It is mid-day in Hunt, Nebraska, where Jeff Collins, the Assistant District Attorney for Johnson County, is about to present his Predator Prevention seminar to a group of women. Jeff tries to hold one of these classes every quarter. Still, there has been an increase in missing children lately, causing him to add this course. Jeff is a tall, skinny man that loves the fact he can tower over almost anyone. It made him feel as if he was more powerful than the people he would be communicating with. Looking down on others seemed to be in his blood as the Assistant DA.
As he is walking down the hallway of the city hall offices, he receives a text message. He stops to read who the sender is. A familiar woman approaches him from behind and startles him when she touches his arm.
“Mr. Collins,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, that’s all right, Laura. I was just reading a message from the boss.” Jeff knew her from the meetings with the city and county. She has sat on the board of directors for years. She thought of herself as the savior of the county. While others could clearly see her hypocrisy and condescending mannerisms. People would often try not to laugh at her 1950s fashion choice and beehive hairstyle. But once you got to know her, you felt the decision to be bland and old-fashioned fit her style perfectly.
“I just wanted to thank you again for having this seminar,” she says. “I know how educational they are for the public. Especially during these times.”
“My pleasure, Laura,” Jeff replies. “Anything to help our community stay safe. Will you be attending?” Jeff knew the answer. She always had a reason not to take part in seminars that she believed to be for the common people.
Laura’s head tilted to the side. “Oh, no. I’m sorry, I have a previous meeting that I must deal with. I will definitely try to be at the next one, though.”
“No worries,” Jeff says. He looks at his watch. “I need to be going. The seminar starts in only five minutes. It was nice seeing you again.” He turns and walks down the hallway towards the auditorium.
He enters the room where several women have gathered. Jeff can hear the chatter in the air about the recent kidnappings and missing children. He felt this was the perfect time for a seminar to educate people about the dangers possibly lurking in the county.
In recent months, Hunt, Nebraska, and the other cities and towns of Johnson County has seen a rise of missing children. Mostly white females, ages 14 to 24. There has been such an increase, Adam Mosely, the District Attorney for the county, had started a task force led by Jeff to reduce the numbers. He assigned him to figure out why there has been such an uptick in these crimes.
“Okay,” Jeff says from the front of the room. “Shall we get started, ladies?” He takes a quick glance at the space and observed one older man is sitting in the rear of the room. “Oh, and gentleman. Sorry, I didn’t notice you back there.”
The man sits with his legs and arms crossed. He is wearing old clothes and no facial expression.
“Sir,” Jeff says, “I gear this seminar more for the female public, but you are welcome to stay if you’d like.”
The man says in a raspy and worn voice, “I have three daughters who could not be here. I’m doing this for them.”
“Okay, that sounds great.” Jeff is slightly concerned. Though he did his best never to judge people, this guy looks questionable. Jeff knew some predators attend these seminars to get educated on what their victims were looking for. Then they would adjust the tactics they use.
As everyone took their seat, Jeff is pleased to see the first row almost full. “I’m going to pass this form out. I use it only for my records on who attended. There is also a place to enter your email if you want additional information.”
The man in the back speaks up. “Do we have to fill out one of these forms?”
“No, but the county gets state credit based on the number of people who attend,” Jeff replied. “All I need is the first half of the form. You don’t have to complete everything.”
The man has a disgusted look on his face, which concerns Jeff. He is not acting as a father of three, but more of a man that did not want anyone to know he is there.
Jeff continues his class. “First, let’s define what a predator is.” He opens the slide show on the large screen that is set up on stage. “If you Google ‘predator’ for a definition, you will get two responses. First is the animal that preys on another. Like a wolf is the predator to a rodent. The second definition: A person or group that ruthlessly exploits others. That’s the one we will focus on today.” A hand goes up from one woman in the group. “Yes?”
“Do you think these missing girls are being taken by a predator in our city?” she asks.
“That’s a good question,” Jeff replies. “We have no evidence of that. But we feel educating the public on these types of people will help keep everyone safer.”
