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And Never See Her Again
By Patricia Springer
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 Patricia Springer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSix-year-old Opal Jennings crouched on her hands and knees in her grandmother's yard as she watched a colony of ants trudge through the dirt and over the occasional sprig of early-spring grass. It was 5:30 P.M., March 26, 1999. The sky was partly cloudy and the air was cool, perfect for active youngsters to be outdoors. The light easterly wind gently blew Opal's dark brown hair loosely secured in two "dog ear" ponytails. Spencer, Opal's four-year-old friend, sat beside her as Austin, her two-year-old cousin, amused himself in a nearby tree. The trio played cheerfully, free from fears and adult paranoia.
The children had just completed a make-believe sword fight, their sabers nothing more than fallen twigs from one of the large trees that bordered Robert and Audrey Sanderford's Saginaw, Texas, property. The three were imaginative children, adept at entertaining themselves for hours on end, and were great friends.
Teresa Sanderford periodically rose from her kitchen chair in the house she shared with her husband, Clay, mother, Audrey, brother-in-law and stepfather, Robert, grandson Austin, and niece Opal Jennings to peer out the window and check on the children. Seeing that they were playing happily, Teresa returned to the book she was reading while waiting for her husband to arrive home. They would all be going to dinner at Opal's favorite Mexicanrestaurant, El Sombrero.
While Audrey rested on the sofa, Robert Sanderford, Opal's grandfather, walked to the small porch of his modest white-framed home and yelled at the children.
"Come on back closer this way," Robert hollered. "You're going too far."
The children appeared to be getting along well and having fun. Audrey Sanderford checked on the kids as well. She smiled as she watched Opal enthralled with the march of the ants. "Opal is a budding entomologist," she often told friends. "She loves bugs."
Between the doting grandparents, there were mere minutes when the children were unattended.
Audrey took one last look at Opal, Austin, and Spencer. Assured they were contentedly occupied, she again stretched out on the family sofa to rest before leaving for dinner. Robert sat in his recliner, watching the early news. Both of them could hear the voices of the children playing no more than twenty yards away.
Lemon Street is a short street off Saginaw Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through the small-bedroom community just nine miles north of downtown Fort Worth, Texas. The city, which tongue in cheek refers to itself as a "city on the right track," has a maze of railways running through the town. Home to some of the world's largest grain elevators, many of the trains from Saginaw carry grain from the agri-business center to much of the rest of the county.
Saginaw, predominately a blue-collar community, was rapidly growing with white-collar commuters who desired urban amenities and a small-town quality of life. The more than fifteen thousand residents enjoyed the slower pace of a tight-knit community, the luxury of good schools, and a feeling of safety from the high-crime levels of the larger more metropolitan cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. Crimes such as burglaries occurred occasionally, but by 1999, only three homicides and just one family-related abduction had happened in nineteen years. The town prided itself on its relatively crime-free, family-friendly atmosphere.
One block off Saginaw Boulevard, Lemon Street crosses North Hampshire Street. Near the corner of Lemon and North Hampshire, the trees where Opal, Spencer, and Austin played lined the open area of the lot where the Sanderfords lived. The houses along North Hampshire were small and unassuming, the front yards dotted with bicycles, plastic slides, and a variety of children's toys.
A dark-colored car moved slowly down Lemon. The man behind the tinted windows watched as the three youngsters amused themselves. The car turned at the end of the road, passed a couple of teenage boys throwing a ball across the street, rounded the block, and again passed the trio of distracted children. The slow-moving vehicle made the short circuit five or six times, finally pulling to a stop at the curb in front of Opal, Spencer, and Austin.
Unaware that anyone was watching, Opal continued to direct her full attention to the march of the ants to their colony.
"Hi," an unfamiliar man said as all three children looked up to see him standing in the yard. His long dark hair was secured in a ponytail and topped with a red ball cap.
Opal turned her head and naturally smiled, her blue eyes twinkling with innocence. Before she could speak, the man swept her up in his arms and dashed for his car parked only a few feet away. Opal screamed in fear, her fists striking against his strong grasp.
The man hastily shoved Opal into the front seat of his car. Frantic, the little girl's large eyes widened as she continued to scream in a shrill expression of panic. Her arms and legs thrashed about in the air as if she were drowning in a sea of terror. Opal's abductor knotted his fist and struck the struggling girl in the chest, knocking the wind from her small frame and sending her body back against the seat.
Before Austin and Spencer could react, the dark car sped down the street, taking Opal away.
Teresa Sanderford jumped to her feet the instant she heard Austin's cry. He was wailing like she had never heard before. It wasn't the shriek normally heard when the boy, not quite two years old, was hurt or the screech that said he wasn't getting his way. Austin's cry was filled with the sound of terror.
