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Public Enemies: The Host of America's Most Wanted Targets the Nation's Most Notorious Criminals Kindle Edition
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About the Author
Philip Lerman is the author of Dadditude: How a Real Man Became a Real Dad and the coauthor of several books, including No Mercy. Lerman is the former co-executive producer of America’s Most Wanted and former national editor of USA TODAY. --This text refers to the paperback edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I remember the first time I felt true fear.
It was just before dark on Monday, July 27, 1981, in the parking lot outside a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida. It was the day my son Adam disappeared.
The fear did not come right away. I had spent all day in desperate but controlled activity, questioning police, demanding answers, rushing around, trying to find anyone who'd seen anything that day. The frantic activity of a father whose son has disappeared is fueled by adrenaline and panic; you do everything you can to try to will that little boy back into your arms. You are moving so fast and so furiously that you do not notice the hole in your stomach, the gaping hole growing larger and larger.
But just before dark, the lights began to be turned off at the mall, and they were locking up; most of the cars were gone, and suddenly there was nothing to do but leave this place, leave without Adam, go home without my little boy. And then, for the first time, I felt that hole, the gaping hole in my stomach, that felt like the wind was blowing through it, that my life was blowing through it, as though I were so much sand in the wind and only by force of will could I keep myself from disintegrating. It is an all-consuming fear: your child is gone, and, God forbid, is it possible that there is nothing you can do?
You push the fear down, and you move forward, resolutely: of course there are things you can do. You will find that child. Let's go. Let's get the flyers out, let's muster the troops, let's sound the call to battle. My child is somewhere and he needs me and by all that is holy I will do what my child needs and bring him back to me.
But late at night the fear creeps back as you lie silently in your bed, knowing that you will not sleep tonight, wondering if your wife is asleep and knowing she is not, feeling like you are falling, feeling consumed by an awful, nauseating, dizzying, overwhelming loneliness. As indescribably painful as it has been, all these years, to deal with the death of that lovely boy, those days when we did not know where in the universe he was, whether he was in the hands of some madman, suffering God-knows-what pain, those days of not knowing were the worst.
In those days I understood true, blinding, paralyzing fear.
It is now twenty years since I died the thousand deaths that a parent of a missing child suffers, and in those twenty years I have seen the look of that fear in the faces of so many other parents, ravenous for information, desperate to find their missing children.
I know it's not right, and I know it's not fair, but I will admit this to you now: there are some cases that affect me more than others. I don't know why that is -- something in a mother's plea as she holds your hand and tells you little things she remembers about her daughter: how she laughed, how she smelled, where she liked to Rollerblade. Something in a father's downturned eyes as he sits before you, afraid to look at you directly, afraid to start crying because he fears he'll never stop, feeling he has to be inhumanly strong for his child. Something in that first photo you see of a missing child, a photo hurriedly pulled from a family album or ripped from a frame on the mantel, a photo of a child who by all rights should be driving her parents crazy right now because she refuses to turn off the TV and go to sleep.
There are some cases that affect you more than others. At those moments, you freeze in your tracks and say, we have got to find this child. Now, here, this is where I draw the line. This time, the kidnapper is not going to get away with it. The son of a bitch will pay. This time, we will stop him. Enough is enough.
This was one of those cases.
Because this time, we would go to battle with evil itself.
The missing-child stories that reach the public's consciousness seem to come in waves. The summer and fall of 1993 was one of those times. It seemed every time you picked up the paper, another child had been abducted. In Northern California the abduction of eleven-year-old Polly Klaas -- a man had actually snuck into her home, into a slumber party she was having with her friends, and dragged her away while her mother slept down the hall -- sent a chill through every parent's heart everywhere. The fact that the case was trumpeted by a parade of celebrities, including Winona Rider and Robin Williams, kept it high in the public consciousness.
This was also the summer when twelve-year-old Sara Wood disappeared in upstate New York. She was last seen bike-riding home from vacation Bible school, and that afternoon police found her bike and papers strewn by the side of the road, another image that cast an indelible imprint. The proximity to New York meant that the parents had access to the morning talk shows, which picked up the case and ran with it. Being from upstate New York myself, I also knew some of the cops involved in the case, and I was drawn into it as well.
The summer had started with a case of an adorable six-year-old, whom I'll call Nancy. (We named her at the time she was missing, of course, but her parents have asked that we stop using her real name publicly, so I'll leave it out here.) Nancy and two friends were sitting in a driveway when a man approached and -- I swear to God -- offered them candy. He then grabbed Nancy and drove away with her. The cops, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and America's Most Wanted launched a massive search. We broadcast satellite alerts out to cover the region, blanketing the state with media coverage.
After fifty-one hours, the kidnapper felt the heat and dropped Nancy off at a public phone booth.
She called her mom, and we joined that rare celebration, that wonderful moment when a stranger abduction ends in a tearful, loving homecoming.
A few days later, I sat down with Nancy for a little talk.
"What did the man say to you?" I asked her.
"He said, 'Do you want some candy?' " Nancy replied.
"And what did you say?"
"Yes." An embarrassed smile crossed her beautiful little face.
"Oooh," I said, trying not to sound mean. "Big mistake, huh?"
"Yeah!" she said with a nervous laugh.
"Then what happened?"
"I come with him, and he dragged me and tossed me into the car."
"Bet you were scared, huh. Then what happened?"
"I had to go down on the floor."
"And he drove away?"
"What did you think was happening to you?"
Nancy fell silent. "Being kidnapped," she said, finally.
"He told you what?"
"Don't move a muscle."
"Don't move a muscle?"
"Not even one."
"Not even one," I repeated. "Bet you were scared. You know, other kids are going to be watching this. If you could say something to those kids about strangers who come up to you, what would you say to those kids?"
"Don't listen to them."
"And what if they want to give you candy?"
"And then what?"
"Go to the house what you're close to."
"Good advice. And what do you think should happen to the man?"
Her little face brightened. "I think he should go to jail for a hundred years!"
I thought, from your mouth to God's ear, little darling. From your mouth to God's ear.
It will haunt me to my dying day that, at the same moment I was sitting and talking with Nancy -- having the wonderful joy of knowing that we had helped bring a missing child home safely -- at that same moment, a thousand miles away, a woman named Sue North was walking over to a friend's home to get her daughter Jeanna and bring her home.
But Jeanna was not there.
And the nightmare was about to begin again.
She was a tiny baby, weighing just a little more than six pounds. The hair that would later turn to beautiful, fluffy waves of auburn started out jet black. That tiny head was peeking out of the yellow blanket they wrapped her in the day she came home from the hospital, and Sue North and her husband, John, had the same thought at the same time: she looks just like a little corn on the cob! Jeanna Dale North took on the nickname "Cobbie" that day, and in affectionate moments she was Cobbie to her mother ever after.
Almost from the time she could walk, Jeanna was running: a bundle of happy energy who never seemed to stop moving. "She just goes from dawn till dusk," Sue North told us later. "You have to lay her down on your lap and hold her head still for her to go to sleep."
Sue North's three daughters were very different from one another. Jessica, the oldest, was the brainy kid in the family: tested early on with an IQ at genius levels, she developed more into a right-brain teenager, loving her painting the most. Jennifer, the middle child, was the quiet and passive one: in the tumult of the household, Sue sometimes turned around, surprised to see Jennifer sitting there quietly, just watching the chaos unfold. And at the center of the chaos, usually, was Jeanna; "my little hyper-bug," Sue called her.
As they got older, Jeanna got on her sisters' nerves, as only hyper little sisters can. But with Dad and Mom both out working construction, they also had charge of Jeanna and were as protective of her as two little momma lions with a tiny cub. She knew how to annoy them, but they could not stay angry at Jeanna for very long: her bright, devilish eyes and coy smile would come bouncing at you, she would scrunch her little features into a funny face, and you were helpless to keep from grinning and going along with whatever little game she would think up next. She loved being the little clown of the house, as though the assignment given her by God was to keep her family laughing, to make sure they didn't take themselves too seriously, to fill every little moment with as much fun as she could. It seemed at times as though she was trying to pack an entire lifetime into every day; little girls do not have the philosophical bent to live each day as though it were your last, but the energy that abounded in Jeanna Dale North certainly made it seem as though she were doing just that.
As though any given day could be her last day on earth.
By the time she turned eleven, Jeanna was still tiny -- just a few inches over four feet, she could get the scale over fifty pounds only by jumping up and down on it, which was not outside her realm of mischief. And if she "didn't like to mind so much," as Sue put it, she certainly had a way of getting you to forgive her. The trail of sneakers and socks and jacket and books and candy wrappers from the front door to her room told you that Jeanna had come home; the fact that her beloved Rollerblades were gone told you she was out again.
She was a whiz on the Rollerblades, as though they were the one mechanism for chaneling all that abundant energy in a single direction. Once, at the local roller arena, she got going so fast that the crowd spontaneously cleared the rink for her, and she flew, around and around, again and again, smiling child-wide, in her favorite place -- the center of the spotlight. As she flew by she caught her mom's eye, saw her mother beaming with approval and pride, and Jeanna's smile grew just that much wider.
Little accomplishments mean a lot to a kid who doesn't do all that well in school; Sue North instinctively knew this and encouraged Jeanna as best she could. The first time she came home with a 100 on a spelling test, Sue framed it and put it on the wall.
"She wasn't a straight-A student," said her dad, John, "but she was easy to love, and she gave a lot of love away."
At eleven, Jeanna was still her daddy and mommy's little girl. The only time she stopped moving was to climb in her dad's lap and cuddle in his arms, and she still slept in her parents' bed whenever she was allowed. But now she was becoming more adventurous: one day she decided to climb to the top of the water tower, just to see if she could do it.