Another voice from the crowd speaks. “Do you have any leads on the missing children?”
“No,” Jeff replies nervously. “Not yet.” He is feeling as if he is in a press conference and not giving a class. “I would like to stay on course and educate you on predators. If you want to ask specific questions of the missing children, I can do my best to answer those questions at the end of this class.”
The man in the back yells, “What’s the crime for shooting a son of a bitch that does anything bad to one of my daughters?”
The question being asked by the strange man in the back surprises Jeff. “I want to go on record saying we do not want people shooting anyone. Or hurting a person forcefully. If you believe you have a family member that has been a victim, please call your police department.”
Jeff did his best to regain control of the seminar. The attendees ask several good questions, and in the end, he feels it was a productive session.
After the seminar, Jeff returns to the county office building and sits down in front of Adam Mosely’s desk on the fourth floor. He waits patiently as Adam finishes a phone call he is on.
Adam is in his early sixties and has an old man demeanor that resembled a cranky geezer that life has let down. When he smiled, it looked more like a scowl. Life had riddled him with several divorces and bad luck. There is even a group of patrons that believed he bought his way to the position of District Attorney, but they had no proof. Adam accredits his raspy voice to years of smoking cigars. Others thought it was from him yelling so much.
Adam gets off the phone. “How was the class?” He asks.
“Not bad,” Jeff says. “It was a good turnout. There was one man there that I thought was odd. But he says he had three daughters who couldn’t attend. So, he was there for them. I did see Laura there.”
Adam has a surprised look on his face. “In the seminar? I thought she had a meeting with the mayor today to discuss funding?”
“No,” Jeff replies. “Not in the seminar. In the hallway before the class. She says she would attend the next one we have.”
“Good,” Adam says. “These seminars were her idea. She could at least attend one.”
“Have you seen her daughters?” Jeff says. “I don’t think she has anything to worry about.”
Adam laughed. “Let’s not go there, Jeff.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.”
“No worries. But, yes, I know what you mean. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, huh?” Adam opens his notebook. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?”
“Yes, let’s.” Jeff pulls his laptop out of his briefcase and starts it up. He is more of the techie of the two of them, while Adam likes to do things old school with pen and paper. That irritated Jeff sometimes because it meant he had to print everything out for Adam. But a small task to do in the scheme of things.
“Do you have the latest numbers for the state?” Adam asks.
“Yeah,” Jeff replies. “They’re up in the major metro areas. Our county saw one of the largest hikes. That concerns me.”
“I agree,” Adam says. “We’re going to have to level that off as best we can. I know it’s all about supply and demand, but we don’t want our county to get flagged as a high-risk area. It would drop the number of people moving here, not to mention tourism.”
“Speaking of that,” Jeff says, “I received a text message from the hub just before the seminar. They are looking for more inventory. Do you want me to hold off on that for now or provide them with what we have?”
“Let’s clear our warehouse,” Adam says. “We can always get more stock to give them later. But I don’t want our inventory sitting on the shelves longer than necessary. Speaking of that, what is our current inventory?”
Jeff looks at his computer at the current numbers. “We have a total of fourteen for the city. Forty-five for the county. All of which are in the higher price range. And then several others in the mid-range area.”
“Okay,” Adam says. “That should be good enough for us to push until next quarter to replenish. Just in time for the holidays.”
“Sounds good.” Jeff types a few notes on his computer. “We should get a reply by tonight or early in the morning at the latest, if they accept our offer. Do you want me to provide a discount if they ask?”
“Ten percent,” Adam replies. “But only if they ask. Let them know our inventory is low, and we have other interested clients. That should help us get the full asking price.”
“Alright, sounds good.” Jeff looks at Adam. “Is there anything else?”
“Yeah,” Adam says. “I got a special request. They’ll pay top dollar if we can get what they want by the end of the week. You think you’re up for it?”
“Sure thing.” Jeff looks at the note handed to him by Adam. “16, huh? Extremely specific on their requirements. I’ll get a guy on it, and we’ll get this order taken care of.”
