Suburbia provides hide-out in full sight
Saturday June 11, 2005
By Kim Cobb
Former student at A&M was able to keep secrets easily for years in Florence, Ky.
Brandi Stahr, now 27, who disappeared from the campus of Texas A&M University in October 1998, has been living and working in Florence, Ky.
KEY DATES IN CASE
Fall 1998: Brandi Stahr and parents argue over her grades. October 1998: Reported missing by her parents 2001: Texas Rangers renew search efforts. 2005: Stahr found working in Kentucky
FLORENCE, KY. - Defined by a sprawling regional airport and a constant ebb and flow of people just passing through, this little suburb of Cincinnati is a pretty good place to live anonymously.
It worked for Brandi Stahr.
The Texas A&M sophomore was 20 years old, making miserable grades and piling up credit card debt when she disappeared without a trace, in 1998.
As the years passed, her Waco-area parents feared she was dead.
An anonymous tip to the Texas Department of Public Safety missing person's hotline on May 24 came like a thunderbolt: Stahr was alive and well and working at the Sam's Club in Florence, Ky.
The large warehouse store sits on a sea of asphalt that melts into concrete highways, chain restaurants and surrounding hotels and motels. Drive a few miles south, and the commercial sprawl recedes into the rolling hills of rural Kentucky.
Chris Riley, a U.S. marshal in Cincinnati, walked into the store late last month, at the request of the Texas Rangers, to find out if a person working there was Stahr, or someone using her identity.
The young woman obviously knew what was up when the marshal approached.
"I wouldn't say she was scared," Riley said. "But I think she knew what was going on."
She freely admitted she was Brandi Stahr, Riley said.
"She's changed. We all change in 10 years," he said. "It was an emotional situation."
She'd been using her legal name and her own Social Security number the whole time. But Stahr never applied for a Kentucky driver's license, and apparently put utility bills in the names of her roommates.
Only after a Texas Ranger notified her parents that she was alive did Stahr start leaving footprints: She applied for a Kentucky state identification card on June 3.
Law enforcement officials attempted to find Stahr when she first disappeared. Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon took up the case again in 2001 at the request of her family, but he found a very cold trail.
Fearing she had been the victim of a serial killer, Cawthon asked convicted murderer Ynobe Matthews scant hours before his execution whether he had killed Stahr.
Cawthon told the Chronicle that feeding Stahr's name and Social Security number into every available database hit nothing but brick walls. Law enforcement officers are barred from scanning federal tax records, which likely could have provided proof she was alive, as well as her current address.
The director of a national organization for private investigators says an investigator recommended by a reputable attorney probably could have picked up the young woman's trail armed with Stahr's Social Security number and date of birth.
A licensed, bonded investigator can purchase information from various companies that buy aggregate data from the U.S. government and make it available for a fee, said Robert Townsend of the National Association of Legal Investigators. He declined to identify the database companies he uses.
The kind of resolution in the Stahr case is rare for a missing person case, said Angela Ellis, founder of the North American Missing Persons Network. The databases Townsend described are frequently helpful, but not a guaranteed source for finding someone, Ellis said.
"We do have people who have access to those databases, and sometimes the trail goes cold right after they disappear," Ellis said. "Sometimes you just have to take it on a case-by-case basis."
The FBI's National Crime Information Center cites 47,842 active cases of missing adults. Of those, 30,622 have been missing one year or more.
Happy endings "We hope there are more cases like that out there, because we hope for happy endings," Ellis said."But it's very rare. I think it's fairly difficult to hide yourself for that long."
U.S. Marshal Riley calls Stahr's case a "feel good" story. "Maybe it will give people hope," he said.
During his brief, emotional conversation with Stahr at Sam's Club last month, the young woman started to tell him what she'd been doing for the past seven years. But Riley cut her off.
"I stopped her," Riley said. "I wasn't interested in her personal situation. It wasn't my concern. It was not a criminal investigation."
Since she was discovered in Florence, Stahr has avoided all inquiries from the news media, and was angry that her parents discussed her with reporters. Her fellow employees at Sam's Club have been instructed by management not to discuss her with reporters.
"Yeah, I know her," said one employee, who declined to be identified. "But we've been told not to talk about her.
"We didn't know the whole story, but we're starting to figure things out," she added.