Sue had to punish her for that, and had to punish her again on the afternoon of June 27, 1993, when Jeanna came home from summer school. It was a bad moment to have to chastise her daughter: Jeanna, uncharacteristically, had been a little sad and sullen the last few days. But as she burst through the door, she announced, "I don't know nothin' about it" -- Sue had no idea what she was talking about but understood it to be a preemptive strike against the inevitable. Sue, of course, soon had the story out of her daughter: some silliness about someone taking someone's colored pencil had gotten a little out of hand, the way things can with hyperactive eleven-year-olds. She sternly told Jeanna exactly what she thought of her bad behavior.
Later that afternoon, a sad-faced Jeanna came up to her mom in the kitchen.
"Are you mad at me?" she asked her mom.
"Oh," she told her daughter, cuddling her in her arms, "I guess I'll keep you around for a while."
Sue was at work the next evening, around 10:30 p.m., when Jeanna and her friend Clarice were out Rollerblading around town. The town of Fargo, North Dakota, where Jeanna grew up, is still the kind of place where people watch out for one another, so when they stopped at a local Dairy Queen around 10:30 p.m. for a snack, then left, a police officer noticed. "A little late for those two to be out alone," he said to the clerk at the store. "I hope they're headed home."
They headed directly to Clarice's house, where Jeanna planned to spend the night. Although she was eleven, Jeanna had only just started having sleepovers -- she preferred the security of home. When she got to Clarice's, she chickened out, and decided to go back and sleep in her own bed instead.
Clarice watched Jeanna skate down the street, toward her home, a block away. Then Clarice turned and went inside.
But Jeanna was still being watched... by a predator.
A second set of eyes, charming and sinister, followed her as she skated up the street.
In the darkness, they moved toward her.
The man approached, and she stopped.
She knew this man; he lived right across the street. So she had, she believed, no reason to fear.
Had she known the secrets that lurked in Kyle Bell's dark past, she would have understood: this man was as fearsome and dangerous as the panther tattooed on his left arm, as deadly as the Grim Reaper tattooed on his right.
From the time Kyle Bell was three years old, there was something strange about him. Once, while his mother was neglecting him, he gnawed through the wooden bars of his crib. Soon after, Kyle and his father went to live with Kyle's grandparents, hardworking farmers outside Aberdeen, South Dakota. The Bells had lots of family around -- Kyle's Uncle Tom and Aunt Kim lived nearby with their children, and Grandma Bell ran an old-fashioned household ("three banquets a day, complete with homemade pies," remembered Kim Bell).
But into this big, loving extended family, Kyle Bell came like a virus, disrupting the peace and respect of the household with his bizarre behavior. Grandma and Grandpa Bell didn't know what to do with a three-year-old who put his cousin's Barbie dolls in sexual positions -- this was a household in which you didn't even joke about sex -- but the doctors they sought out said there was nothing wrong with Kyle, that he would grow out of the weird behavior.
Instead, he grew into it.
In the fifth grade, a puppy followed him home from school. For some reason, this enraged young Kyle.
So he killed the puppy by impaling it on a sharp stick.
A few years later, Grandma saw something strange on the side of the house. When she investigated, she could hardly believe what it was.
Kyle had been masturbating out a second-story window.
Again and again, the famly tried to get help for Kyle -- through the schools, through counseling, through the church. But in the 1950s, in Washburn, North Dakota, no one really knew how to deal with these sorts of things.
So it just got worse.
Uncle Tom and Aunt Kim had moved away, but every summer Kim Bell's young children came to stay with Grandma. This started when the daughter was about five years old and continued until she was about ten.
And in ways too unspeakable to describe, again and again, day in and day out, year after year, relatives later told us Kyle Bell forced one of his little cousins to have sex with him.
Again and again, this poor child was subjected to the most horrible, disgusting, vile whims of Kyle Bell -- who told her, again and again, that if she ever breathed a word of this, he would kill Grandma. And so this poor terrified child kept her silence.
It was the first time he preyed on a family member.
It would not be the last.
As he grew to adulthood, his tastes ran to boyish-looking young women. After moving to Fargo, he moved in with his then-girlfriend, a young woman named Kim Engelstad, whom he soon married. Kyle was older than she -- he was 25, she was only 18 -- and her family didn't like the situation one bit. "He liked young girls, that was his thing," Tom DeVries, one of our producers on the case, explained to me later. "His wife told me that when he met her she was in high school. She was a slender, boyish girl. That's what he liked. He married someone who was as close to his sexual ideal as he legally could.
"She told me that when she got pregnant he lost interest in her. Why? Because she developed breasts."
And so his eyes began to wander, looking around the neighborhood.
And they settled on a little girl who lived across the street.
Little eleven-year-old Jeanna North.
I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I've spoken to groups of kids and asked them what child molesters look like. And the kids, no matter what age, always tell me the same things: they're dirty. They're smelly. They have big foreheads, and dark eyebrows, and weird eyes, and raincoats. Or, as in the case of little Nancy, they are strangers who pull up in strange cars. And it is so hard, so hard to reach out to these kids and tell them: it's not like that. Molesters don't look like the boogeyman. They look like that nice guy next door, that man with the easy smile and the soft brown hair and the nice truck that he gives you a ride in and lets you sit in his lap and pretend you're driving. But somehow, kids can't make that connection. We can teach them the lesson "don't talk to strangers" -- we were about to air the Nancy story as just such a reminder -- but they can't keep their guard up when the stranger is no stranger, when it's that nice friendly man from across the street.
And Bell was so charming, so friendly, that none of the kids in the neighborhood worried about him.
So on the night of June 28 little Jeanna had no reason to fear when the nice man from across the street stepped out of the shadows as she Rollerbladed home from her friend's house, Rollerblading home because at heart she was still a little girl who felt safer sleeping under the same roof as her mommy, and she was just a stone's throw from her home, where she could sleep safe and warm. But now the man from across the street approached her. Children are by nature innocent and trusting, and, without a moment's hesitation or fear, she stopped.
And she could not know it, but in that moment, a chasm was opening between her and the safety of her home, a chasm she would never cross.
The next morning, Sue North walked over to Jeanna's friend's house, the house where she assumed her daughter had spent the night. She was feeling lousy about yelling at Jeanna over the trouble at school and was looking forward to making everything okay.
When she heard Jeanna's friend say that no, Jeanna hadn't stayed there, that she had decided to go home, her heart sank into her stomach.
The thought ran through her like an electric shock: a whole night has gone by. I don't know where my child has been for a whole night.
Slowly at first, then faster, she went to one house in the neighborhood, then another, and another, knocking on doors and saying the words no parent ever wants to utter: my daughter is missing. Have you seen her?
And at each door, the answer was no.
John North got in his car and drove around the neighborhood, asking everyone he saw if they had seen Jeanna. He even ran into Kyle Bell and asked him if he knew anything about where Jeanna might be.
Cool and calm, Kyle Bell stared him straight in the eye. "No, John, I don't," he said.
A frantic Sue North called the police and was told to give it some time, that they were sure Jeanna would show up. Maybe she just ran away, they said. Maybe she's just letting off some steam.
"The hell she ran away," Sue North told us. "A mother knows her child. I knew she didn't run away. She was always right where I could find her."
But as darkness fell that night in Fargo, the panic was replaced by that deep, aching fear that any parent of a missing child knows all too well, the engulfing fear, your mind trying to imagine what could have possibly happened to your child, and then snapping shut immediately, because you do not want to imagine what has possibly happened to your child.
For me, that fear has crystallized and hardened over the last twenty years into pure, white-hot rage -- rage that surfaces whenever I hear that a parent has called a police department and said their child is missing, and is told to wait.
Because the only thing we do not have in a missing-child case is time.
There are just too many police departments in this country that still do not know how to react when a child goes missing. The first thing they want to do is assume that the child is a runaway, and to question the parents, to see if there is something hidden in the family dynamic that will lead to the answers about where the child might be. I will grant you that many, many times the family is responsible -- but in the same breath I will say that I don't give a damn if it's one in a hundred or one in a thousand times that a child's disappearance turns out to be a stranger abduction. When that call comes in, it's essential that the police launch a dual investigation. Question the parents until you are blue in the face, hope that the child is just a runaway, and keep your fingers crossed -- but at that same time, alert the FBI, America's Most Wanted, the local media, the radio stations. Call 1-800-THE-LOST, the twenty-four-hour hotline at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Call the sheriff, and the state police, and everyone else you can find who will listen. Get the word out within twenty-four hours, because if you don't, and that child has been abducted, that's about all the time you've got. There is a myth in this country that you have to wait twenty-four hours before you start a full-scale missing persons investigation, and quite frankly it is a myth that too many police departments help perpetuate, because it means that they don't have to spend too much of their strained resources chasing after children who turn out to have just gone to the mall without permission. And it is also a myth that is fatal: because of it, children wind up dead, and how in God's name can you ever, ever forgive yourself for not launching the one investigation that could have saved a child's life?
But nothing happened that day. No missing child alerts went out. No state police were notified. No posters of Jeanna Dale North, with her auburn hair and beautiful blue eyes and devilish smile, graced the lampposts and 7-Eleven windows of Fargo that night.
And through that night, a mother lay collapsed on a couch, tears streaming down her face, rocking slowly, trying, as every parent of a missing child has done, to communicate psychically with her darling baby -- to send her the words, don't be afraid, Daddy and I will find you. To call out to her through the universe, to will her back into her arms, thinking to herself, I love you, Cobbie, I love you, Cobbie, as though that love that a mother has for her child is enough to will her back into Momma's arms, as though the love that is stronger than the force that holds atoms together is somehow strong enough to bring her home.
But as the night began to ease away under the light of a false dawn, Sue North was still on that couch. Her daughters and her husband were with her, were trying to comfort her, but in that moment, without her Cobbie, Sue North felt cold, and frightened, and terribly alone.
By the next day, word had spread through town about the
little girl who didn't make it home; the news somehow made it
to the mayor's office, and a call went from there to the police department -- and I will say this: once they got involved, they put their heart and soul into the case.
