(Note: This blog post is a continuation from the last blog entry number 55, Work Together and Keep Talking).
And soon enough, as we settled into our seats at an outdoor dining table, the sun was shining brightly overhead. It truly felt as though Cheryll was giving us the gift of sunlight and fresh air, all the while saying, Go on…. Work together and keep talking, you all…. Work together and keep talking.
The four of us–Mike, Mark, Bridget, and I– chatted a bit more, ordered drinks and some food, and Mike encouraged us to ask the questions that we had. Mike and Mark also told us that they were okay with us writing about our meeting in the blog as well as any answers they gave. Throughout the day, I felt that Mike and Mark both were genuine and honest–answering as best as they could recall, giving their opinion when needed in order to fill in the gaps, and being straight-forward when they didn’t know an answer. And just a note– throughout our conversation, Cheryll’s brothers referred to their dad as “the Old Man” so I have used that term as I write what they said in reference to him.
Bridget and I started the conversation, asking what we still seemed to know the least about–Cheryll herself. We’ve gotten small bits of descriptions of Cheryll from her friends and extended family members, but I sat eagerly waiting to hear what her brothers would say about her, because, after all, she was why we were gathered together that day. When we asked Mike and Mark if they’d tell us a little more about their sister though, both hesitated for a moment. I could tell that though they maybe wanted to say more, it was still difficult to speak about her. Mike explained how she was the kid sister and how the three of them stayed together most of the time. “She got by with a little more at home because she was the only girl and the youngest of us three,” he said with a slight smile.
Mark smiled too and in a soft voice said, “She did get by with more. We were close.” He grew quiet and sensing that they weren’t going to say much more, I chose to segue to a new point of discussion– I wanted to start with the morning that Cheryll disappeared. For me, it was like we had already watched the opening scene of that fateful October morning on a small screen, over and over again, as we had envisioned it unfolding. Now, we were finally being provided the opportunity for the “behind the scenes tour”–to hear the details about that morning straight from the people who had lived it, so I asked:
“Can you tell us about the day Cheryll disappeared?”
Mike agreed and began by explaining adamantly, “Whoever said Cheryll was out and about that morning is wrong. She never was out in the mornings before school simply because she wasn’t allowed out in the dark like that without us. The Old Man woke us up in the mornings and we’d get ready, then walk to the bus stop together. He wouldn’t have permitted her to be out alone on the street roaming around. That morning we were up, but she had fallen back asleep–“
I interrupted. “Did you see her?” I’d always been curious about whether her brothers had actually seen her that morning.
“Yes,” Mike answered. “For some reason that morning she’d fallen back to sleep and the Old Man told us to hurry up to the bus stop so we wouldn’t miss the bus, and that she’d catch up.” Mike and Mark went on to explain how they were going to class at Campbell County High School and couldn’t miss the bus because it was a far drive for their dad if he would have had to have taken them there.
“We got up to the top of the street and the other kids were there and we all got on the bus like usual, and Beth, we just sat in our regular seats on the bus with our friends and didn’t even notice she wasn’t on there. She was never not there. But looking back now, even if we had noticed, we probably would have assumed that the Old Man was driving her to school because it wasn’t far.”
“Had that happened before?” I asked.
“No, she’d never overslept and missed the bus before. And the one day she did….” Mike’s voice drifted off and I noticed that Mark looked off in the distance then sort of put his head down, both of them pained by the memory.
“And the fact that it was her birthday? Do you think that means anything?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Mike replied. “I’m not sure that whoever would have taken her would have known that. And birthdays weren’t really that big of a deal in our house, so it’s not like something everyone would have known about. I can tell you that nothing special was planned for that day like people have talked about that would have caused her to miss school.” Hearing her brothers’ opinion about the birthday angle had my wheels turning as they were essentially dispelling any myths about this being a factor into her disappearance that day.
