By the time the missing girl emerges from her best friend's bathroom, the sun is up and the coffee's cold.
The pale 16-year-old is skinnier than in the photos, and her long, blonde-dyed-brown hair is now bright purple and tied in pigtails that fall over the shaved sides of her scalp. She's wearing a black tank, tattered Vans and flared jeans. She strides to the door of her friend's tony home in Flower Mound, clenching the day's first Marlboro Red.
I spring from the red ottoman into a half crouch, mirroring the 100-pound greyhound beside me. The girl — everyone calls her "Kenzie" — stops, turns, nods. She's made me.
"How's it going, journalist?"
Her drawl is surprisingly deep, confident.
"How're you doing?" I answer.
It's been just over a month since I got the email from the panicked Minnesota dad: His little girl was missing, he said. Had been since December. She was with a 27-year-old man from the Dallas area, he said, and he could prove it 10 times over. But while his daughter's face had been plastered on missing posters and there was an outstanding warrant for the arrest of the man she was with, no one, the dad said, was looking for her. Could you please help?
It didn't take long to realize the dad was right — no one was looking — and that given the dad's history with his daughter, maybe there was a reason the girl ran. Then, a month later, in the middle of a Wednesday night during the first week of May, I received a text message. It was from the father of the missing girl's best friend, who happened to live in the suburbs of Dallas. He'd picked up Kenzie in the middle of the night — found her at a Home Depot in Irving with two bags of clothes, a cat she found on the side of the road and a puppy she found on Craigslist. Now she was at his house in Flower Mound.
He planned to drive her to the Flower Mound police station first thing the next morning, he said. But first he wanted to tell someone that she was alive. Knowing I'd been looking into the girl's whereabouts, he decided to tell me. Which is why I'm here, not long after sun-up, sipping coffee on his ottoman as the missing girl emerges from his bathroom.
Kenzie moves toward the door. In about five minutes she'll climb into the family SUV and light one more cigarette, her last as a runaway, and surrender herself to the authorities, most likely to be sent back to the family from which she fled. But for now, she's free.
"I'm all right," she says. Smirking, she turns again, opens the front door, and walks out.
Nine hundred and twenty miles directly north of Flower Mound is Marshall, Minnesota, a small town of about 13,500 people. The closest true city, Sioux Falls, is two hours away, in South Dakota. An ocean of corn and soybean laps against Marshall's borders, inside of which are the bare essentials: one elementary, middle and high school, a 24/7 Walmart, a small movie theatre, Varsity Pub, ubiquitous fast-food chains, a bowling alley and the Mustangs of Southwest Minnesota State University.
The town also is home to Schwan's Food Company, a $4.2 billion corporation that employs a large chunk of the population, including for a time Kenzie's father, 37-year-old Jeremy. He made his life in the small town, as did his parents before him and their parents before them. The town mourned when his wife, a local girl herself, took her own life several years back, leaving him alone with his daughter, Kenzie.
Kenzie was outgoing but also an outsider, never belonging to a clique, friends and family say. She played the cello and was friends with the gay boys and anime geeks. She was rebellious, but she hadn't taken to the alcohol or cigarettes that were pandemic among the Marshall youth. She was pretty, with icy blonde hair and blue doe eyes peering from behind glasses, but she deflected boys' advances, which were rare.
"She was like me, I guess," says her best friend, a fellow Mackenzie who, to avoid confusion, went by her last name, Foss. They met in eighth grade and discovered they had the same sense of humor and both listened to obscure metal bands such as Birthday Massacre. They also spent a lot of time online. By the summer before high school, they were holding regular sleepovers, during which they amused themselves by co-hosting live Internet shows on blogTV.
"We did musical shows and kind of sang," Foss recalls. They took requests, often Eminem songs, and they were a relative hit, sometimes attracting 1,000 viewers at once. They even had subscribers.
One of those subscribers was named Kristopher Crawford. The three of them bonded and sometimes video chatted. "He was funny," Foss says. "He was just a strange character. Just the tone of his voice. He added 's' to the end of everything. Even when he was speaking to one Mackenzie, he would say Kenziessss." It was a child's syntax, weird for a 27-year-old man, although Crawford told Kenzie he was younger.
