Chapter 1: FBI Response
This case is going to make my career.
FBI Special Agent Charles Alvirez reached this conclusion immediately upon entering the swimming facility and observing pieces of dismembered children scattered about the deck. His partner, Doug Jenkins, presented a more prosaic thought: "Holy sh-."
Alvirez and Jenkins walked gingerly about the pool, allowing the swarm of Los Alamos police to document the scene. A diver fished body parts out of the water and stacked them next to the shallow end. A hole in a ceiling window permitted snowflakes to fall lazily from the night sky, creating an oddly beautiful contrast with the gore below.
Alvirez glanced over his shoulder, observed the Los Alamos Sheriff waiting impatiently for him. Let him wait. Alvirez liked thinking over a crime scene on his own for the first few minutes.
The agents stopped at a diving board, upon which lay the remains of (one?) child. Alvirez didn't touch the body, but he studied the wounds carefully from several angles. There was just no getting around it. The boy appeared to have been ripped to pieces.
"If you and I held a teenager on opposite ends and pulled as hard we could, would he come apart?" Alvirez asked.
"It would hurt him," Doug replied.
"But it wouldn't dissect him."
Alvirez shook his head. He had seen nasty things happen to the human body in Vietnam. But there was no evidence that explosives had been employed in this space.
"Shotguns?" his partner suggested.
"No pellets," Alvirez said. "No casings. No spatter on the walls."
"Something blew that window out."
"True," Alvirez granted, but he was suspicious. The hole in the ceiling was the only real indication that firearms might have been used. There was no smell of gunpowder, though.
Doug shrugged his shoulders. "I suppose I have to say it," he offered. "Chainsaws?"
"Again, no spatter. I'm thinking bladed weaponry.
"But the wounds are too ragged."
Alvirez frowned, yet allowed the point. He had never actually seen a limb severed with a sword. Presumably the cuts would be clean. Cleaner than this, anyway. Something for the coroner to figure out.
They resumed their slow walk, came to another body whose head carried a large bandage over the left ear. Alvirez paused for a moment, enjoyed his last "moment of purity." So far he had refused to be told anything. All he knew was what he saw: a massacre fit for a media circus. Not just four dead students – four dead students killed on school property. And in thoroughly gruesome fashion, to boot.
But the purity of his ignorance couldn't be allowed to last. "Sheriff Johnson," Alvirez finally said, motioning the man over. "What have you figured out so far?"
"The incident occurred about 5:15 PM," the sheriff informed him. "An afterschool swim session was taking place, twenty or twenty-five students present. We're still trying to figure out exactly who was here. The session was being monitored by the gym teacher, a Mr. Vladimir Zoric.
"One of the deceased students entered the pool area and informed Mr. Zoric of a fire outside. Mr. Zoric went to investigate. He found the contents of a garbage dumpster on fire. When he tried to reenter the building he found it locked. Mr. Zoric ran around to the front of the building, observed students fleeing through the front entrance. He used the pay phone in the lobby to call 911. Then he reentered the pool area and discovered the four bodies."
"None of the deceased are wearing bathing suits," Doug observed.
"They weren't participating in the swim session," the sheriff replied.
"The timing doesn't make sense," Alvirez said. "The gym teacher runs around the building, right? Two minutes, tops. Makes a phone call. Call that another two minutes. Let's give him a minute to make it back to the pool. You're saying our perpetrators did all this and got away in less than five minutes?"
"There's a lot that doesn't make sense," the sheriff shrugged.
No argument there, Alvirez thought. "We need testimony from the children who were here."
The sheriff nodded. "Zoric is trying to make a list of the kids who were in the pool. We're calling their homes, getting them to try and remember who else was here."
"So we could have students unaccounted for and not even know it," Alvirez said. "We've really got to nail down that list, make sure every student has made it home safely."
"We've got officers in the principal's office," the sheriff informed them. "They're pulling student files and making calls. The administrative staff have all returned to the building. They're helping us out."
"Good," Alvirez replied. His support team from Albuquerque would arrive shortly. No doubt they could do a better job than the Los Alamos Police Department. But the agent had no desire to force a jurisdictional battle. He would need the locals before long, and he was content to let them feel important. The case was going to become his, though, no doubt about that. And the Bureau would give him resources. Lots of resources.
