Tell me, what happened?

I needed the truth - but could I stomach it?

Published by: Nicola Pitman & Amy Thompson
Published on: 24th August 2010

T he door creaked open and I tip-toed into my daughter Amber’s bedroom. Kneeling by her bed, I shoved a t-shirt and shoes out of the way.
Typical Amber.
The only thing my 14-year-old kept tidy was her bookshelf.
Stroking her dark hair, I nudged her gently. ‘Come on, sweetie,’ I whispered. ‘Time for school.’
Amber groaned, rolling over.
‘Well, if you don’t want to get your lamb today that’s fine by me…’ I started. She loved animals, was involved with a young farmers’ programme at school.
After months of begging me and her stepdad Dave to buy one of the lambs from the project, she’d finally talked us round.
Suddenly, she was wide awake.
‘Really?’ she beamed.
‘Dave’s already written you a cheque,’ I smiled.
‘Can you get it?’ she asked.
‘No way, lazy bones,’ I teased, tickling her. ‘Get it yourself. I’ve got work, but I’ll finish early so we can see a movie after school.’
I’d split up from Amber’s dad Marcus when she was three. It’d been the two of us for five years before I’d met Dave, and we’d had our daughter Ally, six.
With Ally staying at my mum’s for the weekend, it was the perfect opportunity to spend time with Amber. ‘See you later, honey,’ I said, kissing her.
‘Love you, Mum,’ she sang.
All day at my job for a printing company I was buzzing with excitement, couldn’t wait to get home and see my girl. By 3.30pm, I was counting down the minutes until I could leave.
Fifteen minutes later, though, my mobile rang. It was Dave.
‘Has Amber called?’ he asked. ‘She’s not home from school.’
‘Maybe she got talking to a friend,’ I suggested. ‘I’ll call her.’
Her mobile went straight to voicemail, so I left a message.
Then Dave called again.
‘She’s only
15 minutes late…’
I started to say.
‘Carrie,’ he interrupted. ‘I called her school – they said Amber never arrived this morning!’
My blood ran cold. ‘I’ll be home in 10,’ I said. The second I got home, I called all Amber’s friends. ‘I haven’t seen her all day,’ said her best friend Julie. The same went for the others.
‘This isn’t like her,’ I worried, calling the police. ‘We were going out, she wouldn’t miss that.’
When the police showed up, they didn’t seem concerned, though. ‘We hear it all the time,’ one officer reassured me. ‘She’s a teenager, probably run away. She’ll be back soon.’
But I knew my daughter, she wouldn’t just run away. Fuming, I stormed into the study where Dave was already printing off missing posters with Amber’s photo on.
Grabbing a handful, I left, my imagination running riot. Where was my little girl?
Had she been hit by a car? Was she bleeding in an alley?
Racing along the street, I handed out posters to anyone I saw, pinned them to lampposts, trees, shop windows, desperate to find her. I even looked in skips and bins.
Hours passed, and there was still no sign of Amber. Exhausted, I got home at 3am and collapsed on the sofa. ‘Where is she?’ I sobbed.
‘We’ll find her,’ Dave soothed.
But she didn’t come home the next day, or the day after…
When Ally got back from her grandma’s, she headed straight to her sister’s bedroom. ‘Where’s Amber?’ she asked.
Fighting back tears, me and Dave told her what we knew. ‘When will she be back?’ Ally frowned.
‘We don’t know,’ Dave replied. Ally adored her big sis. Would I ever see them together again?
As the weeks passed, my search for Amber consumed me. It drove a gulf between me and Dave, and I couldn’t focus on being a mum to Ally. A month after Amber disappeared, me and Dave split
up, and I moved out.
I couldn’t work, eat, sleep – all that mattered was finding my eldest daughter. I’d gone from mum and wife to detective.
Months went by and I stuck up new posters, showed her photo to everyone. Whenever I saw someone linger at her picture in a shop window, suspicion rose. Did they know something? If it was a man, I fought the urge to confront him. Had he taken Amber?
I devoted every second to my search. ‘Posters aren’t enough,’ I told my mate Jenny. ‘But I’ve found this website where you can get the addresses of known sex offenders in the area. I’ve printed them off, so I can check them out.’
I dropped the list on the table. ‘Will you come with me?’
Jenny stared at me in horror. ‘Have you heard yourself?’ she gasped. ‘You want to stake out the homes of paedophiles and rapists?’
I nodded, held her gaze… and her eyes softened. She knew I wouldn’t let this go. She’d loved Amber like one of her own.
‘Okay,’ she said gently. ‘I’m in.’
Other friends agreed to help, too, watching different houses so we could get through the list quicker.
Climbing into black tracksuit bottoms and a black top, I glanced in the mirror. It was 10.30pm on a Thursday night – mine and Amber’s TV night. The two of us used to snuggle up on the sofa under a blanket, Ally clambering in between us to watch the soaps.
How different this picture was. Me, on my own, kitted out with a torch to sneak around the houses of criminals. How I envied the mums putting their kids to bed.
