DEBBIE WILL LIVE—Episode A237: 'Missing In Iowa Day 3'
Debbie Will (Host): And we're back with a mind blowing new development in the case of little Sara Dennison—I want to welcome my next guest, who some of you out there may recognize: Betty Riehl, what's a glamorous Hollywood actress like you doing out there in rural Iowa, in the middle of this tragic case?
Betty Riehl (Guest): Well, this is where I live now. I mean, I grew up here. I moved back about a year ago.
Debbie: You did kind of disappear after the reality show.
Betty: It didn't go anywhere, so.
Debbie: It was supposed to be your 'comeback,' right?
Betty: Well, I never really went anywhere, but yeah.
Debbie: And you're not that old.
Betty: Well. Thanks for saying so.
Debbie: And I tell you, after that Vanity Fair cover—you were like the It Girl there for a while. Big movies, endorsement deals, dating you know who.
Debbie: So tell me, what's your connection to this case? Did you know Sara Dennison? How are you involved?
Betty: I'm handing out flyers in front of Rob's Grocery.
Debbie: Now this is where she disappeared from, right?
Debbie: Three long days ago. Last seen at around 4 in the afternoon, so right after school got out—Betty, is this a place where kids her age 'hang out' after school?
Betty: Well, it's only a couple blocks from Kennedy, so yeah. I did. We used to smoke out back behind the dumpsters, you know, no one could see you back there.
Debbie: 12 is a little young to be smoking, isn't it?
Betty: I can't say if she did or not.
Debbie: You knew her, though.
Betty: I met her once. I saw her, in the neighborhood.
Debbie: I bet she wanted your autograph, didn't she? She probably looked up to you, hometown girl made good.
Betty: She just said hi. She was friendly.
Debbie: You look a little different than you did.
Debbie: Are you a natural brunette?
Betty: I'm naturally a hundred and fifty pounds, too.
Debbie (laughs): All right, then. So, you know little Sara. You live in the same neighborhood as her—where are you living now, Betty? A house? Apartment?
Betty: I think the important thing right now is that we find Sara. (Holds up flyer and gestures to 1-800 number) Please, if anyone out there knows something, call this number.
Debbie: Hold that up a little—right, right there.
Betty: There's a reward of $500 to anyone who comes forward with any helpful information. Her family really misses her. They love her, and they want her home.
Debbie: Did they come to you, the Dennison family, and ask you to help get the word out? Obviously, with your status as a celebrity, even 'retired,' you can help get a lot of necessary attention devoted to this important case.
Betty: I volunteered to help, like everyone else. You know, there's hundreds, thousands of people searching the neighborhood. Your reporter just recognized me is all.
Debbie: Well, I am sure the Dennison's are happy to have your help in finding their only daughter. Sara is like we said, only 12 years old. God, it just brings back the memories . . . I was only 12 when I was abducted back home in Ohio. Stolen from my own backyard by a man I—but let's move on: her uncle Chet, who was on just a moment ago, describes her as 'warm, happy, just in love with life.' And you can see it from the pictures we have up, can't you, Betty?
Betty: I can't see them.
Debbie: You said teens like to smoke out back behind some dumpsters—what kind of supervision is there at this place?
Betty: Well, it's a regular neighborhood grocery. It's the last one like it in town, you know, with Wal-Mart and everything, you don't see these kinds of places any more.
Debbie: What keeps it going?
Betty: It's where everybody shops, more or less. And now we have a big Hispanic population here, so they have like an entire aisle of just Hispanic food, so it's popular.
Debbie: So there's a lot of people coming in and out of this small town from out of state.
Betty: I don't know. I guess.
Debbie: Or out of the country even.
Betty: You know, you don't see lots of people standing on corners looking for work like you do in L.A.—
Debbie: Betty, let me ask you your opinion or something: (pause) What do you think happened to little Sara?
Betty: I don't know.
Debbie: One minute she's on the surveillance video buying two or three candy bars—that'd be enough to alarm me if I were her mother—and the next she's walking out the door. But she never made it home. Uh. Just heartbreaking.
Debbie: It's like a bad movie, isn't it?
Betty (pause): Right.
