'Missing' woman's mom is reaching out
Tuesday, June 7, 2005
By Jane Prendergast, Brenna R. Kelly and Mike Rutledge Enquirer staff writers
Brandi Stahr of Florence back in touch with Texas kin
Ken and Ann Dickenson hold a photo of Brandi Stahr, whom they thought was missing. She was actually keeping a low profile in Florence, where the Texas couple recently spoke to her by phone. "She sounded like a Yankee," says stepfather Ken Dickenson. "She was apologizing and crying." She told him she lives in Florence and remains single.
Brandi Stahr wasn't missing, she simply walked away from her life in Texas and got a job at this Sam's Club on Houston Road in Florence. Employees say they've been told not to talk about her.
When a Texas Ranger visited the school where Ann Dickenson works in Moody, Texas, she assumed he was bringing the worst news: that her daughter Brandi Stahr, gone without a trace for nearly seven years, was dead.
But Stahr wasn't missing at all, and the stunning truth soon emerged: She had simply walked away from her life.
"I talked to her for a long time," Dickenson said Monday.
She wants to re-establish a relationship with her daughter, but "we are going to take baby steps. I just don't want her to disappear again. She's bull-headed - she'll up and leave."
And there are thousands of people in the United States just like her - considered missing by the FBI, but really just living under the radar.
As long as they - like Stahr - don't get speeding tickets, use credit cards, get driver's licenses or sign up for utilities, they can stay "missing" for years.
That's how the Kentucky brunette could spend the last five years working at Sam's Club in Florence even though she was listed in a national crime computer as missing and wanted back by her family in Texas.
Because privacy laws keep federal law enforcement agencies from accessing tax information, her paycheck - which was in her own name - didn't trigger any red flags.
"She was trying to keep a low profile, which she successfully did," said Jack Hildebrand, senior inspector with the U.S. Marshals Office in Columbus. "She basically didn't do any of the normal things people do.
"It was amazing that she was able to do that as long, and as well, as she did," added Hildebrand, who was one of two deputy marshals who went to Sam's in late May and recognized Stahr from a years-old picture her family provided when she went missing from Texas A&M University in 1998. "It's kind of an amazing story."
Authorities were led to her by an anonymous tip on a Texas Rangers' hot line. Stahr, now 27, eyed Hildebrand and Chris Riley, supervisor in the Cincinnati marshals office, as she noticed them standing in the store looking at her, Hildebrand said.
They took her into a room and explained they'd have to tell the Rangers they'd found her. The Rangers, they said, would have to tell her parents. She was emotional, Hildebrand said, but she understood the notification was protocol.
She gave them her telephone number to pass along to her family, but she said she wasn't ready for them to visit.
Almost 50,000 adults in the United States are listed as missing in the FBI's National Crime Information Computer. More than 30,000 of them, as of July 2004, had been gone for more than a year.
Many of those listed as missing are found dead. But thousands of others show up on the Web sites of advocacy agencies as found safely, sometimes years later.
Stahr left of her own free will after a fight with her mother about her college grades.
"That's not a criminal act in this country," said Mike Brooks, FBI spokesman in Cincinnati.
That agency gets involved in searches for missing people when authorities believe the person has been kidnapped and taken over state lines.
Without a trace
Stahr's mother said that when her daughter's grades fell her sophomore year at Texas A&M, she told Stahr she would not continue to pay for school. Dickenson had also given her daughter a credit card for groceries, but she ran up thousands of dollars in bills, Dickenson said. And the two argued about that in May 1998.
Stahr dropped out of school and stopped talking to her mother about that time, but kept in touch with her older sister. Stahr moved to Austin for a little while, then moved back to College Station, Texas.
By October, her sister went to take Stahr some clothes at her apartment. But she wasn't there. Her roommate told her sister she had not seen Stahr in several days. And after that, Stahr's sister filed a missing person's report, Dickenson said.
Texas Rangers spent hundreds of hours on the case, searching wooded areas with dogs and talking to former roommates. Rangers interviewed Ynobe Matthews, a convicted rapist and murderer, hours before he was executed in January 2004 to see whether he would admit to killing Stahr.
Angela Ellis, founder of the North American Missing Persons Network Web site (www.nampn.doenetwork.org), said it's difficult for agencies like hers - as well as for law enforcement - to separate cases that turn out like Stahr's from those that involve true missing people. So they have to treat them all as if they could be legitimate, she said.
"I would rather take the chance at being wrong about the situation,'' Ellis said. "At least we still tried to help. There's still a family that wants answers."
Authorities told Dickenson on May 25 that they had found Stahr in Florence. Since then, she has continued to go to work at the store on Houston Road, where co-workers repeatedly said Monday that they were not allowed to talk about her or the case.
"The associate has advised us she really doesn't want the publicity, and we are respecting her wishes," said Marty Heires, Wal-Mart spokesman in Bentonville, Ark.
He said Wal-Mart and Sam's Club had a "longstanding" corporate policy against talking to the media.
People who work in the retail area around the Sam's Club said Monday they didn't recognize Stahr or know her. But many said they felt bad for her family.
"She shouldn't get away with it," Liz Ellis of Latonia said of Stahr's actions. "If my kid was to do that, I'd kill her: 'What do you mean you're not dead?!' "
Nervous about calling
Word spread fast through Moody, a Texas town of 3,000, that the missing woman was alive.
Dickenson was nervous about calling her daughter. Stahr's sister called first, then her stepfather called - even though the marshal told them that Stahr didn't want to hear from them just yet.
"She sounded like a Yankee, for one thing," Ken Dickenson said. "She was apologizing and crying."
He said she told him she lives in Florence and remains single.
The family was going to have her declared dead this year, because seven years is the legal length of time one must wait, he said.
A couple hours later, Ann Dickenson picked up the phone. On the other end, she heard her daughter's voice for the first time in more than six years.
She was careful not to pepper her daughter with questions. So they talked about Stahr's three brothers and two sisters. She told Stahr about the three nephews and three nieces she now has.
"I don't want to push," Dickenson said. "We just talked about what's going on now, not the past. That's not going to do any good."
In the conversation and later e-mails, Stahr has given her mother only a hint of an explanation. She told her mom she had "some issues" she needed to deal with.
" 'I left so I could work them out,'" Dickenson said Stahr told her.
"I just left it at that," Dickenson said.
Dickenson said her great-grandparents were from Kentucky, but that the family has no recent connection to the Bluegrass State.
Hildebrand, of the marshal services, said they, too, wondered how Stahr ended up in Florence. But they didn't ask her.
Stahr is upset with the publicity the story has received since her family learned she was alive, Dickenson said. She complained to her mother that reporters had been to Sam's Club, and that she was afraid she would get fired.
Dickenson said her daughter "didn't mean for this to be that much of a big thing."