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.

Nader presidential campaign, but most of her time was devoted to getting a Social Security number. She wrote a six-page letter to the governor of Washington asking for help. She also enlisted the services of two lawyers—one in Portland and one in Vancouver, neither of whom knew what the other was doing. The attorney in Vancouver sued the state to force the Vital Records Office to issue Brianna a birth certificate. To support the claim, he provided letters from school officials, Brianna’s high school transcripts, her state picture identification, and medical statements about her mental health. The attorney in Portland chose to petition the federal government directly, asking it to issue Brianna a Social Security number. Before filing the petition, however, he had asked Brianna to submit to a fingerprint test just to make sure there was no chance she could be someone else.

Weeks later the Vancouver attorney was informed by a state deputy attorney general that the state would not oppose Brianna’s petition for a birth certificate. All Brianna would have to do was appear for a simple court hearing set for March 2001. Brianna’s three-year fight for an identity was finally over. She was about to officially become known as Brianna Stewart.

But on March 22, a week before the hearing, a Vancouver police detective arrested Brianna on charges of theft and perjury. He told her that she was a 31-year-old woman and that she had fraudulently received free foster care and free public education from the State of Washington. When Brianna told the detective that there had to be some mistake, he said that her fingerprints, which had been requested by her Portland attorney, had matched those of a woman from Altoona, Pennsylvania, by the name of Treva Throneberry.

Ken Dunn’s mother called him in Disney World with the news. He nearly dropped the phone. “Mom, I went to homecoming with a woman twelve years older than me,” he said. Most of the Evergreen kids were convinced that Brianna had brilliantly hoodwinked them all. They thought she had deliberately acted awkward in her drama class, where she received a D, and had lost all of her tennis matches against girls half her age as part of her plot to deceive. But others weren’t so sure about her motives. They were fascinated, for example, that she still couldn’t make an A in algebra despite fifteen years of high school. “It just goes to show you how algebra can really suck,” one girl said.

Just as curious was the reaction of the community itself. Although Clark County senior deputy prosecutor Michael Kinnie said that Treva needed to be treated as a common criminal—“What we are dealing with here is a woman who knows exactly what she’s doing,” he said—a writer for the Vancouver newspaper suggested that Treva’s behavior “doesn’t suggest maliciousness so much as misery.” As for Kinnie’s contention that Treva was dangerous—after all, a Vancouver security guard went to jail because of her accusation of rape—the writer reminded his readers that the security guard pleaded guilty. “Even though his record has since been cleared because no minor was actually involved,” the writer’s editorial pointed out, “he apparently thought there was, so he might not be without guilt himself.”

Letters to the editor from Vancouver’s citizens came in that favored Treva’s getting psychiatric help rather than being sent to prison. One angry writer said that the authorities were “spending far more taxpayer money through the legal system than Throneberry’s relatively harmless scam cost.”

There was an even greater outpouring of sympathy for Treva after her sisters told reporters about the sexual abuse she, and they, had suffered. “This case is not about fraud but about a tremendous emptiness, a need, a trauma very early in her life,” one of her court-appointed attorneys told reporters. If Treva was truly a con artist looking for financial gain, the attorney added, she could have picked a far better ruse than wandering the country as a homeless youth.

But for many, the greatest mystery about the story was why Treva Throneberry—after being caught in Plano, Texas, in 1995; Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1996; and now Vancouver, Washington, in 2001—still refused to admit who she was. From her jail cell she declared in letters to the judge and in interviews with the news media that she had never before heard of Treva Throneberry. When her niece J’Lisha wrote her, she says that Treva responded with a letter of her own: “Dear J’Lisha Throneberry … I’m sorry to tell you this. I don’t know who you are.”

How much Treva actually remembered about her past had become a topic of enormous interest to psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. Some experts speculated that her past abuse from her uncle had been like a physical trauma, disconnecting memories in her brain. One professor of psychology said the abuse could have set off what is known as a “dissociative fugue,” a type of amnesia in which she didn’t know how she got where she was or why she was there. Others suggested she could have a multiple-personality disorder, in which she had created several personalities over the years to deal with her sexual abuse. A psychologist who had examined her for several days in 1995 when she was in Texas pretending to be Kara Williams was intrigued by her sincerity when she talked of satanic rituals and gang rape. “There was nothing in her behavior or presentation to suggest that she was knowingly misrepresenting the facts,” the psychologist had written in his report.

What baffled everyone in Vancouver was her decision to give her fingerprints to the attorney. If she had been thinking rationally, she would certainly have known that the fingerprints would link her to Altoona. It was equally odd that, after her arrest, she demanded that her DNA be compared with the DNA of Carl and Patsy Throneberry. She said that she was certain such a test would prove she was not their child. (The DNA tests showed a 99.93 percent likelihood that

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