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How Could This Happen?

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Rousted from bed at 7 a.m. after oversleeping, Ashley Pond threw on Tommy Hilfiger jeans, a spaghetti-strap shirt and a sweatshirt. Yelling, “Bye, Mom, I love you,” she dashed out the door of their Oregon City apartment to walk a quarter mile to the bus stop. It would be late afternoon before her mother realized that Ashley, a 12-year-old seventh grader, never made it to school.

In coming days news of the disappearance shook the working-class town of Oregon City. Parents urged their children to travel in pairs. Police distributed flyers about Ashley and posted signs encouraging residents to phone a hot line with tips. But as the weeks passed, calls to the hot line dwindled, and most precautions fell by the wayside. Life for everyone but the Pond family began to return to normal.

Two months later, on March 8, Miranda Gaddis, 13, another seventh grader who lived in the same apartment complex, hurried to get ready for school. Tossing on rhinestone jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, she exchanged “love ya’s,” with her mother before heading for the bus stop. She never got there. Somehow, just like Ashley, on an ordinary morning in broad daylight, within 500 yards of her home, Miranda Gaddis vanished.

Despite the efforts of a joint task force of up to 40 FBI agents and local officers, authorities can as yet do little more than speculate that the two girls were kidnapped by the same person—and marvel at the brazenness of the crime. “Two girls, two times, in broad daylight,” says Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler. “Either the perpetrator is awful damn lucky or he’s done this before.”

The abductions have resulted in “the biggest criminal investigation this city has ever seen,” says Oregon City Police Chief Gordon Huiras. Yet that has done little to calm the fears of this Portland suburb’s 26,000 residents. “People are being told it could be someone nearby,” says Michele Knoph, 46, who lives in the same complex with her 12-year-old son Patrick.

On the mornings both girls disappeared, residents in the 125-unit Newell Creek Village apartments reported nothing amiss. They heard no shouts, noticed no signs of a scuffle. Yet the girls’ loved ones insist that neither teen would have gotten into an unfamiliar car or surrendered to a stranger without a struggle. “Miranda is a tough little girl,” says her youth pastor Ken Swatman. “Miranda would have fought.” And Ashley? “She would have put up a tremendous fight,” says her mother, Lori Pond, 29.

Such certainty has convinced Oregon City residents that the girls knew the kidnapper—and that the perpetrator is still living in their midst. That fear has put local residents in the uncomfortable position of eyeing each other warily, even as they reach out to comfort and reassure one another. “It’s scary to talk with anyone,” says Katrina Ellicott, 12, who is on the dance team at Gardiner Middle School with both girls. “Someone says hi, and you just want to run.”

Investigators concede that they’ve made no headway on the case. After fielding some 3,200 tips and interviewing thousands of people, including 90 percent of the registered sex offenders in the Portland metro area, Charles Mathews, who heads the FBI field office in Oregon, says, “We have no information as to where they are or what happened to them.” Absent a body, a crime scene or any forensic evidence, investigators and profilers from FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., are focusing on the brashest aspects of the case: the repetition of a crime at the same time of day in the same place. “It is something that even to our behavioral scientists is unique in their experience,” he says.

Though Mathews will not speculate whether the girls are alive or if they knew their abductor, he does believe “we’re dealing with the same individual responsible for both acts.” He also says, “There likely will be more victims.”

Former FBI profiler Van Zandt says authorities are most likely looking for a white male in his mid-30s with limited education and a trail of broken relationships with women. “He’s choosing children young enough to entice and intimidate,” he says. “If he confronted an adult female, he would feel inadequate.” He says that two men may have staged the abductions together. “It’s very difficult for one person to use force on an individual when he has to drive a car,” concurs Robert Ressler, also a former profiler. Both men see parallels with an unsolved case involving the disappearances of three teenage girls in 1996 and 1997 in Spotsylvania County, Va. As yet, the FBI has been unable to establish a link.

In Oregon City investigators continue to sift through the many parallels between the two girls, hunting for clues. Both stand about 5’4″ tall, weigh 110 lbs. and have brown eyes and a long tangle of hair. In addition to living in the same complex, attending the same school and competing on the same dance team, each is one of several children being raised by a single mother. Both are estranged from a father who has had run-ins with the law. “We have no evidence that leads us to believe anyone connected with either family is involved,” says Police Chief Huiras.

On the day Ashley disappeared, not quite two months shy of her 13th birthday, the school never phoned to report her absence. Lori Pond, a stay-at-home mom, was unaware that anything was wrong until Ashley failed to return home that afternoon. After waiting several hours, she called the police and told a dispatcher, “She’s 12. Ashley would never run away.”

Initially police suspected otherwise. That evening they interviewed only Pond and did not search the apartment complex, waiting until the next morning to assign a detective. In coming days the picture they developed was no doubt confusing. Pond, on the one hand, insists that she and her daughter were inseparable, sharing passions for Nintendo, karaoke and bike riding. “She always had to be right next to me,” says Pond, who has two other daughters, ages 11 and 7. “I couldn’t turn around without my Ashley there.”