“So the day she oversleeps and walks alone to the bus stop without you guys, which is also her birthday, is the day that this happens,” Bridget said softly with a tinge of sadness in her voice. Both brothers nodded their heads as Bridget whispered slightly under her breath, but loud enough for us to hear, “Talk about terrible luck.” Mike and Mark agreed that it WAS terrible luck and talked a little about how misfortune seems to have plagued their family at times.
Bridget continued. “When did you know she was missing? When you got home that day?”
Mike answered, “I think I got home first and I usually beat Mark and Cheryll home so nothing was out of the ordinary for me. Now Mark knew…” Mike looked at his younger brother and Mark picked up the story from there.
“I got on the bus after school and when we stopped at the elementary school to pick up the younger kids, and Cheryll didn’t get on the bus, I knew immediately that something was wrong. I just knew something was wrong.” Mark was emphatic about this point and the anguish was evident on his face.
Mike continued. “When Mark got to the house and Cheryll wasn’t with him and he said she didn’t get on the bus, we convinced Shirley to call the school and the school told her that Cheryll hadn’t been there at all that day. When the Old Man got home from work, he called the police and they came out to take the initial report. Of course, they didn’t do much. I guess it was like she hadn’t been missing for 24 hours yet so they didn’t do much. We went around and asked the neighbors if they’d seen her and were looking around, but I didn’t feel panic yet. It was like my sister was just unaccounted for….”
Mark interjected, again in a soft tone, but with a serious expression. “I knew it was bad. I just knew something bad had happened.”
“You two must have been close,” Bridget said, addressing Mark. “Because you were close in age, right? You two had a special connection, I’m sure. That’s why you knew it in your gut.” Mark again hung his head and nodded, seeming to be holding back a wave of emotion.
“What did you do the next day then?” I asked. “Did you go to school?”
“Yes,” Mike said. “We got up and went to school and it was just like we didn’t know where our sister was and were thinking maybe she’d show back up, but when we got home from school that day and she still wasn’t there, we knew there was really a problem. The Old Man called the cops again and this time they brought out more people. And there’s talk about this huge search party….. They walked through everyone’s backyards there on Rose and Maple and on Steelman too I think. And what? She was just going to be laying out there in someone’s yard?” Mike asked somewhat sarcastically, acknowledging that even back then, he didn’t think the neighborhood search was going to produce Cheryll. “We were down the hill looking in the woods and the Old Man and I were looking in drainage pipes and it started to dawn on me that we were looking for her body… But we didn’t find her.” The four of us sat together quietly at the table for a moment.
I asked the next question. “What was it like for the next couple of weeks?”
“The cops were coming and going from the house. They dusted for prints, as I recall. They talked to us all. There was this reporter named Bart something who was always hanging around talking to us and to the neighbors too. If you could find him–and he was a big guy, older–he may not still be living, but if he is, he probably has information from that time. Everyone was thinking that she’d maybe show up, but I think we were just totally confused as to where she could have been.”
“I’m sure everyone was worried sick,” Bridget said. “Once the police and reporters were gone, what was it like at your house? Was everyone frantic and worried?”
“We were all worried I’m sure, yes, but I don’t recall sitting around discussing it. You have to understand that the Old Man only ever showed one emotion, and that was anger. If he was worried or upset or scared, he would never have shown it, especially not around us kids. That’s just how it was with him.”
“I can’t imagine how scary that would have been for you two as kids,” Bridget replied, as I sat silently absorbing all that they were telling us. “Did you two talk about what you thought might have happened to her?”
“It wasn’t something we really talked about,” Mike recalled as he looked across the table at his brother. “I think we were hoping she might show back up, but as the days stretched on, we became more aware that that probably wasn’t going to happen.” And sitting there together, there was a silent understanding about what HAD actually happened to their little sister. I could feel a knot form in my stomach and then slowly tighten, knowing that in a few minutes we’d be approaching the topic of Cheryll’s murder. My list of questions was steadily growing and perhaps more importantly, so was the empathy I felt for her brothers.
More about Cheryll’s family, the possible suspects, and a new person of interest, in the next blog entry….