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.

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 she was.) And why did she try so hard to get people to look into her past, to discover her real identity? If she was deliberately trying to con people, why would she set herself up to be discovered?

There was little in medical or psychological literature that came close to helping the experts understand what had happened to Treva. “If it is what people think—a woman needing to go back to a certain age and relive it again and again—then it would be one for the books,” said Kenneth Muscatel, a Seattle psychologist who had been hired by the court to examine Treva. “Here is a woman who invents stories to get the love and affection she had never known in her home, yet a woman so profoundly disturbed that she ends up turning on the very people who are trying to help her, accusing them of abuse.”

Other than J’Lisha, no one from Treva’s family tried to contact her after her arrest. Carl said he didn’t write Treva because he had dropped out of school in the sixth grade and didn’t know how to spell. He did want it known, however, that he was angry that “completely untrue stories” about Treva and his brother had made the newspapers. Patsy said she didn’t write because she was still hurt by the way Treva had turned her back on the family. She did say that she believed that Treva hadn’t forgotten about her entirely. At the funeral of her own mother, in 1998, Patsy said there was an elderly lady sitting at the back, wearing an old faded dress. The lady brushed against her as everyone was leaving the funeral parlor. Patsy noticed she was wearing a gray wig and granny glasses, and she had loads of pancake makeup on her face. “In my heart,” she said, “I know it was Treva.”

Treva’s arrest did motivate her sisters to start talking to one another for the first time about their own feelings of shame about the past. But they didn’t write Treva either. “We thought that maybe it would be best to just let her continue pretending to believe that she was a teenager,” said Sue. “If she thought she was living in a better place, then so be it.”

The prosecutor offered Treva a plea bargain—a recommendation of two years in prison

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week