Haley Herzog remembers being 6 years old and bored and a little brave and itching to go to that park right by her grandma's home in Council Bluffs.
She does not remember her grandma, who was outside cleaning out her car, telling her no. She does not remember her grandma, who must have recognized the strong will of her precocious granddaughter, offering this compromise: OK, but only to the top of the hill. Where I can see you. And come right back!
So about 11 a.m., Haley scampered up the hill, walked through the brush and entered the 90-acre Fairmount Park on a hot July day in 1999.
She hopped atop one of those play seats that let you rock back and forth.
As she rocked, Haley saw a woman and a child, and then a man peeing behind a tree.
She rocked some more and saw just the man.
The woman and child were gone.
Haley was all alone. She suddenly felt an urgent need to find her grandma, Meg Hartman.
“O-MA!” she shouted, using a German word for grandmother.
What happened next was the kind of statistical anomaly that you know is rare but still makes you panic the moment your child slips away from you at a shopping mall, the grocery store, a park.
What happened next was every parent's nightmare.
Haley Herzog was kidnapped.
It was a Friday, and Chris Herzog was at work at First Data. His wife, Mindy, works there too but was off that day.
The couple had sent Haley to Mindy's mother's house for a summertime sleepover. Meg Hartman was a Montessori teacher with all her educational equipment in her basement and a spare bedroom decorated with rainbows that she called the Rainbow Room, where Haley and sometimes her 2-year-old sister, Kinsey, would sleep.
It was July 2, Hartman's 58th birthday. Having Haley over was special, even though the girl could be a handful.
Haley loved to explore and had the run of her Chalco Hills neighborhood. Mindy couldn't count the times her mother would call and say “Haley's missing,” only for Haley to show up soon afterward.
But when neighbors flagged Hartman, saying they could hear Haley calling for her from the park, the grandmother went looking. She got in her car, drove to the entrance of Fairmount Park and shouted for the little girl. She looked in the upper park. She looked in the lower park. She asked strangers. She hollered for Haley.
Hartman then raced home and at 11:27 a.m. called police.
Chris got the call at work.
Mindy was unloading groceries from the car when she picked up the kitchen phone before noon.
This is when time stopped. Chris left his desk and Mindy left the groceries and both raced to Council Bluffs.
Traffic was so slow. They knew so little.
A police officer took them to the park, where officers were combing the 90 acres.
One showed them a pair of little girl underpants and asked: Are these Haley's?
The answer was no.
But the question haunted them, sent their thoughts spinning.
Find her, God. Bring her home, God. Just let her come home, God.
Haley's Christmas picture flashed on TV screens across metro Omaha. Some 50 law enforcement officers were on the hunt. The Herzogs' parish priest from St. Stephen the Martyr came to the house to pray.
Chris tried to distract himself by playing with Kinsey. Mindy tried not to go crazy, but already she was being tugged by hope and fear. How would they survive this if Haley were gone forever?
Haley remembers how the man said he'd help her find her grandma's home.
She remembers how a rope was strung across the back seat of his red, rusted car and how his clothes hung from it.
Haley remembers how they drove all around, and how when he asked her to take off her clothes, she tried to scrunch down into the space between his dashboard and the floor to hide; how she eventually obliged; and how she didn't fully understand when they were naked and outside in a field. Her big worry was that her saddle shoes might get dirty.
Later she would tell police about the man wrapping something tight around his arm and holding what looked like a squirt gun against his arm.
She would say nothing about the clothes and the field and being naked, because it didn't make sense to her.
About 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. Some are runaways. Some are taken by a parent or relative in what can be volatile and dangerous situations. Some, in the most benign cases, temporarily go missing because of a miscommunication. Johnny went to the neighbor's, say, and no one told mom and dad.
Stranger abduction is less common — 115 cases a year — and terribly dangerous and unpredictable.
Four out of 10 children in stranger abduction cases are killed, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Four percent are never found. That means a little more than half of the children in stranger abductions are returned to their families.
Several recent cases highlight the danger:
» A 6-year-old unidentified girl who was being called “Maria” turned up during a police raid on a Gypsy camp in Greece last week.
