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from school for being drunk while leading cheers at a football game, and around the house, she had become moody and withdrawn.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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...