“Thanks, Jeff,” Adam says. “Hey, let’s do golf this weekend. I can make reservations at the club.”
“Promise not to cheat this time?” Jeff asks.
“Never,” Adam replies with a smile.
Jeff laughs as he picks up his laptop and leaves.
In a quiet neighborhood of Hunt, Nebraska, Michelle Adkins is a sixteen-year-old girl in her bedroom doing homework. She’s upset that her parents will not let her go out tonight with her friends. She did most of her schoolwork, but the more she thinks about going out, the madder she gets at her parents.
They never let me do anything, she says to herself. She forewent the rest of her homework, gets on her computer, and finds a dating website. Before signing up, she browses through some profiles and sees many cute guys available. The site offers a free week membership with no credit card needed. She knows she would get in trouble if caught, but she does it anyway and signs up.
Her profile is about as dishonest as she can get away with. Stating she is an eighteen-year-old in her first year of college looking for companionship. The only actual piece of information she supplies that is true is the photo she uploads. It takes a few minutes before her profile brings in messages saying they are interested in meeting her. She browses through the first few texts she receives and finds one that catches her curiosity.
A twenty-year-old boy named Steve attends the same community college she said she did. His photo is cute, and she likes what his profile mentions about loving animals. She notices he is online and sends him an instant message via the website to say hi. Moments later, she receives a reply.
His message says he wants to meet her at a pizza parlor in town. Michelle thinks that is a great idea, but suggests “If I’m going to sneak out, I would rather hang with my friends at Joey’s,” a hamburger joint on the main street. They are getting together there to decide what they are going to do that night. Michelle feels meeting this guy where her friends are at would be safest since she has never met this guy in person.
Steve agrees and offers to pick Michelle up at her home. She does not want any chance of her parents seeing her being picked up by a stranger and offers to meet him at a street corner a block away from her home. Steve says he would pick her up there in thirty minutes.
Michelle knows she has to create a decoy to get out of the house. She thinks for a moment and comes up with a plan. She goes downstairs to talk with her parents.
They are sitting in the living room at the base of the stairs. Her dad is reading the paper while the latest mystery novel has engulfed her mom into the story.
“Mom, dad?” Michelle says, approaching them in the living room. “I wanted to apologize for earlier. I know you are only trying to do what’s best for me.”
“Thank you, Michelle,” her dad says. “You’re right. We are only looking out for your best interest. You know we love you very much.”
Her mom looks at her, “Maybe next weekend, we can let you hang with your friends.”
“Okay,” Michelle says. “I’m tired. I’ve been working on my homework all night. I think I’m going to go to bed.”
“Sounds good,” her parents say. “Get a good night’s sleep. Love you.”
“Love you, too,” she replies, turning to go back up the stairs.
When Michelle returns to her room, she arranges the pillows under her bedsheets to appear as if someone is sleeping in bed. She retrieves her jacket from the closet and her purse and leaves through the window. Escaping out the window down the trellis is something Michelle had done many times before. She thought her parents were not very bright to have it there, but thankfully, it was.
She turns off all the lights and leaves.
Michelle’s father is privy to the trellis escape. It was how he and his brother used to leave his house when they were kids. Because of that, he checked on her before he goes to bed.
It was an hour after Michelle had said goodnight that her parents retire for the evening. The two of them go upstairs to their bedroom. “I’ll be one second,” the dad says. “I’m just going to check on Michelle.”
“Okay, I’ll meet you in bed.” Mom walks into the master bedroom.
The dad opens Michelle’s door to her room and sees all the light are out and, what appears to be, a person sound asleep in bed. He quietly closes the door behind him and goes to his bedroom.
Meanwhile, unknowingly to Michelle’s parents, a strange man that goes by the name Steven has picked her up in his car. Michelle wants to meet up with her friends at the burger joint, but Steve has other plans.