"Zoric was able to identify all four bodies," the sheriff added.
"I want him back in here," Alvirez said. "I want him to ID the bodies again."
"I doubt he's going to want to do that."
The sheriff began to walk away. "And get someone up on that roof," Alvirez added, pointing to the hole in the ceiling glass. "I'd like some pictures."
Alvirez adopted a brooding scowl. "What are you thinking, boss?" his partner asked him once the sheriff had gotten out of earshot.
"I'm thinking these boys came looking for trouble," Alvirez said. "They made an effort to get the teacher out of the building. Why?"
The sheriff reentered the pool area, this time bringing along a man in his mid-forties wearing a sweat suit.
"I'm Agent Alvirez," the Bureau man introduced himself, extending his hand. "This is my partner, Agent Jenkins."
"Vladimir Zoric," the gym teacher replied in an Eastern European accent.
"I'm sure this is hard," Alvirez began, preparing to write on a small pad of paper, "and I know you've already done it. But we would really appreciate it if you'd identify the victims for us."
Zoric pointed to the closest body. "Mark Williams," he said flatly. He glanced over at the farther diving board. "Donald Brick." He motioned to the boy whose ear was bandaged. "Kenny Dollard. All 7th Graders. The older boy, the one whose head was in the water. That's Kenny's brother, Jack."
"They were all your students?" Alvirez asked.
"Jack used to be," Zoric replied. "The other three are in my gym class, yes."
"The victim you identified as Kenny," Alvirez continued. "It looks like he suffered a prior injury to the side of his head."
"A fight during an ice-skating trip," Zoric explained. "A student named Owen Wheeler struck him with a metal pole."
"Why was that?"
"These three ganged up on him a lot, I think. Kenny, Mark, and Donald. Kenny was the leader, though. I saw them confront Owen on the ice. I reckon Owen got sick of it and decided to fight back."
The bells went off in Alvirez' mind. "This Owen Wheeler," he asked, "was he present in the pool tonight?"
"Yes. I was training him."
"Did you see him exit the building?"
"No. I don't know what happened to him."
Alvirez turned to the sheriff. "You're working the phones from the school office, right? Let's radio over there and see if they've reached anyone at the Wheeler residence."
The agent returned his attention to Mr. Zoric.
"You say you witnessed the confrontation between Owen Wheeler and these three boys. Didn't you try to stop it?"
"It happened too fast. Then the body in the ice was discovered."
Alvirez blinked. "Body?"
"The kids found a dead man frozen in the pond."
Alvirez turned to the sheriff, raised an eyebrow. "We've had a string of attacks the last two-and-a-half weeks," the sheriff explained. "Four dead."
The FBI agent felt tempted to explode in the sheriff's face: Why didn't you tell me this right away, you blubbering idiot? Instead he simply asked, "You have a lead investigator?"
"Detective O'Conner. But he hasn't checked in today and no one's been able to reach him."
Charles Alvirez couldn't help himself. He turned away, and smiled. This case, he concluded, is going to make my career.
Fifteen minutes later, the two FBI agents, joined by four Los Alamos police officers, knocked on the door to Owen Wheeler's apartment. The mother, already drunk or well past it, introduced herself and let the men in. She gave them permission to examine Owen's room. Alvirez proceeded there at once.
He discovered the sort of furnishings typical in low-income housing: beat-up dresser, ancient TV. A cheap telescope featured prominently in a corner with decent-sized windows. Alvirez went over and looked onto the courtyard below. "Owen, Owen," he whispered, "what have you been watching?"
Doug entered behind him. "The mother keeps insisting that she hasn't seen Owen since this morning."
"But she smells like she was passed out," Alvirez observed. "Owen could have come and gone, and her none the wiser."
One of the officers came in. "Agent Alvirez," he said, "this is the third time I've been to this complex in the last two weeks." He pointed out the window to a first floor apartment on the other side of the courtyard. "The body pulled out of Copes Pond, that's where the guy lived. And the woman bitten by that girl, she lived right next door."
