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.

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. 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

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