When Cathy Osborn left her condo for her psychiatric nursing job the morning of February 25, 2010, John was asleep on the futon in her home office, where he stayed when he visited. Cathy called his cell phone and texted him numerous times throughout the day to see how he was doing, but she got no response. When he didn't answer his phone, something was usually up.
That evening after work, John was still missing in action, so she decided to combine her usual run with a search for her wayward son, an unemployed electrician and unmarried father of twin sons. Having completed fifteen full marathons, as well as fifteen half marathons, Cathy routinely jogged five to seven miles around Lake Hodges in nearby Rancho Bernardo Community Park. But she was so worried about John and his well-being that she didn't really feel like doing the full route.
She jogged about a mile through the neighborhood, turned at the white railing off Duenda Road, and started down the narrow path that widened as it left the residential area and fed into the vast, beautiful open space of the San Dieguito River Valley. Depending on the time of day, sometimes she couldn't see another soul for miles in any direction. It was so peaceful out there, far away from the stresses of the city. So isolated. So still. And so deadly quiet.
But her nerves were on edge that evening as she ran along the sandy trail at dusk. She jerked to an abrupt halt, startled to see a snake off to the right. Once she realized it had no head and posed no danger, she continued heading toward the slate blue of the lake up ahead, hoping to find John in one of his usual haunts. He'd told her that he liked to sit on the benchlike boulders that were positioned along the trails, posted with informational placards about the Kumeyaay Indians and the natural wildlife habitat. Knowing his two favorites overlooked a waterfall and the lake, she kept her eyes peeled for discarded beer cans and cigarette butts. But she saw no sign of him.
This is the wrong spot, or he's been here and he's just not drinking beer or smoking cigarettes, she thought.
Cathy had spent nearly three decades managing her son's medical and psychological treatment, ferrying him to countless doctors and therapists who had prescribed more than a dozen medications. Starting at age four, John had begun with Ritalin for his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As he grew older, his behavioral problems became more complicated. As a teenager, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but he had experienced so many side effects to the drugs that he'd stopped taking them in high school. He had been on and off them ever since. Mostly off.
John also had a history of psychiatric hospitalizations, and by now, Cathy was very familiar with the danger signs that he was reaching a crisis point. In the last couple of months, he had totaled two cars, running one into a pole and the other into a cement barrier. So on February 8, she had driven him to the walk-in psychiatric clinic at the county hospital in Riverside, where both of them hoped he would be admitted as an inpatient. But even after John told the psychiatrist he might qualify as a "5150"—someone who is in danger of hurting himself or others—the doctor said he didn't think such treatment was necessary. He simply gave John some more pills and sent him on his way. Five days later, John went on a suicidal binge of methamphetamine and other illicit drugs, which landed him in the emergency room.
All of this made for a complicatedly close relationship between John and his mother. Things had escalated recently after he'd started using methamphetamine and increasing his drinking. The crazier he acted, the crazier Cathy's own emotional roller coaster became. If she didn't watch over him, she feared he would go right back to the same druggie friends he partied with during his nearly fatal binge, a pattern she'd seen over the past eighteen months. Or worse yet, he'd be successful and actually kill himself.
John had been "living" at his grandmother Linda Osborn's house in Riverside County since January, going back and forth to his mom's condo in Rancho Bernardo, a San Diego suburb, an hour south. But because Linda had also been admitted to the same hospital as John, Cathy decided on February 19 to take him home with her for a few days. Clearly, he was in no state of mind to be left to his own devices at his grandmother's, or in the care of his aunt Cynthia, who had her own emotional problems.
"It's time for you to get some more intense treatment," Cathy told him.
John agreed, saying he'd been trying to get help, but not succeeding. "I need you to help me because I can't seem to get it done on my own," he said.
He claimed that he'd already tried to find a mental-health or drug addiction facility in San Diego or Riverside County that would take him, but he would try again. As soon as he was feeling better on February 20, she gave him a list of phone numbers, then listened from the kitchen while he made the calls.
Cathy felt John's mental-health issues should take precedence over his substance abuse, but he was convinced that he needed to go to drug rehab first. In the end, though, it didn't matter because no place would take him. Either they had no room, or as soon as he told them he'd committed a felony and was a registered sex offender, they said they couldn't treat him.
