Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Death of Innocence

Today is an odd day for me, a day that brings back a mixture of memories.

It was on this day 35 years ago that a sixth–grade girl from a small town in my home county vanished in broad daylight. Her body was found a few days later. She had been raped, murdered and left in a stock pond.

Her name was Dana Mize. Few of the people I knew had any idea who she was — until she was abducted. And, initially, that was newsworthy because her father was a candidate for county office in the upcoming primary.

I never met her. But I knew people who knew her fairly well. Her family attended First Baptist Church in my hometown, and "FBC," as it was called, was the biggest church in town. Still is, I imagine. And the congregation always has been tightly knit. A few days ago, I mentioned this upcoming anniversary to an old friend of mine who was a member of that church at the time, and he said he remembered feeling a terrible sadness for the family.

That was the prevailing emotion — at FBC and throughout the county and its communities.

It wasn't long after she disappeared, though, that the whispers began. Her abduction, people were saying, had nothing to do with local politics. If it had, the abductor(s) almost certainly would have contacted someone with a demand that her father withdraw from the race or something similar. But no such communication had been received.

It must have been sexual, so the reasoning went — and, it turned out, the reasoning was right on the money.

I didn't want to believe that. I guess most of the people in the area didn't want to believe it, but I had to admit that it made sense.

It's hard to describe what a shocking time that was. One of the reasons why it was so shocking, I think, was the fact that my hometown was still somewhat innocent and naive when it happened. The place often seemed to exist in a bubble. For whatever reason, people in my hometown seemed to believe they were immune to the tragedies of the world.

That conviction never really made much sense to me because tragedies happened there all the time.

Before I was in grade school, a girl I knew was diagnosed with cancer and died a short time later. When I was in third grade, a classmate of mine died of leukemia. A few years later, the son of some family friends was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A tornado ripped through my hometown when I was 5 and leveled several homes (took a few lives in the process).

And those were just a few of the tragedies that touched me personally. In the years when I was growing up, there were other tragedies that affected other people — like any other place.

I guess what made the Dana Mize episode unique was the fact that criminal intent was behind it. The other tragedies could be written off as being caused by disease or random acts of nature or perhaps sloppiness or stupidity. But this was deliberate.

In a large city, the disappearance of a young girl — and the subsequent discovery of her dead and sexually abused body — wouldn't have raised any eyebrows in those days.

But it was different in my hometown. Everyone who lived there had to accept a previously unthinkable truth: Sexual predators must have been living among us, as they do in any other city or town — and, based on statistics, I can only conclude that some of the girls with whom I attended school must have been abused — by their fathers, by cousins, by family friends, who knows?

In my hometown of Conway, Ark., it seems to me that there must have been sexual predators around — even in that seemingly innocent time.

There was nothing terribly special or unique about my hometown. It was a town much like any other town, I suppose. It was mostly a blue–collar town in a mostly blue–collar county. I'm sure young girls were molested, abused, even assaulted there when I was growing up, but those cases were usually handled quietly, away from the public eye.

What did make the Dana Mize case unique was the fact that the perpetrator didn't live nearby. Turned out, he had flown to Arkansas from his home in New Jersey, committed the crime and flown back.

I still don't know what drew him to Mize's tiny hometown of Vilonia — which was much smaller than Conway. To my knowledge, he had never been to that area before.

I have tried, many times over the last 35 years, to reconstruct his movements, and I have tried to figure out how he could just stumble onto Vilonia. I don't know what the odds would have been, but I keep coming back to the idea that — somehow — he must have known that Vilonia was there.

His plane had to have landed in Little Rock. He could have rented a car at the airport and easily driven to Conway, which is along the highway outside Little Rock.

If the trail stopped in Conway, you could chalk the whole thing up to randomness, I guess. But Vilonia is one of those out–of–the–way country towns. You don't just stumble onto it. You have to be going there on purpose.

And the stock pond where the body was found was, as I recall, even more remote.

A complete stranger to the area would be almost bound to get lost after being, to say the least, distracted by a life–and–death struggle, either before or after the sexual assault, and a search for a suitably secluded spot to drop the body.

It seems likely to me that he would have had to ask for directions back to the highway. And someone almost certainly would have remembered giving directions to a disheveled stranger in a rented car whose clothes may have been dirty and/or wet.

Yet my memory is that the perpetrator did all this in a single afternoon, returned to the airport and caught a flight back to New Jersey — and he didn't ask for directions and apparently wasn't connected to the crime until a few days later, when he confessed to his psychiatrist.

He's still alive, I hear. He was convicted of capital felony murder, which often carries a death sentence, but his jury sentenced him to life without parole. He was 34 at the time he committed the crime so he is about to turn 70.

I've heard he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, the same mental illness that afflicts the man who shot Gabrielle Giffords back in January.

That would answer a lot of questions, I guess. But not all.

I suppose some questions will never be answered.

1 comment:

gwg said...

I was 10 years old when Dana was abducted. I went to FBC and was friends with Dana. She was such a sweet person. I remember what you describe as the "Mayberry-like" qualities of Conway prior to that time. I have the exact same feeling in regards to the death of innocence. It was a death of innocence for me personally but I recall it being the death of innocence for Conway as well.