Alvirez felt overwhelmed with fragmentary data. Was there no one in the Los Alamos PD who could give him a systematic briefing concerning the events that had been going on here? Detective O'Conner could, apparently. And he was missing. One thing was certain, though. Owen Wheeler had been present at the pool where four students had been killed. Two residents in Owen Wheeler's apartment complex had also been attacked.
"I want an APB put out on Owen Wheeler," Alvirez informed the Los Alamos officer. "Let's list him as a potential kidnapping victim for now, being held by suspects in the pool slayings. That ought to get his picture on the 11 o'clock news. Make it happen."
The officer pulled out his radio. Alvirez returned to examining the room, being careful not to touch anything. Space theme wallpaper and mobile. Clothes all seemed present in the closet. No backpack. No schoolbooks. A piece of notebook paper with Morse code symbols. A candy wrapper with a Shakespeare quote: "I must be gone and live, or stay and die." A heart was drawn under the quote. It contained the names Abby and Owen. It did not look like a boy's handwriting.
"Let's designate this whole apartment a crime scene," Alvirez announced. "Get some investigators in here ASAP."
He returned to the living room, asked Mrs. Wheeler a simple question: "Does Owen have a girlfriend?"
Mrs. Wheeler never got a chance to answer. Another officer burst in from the hallway. "There's sign of forced entry in the adjacent apartment," he informed them.
Alvirez and his partner ran next door. The entryway appeared to have been kicked in. The agents entered, guns drawn, with the Los Alamos police close behind. They turned on the lights, discovered a disheveled dwelling containing a few mattresses, dirty dishes, and little else. Walking deeper into the apartment, Alvirez looked down and stopped: a small, bloody footprint was clearly evident on the floor.
"Looks like we're calling this a crime scene, too," Alvirez said.
Two hours later Alvirez could move freely about the residence registered to one Richard Zimmerman of Champagne, Illinois. The blood pattern on the bathroom door stood out as the apartment's defining feature, of course. There were bloody drag marks on the floor as well. Someone's life had ended badly at the end of this hallway.
"We've found Detective O'Conner's car in the parking lot," an officer finally informed Agent Alvirez.
One less detective, Alvirez thought. The (probably) deceased man had kept good notes, though. O'Conner's file had been brought to Alvirez from the Los Alamos police station. It made clear O'Conner had been working on an assumption of two suspects: a father-daughter team. The father had been accounted for. The daughter had not.
"I think he came in overconfident," Doug offered. "His main suspect died at the hospital, right? Now he's just looking for a little girl. It would be easy for her to surprise him if she's as vicious as Larry Summers says. Plus O'Conner would be hesitant to use deadly force on a minor. That might have given her all the advantage she needed."
Alvirez considered the blood on the bathroom door. It looked like arterial spatter. He supposed that made sense given what they knew about two of the other victims: they'd been bitten in the neck. Yet strangely, what struck Alvirez as most significant was Summers' testimony that the girl had attacked his wife Virginia by jumping from a pine tree. Alvirez had gone out into the courtyard and studied the tree. There was no obvious way to climb it. And if the girl could get all the way up that pine, she could easily have gotten onto the roof of the Los Alamos Middle School swimming pool.
Two persons of interest: Owen and the girl next door. Alvirez could guess that the children had linked up, but he had no proof. What he needed was something definite, something that made it clear these two kids were connected.
A crime scene investigator walked up to him carrying a freezer-size zip-loc bag. The bag contained a single piece of parchment paper. Written on the paper was the following message:
Hi Owen. Good morning
I am in the bathroom.
Please do not come in.
Want to hang out with
me again tonight?
I really like you.
Abby, darling, Alvirez thought. I've got you.
Twenty hours later Alvirez convened the first meeting of the FBI's new Los Alamos Task Force. They gathered in the local police station, Alvirez and his partner, plus seven additional agents and twenty local officers. These included four detectives and the sheriff.
Alvirez had not slept during the night, but he didn't feel tired. He had been too busy interviewing witnesses and assembling a timeline of recent events. Detective O'Conner had kept really good notes. That helped a lot. And the one eyewitness to an actual attack, the man from Owen Wheeler's complex named Larry Summers, had proved invaluable.