With every rejection, John's anger mounted. He cussed and paced around her living room with frustration, and it was all Cathy could do to try to soothe him so he could make the next call.
"It's the same old thing," he groused. "I can't get any help."
"We're going to keep trying," Cathy said.
John made more calls the next couple of days with no luck, growing so discouraged that he finally gave up. She tried calling a few places herself, but they wouldn't talk to anyone but the adult who needed to be admitted.
Meanwhile, John was complaining about the side effects of his new medications: Effexor, an antidepressant, and Lamictal, an antiseizure medication for his mania. He said he felt mentally revved up and wasn't sleeping, which didn't surprise Cathy; he'd been pacing back and forth in her condo, flushed in the face, and taking her dog on walks around the lake for five hours at a time. Poor Hallie, a ten-year-old beagle-shepherd mix, was so exhausted that Cathy and her husband finally told John to give the pooch a rest.
Cathy decided not to push him too hard to make more calls because she'd already seen some improvement with the new meds. But on the evening of February 23, he showed her a rash on his stomach, chest and arms. Given his persistent manic symptoms, she agreed he should stop taking the pills until she could follow up with the doctor. After his grandmother was hospitalized again, she and John drove the two hours north to Los Angeles County to see her. They didn't get back until after one in the morning, on February 25, so Cathy never got to make that call.
While she was still out looking for her son on the trails that evening, he finally called her back, around five-thirty. "I'm on my way home," he said. "I should be there in a little bit."
John had spent five years in state prison after pleading guilty to committing forcible lewd acts and false imprisonment on a thirteen-year-old girl, who lived next door. Although he initially denied any wrongdoing, he finally admitted to his family that he'd hit the girl, but he still insisted he'd "never touched her sexually." Bolstered by a concurring recommendation from the psychiatrist who had originally diagnosed John as bipolar, Cathy pleaded with the court for mental-health treatment and probation. She'd always thought the girl next door was troubled and had an unconsummated crush on her son, so she believed his story. However, the request for probation was rejected, and even after he signed the plea deal, John's entire family believed that he'd been wrongfully prosecuted and inadequately represented by his attorney.
During John's time in prison, he had a psychotic break and was sent to a state mental facility. At the time, he told Cathy about some of the paranoid, homicidal and delusional thoughts that were going through his mind. But this time was different. This time, he'd been shielding her from the worst of it. This time, he didn't tell her about the compulsions that had been driving his recent behavior, so she had no clue that he was following through on his violent urges during those walks around the lake.
Although Cathy felt somewhat relieved to get John's call that night, she turned around and headed home, too anxious to finish her usual ninety-minute run. After taking a shower, she and her husband decided to wait on dinner until John got back. But as the minutes ticked by, Cathy was too upset to eat. When he still hadn't shown up by seven-thirty, she turned to her husband and broke into tears.
"This is killing me," she said. "I can't take this."
Where is he? she wondered. What is he doing out there?
Poway, an affluent, white, family-oriented suburb of San Diego, called itself "The City in the Country" with good reason. Here, where the mountainous surroundings provided a protective psychological barrier of seclusion, residents had the illusory feel of living in a gated community where the bad guys from the big city didn't have the punch code to get in.
Even the landscape felt safe. Tall eucalyptus and pine trees lined the main thoroughfares; the lush, leafy medians were planted with yellow and orange daisies; and the homes, pockets of which sold for more than $1 million, sat on generous parcels set back from the roadway, with a benevolent back-drop of rolling green hills, peppered with beige boulders.
Deemed one of the best places to retire by U.S. News, Poway was the kind of tight-knit community where the Rotary Club, churches, temples and the PTA ruled the roost, and where urban crimes, such as murder and rape, were so rare they barely registered on the demographic pie charts used to characterize the quiet lifestyle of its nearly fifty thousand residents.
Chelsea King was born in San Diego County on July 1, 1992. During the C-section delivery, the doctor didn't remove the entire placenta, forcing Kelly to undergo a D&C and causing her to develop Asherman's syndrome, which can cause intrauterine scarring. A lawsuit the Kings filed in March 1995 cited potential infertility problems for Kelly, and $30,000 in projected costs of surrogacy for future pregnancies. Although the court record didn't reflect the specific outcome, the lawsuit was apparently dismissed within a year. This early private trauma must have made Chelsea even more dear to Brent and Kelly.
