Sylvia Heitstuman went missing Sept. 6, 1982. Her disappearance would not only dominate the next week of my life, it would shape my future.
Crime had touched our family before, but never so dramatically. We had become a statistic — a sad story in the newspaper that everyone read in morbid curiosity to see how it would end. It was a loss of innocence, a painful lesson that the world was just as full of evil as it was good.
Writing was my refuge. I was a bullied child in school and stories became my therapy. Virtually friendless, I would sit for hours in my room where no taunting words could reach me and write page after page in longhand. I would write about anything as long as it eased the pain.
I don’t remember writing the week that Sylvia was missing outside of a few frantic questions scrawled in a diary that no longer exists. I had school and other responsibilities to keep me busy. The only thing I could do was wait for the phone to ring and hope for the best.
Searchers found her Sept. 11. She’d been gone six days, but the medical examiner said that she’d only been dead for three. Evidence from her body suggested that she had been raped and tortured during the three days she had been missing but alive.
Life had been in a sort of limbo the day we found out that my aunt was missing, and it stopped the day we knew that she was dead. The life that slowly began again after the news broke was not the same life we’d known previously. It was an merely an existence that moved us forward as we searched for answers. We are still searching.
I had long been interested in mysteries as the ultimate puzzle starting with “Encyclopedia Brown” books when I was young and moving on to “The Hardy Boys” and then to Agatha Christie as I got older. But murder in real life is not so neatly dealt with. Nothing is so simple or — as we’ve learned over the years — timely as a 175-page beach-bag paperback.
Five years after Sylvia’s death, I joined the Idaho Writer’s League and became the youngest member of the Coeur d’Alene chapter. I was 18 years old and had decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing. The IWL offered me the opportunity to mix with other writers and to experiment with styles that went beyond teen-angst poetry and high school essays. I wanted to write stories about the kind of life that seemed too strange, happy, bizarre or tragic to be true.
It was during the IWL’s state convention that I met Dorothy Rochon Powers. Powers was the first woman to win the Scripps Howard Ernie Pyle Award for human interest journalism. She had a column in one of the local papers and had agreed to be a keynote speaker for our convention. After a short conversation with her during the convention awards dinner, I decided that my future career would be in journalism.
It would be more than 20 years before I would start down the road to journalism. During that time, though, crime fighting changed. The courts began to accept DNA in criminal cases. All over the country, crimes were being cleared a little faster, and innocent inmates were being freed. Most important to me, though, was the fact that cold cases were being revisited with the new evidence that DNA provided.
In 2004, my grandmother passed away without ever knowing who killed her only daughter.
I decided to go back to school in 2010. I had a single goal in mind — to major in journalism and someday work with police departments to bring cold cases back into the open. I hope to one day have a feature in a city newspaper outlining cold cases as they’re being taken off the shelf so that the public can remember what has been forgotten.
Will it find Sylvia’s killer? No, probably not. But it might find someone else’s killer and give closure to a family that had given up hope. I can be content with that and move on.
I am now the same age Sylvia was the night she died. On the flip side, I am also the same age Dorothy Powers was the year she won the Howard Scripps Ernie Pyle Award. As I move forward in life, I hope that I can spend the rest of the time I have using the inspiration given me by one woman to honor the memory the other.