I judge people who are not like me. “Busy hands make light work” rings in my head, the motto I changed long ago from “many hands” to “busy hands.” I don’t sit well, don’t wait well. I am not patient with those whom I think laze about.
My ex-brother-in-law, Andy, was my opposite. At a gangly six feet, five inches tall, Andy meandered when he walked and rambled about every imaginable subject. My mother said he had “no get up and go,” and that pretty much summed him up. He worked as a stock broker, yet never seemed to call clients, so he was frequently unemployed. My sister supported the family until she divorced him twenty-five years ago. Andy was able to stall bill collectors for months on end. He was good at out-waiting people.
Andy died last summer. Five days earlier, a car crash left him paralyzed from the chest down. The doctors told his son and daughter their father would never regain mobility in his limbs, never breathe on his own. When presented with his prognosis, Andy indicated by nodding his head that he wanted to be allowed to die. He did not waver when the doctor and nurses discussed death as the outcome if his breathing aide was taken out. The day his daughter arrived at his bedside, the doctor pulled the ventilator. Though medical staff warned my niece and nephew that his lungs may work on their own for hours or days, their father died within thirty minutes. At the end, he didn’t wait.
I should have been more charitable toward my ex-brother-in-law. When my sister Babs’s company transferred her to Boston in the summer of 1985, Andy could not find work. On that sparkling afternoon when the couple’s nine-year-old, Sarah, returned from school, her father was at home. She ate lime Jell-o, put her bowl in the sink, and said she was going for a walk. Andy later reported he asked if she was going to wash the bowl, and she said she’d do it when she got back.
“Why don’t you take the dog?” her father said.
“He’ll slow me down,” she answered. Sarah put on her Walkman headset and left through the family room door.
At eight-forty- five that evening, I climbed our stairs after finishing up at work. Our five-year-old’s blue eyes shone as he announced, “They can’t find Sarah.” He knew something was up.
I jerked my head toward my husband sitting in the wingback chair across the room.
“Babs came around six-thirty asking if Sarah had walked here. She hasn’t called back. I think you better go over there.”
I looked at the keys in my hand, turned and left. She’s lost, I assured myself, speeding down our road. It got dark before she could find her way home. Yet as I crossed the bridge a few minutes later, sobs hiccupped in my throat. Terror in my gut forecasted something I would not allow myself to imagine.
Six weeks earlier Babs, Andy, and their three children had moved into a house a seven-minute drive from our home. The cousins were excited they now lived close, particularly Sarah and our Kate, born four months apart. As I entered the family room, a circle of adults huddled in prayer. I squeezed in between the pastor and Andy, clasping his meaty, soft hand. When the pastor finished, a young police officer told Babs they had suspended the search due to darkness, but would resume in the morning. He stared at my sister and said he would bring her daughter home. By then the sky had blackened, and a chill enveloped the air.
Babs and I reassured each other through the night that they lived in a safe town, Sarah was okay. When the sun began to lighten the living room wall, her sixteen-year-old son announced, “I’m going to find her. I’ll take an apple. Sarah will be hungry.”
But police with tracker dogs, two thousand volunteer searchers tramping through fields and woods did not find her. An airplane with infrared detection could not locate her on the ground. Each day television stations and newspapers ran the story about the girl who went for a walk and disappeared. Heartless Indian summer days infuriated me as I recalled the day Sarah did not return. Then damp days with sodden brown leaves underfoot churned my stomach sour as I thought of how long she’d been gone.
By December, yellow welcome home ribbons on trees and mailboxes had faded white. Weathered posters with Sarah pictures drooped around telephone poles. Her placemat and silverware setting on the dining table announced her absence at every meal.
Leads about Sarah trapped us on an endless rollercoaster ride. From Rhode Island, an anonymous source wrote that Sarah was in a well. Soon it will be over, I readied myself. No body was found in an abandoned well. A man in West Virginia saw a blonde girl in a diner he was sure was Sarah. It was not her.