Debbie: Well, I'm glad to have had you on. Keep up the good work, I'm sure we'll be talking with you again.
The walls of the room are red. They didn't start out that way. Sunlight through the yellowed newspaper he taped over the four-pane window at the back of the room makes it orange sometimes, like dried blood, or rust. There's an old Montgomery Ward ad advertising brand new 'automatic ovens'—microwaves, she thinks, they're awfully big—and a small blurb about a Good Friday fish fry at the local AMVETS post in Carpenter. Every time she breathes, she inhales the dirt on the floor. There is no floor. She's afraid this is what it's like to be buried alive. The room smells like books. It smells like sweat and urine, like the bleach he uses to cover up the stink, but he just pours it from the bottle along the window sills, in and outside the cracks underneath the doors. The stink he likes.
DEBBIE WILL LIVE—Episode A242: 'Missing In Iowa Day 8'
Debbie: Now yesterday, we talked about how no one seems to have seen this red truck that Dale Thatcher—this is the last man to have seen Sara from all we can tell—saw pulling up to the corner where she stood, waiting to cross.
Betty: I've talked to lots of people in the neighborhood, and no one else remembers a red truck.
Debbie: Strange. Don't you think it's strange?
Betty: Maybe it wasn't even a truck at all, I don't know.
Debbie: Are you saying that Dale may have mistaken this vehicle for some other type of car? Or maybe a van? You know, how many 'vans' are milling around this grocery so popular with the local Hispanic population?
Betty: You know, I can't say. I wasn't there.
Debbie: Dale is in his 80's, isn't he?
Betty: I guess, I don't know for sure.
Debbie: And local and state police are looking all over for a non-descript red truck that may not even exist.
Betty: Well—I'm not sure it had anything to do with this, whatever it was. So.
Debbie: Betty, you were on Larry King last night. Tell me what you told him, about Terry Dennison, Sara's father. There was a custody battle, wasn't there?
Debbie: Now this guy, this Terry—he hasn't lived in the same house as his wife and daughter for years. He doesn't pay them anything in the way of support and yet when Sara's grandmother dies and leaves her a substantial inheritance, Terry conveniently remembers his fatherly obligations.
Betty: You know, I—yeah, I think it's odd. I mean, you don't forget. When I got my first big job, I bought my mom a house with the money. I always wanted to, you know, I always told her, 'I'm going to buy you a real house.'
Debbie: And that's where the two of you live now.
Betty: Well, I—I always meant to live here with her. There's nothing wrong with Iowa, right, you can live here and be an actress, but before—
Debbie: Right. And this Terry—he takes the mother to court to get custody, and when he loses—
Betty:—but before I moved back, she didn't want me to. She wanted me to get out, you know, she wanted me to be bigger than Carpenter, I guess. (laughs) I don't know.
Debbie: Uh-huh. Now, Terry—he high-tails it out of town, less than a month before his daughter goes missing! And do we know where he is, right now? Nobody does! And you know something—as much as people wonder where he is, they have to wonder where little Sara's mother is in all this, too.
Betty: Oh. Well, she's—she's overwhelmed.
Debbie: If it were my little girl out there in the clutches of some deviant pervert or God knows what else, I wouldn't sleep until she was found. My mother didn't. Her sisters were telling her she was going to go nuts not getting rest, and thank God she didn't, because no one else was going to find me in that guy's basement. I owe everything to her, and it's that unapologetic drive and commitment I honor here, each and every single night, in the search for this girl who only wants to go to school. Grow up. Be a mom herself. And where is Sara's mother? Why isn't she out there, looking?
Betty: She's doing all she can, I'm sure.
Debbie: It's a shame Carpenter didn't have your light to shine on any of the other women that have gone missing there over the years, right? Because there's been a few.
Betty: I guess. Over the years.
Debbie: Six. Six women, between 1980 and the present day, including little Sara. Think there's a connection?
Betty: I don't know. I doubt it.
Debbie (sighs): Well, it's just an impossible situation. Eight days now. Eight days little Sara has been missing and still, no leads. No clues. My thanks to Betty Riehl for her time, and her unwavering commitment to finding this little girl. We need more people like her, don't we?