I first met Detective Dennis Peterson that Friday afternoon, when we were finishing the taping of that week's show. We had already put out a satellite alert to all the TV stations within a few hundred miles of Fargo, and now we were breaking open the show to include Jeanna's story.
Peterson may have been handicapped by being given a late start on the case, but he made up for it fast. By the time he had boarded a plane for Washington, to hook up with our team at America's Most Wanted, Fargo was a beehive of activity. The local printing press was churning out posters, and hundreds of volunteers were pasting them up all over town. A team of police and search dogs were combing the woods and fields, and a second team was scouring the neighborhood, trying to find anyone who had seen something that night. Three hundred volunteers showed up to help stuff envelopes with Jeanna's picture.
That Saturday we aired the story of Nancy, the little girl who was brought home safely because of all the media attention to her case, and all we could do was pray that we could make lightning strike twice.
Normally, on a Saturday night, the Crime Center is a very busy place; from the moment we go on the air, the phones are ringing nonstop. Our twenty-four trained operators, handling forty-eight incoming lines, have their hands full. While they're answering the phones, that night's episode runs on a big screen on the set. But most of the operators have already studied the case files and are so engrossed in the incoming calls, they rarely watch the broadcast, their attention taken by the hundreds of tipsters trying to help out on that night's cases.
That's how it usually is.
But when Jeanna's case came on, you could hear a pin drop.
The juxtaposition of happy, giggling Nancy, safe in her parents, arms, and the photos of Jeanna, who at this moment might be suffering terrible pain or torment or torture, was hard enough. But we had asked Sue to send us a video, so that people could get a better sense of Jeanna, and when the video came on, it was heart-stopping. The enormous energy and happy-go-lucky gait of this beautiful child, bounding across the screen, froze everyone in the Crime Center. For a moment, there was not a sound in that room, as everyone stared into the face of this delightful imp with the tousled hair, arms akimbo, moving in every direction at once, this little darling so full of life, and they all had but one thought:
Please, let the next call be the one to bring her home.
* * *
But the tip we needed did not come through that night.
On Monday morning, disappointed but determined, Lance Heflin, our executive producer, sent a team to Fargo to produce a longer story. Sometimes we are able to bring a child home just by showing a picture or some video; when that doesn't work, we know we need to find another way to break through.
Often it is the passion and pain of the victim's family that breaks through the screen, that opens a viewer's heart, that gets someone to pick up a phone and make that call. In this second story we aired, we began with Jeanna's father as he spoke on the radio, his tone measured and determined, almost stoic -- but the catch in his throat, the tremble in his voice, told of the searing torment that he was barely holding in check.
"Jeanna," he said into the microphone in the radio studio, "I love you. Your mother and I miss you very much. Please, call home, or 911, or somebody, please, try to get word back to us, if you can."
Our camera crew was invited into the North home, to chronicle the desperate search. But when they returned, we were faced with a dilemma.
Because Sue North could not speak without crying.
This is the fine line we walk at America's Most Wanted. I have seen too many reporters shove a microphone in a mother's face, asking that terrible question: "Your daughter is missing. How do you feel?" What stupidity! How do they think a mother is going to feel?
Reporters and producers for America's Most Wanted are trained to be respectful of victims, which is why the victims trust us, why they let us into their homes and their hearts. Now here we were, with the kind of videotape that most news organizations lust after -- only, I wasn't sure we should run it.
I saw the first cut of the segment that we had put together, and I thought it was just too much. As the father of a murdered child, I felt that putting Sue North's agony on public display would be a step over the line. We are not a tabloid show and we never have been, and we take the time to make sure that we are not taking advantage of people in horrible situations.
The argument raged around the room among our missing-child producers, our executives, and me: what is the point of showing this mother crying her eyes out? Are we helping to find a child, or are we exploiting her pain?
There is no easy answer here. I wanted to spare Sue North the humiliation of baring her terrible pain to the world. But the producers argued that this was the element of the story that brought the reality of the moment through the screen -- that made the disappearance of Jeanna North real, tangible, and painful to every viewer who saw it.
In the end, we compromised, cutting the scene down, leaving just a little of the tape in the piece, but removing the most painful moments, trying to allow Sue whatever privacy and dignity the mother of a missing child is allowed. I know, I have been there: the media wants to see you cry, every day. They come out with their cameras and they roll until you cry and they go home and put the tape on the news, and God bless them for keeping your child's face before the public, but you have no more privacy, no more dignity. You have traded those away for the desperate chance of bringing your child home, and you would suffer a million more indignities, a million times worse, to see that child one more time.
So if there is ever a way to give a family a shred of control, a shred of dignity, a shred of privacy, then that is what we will try to do. We will turn away and give them a moment to compose themselves, and then begin again, begin the real work: not the work of making television, but the work of bringing an adorable eleven-year-old home safely.
But the weeks turned into months, and there was no sign of Jeanna.
Now the investigation went into phase two: the frantic search, the race against time, is over. There is no chance of finding the kidnapper red-handed before he has a chance to cover his tracks. The second phase of a missing-child investigation is a slower, more plodding one, as the police follow the hundreds of leads that have been generated by America's Most Wanted, and by their own interviews, and, one by one, focus on or eliminate suspects.
And the suspect that they were focusing on was Kyle Bell.
He hadn't told us at the time, but Detective Peterson had been suspicious of Bell from the start. A good detective works from the gut, and there was something just not right about the guy.
"I interviewed him right away," Peterson later told us, "and there were some inconsistencies in his story."
Peterson was keeping his suspicions of Bell close to the vest for two reasons: one, if you've got the right guy, you want to keep the media off of Bell's door, so that he is less likely to behave in a careful manner, more likely to make a mistake that will give him away. Two, if you've got the wrong guy, then you haven't tarnished an innocent man -- although, in this case, Peterson wasn't too worried about that possibility.
But the news did leak out -- and oddly, it was Bell himself who leaked the news to the press that the police were looking at him in the North disappearance.
He told a local reporter that he knew he was a suspect -- and when asked why, he dropped this bombshell: "I was one of the last ones to see her, I lived on the corner of her block, I refused to take a lie detector test, and basically, she was in my truck, I suppose." Bell admitted seeing Jeanna the night she disappeared, before she went to the Dairy Queen; samples of Jeanna's hair had been found in his truck, and he said they had gotten there innocently, from a ride on another day.
With the cat out of the bag, there was less reason for discretion, so Peterson decided to take a trip down to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where Bell had grown up, to do some sniffing around. The case was beginning to obsess him: he worked on it constantly, his beeper was always going off. Peterson's daughter wrote a school essay about the case -- and how much it took her daddy away from the family -- and he felt awful about it. But he could not give up. He had to solve this case.
What he learned about Bell down in Aberdeen made him all the more suspicious: the strange tales of Bell's aberrant behavior came out, as did stories of him getting in trouble in junior high school for molesting a classmate on a bus, as did the startling information that when he was eighteen, he was convicted of statutory rape for getting a fifteen-year-old girl pregnant.
My dad always said, if you want to know a guy, look at his track record. And this guy was already compiling a hell of a track record.
But all that was nothing compared to what we all learned about Kyle Bell that October, after a freak accident.
Kyle had asked his seven-months-pregnant girlfriend, Kim, to marry him -- even though, as we now know, he was already losing interest in her, and as we learned later, he was already turning his attention to the little girls in the neighborhood. Kyle's father and grandmother were headed to the wedding, making the drive up from Aberdeen to Fargo in their van. But on the way, a truck driver coming in the opposite direction fell asleep at the wheel -- and in the fiery crash that followed, both of Kyle's relatives were killed.
In a disgusting show of self-absorption, Kyle had the funeral held up so that the wedding would not have to be postponed -- and when he did show up at the funeral home, his first question was whether his presents had been burned up in the van as well.
His Aunt Kim, of course, was at the funeral, with her children. After the funeral, the words Kim heard shocked her to her very soul. It was a conversation between her son and daughter.
"Why," her son asked, "does my blood run cold whenever I see Kyle?"
"Because," his sister said, matter-of-factly, "he molested you as a child."
Their mom broke in: "How do you know this?"
"Because, Mom," her daughter said, bravely shattering the silence of a dozen years, "he molested me, too."
This opened the floodgates of emotion for Kim's daughter, and she fell to pieces, all the pain of all those years finally washing through her, a torrent of pain and tears.
What caused her to open up in this moment? Perhaps it was all those threats from Kyle, all those years ago, that if she ever told what happened he would kill Grandma; perhaps the shock of Grandma's death brought back that terror, reopened those wounds.
But for whatever reason, Kim's daughter had finally broken her silence. She had a terrible ordeal ahead: "My daughter was on Social Security disability for post-traumatic stress disorder," Kim said later, "and she never served in a war."
After her daughter's confession, Kim had summoned the FBI to interview the children about Kyle Bell. "After they talked to the children," Kim said, "they said to me, 'because of the situation I can't tell you the details, but in twenty-five years of service it's the worst I have ever seen.'
"The hardest thing was, I counseled how to recognize it, but I never saw it," Kim Bell told us just recently, saying she and her husband, Tom, still haven't come to terms with what that bastard Kyle Bell did to their family. "Tom and I just Friday night sat down across from one another. I said, I need to tell you something. I carry so much guilt for allowing this to happen to our children. And Tom said, 'So do I.' Where do we go with that? We have no place to go. Our kids come over every Saturday -- our kids don't blame us, we do. The pain is still there: where was I when that was happening to our kids?"
