Snatched by the bad man

My daughter was missing, but did my innocent grandson know more than I realised...?

Published by: Linda Massarella and Louie Matthews
Published on: 20 October 2011

The minute I opened the front door, I noticed it. The smile on my daughter's face was brighter than normal, brown eyes full of sparkle.
‘You look happy,' I said, hugging her. Maybe things were finally looking up between her and her husband Brian Cole...
They'd been married for three years, had a gorgeous son called River. But scratch the surface of their seemingly perfect life, and things were very different. Brian, 38, was lazy, refused to get a job. He spent his days fishing while Heather waitressed, desperately trying to make ends meet.
They rowed about it constantly. Worst of all, those rows sometimes turned violent. Two years earlier, Heather, 32, had got a restraining order out against Brian after he'd broken two of her ribs.
I'd been so pleased when she'd left him and come to stay with us. But Brian had called her endlessly, begging for forgiveness.
Heather was the type of girl
who made friends within seconds, had a laugh that made even the gloomiest person smile. She deserved so much better than an arrogant thug like Brian Cole - and I'd told her as much.
‘Don't listen to him,' I'd begged her. But after a week, she'd started to cave in.
‘He says he loves me - and River needs his daddy,' she'd argued. ‘Besides, what if he takes River away from me?'
That's when I knew I'd lost her. She'd do anything for her son.
So she'd gone back to her deadbeat hubby. From the look of her now though, maybe she'd been right to give him a second chance.
She'd enrolled on a cookery course too, wanted to qualify as a chef and give River a better life. Maybe that's what had put the smile back on her face? But no...
‘I've met someone else,' Heather beamed. ‘We work together at the restaurant.'
I gasped, not sure what to think. I'd been married to her dad Steve, 67, for 45 years. Cheating went against everything I believed in. Then again, her hubby had treated her so badly, was it really wrong?
‘Does Brian know?' I asked quietly. Heather rolled her eyes.
‘Yes, he's not happy about it, but we've been miserable for ages anyway,' she said. ‘Once I've finished my training, we'll go our separate ways.'
Really?! Great stuff... but I couldn't help feeling Heather was playing with fire.
‘Just be careful, for River's sake,' I said. ‘I just wish me and your dad lived closer - 150 miles is such a long way...'
A few months later, Steve and me were driving to see Heather and River when my mobile rang.
‘Don't come over, Mum,' Heather begged. ‘Brian's gone mental, and smashed up our bedroom.'
‘What?! Look, we're still coming,' I gasped. ‘I want to make sure you're okay.'
We raced through the last few streets and, when we got to the flat in Portland, Oregon, USA, little River answered the door.
‘Nana! Papa!' he beamed.
‘Hi, sweetheart,'
I smiled, hugging him tight.
But I was looking behind him. Heather was sitting on the sofa next to Brian. Both were silent.
And when I saw the bedroom... It looked as though a wild animal had been let loose. The curtains were torn down, the mattress tossed on the floor, clothes strewn everywhere.
Only someone with a terrible temper could have done this.
Steve and I switched on the telly to distract River, then sat Brian and Heather down. ‘You've got to stop fighting like this,' Steve said. ‘It's not fair on River. He's only three for goodness sake!'
They both nodded.
‘I just want you to be safe and happy,' I told Heather. ‘I love you so much.'
‘Everything will be fine soon,' she replied. I hoped she was right.
Just two weeks later though, Brian called. ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Heather's gone missing,' he said. ‘We had
an argument yesterday, and she drove off in a huff.'
Alarm bells started ringing. Because of the rows, Heather often stayed away for a day or two - so why was Brian so convinced it was ‘bad news' this time?
Heather's brother Ryan, 40, was suspicious, too. ‘Did he ask if we'd spoken to her?' he asked.
‘No,' I replied. ‘That's odd, isn't it?' A feeling of dread trickled down to my stomach. I tried ringing my daughter's mobile, but it constantly rang out.
After three days, we were going out of our minds. ‘I'm ringing the police,' Steve announced.
They agreed to investigate and,
a couple of days later, we met them at Heather's flat. Brian watched moodily as the police searched the place.
Steve and me had a look around, too. Everything looked normal... until we got to the bathroom. A framed picture of Janis Joplin, Heather's favourite singer, was cracked and a stainless steel towel rail was missing from the wall. My heart tightened.
‘Looks like they had a fight in here,' I whispered to Steve.
The police thought the same, took away Heather's hairbrush, and confiscated Brian's computer.
I couldn't even bear to look at Brian. What was that arrogant
face of his hiding?
Days turned into weeks and he stuck to his story, even after the police rang to say Heather's red Ford Focus had been found just a few miles away.
With each day that passed, my fear grew. ‘She'd never stay away from River like this,' I sobbed.
We channelled our grief into action, putting up flyers near Heather's home, talking to all her friends. The restaurant where she worked even offered a $5,000 (£3,200) reward.
But no one came forward. ‘Maybe no news is good news?' Steve said.
No. Call it mother's intuition, but I knew my beautiful daughter was dead - and Brian had her blood on his hands. With no body and no evidence against him though, there was nothing the police could do. Not even when Brian announced he was moving to Idaho, a six-hour drive away.
First I'd lost Heather, now it felt like River was slipping away, too.
‘What have you done to my family?' I wanted to scream at that evil man. But I stayed civil, knowing he might stop me seeing my grandson if I didn't.