The agent wished he were taller than 5'8", but there was nothing he could do about it. He drew himself up as best he could and called the meeting to order.
"I understand most of you knew Detective Sean O'Conner," he began. "From what you tell me, he was an outstanding officer, and he died in the line of duty. But we need to focus on the case he left behind, catch these people before more lives are lost. The time to mourn Detective O'Conner will come in its proper season."
Alvirez directed his audience's attention to the chalkboard that he had spent the day filling in. "Some of this is guesswork," he acknowledged, "so we'll make corrections as our information improves. And I'm willing to be corrected as we go if you see something wrong. A lot of this is based on Detective O'Conner's work over the last two-and-a-half weeks. It really seems like he was on top of this case." And then he got himself killed by a twelve-year-old, Alvirez didn't bother adding out loud.
Thursday, February 17 Abby and her father rent apartment
"John Doe, a white male in his mid-fifties, uses a stolen Illinois driver's license to check into unit 302 of the Desert Meadows Apartment Complex. This is a police sketch stemming from possible previous crimes in Indiana, Illinois, and Oklahoma. The apartment manager ID'd this guy as our John Doe, as did Larry Summers. The identification is uncertain because after being captured the John Doe doused his face with acid. The suspect seems to have had a daughter named Abby, approximately twelve years old, with long blonde hair and a penchant for going barefoot in the snow. We've found the John Doe's fingerprints all over the apartment, as well as the prints of a child we're assuming is Abby. Living in unit 304, directly adjacent to Abby and her dad, is a twelve-year-old boy named Owen Wheeler."
Tuesday, February 22 Scott Wilson killed, probably by Abby's father
"The victim, a 19-year-old white male, was last seen alive shopping for groceries at Martin Brothers. Three hours later his dead body was discovered in woods west of town. His neck was punctured with a blade and his body drained of blood. Ligature marks on his ankles indicate he may have been hanged upside down to facilitate the draining process. The victim's blood was found spilled on the snow near his body. We have strong reason to believe our John Doe is the perpetrator given his possible prior history of offenses, as well as the gym bag of implements eventually found in his possession."
Wednesday, February 23 (?) Jack Browning killed
"The date of death is uncertain for this victim, a 30-year-old white male whose body was discovered in Copes Pond on March 4. Mr. Browning was a resident of Desert Meadows Apartment Complex, which you'll recall is where our John Doe and his daughter had just moved in. The victim was found wearing a jogging suit, and witnesses say he normally jogged at night. This combined with the fact that Mr. Browning did not show up for work on Thursday, February 24 makes us assume he was killed the evening of February 23. We have been unable to locate where the murder took place. Like Scott Wilson, Jack Browning's body was completely drained of blood. But instead of a knife wound in the neck, this victim was bitten. The bite marks are human. The victim's neck was also broken."
Friday, February 25 (?) Abby and Owen have met by this date
"We know very little about the relationship between Owen Wheeler and Abby. Abby does not seem to have attended school. Owen's mother did not even know that a girl had moved in next door, much less that her son had become friends with her. But we found two handwritten copies of Morse code, one in Owen's room and one in Abby's apartment in the room adjacent to Owen's bedroom. It is possible the two children communicated through the wall. We went to the school library and found that on February 25, Owen Wheeler checked out a book that teaches Morse code. So it seems likely the two children have met by this date."
Thursday, March 3 Abby's father kills Joshua Hendrickson, then himself
"Our John Doe gets into the back of a car being driven by one James Strong. Mr. Strong picks up a friend, Joshua Hendrickson, and proceeds to a gas station. Mr. Strong gets out of the car at the gas station. It seems John Doe then fought with Mr. Hendrickson, gained control of the vehicle, and attempted to drive away. The vehicle is struck by a truck, killing Mr. Hendrickson and sending the car into a ditch. John Doe, trapped in the damaged vehicle, pours acid on his face before police arrive on the scene. Investigators find a gym bag believed to belong to the suspect. Among its contents are a folding knife, nylon ropes, a pulley system, a plastic jug, and a large funnel. These items may have been used in the February 22 murder of Scott Wilson. Detective O'Conner attempts to question John Doe in the hospital. During the visit, a girl we are assuming is Abby enters the hospital and inquires at the front desk about her father. Key details of the nurse's description: 12 years old, long blonde hair, bare feet. The girl exits the hospital before Detective O'Conner can go to the lobby and question her. While O'Conner is on the phone at the nurse's station, John Doe leaps to his death from the window of his 10th story hospital room. He leaves behind this note written on the detective's pad: "I'm sory Abby."