Well, I want to say this to you right now, Kim Bell -- to you and to all the parents out there whose children have been preyed upon by monsters like your nephew Kyle. You need to know, and understand in your heart, that this is not your fault. The vile, deranged psychotics like Kyle Bell do not just harm the children that they prey upon; their evil spreads throughout the families of their victims. It can tear them apart, destroy them, leave them shattered and empty. But you have been strong, and God bless you for your courage: you have counseled and helped your daughter back to health, you have held your family together. And most of all, when you learned what had happened, you did everything in your power to make sure that Kyle Bell did not get away with it. The actions you took speak volumes about the strength of your character and the depth of your heart. "We hate Kyle," you once told us, "for what he's done and the hell he's brought on our family. But above all, we never want molestation swept under the rug -- there are animals out there and they have to be stopped."
Kim, you have nothing to feel guilty about. There is only one guilty person here, and that's Kyle Bell.
When you learned what happened, you spoke out. And for that, you are my hero.
Kyle Bell's world was growing progressively smaller. In addition to the ugly stories of his past and the horrible tales that were told by his cousins, more stories of molestations started to surface -- most importantly from his new wife's family.
It had all started a few months before the wedding, just after Jeanna North disappeared. That summer Kyle was searching for more little girls -- and among his victims were two young relatives of his wife.
He touched them, he fondled them, he violated them, he stripped off their clothes and masturbated on them. He got a Polaroid camera for Christmas and took lewd photographs of them, starting that very day.
One of these innocent little girls was just seven years old.
The other was only three.
When I think about that, all I can say is: hell would be too easy for this guy.
Those stories came out in the spring of 1994, a few months after Bell's child was born, when a packet of Polaroid pictures was found in Kyle Bell's home. The first was taken on Christmas Day, the day he got the camera, showing him holding the box the camera came in.
The rest ranged from disgusting to horrifying.
The film made its way to the police, and by the time they had gotten to the end of the roll, Bell's fate was sealed. Things moved quickly -- and on Wednesday, April 20, 1994, the bastard was thrown in jail.
It seemed like justice was finally catching up with Kyle Bell.
Now, you have to understand how desperately conniving, self-centered, and devious these child predators are. They maintain two lives -- their public, charming selves masking their private, deranged selves. As a result, they become masters of manipulation -- even getting themselves to believe their own lies in order to better lie to the people around them. Ever wonder why these guys sometimes are able to pass lie detector tests when the rest of the general public can't? It's because they actually convince themselves of their own innocence long enough to tell whatever story they must to get out of whatever scrape they're in.
That's why Kyle Bell -- who up until this point had basically abandoned his wife and baby -- was able to muster up tears when his wife came to visit him in jail.
"When I got there, he was sitting in a chair," she told us. "He had a paper in front of him, and it was upside down. He pushed it over to me. I looked at it, and read it, and it said what he was charged with, and I just sat there.
"He looked right at me. He grabbed my hand, held my hand, and he cried, and we just sat there, not even saying a word. He wanted me to be there for him, you know, to be on his side. He wanted me to help him because he admitted he was sick, and he needed help.
"I just pulled my hand away. I had to get out of there. I didn't want to be in the same room with him."
And so, for a moment in time, Kyle Bell was all alone, trapped, his dark secrets exposed.
How honest was his cry for help?
About as honest as it usually is with these guys.
It took the police only one day to find that out.
Remember the car crash that took the life of Bell's father and grandmother? Well, as a result of that crash, Kyle got an insurance check -- about $80,000 -- and it was his ticket to freedom.
And the poor, penitent man asking for help because he was sick decided he didn't need help after all -- except for help in escaping.
At 2:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Bell paid his $20,000 bail and checked into a motel. He started calling around to motorcycle shops, seeing if he could buy a motorcycle by phone -- and if they could bring it to him at the motel.
Clearly, he didn't want anyone to know he was trying to buy a vehicle.
He went to a local beauty salon to try to get his hair permed and dyed, but the shop was closing, and they didn't have time to dye his hair.
His wife had moved back in with her father, and at 4 a.m. the next morning, she woke up her dad in a panic: someone, she said, was trying to break into the house.
Her dad grabbed a loaded pistol and went to the back door.
He saw a ladder propped up against the house and heard noises on the roof.
He went inside, turned on the outside lights, and stepped back outside the house.
And he saw Kyle Bell, ladder in hand, running toward the river. After a few moments, Bell dropped the ladder and kept on running.
And that was the last they saw of him.
Bell decided to hang around town for a few days. In his arrogant, cold, and calculating way, I'm sure he was trying to give the impression that he had no intention of fleeing. He did cut and dye his hair and bought a car from a local dealership, which he paid for in cash. That Friday night, he went to a local bar, had a couple of drinks, danced with a woman he met, and went out with her the next night. The last photo we have of him is when he was sitting in that bar, hanging out, apparently having the time of his life.
"On Monday," one of the cops on the case told us, "he withdraws the rest of his money, and we haven't seen or heard from him since."
At first, the sheriff's department was optimistic that they'd be able to track down Kyle Bell, but as the weeks went by with no sign of him, they realized they needed help.
So they came to us.
And we jumped at the chance to go after the slime bucket.
Remember, Bell was not charged in the Jenna North case, but I had been champing at the bit to go after this guy. The more I heard, the more I was certain that he was at the bottom of her disappearance.
And now, in my mind it was time to act. His own family is saying he's a slimeball. More disgusting details keep emerging. Now we know his past, and in the present he's a bail-jumping pedophile, and I know we gotta take him off the streets, because the next thing he's gonna do is find some other little girl to molest.
And we're not gonna let that happen.
I do not rush to judgment. But I believed he was as guilty as sin in the North case. Obviously we couldn't say that on the air, although we did start to report that he was a suspect. But I knew that at least we had him on the molestation charges involving his family members, and hopefully the cops could use that as leverage to squeeze some information out of him on Jeanna North.
So we went to work on both ends of the story -- the update on Jeanna North, naming Bell as the prime suspect, and the hunt for Bell on the separate molestation charges.
But a strange thing started happening.
As the news began to surface about Bell molesting his nieces, a lot of people had the same reaction.
They didn't want to believe it.
Why, they asked, would he be a child molester when he's such a good-looking, charming, nice young man who could probably attract a lot of nice women?
Well, let me tell you. I gave up asking those kinds of questions nineteen years ago. As I said earlier, I've learned one thing: the average child molester doesn't have a hump on his back, isn't the troll under the bridge with a trench coat and no pants on. There is only one difference between child molesters and normal, decent human beings: they do not think like we do. And I don't care whether it's genetic or whether it's upbringing. Whatever it is, he has a preference for children, and he uses his good looks to lure them, to ingratiate himself to them, and then to take terrible advantage of them. Kyle Bell is nothing but a selfish, spoiled, rotten, self-absorbed lowlife who can only satisfy his deepest, darkest desires by having sex with children and then hurting them. When people ask me why, I will tell you that after twenty years of chasing these pedophiles, I don't really give a damn what makes them do it. I am of the school that says, catch his butt, throw him in jail, make him pay, and then study him all you want. Dissect him, take a piece of his brain, put his blood under a microscope.
At this moment, I don't have any patience with the theories and questions about Bell's past, and I wouldn't give two cents for his future.
At this moment, all I know is, we gotta take him off the streets.
We sent Tom DeVries, a freelance producer from the West Coast, to handle the story in Fargo. Tom works for a lot of shows, but he understands that America's Most Wanted is different: while working at other shows you're expected to remain objective, but at America's Most Wanted it's not only allowed but expected that you will let your emotions show. And so Tom's heart immediately went out to Sue North, a simple woman with a simple desire to see her daughter again.
Television production is often more a matter of logistics than journalism: where can I get a camera person, a sound person, where can I get a place to stay, does the camera guy have lights, who has a van, where are we gonna hook up, how long is it gonna take to haul all this equipment into this little house, and by the time we haul it in will that sunlight still be coming through that window, and would this shot look better if the subject is sitting against that other wall, and excuse me but would you mind if we moved that dining room table into the kitchen so we can switch the sofa to the other wall, and what is that buzz that the cameraman is picking up -- oh, it's the refrigerator motor, it's too loud, do you mind if we turn off your fridge for a little while -- now can I get a sound check, Sue, would you please say and spell your first and last name, so we have that on the top of the tape?
These are the little details that let other journalists remain objective, the thousand logistical decisions that put an emotional barrier between you and the person you are here to interview. But Sue North waited, patiently, as these three big men hauled all this equipment around her small home, rearranging the furniture and tweaking the lighting -- and then, finally, Tom sat down in front of her and asked her a few simple questions, and she gave him a few simple answers -- telling, for the one thousandth time, the story of the night Jeanna disappeared.
"At first," she said, echoing the words I'd heard from so many parents of missing children, "I was hopefully thinking that some nice lady just picked her up that wanted a little girl.
"But after that, well, I've been almost insane thinking of all the things that could be happening to her now. I want to think it's Kyle, and I don't want to think it's Kyle, you know, because it was right there at the corner where he lived."
And then Tom asked her about Kyle Bell, and she said, "I remember the kids used to watch him work on his cars..." And she stopped, and felt the enormity of it, of talking about this monster whom she believed had taken her darling daughter; and in that silent moment, Sue North and Tom DeVries looked into each other's eyes, and both of them started to cry.
"It's been a year," Tom said, finally. "What has this done to you?"
"There's no way to describe it, Tom," Sue said. "It rips your soul out every morning when you have to get up and she's not there.
"And the longer she's gone, the scareder you get."
Toward the end of the interview, Tom handed her his handkerchief.
The cameraman handed Tom a tissue.
The soundman handed the cameraman a tissue.
And these grown men, who have probably done a thousand stories among them, sat in a small room with a small, frightened woman, and for just a tiny moment, they understood what it feels like, every hour, every day, to live the life of a parent of a missing child.
"How," said Tom, "do you get through it?"
"One minute at a time, bud," Sue said, trying to smile through her tears. "One minute at a time."
