where she was buried, as I opened my car door. “Do you see it?” He called after me as I exited the vehicle to walk to where she’s buried. And just then, I DID see it. My heart stopped for a moment. I felt a sort of cry welling up in my throat. It was a cry of sadness, excitement, relief, awe, and satisfaction coming together in that moment. For what felt like a long minute, though I’m sure it was only a few seconds…I felt like I had lost my ability to hear–my only sense was sight, and it had overtaken me. As I approached her headstone, I snapped back into the moment and heard my husband helping my kids out of the car as my family hurried behind me to her gravesite.
And there it was. The headstone looked so large there on the ground surrounded by the simple and aged stones of her neighbors. I thought about how polished and grand it looked and just stood in awe of it. My family stood to my left and to my right as we took the moment in.
“What do you think?” My husband asked me.
“I love it. I can’t believe it.” I answered. (And to be honest, I also thought, “I don’t like the placement of the vase.” But that’s something we’re working on, and hopefully in the meantime, with flowers, will look less stark there above the etching of her photograph).
My daughter crouched down and ran her hand over the stone to dust it off. “It looks so good,” she said, as I watched her small fingers scroll across the stone, tracing the letters of Cheryll’s name.
“I know,” I whispered as I still stood smiling, satisfied.
Before we departed, I wanted Cheryll to hear me. This is for you, Cheryll. This excitement is all for you. I hope you love it. And I hope that you’re dancing today. You deserve this and more, sweet girl. As I stood and spoke these words to her, and as my family began to retreat back to the car, my feet stayed planted as I turned to look over my shoulder at the hillside behind me. I spotted the large tree at the crest in the hill now adorned with golden leaves, swaying in the wind. Tom’s resting place was up there near that tree and I knew that on this day, he was dancing too.