If I Can’t Have You, Nobody Will

(This story has been optioned for film by Mar Vista Entertainment)

 

Laura Tinsdale drove along the main road that Saturday in October, into the little farm town of Wakefield in northeastern Nebraska, her long blonde hair dancing in the breeze through the open windows. Corn fields shimmered green and gold in the sun.

The nineteen-year-old filled the tank of her brother’s grey Chevy Cavalier at the gas station on Oak Street, as she had promised him she would. Her errand completed, she turned onto a street arched by tall oaks just beginning to show a trace of autumn color, and pulled up at her friend Sara Martins’ small white two-story frame house.

Sara was out front watching her baby brother and sister Anthony and Diane play on their swing set when Laura, dressed in a light red windbreaker and white shorts, hopped out to meet her. Soon engrossed in giggling and small talk, the girls didn’t immediately notice the white Ford pickup circling the block … or its huge, muscled driver, wearing a country-western logo tee-shirt.

Then he parked and Laura saw him. Red hair bristled out from under his black baseball cap; his Fu Manchu moustache accentuated his scowl. His pale blue eyes were fixed on her.

Ryan Pendersen, the hulking 245 pound, six-foot-four former high school football player and Laura’s her ex-boyfriend, had been stalking and terrorizing her since she broke up with him two months before.

“Come over to the truck and talk to me a minute?” he pleaded.

“Stay away from me Ryan,” Laura cried, then dashed into the house. She grabbed the phone and dialed 9-1-1. But Pendersen followed her right in. “You’re not calling the police, are you?”

Denying it, knowing that to tell the truth would only anger him, she slowly placed the phone back in its cradle. The toddlers, drawn inside by the noise, saw this giant of a man yelling and started to cry.

Just being in the house with Ryan put her friends in danger, she realized.   So she didn’t protest as he led her out.  Once outside though, she quickly backed away.

“All I’m asking is for you to talk to me. How hard can that be?” he said, moving toward her, arms wide. Then, quick as a striking snake, his hand shot out and grabbed Laura’s arm.  “Sara, get the police!” Laura screamed.

As Sara stood paralyzed with fear, her mother and 19-year-old brother, Mike, came racing out of the house. Mike ran to help Laura.

Holding Laura with one arm, Pendersen backed to his truck and pulled a pistol. “This is none of your business,” he shouted. “Get back in the house!”

Sara and Mrs. Martins backed away but Mike didn’t immediately obey.  Ryan sighted his pistol on the young man.

“Ryan, no!” Laura cried. “Leave them alone. And I’ll come with you.” The frightened Martins retreated; the door clicked closed behind them.

The finality of the sound overwhelmed Laura. She struggled again, attempting one last time to break free.

Pendersen tucked the gun in his belt, grabbed her with both arms, and shoved her roughly into his truck.

***

Laura had met Ryan Pendersen that April through a mutual friend. Still a senior in high school at the time, she was, at first, captivated by this somewhat older man. Unlike the awkward, rough-edged boys Laura had dated in school, Ryan, 22, was witty, charming and self-assured. He opened doors for her when they went to a restaurant. He helped her into the passenger seat of his truck. He bought her flowers and candy. He didn’t even lose his temper when he got caught in the middle of a game between the two youngest of Laura’s seven siblings and was hit by a rubber suction-cup tipped dart. And he was the first young man she’d brought home who could hold his own in a conversation with her intellectual biologist-turned-farmer dad, David.

“He almost seems too nice,” Laura commented to her mother, Marilyn, one night after he dropped her off. But Marilyn, impressed by Ryan’s courtly manners and apparent adoration of her daughter, suggested Laura give him a chance.

Ryan’s adoration quickly turned to obsession and a desire to control Laura completely. He’d “bump into” friends of Laura’s in town and subtly warn them against keeping appointments they’d made to meet her. He’d wait for Laura until she got off work at the chicken farm where she fed pullets, and insist she come with him immediately. He’d refuse to take her home until past eleven o’clock at night, when he knew the rest of her family would already be asleep.

His increasing demands and the way he was alienating her friends made Laura uncomfortable. She tried to gently taper off their time together. But the more Laura tried to pull away, the more jealous, angry and hostile Ryan became, until there was no hint of the polite and engaging man she’d met just a few months before.

