Please forgive me Casey

I let my baby walk into the arms of evil

Published by: Laura Hinton and Sharon Ward
Published on: 1 November 2012

The bond between me and my daughter Casey, 17, couldn't have been stronger.
She was the eldest of my four kids, and the only girl, which made us even closer. Now I could tell she was feeling a bit down. She'd been dating her boyfriend Adam, 18, for a year, but he'd recently moved to Dumas, an hour away from us.
‘It's good you can drive now,' I said, nudging her. ‘You can see more of Adam.'
‘I know,' she sighed. ‘It's just time.' She was such a busy bee. When she wasn't with Adam, she was with her best mate Brianne, 17. She'd just started a part-time job at a shoe shop, too.
And, of course, she spent loads of time with her brothers, Nick, Joseph and Wesley. They'd all go fishing with my hubby Marty.
Despite being only just over 5ft, she loved it. ‘My little spitfire,' I called her. She
was in the school softball team and her evenings were often spent at training.
‘So, do you want dinner tonight?' I asked.
‘No, I'm going to Brianne's,' she said. ‘I'll stay over.'
‘Cool, see you tomorrow,' I smiled.
Running round to the kitchen, I sneakily watched her from the window jumping in her jeep. Me and Marty had bought the car for her after she'd passed her driving test. Oops, she caught me spying. Smiling, I gave her a wave and with that she was gone. The night flew past and by the time I got into bed, I flaked out. It was only the phone ringing that woke me.
I looked at my clock. It was 5am. Marty was on a night shift at the paper mill.
‘Hello?' I mumbled. It was Casey. ‘Sorry to wake you,'
she said, sheepishly. ‘I've run out of petrol.'
‘Huh, where are you?' I grumbled, still half asleep. There was a short pause.
‘I know I shouldn't have lied, but I decided to drive to Adam's house,' she admitted. ‘I'm on a road in Dumas...'
‘For goodness sake Casey!' I snapped. ‘What were you thinking?!' I was furious with her. ‘I'm sorry,' she said, her voice trailing off. ‘I'll give Brianne a call. She can get me.'
‘Well, if you're old enough to sneak about late at night you're old enough to get yourself home,' I ranted at her.
‘If I can't wake Brianne up I'll walk to a petrol station just down the road,' she said.
‘All right,' I sighed. ‘Call me if you have any problems.'
After hanging up, I lay there for a few minutes thinking about our conversation. No, I decided, I had done the right thing. She needed to be taught a lesson.
I fell back to sleep for a couple of hours then got up and made a start on the housework. It wasn't until midday that
I suddenly realised Casey hadn't come home. ‘Bet she's gone back to Adam's,' I tutted. I rang her phone but it went straight to voicemail. Assuming it'd run
out of battery, I carried on with my day.
By dinnertime, though, I was beginning to get worried.
‘Where's Casey?' Nick, 15, asked. I was cooking a roast
and Casey's seat was empty.
‘I'm not sure,' I frowned.
For the next few hours I anxiously paced the floor. Every time I heard a car outside, I peered out of the window, expecting to see Casey's jeep. By the time Marty got back from work at 10pm, I was pulling my hair out with worry.
‘I've tried all her friends,' I told him. ‘But I don't have Adam's new number. We need to call the police.'
‘Lets drive out to Dumas first,' he said. An hour later, we were driving through the town... ‘There's her jeep!' I cried, pointing to the side of the road. The hazard lights were still flashing, and the doors were locked.
‘So she went to get petrol...' Marty said. But that was hours ago. Frantic with worry, I called the police straight away. Soon, they'd managed to get in touch with Adam. But he said he hadn't heard from her either since she left his place that morning.
Before I knew it, we were giving statements to the police. ‘How can this be happening?!' I gasped, finally breaking down.
‘This isn't your fault,' Marty urged me. But I knew if I'd gone to get her, we'd be sitting at home tucking into that roast right now. When morning broke, Casey's disappearance hit the news. Then Nick rang.
‘What's going on, Mum?' he asked, his voice shaking. ‘We've had calls from newspapers...'
‘Oh, love,' I gasped, before filling him in.
‘Ring me if you hear anything,' he croaked.
The police set up a command centre in Dumas and me and Marty made a public appeal for help on the news.
Family looked after the boys while we checked into a local hotel. We barely ate or slept. At night, I'd just stare out of the window into the darkness.
‘She's gone,' I kept telling Marty. But he refused to accept it. ‘Don't talk like that,' he'd mumble. So while I stayed at the hotel, grief stricken, Marty drove around with the police. I'd ring him at 3am and find he was searching another abandoned building in the area. It broke my heart. She'd been gone a week when we were at the command centre and a police officer pulled us both aside.
I'd known it was coming, yet my knees buckled beneath me. ‘No,' I cried. Marty caught me and held me up.
‘We've found a body,' he said, his words hanging in the air.
‘No, no, no,' Marty shook beside me. ‘Not my baby.'
Apparently, cops had been searching local land when they'd seen buzzards circling a part of the canal. They knew this was a sign something dead was in the area, as the birds often circled around roadkill. So they'd gone to investigate and found our Casey.
‘We think she was strangled first and then dumped there,' he explained, gently. Because her body had been in the heat for a week, she could only be identified by her dental records.
