He could see his 13-year-old prey framed in the living-room windows - cozy in her favorite nightclothes and typing speedily at the family computer on this rainy, 39-degree December night.
As usual, Kacie Woody had switched on all the lights as she walked from room to room, and the small house now glowed against a backdrop of towering trees.
He stepped closer. Kacie was there for the taking - typing, distracted, her silhouette melding with that of the computer monitor before her.
She was right there, only a stretch of dark and the front door between them, and she had no idea he had come for her.
Meanwhile, police officer Rick Woody - Kacie's dad - was on patrol in nearby Greenbrier, cruising the swath of U.S. 65 that cuts through this central Arkansas town. The traffic was mostly 18-wheelers, headed either north toward Missouri or south to Interstate 40.
Like most nights in Greenbrier, population 3,042, this one had been uneventful. Rick, suffering from a sinus infection, almost had called in sick. The night was cold and rainy, and his chief had told him to take it easy. Rick still felt poorly, but he figured he could make it through his shift, which would end at 2 a.m.
Rick liked policing the sleeping town. He made few arrests, but that was OK. His idea of good law enforcement was to prevent bad things, not to step in after the crime. That's why he watched out for the young women making nightly bank deposits after Greenbrier's stores and restaurants closed. They often neglected to call for an escort, so Rick would just show up when they were due to leave work.
While on duty, Rick kept his cell phone close so he could check frequently on Kacie. He never really worried, though. Kacie had grown up motherless and had assumed much responsibility at home. She laundered her own clothes, cooked dinner for herself and did her homework without being told. If there were an emergency, Rick could get from Greenbrier to the house in 15 minutes.
Kacie didn't mind her dad's late hours. She had always lived in the little gray house on Griggers Lane, on the outskirts of Holland, population 597, a tiny community in the center of rural Faulkner County. The solitude didn't faze her. Nor was she disturbed by the seemingly impenetrable darkness outside.
Most nights, Kacie didn't even lock the front door.
One of her older brothers, Tim, 19, still lived at home and was usually there with Kacie at night. Tim's friend, Eric Betts, also 19, had taken up temporary residence at the Woody house. So he, too, was in and out. If the guys weren't around, there was always her Aunt Teresa, who also lived on Griggers Lane.
But on this bone-chilling evening of Dec. 3, 2002, a Tuesday, Tim had left for the University of Central Arkansas library at 6 p.m. Eric was at his electrician's class. And Aunt Teresa was in Conway, cheering at her daughter's basketball game.
Kacie was home alone.
EARLIER THAT DAY
For Kacie and her circle of seventh-grade friends at Greenbrier Middle School, the day had begun with an argument. At the heart of the tiff were Kacie and one of her closest friends, Samantha Mann, also 13.
The girls all normally agreed on pretty much everything - which guys were hot, which girls were popular and, of course, the belief that "school sucks." The group convened each morning before walking to class arm in arm. A sense of security pervaded these locker-lined hallways, where blue-and-white panthers prowled and pounced across cinder-block walls.
Kacie's social path at school was neatly paved. She had attended Greenbrier schools since kindergarten, and her sunny nature attracted new friends each year. She also was the younger sister of two former football stars.
Her days were plagued by little more than the usual teenage worries - weight gain, grades and guys.
Like her friends, Kacie was experimenting with eye shadow as well as boyfriends. But learning to put on makeup proved to be much easier than mastering the intricacies of teenage courtship.
In an e-mail sent to a male Greenbrier friend that autumn, she had confided: My longest relantionship was... i think 3 months. I am usually the one that gets dumped... I have really bad luck with guys. Dude I am like sooo totally confused about guys right now!! ARGH! Sometimes guys really bad suck ya know? It's like... idk... weird... lol... well I am gunna jet bc i don't have nething to say...
Samantha, a self-assured, outspoken blonde, could relate to Kacie's frustration. What Sam couldn't understand was her friend's fascination with the boys she met on the Internet. So far, Kacie had found love twice online. Both of these relationships bothered Sam. She worried about how freely Kacie was giving out her phone number to strangers. Several times, she had warned Kacie: "You can't be in love with someone from the Internet."
The girls' long-running disagreement peaked Dec. 3. It stemmed from a comment Sam had made the day before about a photo of Scott, Kacie's mostrecent online boyfriend. The picture, which hung in Kacie's locker, was of a young, dark-haired guy in a football uniform. Sam had said he was "hot." Kacie thought she said "fat." They had exchanged barbs, and by the following morning, the girls' mutual friends had taken sides.
Sam decided it was time to involve an adult.
For moral support, she took a friend with her to Room 214, where school counselor Dianna Kellar spends her days treading delicately through seventh grade's hormonal minefields.