Yet several of Ashley’s friends, Miranda among them, initially whispered among themselves that Ashley had probably taken off. Pond says that the occasional mother-daughter strains were nothing more than typical teen stuff. She also says that in recent months Ashley had grown excited about the baby boy Pond is expecting any day now with her fiancé, James Keightley, 35, a warehouse worker who is also Ashley’s godfather.

After two days police began to suspect an abduction. Yet it would be another week before they called in the FBI—a nine-day delay that has drawn criticism from some experts. “Time was lost there,” says John Walsh of FOX’s America’s Most Wanted, which has featured the case twice. Justice statistics indicate that 75 percent of all kidnapped children who do not survive an abduction are killed within three hours of being snatched. “After 48 hours the chances of getting the victim back are pretty slim,” says Van Zandt.

It was Det. Viola Valenzuela-Garcia who contacted the FBI, concerned that she did not have enough experience to unravel the mystery. In charge of the Pond search since the day after Ashley disappeared, the petite detective has worked the case tirelessly every day since. “I take my beeper with me everywhere,” says Valenzuela-Garcia, the mother of a 12-year-old son. “It’s on my bedside table and even on the sink when I shower.”

Miranda took the abduction particularly hard. Though her relationship with Ashley had drifted over the years, recently the two girls had grown friendlier. “Miranda stopped eating and lost weight,” says her mother, Michelle Duffey, 34. Miranda spoke poignantly about Ashley in a local TV interview, and when the school dance team decided to stage a March 23 benefit to raise money to aid in Ashley’s search, Miranda threw herself into choreographing a solo routine. Then she, like most people in town, began to relax her guard.

Two weeks before the benefit, on a day when school had an early dismissal, Miranda was scheduled to walk with a friend to the home of her dance coach Sharonda Garrett, whose four kids Miranda often babysat. When the friend called Duffey at work, asking where Miranda was, Duffey immediately phoned the school, only to learn that the second oldest of her four children had never shown up that day. At around 5 p.m. she went to the police. Within minutes two officers were assigned to the case. By 11:30 the FBI was on Duffey’s doorstep.

From the start, friends and family dismissed the notion that Miranda had run away. Although she wears makeup and can look older than 13, they said she is neither flirtatious nor likely to be seduced by a strange man. “She would freak out if a boy touched her,” says Garrett, recalling how Miranda once berated a boy so harshly after he snapped her bra strap that Garrett thought she was going to punch him. Swatman, who runs the Tuesday-night youth group that Miranda attended at the Oregon City Christian Church, says that any stranger who tried to grab her “would have lost a finger or eye.”

Now in Oregon City “everyone is scared,” says Miranda’s best friend, Brock Ketterling, 12. “It feels like it’s pitch black and dark and sad.” Valenzuela-Garcia was so distraught that she lopped off her waist-length hair. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I couldn’t cut off a limb.”

Since then police have set up road blocks and searched and researched the apartment complex with dogs. Billboards exhorting people to phone the police hot line remain in place, as do a $50,000 reward offered by the FBI and a $10,000 reward posted by an anonymous donor. Throughout the school district, officials have deployed extra security guards. Gardiner Middle School has brought in extra counselors and offered self-defense programs. At Newell Creek Village, school buses now drive right in and stop every few buildings, sparing kids the short walk to the road.

Even so, many parents walk their kids to the bus or drive their kids to school. Lisa Ellicott, 33, mother of the missing girls’ dance pal Katrina, lets her six kids sleep with her and, school aside, rarely lets them out of her sight. “I don’t even let the kids go to the mailbox alone,” she says. As summer approaches, dance-team member Robyn Speaks, 14, worries how she will cope without school walls to keep her safe. “I can’t be a normal teenager,” she says. “Everything is different.” Some Newell Creek tenants have broken their leases and moved out.

Pond would like to do the same but plans to stay put until she knows what happened to Ashley. “Every day is a struggle,” she says. “It’s like you’re missing a piece of you.”

For a while Duffey and her children spent nights at the home of dance coach Garrett, but they now have returned to their apartment. Marissa, 15, sleeps with Miranda’s pillow. Miriah, 11, has taken to wearing Miranda’s clothes. Jason Jr., 10, keeps a picture of his sister nearby. For Duffey, who most days wears the hair clip Miranda handed her the morning she disappeared, trust has become a distant memory. “You can say you wouldn’t think your friend or neighbor would do this, but you don’t know,” she says. “I’m scared for my other kids.”

Over the months shock has given way to a sadness that often leaves Duffey in tears and unable to go to work. “It’s hitting me more,” she says. “I realize how long it’s been, and she’s still gone.” Miranda, who fantasized about becoming an actress or a model, “wanted to be known,” Duffey says softly. “She didn’t want to be known like this.”