When a man suddenly pulled up in his vehicle and took her.
Bystanders watched as she screamed. But they thought it was a father/daughter fight and didn't want to get involved. Her stepfather somehow missed her in the crowd as he drove around the school.
Most often children are taken and no one sees the crime occur. But this one happened in plain sight.
And then the man got up and got into his car and trolled a school. Where a girl with dark hair in a pep club uniform caught his eye. He was very daring in his crime. No one tried to stop him. Those bystanders would be the last to see her alive.
He took her to his nearby trailer. Where he did unspeakable things to her. Where he choked her until she was almost gone, then let her cough her way back to life. Only to do it again. And again.
At some point he tired of her. He drove a ways and dumped her body at the side of a road, sans her pep club uniform, which was never found.
He was already sitting in jail before they found her body. And then the focus went from his stealing a car to the fact that he had a history of molesting children. They didn't even have to hunt him down.
I remember it was November, a few years after this horrible tragedy, when I did my leg work and interviewed her mother and started putting the puzzle pieces together to write about this.
In fact it was Thanksgiving morning when I took her mother the article I had written. I had promised her she could read it and check all the facts before I gave it to a regional editor.
I sat in her quiet house, trying to be invisible, while she turned the pages. I seem to remember a clock ticking somewhere in the house. The empty house.
Her life had been torn apart. Losing her 12 year old daughter was bad enough in and of itself. Losing her to a random sicko who used her and tossed her in the bushes like a piece of trash was quite another.
I had joint custody of my daughters. They usually spent half the holiday with their father, the latter half with me. I left her house before noon, and drove home and cooked a turkey. Made all the fixings. And all the while I could not get that mother's face out of my mind.
I recall one day the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the man and sent him to Death Row went with me to her grave site. It had been a very difficult case to prosecute. He was a father just as I was a mother. I think this case nearly undid him.
When faced with her tombstone, I saw that his emotions were rising to the surface, so I gave him some space. I walked amongst the tombstones away from him. He at least deserved that bit of time to try and put this behind him. For there would always be another murder. Another child. Another man to prosecute.
Out of nowhere I heard the sounds of a school band begin to play a Christmas carol. I stopped walking and listened. It was likely her school, which was nearby. The last place where she was just an innocent young girl, in her pep club uniform, having fun at a football game.
I looked over at the assistant district attorney and our eyes met. He heard it too. That was what did me in. The music. The band, amateur young musicians, missing a note here and there. Just children, whose classmate was no longer among them.
I never went back there again. I moved away a few years later and never saw the prosecutor again.
Last night, out of the blue, I got it into my head to Google the man who went to Death Row. I found that he has been dead for nine years. He had died of natural causes.
Which meant he had 20 years to sit in prison. Twenty more Christmases than Jen had.
I also found that the lead prosecutor had died just a few years ago. All the principal characters, gone.
When I turned the lights off, I thought of each one of them for awhile. One a prosecutor, one a 12 year old girl, her whole life ahead of her. And a monster, who had hurt many children over the years without being punished.
It took the death of Jen to stop him. To put him in a cage until he died. He would not have a chance to hurt another child. But stopping him had cost her her life.