When a Family Vanishes

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

EVERY DAY THERE IS A GRIM REMINDER for the children. As the school bus makes its way toward Primrose Hill elementary in Barrington, R.I., it passes the home of 8-year-old Emily Brendel. The white Colonial at 51 Middle Highway has been sealed off by police; in the driveway entrance is a growing cluster of potted plants, flowers, carved pumpkins and cards that say, "Please be safe. We care about you." And every day the children think about what may have happened to Emily, her father, Ernest, 48, and her mother, Alice, 49, since they vanished on Sept. 20. The FBI, state and local police have searched in and around town with the aid of helicopters and tracker dogs—to no avail. As time passes, the shaken residents of this quiet, exclusive Providence suburb are losing hope that the Brendels will be found alive—and fearing their worst imaginings may well come true. "The shock factor here is the disappearance of an entire family," says Police Chief Charles Brule. "What's more, a little child is involved."

Investigators have but one suspect: Christopher Hightower, a 42-year-old commodities broker, soccer coach and Sunday school teacher at Barrington Congregational Church. Three days after the Brendels vanished, police stopped Hightower driving the Brendels' maroon 1988 Toyota Camry and made some grisly finds—a backseat and trunk stained with blood, four teeth (one of which was identified as Ernest Brendel's), a crossbow, a sawed-off shotgun and an empty 50-pound sack of lime, which can be used to hasten the decomposition of human corpses.

Now being held at the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston, Hightower has refused to talk, other than to declare his innocence. Still, investigators have pieced together a portrait of a man whose business and marriage were fast unraveling—and who was furious at Brendel for a business deal that had soured. But until more evidence is found, no further charges can be filed. "This is a reverse case," says Brule. "Normally we have a victim. Now we have a suspect—but not the bodies."

It was 1988 when Ernest Brendel, formerly a patent lawyer on Wall Street, and Alice, a librarian at the New York Public Library, moved to Barrington. The family flourished in New England: Alice got a job at nearby Brown University, while Ernest, who took on fewer legal cases, turned his energies toward buying a business and running it. Both parents had plenty of time for Emily, especially Ernest. Every day he walked Emily to Primrose Hill—where she was an outstanding student—and saw her off with a kiss. In early 1989 he met Hightower, a registered commodities adviser who lived with his wife, Susan, 30, her parents and their two young sons a couple of miles from the Brendels' home. That March the men agreed that Hightower would become Brendel's investment broker and manage his $15,000 commodities account.

For two years Brendel failed to make a profit; by last spring he was fed up with Hightower. In a letter dated May 1, Brendel accused him of falsifying his trade record and demanded a refund of half his initial investment plus $2,000 he had loaned Hightower for computer equipment to help launch his trading business. In July, Brendel filed a formal complaint with the state's Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which gave Hightower two months to respond to Brendel's charge or pay the money back.

Hightower did neither, and on Sept. 17 his business computers were repossessed and his trading license put in jeopardy. His personal life had reached a crisis point as well: That same day Hightower told his wife, who had declared her intent to divorce, that he had paid $5,000 to have her killed—and an additional $1,000 to make sure it looked like an accident. Two days later Providence Family Court haired him from any contact with her or their two sons. That same afternoon Hightower bought a Bear brand Devastator crossbow and six arrows at a sport shop in nearby Seekonk, Mass.

Friday, Sept. 20, began as usual for the Brendels. Ernest drove Alice to work and saw Emily off to school, but that was the last time police can account for his whereabouts. Later that morning, the CTFC received a call from an unidentified man saying that Brendel would withdraw his complaint against Hightower. At 4 P.M. Emily, who had gone to the YMCA after school, was picked up by a man later identified as Hightower. Alice returned home by bus at 6, but Ernest did not meet her at the bus stop, as he did every evening. The family was last heard from on Saturday morning, when Alice called a family friend to say Ernest could not make a planned trip to Yale for a football game.

On Sunday afternoon Hightower drove in the Brendels' Camry to see Ernest's younger sister, Christine Scriabine, in Guilford, Conn. Over the next several hours, he told a bizarre story that his family and the Brendels had been kidnapped and that Scriabine must come up with $75,000 toward a $300,000 ransom; to back up his claim, he pointed out the bloodstains on the car. After he left—without the money—Scriabine called the police, who picked up Hightower the next day.

Charged with extortion, Hightower is being held on $100,000 bail; his arraignment is scheduled for Nov. 26. Meanwhile, police are awaiting test results that will reveal whose blood is inside the Brendels' Camry. And they are continuing their search in the neighboring towns where Hightower was seen after the Brendels' disappearance. "If the bodies aren't found, there's no way we can end the first stage of mourning," says Scriabine.

The trauma of the family's vanishing has also been hard on the children of Barrington, but they have managed to find some solace. "Many of them are comforted because they believe Emily is with her mother and father," says a Primrose Hill teacher. "The fact that Christopher Hightower is in jail is a comfort to them as well."

PAULA CHIN
MARIA EFTIMIADES in Barrington

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