There are stacks and stacks of magazines and bundles of old newspapers in the red room with her. They surround her. She can barely see over them. The rafters come together in a triangle overhead, like a church steeple. The room is small. It's a shed. She might be on a farm, outside of town. She looks down toward her feet. It looks like chicken wire around her ankles, and her hands, too. It feels like wire.
He sits in the dark, where she can't see him, on a stack of papers. Sometimes he shows her a large book of blank canvas pages that he filled up with clippings from all these books, magazines and papers. Sometimes it's movie stars, Julia Roberts, Sharon Stone, those kind of women, but mostly it's girls from the local paper. Carpenter girls in cheerleader outfits or their bridal gowns or graduation caps.
He started a new page with her.
DEBBIE WILL LIVE—Episode A260: 'Missing In Iowa Day 26'
(Host: Debbie Will, Guests: Norman Chester, Betty Riehl)
Debbie: —and with no solid leads, without a single shred of evidence to suggest what came of this poor little girl, you're accusing this woman, Betty Riehl, of furthering her own selfish goals in promoting awareness for Sara's case?
Mr. Norman Chester: Look, I think the facts speak for themselves. Ms. Riehl has made a second career out of appearing on your show and the several others just like it on all the other cable news channels—
Debbie: I like to think of my program as being unique, Mr. Chester, but you go right on ahead.
Mr. Chester: —she's on these shows, every single night, as if she's connected in some official capacity to the search. We appreciate her effort, and the attention she's given this nationally, but it's important to note—
Debbie: If you appreciate the attention, then why try and put a muzzle on her now, Norman?
Mr. Chester: —it's important to note that she represents no one but her self. I represent Mrs. Dennison, I am her attorney, and outside of the police handling this investigation, I am the one you should be speaking to.
Debbie: Why not Mrs. Dennison?
Betty: Yeah, why not her?
Mr. Chester: Look, her daughter is missing. She's not in any real condition to deal with the media right now.
Debbie: That's right. Her daughter's been missing for almost a month! And all we've gotten out of her is one prepared statement to the press camped outside of her home two weeks ago! I don't know. I just don't know. Betty?
Betty: I didn't ask for any of this.
Mr. Chester: Then you won't mind stepping aside and letting the proper parties handle these matters.
Betty: I'm just trying to help. I'm not trying to make a 'comeback' here, or any of the other things you've been saying on these 'other shows,' I mean, it's ridiculous.
Debbie: So you haven't sold the rights to any book.
Betty (laughs): My spelling sucks.
Mr. Chester: That's not an answer.
Betty: No, I haven't sold any book.
Debbie: If they find Sara, if she comes out of this, you have to admit—there's a story here. Right?
Mr. Chester: Only because you're making it one.
Debbie: I want you to know I resent that. Too many of these young girls go missing every single day, and not enough is being done to bring them home to their families. I know. I was abducted from my own home when I was 12 years old. Don't listen to him, Betty. You're doing what's right, and what's necessary. No one else is going to do this for us.
Mr. Chester: We all want to find Sara.
Debbie: You know, I'm beginning to wonder. Yeah. What is Mrs. Dennison's reluctance to speak out about this case? Or against her estranged husband—who no one can seem to find, even though her own phone records indicate she spoke to him rather frequently in the days leading up to the disappearance. What's she doing for money right now, Norman?
Mr. Chester: C'mon.
Debbie: Probably relying on the good graces of friends and family, right? Or maybe Sara's inheritance?
Mr. Chester: This is absolutely ludicrous.
Debbie: Isn't it true that Mrs. Dennison lost her job at Boyd Motor Supply a week before her daughter went missing?
Mr. Chester: If you're half the good Samaritan you paint yourself to be Ms. Riehl, then I can't understand why you'd want anything to do with this nonsense.
Betty: I'm here to find Sara.
Debbie: What nonsense, Norman? You call getting to the truth, nonsense? I don't think our viewers consider trying to find a missing 12 year-old girl nonsense, do you?
Mr. Chester: You're accusing the girl's own mother of somehow being involved in her—listen to yourself! You don't know the facts any more than any one else.