The night in July when she told him she no longer wanted to see him, he’d gone into a rage, putting a shotgun to her head, saying, “If I can’t have you, nobody will.” Finally, after the longest minute of Laura’s young life, he lowered the shotgun slightly. “You owe me $450,” he said. “That’s how much I spent on you and I want it back. Pay me and I won’t shoot you.” Trembling with anger and fear, Laura reached for her purse, wrote him a check, then flew out the door.

She had hoped it would end there. But wherever she went, Ryan was there.  He’d call late at night and threaten to torch her family’s farmhouse and van unless she agreed to meet him. Although she filed numerous complaints and took out an order of protection against him, the police refused to take the threats seriously, believing that Ryan, who wanted to join the force and had recently taken the police exam, was just blowing off steam and would eventually calm down. “He’s really a good guy,” one of the Wakefield officers, an acquaintance of Ryan’s had protested.  “He just has a bad temper.”

Yet, in August, a little more than a month after the breakup, this “good guy” abducted her for the first time from in front of a different friend’s house. When she refused his pleas to renew their relationship, he again put a gun to her head, this time a pistol. With his other beefy hand, he grabbed her throat. As he pulled the trigger, Laura shut her eyes—then gasped with relief when she heard its impotent click; it was unloaded. With the gun still pressed against her temple, he whispered in the intimate voice of a lover, “See how easy it would be?”

For this act of terror, Ryan was sentenced to just 30 days in jail.

Perhaps encouraged by the ease with which he’d gotten away with it, just one day after his release from jail, he kidnapped her again.  He watched from his hiding place under a bridge, waiting until her brown Monte Carlo pulled out of the driveway at her family’s farmhouse. Then he overtook her in his pickup and forced her off the road.

Screeching to a halt in loose gravel, Laura slammed down the door lock but that didn’t stop him.  He smashed the driver’s side window with his bare hands, reached inside, unlocked the door, shoved her over to the passenger side, then sped off, driving wildly. The Monte Carlo’s passenger door handle was broken and couldn’t be opened from the inside, so Laura was trapped. He held her prisoner for several hours, alternately pleading with her to take him back and threatening her when she refused. That was just two days before he captured her again at her friend Sara’s home.

***

Leaving the Martins’ house, Ryan gunned the engine and roared down Oak Street, then turned off at a little used dirt road. The radio was tuned to a country station, and song after song lamented love gone wrong. “If you’d have just listened the first time, none of this would have happened,” he said. Neither said anything more for a long while.

They zigzagged across a maze of dirt roads for miles, deeper into the country, passing no other cars and few houses. His moods shifted drastically from one moment to the next. First he was enraged. Then he relaxed and seemed almost cheerful, speaking as if he imagined she was as pleased to be with him as he was to have her there beside him. In an almost tender mood, he told her, “I really care about you.” Then, abruptly, he turned morose. Laura, wary and alert for a chance to escape, said nothing.

Several times, she reached for the door handle, thinking she could jump from the moving truck as it slowed for a turn. But each time, Ryan anticipated her and slammed his foot on the gas pedal, sending the truck lurching ahead. Realizing she’d injure herself if she leaped while the truck traveled at high speed, she pulled her hand away.

He drove deeper into unfamiliar country, up and down winding, deserted roads that cut through fields and ranchlands, farther than he’d ever taken her before.  The terrain grew hillier and wilder; well-tended corn and bean fields gave way to long stretches of uncultivated grassland and forest. Laura had no idea where she was. But she was acutely aware of the gun… and that out here, so far from any town, no one would hear a shot. She commanded herself to stay calm and think.  She would outwit him.  Eventually, he would have to stop.   And she would make a run for it.

Continuing on the back roads, they quickly crossed over a paved highway and she saw a sign in the distance that read, Macy — 6 miles.  At least now she knew where they were: on the Omaha Indian Reservation. They passed a small, cheerful looking bright blue house and then there was nothing again, only trees and tall grasses. The truck bounded and rattled over the rutted back road that was only a little wider than a trail. Decades of buggy, car and truck wheels had carved the soft yellow dirt so deeply that the roadside, in places, was six feet above them.   Finally, as they reached the crest of a high wooded bluff overlooking the Missouri River, he slowed the truck and pulled over. “Look,” he said, “I just want to talk.”

“Okay,” Laura said soothingly. Yet every muscle in her body was tensed and ready.

He opened the driver’s door, and yanked her out after him.