Teresa ran to the front porch. Austin was sitting in a small flower-patterned settee that occupied much of the narrow concrete slab. He was curled on the love seat, his short legs tucked into his body, his head down. His tiny body shook as he sobbed in obvious distress. Tears flowed steadily from his blue eyes, streaking the dirt that coated his cheeks.
Panicked, Teresa asked her grandson, "Austin, what's the matter? What's the matter?"
"Opal's gone," the towheaded boy howled.
"Gone where?" Teresa asked, confused by Austin's statement. She glanced toward the trees where the children had been seen playing about three minutes earlier when Robert had last checked on them. The site was empty. Opal and Spencer were both gone.
"Opal went where?" Teresa questioned again, her anxiety growing. Robert and Audrey joined Teresa and Austin on the porch, their brows wrinkled in puzzlement.
Austin lifted his small hand and pointed a tiny finger toward Teresa's sister's house on the corner of Worthy Street and North Hampshire. "Opal gone bye-bye," the child said through his tears.
Teresa swiftly picked up her grandson and hurried toward her sister Patricia's house. From the absence of cars, she could see no one was home, but she continued on, hoping to find Opal there. Audrey followed closely behind.
"No. Car," Austin said. The grown-ups didn't understand.
Teresa saw no sign of Opal, but she noticed Trey Barnes and Michael Logan throwing a ball from one side of Worthy Street to the other. "Have you seen Opal?" Teresa frantically asked the boys as she pushed her long brown hair back from her face.
Twelve-year-old Michael shook his head in the negative, while thirteen-year-old Trey said, "No."
"Have you noticed anything unusual?" Teresa asked anxiously.
"There was a car circling the neighborhood two or three times, real slow," one of the boys replied.
Teresa turned to her mother who had just joined her and the boys. "Mom, go back and call nine-one-one. These kids saw a car come around two or three times," Teresa told her. Worry etched her face.
"You go over to Spencer's house to see if Opal might have gone over there," Audrey instructed as she started back to the house to make the emergency call. It had been less than twenty-four hours since Audrey had spoken to Opal about talking to strangers. Their discussion had been prompted by the disappearance of nine-year-old Fleisha Moore in Dallas. Opal had been curious about the AMBER Alert, which had been frequently heard on television. Because of their discussion, Audrey was almost certain Opal wouldn't have talked with any stranger who might have approached her. But she couldn't help wondering if Opal had been able to make that choice.
Less than five minutes had elapsed since Austin's first terrifying cries had been heard. Teresa rushed across the street toward the house where Spencer lived with his mother, grandmother Charlene Williams, and great-grandmother Dorothy Flora. Seeing Dorothy in the front yard, Teresa asked, "Have you seen Opal? We can't find her."
"Oh, my gosh!" Dorothy replied. "Spencer came in real excited...."
Teresa didn't wait for Dorothy to say more, she went directly to the front door and knocked.
While Spencer had been playing with his friends across the street, Charlene had been enjoying a game of Free Cell on her home computer in the kitchen. Late in the afternoon Spencer had bolted into the house shouting.
"Grandma! Grandma!" Spencer had yelled only minutes before Teresa knocked on their door.
"What?" Charlene asked, a bit annoyed that her grandson had burst in the house screaming so loudly.
"Somebody took Opal!" the boy said excitedly.
Charlene looked at her grandson suspiciously. "Spencer, go back outside and play. You're watching too much television."
"Somebody took Opal!" Spencer repeated stubbornly.
Charlene believed Spencer's four-year-old imagination had gotten the best of him. Spencer, like Opal, had watched recent events in Dallas involving Fleisha Moore's abduction in southeast Dallas. She'd later been released unharmed in Navarro County. Charlene was certain Spencer had just transferred that child's plight to his friend Opal.
"Oh, honey, just go out and play," Charlene prompted.
"I don't want to go in front," Spencer snapped sharply, perhaps fearing that he could be the next one snatched by the man with the ponytail and red ball cap.
"Then go in the backyard," Charlene said, still believing Spencer's fantasy had overtaken his reason. Reluctantly Spencer walked through the small kitchen and out the back door.
Two to three minutes later, Charlene heard Teresa's knock at the door.
"Have you seen Opal?" Teresa asked, fear making her voice sound breathless. "We can't find her." Charlene could tell from the tone of her neighbor's voice and the expression on her face that Teresa was bordering on panic.
"Oh, my God," Charlene said. "Spencer came and told us that Opal was kidnapped, but I thought he was being silly. I sent him outside. He's in the backyard."
"I have to talk to him," Teresa declared.
