Total Erasure

UPDATED 08/18/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/18/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

JIM AND MARILYN ROBERTS, 1,000 miles from home, hurried through a gauntlet of newspeople surrounding their daughter Jody's trailer in Sitka, Alaska. The old Jody, it occurred to Jim, would have been outside with the other reporters, scrambling for a fresh angle on this unusual story. But the new Jody was holed up inside, guarding her privacy. To her father, that hardly mattered. "I just went over and grabbed her and hugged her," says Jim of their emotional reunion last month. "She is the same basic person. We got her back, in a sense."

In a sense. Twelve years ago, Jody Roberts, then 26, was an intensely ambitious reporter for the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. Then, one day in May 1985, she vanished. At first, the Robertses thought she had taken a few days off or gone undercover. But as the weeks lengthened into months, and their desperate efforts to find her came to nothing, they began to believe she was dead. Then, last month, Jody turned up alive in Alaska—except she was no longer Jody Roberts. She was Jane Dee, a 39-year-old Web site designer and the married mother of two sets of twin girls.

According to family and friends, Jane Dee claims to have no memory of her life prior to May 25, 1985, the day she was found wandering through a mall in Aurora, Colo., over 1,000 miles from her home. And therein lies another mystery. Most people suffering functional amnesia—as opposed to those whose amnesia is related to brain damage—regain their memory in days or weeks. "It's very unusual for there to be a 12-year on going loss of autobiographical memory," says Neal J. Cohen, an amnesia researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, "but I don't think you can dismiss it out of hand."

Whatever their daughter's psychological state, the Robertses, of Lake Oswego, Ore., were overjoyed to find her after an Alaskan former coworker spotted her picture—and part of her story—on a Seattle newscast. They hoped to break through her apparent amnesia with items from her past—old yearbooks, photos, journals and articles she'd written as a young reporter. But for Jody, says Marilyn, "it was like looking at somebody else's stuff."

Their disappointment, however, was overshadowed by their delight—not only at the recovery of a daughter but at meeting their granddaughters Raven and Jordan, 6, and Sierra and Janna, 3. The Jody they had known, her parents believe, was too career-obsessed to have children. By contrast, the new Jody is a patient, attentive mother. "She just seems more at peace," says Jim. "And I think she is afraid of having her life exposed in some way where she loses her serenity. Jody definitely has two lives."

Jody's first life took shape in Lake Oswego. The second of Jim and Marilyn's five children, she was a bright, independent but introverted child who taught herself to read before kindergarten. After graduating from Pacific Lutheran University in 1981, she joined the News Tribune, where she proved to be a dogged reporter. "She was a very talented writer," says Tribune picture editor Mike Bainter, 39, who dated her for several years and remained a friend.

But in the weeks before her disappearance, Bainter and others saw changes. Uncharacteristically, Jody was drinking too much and had even stopped bathing. "She wasn't taking care of herself," says Bainter, "and she was in a foul mood." Bainter last spoke to her on May 17, when she called to say she couldn't get the weekend off to go on a fishing trip. "I could sense," he says, "that something was wrong."

Eight days later, the woman previously known as Jody Roberts turned up at a mall in Aurora, Colo., with no identification, just an empty notebook and a copy of the novel Water ship Down. "I remember she was dazed and out of it," says Sgt. Jeff Spring of the Aurora police, who answered a dispatcher's call to pick up a seriously disoriented woman. "She had a key to a Toyota, and we went around the parking lot but couldn't find anything that would match it." Spring took Jody to the local hospital, from which she was transferred to what is now the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Denver, where she was diagnosed as a victim of psychogenic fugue—amnesia induced by severe stress or a traumatic event. In effect, she was able to forget her troubles by forgetting who she was. The Aurora police ran Jody's photo and description in the newspapers and on TV, as well as on a statewide police network. They got 20 leads, but none panned out.

After her release from the Mental Health Institute, Roberts, who had been given a new Social Security number, a new birth date and a new name, Jane Doe—which she soon changed to Dee—began attending the University of Denver as an "adult learner," a designation that didn't require her to supply transcripts or take an entrance exam. She got good marks and paid her tuition, in part, by waiting tables at Mustard's Last Stand, a student hangout. In 1989, she picked up and moved to Alaska.

Sitka (pop. 8,588), on an island in southeast Alaska reachable only by boat or plane, is a good place to go if you want to start a new life, and Jane Dee did. She met and married her husband, Dan Williams, now 40, in 1990, and they live today in a pale yellow double-wide trailer hard by Sitka Sound. "I live on a beautiful rain-swept island in Alaska with my fisherman husband and two sets of twins," Dee wrote on an Internet site she created. "I ran away from college halfway through my senior year, looking for adventure, but now have settled on a comfy, lazy life in a beach-front trailer where we are as broke as we could be. I would never consider going back."

And the world might never have found her were it not for recent newscasts about the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, which embraces Tacoma, reopening Jody's case as a homicide investigation. "Here was a bright, attractive young woman who just disappeared into thin air," explained Capt. Gary Smith.

For now, Jim and Marilyn Roberts have only part of their daughter back, a part that has no memory of them. She calls them Mom and Dad, but Jim believes she mostly does it to make them happy. Still, for the Robertses, the years of uncertainty are finally at an end, and there are even plans for a family reunion at Christmas in Oregon. "It doesn't matter that Jody doesn't remember us," says Marilyn. "We just want to love her." Adds Jim: "In a sense, I've got a new daughter."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
ALEXANDRA HARDY in Lake Oswego, TINA KELLEY in Sitka, CATHY FREE in Tacoma and VICKIE BANE in Denver

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