Remembering Misti: It’s not about how she died; it’s about how she lived

“Her name was Misti, but to those who lived around her in her Fairfield apartment complex, she was River Rat.”

That was more or less how I started the story I wrote about the 8-year-old girl’s death back in July 1997. I was just more than a year out of college and was the editor of a weekly newspaper in Misti’s hometown. I filed the story around 4 p.m. on a scalding-hot afternoon, the day Misti’s body had been discovered in a Dumpster no more than 100 yards from the apartment she shared with her mom, her mom’s boyfriend and the boyfriend’s 15-year-old son.

I shut down my computer, locked the office door — I was the newspaper’s only staff member, so I did everything from write stories like Misti’s while making sure the toilet was clean — and drove the five minutes back to the apartment complex where I’d spent much of the day.

I sat in my car, the air condition roaring, and stared at the Dumpster where Misti had been so maliciously discarded, placed in two tied-together trash bags and tossed away like garbage.

I sobbed.

I was a few days shy of my 23rd birthday. I had married my college sweetheart just a few months before. And I knew I was in trouble.

Journalists weren’t supposed to sob over a story subject. Throughout my training as a college journalist, it was hammered into us: We were to be dispassionate observers. We were to be objective. There was no place for genuine emotion in what we did. I had bought into all of that. So why was I sobbing?

I had arrived at Misti’s apartment complex a few hours after they found her body. The TV news people were there, and I saw the exact kind of training I had been given in action. On-air talent joked around with cameramen as they carefully touched up their makeup. Then the camera went on, and suddenly the talent was mournful and solemn. Two minutes later, their segment ended and everyone was back to joking and laughing.

Meanwhile, 20 feet away was a Dumpster, cordoned off by yellow police tape, that had recently held a young girl’s dead body.

Misti was a person. A little girl. Likeable. Fun-loving. Just by listening to the crowd around the pool talk that day, I had gotten to know her. The alive her. I wanted to lead with who she was, not what someone had done to her. So I did.

The day was already getting hot. I sat off to the side on a grass embankment and watched as neighbors started to congregate around the tiny apartment-complex pool. I saw the TV news people roll away in their logo-emblazoned trucks, their soundbites complete. Police officers came and went from the nearby apartment. The crowd by the pool grew larger.

So I walked over.

Journalists are always eyed with suspicion in situations like this. And when I say “like this,” I’m talking about any situation in which there is a gathering of true community and this outsider steps into the circle. This suspicion is justified. One need only look at the conduct of the drive-in, drive-out TV news folks that morning to see how journalists earned their reputation.

I stood there as this group talked quietly, some puffing anxiously on cigarettes, one woman picking a scab on her arm. Most glanced from Misti’s apartment and back to the pool.

A large man in a white shirt stained with dirt, sweat and who-knows-what-else suddenly spoke loudly in my general direction.

“She was swimming there just a few days ago,” he said, pointing a thick index finger at the pool water. A few members of the crowded nodded. “We called her ‘River Rat’ because of how she looked when she got out of the pool. She had these big ears, and when her hair was wet and slicked back, they stuck out, we would say, ‘You look like a drowned river rat.’”

I looked around. There were so many distant, transfixed stares coming from grieving faces, people who were remembering. I stayed silent. This was a moment. Not for me. For them. I had no right to say anything just then. I was an observer. Dispassionate? Not exactly. I don’t know if this is common to all storytellers, but for me, I feel things. A lot. And deeply. At that moment, I could close my eyes and almost hear the laughter of kids playing in the pool. The relief from the oppressive summer heat. The carefree joy of simply being young.

“He wasn’t a bad kid, you know,” a woman said. “At least, we didn’t think he was. I don’t know what to think now.”

I looked at her inquisitively.

“Chris,” she said in answer to my unasked question. “He and Misti got along. I don’t know how he could have done this.”

Finally, I spoke up, softly. “What happened?” In situations like this, I feel, it’s best to be brief and just let people talk.

The man who had spoken first jumped in. He told me that Misti had been on the phone with one of her friends. Chris, the son of her mom’s boyfriend, wanted to make a call. Misti wouldn’t hang up. So Chris beat her and then strangled her to death.

I would confirm this story later with the police. They added this detail: After killing her, he opened one garbage bag and pulled it over her head and upper body. Then he opened another garbage bag and pulled it over her lower body. Where the two bags met, he tied the drawstrings together. Then he carried her lifeless body to the Dumpster and dropped her inside.

And then the next day, as realization dawned that Misti was missing — yes, it took a disturbingly long time for that to happen — he went canoeing with his friends.

This is the essence of the story I filed with the daily sister-paper to the one I was in charge of. I knew when I submitted it that it wasn’t written the way murder stories are supposed to be written. What I was supposed to write started with, “A 15-year-old boy has been arrested after the body of an 8-year-old girl was found in the Dumpster of a Fairfield apartment complex.” But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t reduce the girl that crowd of people lovingly called River Rat to where she had so callously been disposed of.

Misti was a person. A little girl. Likeable. Fun-loving. Just by listening to the crowd around the pool talk that day, I had gotten to know her. The alive her. I wanted to lead with who she was, not what someone had done to her. So I did.

So back to the car, where I sat sobbing. The apartment complex had grown eerily quite. There was no coming-and-going from any of the units. No people smoking outside. No one by the pool. I remember thinking that I was in trouble, that I was not a dispassionate observer, that I was not an objective gatherer of facts. I was just more than a year into my professional journalist career and I knew I didn’t fit in.

The next morning, the daily newspaper came out. On the front page was a story about Misti. It was under another reporter’s byline, and it was written much like murder stories are supposed to be written. I called the city editor. He told me the other reporter had filed her own story and that it was much more “in the paper’s style.” I hung up.

I published my story a day later in the weekly I ran. Ever since that story, I have tried to write everything I write to showcase who people are, not how processes work or how crimes unfold. People exist. They live and they die. In between, they do things and make memories and leave their mark on the people who cross their path. Their lives become filled with thousands of little stories that shape who they are.

I left newspapers in 2009. The industry had basically chewed me up and spit me out. In retrospect, I’m fine with that. I’m not a traditional journalist. I never was. I’m a storyteller. That’s what I do. What’s who I am.

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