Mid-winter, Babs’s strained voice on the phone reported the police had a woman in custody. She claimed she and two men had kidnapped Sarah and had taken her to a Boston housing project where they had murdered her. Two weeks inched by as investigators scrambled to verify the account. The DA’s office urged the media to not report the allegation until they made an arrest. Late on a Sunday afternoon, we learned that one newspaper was printing the story, so all outlets were releasing the information. That evening my husband and I sat with our children as we watched TV cameras scan a trash-littered apartment. The reporter said a woman told police she and two accomplices had taken Sarah to this abandoned unit.
Afterward I sat on Kate’s bed. Sarah and Kate, the cousins who swung on the rope swing in our back yard, who disappeared to play when our families gathered together. Sarah smiling from the rope swing was now a photo in the newspapers.
“So, honey,” I said, “What did you think when you saw the story on TV?”
“Oh, Mommy, I think it’s good news,” she beamed through her toothy smile. “With all that garbage, Sarah would be able to find something to eat. I think it’s all going to be okay.”
Babs called at seven the next morning. The front page newspaper account featured Sarah’s photo and headlines of how she had been raped and killed, her body dumped in Boston harbor. As I stumbled through the day, my skin felt sandpapery and cold. Our minister arrived at the door. He stood tall in front of the flame-stitch sofa. With words meant to comfort, he said what had happened to Sarah occurred in a split second compared to the safety she now was experiencing in eternity. I wanted to close my eyes and make him disappear. When I allowed myself a glimpse at what Sarah’s last moments might have been like, I could not catch my breath. My ability to block what I could not face gained strength that afternoon.
The FBI stationed informant crime boss Whitey Bulger in the jail cell with one of the men accused of kidnapping Sarah. Bulger’s presence filled the space as the agent questioned the man. Bulger told the investigators that the man knew nothing. The woman recanted her story.
I judged my sister after Sarah was kidnapped, thought she was too detached from the investigation. She and Andy told the local police chief not to call unless news about Sarah’s case was going to appear in the newspapers or on TV. From time to time, Babs would say, “The police have a tip. They’re going to drag a pond in Hudson.” Otherwise months passed without the couple mentioning what the police were doing. I would have dogged the investigators. The police chief and district attorney would have recognized my voice when I checked in for an update. My calls might have increased their diligence. I would not have sat idly by.
As if an axe has severed a family, the vast majority of marriages of parents with murdered children do not survive the strain of such a loss. The cracks in my sister’s marriage, puttied and ignored before Sarah’s abduction, stretched wide, beyond repair. Three years after Sarah disappeared, Babs and Andy separated, then divorced.
Our lives moved on. The holidays, the special occasions reminded us of her absence. Sarah was not at Christmas dinner, nor at Easter hunting jelly beans and not building sand castles at the beach. With each year, her death became a stronger reality.
At the ten-year anniversary of Sarah’s abduction, we gathered at a park in her town to break ground for statues of a dog and a sled, two of her favorite things. A year later, extended family, friends and neighbors dedicated the statues. The sun dappled yellow leaves as dignitaries and family members spoke, flute music drifted skyward. In our living room after the ceremony, Babs and I rested our soft cheeks together and rocked side-to-side. We don’t need any more, we told each other. It’s all right if this is where it ends.
I picture us now in that moment: Five feet, eight inch, chestnut-haired Babs, her arms reaching down to embrace me; I, five feet, three inches, folding my arms up around her back. We had a place for Sarah to rest; a place to recall a bouncy nine-year-old without focusing on what stopped her from growing older.
The following September the police informed my sister that two years earlier a man in their town had found a bone—human and female was all they could determine. Then a state trooper watched a History Channel program on mitochondrial DNA. With new testing, blood drawn from mothers was helping to identify Vietnam War soldiers’ MIA remains. The district attorney applied to the Army lab in Virginia requesting they examine the found bone. Babs gave a blood sample. In January 1998, the results confirmed that the bone fragment, the size of a human fist, was from Sarah’s skull.
Six days later, on what would have been her twenty-second birthday, hundreds of people gathered in Sarah’s town, and thousands watched television broadcasts of her funeral. Through tears and smiles, Babs remembered her daughter. The minister spoke of evil and hope and Sarah being ready to greet us when we came to our final resting place. “On Eagles Wings” rose to the church rafters. In my memory, Andy was in the background during this public act of grieving, but that may be only how I remember it.
