A Bend in the River

A cheerleader lies dead in dark waters, and life in the small towns along the Red River will never be the same. A tale of restless youth in a lonely land.
Dan Winters

Had a hard rain fallen, she might have drifted out to the Red River and never been found. But just before dusk on a fall day six years ago, in the rough clay bottomland on the Texas side, a rancher driving down a dirt road with his seven-year-old granddaughter stopped his pickup at a backwater creek. The little girl spotted the body first, pointing to a muddy spot near banks overgrown with greenbrier vines. The rancher squinted—he had left his glasses back home—and decided he was looking at a drowned calf that had washed downstream. “There’s a body in the water,” his granddaughter said, even after they returned home. On his morning rounds the next day, the rancher drove out to the Belknap Creek bridge. The pale, ethereal object had glided closer, and he could see now that it was indeed a girl, her sandy-colored hair fanning out along the murky surface of the water. Within hours, local lawmen had identified her as Heather Rich, a high school sophomore from Waurika, Oklahoma, a small town just across the Red River. Her face was unrecognizable because she had been shot in the back of the head. She could be identified only by her gold signet ring, heart-shaped and inset with a diamond, which had been a present for her sixteenth birthday.

Everyone in Waurika, a town of 1,988 people, knew Heather Rich. A slight, pretty girl with blue-gray eyes, she was vivacious and laughed easily and enjoyed the attention of boys—something her three brothers, all football players, tried hard to shield her from. “Heather was beautiful; pictures don’t capture just how pretty she was,” says Pat Harmon, of Pat’s Beauty Shop in Waurika. “People adored her because she was always so bubbly and made a point of being nice to everyone.” Voted sophomore-class favorite, Heather was a Waurika Eagles cheerleader—the girl who smiled while teetering at the top of the human pyramid—and she was nominated for homecoming queen just days before she disappeared. A diligent student, she also made the honor roll. But in the weeks before her murder, she had been acting strangely. She was suspended from school for being drunk while leading cheers at a football game, and around the house, she had become moody and withdrawn. A close friend would later tell the FBI that, despite her ebullient public persona, Heather was a “very troubled girl.” All anyone knew for sure was that she had slipped out of her bedroom window on a school night, just after eleven o’clock, and hadn’t come home.

Rumors flourished in the days following her disappearance. People had last seen Heather walking along the highway trying to hitch a ride, they said, or sitting in a pickup with two boys or placing a call from a phone booth on the outskirts of town. She was silenced, went one story, because a local teenager’s suspicious death, ruled a suicide, had in fact been a homicide that she had witnessed. Another had Heather falling victim to foul play after dancing in a strip club or, alternately, running around with a group of local methamphetamine dealers, who killed her at a cotton gin. Every town has a story onto which it projects its fears, and in Waurika the story of Heather’s murder was embroidered with each telling. Her family suspected that her killer was not a stranger. “We had her funeral out of town, in Comanche, and we wouldn’t let anyone touch the casket because I promised Heather that whoever did this to her would never touch her again,” says her mother, Gail. As the rumors multiplied and grew more fantastic, no one could fathom who would want to hurt Heather Rich.

Heather Rich’s murder outraged the inhabitants of Red River country, not once but twice—first, when she was killed, in 1996, and again this past winter, when her killers slipped from the Montague County jail, northwest of Fort Worth, and headed for the river. Newspaper accounts of the escape focused on the manhunt, paying scant attention to the original crime or the victim, invariably described as a “sixteen-year-old Waurika, Okla., cheerleader.” Only along the river did people know what the crime had done to their isolated slice of the world, the illusions it had cruelly stripped away.

Waurika lies on what was once the Chisholm Trail, now U.S. 81, a long, lonely stretch of blacktop that threads north from Fort Worth through a succession of fading cattle towns into Oklahoma. Here, an abrupt bend in the river slows its waters enough to allow for crossings, but the river is mercurial: Just a few miles from Belknap Creek is a cemetery lined with rough-hewn sandstone markers, the makeshift graves for cowboys who drowned fording the river more than a century ago. The river can be a place of sudden violence—a mean, mud-red waterway whose banks are thick with quicksand and diamondbacks and old Comanche arrowheads—and so can the land around it. Years ago, the rancher who found Heather Rich’s body unearthed an old nickel-plated .45-70 rifle while he was plowing his pasture. “That’s a cavalryman’s gun,” he explains. “It’s anyone’s guess why it was buried three feet deep, but its owner was probably buried along with it.” As brutal as this corner of Texas has always been, north of the Red River has always been wilder. Sheriffs were scarce in Indian Territory, as Oklahoma was still known at the turn of the past century, and Waurika was no exception. “People came here to escape the law,” says Nancy Way, the town historian.

By the time the Riches moved there from nearby Lawton, in 1974, after one of their neighbors was raped, Waurika was a quieter, blander place, content to forget its history. Duane and Gail Rich had hoped the town would insulate their children from the hardness of the world. Waurika seemed peaceful and safe, the sort of place where kids couldn’t get into too much trouble because there wasn’t much trouble to get into. With

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