Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, Pea Ridge Arkansas boasts a population of approximately five thousand souls
residing on streets named for Civil War dead—the Confederate loss at The Battle of Pea Ridge
is considered by military historians to be the linchpin of the Union’s conquest of Northern Arkansas and Missouri.
Aside from the region’s storied history in the War of Northern Aggression there’s not much
to attract outsiders to the environs; the most exciting local event is the annual Pea Ridge Mule Jump,
a bizarre combination rodeo/steeplechase which features the notoriously balky creatures barrel racing
and lumbering over obstacles. As the event’s exclamation-laden website states:
“Realize, too, that mules do not like to jump!
That fact alone creates an atmosphere
ripe with laughter as the handlers work to
coax their mules over the burlap barriers,
some as high as 6½ feet!”
It seems to defy logic that this hickory-smoked slice of rural Americana
would serve as the backdrop of not one but two baffling mysteries, but sometimes truth is more ungainly than livestock vaulting over six feet of gunny sack.
King Lane Apartments are low-slung, widely-spaced bungalows that faintly resemble army barracks;
the forlorn little shanties, viewed in Google Earth images, appear to be the place where dreams go to die.
When a quick web search of the address reveals a veritable hillbilly jamboree of police involvement
and petty crime—trespassing arrests, welfare checks, minor drug crimes and suicide attempts—I am unsurprised.
Add a steel guitar and steady backbeat
and the King Lane Apartments are a country song rendered in low-quality brick and crumbling mortar.
King Lane Apartments may be unsavory and down-at-the-heels,
yet not all who dwell within are similarly afflicted:
in 2006, King Lane Apartments was home to fifteen-year old April Dawn Andrews,
a bright-eyed ingénue whose unfailing good cheer shone through the grim aura cast by her shabby surroundings.
The ninth-grader had been dealt a raw hand in life—her father had recently passed away
leaving her family mired in poverty. Lacking a car and surviving on social security benefits,
the Andrews family may have been short on cash
but love and support were free and freely available to members of the tightknit clan.
Ironically, despite its blighted appearance the red-brick confines of the King Lane complex served as April’s sanctuary;
described by her half-sister as “slower than most,” April was reportedly bullied by her peers
due to her impoverishment and slight intellectual disability.
Ever eager to help her family economize,
on November 18th April invited her brother to accompany her to the nearby
Church of the Nazarene to view some used clothing available to the needy free of charge.
Her brother demurred, and April set out on the three block trek alone;
her journey to the church should have taken approximately fifteen minutes,
a scant quarter hour which has since stretched into the better part of a decade.
En route April was spotted by an eight-year old neighbor who reported a man in a light brown truck
had stopped to chat with April, but the child was unsure whether April had entered the man’s vehicle.
This momentary glimpse is the last confirmed sighting of April Dawn Andrews;
did a slick-talking killer sidle up to the financially-strapped teen and offer her a job,
a victim-luring tactic employed by serial killers Royal Russell Long, Clifford Olson, et al.?
If April did enter the tan pickup,
most who knew the shy teen are positive she would have been acquainted with the driver:
“I would believe, in my contact with April, she would have to be comfortable with that person
or know that person,” the Pea Ridge School Resource Officer told a journalist from 5 News Online.
“I don’t believe she was the type to get into a stranger’s vehicle.”
April never arrived at the church,
and when she failed to return to the King Lane Apartments by nightfall
her frantic family contacted law enforcement; the lead investigator into the luckless schoolgirl’s
disappearance was Sergeant Cerilla Ann Doyle,
a veteran policewoman experiencing some personal strife of her own—her husband of twenty-six
years had recently been confined to a wheelchair and,
according to family,
this enfeeblement had rendered him “mean and demanding.”
Sadly, despite April’s lack of previous delinquency
and inexplicable failure to take her meager yet beloved belongings
the Benton County Sheriff’s Department soon deemed her a runaway;
a handful of unconfirmed sightings in a nearby town prompted law enforcement to close the investigation into the star-crossed waif’s ever-lengthening absence.
April’s family, however, knew she would never disappear voluntarily
and thus continued to scour Pea Ridge’s Confederate-benamed streets for their missing sibling.
In a sinister twist,
April’s half-sister Tonya McGehee reported that someone seemed to be actively hampering the family’s search—every time family members blanketed the area with April’s missing posters the flyers would immediately disappear as mysteriously as the teen herself.
Improbably, as law enforcement’s search for April ground to a halt
a new mystery rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the investigation;
on October 27th, 2008 Cerilla Ann Doyle, the original lead investigator into Amber’s disappearance, vanished as swiftly and surely as a puff of smoke into the brisk mountain air.
Eight months earlier the policewoman’s wheelchair-bound husband
had succumbed to his numerous ailments,
and a lonely Cerilla had become embroiled in a stormy
relationship with a man her brother-in-law dubbed “the town drunk.”
Not unsurprisingly, this tumultuous romance
was frowned upon by the Sheriff’s Department
and Cerilla, age fifty-one,
was forced to resign from the job she dearly loved.
Although the official and familial versions of Cerilla’s disappearance vary widely,
all parties agree her last confirmed sighting occurred
on the morning of October 27th. After informing her daughter she planned to run some errands
Cerilla departed sans cell phone, vehicle and credit cards.
At this juncture accounts diverge: according to law enforcement Cerilla was mentally unstable
and likely traveled to Tulsa by bus intending to commit suicide;
according to her family Cerilla has been falsely labeled suicidal—she had, they claimed, been sundered from the police force not by mental instability but due to her poor romantic choices,
and then purposely set up to look suicidal to excuse the shoddy investigation into her disappearance.
Irrespective of which version of Cerilla’s Rapture-like disapparation is true,
there is one fact which does not seem to be open for debate—investigators are unequivocal in their belief
her disappearance is completely unrelated to April’s, which had occurred almost exactly two years before.
Since it seems to me that police have virtually no evidence in either case I am unsure
how they managed to definitively rule out a connection;
it seems at least theoretically possible Cerilla’s investigation into April’s disappearance
came too close to revealing the identity of the teen’s abductor,
who then killed Cerilla to ensure her silence.
Perhaps a childhood steeped in crime fiction has irreparably knocked my worldview askew.
Regardless of whether April and Cerilla were abducted by the same person,
or abducted at all,
they inarguably have one thing in common—both had received some tough breaks in life.
April, impoverished and tormented by bullies,
and Cerilla, ensnared by a bad-news lothario after years spent tethered to the yoke
of a wheelchair-bound husband—neither came within whistling distance of anything
that could remotely be termed good fortune.
Although I have many vices, optimism isn’t one of them;
clearly the likelihood that an intellectually disadvantaged fifteen year old girl
and possibly-depressed middle-aged woman
have managed to create successful new lives without funds or assistance is infinitesimal.
Odds are that both April and Cerilla have met tragic ends, their remains moldering
in orange Ozarks soil—yet as every gambler knows, odds are not absolutes.
And if anyone on the planet was due for a change of luck it was these two
mistresses of misfortune.
I am nobody’s Pollyanna, but according to the inimitable Joan Didion,
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
And the story I am choosing to tell myself in this instance
is that both Cerilla and April were stricken with total amnesia
and now have happy new lives far away from the hills and hollows of southern Arkansas.
Is it a long shot? Of course;
but once a year in a remote Ozarkian hamlet
yokels coax mules over six-foot barriers,
and the event’s website clearly states that mules do not like to jump.
Anything is possible in Pea Ridge, even a happy ending.