Debbie: What kind of book deal are you getting, Norman?
Mr. Chester: Look. I came here to talk about Betty Riehl and her profiting off of this terrible tragedy, and you're turning it around on me, just like you have Sara's own family.
Debbie: So you're defending Terry Dennison, then? A deadbeat dad with an assault record?
Mr. Chester: Of course not.
Debbie: We'll let our viewers decide. Hmm. Betty, I want to give you the last word. Here you are, tirelessly devoted to finding this little girl, and you're under personal attack for it. Tell me what you're feeling right now.
Betty: I don't know. I—I'd be lying if I said people haven't called me, you know. Agents, and—it makes me uncomfortable, you know, it does, but at the same time—
Debbie: Uh-huh, and I think our viewers can understand what a struggle it's been for you, and continues to be—
Betty: —my mom—you know, before I got the part in Angel Face, I was ready to pack it in. I was broke, and—my mom told me to stick it out, don't give up, 'You're going to be somebody,' you know, and—I went to the audition and—I'm glad I did, because I just think if my celebrity, if you want to call it that, can help bring Sara home, then I don't see the harm in it. I'm not here to make a buck, or increase my profile. I'm here to increase Sara's profile.
Debbie: Well said. And we'll be right back after these messages, with more of our exclusive coverage.
She coughs dirt. It's in the corners of her eyes, like the points of pencils in her eyes. Water. All she wants is a drink of water. "You stole me," she says.
He laughs. It embarrasses him to, he always half turns away and lowers his head when he does. He spends a lot of time in the shed with her, laughing, reading, showing her pictures of herself, touching himself over there in the corner and when he's done he takes the crumpled paper he came on and smears it on her cheek. Her lips. Her chest. He forces open her mouth and she screams and no one has ever heard her. She's far out in the country. She's nowhere.
"You stole," he says. "Little thief. I used to see you all the time. Those jeans fit? Those tight jeans?"
"You saw the jeans?"
Back in the early nineties, stores gave out cash refunds without a receipt. When there was no more money, and the first of the month was a lifetime away, she and her mother went to K-Mart, into the fitting room with two pair of jeans, but only came out with one; they wore the other underneath the jeans they came in wearing. After the shift change, they went back to the service desk, in stages, to collect their money.
They had this method down so well that it was the only way to drum up a hundred and twenty dollars in one night to get bail for her mother, after she was arrested for passing bad checks. Being poor humiliated her as much as it did her mother, and they were never poorer than at that moment, since passing bad checks and the inevitable visit from the county sheriff became more and more frequent. As soon as the cops left with her mother, she was out the door, walking to K-Mart because she didn't have the money for the bus, and she went back and back, six times, red and angry from the heat, the humiliation and she made a promise to herself that night: she'd never be that poor again. She'd never be nobody.
The girl at the customer service desk knew something wasn't right, this fourteen year-old in every half hour with another pair of jeans but Betty sold a pair of jeans she stole and talked her way out of it, like she always did.
"You saw me?" she says.
He turns away and laughs. "I saw you."
He picks up his scrapbook of girls and flips through its broad, stiff pages. He opens it across his lap and shows her a page from the middle. He points to a square cut-out of a review of a play at the community theater from almost fifteen years ago, There Goes The Bride; accompanying it is a black and white photo of the opening night production, focusing on a teenage girl dressed like a flapper, center stage.
"Polly Perkins," she says, remembering the first role she ever played. He's been watching her half her life.
"'A star is born,'" he says, reading the caption. He starts to hum an old melody. "'Catch a falling star an' put it in your pocket, never let it fade away . . . '"
He turns away, heaving with muzzled laughter.
DEBBIE WILL LIVE—Episode A287: 'Missing In Iowa Day 53'
Debbie: You know, I always thought the great thing about small town America was how close everyone is supposed to be. How everyone knows everyone else, and how everyone looks out for everyone else and let me tell you, I just don't see it in this community. I see a lot of foot dragging on the part of local authorities. I see a lot of curious apathy on the part of this girl's family, and I see resentment; just out and out venomous resentment against you, Betty, for your continued pursuit for the facts in this case.
