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.

He had met Patsy in the early fifties at a soda fountain in Oklahoma, and after a few weeks of courting, they had driven to the A&P supermarket in Wichita Falls, where the butcher, who was also a preacher, had wiped his hands on his apron, pulled out a small pocket Bible, and performed their wedding ceremony out in the A&P parking lot while the couple sat holding hands in the back seat of Carl’s Chevy.

Yes, Carl admitted, he sometimes had trouble making ends meet, but he had always made sure his children—one son and four daughters, of whom Treva was the youngest—were well fed and dressed properly for school. In fact, Carl said, his older brother Billy Ray often dropped by to give the four Throneberry girls presents. After the older girls had left home, Billy Ray especially doted on Treva, bringing her candy bars, buying her clothes from the dollar store, and taking her on drives in his car.

In court Carl and Patsy insisted that Treva had made up the entire story, and their attorney went so far as to demand that Treva be given a lie-detector test. Treva’s sisters also gave affidavits saying they too believed that their father was innocent.

If anyone had raped Treva, Carl told police officers and social workers, it was one of those fanatical members of Electra’s Pentecostal church. He knew for a fact, he said, that they had been trying to brainwash her into becoming a missionary. The church members, in turn, said they had only been trying to help a young girl who was obviously in great distress. They said that in the weeks leading up to her rape allegation, Treva had been telling them that she was scared of being at her home and that she had been slipping out at night to sleep in an abandoned house next door or even on a pew at the church itself. What was also perplexing to social workers was Treva’s behavior at the foster home in Wichita Falls where she had been taken. Her foster mother, Sharon Gentry, a middle school science teacher, said that she would often find Treva at night curled in a fetal position in the corner of her bedroom, the bedcovers pulled over her head. On other nights Gentry would find her banging her head against the wall, murmuring in her sleep, “Please don’t hurt me. I’ll be a good girl.”

Like so many who had known Treva, Gentry was touched by the girl’s gentleness. Around the house, she was soft-spoken and exceedingly polite. She began attending Wichita Falls High School, where she developed a reputation as a diligent, thoughtful student. She regularly read her Bible, and she wrote soulful teenage poetry in her notebook. One poem began:

Raining tears, flowing down my face
Yours forever, a lost case
No one cares or sees you fall
No one hears you when you call.

As the weeks passed, however, Treva started to leave disturbing handwritten notes on the ironing board for Gentry. “Sometimes I wish I were dead,” she wrote in one note. “Sometimes I don’t. Life seems impossible and death seems eternal. I will have no life after death.” She came out of her bedroom one morning and told Gentry that she had been dreaming about shooting herself. In the dream, she said, she could see the bullet entering her head. She later told her a story about how she had been kidnapped in Electra and taken blindfolded by members of a satanic cult to an abandoned oil field, where she was tied to a stake. People in black robes danced around her, she said, then slit the throats of black cats and dogs and forced her to drink their blood.

In May 1986 Treva went to see her counselor at Wichita Falls High School and said in an eerily calm voice that she was thinking about jumping off the third floor of the building to kill herself. Police officers sped to the school, handcuffed Treva, and drove her to the old, redbrick Wichita Falls State Hospital at the edge of the city. There she spent long periods of time by herself, sitting in the dayroom of the adolescent unit, looking out through large windows on the neatly mowed lawns. According to hospital reports, she was often seen crying. She rarely ate. Her face was blank, her cheeks sunken, her hair flat. Doctors and therapists arrived to give her various tests, including the Woodcock-Johnson Psychoeducational Battery. They sat beside her and asked if she felt detached, if she felt hostile, if she felt withdrawn, if she felt lonely. They prescribed Xanax, for anxiety, and Trilafon, which was designed to combat what they called thought disorders, and Tofranil, an antidepressant. They put her in a weekly group-therapy session, where she and other adolescents sat in a circle on vinyl-covered chairs.

But she said little. She did write a few sad letters to Gentry and a boy from Wichita Falls High School who had once taken her on a date to Six Flags Over Texas. “I feel like a living robot,” she wrote to him. “I walk when they say walk. I sit when they say sit. I do everything they say because I have to. I can’t take it anymore. I have to die.”

Needing to put something in their reports, the baffled doctors described Treva’s condition as a “characterological disorder.” “She’s kind of quiet and secretive and she may have a personality problem,” wrote one therapist. Perhaps to get a better clue of what had happened to her, staffers finally arranged for her to meet with her parents, who had been coming to the hospital demanding to see her. (The district attorney’s office ultimately dismissed the sexual assault charges against Carl, saying there was no evidence to prosecute.) Treva sat with Carl and Patsy in the presence of a social worker and a therapist as her parents told her to admit that she had been lying about the rape. Treva rose and said that

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