When police told Karen Foster that her eighteen-year-old daughter, Bonnie Craig, had died in a hiking accident, she knew the pieces of the investigation just didn't add up. Bonnie would have never ditched her classes at the University of Alaska to go hiking. And she didn't drive-so how would she have reached McHugh Creek, miles outside of Anchorage, in the first place? Armed with little more than her own conviction, Karen set out to find the truth behind her daughter's death.
After a long series of false leads and dead ends, it seemed the case would forever go unsolved. Then, after twelve years of public campaigning, private despair, and increasingly tense dealings with the detectives working the case, Karen received an e-mail that would change everything- the system, at long last, had produced a match for the unknown DNA in the case-from a man in a jail all the way across the country.
Here is the chilling tale of a mother's unflagging fight to track down the monster who stole her daughter's life-and the battle to ensure that he, and others like him, would no longer be able to evade justice.
Karen Foster, Bonnie's mother, now lives in Florida. She has been featured numerous times in a range of media outlets, including an hour-long 2011 MSNBC Dateline special titled "Justice for Bonnie" as well as the 2013 episode "A Mother's Mission" on the Investigation Discovery TV show Deadline- Crime with Tamron Hall.
I.J. Schecter is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning author, collaborator and ghostwriter, whose work appears in top publications throughout the world. He lives in Toronto.
Acknowledgments 1 I wake up from the dream uneasy. My boyfriend, Jim, is holding my shoulders and assuring me it was only a dream. There is no woman; no one went over the edge of our sailboat . I''m disoriented because I seldom remember my dreams, but this one was vivid. I saw a woman wearing a shorty--a wet suit with short sleeves and cut-off legs--fall over into the water off the side of our boat. I didn''t know who she was. We''re right here , Jim''s telling me. Karen, it''s me; there''s no one else here; it was just a dream . I must have dozed off, I realize--no matter how much I''ve sailed, the sea air still gets to me. Slowly, I cross over the hazy line into consciousness again, and Jim''s voice brings me all the way back out of the nightmare. I relax, and soon our gentle progress up the Gulf Coast of Florida lulls me back into sleep. I''m glad that I''m still tired enough from our travels to slip right back over that line, and am happy to drift away again. -- Two days earlier, on Monday, September 26, 1994, Jim and I had boarded a red-eye flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to Tampa, Florida, Jim''s original stomping grounds, then chartered a thirty-seven-foot Island Packet sailboat out of St. Petersburg and started our way up Florida''s western lip. The announcement two months earlier that Jim''s younger brother Ken was getting married on the opposite corner of the continent had given us the perfect excuse for this trip. Jim and I had been seeing each other for less than two years but living together half that time, attempting to merge two families into one: his three kids, ranging in age from eight to thirteen, and my two youngest kids, aged twelve and thirteen, in a modest hillside home in Anchorage. Jason, my twenty-year-old son, lived in his own apartment with his girlfriend, Traci; Bonnie, my eighteen-year-old daughter, had moved out to live with my ex-husband, Gary, where she could have a room of her own. The decision crushed me, but I understood it. She was a young woman who wanted her space, something in short supply in my house. Adam, my thirteen-year-old son, and Samantha, my twelve-year-old daughter, did week-on, week-off between Gary''s place and mine. My relationship with Jim is far from perfect, but it works well enough. We''ve gone away together a couple of times before, both times to Mexico, where he owns some property. While we''re gone, my kids stay with Gary, and his kids stay at his ex''s place. We have a few days to enjoy St. Marks before the wedding on Saturday. On Sunday, we will sail back down the coast and then fly home to our regular lives in Anchorage, where Jim works as a firefighter and paramedic, me as a Realtor and reserve police officer, each of us navigating the strange chapter of our midforties, finding happiness in each other and trying to steer our kids along decent paths. After two days of enjoying the calm of the boat and the freedom of the water, we neared our destination: the port town of St. Marks, population three hundred, home to the locally famous Posey''s Oyster Bar, "Home of the Topless Oyster." It''s ironic, then, that it was on the front edge of an oyster bed where we inadvertently grounded ourselves while navigating up the channel into St. Marks. It was the middle of the night, and there wasn''t a soul around to help. Jim told me our only choice was to wait for the tide to come up. I had no better solution. With each wave, we heard the scratching of our hull against the oyster bed. We weren''t in any danger, since the water was shallow enough to stand in, should it come to that--not to mention warm, unlike the waters in Alaska--but the feeling of helplessness, and the sound of the boat being damaged, dampened the light spirit we''d shared all day. Eventually, with nothing else to do, I fell asleep. "The stars are moving." Jim''s voice startled me awake. I wasn''t sure if I''d been asleep for hours or minutes. "Huh?" "The stars are moving. The tide''s come in!" He was right--we were floating. Jim turned the motor on and slowly