When the phone rang, it was early on Saturday and the voice asked, “Have you heard about Manuela?”
“No! What? She couldn’t have gotten fired already.”
That response came from my “Friday memory” at the bank, which was also my last day to see Manuela or the others at that branch. I was transferring inland to another California office near my home in Canyon Lake.
On Friday, Manuela, who sat across from the teller area where I worked on loan notes, like car titles and other forms, well, she was in her normal form. She seemed to cause a rise in temperature in another employee, and the yelling from their side of the building brought everyone to a halt.
Tempers flared. Words were exchanged. And each probably had valid points. Goodness, this was so many years ago, it was 1981 after all; but I can still see her face. I see her sitting at her desk. I hear loud talking and can still see arms waving. Even now, I struggle to think she’s … not alive. It’s almost like she vanished in thin air from my life. From everyone’s life.
Well, back to the phone call. It was a coworker and she told me that Manuela Witthuhn was dead. “Dead? What are you saying? I just saw her yesterday. We were going to be friends for life!”
The rest of the morning blurred into specs like mosquitoes spots on a windshield, like mud on a heart. Like bad vision. Like sadness swirling in the sand. No one knew what happened, at first, other than she was gone. I knew Manuela had been raped and attacked in her home though, and she was gone! But why?
Later that morning, the knock on the door brought two detectives into my home, who sat on my sofa, who watched me with a keen eyes, who asked pressing questions. My answers were not much help, I’m sure. Mostly, I was lost in the blur of the horror of saying goodbye to her.
One question, the only one that stick out is, “Did her husband smoke marijuana? Or did she?” To me, it was a strange question.
I had spent my lunches with Manuela, and we shopped in boutiques on the beach after work. She bought rugs, trinkets, and decorations for her new home in Irvine. She laughed with me. Sometimes, at me. We ate deli sandwiches at small sidewalk spots. We were becoming friends.
The temper she seemed to have at work, the roughness some faced in dealing with her during those times, it never unfolded when we were together. She was calm. A little high-spirited. Fun. Friendly. Talkative.
And she was strong when I felt weak. She was vocal. And I wanted to be. She was confident. I was timid. She appeared to be brave. I was lost in the world caving in around me. I was suffocating, and yet, she was the one who died. I so needed her friendship.
I’d go to her funeral and the one who argued with her at work that day would wail beyond measure. Tears fell. Hearts were ripped out. And David, Manuela’s husband would become a target in the investigation.
Oh … and in 1981, no one knew this would become a serial case or that now, in 2017 they’d call it the “Golden State Killer” cold case, which included some 50 rapes, and about a dozen deaths.
No one knew it would destroy David’s life either, as he became a prime suspect and had been in the hospital that night. He was followed. He was taunted. He was one of some, the police and investigators thought could be the killer.
David would lose his way. He would struggle in business. He would even become homeless for a time. And his health would fail. He died too young, and I’m convinced the stress contributed to this, but he was cleared of the murder many years later by DNA.
I think of my dear friend, Manuela often, and I’d like to tell you this loss lightens but somehow it lingers like a ringing in my ears with too many questions. Many I’ll never have the answer to, or know, or get resolved.
Thus, my novel series, a mystery series included a cold case too, about the Phantom Killer in Texarkana. And I dedicated the first novel to Manuela, but the hobo girl in the series becomes a messenger of hope along the rail and she’ll encounter the Phantom Killer again in book six.
I suppose there’s healing by writing such a series, healing to the heart, a way to process death, a way to share Christ with others in my writing. For you see, I never shared the gospel with Manuela and many told me she was an atheist. Even now, I pray they were wrong, and I pray someone had shared Christ with her, and she’d had time to cry out to Him before she took her last breath.
So, if you’re inclined to see how life unfolded for a small Texarkana girl who gets kidnapped at the age of five, who rides the rail, who meets the Phantom Killer and lives, and who, by the time she’s grown solves the case — then read: Annie Grace Kree Chronicles. Get the first four now, and get caught up.
Book Five: Unwavering Hope, releases late June 2017
Book Six: Unshackled Courage, releases summer 2018