Michelle never made it to Joey’s to meet her friends. It will not be until late the next morning that her mom will discover the pillows in Michelle’s bed. And moments later, a frantic mother will be calling 9-1-1 to report a missing child.
It is a blustery morning in Hunt. Gray skies that appears they will open at any time, and gusty wind make the leaves fly off the trees and dance around on the pavement like a majestic ballet. There are a couple of police cruisers on scene of the latest missing child, and officers canvassing the immediate area.
Detective Chad Cansdale of the Hunt Police Department pulls his white unmarked car next to the curb in front of the Adkins’ residence. He gets out of the car, holding onto his black fedora hat and struggling to keep his long matching trench coat closed. He wears the garment like a cape and his muscular frame makes him appear as if he was Superman coming to the rescue.
The detective enters through the front door, where he notices a police officer taking the parent’s statements. He feels a sense of grief and sorrow overcome him as he approaches the couple. It has been only days since Chad had to do a similar thing with another set of parents. He has to ask the same questions and usually gets the same answers from different people. It is taking a toll on him and getting old.
“Mr. and Mrs. Adkins. I’m Detective Cansdale with the Hunt Police Department.” Chad sits down after introducing himself. “I know this is a tough time for you, and I assure you, we will do whatever we can to find your daughter. I know you gave the officer your statement, but is it all right if I ask you a few questions of my own?”
The couple nod.
“When was the last time you saw your daughter?” the detective asks.
“Last night,” Mary says. “She came downstairs around 9 PM to apologize for a fight we had.”
“What were you fighting about?”
Mary gains her composure. “Going out with her friends. She wanted to go hang out with some friends, and we said no.”
The detective is writing notes as they talk. “Are you sure she didn’t sneak out to meet up with them?”
“Maybe,” Mary says. “But she never came home.”
“How big was the fight?” the detective asks. “Was there a lot of yelling and screaming, or just discontent and anger?”
“I guess there was some yelling,” Mary says.
Donald interrupted. “There was screaming, detective. Mary has..., well, WE have always been strict with Michelle. Last night she let us know how she felt.”
Cansdale looks at Donald. “How do we know she didn’t run away?”
Mary angrily interrupts. “Does that matter? Our daughter is missing!” she exclaims. “She’s a sixteen-year-old girl. Not some older tramp that hates her parents. We love her. She knew that, and I don’t think there is any reason for her to want to run away.”
“Detective,” Donald interjects, “you asked when the last time we saw her. I checked on her just before we went to bed. That was around 10 PM. I opened her door and saw her sleeping.”
“Did you actually see her?” the detective asks. “Or did you just glance inside the room?”
Donald thinks for a second, and his eyes get wide. “I only glanced. I didn’t actually see her. I just assumed it was her sleeping in bed.”
“So, the last time you actually physically saw her was around 9 PM when she came downstairs to talk to you? Not 10 PM.” The detective writes some notes. “Can you show me her room?”
The three of them go upstairs to Michelle’s room. The detective looks around. It is a typical teenage girl’s room. Painted white with pink and purple decor all around. “Do you know if she was on her computer last night?”
“Yes,” Mary says. “She was doing her homework.”
“Do you mind if we take her computer to our lab?” the detective asks. “We can do some forensic analysis to see if she was really doing homework or if she contacted someone else before leaving.”
“That’s fine,” Donald says. “Do whatever you need to do.”
“Mr. Adkins,” Chad says, “you said you saw her in bed sleeping at ten o’clock last night. Can you show me what you saw?”
“Yes, of course.” Donald walks over and stands next to his daughter’s bed. “She had the covers on over her as she laid here in bed.”
“That’s exactly what I saw this morning, Don,” Mary says. “She arranged her pillows to make it look like she was in bed.”
“How did she get out?” the detective asks.
“We think through the window. Down the trellis,” Donald replies.
“Okay. I think I have enough to go on right now, Mr. and Mrs. Adkins.” Chad closes his notebook. “I’m not saying she ran away, but right now, there is no sign of her being forced to leave. We’ll check out her computer and see if there’s anything on it that can point us in a different direction. But for now, it looks like we’ll have to treat this as a runaway case.”