» A 14-year-old New York City boy with autism has been missing for three weeks. Avonte Oquendo, who cannot speak, left his school in Queens on Oct. 4.
» A 2-year-old boy was grabbed by a stranger a week ago at Brookhaven Park near 110th and Harrison Streets. The boy's mother ran after the woman, struck her in the face and got her son back. The woman later was identified as a special-needs adult in town visiting relatives. No charges were filed.
Stranger abductions happen most often before or after school or school activities. And strangers use the same ploys I was warned of as a kid when two boys about my age went missing in Bellevue in 1983.
The boys, Danny Joe Eberle and Christopher Walden, later turned up dead.
The man who kidnapped and killed them, John Joubert, was caught, tried and put to death.
Haley's abductor let her go.
The man who took Haley walked her through a cemetery, then through some brush, and then to a fence that separated all that from the backyard of one of the Omaha area's biggest business leaders.
Who knows whether the man knew the home with the in-ground swimming pool belonged to John Nelson, chairman of SilverStone Group.
But that was his house. And here was Haley, who shortly before 5 p.m. ran through the backyard and pounded on the glass patio door.
The Nelsons, it turned out, were on vacation.
Inside, Jill Aldredge was getting dinner ready. Aldredge worked for Nelson and was housesitting.
The knocking startled her.
Aldredge approached the patio door cautiously and didn't immediately let Haley in.
Haley told her that a man she didn't know had placed her in this yard, had told her she could get help.
Aldredge, unaware there was a missing girl and a metro area looking for her, thought the story sounded alarming. She worried that Haley might be a ploy by this man to get in.
But she let Haley in anyway and asked if there was someone she should call.
Haley said yes. Call her grandma. Haley knew the number.
Aldredge punched it in.
“I bet you're looking for somebody,” Aldredge said cheerfully into the phone.
She heard screaming and crying on the other end of the line.
The police came to the Nelson home and talked to Aldredge and her husband, who had just come from work, and Haley.
In what seemed to the Herzogs like an eternity later, Haley was delivered to her grandmother's home. Mindy practically tore her daughter out of the car, crying, hugging.
Chris told a reporter it was the best day of his life. And the worst.
Meg Hartman finally could breathe. A miracle.
Haley was starving.
A doctor examined her, and the Herzogs went to a relative's home for dinner.
The Herzogs celebrated the Fourth of July two days later. They went on their previously scheduled vacation to the Wisconsin Dells.
In the days and weeks and years that followed, there were counselors and slow awakenings — like in fifth grade, when Haley learned what oral sex was and had a name for what happened to her.
They never caught the man who took Haley. He was described in news reports as being in his late teens or early 20s, with short brown hair. He had been wearing a sweatband, a blue shirt and white shorts with a red stripe that day.
Police later rounded up four suspects but didn't have enough evidence. No arrests were made.
For the most part, Chris and Mindy tried to keep life as normal as possible.
“We thought it was best,” said Chris.
“I wanted her to be Haley Who Went to School and Was a Dancer and a Cheerleader, not Haley the Girl Who Was Kidnapped,” said Mindy.
Some people were critical. They thought Chris and Mindy should have kept a tighter leash on their daughter. Some blamed Hartman.
But the Herzogs were so grateful, they ignored the criticism and went on with life.
Haley went to school. She ran the neighborhood. She threw herself into a million activities at Millard South. She was a cheerleader, a thespian, sang in show choir. She played violin in a local youth symphony and she wrote for the school newspaper.
Haley, like the others at Millard South in 2011, found a way to cope after a fellow student shot and killed a beloved assistant principal, injured the principal and then turned the gun on himself.
That fall she entered the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and, as she did in high school, got “super involved.”
She joined the Kappa Delta sorority and now is an appointed officer. She joined the National Broadcasting Society and now is its president.
Haley is majoring in broadcast journalism and political science. She is juggling three minors: English, theater and news editorial.
She remembers the news stories from 1999 and says some reports got facts wrong.
She said she wants to be a journalist to tell other people's stories.
But right now she is telling her own.
And here's what she wants you to know: A bad thing happened to her. But it doesn't define her.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|