“I have been following this story for while, but have hesitated to reach out. I don’t know if the information I have to share is relevant, or helpful, but I feel the need to share it if you want to discuss.” This message appeared in my inbox one summer night and shortly after receiving it, I found myself talking to “Judy”, my ear glued to the phone as she shared a story from her childhood, almost 50 years ago.
It was late in the summer of 1971 and school was back in session. Judy and her friend, “Susan”, were supposed to turn in early because they had school the next day, but the sun was still setting late in the evening, the night was warm, and they wanted to enjoy the last of the summer nights before the crisp, autumn air moved in. Though their parents thought they were tucked safely in their bedrooms for the night, the girls had made a plan to sneak out and walk up to the local bowling alley where they planned to have a soda, play a few arcade games, and then return home before anyone noticed they were gone. The walk from their street in the town of Highland Heights to the bowling alley was a little over half a mile, but the route the girls planned to take was one they had traveled many times before. After leaving their houses, the pair walked to the top of their street which intersected US 27 and they walked along the highway as it snaked through the town. They passed many businesses on their journey to the bowling alley–a hair salon, a couple of banks, a pizzeria, the post office, a motel–and some homes as well, until they reached their destination. Judy recounted how she and Susan enjoyed their time inside the bowling alley–albeit too brief– where they drank their drinks, played a few games, and then finally agreed it was time to walk back home.
Judy recalled how when they exited the front doors of the bowling alley, the sun had set faster than they realized and the darkness was heavy. There were only one or two street lights illuminating the highway on their path home, but they didn’t need much light to guide them–they’d taken this trip before and knew it was a direct walk down the highway to their street. The girls were laughing and conversing as they walked. Both Judy and Susan were in their early teens, but Judy explained that they were both small in stature and probably appeared to be younger– about eleven or twelve years of age. Knowing this, I recalled being that same age and imagined those silly, innocent, and special conversations I had with my girl friends when we too were carefree and walking to each other’s houses, through town, and home from school. This happy duo had no idea of the true impending darkness that was waiting just ahead.
As Judy and Susan rounded the bend in the road, the bowling alley behind them and their street far ahead of them, a man approached the pair walking on the sidewalk, coming from the opposite direction. “We paid him little attention as he passed us,” Judy remembered. “We were too engrossed in our conversation to give the man much thought.” She continued, and I found myself gripping my phone as I listened to her intently. Judy asked me, “You know how you feel the moment when someone is walking up behind you more closely than they should be? I felt that sensation and turned and immediately, he was right there–the man who had just passed us.” What Judy described next is utterly petrifying. As the man came up behind them, he wrapped his arm around Susan’s waist, and Judy watched in horror as the stranger lifted her friend off of the ground and prepared to run off with her. “Susan put up quite a fight. She was kicking him and yelling and I remember hitting him in the head a few times trying to get him to let her go.” Perhaps the kidnapper was surprised by the fight the girls put up. Perhaps he realized that taking one girl with another standing there fighting him too wasn’t a good strategy. Perhaps something spooked him. Whatever the reason, the kidnapper dropped Susan and as the girls began to take off running toward home, he ran across the highway heading in the opposite direction. They did not see or hear him leave in a car.
I sat speechless for a moment. “This is truly terrifying,” I finally managed to say to Judy, feeling like my mind was racing too fast to ask good questions.
“Yes it was,” she said in quiet response.
Another moment passed and I asked, “Did you see what he looked like?”
“You know, in the midst of all of that I didn’t really get a good look at him and maybe over the years I’ve sort of blocked it out. I don’t recall much about his face besides that he had dark hair. I’d say at the oldest he was in his 30’s and he was of average build.” I sat perfectly still thinking about how the would-be kidnapper was just an average man, like so many other men from the town.
Hearing that he had dark hair though, I thought of Erin’s description of the man appearing to her during yoga with dark hair and a dark mustache so I questioned, “Did he have facial hair? Do you remember?” (see Blog #48.)
“I really don’t.” Judy replied, with a slight sigh. “He may have, but it happened so quickly that I can’t say for sure if he did or didn’t.”
She continued with her story. “We ran as fast as we could all the way home and when we got there, Susan ran into her house and I ran into mine and for several days after that, neither one of us breathed a word about this to anyone. We were terrified and we weren’t supposed to have been out that night. But about five days later, Susan told her sister and her sister told their parents and Susan’s mom and dad told my parents, and the decision was made to call the police. And the Highland Heights police came and they took a report, but after that, I’m not sure what ever came of it. I don’t recall hearing from them again.”
Judy and I then discussed how if this happened late in the summer of 1971, that Cheryll’s kidnapping and murder occurred just a couple of months later. “When Cheryll disappeared, my parents and everyone else were absolutely terrified. And I have no way of knowing if what happened to Susan and me is in anyway connected to what happened to Cheryll, but for all these years I’ve always wondered.” And I wondered too. Could this attempted kidnapping have been perpetrated by the same person who snatched Cheryll off the street the morning she disappeared? Might the same person have realized that approaching two girls wasn’t a good plan so he watched for a girl to be alone and kidnapped her instead? Was this man watching Judy and Susan at the bowling alley or did he just cross paths with them randomly and decide to try to take one of the girls with him? What can be made of the timing–both incidents happening within months of each other in the same small town, within a mile of each location? Did the police ever think to look into the two cases possibly being connected? And if Judy and Susan’s story isn’t connected to Cheryll’s, how unsettling is it that there was a would-be kidnapper out there in close proximity to the same place another kidnapper took Cheryll? I have felt that whoever took Cheryll was someone she probably knew or had interacted with. But this story gave me pause. Could someone who possibly lived or worked in town have been searching the streets of Highland Heights looking for a girl to kidnap?
**The walk from Judy’s street to the bowling alley is .6 miles and approximately 10 minutes. The walk from Rose Avenue (Cheryll’s street) to the bowling alley is .8 miles and approximately 15 minutes. Judy’s street is 1.5 miles from Rose Avenue (Cheryll’s street).**
One night I left my house to head north and instead of driving the highway, I felt compelled to take the scenic route and I drove Route 8 instead. I really love driving that stretch of road, being able to look out at the river, the old homes, and having time to roll down the windows and let in the fresh summer air. I was alone on my drive and was lost in thought when a bright red cardinal flew directly in front of my vehicle from the right side of the road, crossing in front of the car, to the left side of the road. “Goodness, Cheryll,” I said out loud. “I almost hit you!” And I sort of laughed after I spoke those words, still startled at how closely that bird had been to my car. I looked out of the driver’s side window in the direction the bird had flown and my eyes fell upon the front yard of a house that set back on the hillside with an eclectic collection of “yard art” in front of the house. My eyes settled on a large, wooden sign perched high above the other items adorning the yard and fastened to it, were the letters J-O-N spelled out with giant, unlit light bulbs. Jon, I thought. I wonder what that means. I pivoted my sight back to the front of my vehicle, my eyes peering straight ahead and then I saw it– I spied a car coming toward me, moving south in the opposite direction on the two-lane road, and it wasn’t just any car. Once again, the car that I call the phantom car–the late model brown sedan that seems almost like a ghost to me now–drove right past me, and the older male driver again was a blurry figure, driving into a likely oblivion.
The cardinal, J-O-N, and the phantom car all appeared within moments of each other. Was it all a sign? Was it all a coincidence? Is it true that signs happen in threes? Are you trying to tell me something, Cheryll? A strange sensation came over me, almost like I had something prickly touching my skin. I was floored as I drove on to my destination still trying to make sense of it all.