Foss eventually got bored with blogTV, but Kenzie and Crawford corresponded throughout her ninth-grade year, Foss says, on Facebook, video chat, text. They had a lot in common. Kenzie told him she watched the same ThunderCats and He-Man cartoons that Crawford had grown up on more than a decade earlier, and they both liked rap music.
Soon Kenzie was adding 's' to the end of her words, like Crawford. They adopted pet names for each other, like Kenzieface Rosebear. She called Crawford Bear, or Choon after his Facebook handle Choontak Bloodsack.
"You're going to marry me," Crawford told her on Facebook, according to records provided by the family. "Even if you're drunk and bawlin' snot bubbles."
"I do, Bear," Kenzie answered. "
"I do, lovebear," he vowed, sealing the promise.
It was June of last year, a year after they met, that the two first met in person. Kenzie had been crying. It was the week before the eight-year anniversary of her mother's suicide; Amy suffered from bipolar disorder, her family says, and she died of a drug overdose. Still, Kenzie worshiped her. She had an array of keepsakes from her mother, including jewelry and a box her mom had painted for her, and she held tightly to the memory of her smell. The anniversary was always when Kenzie was at her weakest, when pent-up grief flooded out in tears and soft sobs.
"What are you doing this weekend?" Crawford asked her.
She didn't have plans.
"I'll come there and go to the graveyard with you," he said.
She didn't believe him. But on June 26, he left his house around 5 a.m. and drove straight through to Marshall.
"I hope you know how much this means to me, Bear
"Eheh, we'll see about that when you meet me :D," he answered.
That night he arrived in Marshall. He slept in his car, Foss says, at a park by the narrow, sluggish Redwood River. Kenzie sneaked out to take him coffee or spend the night in the car with him.
In the mornings, Foss says, Kenzie would tell her dad that she was going over to Foss' house. Instead she'd joyride with Crawford, touring him around Marshall and showing him off to her maternal grandparents, to Foss and to other friends. Crawford even let her drive.
Then, four days after Crawford arrived, on the evening of June 30, Kenzie's dad pulled up to Foss' house in a Jeep. There was a gun in the backseat, Foss remembers. He looked angry and frightened.
"Kenzie ran away with that guy Kris," he said. Kenzie had bragged about Crawford to a younger cousin, and word had gotten back to her father. "We have no idea where they are."
An old man cracks his front door and sneers into the fading Texas sunlight. He steps out, shutting the door behind him. A pit bull barks on the other side.
"Can I see some identification?" he howls.
Although this is Kristopher Crawford's last-known address, he isn't likely to be holed up in his mom and stepdad's modest Grand Prairie rancher. Still, it's a good place to start. Crawford has lost both of his jobs, at Home Depot and a temp job at a financial services company. He's broke. Everyone believes he's in Texas, if only because he's so close to his mother.
The man calls to his wife. "Leslie! Come here!"
He is suspicious, for good reason. The cops have knocked on his door multiple times in recent months. They even searched the house. But Crawford was never there. Neither was Kenzie.
Leslie steps out, looking around her husband's shoulder. She wears an oversized, fraying gray tee over her pudgy body, and her gray hair is knotted messily behind her. Her handshake is the firmer of the two, although her husband is working himself into a frenzy.
"If someone jacks with Kris, I'm going after them," he says. "I'll blow them away."
"No you won't," Leslie says softly, trying to calm him down.
"Yes I will! I'm serious." He's done calmly stepping aside as police walk through his house without a warrant, he says, searching the rooms, pressing on the walls.
The second of two boys, Kristopher Crawford was born in 1983 into a shaky household. Leslie and his father fought, then separated. For a while, Leslie was a single mother, working nights at the post office.
For years, Crawford was shuttled between his mother and father. As soon as he adjusted, Leslie says, he would have to move back. He never finished high school and got his GED instead. His most serious attempt at a career was when he went to bartending school.
"But the bars want you to have experience to work for them," she says. "And to have experience, you have to work at the bar."
Crawford never had many friends, his mom says. Most of the ones he made he met through Internet chat rooms and video games, including a teenager named Malcolm Robbins. They met three years ago in a chat room, when Robbins was 17. Crawford was 25.