It hurt to watch the footage that Tom brought back: Sue North, appearing so much older than she had a year ago, seeming so tired and lost. Kyle Bell's wife, still looking like a teenager, terrified by the maelstrom she had found herself inside. Detective Peterson, standing in Jeanna's room -- a room that looked exactly like it did the night she disappeared, filled with all the happy and frilly accoutrements of the world of an eleven-year-old, from the poster of teen-idol wrestler Bret Hart on the wall to the little plastic rose in a vase next to a big stuffed panda bear -- Peterson, standing in that room, admitting that he felt helpless in this case, looking for all the world like he was about to break down and cry himself.
That Friday as we were getting ready to tape the show, I watched our update on the North case, and then talked with Peterson's teammate, detective Steve Gabrielson, to get caught up on the latest on the case.
I realized something was missing.
I told Lance, the executive producer, that I didn't feel the ending was strong enough. I wanted to make a personal plea to the audience, to let them know how much this case had affected me, to beg with them, to plead for one clue that could bring Jeanna home. I also wanted to make a personal plea for them to be on the lookout for Kyle Bell, because for me this had become very personal, and I knew he was a dangerous monster. And even though I knew I couldn't say this part on the air, we were certain he was the key to solving the disappearance of Jeanna North.
That was the ending of the story that I wanted to air anyway.
By late that morning, though, a smart rookie cop in Englewood, Colorado, would give us a better ending.
Officer Steve Kunst was riding with his mentor, officer Mark McCann, when they pulled into an alley and spotted a red Buick with North Dakota license plates.
"There had never been any cars there before," McCann told reporters later. "In my mind, it didn't belong there. Then I saw the out-of-state plate. I thought it might be a burglary. There's a Jim Paris tire store across the alley, and it had been burglarized before."
The rookie cop decided to run a routine check on the vehicle -- and it came back with the information that the car was registered to a fugitive on the run from child molestation charges in Fargo.
Kunst called the hit in to the office, and soon police and FBI agents were staking out the alley. A few hours later, a man approached the car, along with a woman and two small children. The computer readout said he had long brown hair, not short blond hair, and he was traveling under an alias -- but there was no mistaking the tattoos, the panther on his left arm, the Grim Reaper on his right, along with a rose and an angel on his chest.
It was, indeed, Kyle Bell.
The manhunt was finally, finally over.
Back in Fargo, the trial of Kyle Bell was painful, but brief. The jury convicted him of molesting his nieces. I was so thankful that this scumbag didn't manage to wriggle out of the charges, as so many others have.
But now came the question of sentencing -- and you never know what a judge is going to do in these cases -- so we all waited nervously as January 25 approached, and the sentencing hearing began.
But no one was as nervous as Sue North.
We didn't know it at the time, but the pain, and the anger, and the hurt, and the frustration were building inside Sue North.
And as she sat, listening to prosecutors remind the judge of how horrible were the acts Kyle Bell had been convicted of, she started to shake.
The prosecutors were telling about how Bell would take his little victims into the bedroom of his mobile home, and what happened to them there, and suddenly, the year and a half of torment erupted from deep within Sue North's soul. She rose to her feet, shaking violently.
"You bastard!" she screamed, and from behind a three-foot-high railing, she lunged at Kyle Bell. "Bastard!"
Bell turned to look at her, and then looked down.
Sue tried to leap the railing but was restrained by her family members. She seemed to calm down for a moment but then erupted again, words failing her now, tears streaming from her eyes, her mouth twisted into a furious grimace, her hands grasping for the low wooden railing that was all that kept her from reaching the monster, from putting her hands around his throat and sending him to the hell he belonged in, but now hands came at her from everywhere, all her family members holding her back, at first, and then, as her feet slipped out from under her, holding her up. She strained with all her might against them and then relaxed into their arms, understanding that there was nothing she could do to release her pain, whispering, "Okay, okay," and letting them guide her from the courtroom.
I have thought about this moment many, many times. I know it's wrong, and I know that we are not vigilantes, and I know that it is only through the justice system that we can control these monsters.
But I also know something else, and I will admit it to you now.
In the hidden center of my soul, there is a part of me that wishes Sue North had made it over that railing and wrung Kyle Bell's worthless neck.
She didn't, of course, and the hearing went on.
The judge gave Kyle Bell forty years, the maximum sentence.
And that night, something unbelievable happened.
First verbally, and then in writing, he made a confession.
A confession about Jeanna North.
There are those who think he did it because his stone-cold heart was touched by the pain of Sue North. I'd like to believe that's true, but in honesty, I don't think he had a second's worth of remorse. I think he had something else in mind -- maybe he wanted to make a deal. Maybe, in his sick way, he wanted to get more attention, more publicity.
But for whatever reason, he finally let out the secret we had been trying to unravel since that evening nineteen months ago, when a little corncob of a girl was Rollerblading home, and a man appeared from the shadows.
This is what Kyle Bell said happened that night.
He said he managed to lure the little girl into his trailer.
He took her into the back room.
And molested her.
Later, he says, she threatened to tell her mother about the despicable acts he had forced upon her, and he slapped her, and she fell backward and hit her head.
He said it was an accident.
But if it were an accident, you might speculate that Bell might have tried to help her. He might have called 911, he might have called her mother, he might have done something -- at least deposited her out on the street and made an anonymous call to the cops.
But he did none of those things.
This is what he did:
He got a rope. He got a fifteen-pound concrete cinder block.
He took the rope, and the cinder block, and the young unconscious girl, and drove to a bridge over a river.
We do not know if Jeanna was alive at the time. We do not know if Kyle Bell knew.
But in the gloomy light of his prison cell, he calmly told detectives that on the night she disappeared, he tied Jeanna North's tiny body to the cinder block.
And threw it into the river.
Sue and John North were inconsolable when they heard of the confession -- inconsolable and yet, in some way, at peace. I have always said that the not-knowing is the worst. But after the pain and shock and horror of learning what happened to their little girl there was the understanding that they would now, at least, be able to say their good-byes to Jeanna, to send her to heaven with their love, to let her rest in peace.
"The one thing that hurt us the most was that we never knew," John North told reporters then. "We don't accept the fact that she is dead, but at least we've got a good idea what happened to her. Hopefully, we'll be able to find her body."
I understand this as well. Although it is the most difficult and painful moment in the entire, miserable, never-ending experience of being the parent of a murdered child, all of the parents I have worked with and counseled have the need to put a true end to their search, to finally put that young person to rest.
The desire to disbelieve, the need to keep hope alive, is so powerful when you are talking about the loss of a child, that only the reality of burying your child's body, or in some way being given the actual knowledge of her final resting place, can get you past the self-denial, can let the grieving and healing process begin.r
So I understood that until the body was found, John and Sue would still wonder if, for some incomprehensible sick reason, Kyle Bell had made the whole story up. We had a good idea, of course, that Bell was telling the truth. In addition to what we knew about Bell, and what we had reported, there was another piece of information that the police had asked us not to air. On the night we first broadcast the interview with a local reporter, in which Bell admitted being a suspect, we got a call from an anonymous tipster.
She said that she had seen Bell on the night of the disappearance of Jeanna North.
She had run into him, by chance, and talked to him.
The place where she had run into him, she said, was on the bridge over the river in Cass County, the river which now, most likely, served as the final resting place of Jeanna Dale North.
Fargo was covered with a thick blanket of snow, and on the morning after Kyle Bell's confession, the river was frozen over, as it had been for some time. At first authorities decided that the weather conditions made it impossible to begin the search for Jeanna's body.
But there was not a soul in Fargo who did not grieve for that child, and not a single person could walk by that river and not pause, and think of Jeanna, and feel in their heart that the child deserved a proper burial. The question -- is there a child tied to a cinder block at the bottom of this river? -- was too much for this caring, loving populace to bear.
And so, a few days later, as a brilliant sun rose over the frigid river, Sue North stood by the banks of that river, chain-smoking cigarettes and witnessing a truly remarkable sight.
A hundred volunteers, their breaths curling in white clouds above them, were beginning the doleful but angelic task of searching the river.
First, huge corkscrew drills were brought out to break through the ice on the river, which was more than a foot thick. Then backhoes and bulldozers were driven out onto the ice, to widen the openings. Finally, divers in blue-and-orange wet suits braved the frigid, murky waters. They could barely see their hands in front of their scuba masks once they submerged, and no wet suit can keep out the bone-chilling cold when you are diving in a frozen river; no diver wants to risk the dangerous plunge into a frozen lake, but again and again they went in as the crowd around grew bigger and bigger, volunteers passing out coffee, assisting the divers, and just waiting, waiting for an answer, waiting for a sign.
But the sun crossed the sky, and then sank below the trees, and now it was too dark and cold to continue.
And no sign ever came.
It was a scene that would be repeated more than a dozen times in the coming weeks. Again and again, these brave and dedicated divers searched the river. On one heartbreaking day, a diver came up with what appeared to be a rib bone. It turned out to be the bone of an animal. On another day, they retrieved a bit of cinder block, which may have matched a sample taken from Kyle Bell's home.
But to this day, the divers have never found that one piece of evidence that says, yes, Jeanna North died here, and now we can put her memory to rest.
And to make matters worse, the one thing we did have to hang on to -- Kyle Bell's confession -- soon disappeared as suddenly as Jeanna herself.
Because, without warning, Kyle Bell recanted.
It doesn't surprise me, really. The moment of compassion that Kyle Bell may have felt when he was confronted with Sue North's rage was out of keeping with his selfish, self-centered, self-preserving character. As soon as he got together with a lawyer, I'm sure he was convinced that compassion was not within his self-interest, and he reverted right to form.
The state charged Kyle Bell with the murder of Jeanna North, but a judge ruled that during the course of the confession Bell asked to speak with an attorney and that the request was ignored; as a result, the entire confession was thrown out.
That means the district attorney could not use it in court -- and with no confession, and no body, and no murder witness, there wasn't much of a case.
