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Lost Innocents

When kidnapping threw our small town into a tailspin, I felt an odd guilt because I knew my own life was suspect.



In the summer of 1972, a girl from Lawrenceville named Dotty Kavenaugh disappeared. She was eight years old, and on a Monday evening toward the end of June she'd left home on her bicycle to return some overdue books to the public library. Her bicycle was found on a corner across from the courthouse where, a witness said later, she had been talking to a man in a pickup truck. The truck was a 1953 Chevrolet, white with a black grille and a homemade camper on the back.

With a population at the time of around 5,000, Lawrenceville, along the Embarras River some 200 miles south of Chicago on the Indiana border, was a village of gravel pits and sawmills. Anyone who happened to be downtown that Monday evening--perhaps grabbing a bite to eat at the Candle Lite Restaurant, or having a prescription filled at Hedde's Pharmacy, or window-shopping at Dick Fessel's Clothing Store, Hazel's Fashion Shop, Breyfogle's Booterie--would have carefully noted the unfamiliar man and his truck. Another witness said she saw the truck driving out of town. She said she saw a blond-haired little girl rise up on the passenger side and turn toward the window for just a moment before the man who was driving reached over and pushed her back to the floor.

That man, it turned out, was William Riley Gonder, age 47. He was a sometime brick mason, painter, and carpenter from Olney who had been seen in a Lawrenceville tavern the Monday that Dotty Kavenaugh vanished. When he was finally caught, and his picture appeared in the newspaper, a sickly feeling came over me. With his stocky stature, his barrel chest, and his close-cropped hair, he bore an eerie resemblance to my father. Surely this would have only interested me temporarily--maybe I wouldn't even have noted it--if not for the truth my family tried to hide: my father was a violent man, and I had learned his temper and often let it carry me over the edge of right thinking.

I was 16 that summer, and although I didn't know Dotty Kavenaugh--I lived in Sumner, a small town eight miles west of Lawrenceville--she was as real to me as the fields of wheat and corn and hay, the woodlands and the river bottoms and the oil lease roads, all the landscapes where thousands of volunteers searched for her. I thought of all the times when I had been her age that my father, enraged, had reached for his belt, and I had found myself caught in an attack I didn't know how to stop. I thought of how often, now that I was older, we fought with ugly words and curses and sometimes even shoved at each other. I couldn't stop thinking about this Gonder. He was a fugitive now, and though I had no sympathy for him, I wondered whether he was frightened--out of his head because he knew he had gone too far--or simply crazy, cold, and without remorse, calmly calculating his next move.

That summer I was a thief. I went into stores and stole cigarettes, record albums, whatever caught my fancy. I'd never meant to have this sort of life--I thought I was a good person who would survive my poor choices--but there I was shoving at the limit of common sense. Where was the line between the foolhardy and the truly criminal? For the 24 hours or so when no one knew where Gonder was, I felt an odd guilt of my own because I knew my life was suspect.

My father was cutting wheat the day after Dotty Kavenaugh disappeared. My mother and I had come with him from our home in Sumner, and we were living in our old farmhouse until the harvest was done.

My father operated the combine while I waited in the truck to drive to the spot in the field where he stopped when he needed to empty the hopper. For the most part, I sat in the truck, listening to the radio and the news reports it carried about Dotty Kavenaugh. Police had found charred pages from one of her library books, Surprise Island, in the burn barrel behind Gonder's house, but so far he had eluded them.

Late in the morning, my father stopped the combine on the far side of the field and waved his arm above his head, signaling me that he was ready to empty the hopper. It took a while for the truck to start, and by the time I got to him he was fuming.

"What took you so long?" he asked. "Weren't you watching?"

"The truck," I told him. "It didn't want to start."

He squinted at me. "You've been playing the radio." He was clenching and unclenching his jaw muscles the way he always did when he was angry and set to explode. "Running down the battery."

I knew I should be careful. He was trying to get the wheat cut while the weather held--storms were in the forecast--and he had even less patience than usual. Still, I couldn't stop myself from saying, "It's boring just sitting in the truck. Why don't you let me run the combine?"

"I don't have time to teach you how to cut wheat."

"What's so hard about it?" I started to climb up onto the tractor. "You just put it in gear and go."

That's when he pulled me from the tractor's drawbar. I lost my balance and fell, my head narrowly missing the sharp teeth of the combine's sickle. I lay on the prickly wheat stubble, and my father stood over me. At first, neither one of us spoke, both stunned by how quickly this thing had happened.

"Get up," he finally said, and his voice, still tight with anger, was also now tinged with embarrassment. "Just don't play the radio," he said. "Jesus Christ. Let's get this wheat cut before it storms."

That afternoon, a helicopter flew over. I saw it bank over our woods and return to our farmyard where it hovered awhile, then move off to the county line road behind me. The blades whopped the air and sent a wave through the wheat. Soon a line of state patrol cars came down our lane. My mother told us later that these four cars all drove into our farmyard, circled around by our machine shed, and then left without anyone getting out to say why they had come. As I watched them from the wheat field, I got the idea that Gonder could be hiding somewhere on our farm.

When my father unloaded the next hopper, he said, "Did you see that parade?"

"Four of them," I said, "and a helicopter."