Ryan took several long deep breaths, his head slumped as if he were trying to sort out his thoughts and emotions, looking for the right words to say. He began to ramble. She had done an awful lot to provoke him, he said, but he was willing to forget all that and start fresh. Things would be different, he promised.

She pretended to pay attention, but barely heard him. The bluff traveled almost straight down at a 60 degree angle, through ironwood, elm, and brush, then leveled off somewhat about a quarter mile down as it ran through wild, empty country, ending at the bank of the river perhaps two miles away. If she followed the river, she would eventually come to a road and people who could help her. Could she somehow break free and make a run for it down the wooded slope? It seemed like an almost suicidal plan, but it might be her only option.

Still rambling, he let go of her arm momentarily as he gestured. But, seeming to read her mind, he stood between her and the slope, never letting her get more than a foot away from him.

Then she saw it. The truck! He’d left the driver’s door wide open. She knew he had a habit of leaving the keys in the ignition. Had he done so this time?

As he turned slightly to look out at over the forest, Laura saw her chance.  She raced for the pickup, slammed the door behind her, banged down on the doorlocks and felt around for the key as her heart hammered against her throat, threatening to pound its way out of her body. Where was the key? It wasn’t in the ignition. She searched all around her. Nothing!

Through the window, she saw Ryan saunter back to the pickup, seemingly unaffected by her dash for freedom. He calmly pulled the keys out of his jeans pocket, unlocked the driver’s door, shoved Laura to the other seat and revved the engine. He drove silently down from the bluff, pulling over again about half a mile down the road at a meadow.

“Okay,” he sighed. “I can see you’re not going to change your mind. But can’t we still be friends?”

Seething, frightened and exhausted, Laura could no longer hide what she was feeling. “Ryan,” she said, “I’d rather die than be friends with you.”

“Then I guess,” he said.  “You’d better start running.”

She froze as the implication sunk in. Then the instinct for survival took over and she vaulted from the truck, running down a hill into the field. She heard him get out of the truck behind her and slam the door. But he didn’t follow.

For a moment, she thought he wouldn’t come after her. Then she heard the explosion. The bullet ripped through her shoulder. She was so full of fear and adrenalin, she barely felt it. She kept running, almost flying down the slope, telling herself, “Just keep going. He can’t get you if you just keep going.” She heard another shot and felt it pierce the back of her neck. The spot behind her right ear felt as if it had burst into flame, but she refused to stop.

He was coming for her. He was hunting her.

Her heart pounded, her head grew light, and her body tingled with a strange sensation, bordering on unreality. It was as if she were running through water, each step a tremendous effort that took so much time … too much time.

Anger boiled up within her, suppressing the fear.  You won’t get away with this.  I won’t let you beat me, she swore to herself. Somehow, she would make him pay for all he had put her through. But first, she had to escape.

She heard his feet pound the trail in back of her. Move! she commanded her rubbery legs, faster… faster.  Not fast enough.  He was gaining on her, so close, she could hear him panting behind her. “You had this coming,” he rasped. Then he shot a third time, hitting her in the back of the head. And Laura Tinsdale fell face first, smashing into the hard-packed yellow earth.

 

***

When Ryan tuned in his police scanner as he drove back toward Wakefield, he learned that an intense manhunt had already begun. The sheriff’s department of Dixon County had taken command of the investigation. They wouldn’t be as easy to smooth-talk as the Wakefield force, which had just 1,147 mostly law-abiding people to police. Still, as Ryan drove homeward, he devised a plan he hoped would allow him to get away with his crime.

***

As Deputy Sheriff Donnie Taylor poured over the police report, reading pages of earlier threats, abductions, and assaults, his heart sank. Why had this monster been allowed to terrorize the girl, unchallenged? The incidents had rapidly escalated in violence and severity, yet Pendersen had barely gotten his wrist slapped. Now, as Deputy Taylor readied himself to question the suspect who had been arrested just minutes before, at about 11:00 p.m., he was almost overcome with foreboding. He knew, without having to be told, that Pendersen had done something terrible to Laura Tinsdale. It was time to pull it out of the creep.

After advising Pendersen of his rights, the soft-spoken, lanky deputy, himself a father of four girls, got straight to the point.

“What did you do to Laura, Ryan?”

The young man smiled amiably at the deputy, but there was an emptiness in his eyes. “I didn’t do anything to her, Deputy, I swear,” Pendersen protested. “We drove around for a while and talked about our relationship, but we weren’t making any headway. So finally Laura asked me if I would drop her at the Hardee’s in South Sioux City. That was about eight-fifteen.  I don’t know where she went from there.”