I know from experience that most D.A.'s would give up at this point. People don't realize that since the district attorney is an elected position, there's much more politics than crime-fighting going on in the average district attorney's office. They are out to get themselves reelected, like any politician, and like any politician, they will avoid anything that makes them look bad. A great won-lost record is good for the career of a major league pitcher, and good for the career of a major league district attorney, too. And so if there's a case with little chance of success -- even if the perp is a dangerous child molester like Kyle Bell, who if let out on the street is certain to attack other children; even if the mother in the case has become distraught and stretched to the breaking point, aching for justice and for answers -- it is likely that the district attorney will decide not to prosecute, making the excuse that the case is too flimsy, and never giving a jury a chance to hear all the facts and decide for themselves.
And that's exactly what I expected the district attorney to do in this case.
And I am pleased to report that I was dead wrong.
John Goff, the state's attorney for Cass County, North Dakota, made the decision to try the case. It was a gutsy call, one made from the heart, and I have to commend him for his courage. He put the safety of children and the desire for justice ahead of the concerns of his career, and that's what the system is supposed to be about. Try a murder case with this little to go on? Not one prosecutor in a hundred would take the chance.
But when a victim's family cries out for justice, it's the only right thing to do.
It took forever for the case to come to trial, but in August of 1999, it was finally on the docket, and right from the start, prosecutors caught a big break.
The day after Kyle Bell made his confession -- the one he recanted -- he made some comments to a detective named Jim LeDoux and a sergeant named Rollie Rust. The judge ruled that while the confession was off limits, LeDoux and Rust could testify about those comments.
It was still a long shot -- trying to prosecute a man for murder when the victim's body hadn't been found. I can't remember another case like it in the history of AMW. But the testimony of LeDoux and Rust would be huge.
The opening statements outlined the strange circumstances of this case -- the case against Bell that seemed so obvious and yet so unwinnable.
"We know straight from the horse's mouth. We know directly from Kyle Bell what happened," Assistant Cass County State's Attorney Mark Boening said in opening arguments.
"We are truly convinced the state... will not be able to meet the required burden of proof," Bell's attorney, Steve Mottinger, said and added, regarding Jeanna North: "They will not even be able to prove she is dead."
But when the two detectives took the stand to talk about their conversation with Bell, you could tell the jury was being swayed.
LeDoux testified: "Mr. Bell said to me, 'Jim, she was gonna tell what happened in the garage, so I just backhanded her, she fell and hit her head."
He and Rust said that in their conversation with Bell, he admitted tying her to a cinder block and throwing her in the river. They said he even admitted going back to make sure she hadn't resurfaced.
And our anonymous tipster decided to come forward. Mary Hoglund, who lives near a bridge on the river, testified that she saw Bell on the bridge on June 28. She's sure it was him, because later he came up to her farmhouse, saying he had run out of gas; she gave him a five-gallon can of gasoline -- and he gave her his name and phone number, saying he'd later return and pay for the gas.
The jury deliberated for four hours, and when they returned, Sue and John North sat in the last row in the courtroom, his arm around his wife's shoulder; tears welled up in her eyes as she waited for what seemed to be an interminably long time for the courtroom to come to order.
Finally, it was silent. And then she heard the word she had waited all these years to hear.
Kyle Bell was guilty.
Her fist went into the air, shaking, a fist of defiance: the bastard that killed her daughter would not get away with it. Soon he would be sentenced to life in prison.
After the trial, John and Sue, and Jeanna's sisters Jessica and Jennifer stood shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, united, in the hallway outside the courtroom. All were in tears, barely able to speak; but from John came a quiet, controlled baritone, speaking the words they all were feeling:
"Finally," he said, "this nightmare is over."
How could we know?
How could any of us know that the nightmare wasn't over?
That it was going to begin all over again?
* * *
As soon as Kyle Bell was sentenced, North Dakota decided to get rid of him. Kick him out of the state, send him to a Supermax prison, and forget the whole sordid mess. North Dakota averages only seven homicides a year, and five of those are usually domestics -- so the Bell case stirred up more publicity, more emotion, and more anxiety than any case had in recent memory. There was a certain catharsis that would come in sending him out of state -- almost as though his continued presence, even behind bars, was a continued threat to the populace.
Besides, there was the threat of a breakout.
Bell had tried to escape from jail once before -- in 1995, while awaiting trial -- and less than a week after his conviction, he made another attempt.
On August 26, 1999, guards found a makeshift knife in Bell's cell in the Cass County jail. That landed Bell in solitary. Then guards found out he'd written to a woman he knew, asking her to help him break out of jail.
So when it came time to move Bell from the county jail to a more secure prison, the authorities selected a Supermax prison in Oregon.
That's how it came to pass that on October 13, 1999, Bell was on a private prisoner transport bus -- having private companies handle prisoner transfers is more and more common; the feds and a lot of states figure it's cheaper to farm the job out rather than do it themselves -- and on this particular day, one of those buses was hauling a dozen inmates to a variety of locations, pinballing all around the country to drop off each of their charges.
At about 4 a.m. that Wednesday morning, although he was bound from North Dakota to Oregon, Kyle Bell found himself pulling into a rest stop in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. As the bus pulled into the stop, Bell looked around.
He sat quietly with eleven other inmates.
And four guards.
And a bent paper clip taped to the bottom of his shoe.
* * *
Two of the guards were asleep, and a third was buying gas. That left just one guard watching all twelve inmates.
And then this guard, in charge of one of the most dangerous fugitives to ever leave the state of North Dakota, made the excellent decision to get off the bus and get a cup of coffee.
Leaving Kyle Bell and the other inmates unguarded.
It was just for a few minutes.
But that was all Bell needed.
Quickly he pulled the bent paper clip off the bottom of his shoe. It's not a difficult magic trick: if you bend a paper clip just so, you can open the average pair of handcuffs. Bell was uncuffed in moments, and with the help of another inmate, boosted himself through a roof hatch on the bus.
But he did not make a break for it.
He lay on top of the bus, not making a sound.
And he waited.
Soon the guards returned, and -- not bothering to count the prisoners -- headed back out toward the highway.
And just before they turned and sped off, Bell slipped off the back.
And the slimy, slippery fugitive, the man we all thought we were done with, was back out on the street.
It's incredible to me that this even happened in the first place -- why such a dangerous fugitive would be entrusted to some private company, why the prisoners weren't searched thoroughly before they boarded the bus, why the hell they had to take him through New Mexico to get to Oregon, why on earth they didn't follow some sort of procedure to make sure at least one guard was watching the prisoners, and why they didn't follow the obvious and simple procedure of counting the convicts after each stop.
But here's the most unbelievable part of the story:
All morning, the guards drove on, not realizing Bell was gone.
They didn't notice, in fact, until 2 p.m. the next afternoon.
Ten hours after the escape.
Finally, these bright bulbs counted their prisoners and came up one short. Within hours, the news of this got all the way to the top. North Dakota Governor Ed Schaefer was walking down the hall in the capitol, leaving his office, when his chief of staff stuck his head out into the hallway and said, "We've got bad news."
Governor Schaefer was incredulous. "I thought, 'Oh, no, anybody but this guy,' " Shaefer told us later. "He's the worst of the worst. Then it was disbelief that the company took ten hours to notify us. Then that one guard was sleeping and the other getting coffee -- it was like a movie."
Governor Schaefer hooked up with the governor of New Mexico, and all through the night the top officials in both states manned the phones, put a battle plan in place, and hoped for the best. In a jailbreak situation, you need to seal off a perimeter as quickly as you can; then it's just a matter of doing a meticulous search within that perimeter. The size of the perimeter depends on how quickly you get your people in place after the escape. But police dogs had picked up Bell's scent, and it ended at a highway in Santa Rosa -- and from there, with a ten-hour lead, Bell could be anywhere, the governors realized.
There was no perimeter to set.
The manhunt would have to go national. Immediately.
And so we were back on the case.
Evan Marshall, the young associate producer who covered the Midwest, was, as usual, one of the first ones in the office the next morning. Evan is not a morning person. He likes to have his coffee and read the paper so he'll be somewhat civilized by the time the rest of the office rolls in.
He was through the front pages of USA Today, and was getting ready to check out his beat in the news-from-every-state page, when his phone rang. It was one of his sources in North Dakota, telling him that a guy named Kyle Bell had escaped, and he might want to check it out. Evan didn't recognize the name Kyle Bell, since the whole story had gone down before he joined our staff.
And he didn't get particularly excited about the call -- you get a call like that just about every day at America's Most Wanted. But the caller did mention that we had profiled the case before. So, still feeling a bit grumpy, Evan looked up the case and started watching the pieces we had aired.
When he realized it was a child-killer who had escaped, he snapped into full alert; and when he saw how much we had done on the story, he realized that this had been one of our top fugitives, and that this was going to be very, very big.
He ran quickly to the wire terminal and called up the early wire story on the escape. He then started calling around North Dakota -- and the moment the cops heard it was America's Most Wanted on the line, he got transferred to Drew Helms, the FBI agent in charge of a special task force that was already up and running.
Evan's next call was to the governor's office in North Dakota, where he expected to get the runaround: while law enforcement always welcomes AMW, politicians tend to be more publicity conscious, and there was no question this was going to be a publicity disaster for Governor Schaefer.
"Look," Evan started, ready to give them a good dose of reality, "we are going to need a lot of help if we're going to catch this guy, and you're going to have to give it to us."
"Come on down," the governor's aide told him. "You have an open door to the state."
I got the call later that morning, and I cannot remember being more furious about any story we'd done. My first thought was: this is going to wreak emotional and psychological havoc with the family. They've been through so much. I had heard that Sue and John had separated, and it didn't surprise me. So few families remain intact through the loss of a child. I have seen so many families torn apart by the pain, and the guilt, and the recriminations. John and Sue North were still good friends, still talked every week, still both actively participated in raising their other children, but the pain of having a child murdered was too much for them -- and I knew that the agony of this escape would be unbearable.