Friday, March 4 Abby attacks Virginia Summers
"This attack is critical because it's the only one we have a witness for. On Friday evening Larry Summers and his wife, Virginia, both residents of the Desert Meadows complex, are walking through the courtyard outside their apartment. A girl we are assuming is Abby jumps onto Virginia from a tall pine tree, bites her neck, and flees after being wrestled by Mr. Summers. Key details of Mr. Summer's description: about 12 years old, long blonde hair, bare feet. He also describes Abby as feral, like a wild animal. This contradicts the nurse's testimony. She described Abby as quiet and quite fragile looking. But the approximate age, long blonde hair, and bare feet all match up."
Saturday, March 5 Virginia Summers and Patricia Willis killed in hospital fire
"On Saturday morning Detective O'Conner visits Virginia Summers' hospital room and begins questioning Larry Summers in the hallway. A nurse named Patricia Willis enters the room. The room suddenly bursts into flames, killing Virginia Summers and the nurse. Detective O'Conner was a direct witness to these events. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but obviously the circumstances must be labeled as suspicious. Larry and Virginia Summers were the only surviving witnesses to an attack. What seems like an attempt on their lives is made the very next day. Mr. Summers survives because Detective O'Conner had pulled him out of the hospital room. Mr. Summers is now under police protection."
Sunday, March 6 Detective Sean O'Conner killed in Abby's apartment
"Detective O'Conner drives to the Desert Meadows apartments. For unknown reasons he engages in a forced entry of Abby's apartment. He appears to have been killed in the bathroom at the end of the apartment hallway. His neck was bitten, and his body drained of blood. The bite marks are human. In addition to being bitten and exsanguinated, the detective's neck was broken. There are two sets of footprints in the blood at the crime scene: one a girl's bare feet, which we are assuming is Abby, another made by a boy's shoes, which we are assuming is Owen Wheeler. Critically, a fingerprint of Owen's in the victim's blood has been found on the bathroom doorknob. This print clearly places Owen Wheeler in Abby's apartment during or shortly after the murder of Detective O'Conner.
Monday, March 7 Four boys killed in Los Alamos Middle School swimming pool
"Yesterday evening, Jack Dollard, Kenneth Dollard, Mark Williams, and Donald Brick, four students with a history of prior conflict with Owen Wheeler, set fire to a dumpster outside the Los Alamos Middle School swimming facility. When the gym teacher goes to investigate, the four boys lock him outside. The boys proceed to the pool, where they order all the children present to exit the facility. Owen Wheeler was one of the children present. The gym teacher circled the building and reentered, called 911, and went to the pool, where he discovered the dismembered remains of Jack, Kenneth, Mark, and Donald. There was no sign of Owen Wheeler. Owen is the only child present in the swimming pool that remains unaccounted for."
Monday, March 7 – Tuesday, March 8 Beginning of investigation
"Additional indications of a connection between Abby and Owen. This note was found in Owen's room. It says, 'I must be gone and live, or stay and die.' It's a quote from Romeo and Juliet, which Owen was studying in class. But the note is not written in Owen's handwriting. Under the quote a heart is drawn, with the names Abby and Owen inside. And in Abby's apartment this note was found:
Hi Owen. Good morning
I am in the bathroom.
Please do not come in.
Want to hang out with
me again tonight?
I really like you.
"A white blood-soaked dress belonging to Mrs. Wheeler was found in Abby's apartment. Abby's fingerprints have been discovered in the bathroom in Owen's apartment. Bloodstains have been found on two of Owen's sweaters in the Wheeler's laundry. Abby and Owen's fingerprints have both been found on the jungle gym in the apartment courtyard. Both children's prints are present in the basement room where Detective O'Conner's body was discovered this morning. Bare human footprints were found in the snow on the roof of the Los Alamos Middle School, adjacent to the window that was clearly broken from the outside. The footprints are the same size as the ones leading away from the attack on Virginia Summers. So this may place Abby at the scene of the pool deaths as well."