Donnie Taylor smiled back at the man, “Ryan, I don’t want to say you’re a liar. But that Hardee’s you mentioned? It’s where the state police hang out on their breaks. I checked. No one there has seen her. Now, you want to tell me where you really took her?”

Donnie saw the rage flare briefly behind Pendersen’s smile. “I think I’d better talk to a lawyer first. That’s my right, isn’t it? Under the fifth amendment?”

Donnie sighed. This was going to be a long, hard case. “That’s your right, Ryan.”

“Okay, then. That’s all I’m gonna say.”

***

Marilyn and David Tinsdale learned about their daughter’s kidnapping from Sara who, after giving a statement to the police, drove to the Tinsdale house to tell them what had happened.

The news was devastating but not unexpected. David had been trying for months to rouse the police to action but had had no success. Ryan had already convinced his acquaintances on the Wakefield force that his relationship with Laura —which she had long ago ended —was actually ongoing and that her complaints were just her way of retaliating when she got angry with him. So when David tried to explain to police that Ryan was becoming bolder and more aggressive each day and that, eventually, he wouldn’t be satisfied with threatening Laura with an empty gun, they treated him like an under-informed and over-protective parent.

He had gone to the station just two days earlier, after Ryan had smashed Laura’s car window and commandeered her car, demanding that they arrest Ryan for breaking the protection order. “If she doesn’t want him to bother her,” the policeman on duty had told him. “Just tell her not to talk to him anymore.”

Getting nowhere, David decided to appeal to a higher authority. He drove the forty miles to see the county attorney.  But he got only as far as the receptionist. Her boss was too busy, she told David. He couldn’t see him no matter how long he waited, so he might as well leave.

That was why, when Deputy Donnie Taylor came to discuss the case, David and Marilyn expected neither sympathy nor help. But this quiet, intense deputy surprised them. He seemed genuinely distressed about what had happened to Laura and determined to do something about it.

He had children of his own, Donnie told them, and had spent the whole night wondering what he would do if it had been one of them. Then he took Marilyn’s hand. “We’ll find her,” he promised. “We’re not going to rest until we do.”

He explained that even though he didn’t believe Ryan had dropped her off in South Sioux City, just in case, would the Tinsdales keep calling everyone Laura knew and ask if they’d seen her? David and Marilyn had been doing just that since they first got the news, but they agreed to continue.

***

State police investigator Doug Johnson, a husky, outgoing man with short, sandy blonde hair who looked younger than his 38 years, was getting ready for work Monday morning when his wife called to him in the shower. “Doug, did you hear? Somebody’s been abducted at gunpoint in Wakefield.” Doug hadn’t heard.  He made a point of turning off the police scanner on weekends so he could devote his attention to his wife and two young sons. But as soon as he got to state police headquarters in South Sioux City, he phoned his old friend Donnie Taylor at the Dixon County sheriff’s office and volunteered his help with the case.

Donnie quickly filled Doug in. He had been working around the clock but so far, there were no solid leads. He had learned, however, that this was not the first time Pendersen had terrorized a former girlfriend. While questioning people from Ryan’s past, Donnie discovered that Ryan had followed almost the same pattern of stalking,  threats and assault with a girl he’d once dated in high school. The young woman had been too frightened of Ryan to file charges but agreed to give the deputies information to help their investigation. Still intimidated by the brute, she made Donnie promise not to reveal her name.

Taking into consideration what Donnie had learned from this other young woman, and that Laura had been carried off at gunpoint and had been missing now for three days, there was no real question in either Doug’s or Donnie’s mind: they believed Ryan had killed her. But believing it and proving it were two different things. Their first obligation, they agreed, was to Laura’s parents. They would find Laura and put an end to David and Marilyn’s horrible wait. Then they would deal with her killer. But where had Pendersen left her body?

Doug asked state police forensics expert, Bob Shelbourn, to examine Pendersen’s impounded pickup for trace evidence. A meticulous inspection revealed no sign of blood. That meant Pendersen had not shot her when she was inside the truck. There was no grass or vegetation in the undercarriage, which ruled out the possibility that Pendersen had driven far off the roads through timber and brush. Although Pendersen was a powerful man, Shelbourn doubted he would have been able to carry her body very far; he’d probably left her where he shot her. That meant she would be relatively close to a road.