With her maternal demeanor and lavish use of endearments, Mrs. Kellar, a middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair, is a comforting presence in this small world of constant melodrama. She handled Sam and Kacie's fight as deftly as any other.
After hearing Sam out, the counselor summoned Kacie to the office and let the girls muddle through their grievances by themselves. By the time Mrs. Kellar reappeared, Sam and Kacie had patched up their friendship.
But Sam feared the truce would be short-lived. Kacie didn't know it, but Sam had told Mrs. Kellar that Kacie was giving out her phone number online. Mrs. Kellar had promised to talk to Kacie again, and Sam wasn't sure how her friend would react.
As the girls left that morning, Mrs. Kellar asked Kacie about the matter. Kacie assured the counselor she had shared her number only with people approved by her dad. But Sam knew this wasn't true.
During fifth period, Mrs. Kellar called Kacie back into her office and warned her about dangers online, but Kacie clearly had no fear of anyone she had met on the Internet.
In the months to come, Mrs. Kellar would wonder: What else should I have asked?
When Sam and Kacie met after school, Kacie was her usual bubbly self. But she made an unusual suggestion that later would cause her friends to wonder if she had sensed the horror to come.
As the girls prepared to leave, Kacie asked if she could spend the night at Sam's house. Sam, knowing her mom would frown on a school-night sleepover, said no.
Kacie also asked Jessica Tanner, a slender girl with large, earnest brown eyes. Jessica also said no.
Kacie persisted, asking a third friend, but received the same answer.
Kacie didn't explain why she wanted to sleep elsewhere that night. She just didn't want to go home.
The refusals didn't upset her. She laughed - that goofy, honking guffaw for which she was known - and headed to where her bus waited, its engine thrumming. Before boarding, she hugged all of her friends.
"Bye!" she called out. "See ya!"
A FINAL CHAT
Kacie spent the evening watching the weather, fervently hoping that the predicted sleet and snow might give her a day off from school.
She showered and put on what she always wore to bed - a favorite pair of blue sweat pants sporting the endearment "Baby Girl" and a gray sweatshirt. Then she returned to the computer, which sat in front of one of the two rectangular windows overlooking the Woodys' front yard.
Awaiting Kacie was an instant message from Scott, who was writing from his home in an affluent suburb of Atlanta.
Kacie loved instant messages, which, unlike e-mail, pop up on the screen as soon as they are written. Conversations are in real time.
Kacie had met Scott in a chat room in May 2002. He described himself as a 14-year-old boy living in Georgia. He liked football and wrestling.
Kacie and Scott had officially become boyfriend and girlfriend on Oct. 3, 2002. Scott's online moniker was Tazz2999. Kacie's was modelbehavior63. Their rapid-fire conversation made abbreviations a necessity and misspellings inevitable : Tazz2999: Hey Sweetie modelbehavior63: hey Tazz2999: how are you my angel ?
modelbehavior63: ok... u Tazz2999: better now that ur on sweetie And they were off, fingers flying across keyboards as they bemoaned troublesome classes like math and Arkansas history, and analyzed Kacie and Sam's reconciliation. They also discussed Kacie's two favorite extracurricular activities:
modelbehavior63: GUESS WHAT... GUESS WHAt... GUESS WHAT
Tazz2999: WHAT hehe
modelbehavior63: 23 kids outta 130 were picked to sing in frontof the school board and I AM ONE OF THEM... ooo adn wednesday i have band practice and thursday i have choir practice
Tazz2999: Thats excenlant baby I told you You have the most beutiful voice I have ever hears
As she instant-messaged Scott, Kacie was on the phone with another Internet friend named Dave.
Dave was upset. His aunt, in a coma since a car wreck, was about to die. Kacie hurt for him. Her mother, Kristie, had died in an accident when Kacie was only 7. Kacie was certain her beloved mama was now a beautiful angel, looking out for her from above. Still, heaven was so far away.
Kacie had met Dave sometime during the summer of 2002 in a Yahoo Christian chat room for teens. From the start, their friendship was full of romantic overtones, and even after Scott became her new "official" boyfriend, Kacie had continued her online friendship with Dave.
Scott knew all about Dave. Kacie had introduced them online. The two had even talked on the phone a few times, mostly about cars.
In his Yahoo profile, Dave described himself as an 18-yearold living in San Diego. His picture showed a young man with wavy, sandy hair that fell below his shoulder blades. With his tousled mane, square jaw and pouting mouth, Dave looked like a cross between a surfer and the lead singer of a 1980s hair band.