Robbins lived in Northern California's wine country, but the friends spoke online for two years, Robbins says, getting extremely close without ever actually meeting. Early last year, Robbins wanted to win back his girlfriend, but he didn't have a ride to where she lived, 100 miles away. So Crawford drove 1,800 miles to give Robbins a lift. Crawford ended up staying more than two weeks and spending more than $2,500, Robbins says, although he recalls someone in Crawford's family helping with expenses.
Before I leave Leslie's home, she tells me that her son doesn't even talk to Kenzie anymore. He tried to save the girl from her family, she says, even after Leslie warned him against it. It wasn't his problem, she says. Finally, Leslie says, her son listened and cut off all contact.
"Kris is a good guy," Leslie says. "He did everything he could to help her."
The night she disappeared for the first time, Kenzie wrote her dad a note saying that she was running away. According to police, they spent that night in his car. The next day, they drove to Minneapolis and explored the city, cruising the Mall of America, spending all day walking and window-shopping. She dyed her hair bright purple, figuring everyone would be looking for a blonde.
They spent the next two nights at hotels in Bloomington, police say, before Kenzie finally called home on July 3. She was at her aunt's house in St. Paul, and she was ready to get picked up. When her dad finally got there, Crawford was nowhere to be found.
Not long after they got back to Marshall, a local police officer was patrolling the area near Kenzie's home when he noticed a man wearing a black hoodie — an odd sight on a 75-degree night, balmy by Minnesota standards. The officer approached the man, who said his name was Jude and that he didn't have identification. But the officer recognized him as Kristopher Crawford.
It turned out that three nights before, the same cop had come across Crawford in a Buick with Kenzie. He'd warned Crawford about the legal dangers of trying anything sexual with the girl, and told him it'd be best if he left Marshall that night. The officer also called Crawford's mother, back in Texas. She knew he was in Minnesota, she said. She told the officer that her son had been assaulted in Iowa and had driven to Marshall to get medical treatment.
Now, here Crawford was again, three nights later, lurking near the little girl's house on the heels of their three-day Minnesota getaway. He arrested Crawford on suspicion of deprivation of parental rights, for aiding the escape of a runaway. The officer confiscated Crawford's phone as he handcuffed him, and found that Kenzie was calling Crawford even as the officer held the phone
At the station that night, the police tried to decipher just what had gone on between Crawford and Kenzie. She told police they didn't have sex. He seemed to dodge the question.
"Did you sleep in the same bed at the hotels?" the officer asked Crawford.
"Is that considered sexual?" Crawford shot back. "What's the difference of sleeping on the same floor?"
Crawford would eventually be released on bail and, everyone assumed, would slink back to Texas until his first court appearance. For the three days he spent behind bars, a friend says, Kenzie wept in one of his hoodies and Pac-Man pajamas he bought her from the Walmart. She was grounded by her dad. He even took away her computer and cell phone, leaving her only with her PlayStation 3.
Three days after Crawford was released, Kenzie's dad sent her to live in St. Paul with her aunt Lisa. Lisa, whose sister was Kenzie's mom, is a high school drug counselor, so she was off the month of July and could watch Kenzie. Even better, they adored each other. As Kenzie grew and budded, she had developed a striking resemblance to her mother. Lisa especially loved her niece's hair — so blonde it was almost white, just like hers, and just like her sister's.
"She's all I have left of Amy," Lisa says.
Kenzie got sent to live with Lisa after her dad found out she was messaging Crawford on Facebook through her PlayStation. Crawford was served with a harassment restraining order. Still, keeping Crawford and Kenzie apart proved almost impossible.
In St. Paul, Kenzie used Lisa's phone to access Facebook and YouTube. Crawford made a YouTube video of Kenzie to the song "Wurk it Till it Hurt," uploading suggestive photos she'd sent him. Her parents deleted her Facebook account, so the couple took to other sites. Correspondence shows them talking about the future, when they'd be married. They would work at a hotel together. He'd mix drinks at the bar. She'd be a maid.
After a month she moved back to Marshall for the start of 10th grade, but their relationship continued. She was skipping class to go to the library to use the public computers. Crawford did his part, too. At one point, he had three cell phones to speak to Kenzie. Her parents found texts on Kenzie's phone from Crawford, and discovered that he'd purchased a phone with a Marshall area code. In Yahoo! conversations, he guided the young girl through ways to cover her tracks when they talked.