In the dead of night, me and Jenny sneaked around the side of the first house. My heart thumping, I peered into the basement windows… ‘We could be arrested for this,’ Jenny whispered. ‘Or shot for trespassing.’
Yeah, or I might spot my daughter being held captive.
But there was nothing in the basement but old furniture and cardboard boxes. So many houses were checked, so many cars on drives, so many bins. But there were no clues about Amber.
My search even took me to Mexico. I’d heard about girls being kidnapped and taken there to be trafficked. When I came back empty-handed, I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. I’d cry for hours, clinging to the hope Amber was alive, that I’d find her.
A year passed. Her room was exactly as she’d left it. On her birthday, I sat on her bed clutching her baby photo. ‘You were such a beautiful baby, with your bright blue eyes and freckles,’ I whispered. ‘Not a day passes that I’m not proud to be your mum.’
Then tears choked away all other words, all other thoughts…
Every day, I scoured the newspapers for clues that might lead to Amber. Picking up the paper one morning, a girl’s face jumped out at me – she had pretty blue eyes just like my daughter’s.
Her name was Chelsea King. She’d been raped and killed, her body found in a lake five days after she’d gone missing. She’d been 17.
My heart broke for her family. I knew the pain they must have gone through, not knowing if she was dead or alive. At least I had hope.
A few days later, a police officer called round – he had some news.‘We’ve found your daughter,’ he started. My heart leaped – then sank when I saw the look on his face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he continued. ‘Amber’s dead.’
‘No!’ I cried. But I knew it was true from his eyes.
The officer nodded sadly. ‘We brought in a man named John Gardner for the rape and murder of Chelsea King,’ he explained. ‘He confessed to Amber’s murder as well.’
Chelsea King! The girl I’d spotted in the paper. Hold on… I knew John Gardner, too. He was one of the sex offenders whose house my friends had checked.
I broke down as they told me how Gardner had abducted Amber on her way to school, then raped and stabbed her before burying her body on waste ground.
Visions of my daughter’s last moments made me feel sick.
Had her death been quick and painless, or slow and brutal?
A week after Amber’s funeral, I saw Gardner on the news. ‘I won’t say what happened,’ he told journalists. ‘But if the girls’ parents have questions, I’ll answer.’
My blood boiled. Damn right I had questions! Calling the prison, I tried booking a meeting. But I could never get in quick enough.
‘Sorry,’ an officer told me. ‘He only gets two visits a week, and his mum books them. You’ll have to ask her for one of her visits.’
So, I waited outside the prison. When she saw me, she ran off.
Next, I emailed Gardner. You said you’d face me, but I guess you’re a coward, I wrote. I even bought a mobile phone, and left it at the prison for him to call me on. He never did.
Finally, a week before his trial, I tearfully tried to write my victim impact statement. I wrote how Gardner had stolen my daughter, torn my family apart, then not faced me.
Suddenly, my phone rang. It was my lawyer. ‘I’ve had a call from Gardner’s lawyer,’ she said. ‘They’re granting you a meeting with him in an hour. Can you get here?’
Before I knew it, I was being escorted into the visiting room, sat down in front of a dark-haired man with small dark eyes. My daughter’s killer.
‘I suppose you’re gonna yell and scream at me now,’ he said.
I took a deep breath. The anger and hate I carried didn’t matter. All I wanted was to know exactly what happened.
‘Tell me what happened on the last day of my daughter’s life,’ I said, calmly.
And he did. He told me how he’d been angry about his personal life and gone for a drive, how Amber had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Said when he stabbed her it was so quick she didn’t see it coming.
Blow by blow, he told me every detail. ‘She haunted me after,’ he said quietly. ‘You put her picture all over town. Everywhere I looked, her face was staring back at me.’
So that’s why he’d confessed. After the meeting, I went back to the old house and sat in
Amber’s room.
At last, I knew the truth and it did help. My imagination couldn’t get the better of me now.
At Gardner’s trial, when a video of Amber growing up was played, he broke down in tears. Maybe he finally realised he hadn’t just hurt some girl – he’d raped and murdered someone’s baby, a granddaughter, a sister… His victim became a person.
In March, John Gardner, 31, admitted raping and murdering Amber and Chelsea. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
I’m glad I got the chance to question her killer. He had to face up to what he’d done, and I needed answers. Now, both me and my girl can find some peace.
Carrie McGonigle, 41, California, USA