backed us into the channel. He grew up diving for bottles in the St. Marks River and zipping up and down it in power boats, but we both realized we still shouldn''t have done this after dark. By the time we arrived at the St. Marks Marina, it was almost morning. As Jim and I settled into our berths, he told me that the spot where we were grounded was smack in the middle of Alligator Bay. I didn''t know whether he was joking, but we smiled at each other, and, soothed by the rocking of the boat against the dock, fell asleep. -- On Wednesday morning, September 28, Ken and his bride-to-be, Valeri, drive the twenty miles from Tallahassee to St. Marks to meet us and spend the day. We lunch, walk, and shop. Jim''s father--also named Jim--and his stepmother, Mary, join us for dinner. It is my first time meeting them. As the stranger in the group, I feel a bit on the outside, but Valeri is a sweetheart, Jim Sr. and Mary are lovely, and there is lots of joking and kindness. I eat grouper for the first time. Everything is pleasant, fun, and serene. After dinner, the six of us part ways. Jim and I drive to a historic local lighthouse, said to be the first in the New World, which sits at the mouth of the St. Marks River six miles from town. Though it''s late by the time we get back to the boat and the sun has long since set, the thick Florida humidity still hangs heavy, and the small fans on the boat provide little relief. By the time we settle into bed, Jim in the V-berth, me in the quarter berth in the back of the boat, we''re both irritable. A silly argument about nothing takes root, but we both see that each of us is reacting to the heat and the hour. We apologize, kiss, and go to sleep. -- It''s three in the morning when I feel the boat lurch. I''m startled by the sound of footsteps--the third time in two days that I''ve been jolted out of sleep. I jump out of the narrow quarter berth and alert Jim, who scrambles to his feet. Suddenly, there''s a knock on the companionway, the door separating the upper deck from the cabin below. I ask who''s there. "It''s Ken." I slide the trio of panels up and out of their grooves. Ken is looking down at Jim and me. I wonder what he''s doing there, what could be important enough that he''d drive back to the marina at such a late hour. The answer is obvious on his face. Ken is normally the kind of person who smiles by default. During our day together, he''d been even happier than usual, a man thrilled to have found his other half. Now, his face has changed as completely as the difference between the sunset I''d loved the night before and the darkness that had followed it. His eyes are misting, and he has the kind of expression no one ever wants to see on someone else''s face. It is the kind of expression that says, "I''m sorry for what I''m about to tell you." 2 Every parent knows that you live in fear from the moment your child is born. At first, you just pray they''ll keep breathing every night and wake up again in the morning. Later, you worry that they might fall in with the wrong crowd, do something dumb to fit in, get in the car with a stranger. Sometimes you let your mind go to the darkest places, maybe only as a way of being able to shove the bad thoughts aside and remind yourself it won''t happen. You live in a safe town. You''ve taught them to make good decisions. They have sensible friends. You falsely convince yourself of their immunity every way you can. The bad thoughts invade your head, you let them in temporarily, and then you violently push them out, a little less at peace than you were before. You do it a hundred times, a thousand. Every time you hear a terrible news story, or tragedy touches an acquaintance. All the while, you watch your children grow, thankful to God or whatever you believe in, endlessly grateful at the miracle they represent. When they experience pain, you hate it, but you say the same thing every time it happens: if this is the worst, it isn''t so bad. They fall off a slide and get a scrape, then cry and hug you till it''s better. They miss the winning shot or let in the winning goal--you hurt like hell for them in the moment, but you know they''ll get over it and be stronger in the end. A girlfriend or boyfriend dumps them, and you see heartbreak in their eyes for the first time. It tears you apart, but you know they have to go through it, and you say to yourself, again, if it''s the worst thing they''ll ever experience, it''s not so bad. You count yourself lucky. You can sleep again that night. -- "What is it?" I ask Ken. "It''s Bonnie," he responds, his voice cracking. "She''s . . . she was in a hiking accident." Everyone reacts differently to bad news--or, more specifically, to the moment before you''re about to get hit with it. Some people get mad. Others get sad or afraid. What I feel is offended and angry, because I can''t figure out why Ken would drive such a long way in the middle of the night just to tell me such a terrible lie. He''s obviously gone off the deep end. Or someone is playing a cruel joke on me, through him, and he''s been gullible enough to fall for it. It''s obviously a mistake. The fact that he just keeps staring at me and saying "I''m sorry" is getting under my skin even more. "Who told you that?" I demand. Ken holds out a yellow Post-it with something scrawled on it, but I don''t take it from him. No matter what your reaction is to bad news, we all do one thing similar: we keep it at arm''s length for as long as we can. We keep it outside the realm of reality by refusing any evidence. I could keep Ken''s words at bay if they were just words. People
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