Agent Alvirez paused for a moment to let his audience digest the information he had fed them. He watched them study the order of events on the board, weigh whether or not the sequence made sense. Too many guesses, Alvirez realized. Too many unanswered questions. But the massacre in the pool had happened only 23 hours ago. He figured their progress was good in most respects, given how long they had actually been working the problem. There was one glaring weakness, however.
"Detective O'Conner," Alvirez continued, "was working on the assumption that John Doe and Abby were involved in some kind of cult. We're going to avoid using that word, as it implies motive. But the detective was asking the critical question: Who else is involved besides Abby and Owen? There are good reasons to conclude that there are other suspects, people who for lack of a better phrase we will call 'Abby's Gang.'
"The most obvious reason is the condition of the four dead boys at the swimming pool. The bodies are torn to pieces. No evidence of gunfire or explosives. I was thinking swords, but the coroner says no. Something ripped those kids apart, and we have no idea what. I reckon we can conclude one thing, though. Even if Abby and Owen were both present at the scene, there's simply no way two 12-year-old children could inflict that kind of damage, especially in so short a period of time.
"There is the final condition of the bodies of Jack Browning and Sean O'Conner. Both bodies were completely drained of blood. Even if we assume the worst, that Abby has been raised to feed on human blood, it can't account for the bodies being exsanguinated. A child could drink maybe two or three pints of blood at most. Where did the rest of the blood go? And how was it all removed from the bodies? The heart gives out before it can pump all of a person's blood from an arterial wound. Some sort of suction is needed to completely void the circulatory system. And both men had their necks broken. If we assume Larry Summers' description is accurate, Abby may be unusually strong for her size. But no child is going to be able to break the neck of an adult male.
"There is the hospital fire, of course, which I suspect to have been set my gang members. Finally there is the location of Detective O'Conner's body. He was killed in Abby's apartment, but found three flights down in a back storage room. It seems unlikely that Abby and Owen would have been able to move the body on their own, especially without drawing attention."
Alvirez stopped again, this time indicating that he was finished. One of the Los Alamos detectives quickly raised his hand.
"You posit the existence of 'Abby's Gang,' but do you have any direct evidence that others are involved?"
"No," Alvirez admitted, "and that's a problem. I was really expecting Abby's apartment to produce other fingerprints, but so far all we've got are Abby, her father, and Owen."
"These cases in other states," the man continued, "was there ever an indication that people besides Abby and her father were involved?"
Alvirez shook his head. "I understand where you're going, but what other conclusion can we come to? There simply have to be additional adults involved. I'm guessing Owen Wheeler got mixed up with a bad crowd, the sort of crowd that made Kenny and his pals look like a bunch of Brownies. That crowd killed Owen's enemies for him. Now Owen has gone off with that gang, whether willingly or unwillingly we cannot say. Based upon his interactions with Abby, I'm guessing willingly."
"You don't actually know her name is Abby," a police officer pointed out.
Doug piped in. "That's true," he admitted. "But two different witnesses saw the girl and gave similar descriptions. Then we've got the name 'Abby' written three times, once by her father and twice, it seems, by herself. It's a plausible assumption that they're the same person."
"Why did you declare Owen Wheeler a kidnapping victim?" another detective asked.
"Because we need the media's help on this," Alvirez explained. "There are only two people we know for certain that we're looking for: Abby and Owen. But Owen Wheeler is the only one we know much about. We've got plenty of photographs of him. We need the papers and the TV news to keep putting those pictures out there.
"Which reminds me," he added, "we need to control the media leaks. We dribble out information in small packets, enough to keep the case front page every morning. That gets the Wheeler kid's picture printed day after day. I say tonight we start mentioning details about the pool killings. Tomorrow we bring up possible linkages between the eleven deaths. Save the blood drinking for Thursday. That'll definitely get us back on TV if the kid hasn't been found yet. If we have to go to Friday…"
An officer burst into the briefing room and made an announcement: "Owen Wheeler has just been spotted in the Denver train station."