Witnesses to the kidnapping had told police Pendersen’s truck was heading north. After analyzing other trace evidence from the pickup and questioning Ryan’s acquaintances, there was only one place that seemed to fit all the details they’d learned so far. Ryan had probably taken Laura to a remote wooded area near the Pendersen family farm in Concord called Sleepy Hollow.

They pulled together a search party from the sheriff’s department, the state police and the town of Ponca’s police department. But, before the search team went out, Donnie and Doug met with Ryan Pendersen’s attorney, Douglas Luebbe, and laid out the situation.

Hunting season would be coming soon, they reminded him, then harvest season right after that. With all those hunters and farmers trampling through the fields and woods, it was just a matter of time before somebody happened upon Laura Tinsdale. She was out there, exposed, wearing a bright red windbreaker that could be spotted from a couple of hundred yards away. She would be found.  It would be better for Pendersen if he agreed to lead the investigators to her now.

Doug had known the lawyer for many years and sensed that Luebbe, too, believed that Pendersen had killed Laura. Perhaps his client had already confessed to him. But Luebbe maintained a poker face, thanked them for the information, and said nothing more.

The eight-man team of searchers began their grim chore at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. The temperature over the three nights Laura had been missing had dropped into the low forties and, on one night, it had rained heavily. Even if she hadn’t died immediately from the gunshots, they had no real hope of finding Laura Tinsdale alive.

Sleepy Hollow is mostly wild virgin back-country with only a few planted corn fields, covered in some places with low grass, in others with thick timber. The beautiful rolling land is cleaved by a narrow creek that runs into a large pond.

Donnie Taylor knew the area well. So did one anguished local volunteer, who, although not part of the official search team, offered whatever assistance he could. Ryan Pendersen’s father, guilt-ridden at what his son had done, helped Doug and a couple of the other investigators locate the foundations of long-gone houses and the hidden remains of underground water pits called cisterns—places where a body could easily be concealed.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team began a concentric zone search. Using the pond as their starting point, they examined the landscape, walking side-by-side in ever widening circles.  When they reached the creek, they spread out and inspected a wide swathe along one bank, traveling five miles upstream before they crossed over and went through the same painstaking process trudging downstream. In wooded areas, they stayed closer together. Throughout the day, they kept watch on the sky for vultures, which are the first to detect the presence of anything dead or dying. They were also alert for predator tracks—coyotes and foxes—that might lead the way to the body.

It was slow, hard, discouraging work but the men refused to rest, even when the waning light of evening made it almost impossible to see clearly. By 9:00 p.m., when Sheriff Dean Chase called them back, Doug and Donnie had decided that, beginning the next morning, they would enlist helicopters to aid the searchers on the ground.

***

Marilyn and David stayed by the phone, praying for the call that would tell them their daughter had been found, safe and unharmed. Until some news came, they took calls from friends, acquaintances and strangers. Some called to console the family. Others wanted to know how the investigation was going. Still others volunteered information about where Laura might be, which the Tinsdales then relayed it to the police. There was nothing more they could do for their daughter at the moment, and realizing it, they felt powerless.

David, like the investigators, suspected Laura was dead, and was trying to prepare his wife and seven other children, as gently as he could, to cope with that reality.

But the night before, as Marilyn sat alone in the living room, she suddenly felt a force pressing against the entire width of her body. The force had no substance but was nevertheless powerful. Then she heard Laura’s voice calling, “Mom…. Mom…,” so clearly, she instinctively reached out to hold her. But Laura wasn’t there. No one was. Before Marilyn could sort it all out, it was over. She knew she hadn’t just imagined it though. She told no one, not even David. They’d think she was imagining it. But at that moment, Marilyn Tinsdale was certain. Her daughter was still alive.

 

****

 

Doug, Donnie and the rest of the search team arrived at the County Sheriff’s Office in Ponca about ten o’clock that night. Bob Shelbourn met them at the door.

“He’s ready to confess,” Bob told them. “The sheriff and the County Attorney are in there with his lawyer now, cutting a deal.”

Pendersen’s lawyer and the Dixon County Attorney, Leland Miner, had reached a tentative agreement. In exchange for leading the searchers to Laura’s body, Pendersen would be allowed to plead to second degree murder, which carries a lighter sentence—10 years to life—than the mandatory life-without-parole he would receive if convicted on the kidnapping charge.

