The Lost Girl

November 6, 2009 § 3 Comments

This piece originally appeared in June 2008 on True Crime Weblog, the website of noted crime writer Steve Huff, and appears here with his kind permission. This case remains unsolved. 

by Larkin Vonalt

The woman is screaming into the television camera. There are words coming out of her mouth, but all you really hear is rage. Rage, and despair.  The pain is writ so large upon her face that even at a distance one cannot help turning away out of respect. The camera pans from the shattered woman back to a twenty-something television reporter. The reporter smiles, embarrassed, and with a tilt of her head, brightly offers her reprise to the night’s top story.

Hours before, Tammy Walker trod the hallways of the city morgue, her own green mile, to identify the body of her daughter. 77 days earlier she and her husband filed a missing person report for Heather Nicole Walker, age 18. The police, by their own admission, never looked for her.  Heather’s family and friends ran off flyers of the missing girl, posting them everywhere they could think of.  Now it was all for nothing.  When they’d turned out the lights the night before, there had still been hope, dangling on a string. There was still a chance that Heather would come banging through the door of the house on Gummer Street. Today, with the rising of the sun, that string snapped.

This evening Tammy Walker has returned to the alley where her daughter was found in a trashcan. Surely screaming can be the only reasonable response. 

Dayton, Ohio is a city of 157,000 people. The crime rate falls somewhere between that of Baton Rouge and Rochester though violent crime in Dayton is significantly less than both those cities.  Last year the Chief of Police was pleased to tell the media that Dayton had enjoyed its second straight year of diminishing crime. 

In the days following the discovery of Heather Walker’s body, the police defended their lack of action.

“Many adults go missing throughout the year,” Sgt. Chris Williams told the Dayton Daily News, adding that  “very few” turn out to be victims of foul play. They offer this information without apology. They are just cogs in a slowly grinding machine, one with no capacity to look for the needle in a haystack that is a girl lost in the streets.

Heather wasn’t the high school valedictorian. She wasn’t an accomplished coed at a prestigious university. When the media speaks of her they don’t use words like “gifted” or “promising” or “popular.” As if death wasn’t insult enough, they drop labels on her like stones: Troubled. Habitual. Runaway.

Heather’s parents had reported her missing before, six times in point of fact. But this time, Robert and Tammy Walker had been emphatic with the police: she had not taken her cell phone, or her wallet. In the past she had always called to let them know she was okay. Not this time. It didn’t matter that Heather’s absence was more sinister this February than on past occasions. She had passed that magic age. 18: you can’t buy a beer, but you can be tried as an adult, serve your country and be liable for your own debts. Oh, and the police won’t look for you anymore.

Mary McCarty, a Dayton Daily News columnist, chastised the police in a May 1 editorial for arbitrarily dismissing reports for missing individuals over 18, citing her own son, a 19-year old High School senior, as evidence of how childlike we still can be at that tender age, suggesting that the “cutoff” might be a little later.   McCarty quotes Kettering, Ohio Police Sgt. Craig Moore deftly sidestepping the issue: “That’s a societal thing; we’re simply following state law as it is written,” Moore said. “That would be a change for the state of Ohio to make.”

The Walkers’ coltish daughter, half-woman, half-child, had early on seized the privileges usually reserved for adults, and did not bridle easily to the very adult responsibilities of raising her young son.  The running away began when she was pregnant and reached epic proportions after Devin was born. The sixth time the police brought Heather home, just over a year ago, she left again ten minutes later. There would not be a seventh time.

Though suburbanites fear the predominantly black west side of Dayton, these blocks—east of Keowee, north of US 35—these are really Dayton’s mean streets. But like the natives of South Boston and the Bronx, the residents of East Dayton take pride in their gritty neighborhood, wearing their survival like a badge of honor. 

Largely white, it is an area plagued with vandalism, theft, prostitution, homelessness, drug abuse and murder. The kids here ape black culture, posing on their MySpace pages and YouTube videos with rolls of cash, guns, bottles of Jagermeister. They imitate the speech, the dress, the swagger of the ghetto. It might be comical if it wasn’t so deadly. They’ve got the rims, the grills, they throw up the signs, pose for photos at the gravesites of their friends.

It isn’t just Heather they mourn, but also Andy Rush, who died Easter Sunday last year, accidentally shot in the head by his best friend, Tommy. His “Moms” had died just a few days before that, of cancer. Younger brother Mikey eulogizes all of them on his My Space profile. A few days ago there was a reference there to Heather, he called her his “future wife;” but to look at the profile now you’d never know they were friends. A guy’s got pressures, you know.

Heather wasn’t much of a diarist; she started four or five MySpace pages, but was never a regular presence there. Even so, the media noted that those pages were  “laced with obscenities.”  On both the pages that she got off the ground, she fusses about Devin’s father, Justin James Holbrook. “And for those bitches who want my baby daddy, go ahead and have him. He may look good to you and everything, but the thing is he has nothing to offer you, he don’t even have anything to offer his own son.”

