Catherine Winters and JonBenet Ramsey were once national news—only one still is

JonBenet Ramsey's name appeared in headlines again today. The Denver Post revealed that while Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter did not bring charges against her parents in 1999, the grand jury in the case had called for just that. 

It's a surprising new detail in an old case—but not so surprising if you're familiar with the saga of Catherine Winters. And not, comparatively, so old. 

Because a century ago, another prosecutor shocked his community by refusing to pursue another set of guilty-looking parents in another unsolved child murder—assuming Catherine Winters was murdered, which most did. Walter Myers dropped the charges against the missing girl's father and stepmother the very day their murder trial was set to begin. He too said he didn't have enough evidence to win the case, but most suspected Byzantine small-town politics was at play. The couple never again were brought to the courthouse. But they never were exactly free, either. 

That was in spring 1914. The previous year a grand jury had convened, collected the testimony of more than 100 people, then been abruptly disbanded by Judge Edward Jackson—later, as a KKK bribe-taker, the most notorious governor in Indiana history. Again it seems complicated maneuvering for position and party, petty jealousies among elected officials, came before solving the mystery of the lost 9-year-old. The judge forbade the grand jury from reaching a conclusion—which, it would be darkly hinted, condemned the parents—and barred any of their evidence from being made public. They too were sworn to secrecy.

Two photogenic, lost little girls. Two families whose private idiosyncrasies fueled the press and fascinated the public. Two sets of parents who attempted to use mass media for their own purposes but were ultimately used themselves. Two unsolved cases that revealed the limits of politicians and police, of human nature itself.

And there's one more similarity—both Catherine Winters and JonBenet Ramsey were once national news stories. Only one still is. Only time will tell how long.

Posted on January 28, 2013 .

The story begins

She was the most tragically unlucky of children.

Catherine Winters, at 9 years old, had already lost her mother to tuberculosis, then the daily presence of her much-loved grandmother and aunt. She had a father with a drinking problem. She had a stepmother whose personality, outsiders would say with what passed for authority, matched the unsmiling face captured in newspaper photographs.

From this vantage point, the little girl seems a little lonely. And Catherine was alone when she set off early on March 20, 1913, to wander the town unsupervised, to vanish into thin air at the worst possible time, if there ever is a good one.

Because on March 20, the rain started—the first storms of what would be a historic system of storms churning across the Midwest, flooding cities large and small, washing away roads and train tracks and telephone wires, killing hundreds and stranding many thousands more. The weather bogged down the first search parties, sucking their motor cars into the mud. The weather dominated headlines and distracted everyone from the immediate task of finding Catherine Winters.

And there were other distractions. Gypsies—that much maligned group—by chance had stopped in New Castle to water their horses on March 20. That coincidence got them persecuted for years to come, their traveling bands stopped and searched and harassed by police and overenthusiastic citizens alike. It happened dozens and dozens of times across the state and region, a continual waste of time and energy uncovering not the slightest clue.

Had Catherine disappeared some years earlier, the scope of her search might have proved smaller, more manageable to those town fathers who undertook it. But Catherine's misfortune was to be born in an age of progress, when small Midwest cities like New Castle had flung their doors open to the world. Criss-crossed by new Interurban and rail lines that could deposit a person in Indianapolis or Cincinnati or Chicago within hours—that could rush strangers in and out of town without anyone much noticing—New Castle faced a staggering number of places to look once Catherine needed looking for.

But perhaps no bit of circumstance proved quite so unfortunate to the lost girl as the family she had been born into, with its petty jealousies and guilty-looking secrets that would so disturb newspaper readers once all was spread out in the light. The stepmother's steely silence, the father's impulse to control and bluster—they exhibited the wrong personalities for the wrong situation, and they managed to turn general sympathy into widespread suspicion. 

Meanwhile, Catherine stayed missing. The resources, money, manpower, time and public interest that might have found where she had gone went elsewhere, were drained and, in the end, exhausted —with nothing ever to show for them.

Posted on January 14, 2013 .

Catherine's anniversary

Another new year has arrived with its hopes and expectations—perhaps already a bit battered a few days into January—but 2013 has me looking back instead of forward.

A hundred years ago a little girl disappeared from a little Indiana town, never to be seen again. Seven or eight years ago I discovered her name the way so many did once—in a newspaper. Five years ago I made reading those old articles a full-time job and ongoing obsession. One year ago I wrote a book about her.

And now I wait, and wonder what 2013 will bring, and what Catherine Winters would think if she could open her front door again and traverse her town, if she would see anything she recognized, if she would see a better or a worse place, a better or a worse time. 

As always, I wonder where she is—her body, her spirit, her red sweater. All that was lost and forgotten. 

Posted on January 3, 2013 .