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.

few weeks earlier she had worn a dress to the homecoming dance that his mother had made using yards of the most expensive gold lamé that she could find at Fabric Depot. To show that he still loved her, he bought her a sterling silver ring for Christmas, the inside of which was engraved with her favorite line from the new Romeo and Juliet movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio: “I love thee.”

But at the end of their junior year, something happened that devastated him. By then Brianna was staying with the Gambetta family, whose son was good friends with Ken. (She had told him that she needed a new place to live because the church families could no longer afford to keep her.) The Gambettas had been treating her like a daughter, giving her the spare bedroom, where she could put her tennis posters on the wall, and providing her with an allowance of $10 a week. Everything, in fact, seemed idyllic—until Brianna called the police in May 1999 and said that David Gambetta, the father of the household, had been spying on her. She said he had put miniature cameras in the light fixtures in her room and was making videotapes of her as she undressed.

After a quick investigation the police decided that the accusations were groundless, and the Gambettas ordered Brianna to move out. Yet Brianna, who soon found new lodging with the mother of a police officer, kept insisting she was telling the truth. For the first time, Ken didn’t believe what she was saying. In fact, he began thinking back on all the dramatic stories she had told him. “My God,” he said to one of his friends, “what if Brianna has been making everything up?”as the years passed and nothing more was heard from Treva Throneberry, many people in town assumed she had been killed. Carl and Patsy maintained a $3,000 burial insurance policy on their daughter. In 1993 a rumor swept through Electra that Treva had died in the fire at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco. Sharon Gentry even sent Treva’s dental records to the authorities investigating the fire to see if one of the burned bodies might be Treva.

Treva was not there. But in the little town of Corvallis, Oregon, two thousand miles away, there was a teenager named Keili T. Throneberry Smitt working at a McDonald’s and staying with a family she had met at a church. She told people she preferred the name Keili Smitt. In fact, she went to court in Corvallis to change her name legally to Keili Smitt because she said she was hiding from her father, who lived in Dallas. She told Corvallis police officers that he had already found her once in Oregon, forced her into his car, and raped her.

But the police could never find Keili’s father, and eventually she disappeared. The next summer she surfaced in Portland, telling the police there that she was on the run from her sexually abusive father. This time she said that her father was a Portland police officer. Once again, an investigation was begun, and once again, Keili disappeared.

She reappeared in the summer of 1994 in the town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where she told the police her name was Cara Leanna Davis. She said her mother had been murdered and her father, a police officer, had been a member of a satanic cult and had repeatedly raped her. After two months in Coeur d’Alene, she vanished. Later that year she arrived in Plano, a suburb north of Dallas. She told rapt police officers and social workers that her name was Kara Williams, that she was sixteen years old, and that she had been born and raised in a satanic cult, where she had been taught that her destiny was to honor Satan and to die in a lake of fire. She said that many of the children she had grown up with had been sacrificed, stabbed to death with daggers. Her own mother had been murdered by her father, a cult leader who happened to be a police officer in Colleyville, another Dallas suburb. He also raped her repeatedly, she said, and at bedtime would force her to chant prayers to Lucifer.

One female detective was so determined to discover who had harmed Kara that she drove to Colleyville and asked the police chief if he knew of any officer who might have any kind of special interest in the study of satanic activities. A volunteer for a social-work agency took it upon herself to show Kara the outside world, taking her to malls and to Six Flags. Social workers shuttled her from various foster homes and youth shelters around the Dallas area, trying to find a place where she would feel safe. At one shelter she accused a young male staffer of sexually molesting her, which led her to be moved again. With each move she was enrolled in a new high school. In the spring of 1995 alone, Kara attended high schools in Sadler, Sherman, and Dallas, joining the tennis team at each new place. The Child Protective Services worker supervising Kara’s case, Susanne Arnold, went so far as to buy her a new tennis racket to help her play better.

But in September 1995 Arnold received a call at home from a staffer at the residential treatment center where Kara was staying. The staffer, who just happened to be from the little town of Electra, said, “Susanne, I think Kara is actually a twenty-six-year-old woman named Treva Throneberry.”

Days later Kara was confronted at the treatment center with records, photographs, and handwriting samples that proved her identity. Yet she confessed to nothing. Her protests were so adamant, and so tearful, that more than one person watching her came to the conclusion that she truly believed what she was saying. After a court hearing discharged her from government supervision, Arnold handed her a quarter and gave her the phone numbers for the state’s mental health office and for

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