I can't even begin to tell you what I thought about the private transport company. In the old days, if you had to move a prisoner, two sheriffs would put him in leg shackles, buy three plane tickets -- two round-trips and a one-way -- and stick him in prison. Good riddance. Now, as a false economy, we've decided to privatize these jobs because it saves a few bucks, so a guy who in two days isn't going to be allowed to go to the bathroom without two guards watching him is suddenly sitting on a bus, being guarded by a couple of guys who are sleeping and another who decides he needs a cup of coffee and then forgets how to count.
That day, I come into the office loaded for bear. The producers have put together a short little piece, just to get Bell's picture on the air, and I'm thinking: this isn't enough.
We need to unleash all the power and the fury we can muster and go after this guy like we've never gone after anyone before.
I go into a sound booth and record the voice-overs for the minute-and-a-half piece.
And then I call a meeting.
I tell everyone that I really hope we get Kyle Bell this weekend. But if we don't, I want to make a personal request.
It's a request I'd never made before.
I want everyone in this room to make a commitment: we put Kyle Bell on the air every single week until we catch him. We make him our Public Enemy Number One, and we throw every resource we have at this case. If we don't catch him this week, he leads next week. And the week after that. And the week after that. This guy is the worst scumbag out there, and if America's Most Wanted has a mission, it's to catch Kyle Bell.
No one in the room disagreed -- in fact, no one in the room said a thing.
I realized I'd been yelling for about ten minutes.
Suddenly, things got very quiet, and I realized why I had been yelling.
I knew that in this moment, I had come to hate Kyle Bell.
I hated him for all that he stood for, for all that he had done, for the unspeakable acts I imagined he was committing right now, because pedophiles can't ever stop being pedophiles, and because this particular pedophile had absolutely nothing to lose; I hated him for what I've seen a hundred guys like him do to a thousand innocent little children.
I hated him for what he had done to Jeanna North's family.
I hated him for what he had done to Jeanna North.
But this one wasn't just for Sue North.
This one wasn't just for Jeanna.
This one was for Adam.
As I feared, the minute-and-a-half piece didn't catch him, so we went into Public Enemy mode like we'd never gone before.
It began with Evan and his team on the ground in North Dakota. The first stop was the governor's office, and I gotta hand it to Governor Schaefer: he didn't try to soft-pedal this, or cover his butt. He was honest and open and took responsibility: he admitted that the authorities in his state had screwed up big-time.
"If you know how to bend a paper clip, you can open a handcuff," Governor Schaefer said. "I did it myself, because I didn't believe it, so I had a meeting where they brought in a pre-bent paper clip to show me how to do it. The lesson learned there is, they put a little black box around the handcuffs, a second locking system -- and needless to say, our dangerous criminals are going to wear those lock boxes now."
The governor told Evan that he was putting up a $50,000 reward for Bell's capture, to send the signal to everyone that he was taking this case seriously.
He also told Evan about his first action -- and his hardest -- after hearing of the escape: telling Jeanna's parents.
Sue North was a puddle of tears when Evan arrived at her home; she tried her best but could barely speak without raging or sobbing. John North was his stoic self, serious and sad: "It was almost as bad as the night that we lost her and woke up that morning and found out she was gone," he said. "It was very heartbreaking, a complete shock, and just disbelief that something so simple to do could be botched so bad."
As he was wrapping up, Evan asked John for a recent family picture. John admitted that he didn't have one -- and hadn't taken one, in fact, since Jeanna went missing. "We just haven't gotten around to taking a family picture anymore, because there's one person missing."
The FBI is usually pretty hinky about letting anyone inside a task force center, but Evan was given the run of the place. FBI agent Drew Helms and Colonel Jim Hughes of the state police were running the task force. They were both candid and emotional. "We need closure on this case," Hughes told us, "and the closure's gonna come..." His voice trailed off for a moment, and then, his voice tight with emotion, his jaw set, he continued: "The closure's gonna come when we catch his ass and put him in jail, that's when the closure's gonna come."
Evan got help from one other source on this story, a rather surprising one. Again and again, in the case of child molesters, we run into families who say, I don't believe it, I won't believe it, it couldn't have happened. They don't cooperate with the police, they don't cooperate with America's Most Wanted, they spend all their time in denial. Even if the victims were members of their own family, they still try to protect the fugitive, concealing the family photos so the cops can't create good posters, lying about where the scumbags might be, doing everything they can to hinder the investigation and hide their shame.
But Kyle Bell's family was not hiding and not defensive. I am so proud of these people. They overcame their fear, and the stigma, and the ties that bind a family together no matter what, and they stood up and said: Kyle Bell is a menace to society. He is sick, and we must stop him before another child is hurt.
Among those who stepped forward was Kyle's aunt, Kim, and his uncle, Tom Bell.
"I feel it's time that we prove that the Bell family is not the same as our nephew," he said. "The crime that he did is so heinous to me that I -- I can't see protecting somebody that does that, no matter that he is family. He may be sick, and he may need help, but that's no excuse for what he's done.
"If I could talk to Kyle," he continued, "I would tell him, 'Kyle, be a man about the things you've done, things you shouldn't have. My advice is, turn yourself in and get it over with. There's nothing you can do to change what you've done. Pay for it. You've done the crime. You have to do the time."
Evan learned that Tom Bell's wife had gone so far as to contact the North family, to try to apologize for what Kyle had done.
"We've had sympathy for the North family for the last seven years," Tom told Evan, "but we didn't know how to contact them, or -- I mean, we didn't know how to approach them without being, you know, looking, I don't know how to say it..."
Evan offered, "That you'd feel like a guilty party as well?"
"Yeah, yeah," Tom replied. "We didn't want to be known as that, I guess. But after he escaped, the wife finally made contact with John North."
John, solid soul that he is, was kind to the Bell family, but the conversation was brief; Sue was not doing very well after the news of the escape hit, and he had to take her to the hospital.
Evan had an idea -- partly as a TV producer, and partly as a nice guy who saw two families in pain, and thought they both could help each other heal.
"I have to go back to the Norths tomorrow," he told Tom Bell. "Would you like to come with me?"
The next day, Evan and the Bells made the long drive from Bismark to Fargo.
A producer waited with Sue North for the arrival of the Bismark crowd -- but Sue's mind was elsewhere. She was nervous, holding back tears. "I'm trying hard not to fall apart," she admitted. "I'm doing this because I want to help keep Kyle Bell's picture out there. But whenever we do these things, I always get visuals of Jeanna. She's right there up front for me. So it's very hard."
John was more focused on the events of the day: "I hold no animosity toward the Bell family," he said. "This is the black sheep of their family. He's done his damage to their family, and sexually assaulted members of their family, so I'm sure they want to get him off the streets as much as we do."
A little while later, there was a knock at the door. Tom and Kim Bell walked in.
Tom, a good foot taller than Sue, carried a single white rose. He handed it to her. Instinctively, pulled together by the forces that bind all crime victims together, they put their arms around each other, and stood, without a word. Sue choked back tears; Tom caught a quiet sob in his throat, then let it go.
They relaxed and looked at each other, a mixture of sadness and relief in their faces brought by the deep feeling that crime victims desperately need to feel, that sense of: I know, I know.
You are not alone.
A few moments later, John North came into the room. He shook Tom's hand, and then Kim's.
She burst into tears.
"I'm so sorry," she said, releasing all the pain of knowing what her nephew had done. She put her arms around John, sobbing into his shoulder: "I'm so sorry."
He patted her back, softly.
"It's not your fault," he whispered. "It's not your fault."
They sat down for one of the most brutally honest conversations four people can have.
"I have to tell you," Sue said, "I believe in capital punishment in cases like this. Because these guys are not ever going to get better." Here was a mother of a murdered child, talking to the woman who helped raise her child's killer, telling her that her nephew should be put to death.
"I'll tell you something," Kim replied. "I asked Tom, on the drive up here, You know, they might come to a point, in apprehending Kyle, that they have to shoot him. How are you going to feel about that?
"And Tom said to me, 'I'll feel: Thank God.' "
At the same time as Evan was producing the North Dakota end of the story, we had another crew reenacting the crime. We were able to gear up quickly because, by chance, another fugitive we were profiling -- Claude Dean Hull -- was captured on the day we began filming. So the big Claude Dean Hull film team became the big Kyle Bell film team.
I spent hours on the phone with the director, going over every shot, how we would light it, everything. I wanted this to be perfect. I wanted to grip the audience like we never had before. I wanted to mesmerize them with this piece, hypnotize them into hating Kyle Bell as much as I did, so that they would walk the streets with their eyes wide open and a mission in their hearts.
When it was all over, Evan edited the piece and it was everything I was hoping for: it was powerful, and emotional, and it showed Kyle Bell for the dangerous, dangerous fugitive we knew he was.
When we got down to taping that week's show, I looked at the script, and there was nothing there. It just said "Kyle Bell Update III Intro" with a lot of blank space.
Lance told me he wanted the viewers to hear what he heard in that meeting we'd had, so he didn't want to give me a script. He said, wing it.
I looked back at the tape of that show a little while ago, and I didn't recognize myself. I was shaking, and I was not exactly thinking like a network news anchor: the first words out of my mouth were, "I hate Kyle Bell and I hate him with a passion."
Frankly, I thought we'd catch him the first week. Why? Because this is not a mobster with an underground organization to hide him out. Nobody's going to provide him with a passport. Nobody is going to provide him with running money. He wasn't
a white-collar criminal who had money stashed. He didn't belong to the Crips or Bloods or some gang that had secret hideouts. He didn't belong to some white supremacist group that's going to take him to Montana and hide him in the woods, or some anti-abortion group with a ton of dough, or some militia group that's expert at creating new identities. The only chance he has is finding some vulnerable woman to prey on, and the best chance we have is to catch him before he can set up house.