Betty: They can think what they like about me, it's not about me, but Sara—and no one can find the father? I don't think they're looking hard enough, and that's why I took it on myself to find out what happened to him.
Debbie: Right, I was just going to say that what you found was amazing, let me tell you—I'm speechless.
Betty: I know. I still can't believe it.
Debbie: When you went down to Kansas City with one of our producers last weekend to search for Terry Dennison, tell me, honestly, what did you expect to find?
Betty: Nothing. Your cameraman and I were—well, you saw it in the footage before—we were just driving around these really shady neighborhoods asking people if they recognized him from his mug shot some website found.
Debbie: And you went down there, with no real direction or idea of where to look, and within a couple hours, you were able to track him to an abandoned apartment building on the Missouri side of Kansas City, squatting with a bunch of other drug addicts, shooting up in the dark.
Betty: I almost didn't recognize him.
Debbie: Did he have any reaction at all when you told him that his only daughter—that we know of—is missing?
Betty: All he said was 'She's not here.'
Betty: I just think it's sad that the police haven't been able to find him, to question him, and I was.
Debbie: It's a shame. No, it's more than a shame. These people have failed little Sara in so many ways. And you know, his 'wife'—they're still legally married, why, I don't know - knew where he was. She was able to place phone calls to him the week Sara disappeared! Why couldn't she direct the police to him unless she didn't want him to be found?
Debbie (con't): Yeah. I mean, what is this? They just want us to all go away, to let this be forgot and then—who does the inheritance go to, if Sara is dead? That's what I want to know. And why did the grandmother leave the inheritance entirely to her in the first place, skipping her own daughter, Sara's mother? What's going on there?
Betty: And what happened to the grandmother?
Betty: Well, I—I've given this a lot of thought, you know, and I'm not going to let this drop. I can't. I won't let people forget about Sara. So, please, go to my website.
Debbie: That's www.bettyriehl.com
Betty: Download the flyers, make buttons, please, let's find Sara. Let's get to the truth.
Debbie: You're taking a big risk, aren't you, Betty? A lot of people in Carpenter aren't happy with you, are they?
Betty: No. And I'm sorry if they feel like—
Debbie: Someone threw a rock through your mother's window, didn't they? There was a note attached to it that threatened to burn the house down next time if she didn't stop looking for Sara—yeah, you heard that right, if she doesn't stop searching for a missing little girl—Betty dreamed from when she was a little girl herself to give her mother a decent place to live, but I guess that isn't the kind of small town values that Carpenter believes in, now is it?
Betty: I—I don't know. If they got a problem with me, fine, but—I just want what's best for Sara, like I do my mom. I didn't want her to be poor all her life, you know. She hated it, just like I did. It wasn't easy.
Debbie: And now people are trying to smear her by bringing up her own regrettable criminal record.
Betty: (pause) You know, everybody is broke at one point or another, everybody bounces a check, so.
Debbie: You said during the break you thought people have been following you.
Betty: Yeah. I don't know. It's not just the press, the paparazzi, it's—I don't know. Maybe I'm imagining it.
Debbie: You're taking precautions, aren't you?
Betty: Oh, sure. Sure.
Debbie: Maybe it's time for a change of scenery.
Debbie: I hear they wouldn't mind you back in L.A.
Betty: We'll see.
It's six days, maybe seven. He flips through the pages of his book. Along with the cutouts, there are strands of hair, next to the pictures of nameless girls. Sara Dennison she recognizes. Brown hair. Straight and fine. In the dirt with pebbles she sees clumps of old hair. It looks like the floor of a barber shop. She thinks of her mother, chewing on the ends of her hair in the living room on the love seat Betty bought her from IKEA. For her fiftieth birthday, she flew her out to Los Angeles and took her to a high-end hair salon in Beverly Hills so she could get a real cut, not the test-dummy head she settled for every time she went to the hair college.
It didn't impress her mother as much as Betty thought it would. She gave her mother everything, half her earnings, the house, a Mercedes Benz, the haircut, and Mary Riehl never appreciated any token of her daughter's fame as much as Betty herself.