Marilyn and David Tinsdale arrived soon after the investigators. Ashen but stoic, they leaned on each other for strength.

Miner broke the news about Ryan’s confession and told them about the plea-bargain. He would only agree to the deal, he said, if they gave their approval. He cautioned them that, under the agreement, Pendersen could be back on the street after serving just five years—half of the minimum in the 10-years-to-life sentence.  It was up to them. But if they wanted to see Pendersen really pay for his crimes, Miner would refuse the deal and tell the searchers to keep looking for Laura.

As gently as he could, he pointed out that it didn’t matter much if they didn’t find her right away. They had a pretty good idea where Ryan had taken her and they’d probably find her, with or without his help, in a matter of days. When they did, Miner would do his best to see that Pendersen spent the rest of his life in prison.

David choked back tears as he spoke, “Take the deal.  He can’t hurt us any more than he already has. I just want my little girl back.”

Marilyn, unwilling to accept that her daughter was truly gone, confided her strange experience of the night before. “I heard her,” she insisted. “She might be dead, but I’m not taking that chance. I don’t care if he does get out in five years. I want her found now.”

The lawyers quickly finalized the plea agreement and Pendersen repeated his confession to Doug Johnson and Donnie Taylor.

Ryan claimed not to know exactly where he had taken her, only that it was near Macy. Doug and Donnie looked at each other in surprise. Witnesses had seen Pendersen fleeing north from Wakefield but Macy was southeast, and at least 50 miles from the area they had scoured earlier that day. Pendersen described a small, neat house painted robin’s egg blue, then a sign a few miles south of it that read, “Hole in Rock.”

Doug had been a state trooper in that area for seven years and his eyes lit up in recognition.  He knew both the house—it was Five-Mile school—and Hole in Rock, a famous landmark on the Omaha Indian reservation. Pendersen then described the grassy area where he shot the girl and Doug realized he had to be talking about the meadow on the way to where, more than a hundred years ago, an old mission had once stood. He understood now why Pendersen was confused about the exact location. The place was virtually unknown to anyone but the Omahas, a point you could only reach by traveling across several dirt roads which narrowed in places into mud tracks. Pendersen couldn’t have realized it, but the remote spot he had chosen to commit his crime was sacred ceremonial ground.

Doug asked Ryan whether he would be able to lead them to Laura’s body if they took him back to the place he described. Ryan thought he could.

The rain, Doug knew, made the roads on the reservation impassable in an ordinary police car, so they took Donnie Taylor’s red four-wheel drive GMC Jimmy. Ryan and his attorney, Douglas Luebbe sat in the back with Bob Shelbourn; Doug sat next to Donnie, who drove. About five miles outside Macy, they were joined by officers from the Thurston County Police Department, the Thurston County attorney and ten members of the tribal police. In all, 27 law enforcement officials descended on the crime scene.

The road, turned to soft mud by the rains, resisted the four-wheel drive vehicle’s efforts. The Jimmy slowly bounced and strained through the black night over the thick stew of soggy earth. A long procession of police vehicles, lights flashing brightly, followed behind, some pulling over to the side as their wheels refused to trudge through the mud. But Donnie coaxed the truck on, turning down a still muddier road on directions from Pendersen and Doug. They pulled up to the meadow at about eleven-fifteen. Ryan pointed out the spot where he’d left Laura, and the officers jumped out to begin the search. Pendersen refused to leave the car.

Doug, Donnie, Bob Shelbourn, and another Dixon County deputy, Bruce Blatchford, fanned out and formed a line while the other officers waited by their vehicles on the perimeter. The officers’ heavy flashlights sweeping over the ground cast eerie shadows that made the brush appear to sway.

And there she was. Doug’s heart leapt into his throat as he caught sight of her body, 20 feet from the road in a hollow depression under two tall elms. She was lying on her back, her right leg cocked up. Her red windbreaker and long blonde hair were caked with brown mud but were still bright flags in the darkness.

This was the discovery they had been working so hard toward, the culmination of all their efforts. Yet, Doug felt no satisfaction. He sank into sadness as his light caught Laura in its ghostly glow. He had been at many murder scenes over the past fifteen years. It never got any easier.