As Crawford's court date neared, Kenzie refused to give a written statement after their three-night foray to Minneapolis, electing a verbal one instead. She spoke so softly that the recorder couldn't decipher her words; the tape had to be sent to an expert.
Crawford was scheduled to appear in a Marshall court in mid-September, but he was granted a continuance. One night that month, two Marshall police officers noticed a Lincoln Continental with Texas tags in a lumberyard near the bike path. They looked up the plates and traced the car to Crawford.
The officers informed Kenzie's dad, who had recently installed tracking software on his daughter's cell phone. Kenzie was out that night, supposedly at a friend's house. He pulled up her location and saw that his daughter was on a bike path not far from Crawford's car.
The officers walked until they reached an embankment under some railroad tracks. Crawford and Kenzie were sitting side by side; by now, the entire Marshall police force could recognize his face. He was arrested immediately and charged with violating a restraining order to go with his still-outstanding charge of depriving parental rights. He was released once again, and set off again to Texas, at least until the justice system lured him back.
A couple weeks later, Kenzie was in her room when her dad came in and told her to get dressed. His grandmother had died; her wake was that day. But she refused, he remembers, and that's when he snapped: In a rage, he admits, he picked his scrawny daughter up and slammed her on the bed, his hand wrapped around her throat.
Kenzie later said that Jeremy had threatened to kill her. She called the cops, then Kristopher Crawford's mother, Leslie. When she heard, Leslie says, she called the cops, too. No charges were filed.
Later that month, a police officer called Aunt Lisa with a tip that Crawford was sending Kenzie a "care package": a cell phone and money, ostensibly to buy a bus ticket south. If it ever existed, though, it never came to the house, and Kenzie never ran. A receipt shows that on October 27, Crawford spent $102.94 on a hat and a black light-up tutu from raveready.com, which he shipped to "Kenzy Katt" at Lisa's address in St. Paul.
November came without Crawford facing the justice system; he'd been due in court again but was granted another continuance. One night, as Minnesota started to freeze, Kenzie stepped outside for 45 minutes to smoke. Lisa's boyfriend was concerned, so he walked around the house to the back alley. Kenzie was in their car, smoking cigarettes. She had a cell phone in her hand. She was talking to Crawford.
The boyfriend took the phone, stormed inside and handed it to Lisa, already in bed. Kenzie screamed and attacked Lisa. "I need that phone!" Kenzie screamed. "I need that phone!"
Lisa found pictures of Crawford in his underwear on the phone, and more suggestive photos of Kenzie. She turned over the phone to St. Paul PD.
On December 7, after being granted yet another continuance, Crawford wrote to Kenzie, using the handle agentpacman0007:
"You lost that phone. That phone was practically my life, and didn't even bother to pay attention or delete anything.
"Your lies kill me, bear. ..." He continued. "And as much as I hate them, I still answer you. ... Still talk to you. ... Because I can't be without you..."
Five days later, Kenzie, now 16, walked outside to smoke. She wore a black hoodie and sweatpants, a coat, the hat Crawford bought for her and $78 she stole from her aunt's boyfriend's wallet. She never came back.
Crawford takes a last drag on his Marlboro Red, peering into the darkness through small, ovular lenses, gaunt cheeks collapsing as he pulls. He looks at the butt pinned between his bony fingers, then flicks it into the night and walks into the Starbucks.
He slows, waiting for a hyper young boy to skip past, and chooses a table for two closest to the door.
"I guess you don't smoke," he says. He smiles, revealing two rows of perfect, white teeth. They look out of place. He smells rank, ripe from what must be days without showering. He's sleeping in his car, he says, or crashing with friends and ex-coworkers. His stepdad wouldn't let him near the house, so one time he spent an entire week sleeping in the Walgreens parking lot down the street.