On one of Heather’s early, abandoned profiles, Justin commented “hey if u ever get on here n check ur shit delete me from ur friends cause i dont want u to know nething bout wat i do so do me a favor n delete me k.” Their son, Devin, was about three months old then, and Heather was out the door as often as not.

It’s the pictures on Heather’s profile that finally provide a real glimpse of the girl behind the pose. Heather, laughing. Heather scowling, and yes, Heather (and a friend) stacking gang signs.  Heather vibrant, her arms bare and smooth, a curtain of shiny hair, a wide, wide grin, goofing for the camera. Heather alive. 

As a juvenile, Heather Walker had brushes with the law; shoplifting a pair of shoes, joyriding in a stolen car, the details carefully spelled out in the local newspaper days after her body was discovered.  There is no record for her as an adult. She had dropped out of Belmont High, but she wasn’t alone in that. Four out of every ten students there don’t make it to graduation.  On “academic watch,” the Dayton public high school features a “computer technology theme,” but has no school website.  93 percent of its students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

On Wednesday, February 6, Heather is thought to have been on her way to a birthday party for her older brother, Rob. She is seen about 7:30 in the parking lot of Sam’s Market, a down-at-the-heels corner grocery on East Third Street, two miles from home, three blocks from where her body will be found.  By Saturday morning, she has still not come home and her parents turn to the police.  The police follow procedure as for any missing adult, other than those considered “endangered.” They issue a 72-hour alert, and when it expires, they forget about her.

Eleven weeks later, on a warm April morning, three passersby wend their way down an alley half a block off East Third.  One of them spots a pair of shoes hanging out of a city-issued trash bin. Deciding to take the shoes, they cross thirty feet from the alley to the edge of the abandoned building where the green plastic can rests. Reaching for the shoes, they make a horrible discovery. The shoes are still on Heather’s feet.

Heather’s friends bring balloons to the site. Balloons, and stuffed toys. Letters, poems, photographs of their lost friend. It is raining, the notes run, the photos smear, the candles flicker. In the rain, in an alley in a gin-soaked neighborhood, her friends weep, stunned with grief. A photograph of Devin visiting Heather’s shrine shows a beautiful and bewildered little boy.

Heather’s father has mapped his grief upon his chest, an image of Heather; peaceful, contemplative, is newly tattooed there.  Two dozen of his Mixed Martial Arts students file past, their heads bowed. Bushi Combat, where he teaches, honors Heather on their website. All that combat training, and no one to save her.  Robert Walker does not rage into the television camera as his wife does, but it is clear that the death of his baby girl has broken him.

The coroner issues a statement that Heather Nicole Walker had been dead “for a while,” yet her parents identify her in the hours immediately following her discovery. While her father concedes there was decomposition, he ventures that “her head hadn’t been bashed in or anything.” It’s unlikely Heather spent eleven weeks in the trash can, as the mild Ohio spring would have rendered her to state that no one would ask a parent to contemplate.

On the box that houses her ashes, the date of death is March 1, 2008; an estimate arrived at with the help of the medical examiner.  It begs the question. Where was Heather for the 23 nights between February 6 and March 1?  Was she captive? Was she frightened? Was she cold?

No cause or manner of death has been established. There were no signs of trauma on her body. She was not stabbed or shot or strangled. There was no blunt force trauma. Determining asphyxiation after a certain point of decomposition is very difficult. Life isn’t like CSI: lab tests take weeks, sometimes longer, to complete. Sometimes the answers never come.

As if rushing to pre-empt the media’s speculation, Robert Walker muses to a Dayton Daily News reporter that his daughter might have died of a drug overdose. Without the toxicology reports, the Montgomery County Coroner is not willing to make that leap yet.

The Coroner’s office director Ken Betz told the paper that he “cannot support that, because pathologists have not officially determined when and how Heather Walker died.”

If the cause of death is revealed in the toxicology report, it may well put an end to any homicide investigation. Without evidence of having been dosed against her will, the best the D.A. can offer her parents in that circumstance is the possible charge of “abuse of a corpse.” That is, if they ever find anyone to charge.

Drug overdose or not, no one is buying that Heather climbed into a trashcan on her own. Why would someone go to such lengths to conceal an accidental death? Or was their means of disposing of the body some kind of cruel joke?  Though the house near the site is empty, the grass is kept mowed. Heather’s father said he talked to the people who had cut the grass just a few weeks before his daughter’s body was found.  “They said that trash can was not there when they mowed,” he told the Dayton paper. “Someone killed Heather. I am staying on this.”

Heather Walker: daughter, mother, sister, friend.  Not just lost, but stolen.

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