The Day Treva Throneberry Disappeared

In the mid-eighties the cheerful high school student vanished. After more than a decade had passed, her friends and family in her tiny North Texas hometown of Electra had no idea where she was—or if she was dead or alive. They certainly didn't know that almost two thousand miles away her fate was kept secret by a teenage girl named Brianna Stewart.
Brianna was known for her overalls and pigtails.

Electra, Texas—1985

SHE WAS A PRETTY GIRL, thin, with a spray of pale freckles across her face and light brown hair that curled just above her shoulders. The librarian at the high school called her “a quiet-type person,” the kind of student who yes-ma’amed and no-ma’amed her teachers. She played on the tennis team, practicing with an old wooden racket on a crack-lined court behind the school. In the afternoons she waitressed at the Whistle Stop, the local drive-in hamburger restaurant, jumping up on the running boards of the pickup trucks so she could hear better when the drivers placed their orders.

Her name was Treva Throneberry, and just about everybody in that two-stoplight North Texas oil town knew her by sight. She was never unhappy, people said. She never complained. She always greeted her customers with a shy smile, even when she had to walk out to their cars on winter days when the northers came whipping off the plains, swirling ribbons of dust down the street. During her breaks, she’d sit at a back table and read from her red Bible that zipped open and shut.

There were times, the townspeople would later say, when they did wonder about the girl. No one had actually seen her do anything that could be defined, really, as crazy. But people noticed that she would occasionally get a vacant look in her blue eyes. One day at school she drew a picture of a young girl standing under a leafless tree, her face blue, the sun black. One Sunday at the Pentecostal church she stumbled to the front altar, fell to her knees, and began telling Jesus that she didn’t deserve to live. And then there was that day when Treva’s young niece J’Lisha, who was staying at the Throneberry home, told people that Treva had shaken her awake the previous night and whispered that a man was outside their room with a gun—which turned out to be not true at all.

But surely, everyone in town said, all teenage girls go through phases. They get overly emotional every now and then. Treva was going to turn out just fine. She didn’t even drink or smoke cigarettes like some of the other girls in town.

Then, that December, just as the Electra High School Tigers were headed toward their first state football championship and the town was feeling a rare surge of pride, Treva, who was sixteen years old, stopped working at the Whistle Stop. She stopped coming to school. “She disappeared,” a former classmate said. “And nobody knew where she went.”

Vancouver, Washington—1997

THE NEW GIRL ARRIVED AT EVERGREEN High School wearing loose bib overalls, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes, and her hair was braided in pigtails. She was fuller-figured than most teenage girls, wide-hipped, but she had an appealing, slightly lopsided smile and a childlike voice tinged with a Southern drawl. She was carrying a graphite tennis racket and a Bible.

Her name, she told school officials, was Brianna Stewart. She was sixteen years old, she said, and for almost a year she had been living in Portland, Oregon, just across the Columbia River from Vancouver, walking the streets during the day and sleeping in grim youth shelters at night. She started attending services at Vancouver’s charismatic Glad Tidings Church, where she met a young couple who took her into their home after hearing her testimony. The couple, who had accompanied Brianna to school that morning, said that she was full of potential, determined to succeed—and that all she needed was a chance to get over her past.

“What is your past?” asked one of the school’s counselors, Greg Merrill.

For a moment Brianna said nothing, as if she was trying to maintain her composure. Then she told Merrill that she had been raised just outside Mobile, Alabama, by her mother and her Navajo stepfather, a sheriff’s deputy. Brianna said that when she was a child, her mother had been murdered, and after that she lived with her stepfather. At about the age of thirteen, she ran away, hitchhiking from state to state. Because Brianna remembered her mother telling her that her real father lived somewhere in the Northwest, she had come to the area hoping that she could find clues to her past.

It was the most unusual case Merrill had ever heard in his thirty years of counseling students. When he asked about her education, she told him she had only been home schooled, but she promised she would be a good student. “I’ve never had a normal life,” she said. “That’s all I want—to be a normal teenager like everyone else.”

She was enrolled in the tenth grade at the 1,900-student school. One of her first classes was Algebra I. She walked in and was given a seat toward the back, where she pulled out a notebook and began listening intently to the teacher. Then she glanced over at the boy sitting next to her.

“Hi,” said Ken Dunn, who couldn’t stop smiling at her.

She giggled shyly. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Brianna. I’m new here.”

Electra, Texas—1985

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG FOR the rumor to spread through town that Treva Throneberry had last been seen down at the police station, where she had given a statement claiming that her daddy, holding a gun in his hand, had raped her. She added that her mother had only laughed when she found out what had happened.

A stunned police officer called child welfare, which quickly sent a social worker to Electra to whisk Treva away, and a judge entered emergency protection orders temporarily preventing Treva’s parents from seeing their daughter or even finding out where she was. Soon, Electra was buzzing: Was it possible that Carl Throneberry had raped his own daughter?

Carl and his wife, Patsy, were known as good country people. They lived in a small frame home decorated with a photo of John Wayne on one wall and a rug that depicted the Last Supper on another. Carl was a big, lumbering man, a truck driver in the oil fields.

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