“What does that mean?” asks Donald.
“It means, unless we find out differently, this case will be at the bottom of the list of missing girls to get solved.” The detective starts down the stairs. The parents follow him. “We have thirteen children missing in this city in the last thirty days,” Chad says. “Only about half of them show signs of being forcibly taken. Your daughter may just be running away like the others. We’ll keep working on it, that I can guarantee. I just can’t tell you when it will be solved.”
The detective leaves the crime scene. The parents did not know if they will ever see their daughter again. It devastates them. Their little girl is missing and upset that the police are treating it like she is a runaway.
Chad walks into the police station. His desk is against the wall with the other detective’s cubicles. All the walls are painted yellow to promote happiness, which did not always work.
Chad sits down at his desk and moves several case files around, trying to make room for the newest one. He reviews the evidence on the Michelle Adkins case. Tom Middleton, his co-worker and partner who is working on another missing person’s case, is sitting in his cubicle to the right of Chad’s. He joins Chad and perches his rear end down on the edge of the desk to talk. “I hear you have another one,” Tom says.
Tom is ten years younger than Chad and would love to show it off with his finely trimmed blonde hair with the perfect amount of gel in it and his blue eyes. He was predictable in his attire, always wearing a white button-down shirt with a red tie. Chad swore it is the only tie he has ever owned, and Tom never denied it.
“Yeah. This makes number fourteen.” Chad says, sitting back in his chair with a disgusted look on his face. “I think the feds may need to be involved. We have way too many missing person cases for us to work on all of them. Hell, we don’t even know if they are all connected.”
“I know what you’re talking about, Chad. Have you talked to the chief about it? Maybe you’re right.”
“You know as well as I do, the chief hates dealing with the feds,” Chad replies. “It would have to be a serial killer on the loose to call them in. This is just a bunch of missing kids. They can all be at some house partying for all we know.” Chad sits up and looks at his computer screen. “God forbid we get an actual homicide that we have to work. We have nobody left to assign anything to.”
“I think you need to talk to him,” Tom says. “You never know. He may agree with you. But I think you’re right. We may need to have more solid evidence for the feds. I would hate to call them with what we have so far.”
While Tom and Chad are talking, Joe Whitewater, the chief of police, walks by. Joe is the same age as Chad and liked to think of himself as an easy-going kind of guy. But all the police department knew, he was a politician’s police chief. He brown-nosed with the best of them, and he is the only one that did not see it.
“Gentlemen,” Joe says. “How’s the caseload looking?”
Chad looks at Joe with disgust. “You’re joking, right?”
“I know, I know. We are still getting a lot of missing kids. I’m thinking about calling the FBI for help. What do you think?”
“Funny,” Tom says. “We were just discussing that.”
Chad speaks up. “I think we could really use their help. I’m just concerned if we call them and say we have fourteen missing kids, they’ll just laugh at us. We need more evidence pointing to kidnappings and abductions rather than just kids walking out of their homes.”
“I think you’re right, Chad,” Joe says. “Get me that evidence, and we can see about getting the feds involved.”
“Okay. Thanks, Joe.” Chad and Tom disperse back to their desks and continue working the ever growing caseload.
Later that afternoon, the police IT forensics lab calls Chad. “Detective, I have some information for you. You might want to come down and see this.”
Chad heads to the lab to see what the latest information is. When he arrives, Karl Stephens, the IT analyst working on his case, greets him. “Detective, check this out.” They walk over to Michelle’s computer, which is connected and turned on. “I searched for her latest activity. She was on a dating site chatting with a man on the night she went missing.”
“What? Are you sure?” Chad looks at the computer.
“Quite sure,” Karl replied. “The last message was asking him to meet her on the corner to pick her up. Three messages earlier, she asked him to go to Joey’s Burger Joint to meet up with her friends. I’m assuming that’s where they were headed.”
“Do we have the name of the person she met with?” the detective asked.