I hadn’t seen much of him since he and my sister had separated three years after Sarah’s abduction. Babs had instigated the rupture of their marriage after she had confronted her husband about his drinking. I had raised the subject with my sister of Andy’s being an alcoholic since I had noticed how frequently he had refilled his glass of bourbon at our family gatherings. When he had told Babs he had given up drinking for Lent, my sister had marked the liquid level in his bourbon bottle. She confronted her husband after Easter, showing him where her mark was much higher than the bourbon line. Despite Andy’s entering a twenty-eight day, in-patient substance abuse program and remaining sober, Babs had never lived with him again.
I have always wondered if my sister’s split from her husband began the late afternoon their daughter did not return. Though I did not learn this part of the story initially, I pieced Babs’s slips here and there about the afternoon Sarah disappeared. Andy told the police she left at 4:00 p.m. The more scenic route, past an open field and by fewer homes, was to the right of their house. The investigators believe Sarah walked this section of the bike path. At 4:45, Andy backed out of the driveway, turned left and drove his son to football practice at the high school. Upon his return a little after five, he entered the house. Sarah was not there. When Babs pulled into the driveway at 5:50 p.m., Andy waited for her at the screen door.
“Sarah left for a walk around four and she isn’t back yet,” he said. My sister knew in that moment something dreadful had happened to her little girl.
After their separation when Babs and I discussed Andy’s alcoholism, she said he always began drinking at five o’clock. She imagined after delivering their son at practice, he went straight to the liquor cabinet. He was likely, she believed, on his second drink when she arrived home. The police said in all probability the kidnapper had snatched Sarah by five o’clock. I have felt those words were meant to temper Babs’ fears that her husband’s delay in looking for their daughter may have cost her life.
My condemnation of Andy has arisen easily when I have envisioned him shaking an ice tray, cupping cubes from his palm into a highball glass, tipping the bottle of bourbon, the brown liquid splashing the ice. The family had only lived in the neighborhood for six weeks. What parent does not search for his child to make sure she’s not lost? I have riled myself into a froth when I recall that he waited for Babs to return instead of scouring the neighborhood, questioning people who might have seen a tall blonde girl with a Walkman, perhaps interrupting her kidnapper as he lured Sarah into the car.
In 1967, John Whirty had been convicted of the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in Texas. He served seventeen years of a life sentence. In early 1985, he was released for good behavior and due to the overcrowded prisons. He returned to where he had grown up in the metropolitan Boston area. He did not notify his parole officer as required.
Exactly one month after Sarah’s disappearance, forty-year-old Whirty tried to kidnap a young-looking twenty-year-old woman in a town eight miles from my sister’s family. With a knife to her side, the young woman managed to free herself before he could shove her into his car. A cab driver who witnessed the struggle copied his license plate number. Both the victim and the cab driver identified Whirty as the man who had attempted the abduction. When the police examined his car the next day, they found the interior passenger door handle missing.
Following his arrest, television news programs broadcast Whirty’s photo. Two witnesses came forward and identified him as the man they had seen on the bike path during the time of Sarah’s walk. He was missing from his job installing children’s play structures when she vanished. State police cruising the highway where Whirty said his truck broke down that afternoon have no record of a disabled vehicle.
Investigators use the word “like” when they settle on their prime suspect. Though multiple investigators in Sarah’s disappearance have followed up hundreds of leads over the years, they come back to Whirty. Without a reason to eliminate him as a suspect, local and state police, the FBI and district attorney like John Whirty as the person responsible for her death. Yet with no forensic evidence tying him to Sarah, he was never charged, tried or convicted in her case.
As with all his crimes, Whirty denies he was involved in her murder. In November 1985, we did not know what had happened to Sarah. No trace of her emerged while Whirty completed his five-year sentence for the attempted abduction of the twenty-year-old. He was returned to Texas to serve his life sentence for the murder of the fifteen-year-old girl in Dallas and is eligible for a review every five years. Because he is the prime suspect in Sarah’s murder, the Texas parole office informs our family six months before Whirty goes in front of the board. We blast out e-mails to ramp up our writing campaign.