‘Who did this?' Marty sobbed.
‘We don't know,' the officer admitted. They were still trawling CCTV footage and frantically searching for leads.
I went into myself, couldn't speak to anyone. My grief had taken another twist. I felt guilt, such overpowering guilt. It was like a heavy weight pulling down on my chest. I'd been the last person to speak to Casey before she died...
I should've gone and picked her up that night. I'd never regretted anything more.
‘I'm so sorry,' I wept. All my friends and family told me
I wasn't to blame, but they didn't understand. My little girl had needed me and I wasn't there - instead, I'd let her walk straight into the arms of her killer.
Desperate to find some peace, I begged the police to let me have a moment or two with Casey before she was buried.
‘Please, let me see her body,' I begged. I wanted to kiss my daughter goodbye, whisper to
her just how much she was loved, how sorry I was.
‘I'm sorry, she's too decomposed,' the coroner told me. ‘We really wouldn't recommend it.' I felt sick to the bone. All I could do was try and hold it together for her funeral. More than 600 people turned up, and we set up a video link to a school nearby because there were so many of us.
As her coffin passed by,I felt overcome with guilt and grief. Trying to block that out, I closed my eyes and remembered a time when we'd been in the exact same church for a friend's wedding rehearsal. Casey was three.
I was chatting to someone when the church suddenly fell silent. This angelic child's voice had broken through. It was Casey. Turning, I'd seen her playing with her doll at the end of the aisle. She was singing so beautifully that everyone had stood and listened.
So as we sang songs at her funeral, I tried to imagine my little blonde-haired spitfire as she once was.
Later, as I said goodbye to everyone through teary eyes, I couldn't help but think I saw something behind their eyes. Were they judging me? They all knew about Casey's last movements, that I hadn't picked her up. Nobody blamed me to my face, but that didn't mean they weren't thinking it.
Soon, two weeks had passed. We got updates on the case
every day. ‘Come to bed,' Marty would plead.
‘I won't be long,' I'd tell him, as I sat in Casey's room. I could be there for hours at a time, going over it all. Why didn't
I pick her up that night? I'd been so stubborn. If only, if only...
One night, I caught sight of her Nickelback CD on the side. Tears poured down my cheeks.
We'd been to a Nickelback concert for her birthday a couple of years before. ‘You're quite cool you know, Mum,' Casey teased, as we held hands and danced.
‘I was quite a rocker in my day,' I giggled.
Then, finally, the police had a breakthrough. ‘We've arrested a trucker called Kenneth Osborn,' an officer said.
‘What did he do?' Marty hissed through gritted teeth. My heart knotted itself tightly as he explained that surveillance videos showed that Casey's car broke down, as well as showing a truck going up and down the road. Another video at a fast food restaurant showed a young girl in his truck who appeared to be sleeping - the police thought it was Casey.
‘We believe Kenneth picked her up as she walked to the petrol station,' he said. I gripped a chair for support. She'd met her killer because of me...
‘We think he tried to attack her, but she fought back,' he said. ‘There are scratches up Osborn's arms.' My spitfire had fought so bravely, but she was no match for this monster.
He'd pulled a wire tie so tightly that when she was found, the tie was just three inches in diameter around her neck.
‘And I was asleep through it all,' I sobbed, fleeing upstairs.
I tried to carry on. Soon, days had turned into weeks and then months. I put together a treasure box of her softball glove, her old Bible and notes I'd written her, and would spend hours sifting through it. But knowing that I could've possibly stopped my daughter's death weighed heavily on me. It was two years, though, before the case reached court. Then Osborn, 47, suddenly confessed
to the murder.
‘It was like I was outside my body watching myself,' he said.
Sitting so close to him in the courtroom, I wanted to be sick.
So when the jury found him guilty of her kidnap and murder, it was hardly a celebration, more just relief. Osborn was sentenced to life without parole.
‘Nothing will bring her back,' I sobbed to Marty. It felt like a small, hollow victory.
All I can do now is live for Marty and the boys. The grief and guilt never leaves. Everyday I wake up and the first thing I think of is Casey.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to Brianne's wedding. It really hit home then. ‘I'm so glad you could come,' she smiled. ‘I wanted Casey to be my honorary bridesmaid.' There, in pride of place on the top table, was a picture of Casey. ‘What a beautiful idea,' I choked. Osborn didn't just kill my daughter that day, he killed a best friend and a sister, too. Desperate to rebuild my shattered existence, I've started visiting schools and speaking to girls about personal safety. By sharing Casey's story, I hope someone might learn from our mistakes. I've started working with the parents of other murdered children, too, helping them fight for justice. Even though it pains me, bringing back my own grief and guilt every time I hear their stories, I won't stop. Because I know, deep down, that I should've gone to pick her up that day. No matter what I do, that guilt will never leave me.
Melinda Crowder, 51, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, USA