As my conversation with Mrs. Smith continued, we shifted from her sweet memories of Cheryll to me asking her about the terrible time in October of 1971 when Cheryll was discovered to be missing.
“How did you hear about Cheryll being missing?” I asked Mrs. Smith.
“If I remember correctly, I was outside, maybe hanging my laundry, and some neighborhood boys came up and asked me if I had seen Cheryll. I told them that I hadn’t and asked if everything was okay and they said that no one could find her. And my heart dropped a little.”
As she uttered those words, my own heart dropped a little hearing Mrs. Smith relive that memory and I visualized this scene. I swallowed hard as she continued. “They asked me if they could look around in our yard and I told them yes, but wasn’t sure that they would find anything in my yard, you know? But they circled the house and looked around in the backyard and didn’t find anything and then went on to the next house I guess.”
“Do you remember search parties on the street in those first days?” I asked.
“Oh yes. All the neighbors were out and I remember hearing people calling her name. Maybe people were hoping she was hiding out, but in my heart of hearts, I didn’t think she was. It would have been hard for a little girl like that to hide out in the woods.” A chill came over me for a moment– I could almost hear Cheryll’s name being called out in the dark, knowing her little ears never heard those frantic voices. If I stood still on the quiet street of Rose Avenue, would I be able to hear echoes of the voices hauntingly calling for the girl gone in the fog? I was lost in this eerie thought when a new question came to mind.
“Do you remember Cheryll’s dad or family searching for her?” I questioned.
“Oh, I don’t know. If her dad was in the group looking for her I don’t remember seeing him. He may have been there, but I never spoke to him.”
“Can you tell me about those 13 days Cheryll was missing? What was it like on Rose Avenue?”
“Well the police were talking to people. My husband left really early for work in the mornings and I recall him supplying work records. They talked to my kids about what they may have known. That chief Gasdorf came by a couple of times to talk to me and to my kids and eventually I told him to leave my kids alone because they were scared. There were reporters around too. I remember seeing a missing paper with Cheryll’s name and photo on it and that made it really terrifying.”
“I’m sorry to ask this, but how about when Cheryll was finally found? What are your memories of that?” I inquired with a slight hesitation.
“You know, sitting here thinking about it, I don’t really recall how exactly I heard. Isn’t that odd?” She asked, though it didn’t really feel like she was seeking an answer. “I read the articles in the paper and was careful not to let my kids see the newspapers and the details. And there was some talk among the parents about all the horrible things done to her. I heard she had cigarette burns all over her body and that she was beaten real bad.”
I paused. These details were ones that I had heard before from other Rose Avenue residents, but these “facts” were not ones that were documented in the police report or autopsy report. I felt the need to correct Mrs. Smith and possibly give her some peace of mind knowing those details, at least, were not necessarily true.
“I have to tell you, that I have heard those accounts too and I think they were sort of rumors. I have read the police reports and the autopsy report and nowhere in either of those were cigarette burns or evidence of a beating present.”
“Oh, really? Okay. I always wondered who would have done that kind of thing to such a sweet little girl. Not that stabbing her and leaving her like they did is much better.”
Mrs. Smith asked the next question.
“So do the police know who did it? I heard they might, but couldn’t prove it.”
“I was going to ask you that question, actually,” I answered. “Before I tell you what I know, I’m curious as to what the talk on the street was at the time.”
“Truly, I don’t remember anyone ever outright accusing anyone of the crime. No one was speaking names, at least not to me. And I am not the kind of person to say someone did such a horrible thing. I figured if the police didn’t know, then no one else knew either.” I was again amazed at how kind and thoughtful Mrs. Smith was, not wanting to ever speak badly about a possible suspect especially if it was based on gossip.
“I wish I could give you an answer about who killed Cheryll,” a tone of resignation seemed evident in my voice. “The police suspected a couple of different individuals who lived nearby of possibly picking her up off the street that morning, but like you said, they couldn’t prove it. And there are others who have wondered if something could have happened at her home.”
As if considering these possibilities, Mrs. Smith muttered a “hmm” as a new question popped into my mind.
“You didn’t see Cheryll that morning, did you?”
Mrs. Smith answered emphatically. “No, I know we hadn’t seen her that morning and I remember thinking back then that I wasn’t sure the last time that I had seen her.”
The two of us continued to discuss the time and her memories and I was able to answer a few more questions that had always lingered for her. I knew the time was approaching to wrap up our conversation, but I felt a strange draw to Mrs. Smith, and I had a slight wave of sadness sweep over me, not wanting our phone call to end. Talking with this special woman was giving me some important perspective while also creating a closeness to Cheryll that I hadn’t anticipated. Is there anything else? I thought to myself. Am I forgetting anything? And then, another question popped into my head and something inside of me forced the words out of my mouth.
“Knowing what you know about Cheryll and how she was when she was with you and around you….if she set out for the bus stop alone in the dark and fog that morning….and somehow DID miss the bus…..do you think she was more likely to turn around and go home and ask for a ride to school OR to just continue walking on to school alone?”
There was a long pause. In the quiet, I could feel Mrs. Smith really thinking about her answer. And then it came. “I think she would have walked.” Then came another pause. Neither one of us spoke. Mrs. Smith continued. “She wouldn’t go home to get a coat on those cold mornings. She didn’t go home that day when her brother was fussy because she was afraid she’d be in trouble. I just don’t feel like she’d have gone home to confess that she’d missed the bus.”
“You think she’d have walked on in the dark and fog alone rather than go home and ask for a ride?” I felt a need to repeat her belief out loud again.
Quietly, Mrs. Smith said, “I do.”
Recently, I was at a social engagement where I finally was able to introduce my partner in this endeavor, Bridget, to my friend, Erin, who occasionally senses Cheryll when she’s at yoga. I consider these two ladies to be two of my closest friends and being able to share this experience of unraveling Cheryll’s story with both of them has been very important to me. And now, having the three of us together to be able to talk in person, was exciting! I reflect sometimes about how working on Cheryll’s story has brought new people into my life and has brought people together who might not have crossed paths otherwise. Sitting with these two at this party, was one of those moments. There was a flow of energy among us that was sparked by our passion for solving Cheryll’s case and I was feeling thankful and inspired.
We quickly discovered that sitting among a loud and crowded room wasn’t the right setting for us to talk. In fact, I felt reservation about discussing someone as important as Cheryll with so many people surrounding us and I sensed that my friends felt the same way. The couple of times we DID talk about Cheryll, Erin looked visibly uncomfortable and explained that she felt a tightness in her chest.
“We will have to get together again, the three of us,” I said, working to put Erin at ease. “That way, we can discuss this more and you two can talk more in person.”
“I would love that,” Bridget spoke with a smile.
Erin also smiled and then quietly replied, “I think we need to go to New Hope Road.”
What the three of us didn’t know sitting there that evening was that, when we journeyed to that hallowed culvert together about a month later, Cheryll herself would make it known that there was someone new with whom she wanted me to speak.