The problem was, Kyle Bell was a little too much of an everyman -- a little too average-looking -- so we were overwhelmed with sightings of look-alikes. And sometimes, with a segment like this, the power of the producing works against us: people shared our hatred of Kyle Bell so much that they wanted to believe they had spotted him, so some very well-meaning calls sent us on a few wild-goose chases.
In all there were more than six hundred tips, both to us and the cops, but by the end of the week, nothing had panned out. I couldn't believe it. He had eluded the manhunt again.
We were preempted over the holidays, and that drove me nuts, too. Somebody took my son and killed him and destroyed Christmases for me for years. Even now, I look at Christmas
pictures and they're not complete -- there should be a twenty-five-year-old son towering over my other three kids. That's the family, that's the Christmas pose we will never see. And I kept calling Lance and saying, can't we kill this preemption? Every year the network preempts us at Christmas because they don't feel like America's Most Wanted makes for happy holiday viewing. But I'm thinking, what if he kills somebody's child over the holidays? How horrible would that be? How could we live with that? We are the avenging angels, what right do we have to take off the holidays?
But our pleas fell on deaf ears at the network, and Fox preempted us over the holidays. I was left with the haunting questions: Would we ever catch Kyle Bell? Would we find him before he killed again?
arAfter our first broadcast back on the air -- January 8, 2000 -- I would get my answer.
Rick and Mattie Wilson managed a small apartment complex in Dallas. They knew all their tenants pretty well, and knew what was going on in their lives.
So when they saw a good-looking young man named Christopher Larson move in with one of their tenants, just before Thanksgiving, they were pretty pleased at first. The tenant had a hard time making ends meet -- she had just come from a homeless shelter, and as a single mom with five kids, she needed all the help she could get. Once in a while, when she was having trouble scratching up the rent, the Wilsons let her slide. So they were happy to see this charming, polite, good-looking man eagerly move in to take care of her. He was working temporary jobs, as a plumber and parking attendant, while helping her pay the bills and feed the family.
But then they started noticing strange things -- just slightly out of the ordinary. For example, Christopher would put the little girls on his knee and let them suck his thumb. Or they'd go up and find the thirteen-year-old sitting on his lap. It made them feel creepy.
They weren't sure if they should say anything to the girls' mom. But through the holidays, everything seemed pretty peaceful.
Then on Saturday night, January 8, they sat down to watch TV. They weren't die-hard America's Most Wanted fans and were just channel surfing. But they did trip across our show.
"I don't know what triggered it," Rick Wilson said, "if it was God or something, but it was meant for me to watch America's Most Wanted on Saturday night -- especially at 8:22. I've never been more alive in my life than I was in that moment."
Because 8:22 Central Time was the moment we aired the picture of Kyle Bell.
And they got the shock of their lives.
"You know how sometimes you see someone on TV, and they don't look like they do in person?" Rick Wilson said later. "Well, there was no question here.
"The picture of Kyle Bell looked just like Chris Larson. He had a mustache and beard -- but it was him."
Rick started calling the 1-800-CRIME-TV hotline. It took him ten minutes to get through, but when he did, he sounded so certain that the agents in the studio immediately called the FBI in Dallas and asked them to check out the tip.
Along with the Dallas police, four FBI agents cautiously staked out the apartment complex. When they got there, Chris Larson wasn't around. So they waited. And about 12:30 a.m., he came home.
The agents had to be extremely cautious. They knew there might be children inside, and things could go bad. This was a convicted child killer with nothing to lose.
Two agents stood on either side of the door to Apartment 206; a third, between them, knocked on the door.
Larson was surrounded: the FBI were coming in the front door, and when Larson looked out his back balcony, he saw that the Dallas police had sealed off that end of the building.
When he let the FBI in, he told them he'd never heard of Kyle Bell.
What's more, he produced an ID card showing that he was, in fact, Christopher Larson.
Could the Wilsons have been wrong? Could they have the wrong man?
After a moment, one of the FBI agents asked Larson to remove his shirt.
After a moment, he complied.
And there they were.
The panther tattooed on his left arm.
The Grim Reaper tattooed on his right.
The rose appeared, and the angel, and finally, finally, it was over.
They had their man.
We had captured Kyle Bell.
This time there would be no prison transport bus. They did it the old-fashioned way: the cops from North Dakota went to Dallas and flew him home, shackled and manacled.
But while that plane was headed from Dallas to North Dakota, another plane was leaving the Fargo airport, headed in the opposite direction.
Because there was somebody who needed, with all her heart and soul, to meet the man who had caught the child killer.
We had become so used to seeing a somber, tearful Sue North, trembling, holding back tears, that we were not prepared for the woman who appeared in Dallas. It was as though the incredible weight that made her shoulders sag, made her head droop, made her eyes puffy and her legs weak, had dissolved in the brilliant morning sunshine. She was dressed in a colorful sweater and came bounding up to meet Rick Wilson, her smile a mile wide, and when a woman whom you have not seen smile in many years smiles at you like that, the universe feels, just for a moment, very safe and sweet and easy.
They hugged, and talked, and Rick told Sue all about Chris Larson, and how he had pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. Sue just ate it all up -- so happy not to be talking about a fugitive, not to be pleading with anyone for anything, not a thing, not anymore.
After a while, and a few more hugs, she started to leave. "Thank you, so much, for what you did," she said to Rick. "Take care of your girls."
And as she walked lightly away, she had one more parting thought for the girls themselves. "Take a lesson from your father," she said with a giggle. "You watch America's Most Wanted you never know who you're going to catch."
When I got the word, I was over the moon.
I had spent so many nights staring out the windows of airplanes as I crisscrossed the country, gazing into the darkness, lonely, mad, frustrated, thinking about how little justice there really is for kids. But now I was so proud of our team. The reason I first got involved with America's Most Wanted was to catch a child killer who was on the run -- not Adam's killer, but a predator who we knew would keep killing until we found him -- and now it had all come full circle. And how sweet, and appropriate, that Bell was caught by a kind, gentle, middle-American couple, just like the Norths themselves.
I couldn't wait to meet Rick and Mattie. We were flying them up to Washington that Friday, to be on the set as we were taping the show -- and we had a little surprise for them.
We hadn't mentioned the $50,000 reward on the broadcast that Rick and Mattie saw. The night they made the call they knew absolutely nothing about any reward. They made their call out of a sense of righteous justice, not out of any hope of personal gain.
But now, we were gonna make damn sure they got the reward.
We called Governor Schaefer's office and asked his press secretary, Julie Liffrig, if we could cut through all the red tape that usually surrounds rewards and speed things along. She agreed wholeheartedly. In fact, the governor even volunteered to come to Washington -- unbeknownst to the Wilsons -- to be on the set with them and give them the $50,000 reward.
That Friday, we were in the middle of taping, a thousand things going on, and everyone who'd been involved in this story was on the set -- including Drew Helms of the FBI and Colonel Hughes of the state highway patrol, along with a caravan of media from North Dakota -- when I spotted them off in a corner. I could tell in a moment that they were shy, unassuming people: Rick, a tall, slim guy with a long ponytail and bushy beard, and Mattie, holding his arm, looking frightened and nervous.
As soon as we took a break, I went over and chatted with them for a while, just to thank them, privately, for their courage.
A few minutes later, it came time to interview them. "You knew it was him," I said. "You made the call -- but you also knew he was a convicted child killer on the run. Were you concerned for your own safety?"
"No, my own safety didn't enter into it," Rick said, his flat and unemotional midwestern tone belying the weight of his words. "What I was thinking about was the kids. It was the only thing that entered my mind. And it was a chill that ran through me."
Governor Schaefer was very gracious, thanking them and giving them the check on behalf of the people of North Dakota.
And then the Wilsons told us what they planned to do with some of the money. And we couldn't believe it.
They felt bad, they said, for one thing: the woman Kyle Bell was living with had, after all, come to count on Bell's paycheck. She wasn't angry at the Wilsons for making the call -- she understood that her children were in danger -- but now came the practical question of making ends meet.
So the Wilsons decided to share part of the reward money with her. "She doesn't want to go back to the homeless shelter," Mattie told us. "We don't want her to go back to the homeless shelter. She's a victim, too, very much. So we're going to do everything we can to help her."
Just a simple act of human kindness. And it touched us all.
We finished the interview then, the decency and the caring of these two simple, dear people filling the room. I get jaded, sometimes, dealing with so much crime and violence, but meeting people like these two really restores your faith, reminds you that people are basically good at heart. For one beautiful moment, nobody spoke, nobody moved; we just basked in the knowledge that we had all, through the grace of God, been allowed to do something so perfectly right. The silence was shattered a moment later by the voice of the stage manager, on cue from the director in the control room, shouting, "Okay, moving on to act two," and the camera people and lighting people and stagehands and hotline operators all started bustling around us, and the governor got up to go, and I hugged Mattie and shook Rick's hand one more time.
And then, as the crew set up for the next act of the show, I stepped outside, to be alone for a moment. It was a chilly January day, and my breath curled out in front of me as I looked up at a sky the color of slate. I thought about Sue North and hoped that this would set her on a road of healing. I thought about that woman in Dallas, and her five kids, and knew in my heart that we had saved them from a life of torment -- or worse.
I thought about Jeanna, and said a little prayer.
And then, as I always do in moments like these, I thought about Adam.
My son, I was never able to bring your killer to justice.
I'm so sorry for that.
But I have tried, in my way, to make it up to you.
You are the force that guides my hand, that teaches me right from wrong.
You are the one who set me on this path.
And so it is you, not I, who has saved all these other little boys and girls.
I know that you are in a better place now.
And when I remember all that, I am not afraid, anymore.
Copyright © 2001 by Straight Shooter, Inc. --This text refers to the paperback edition.
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