Brent loved to feed his baby girl and change her diapers. As she got older, he sang to her: "I am stuck on Chelsea, like Chelsea's stuck on me," to which she sang back, "I am stuck on Daddy, like Daddy's stuck on me," eliciting a hug and a laugh between them.
As Brent changed jobs in the banking industry, the family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and then Naperville, Illinois, where they stayed for ten years. They returned to Poway in 2007, when property records show that the Kings bought a house on a one-acre lot on Butterfield Trail.
Chelsea entered Poway High School as a freshman, discussing heady topics with her father such as the power of words, critical thinking and the presence of God in nature. They laughed together about God's sense of humor in making the platypus, and agreed that a tree, which gave far more than it took, was one of his most perfect creations.
In March 2010, Chelsea was a popular senior with a 4.2 grade point average, whose Advanced Placement courses outnumbered her regular classes. She served as a peer counselor, played on the volleyball team, and ran cross-country. She also enjoyed writing poetry, including a poem called "My Great Balancing Act," an homage to Dr. Seuss that would prove prophetic: "Today is my day, my mountain is waiting, and I'm on my way."
An environmentalist at heart, Chelsea was also a vegetarian, known to bring her lunch in a green recycling bag, determined to make a difference.
"She was all about making the world a better place, so for her it was like an animal shouldn't have to die for me to eat," one of her teachers said.
In the fifth grade, she'd decided to take up the French horn, refusing to be deterred by her music instructor's caution about how difficult the instrument was to learn.
"You sure you want to try that one, Chelsea?" the teacher asked.
"Yeah, the more challenging, the better for me," she replied.
Chelsea proved her determination by practicing until she was good enough to audition and win a coveted spot in the San Diego Youth Symphony for its 2009 to 2010 season, performing, no less, with its two most advanced ensembles. She was one of three French horn players in the Symphony Orchestra, which included about 150 students. She was also one of two horn players in the Philharmonia, a chamber orchestra of about eighty students.
Although Chelsea still slept with a stuffed creature she'd taken to bed since she was a child, she was also a sophisticated thinker who inspired others with her achievements, posting quotes on her bathroom wall: "They can because they think they can," from Virgil, and "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams," by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Admired and respected by her peers, this five-feet-five-inch, 120-pound achiever was the female role model the other girls wanted to emulate, and the adults could see her promise and potential as well. She was the kind of daughter parents dreamed of having—a fact that was never overlooked by her own, who cherished her.
"We are blessed," they would tell each other at least once a week.
Chelsea had a strong spirit, a love for life and her family, and a strong mind all her own. Inseparable from her thirteen-year-old brother, Tyler, the two were best friends, looking out for one another, and rarely, if ever, fighting the way many siblings did. She made sure he did his homework, didn't stay up too late or play too much PlayStation. He, in turn, wanted to know her friends, and ensure that the boyfriend passed muster.
Given her grades and all her extracurricular activities, this bright and well-rounded teenager was viewed as such a strong candidate by the eleven colleges to which she applied that, ultimately, they all accepted her.
Chelsea usually went for a jog after school in Poway, but on February 25 she decided to run on the trails at the Rancho Bernardo Community Park, apparently scouting out the area for an environmental cleanup project she and her friends had planned for that Saturday. It was not for class credit or recognition, but rather to increase awareness.
Driving from Poway into neighboring Rancho Bernardo, the environs changed, but only subtly. It still looked lush, green and open, and it was still largely a family-oriented white community, but the area, known as "RB" to the locals, was home to more strip malls, senior communities and franchise restaurants. It felt a bit more urban.
As the nation's eighth largest city, San Diego was a metropolis where 1.2 million people lived across 324 square miles of vastly differing geography, carved into subregions by urban planners. Each had its own unique population and distinct character—east toward the desert, west to the coast, south to the border into Mexico, and north past Poway, RB, and Escondido, leading to Riverside and Orange Counties.
Excerpted from Lost Girls by Caitlin Rother Copyright © 2012 by Caitlin Rother. Excerpted by permission of Pinnacle Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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