As Kacie consoled Dave on the phone, she kept Scott abreast of the grim situation:
modelbehavior63: tonight... Dave's aunt is going to meet my mommy Tazz2999: Im so so sorry baby... atleast we know that she will be happy there with your mommy... I am sure she will look out for her... modelbehavior63: yeah... i think they will be best friend... hehe Tazz2999: ... I hope Dave is alright modelbehavior63: he is... i am on the phone... he has been laughing at me... bc he know it is the best... Tazz2999: at least he is laughing Kacie told Scott about her visit to the counselor's office: modelbehavior63: so guess what i got... a lecture Tazz2999: awww im sorry baby modelbehavior63: ... on how u could be a 80 year old rapest... lol Tazz2999: lol modelbehavior63: hehe... and that the picture was ur grandson Tazz2999: how many times have u gotten that 1 hehe modelbehavior63: um... i lost count... well... then... she is like... "do ur parents know u talk to ppl u dont know" i was like "yeah" and she was like... well be careful... and dont agree to meet them less ur mom or dad is with you" i was like..okay... and she is like... well remember this lil talk... i was like... ok... Tazz2999: uh oh. prolly means she is going to talk to u again... modelbehavior63: i kno The young couple moved on to more pleasant topics, like the fact that this day marked their two-month anniversary: Tazz2999: I will always be your teddy graham and you will always be my angel and we will be together forever and always and longer modelbehavior63: awww Tazz2999: hehe what r u doing sweetie modelbehavior63: eating and talking to dave and singing... Dave and i were crying together for a sec... i told him i loved him... and momma told me she did too... and that mommy talks to me... and that she said she would take care of his aunt
'R U OK?'
Kacie sent Scott a link to a weather Web site.
modelbehavior63: look at what it feels like outside!! Tazz2999: awwww holds her tight and rubs her arms to keep her warm
Meanwhile, outside in the chilly darkness, someone crept across the Woodys' front yard - someone who had come for Kacie.
He had driven to the Holland community in a rented silver minivan, slowing down when he reached Griggers Lane, a narrow dirt and gravel road that deadends at the Woody home.
The house, illuminated by interior lamps and a single porch light, stood out in sharp relief against the blackness. Inside, Kacie still sat at the computer, reading Scott's fumbling attempts to wax poetic:
Tazz2999: hehe ill always be with u my angel becouse ur all I want to be with Tazz2999: hehe i put my screen saver as the picture i have in my locker Tazz2999: ur the most beutiful angel in the world Kacie Tazz2999: r u ok sweetie?
When Kacie finally responded, her message was uncharacteristically brief: modelbehavior63: yah It was 9:41 p.m.
Maybe the intruder knocked. Or maybe he just walked in.
Either way, he caught Kacie completely off-guard, covering her face with a chloroformsoaked rag and knocking her glasses onto her dad's recliner. He dragged the thrashing girl through the living room and hauled her out into the cold darkness, across the damp ground and into the waiting minivan.
Throughout the violent struggle, Scott's loving entreaties continued to pop up on the Woodys' computer screen: Tazz2999: r u busy baby?
Tazz2999: ... hehe guess so... Tazz2999: u there baby?
Tazz2999: sweetie r u ok... Tazz2999: please talk to me baby... Tazz2999: Tazz2999: when u r ready to talk sweetie ill be here... Tazz2999: r u mad at me sweetie?
Tazz2999: please talk to me baby... Tazz2999: r u ok sweetie No response. For the next 35 minutes, Scott filled the Woodys' monitor with increasingly frantic pleas: Tazz2999: please GOD let her be ok Tazz2999: Kacie please tlak to me Tazz2999: please... please... Still, no answer. Scott kept trying.
Tazz2999: Kacie Im so so scared I dont know what to do.
Tazz2999: ... please... Say something At 10:15 p.m., Scott called the Woody house.
Tazz2999: why isnt anyone answering the PHONE!
Tazz2999: UGH Tazz2999: Please Tazz2999: PLEASE PICK UP KACIE Tazz2999: PLEASE Tazz2999: GOD PLEASE LET HER PICK UP Tazz2999: please be ok Kacie... GOD let her bo ok Scott e-mailed Kacie's friend Jessica: Jessica please let this be u something is wrong with kacie her s/n is still on and she all the sudden left during our convo but didn't log off and i tried to call her and no one answered and we weren't fighting or anything so i e-mail the cops to make sure she is alright i hop they get it soon...I'm going crazy I don't know what I would do without her please God let her be ok
But it was 10:44 p.m. on a school night, and Jessica wouldn't find the e-mail until the next afternoon.
