PLEASE NOTE: while not unduly graphic in description, this is the story of the murder of a young girl. Do not read this if the subject matter is disturbing to you.
Less than a day after seven-year old Nicole Benton went missing, Harris County detectives called in the FBI. On the afternoon of March 24, 1995, Special Agents Mark Young and Gary Steger were dispatched to a small subdivision about thirty miles north-west of Houston.
When they arrived, they found absolute chaos.
Deputies from the Harris County sheriff’s office had swarmed the area as soon as they received word that little Nicole Benton was missing. Also on scene were dozens of neighbors who had put together search teams, some led by deputies and some working in smaller groups on their own. Police and civilians alike milled on the sidewalks or wandered and down the road. The agents had no trouble reading their faces: urgency, desperation, and fear.
Young slowed as he turned onto Bullis Gap Drive and headed toward a police trailer that Harris County detectives set up near the missing girl’s house. It would serve as their command post. He parked the car, and without a word he and Steger headed to the trailer where he shook hands with Detective J.R. Johnson. Johnson thanked them for coming so fast, a welcome that came as a relief to Young because he had found, more than once, his presence resented by local law enforcement. Even when they needed him, they saw him as an interloper sticking his nose into a local matter, looking to grab the glory. But as he knew, and as Detective Johnson obviously realized, when a child goes missing there is simply no time for petty turf wars. Agent Young and Detective Johnson had but one mission: find Nicole.
Inside the trailer, Young asked for a quick, but detailed, account of what police knew.
“She was at a neighbor’s house,” Johnson told them. “It was her dad’s birthday and they were having a party there. Buddy Benton is his name. Anyway, he’s a musician and his band set up in the neighbor’s garage and they were playing for the party-goers. It’s a pretty domestic picture, Agent Young. Some of the neighbors were cooking out and half a dozen kids, including Nicole, were playing in the front yard of the house.”
“Could her dad see where she was playing?” Young asked.
“Yeah,” Johnson said. “The kids were well within sight of the garage.”
Dusk fell on the gathering, and at some point Nicole had disappeared. No one saw her walk away, and no one saw her with anyone else. One minute she was in full view of her father and friends, the next she was gone.
It was a familiar story to Young and he moved to study a map of the area. He saw that the neat rows of houses that made up the Ranch Country subdivision sat on flat farmland, sandwiched between Highway 290 to the south and a patch of dense woodland to the north. Teams of searchers, Johnson said, had already gone in both directions, some thinking Nicole had wandered to the main road and others afraid she had gotten lost in the woods.
From the door of the trailer, Special Agent Young watched the groups of people standing around or setting off with sticks and bullhorns. Such disorganized and desperate searches, he knew, were not the best way to find Nicole. Rather, they reflected the fear that every resident felt for her safety, the urge to act on their part a natural one born from fear and outrage—one of their own was missing, and someone had violated their peaceful community.
But despite all their efforts, there was no sign of Nicole and, assuming this was an abduction, there were also no leads on a suspect.
Young made a note of the timeline—Nicole had disappeared on Thursday evening, and it was now Friday afternoon. Although he wasn’t about to say so, Young knew that time was not on their side. Also working against him was the chaos that Young had found upon arriving. Normally, he liked to coordinate the civilian search teams and the police canvas, have them organized in tandem so that information and planning ran through a single “choke point.” It was the only way to ensure that every angle was covered, every witness interviewed, and all possible hiding places uncovered.
He began to organize the chaos, wanting to establish a detailed timeline of events, to get a list of those who had been with or seen Nicole in the hour before she vanished. That meant talking to everyone who had been at the party and in particular her family and close friends. One of the men Young respected most, Special Agent Larry Angram, had taught him that those closest to the victim usually know the most. He had used the analogy of a stone thrown into the pond. “Sure,” he’d said, “it makes a lot of ripples. But where are you going to find the stone? In the middle, not at the edges.”
Special Agent Steger focused on Nicole’s parents, each of them taking and passing a polygraph. Agents in the field like Young and Steger found polygraph examinations to be immensely helpful during investigations. Although the results of the exams have never been deemed reliable enough to be allowed into court, information gleaned by the examiners had proved historically accurate, accurate enough to help investigators focus on certain suspects and exclude others. And in this case, they were quickly able to exclude the family members as suspects.
Working from the command post, Young asked to speak to Nicole’s eight-year-old sister, who had been one of those playing in the front yard. In his experience, children could be invaluable witnesses, giving unfiltered, honest recollections of what they had seen and heard, usually without the sophistication to fabricate time-wasting lies or color their answers with what they might think the interviewer wants to hear.
The little girl told Young about a bracelet she made for their father’s birthday, a charm with his name on it. A woman who lived nearby helped her make it, she said. Nicole was upset when she saw the bracelet, because she wanted to do something similar for her father. Young mentioned that some people thought Nicole might have stormed off towards the main road, but her sister said that was impossible. To get to the main road, she said, Nicole would have had to walk a long way down a dark stretch of sidewalk. And Nicole, she assured Young, was much too afraid of the dark to do that. This information, the words of an eight-year-old, would prove to be the most accurate and informative that Young would get from any witness.
(To be continued on October 19)