It wasn't diamond or pearl bracelets on her arm she loved best when she went out in Carpenter, or L.A., it was Betty. When she came home, she depreciated in value and now they never go out to dinner, or to movies. The car sits in the garage, unused, behind the house, large, and quiet.
DEBBIE WILL LIVE—Episode A318: 'Missing In Iowa Day 84'
Debbie: So, Betty—any new developments?
Betty: Unfortunately, no.
Debbie: Yeah, you know—it's just like this new case in Boston we headlined at the top of the program—Sara might as well have vanished into thin air.
Betty: I am looking, you know, I am continuing my own investigation into what happened. I have a private detective who worked some of the other disappearances in Carpenter. You know that red truck? People said they saw a red truck in a couple of the other cases, too—
Debbie: Well, if you turn up anything, you'll come back on, won't you?
Betty: Right. Of course I will.
Debbie: It was good to see you, Betty. Been a while. Next up, we're back in Boston.
He reads her newspaper articles, magazine articles, he reads transcripts of shows about her; he orders them to a P.O. Box in Redford so no one knows who they're going to, he brings them into the shed because there's no electricity in it. There's too many shows covering the case, twice as many as when it was just Sara, and he can't afford them all so he just sticks with Debbie Will. He reads to her all day and night, and he will, until he gets bored for another girl.
"I saw you," she says. "Reading."
Betty stood in the checkout at Rob's Grocery with an armful of yogurts and fruits and vegetables, things she went back to every few months, trying to jumpstart her diet and she saw him, on the way out, at the magazine rack, eyes nervously glancing over the tops of the Enquirers and Stars. She'd seen him before. She saw him in Rob's, at Sadie's, at the post office, at the Wal-Mart, in a red truck on the old highway when she was leaving town for the weekend, or coming back. Some people couldn't help but stare. Others followed her around, she was used to it. Part of her even enjoyed the attention. The day after Sara disappeared, Betty saw him standing outside Rob's in the crowd. He didn't have any flyers in his hand. She saw him outside her house, when there were so many news vans from the cable channels parked on the street she couldn't get out of her own driveway.
She told her mother about him, early on, her suspicions and her mother thought he was suspicious, too.
"You think I should tell the cops?" Betty asked her.
Her mother gave a little shrug. "You don't want to figure it all out for them, do you?"
Betty went red. "I'm not trying to."
"No," her mother said, as if she never meant it, and reached for a cigarette. "You know, you should think about buying some new clothes. You don't want to wear the same thing on Debbie every night. People notice."
They went shopping, exhausting her emergency credit card for a new wardrobe, a new outfit for every night of the week. What time she didn't spend on TV or with the investigation she used to work out to an exercise video she ordered from HSN; she lost ten pounds, she looked better than she had in years and a few weeks later, Debbie stopped booking her every night. There was the new kidnapping, in Boston.
When all the vans left, he was still there. She remembers him now, in every place, as suffocating a presence as her own, and she opened up the windows of the house, the doors, and one lonely weekend back into obscurity she drove down the old highway in the Benz with the windows down, the doors unlocked, toward Chicago, or Minneapolis, some place.
"You saw me?" he says.
"I saw you."
DEBBIE WILL LIVE—Episode A333: 'Missing In Iowa Day 99'
Debbie: You think the pressure got to her?
Mr. Chester: Maybe it was her conscience.
Debbie: You're assuming an awful lot, Norman.
Mr. Chester: Then I'm on the right show.
Debbie: Let me tell you, Betty Riehl just didn't up and vanish into the ether when finding little Sara meant so much to her. She worked day and night to bring that girl home—and at great personal risk, I might add—
Mr. Chester: Oh, please. She inflated the idea she was in danger just like she inflated her own role in this case. So someone threw a rock through her window. That was one time, and it was probably some goof-off kid.
Debbie: I don't know. I don't know. This is just a stunning turn of events to have her disappear, too.
Mr. Chester: You know, this is probably just some ridiculous stunt to make her even more famous. It's all she cares about. She's shameless.
Debbie: With people like you hounding her, I can almost understand why she'd want to—I don't know. All I know is, people are never going to stop talking about this case.