Frustrated, Scott went back to instant-messaging the Woodys' computer:
Tazz2999: ERIC TIM DADDY DANNY ANYONE PLEASE BE THERE TO HELP HER PLEASE I KNOW SOMETHING ISNT RIGHT PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE
AT THE WOODY HOME
When family friend Eric Betts returned home from his electrician's class at 10:17 p.m., he assumed Kacie was already in bed. For more than an hour, he watched television, getting up periodically to do his laundry.
At 11:30 p.m., during one of his trips to the utility room, Eric noticed that Kacie wasn't in her room. He assumed she was out with friends or family.
Minutes later, Kacie's brother Tim arrived home.
"Where's Kacie?" Eric asked.
"I thought she was here," Tim replied. Concerned, he called his dad. The time was 11:40 p.m.
"Where's Kacie?" Tim asked.
"At home," Rick replied.
"No, she isn't," Tim said.
Rick had last talked to Kacie at 7 p.m. She had been practicing her saxophone.
Rick told Tim to call Kacie's friends. He also told him to check with Aunt Teresa next door. Meanwhile, Rick drove to the Greenbrier Police Department. When he arrived, he called Tim again.
"Nobody knows anything," Tim told him.
Rick notified the Faulkner County sheriff 's office. Then he headed home. His little girl wasn't where she was supposed to be, and he was certain someone had taken her.
When Rick arrived, he noticed that both of Kacie's coats - a brand-new yellow one and her band jacket - were draped over a chair in the kitchen. Her tennis shoes and boots lay by the computer, where she always kicked them off.
At the time Kacie disappeared, the temperature had been 39 degrees and dropping. Heavy rains were moving through the area.
At 12:24 a.m., Deputy Dalton Elliott arrived at the Woody home. After looking around, he asked sheriff's investigator Jim Wooley to join him at the scene. Elliott also notified area law enforcement agencies that a girl was missing.
Meanwhile, phones rang all over Greenbrier as Rick, Tim and Eric quizzed Kacie's friends.
"Is Kacie at your house?" Rick asked Sam when a family member brought the phone to her at 1:11 a.m.
"No," a still-groggy Sam said. "Why?"
By the time Sam hung up, she was fully awake. "Pray for Kacie," she told her mom. "She's missing." Sam sat up the rest of the night, telephone in hand, repeatedly calling Kacie's house.
By now, Rick and the boys had noticed a phone call from Georgia on their Caller ID. The call had been placed at 10:15 p.m.
They made another discovery as well - a long dialogue on the computer between modelbehavior63 and Tazz2999.
AT SCOTT'S HOUSE
Scott checked his computer frequently. Every so often, he fell into a troubled slumber. Finally, five hours after the last message from Kacie, Scott's computer monitor flickered to life: modelbehavior63: hey scott ru there this is eric modelbehavior63: as soon as u get this ANSWER back PLEASE i have GOT TO TALK TO YA Tazz2999: im on... modelbehavior63: what happened with u and kacie tonight... did she just quit talkin... Tazz2999: yeah... just went silent modelbehavior63: did any thing seem like something was wrong?
Tazz2999: nope not at all modelbehavior63: what was the last time that u talked to her... i need as close as a time as possible Tazz2999: 9:41 was her last message... modelbehavior63: ok... did she say anything out of the ordinary Tazz2999: no just quiet I can send you aour whole convo if u like modelbehavior63: no i already got it i just need to know if she has seemed like something has been bothering her or if she needed to talk to someone
Eric confirmed Scott's phone number. He also asked him for his full name, age and address.
modelbehavior63: what was she saying bout the school consoler and this guy dave? anything wrong with her
Tazz2999: well umm her ans Sam have been having a fight and they talked abot it with the consoler then Sam told the consoler that she was dating me and she got lectured... dont worry about Dave he is just a good friend I would have said something if i didnt htink he was a good guy but he is cool
modelbehavior63: so has it just been tonight that she seemed quiet? ... and did she talk about goin some where or with someone ?
Tazz2999: Eric... can u tell me the [truth] now... where is Kacie
modelbehavior63: just tell me... i got to know it is VERY important
Tazz2999: ummm... i dont think so... not tonight... but she was on the phone...
modelbehavior63: do u know with who?
Scott told Eric he didn't know when Dave and Kacie had ended their phone conversation. Nor did he know Dave's last name, only that he lived in San Diego. Scott promised to ask Dave for a phone number if he encountered him online.
modelbehavior63: i am going to get off of here but i will leave it connected just in case... thanks so much for the help Tazz2999: anytime but can answer sumthing 4 me modelbehavior63: whats that?
Tazz2999: what happen to Kacie...
Coming Monday: A frantic search for Kacie Woody.