Baggy black sweats sag from his waist, and a ragged, black T-shirt with a mug shot of Family Guy's baby Stewie hangs from frail shoulders. "Quahog's Most Wanted," it reads. A jagged widow's peak is all that remains of his hairline, and a wispy, narrow shock of dark hair flows unchecked from the front all the way back before plunging into a long, greasy rattail draped over one shoulder. He looks perfectly comfortable in the Arlington Starbucks on the corner of West Bardin and Cooper, just minutes from UT-Arlington's main campus.
It's April 25, more than four months after he failed to show in court. There is a national warrant out for his arrest, but no one seems to be looking for him. Police in Minnesota and Texas will say only that Kenzie's disappearance is "an ongoing investigation." Her face is on a few posters online, but due to a combination of jurisdictional confusion, incompetence and blind luck, law enforcement hasn't done much at all to find her or Crawford.
All anyone knows is that Kenzie called soon after she disappeared from a blocked number, saying she was all right. Then in early February from a Verizon store in Kansas City, Missouri, she called her aunt Lisa. When Lisa pleaded for her to come home, to finish school, Kenzie told her to fuck off and hung up. Next she called her grandmother, asking for money. Finally she called her dad, demanding that he remove Crawford's national warrant poster from Facebook.
An anonymous tip recently placed the two of them at Grapevine Mills Mall, and he's said to have been in contact with his parents in Grand Prairie. But a search by Grapevine police didn't turn anything up. And damned if Crawford's parents were going to turn in their boy.
"I'm gonna be up front with you," his stepdad promised when I showed up on his doorstep. "It'll be a cold day in hell before I tell anybody where Kris is at." His mom said that "maybe she'll go home when she's 17," the age of consent in Texas.
By early April, no one had heard from Kenzie in over a month. That's when her family blasted Dallas media asking for help. They eventually sent hundreds of pages of documents chronicling Crawford's pursuit of the girl, some which included his cell phone number. I called. He picked up and agreed to meet for coffee. And wouldn't you know it: There he is.
"I'm not hiding," he says. But he's not turning himself in. And he doesn't have the little girl. He tells me it'd been months since he's heard from her.
I explain that everyone thinks Kenzie ran to him. People were suggesting that he was whoring her, that he killed her, that she killed herself. She didn't even have her inhaler.
But in an hour, he says almost nothing about her or their relationship. All Crawford wants to talk about is coffee.
"I used to spend 500 bucks a month," he says. "I'd bring people from work here. Before work, during work, after work. I drink Peppermint Mocha but they didn't used to have that," he tilts his head, lost in another time. "I used to drink Caramel Macchiatos." He looks back up then, and smiles.
"Hello?" the girl on the line says.
The day after I met Crawford at Starbucks, I mentioned the meeting to the father of Kenzie's best friend, Foss. She and her dad had coincidentally moved to Flower Mound in 2011, before Kenzie disappeared, so the dad, a sweet man named Shelby, was trying to help track her down.
After I mentioned the meeting, police who for weeks had expressed no interest in the case called me right up. And the next day I receive a call from a blocked number. A girl's on the line.
"It's Mackenzie," she says.
Kenzie tells me that the night she left, she stayed with people she met on the street in St. Paul. The next morning, she took a bus to Missouri. She met a girl in St. Louis named Jules. Walked right up to her on the street, Kenzie says. Luckily, Jules has two loving parents and a pit bull/German shepherd puppy, and they all took Kenzie in as their own.
She pauses for long stretches before answering some of my questions, like she's getting distracted, or instruction.
"What's the weather like?" I ask her. "In Missouri?"
"I don't go outside," she responds. "I dislike the cold."
A cell phone rings in the background. I ask whose phone it is.
"You can hear the ring?" She dismisses it. "It's another call."
"I'm not hiding," she continues. "When I turn 18 I'm going to go home and get my stuff." But not before then.
She's not in Texas, she says. She's cut off all communication with Crawford. "I've talked to him maybe once. And that was the beginning of December. A while ago."
She admits that she thinks about him sometimes, but she doesn't tell Jules about him. Kenzie doesn't tell Jules anything about where she comes from, and Jules' family never questions why Kenzie can't work, can't even go to school.
"How do you deal with having asthma?" I ask her, remembering she left without her inhaler.
"I sit outside."
"You said you sit outside?"
She just told me it was too cold. There's a pause, tense, longer than before.
"Um, I have to go eat," Kenzie says. "I'll try to call you back."
