The rare happy ending to the worst kind of case
Any journalist who's spent a few years in the business has covered a kidnapping. It's heartbreaking to talk to families who've had a child snatched away by a stranger. Imagine what it's like for them...the devastation, and confusion and anger. The finger of suspicion almost always points their way, at least for a while.
This case happened in Lake Tahoe, in June of 1991, when Shannon Brinias was working for a station in Reno. In September of that same year, I did the first television interview with the mother of Heather Church. We all remember her story. She's the little girl who disappeared from her home in Black Forest. She was later found, dead. A man who lived about a mile away was later convicted of killing her. He later claimed to be one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S history..a claim investigators are still working to confirm.
I remember talking to the parents of two teens who disappeared in Louisville, KY, the family of a 6 year old girl who vanished in a suburb of Cincinnati. In the latter case, she was found in a landfill, and a neighbor who actually "helped" search for her, was arrested for killing her. I was also in Denver talking to relatives in the Aarone Thompson case. It's never easy, and it almost never ends well.
This time, it did, even if it's 18 years too late. Here's the story from Shannon's point of view.
REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: THE JAYCEE DUGARD CASE
By Shannon Brinias
I just finished watching the news conference held at the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office announcing the amazing news that Jaycee Dugard has been found. With all that they said, I found my mind racing back toward that time and my memories of covering her kidnapping. I also find myself imagining the horrors Jaycee must have faced in the years since. We may never know what she has gone through. But this case, this conclusion, has taught me, a television journalist for the past 23 years, that one can never make assumptions about anything.
In 1991, I was one of the reporters assigned by my boss at KOLO-TV to cover this family’s frightening ordeal. Jaycee’s stepfather, Carl, described for me exactly how he had seen his 11-year-old stepdaughter go up the slight hill to where the school bus stop was, and then, the van with a man and a woman coming alongside Jaycee, and the woman grabbing and pulling her inside. He stood in the spot where he’d been, describing it for me, and telling how he’d given chase on a bicycle, only to see them speed away.
During this time period when I worked at KOLO (from 1988-1992), we had unfortunately covered other child disappearances. Those had tragic outcomes, with the poor childrens’ bodies being discovered much later. I believe the murders have remained unsolved. In a child disappearance, law enforcers will tell you that the longer the child is missing, the greater the odds that there will not be a positive outcome in the end. Jaycee’s case had become stuck in my head, as something I thought about whenever I visited South Tahoe, something I’d thought about when other kidnapped children had surfaced after being missing for years on end.
In the days afterward the kidnapping, I interviewed Jaycee’s parents repeatedly. I was always struck by how fiercely this family held onto their hope that their daughter was going to be found alive. Jaycee’s mom, Terry, especially clung to the faith that she would see her daughter again, and that she would be okay. I heard her optimism come through again and again in her conversations with the volunteers and relatives who came to help in the search efforts. At the time, I thought, “She must still be in shock.” How can anyone continue to carry that hope, even as the days, months, and then years, passed? ( I left Reno & KOLO about 16 months after Jaycee’s disappearance)
Terry steadfastly supported her husband, Carl, who was the last to see Jaycee. At the time, Carl had to fend off questions, and suspicion by some, that he knew more than he was saying. I would talk to him, though, and his descriptions never varied, and neither did his demeanor. He seemed like a stand-up guy, who was torn apart by this tragedy that had befallen the family on his watch.
I was also struck by how the community of South Lake Tahoe came together to support this hurting family. Volunteers, from all walks of life, came to the home to distribute fliers, to tie pink ribbons, anything that they thought might help in the search for this young girl. But her disappearance had also changed the neighborhood, and parents were on edge. You’d still see bikes in driveways, kids out playing ball, but parents were more visible, keeping watch on these most vulnerable members of their community.
Years passed, and no word of any sighting of Jaycee. Untill now.
Today, while preparing to go to work at KOLO’s sister station, KKTV, where I anchor the evening news, I glanced at the headlines on line. There, a picture that made my heart stop a bit. It was a picture of Jaycee’s flyer, the flyer I never forgot. And next to it, words saying Jaycee had been found, alive, in California just a few hours’ drive from where she’d disappeared. Tears started welling up in my eyes. I’m sure other reporters who covered this kidnapping back then had similar reactions.
I couldn't’t believe that this case, which I’d long feared would end in a tragic discovery, had instead ended with the surprise surfacing of the victim, Jaycee, now grown into a woman with two children of her own. But what of her life for the past 18 years? It likely is beyond our imagination.
I thought about her mother, Terry, who’d refused to give up faith and hope, and what she and the entire family must be going through. I hope and pray for strength for the family as they reunite—it will not be easy to overcome the vast divides between the paths their lives have taken.
During the news conference, Undersheriff Fred Kollar talked about how Jaycee and her two children, allegedly fathered by her abuser, had been kept hidden in a secret backyard enclosure, their only shelter, two sheds and two tents. One of those sheds could only be unlocked from the outside. Within the same secret backyard, Kollar said there was the van which was the same one Carl Probyn had seen speed off with his stepdaughter. All these years, Jaycee lived alongside the evidence and memory of her traumatic kidnapping. What sense can Jaycee, or her family, make of the ordeal they’ve had to endure?
In all my years as a reporter, I’ve witnessed some amazing events, and events of great tragedy. Though I’m not there to personally report on this latest development, I think this will be the story that stays with me the longest, the one that has taught me about a family’s perseverance being rewarded.