Every day was torture. When I woke, for a split-second I forgot about the endless agony. Then the pain would rush back, taking the breath from me. I couldn't even watch the news in case I heard about a body being found. ‘Where are you?' I'd weep over photos. ‘I'll never stop looking for you.'
Before I knew it, a year had passed. We held a remembrance service near one of Heather's favourite rivers. She'd loved the sound of the water, that's why she'd chosen River as her son's name.
Dozens of Heather's friends turned up to the service. We wrote messages to her, put them inside balloons and let them fly up into the air. Everyone paid tribute to my beautiful girl... everyone except Brian and River. Brian refused to let his son come, claimed he was too poorly to travel.
Rubbish - he just didn't want River to remember his mum. Whenever I visited, there were no photos of her on the walls.
One day, I told him: ‘Gosh, you look like your mum with your blond hair.'
The smile on his face faded. ‘My mummy's dead,' he said.
I tried to stay calm. ‘Really?' I asked. ‘How do you know that?'
‘Some bad man took her,' he replied. Then he clammed up and ran off to play. What did my grandson know about his mother's disappearance? Had his dad said something? It was so frustrating...
Finally, two years and four months after Heather had gone missing, the phone rang. ‘We've arrested Brian Cole for the murder of your daughter,' said a police officer. ‘We'll come and see you tomorrow and explain everything.'I put the phone down and turned to Steve, shaking with shock. ‘Th-they've got him,' I whispered. We held each other close, weeping. Finally, we'd know what had happened to our beautiful daughter.Next day, I gripped Steve's hand tightly as officers told us what they knew. ‘We've found Heather's body,' one said. ‘I'm so sorry, but she'd been placed inside a body bag and dumped in a remote forest. It's a miracle she was found.' 
A forest worker doing his rounds had spotted the body bag.
‘Don't be sorry,' I said.
Do you know how I felt? Thrilled. It might sound odd, but I'd already accepted that Heather was dead. Finding her was the best news I could've hoped for.
It was tough, though, hearing all the gruesome details. Her body was so decomposed, she was almost a skeleton, but the police reckoned she'd been beaten with the towel rail and strangled.
Alongside Heather's body, the police found a green rubber frog bathroom toy, a pair of tracksuit bottoms the same size Brian wore and, crucially, a bent towel rail the exact size of the one missing from Heather's flat. Brian was still protesting his innocence, but the evidence looked pretty damning.
‘We'll get you justice,' I promised Heather. A date was set for Brian's trial. River was staying with his other gran, Jackie.
‘He should be with us,' I told Steve, and he agreed.
We hired a lawyer and, a few days later, a car pulled up outside our house and River jumped out. ‘Nana! Papa!' he said. ‘Dad's away for work, can I stay with you?'
‘Of course,' I said, trying to hide my tears. He was five, too young to understand what his dad had done.
Having him with us helped take our mind off the upcoming trial. It was going to be so hard hearing the details of my daughter's murder, but River helped us smile every day.
Finally, in June this year, Brian appeared at Multnomah Court House charged with murder. Steve and me went along, determined to face the man we'd once called our son.
There was lots of circumstantial evidence. Phone records showed Brian's calls to Heather dropped off dramatically when she ‘disappeared'.
‘He normally never stopped calling her,' I hissed to Steve. And Brian admitted that he'd tampered with her mobile to stop her from calling her boyfriend.
Their neighbour Sarah Gonzales had heard them arguing the day before Heather went missing, and babysat River the following day. So that's where River was as Brian dumped her body. He'd even turned off his mobile phone so he couldn't be tracked. The place where Heather's body was found was so remote, you had to walk through waist-high vines to get to it.
But Brian knew the road. ‘His truck had got stuck up there a few months earlier,' Steve remembered.
Then there were the things found in the body bag with Heather, especially the bent towel rail. Brian didn't have an explanation. His only defence was that police hadn't looked for any other suspects.
The jury was shown pictures of Heather's skeleton, the fracture marks clear on her bones. ‘My poor baby, reduced to this,' I wept.
The jury could see what kind of beast Brian had been, and found him guilty. Three weeks later, Steve and me returned to the court to see him sentenced. I held a picture of Heather, looking beautiful and full of life, while my husband gripped a small cardboard box.
After Brian had shuffled in wearing a blue prison suit, his hands and feet cuffed, the judge gave us permission to speak.
Steve held up the box. ‘This is the same size box as our daughter Heather's ashes came back to us in,' he said. ‘Collecting them was the hardest thing we've ever done.'
Brian looked at the floor, his eyes red and swollen. But his tears were only for himself. Coward.
The judge sentenced him to 25 years. Relief washed through me - it was enough time to raise River into a happy, decent young man.
He's nearly seven now and is happy and cheeky, just like his mum. He knows his dad made a bad mistake and can't come home, but we haven't told him all the facts yet. We'll have to soon, though. He loves computers and it won't be long before he works out how to Google his name.
Brian's still not admitted what he did, but I reckon the day he killed her, Heather told him she was leaving for good.
Not a day goes by when I don't wish I hadn't done more to rescue her from Brian. I'd beg mums who see their daughters in an abusive relationship to do everything they can to get them out before it's too late. Because I'd give everything - my very life - to see just once more the bright smile on my daughter's face, her brown eyes full of sparkle.
Jeni Mallory, 65, Gig Harbor, Washington, USA