“Steve Trumann is the profile name. But you know as well as I do, that doesn’t mean that’s who she ended up meeting.”
“It’s a start,” Chad says. He takes the information down that Karl had given him and returns to the desk to do some checking on the suspect’s name.
When Chad got back to his desk, he sits down at his computer and enters the name in the search field. There are three people by that name that lived in the county. But this confuses Chad. All of them are over the age of thirty-five.
Chad looks up towards his partner, “Tom, ever hear of Steve Trumann?”
“Steve Trumann?” Tom stands up quickly and walks to Chad’s desk. “He was the guy we were looking for last week in the Windgate case.”
“Windgate?” Chad thinks back. “Wasn’t that an online meeting, too?”
“Yeah. The suspect used a dating site to find the girl. She was never seen after they sent the message.”
“Crap,” Chad says. “This is the same MO as my case. That might be the evidence we need to get the feds here.” He calls Joe up on the phone and tells him the news. As he talks to Joe, he gives Tom the thumbs-up, saying they got the green-light to call the FBI. “Okay. Thanks, Joe. I’ll be right there.” Chad looks at Tom. “We can go with the FBI. joe just wants more details. I’m headed to his office now. While I’m there, can you do me a favor? Look at the other missing kid reports and see if they involve either Steve Trumann or the use of a dating website? That may be the MO or signature we’ve been looking for. If you find any, just break into my meeting with Joe. He’ll want to hear that as well.”
“Will do.” Tom returns to his desk to search the case files while Chad heads to Joe’s office.
When Chad arrives, Joe is on the phone. He motions to the detective to have a seat while he finishes his conversation. Chad sits down and listens in on the phone call. “I understand that, Andy. But if we have an MO that matches several cases, then we have a serial criminal... Yeah... Yeah... Okay.” Joe hangs the phone up.
“Was that the DA?” Chad asks.
“Yeah, and I do not like his reasoning.” Joe did not seem happy about the call. “He wants us to hold off on calling the feds.”
“What? Why the hell not?” It upset Chad. To him, this makes no sense.
“He doesn’t seem to think we have enough evidence to warrant the FBI coming to town,” Joe says. “Not to mention, it’s ‘bad for PR.’”
“Oh, and children going missing is good for PR?” Chad’s voice raises. “We have at least two cases where the guy used a dating site to find his victim. I have Tom checking the other cases to see if they may have the same MO.”
Tom shows up in Joe’s office, as if he were waiting for his queue. “I found three more. The guy used different names, but all used a dating website to get the girls lured out.”
“That’s five of our fourteen cases with the same MO,” Chad says. “We need the feds and their resources. Can you please try to work on Andy?”
Joe nods his head. “Yeah, I will. Can you look at the other nine cases and see if there is anything similar to those? It may be possible we have more than one predator out there at the same time.”
“I can do that,” Tom says. He leaves the office and goes back to his desk to do the search.
After Tom left, Joe stands up from his desk and walks over to shut the door. Chad gets a little nervous. Whenever Joe closes the door to his office, either someone is going to get fired, or his ass chewed off. He did not know which he will be getting.
“Chad,” Joe says. “I’m going to do something that I should have done from the beginning. I’m going to put you in charge of all these fourteen kids. We have enough evidence to tie them together to show they are all related. At first, I was treating them all separately. That was my mistake. But now we know the relationship. We need one detective to take charge to bring it all together.”
“Just me?” Chad says. “I can’t do all fourteen by myself. And who knows how many more we will get before we solve this thing.”
“No,” Joe interrupts. “I want you to lead the investigation. You still have all the other detectives to do the work. I just need you to be the lead and bring all the information together. Think of yourself as the manager of the missing kid’s caseload.”
“Oh, okay. I can do that.” The light bulb in Chad’s head goes off, and he is now on the same page as Joe.
Chad stands up and leaves Joe’s office, returning to his desk on the other side of the building. He spends the rest of the afternoon bringing all the missing children’s case files together to attempt to produce a common MO.
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