In my last letter to the Texas Parole Board, I described shy, caring Sarah. I wrote, “Every Christmas we light a candle for her, every Easter and Thanksgiving she is part of our blessing and at every family celebration she is the missing face in the photographs. Sarah would be thirty-five–years old today, probably a wife and maybe a mother.” With words underlined and in bold print, I urged them not to let Whirty free. Other criminals have been suspects in Sarah’s death. Prisoners talk to each other, call newspaper reporters and admit to crimes. Their confessions serve as attention-seeking diversions. One such prisoner was Hadden Clark.
In 1992, Clark was charged with, and later pled guilty to, killing a twenty-three-year-old woman in Maryland. He was given a thirty-year sentence. While incarcerated, he confessed to the unsolved murder of a six-year-old girl in 1986. Thirteen years after her death, he led investigators to where he had buried her.
In the fall of 1999, Clark told his cellmate that while visiting his father in a community adjacent to my sister’s town on October 9, 1985, he abducted and killed Sarah. He said he buried her on his grandfather’s property on Cape Cod. The state police brought Clark to the Cape with recovery dogs and attempted to locate Sarah’s body. No remains were found.
I recall my confidence that I would have been more persistent with the investigators after Sarah’s kidnapping. Yet I never called the police chief, the district attorney. When the Hadden Clark article appeared in The New Yorker in September 2000, I did not read it. It turns out I am more like my sister and Andy than I wanted to admit.
I have been good at avoiding what I was not willing to confront when it comes to Sarah’s abduction. In 2011, I read Alex Wilkinson’s article about Clark’s allegation he kidnapped Sarah. I tracked down Richard Rosenthal, the ex-chief of police whom Wilkinson mentioned. Rosenthal was present when the state police brought Clark to the Cape to show them where he buried Sarah’s remains fourteen years earlier. The chief didn’t think the state police were thorough in their search. He believed questions remained. Days later he called to report he could probably get me into the Maryland prison where Clark was incarcerated if I were interested. I said, “Never mind.” I knew what I did not want to learn.
Babs and I have spoken frequently about the tiny blessing in this tragedy. Neither my sister, nor Andy, nor any family member stood in a formaldehyde- reeking room and stared at a decaying form of Sarah. No newspaper articles and television newscasts gave a description of how she died. We did not sit in a court room and hear “suffocated” or “strangled” or “tortured” or “raped.”
A sliver of me wonders periodically if there is a truth out there we are avoiding. Why have numerous searches not turned up more of Sarah’s remains? Why couldn’t an airplane with infrared detection find her body right after she disappeared? The small town police force received hundreds of tips after her abduction; did they miss following up on the most important one? Does Hadden Clark or another someone know more? “Shush,” a voice in my head says, a louder “Stop it.”
John Whirty keeps things stable, in one place. Writing letters to the parole board awakens a dormant anguish that recedes after the board announces his bid for freedom has again been denied. One letter every five years, one small thing I do for my sister, for Sarah, for me. I think of Andy not searching for his daughter. Perhaps it was not only the urge to pour his bourbon that prevented him from getting back in the car when he found his daughter had not returned. Maybe he had a premonition that his dear Sarah was already gone. He could not bear to imagine what her abductor had done to her.
I finally recognized I have not wanted the answers to what happened that Indian summer afternoon after Sarah left the bike path. She was gone. That was all that mattered. Settling with the unknown has stopped the wondering.
I will always rush to do things, be impatient when I see others dilly-dallying. Hopefully I can face death as fearlessly as Andy seemed to. But when it comes to Sarah, I can allow myself to idle.
I remember a honey-blonde, tall girl with a gap in her front teeth who still called herself “Sawah,” who each Christmas season cried when she watched Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer because she couldn’t stand how mean the reindeer were to Rudolph. I see her grasp the rope, launch off the tree stump and swing out over the rhododendrons; see her throw newly fallen snow up in the air and stick out her tongue to catch the flakes. I hang onto Sarah’s smile. I see me resting my cheek against my sister’s and saying, “Enough.”