"I bet they saw that old truck backed into the machine shed." He wiped at his sweaty face with his sleeve. We had a 1953 Chevy truck, bluish black like a bruise. From the air, the people in the helicopter would have only been able to see its front, the dark grille, and they had likely radioed to the state troopers to check it out. "They probably thought they had their man," my father said, and he said it quietly, as if he, too, felt how easily a life one thought was hidden could come into view.

Alone in the truck again, my imagination got the best of me. I thought I was hearing footsteps, Gonder sneaking up on me as if drawn by the sense that I was a criminal, too.

That evening, before bed, we listened to the radio. Police had finally arrested Gonder and charged him with kidnapping Dotty Kavenaugh. Where is she, they wanted to know. "Prove it," he kept goading them.

When I lay down to sleep that night, it was on the old hide-a-bed where I had slept as a small boy. I remembered the night I had heard a bird scrabbling about inside the stovepipe and how, terrified, I had called for my mother. Sometimes raccoons and groundhogs got into our attic and then burrowed down inside our walls. At night I heard the scratch of their claws. Often I saw mice scurrying along the floor. I heard the traps in the pantry or the kitchen cabinets slamming shut.

On this night, I dreamt that Dotty Kavenaugh was scratching at our doors, our windows, desperate for someone to let her in.

Then on Sunday morning, as my mother was listening to the Church of Christ services on the radio, a bulletin interrupted the broadcast.

The sheriff's office had informed the news media that there would be an announcement about the Dotty Kavenaugh case at three o'clock that afternoon.

"Doesn't sound good," my father said. Then he drove us to church. After the service, he stood on the steps talking to the other farmers about the harvest. They spoke in quiet voices, interrupting the conversation from time to time to call out to their children who were playing in the oak grove, reminding them to stay close.

Back home we turned on our radio at three. The afternoon had turned dark with clouds. Soon there would be thunder and lightning and sheets of rain. It was dark enough in our house for lamplight, which flickered from time to time.

Searchers had indeed found Dotty Kavenaugh, at 9:30 that morning in a shallow grave in Indiana. The FBI had taken muck from Gonder's tires, a coal dust and mud mix found in Gibson County. The locals called this mix "gob." It didn't take searchers long to follow one of the dirt roads in the area back into a woods, where they saw a patch of freshly disturbed earth covered with leaves and twigs and an old rusted porch glider. Later, we would find out that Dotty Kavenaugh had been sexually molested, that she had died from two knife wounds and a fractured skull, but all we knew that Sunday was that the mystery was over; Dotty Kavenaugh was dead.

"That poor little girl," my mother said. "There she was and then she was gone."

"That man," my father said in a hushed voice. Gonder's despicable act seemed to have humbled him, as it had me. It had forced us to look at our own tendency toward ugly living. I found myself hoping that this was the moment beyond which we would learn to be kinder, more forgiving. "That bastard," my father said. "He thought he could just take her."

Dotty Kavenaugh would be 37 now, and no one can say what her life would have been like if not for Gonder, who is nearly 77, a prisoner at the Dixon Correctional Center. His sentencing information, easily obtainable via the Illinois Department of Corrections Web site, reads as follows: four counts of aggravated kidnapping and one count each for committing murder, concealing a homicide, and taking indecent liberties with a child.

The day in 1972 when the authorities were to bring him to the Lawrence County courthouse for arraignment, the courthouse lawn filled with people. There were farmers in overalls and women in plain cotton dresses. There were men in bright white shirts and neckties and women in fashionable pantsuits. It was a humid day in late June. The air was heavy and still, but the crowd was anxious and excitable; the mood was electric the way it would be later that summer at the county fair among the light and color and noise of the carnival's midway. As the hours went on past the time of Gonder's expected arrival, no one left. People sat on the courthouse benches, or on the lawn itself, or on the hoods of cars parked around the square. Some had brought folding lawn chairs or blankets. Many ate sandwiches and drank Pepsis.

My father and I sat on a bench with my uncle and listened to the word circulating that sheriff's deputies had found Dotty Kavenaugh's father in the crowd with a concealed handgun, that there were others in the crowd who were armed. Some teenage boys set off a string of firecrackers, and the noise sobered us.

"I wouldn't want to be in that bastard's shoes," my uncle said. He leaned over and spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the ground. "That Gonder--somebody's going to shoot his sorry ass."

"Shooting's too good for him," my father said.

He was caught up in the crowd's blood lust. I have to admit that part of me was, too. What is it about violence that calls us to respond in kind, that threatens our tenuous hold on decency? Faced with an act as despicable and repulsive as Gonder's, we allow it to coax us into its depraved company.

I'll never forget what my father said next, said it with a wicked edge to his voice, the tone I knew so intimately from our battles. I heard him, and my heart sank with despair. "They ought to cut off his nuts," he said. "And feed 'em to him."

It seemed practically as obscene as Gonder's own actions.

When I think back to those days now, I prefer to recall the way my father and mother and I sat in our farmhouse that Sunday, when my father seemed humbled by the atrocity and I let myself believe that we were moving toward a better, more decent way of living. Outside the lightning flashed and the thunder roared and the rain came--a rain so hard and furious it seemed to sparkle and shimmer. I imagine spangled streamers flowing out from the handlebar grips on Dotty Kavenaugh's bicycle, her blond hair lifting from her shoulders as she pedaled away from the library. It was summer, a few hours of light left. Surprise Island was in her basket, and she was almost home.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Guy Billout.

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