They resisted the urge to rush to her. Nothing would be gained and they might disturb the crime scene. They moved methodically toward Laura’s body, making careful observations before taking each new step, noting the location of evidence along the way… a scrap of clothing… a shoe. At one point, Doug almost tripped over his own feet as, out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw her leg shift position slightly. He recovered quickly as he realized it was only the dance of the shadows, the same trick of light that seemed to animate the bushes around her.   If the others noticed him falter, no one said anything. They continued their slow progress.

Then Doug saw it again. And he stopped cold.

“My God,” he screamed. “She’s alive!” Stunned briefly to a halt, the men stared wide-eyed from one to the other. Then they heard a faint moan coming from her direction and, quickly recovering, they raced to her in a wave, whooping and hollering in joy and calling to the other officers behind them.

“She’s alive,” someone else shouted into the blackness, and then the cry quickly carried through all the crowd of officers circling the meadow like the elated cheer of fans at a touchdown.

Bruce Blatchford, who was also an EMT paramedic checked Laura’s vital signs as Doug and Donnie kneeled beside her. “It’s okay, Laura,” Donnie spoke softly, “It’s all right. We’re the police. We’re going to get you to the hospital and get your mom and dad down there to see you.” Tears were streaming down all their faces and none made an effort to hide it. Doug stroked her hair and the girl moaned, seemingly in acknowledgement.  “You’re all right now,” Doug murmured gently. “We’re going to get you home.”

Grown men were jumping up and down, crying, shouting and hugging each other. As Blatchford called Sioux City for the medical emergency helicopter to airlift Laura to the hospital, Sheriff Dean Chase called David and Marilyn with the news.

While arrangements for emergency medical evacuation were being made, Doug broke away from the rest of the investigators and sloshed back to the Donnie’s four-wheel drive, where Pendersen and Luebbe sat waiting. He opened the door and smiled at Luebbe, ignoring Pendersen completely.

“Luebbe,” he said cheerfully. “I hate to tell you, but your plea agreement is in the toilet. Laura is alive!”

He slammed the door, then bounded back to where Laura was lying on the cold ground. He felt better than he had in days, but knew that it wasn’t over yet.  She still might not make it. Remembering that a doctor had once told him that hearing is the last sense you lose, he knelt down beside her again. “You got this far,” he told her. “Now hang on. We’re going to get you to your parents.” But in his heart he was saying, Don’t you die.  Please God, don’t you dare let her die.

***

After the helicopter airlifted Laura to the Marian Health Care Center in Sioux City, several of the investigators drove the 45 miles to the hospital to make sure the girl would be okay. When the shifts changed and a new intensive care unit nurse came on duty at eight o’clock the following morning, she found State Investigator Doug Johnson still at Laura Tinsdale’s bedside.

Of the three bullets that entered Laura Tinsdale’s body, two were lodged in her brain. Doctors weren’t at first certain whether she would ever regain consciousness or, if she did, whether she would be able to function. It was a miracle she had survived at all, shot several times and then exposed to the cold and rain through four nights. Her temperature had, for some unknown reason, only dropped to 95 degrees. She wasn’t nearly as dehydrated as she ought to have been under the circumstances, nor did she seem to have lost much blood.  Doctors were stymied—but elders of the Omaha tribe were not surprised.

Laura was lying in one of the holiest of places. According to Omaha legend, it was frequented by spirits who can be quite mischievous at times but will provide whatever help a person who has made a sacrifice may need. And Laura Tinsdale had sacrificed her own safety for the sake of her friends. There were also fresh deer tracks in the mud all around her body, as if the deer—who the traditional Omaha believe have spiritual powers—had circled her to protect her.

Laura continued to surprise doctors as she recovered her ability to speak…and then to walk.  She was released from the hospital in November, a full month earlier than her physicians had predicted.

But she would never be quite the same young woman as before. And that seemed to be what Pendersen was counting on.

After his plea bargain for second degree murder was foiled by Laura’s survival, he decided to plead not guilty, hoping, apparently, that Laura, the only eye witness to his crime, would either be too badly brain damaged to testify against him, or too intimidated by him to chance it. But Laura surprised him.

When she gave lawyers her deposition in March, 1995, she faced him across the table and calmly recounted every detail of his terror campaign. Though Pendersen tried to stare her down, she would not be bullied. Pendersen, realizing she had defeated him, changed his plea to guilty on four felony counts including attempted murder, kidnapping, and use of a firearm to commit a felony. He was sentenced to not less than 85 years in prison.

###

(A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine. Some names have been changed to protect privacy).