Too Cruel a Theft
updated 11/25/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/25/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST
Carl gazed at Jaycee as she neared the top of the hill, nearly a third of a mile away. Then a car creeping slowly down the road caught his eye. He moved closer to the door. "Maybe I know these people," he thought. "Maybe the man behind the wheel nor the dark-haired woman next to him looked familiar, and just after the small, gray sedan passed Probyn's home, it made a quick U-turn and headed back up the hill. Squinting in the bright light, Carl watched, puzzled, as it cut across the road and jolted to a stop in front of Jaycee. "Well," he thought, "it's Jaycee's friend's mom playing a joke." Then suddenly the driver's door was flung open, and in one horrifying moment Jaycee was dragged into the car, and Carl understood his mistake. "I heard Jaycee scream," says Carl, "and she was gone."
It has been five months since little Jaycee disappeared before her stepfather's eyes: five months since an Eldorado County officer approached her mother, Terry Probyn, at the printing shop where she worked as a graphic designer and in a grave, hushed voice broke the devastating news: "We have reason to believe your daughter was kidnapped."
Today, despite searches—door-to-door and through the nearby pine forests—and pleas for information on local radio and national television, the little girl in the pink windbreaker is still missing—and police have no significant leads. "It's like having open-heart surgery," says Terry, "Without being closed back up."
At first nothing could stop the pain. The day Terry learned of her daughter's abduction, she smoked cigarette after cigarette and drank herself into a stupor. Over the next month, friends and family members came and went, sharing in Terry's grief—but providing little comfort. Day after day, the despondent mother sank deeper into a dark hole of drunkenness, tears and heavy, troubled sleep. "I couldn't function," she says. "I was walking the floors, ranting and raving, thinking the worst."
Terry even lashed out at her husband. Logically, she understood that Carl had been in the garage that morning without his car keys, that he had jumped on his bike in a futile attempt to reach Jaycee, that his pedaling was no match for the steep hill or for the car that sped away with Jaycee before he could see the license number. She knew, too, that it was Carl who immediately called 911, Carl who provided the authorities with what little information they have about the abductors. But in her anguish, all Terry could think was, "Why didn't he do more?"
At first police asked the same question. Knowing that the vast majority of kidnappings involve family members—only four of California's 240 reported kidnappings last year are confirmed stranger abductions—local authorities, together with the FBI, questioned all relatives. But it was Carl who was subjected to the closest scrutiny. "Did you ever wish Jaycee wasn't here?" police asked him during two lie-detector tests—which he passed—and while he was under hypnosis. "It made me nervous," he says. "I had to say, 'Sure, there were times I'd wished Jaycee wasn't in our life.' I think every parent has wished that." Ultimately the police decided that Carl's occasional ambivalence about his stepdaughter was as innocent as he said it was. "We're 99.9 percent sure this is not a family abduction," says Eldorado County Sgt. Jim Watson. Terry, also, decided it was time to begin healing the wound that was destroying her family. "One Sunday I was by myself, and suddenly I just got this inner strength to quit crying and get on with it," she says.
At that point she and Carl went on the offensive. With the help of the local community, they've made more than 500,000 posters to display throughout the country. Casinos in nearby Nevada donated $1000 in reward money. The determined parents speak tirelessly to the press, waking up before dawn to write hundreds of letters to TV stations and newspapers, homeless shelters and police stations—"just asking them to keep an eye out," says Terry.
As public awareness mounted, calls from across the country poured in—few of them helpful. Some, says Terry, were cruel and frightening. "For the first few weeks they were driving me crazy with satanic theories," she explains. Others were simply off-base. "One woman called and said she felt that Jaycee was in a trunk of a car at a casino," recalls Terry of one tip from a self-proclaimed psychic. "So we spent the day knocking on trunks of cars at casinos."
Police have been no more successful. For the moment, in fact, they have only one bit of information that could be a clue: Carl's description of the woman in the car as Indian or Pakistani, with jet-black hair and dark eyes. Several people, it turns out, saw a woman matching that description at an art fair where Jaycee and her parents had been working the weekend before the abduction. That doesn't bring police any closer to Jaycee or her kidnappers—"She could be anywhere in the world right now," says Watson—but it docs give Terry pause. The evening before Jaycee disappeared, she recalls, her daughter seemed preoccupied. "Something was on her mind, something she wouldn't tell me," says Terry. "I wonder if she wanted to tell me she'd been approached by this woman at the fair."
In a way, the presence of a woman is soothing to Terry, offering a motivation for the kidnapping more palatable, somehow, than bleak theories involving prostitution or slavery rings. "The police said perhaps the woman had lost her own child," she explains, "that maybe she look Jaycee because of her grief. If that is true," she adds, "all I can say is, 'Please, let my child go. You may like her, but I love her.' "
In her daughter's tiny bedroom, where a colony of stuffed animals huddle, undisturbed, on the bed, Terry gazes at a collage of family photos on the wall. "Everything I do reminds me of her," she says. Now and again, from the window of the living room, where she spends feverish hours making posters and buttons and writing letters in her search for Jaycee, Terry glimpses a nervous mother walking her child to the bus stop at the top of the hill. "I have dreams that Jaycee's walking down that hill and into the house," says Terry. Carl, too, is haunted by thoughts of his stepdaughter. "It's heartbreaking not knowing where she is," he says, "or if she's still alive." In her parents' bedroom, Jaycee's sister, Shana is taking a nap. "I think she knows something's not right," says Terry. "Sometimes Shana will grab a [HAVE YOU SEEN JAYCEE?] button and kiss the picture of Jaycee." Terry's eyes fill with tears. "It breaks my heart when she asks for her 'sissy,' " she says, smiling sadly. "We just say she'll be home soon."
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
DIRK MATHISON in South Lake Tahoe