Charlene left Teresa in the house and hurriedly went through the back door to retrieve her grandson.
Four-year-old Spencer ran to where Teresa waited. The boy, his blond hair styled in a short crew cut, was shaking. Visibly upset, Spencer found it difficult to verbalize what had occurred to his playmate Opal.
"What happened?" Teresa asked. "What happened to Opal?"
"We were playing on the lot in the anthill and a car pulled up. A man got out of the car, picked Opal up, knocked her in the car, and took off!" the boy exclaimed. "Opal was crying. She was crying. She was crying!" Spencer babbled.
"Where did he go?" Teresa asked as calmly as she could, attempting to soothe the boy. "Which way did he go?"
"He started to head toward Worthy, but when he got to Pat's house, he pulled into the driveway, flipped around, and headed back," Spencer replied, sounding much older than his mere four years.
Teresa's initial worry quickly surged to panic.
"What did he look like?" Teresa questioned.
"He had little marks on his face," Spencer stated.
"Do you mean whiskers?" Teresa asked.
"No, they were just marks, like little pimples or things like that," Spencer stated.
Charlene's heart sank. Spencer had been telling her the truth. Opal had been kidnapped. Charlene felt awful-why hadn't she listened to her grandson? She believed he'd merely been repeating what he'd seen on television. She had lived in her house on North Hampshire for thirty years, had watched most of the neighborhood children play on the lot across the street. They would climb up and down the small trees, play ball on the grass, get into any kind of mischief they could. But nothing like this had ever happened before. She felt sick to her stomach.
"The man had long hair and a baseball cap," Spencer added, interrupting his grandmother's thoughts.
"What did the car look like?" Charlene asked, attempting to help get as much information as she could from the four-year-old.
"It was a purpledy black car. He took Opal and put her in the car. It looked a little bit like Mommy's," Spencer said, referring to his mother's black Trans Am sports car. "But it's not just like Mommy's."
Teresa's mind was whirling. A purplish black car. Teresa remembered a black car with tinted windows moving extremely slowly up the street earlier in the day. She recalled it because the car was traveling no more than five miles per hour and had driven by two or three different times. Teresa had seen the car a couple of times before so she hadn't thought much about it at the time, but now she wondered if it could have been the same car, driven by the same person Spencer said had taken Opal. Teresa's heart filled with dread.
"Can Spencer come talk to the police?" Teresa asked Charlene.
"I'll bring him over," Charlene said as Teresa hurried back across to the Sanderford house, where police were already arriving.
Charlene's physical condition was poor. In the last seven years she'd been on medical disability as a result of three heart attacks, bypass surgery, diabetes, and the beginning of Parkinson's. She asked her next-door neighbor Colleen Vincent if she could take Spencer to the Sanderfords'.
After walking Spencer to the curb, where her neighbor met him to take him across North Hampshire, Charlene went into the house to fetch her car keys. She was in no physical condition to walk the neighborhood in search of Opal, but she was certainly able to drive.
While Teresa talked with Spencer, Audrey had made the 911 call to Saginaw police. Her hand had shaken as she took the receiver from the cradle and her fingers trembled as she punched the three numbers no parent ever wants to use to summon help for their child.
Speaking in a voice laced with traces of an Arkansas accent and the stress of a frantic grandparent, Audrey told the 911 operator that her granddaughter Opal had been kidnapped.
"My name is Audrey Sanderford," Opal's grandmother began, seemingly gulping for air. "My granddaughter was playing out in the yard and she disappeared and nobody can find her."
After urging from the 911 operator, Audrey gave the dispatcher Opal's description.
"My little grandson came in crying. He said Opal got in a car," Audrey said, struggling to maintain emotional control while desperately wanting to scream.
"One kid said there was a car driving around real slow in the neighborhood," Audrey stated. Then before disconnecting from the dispatcher, Audrey Sanderford repeated her street address.
Audrey's legs wobbled under the strain of Opal's disappearance. She reached for a chair to steady herself.
Within three minutes of Audrey's frenzied call, the familiar Saginaw black-and-white patrol cars pulled in front of the Sanderford home. In less then ten minutes officers had blocked off the streets surrounding the area. They immediately began scouting for dark-colored cars with children inside. Teresa's own son was detained by police. He was unable to leave until Teresa identified him and the kids riding in his vehicle.
Curious neighbors began to gather on the street in front of the house where Opal had been living for the past six months. They all knew the happy-faced little girl with the endearing smile. She had become a radiant light in their neighborhood. As each of the neighbors began to learn the news of Opal's abduction, their faces became drawn and creases of concern crossed their foreheads.
Excerpted from And Never See Her Again by Patricia Springer Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Springer . Excerpted by permission.
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