I race to my computer. The day before in St. Louis, it was partly cloudy and 88 degrees.
After his late-night text announcing Kenzie's whereabouts, and after inviting me over to meet the missing girl, Shelby invites me to accompany the family to the police station, where Kenzie will turn herself in. I clamber through the back and scrunch into the back seat, and on the drive through Flower Mound, I ask Kenzie how she managed, in months as a runaway, to acquire both a cat and a dog.
"I was lonely," she says. "I found the cat on the side of the highway, and I said 'I don't know if you have a home, but I'm going to take you.' She's litter-box trained."
"What if that's somebody's cat?" Foss asks.
"I don't care," Kenzie says. "It's too late now."
I ask "What'd you name her?"
"Kitty Face. You know, like I kitty the fool."
"She doesn't have a mohawk," Foss says.
Eventually the conversation veers into what Kenzie is expecting at the police station. Before he picked her up from The Home Depot, Foss' dad promised that, if possible, Kenzie could stay with the Fosses in Texas. Kenzie, retelling her troubled relationship with her father, seems to think that's the best option available. But as we pull into the station, she also seems to understand that it might be a long shot.
"Is that an officer? I don't care. I'll get in his face. Bring it on, bro."
"I'm telling you," Shelby Foss says. "They might be your best friend."
We huddle in the station's "media room," a tiny space with a round table and five chairs. The first officer we meet indicates that the arrangement she's hoping for — to stay with the Fosses — may be possible. She's so happy, she even obliges when I ask her about three dark scars carved vertically down the back of her hand. A battle, she says, with a saw.
But then, after a brief disappearance, the officer returns.
"I have a little bad news for y'all," he says. "I just got off the phone with Officer Stark from St. Paul P.D.," the officer continues. "He's concerned you might flee."
"I won't," Kenzie says quickly, shaking her head once. She may be telling the truth. But she's already lied too much.
Five days after Crawford showed up at that Starbucks, and four days after Kenzie called saying she was in St. Louis, Crawford was pulled over while driving through Cameron, Texas, 150 miles south of Grand Prairie. The officer ran his ID, saw there was a warrant for his arrest and detained him to be extradited to Minnesota, where he will stand trial for deprivation of parental rights and violating a restraining order.
There was a passenger in his car, a teenage girl with purple hair who carried no identification. The officer let her ride back to the Dallas area with the driver who towed Crawford's truck back home.
Back in Dallas, Kenzie called her friend Foss and told her what happened. That's when Shelby Foss started pressing, and when his daughter fell apart: She'd been talking to Kenzie since late February. Skype, mostly, but she'd text Kenzie on Crawford's phone, too. She never knew where Kenzie stayed, but she knew she was always with Crawford, in Texas. She even met with them once, weeks back, when they all hung out at the Grapevine Mills Mall.
So no, maybe she wouldn't run if she were able to go back to the Foss house, back to her pit bull/German shepherd puppy and Kitty Face. But after five months of hiding, of lying, it doesn't matter.
Kenzie's pale face flushes. She folds her arms tightly against her chest, and her whole body seems to collapse inward. She crosses her legs. Her foot starts to shake. Suddenly, she's just a scared little girl with purple hair.
"What we have to do, we have to take you back to juvenile detainment," the officer finishes. "And you'll be transported back to Minnesota."
I search her face, waiting helplessly for her first tears to fall. They never do.
"Can I go to Starbucks first?"
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She wants a Peppermint Mocha.
The officer shakes his head.
Later that day, I'll call Aunt Lisa to tell her the news. She'll be ecstatic and relieved, especially when I tell her Kenzie was in the car with Crawford. There will be more charges, more serious charges, she'll say, sounding certain. And Kenzie will be back in Minnesota, where she'll first be punished for truancy at the least. Then, Lisa says, she wants her niece, her beloved sister's daughter, to go to rehab for a couple of months. Maybe she'll get off the Marlboro Reds, the booze, the Peppermint Mochas. Maybe she'll dye her hair again. Maybe even blonde.
The police officer puts a hand on Kenzie's shoulder. She takes a long breath, then stands to hug her best friend. He walks her through a door, to a place where she can't run, while she waits for her father to arrive.