I got to know Maria Westerlund at Our Saviors Lutheran Church in 1988.  We had waved in passing numerous times over the years because we lived next door to each other on County Road 58 which ran through the town of St. Charles.

Her and I were roughly the same age and we each had four children.  The church auxiliary club had not only put out a call for new members but they wanted to move in a different direction.  For years they had focused on making quilts for the needy and now they wanted to cook meals for the shut-ins around this town with a population of 7,694.  A secondary motive was to make use of the kitchen which was underused, extensive and hidden in the basement.  It seemed to be unanimous among the group Maria and I were sitting in on an early Saturday morning….

All of the homes along County 58 were a considerable distance from each other; we shared a common area which we used for picnics and neighborhood celebrations.  There was one house closest to the highway which never participated in the parties or made much of an effort to acknowledge the rest of the neighborhood.  It was usually the center of conversation especially during holidays like the 4th of July where we were sharing burgers, hot dogs and mouth-watering seedless water melon.

“I did see her (Mrs. Joski) at the Piggy Wiggly.  She’s friendly in the store.”  I said putting food on several paper plates for the kids.

“Maybe he beats her.”  My husband Jim replied loudly.

“That’s terrible.” I was worried Maria might think badly of him.  But she nodded her head and took the comment in stride.

“I don’t see any animals on the property.”  Mike Westerlund said with a wicked grin.  “Hmmm…there’s a great deal of room behind all those pine trees.”  His tone had an implied suspiciousness……

St. Charles was ninety minutes from the largest metropolitan area and had been perceived as a quiet, caring community.  In other words everyone knew each other’s business and tried to act like they didn’t.  The biggest scandal in town was someone had sprayed graffiti on the sidewalk in front of the fire station which shared the building with the small yet diligent police force…

Word spread over the next several months about the home cooking that was coming from the church and more groups began calling the church to be added to our monthly delivery.  The auxiliary club had become our break from the demands of parenting healthy and active children.  It was wonderful.

My son, Timothy was friends with Chase Westerlund.  The two of them were in Cub Scouts and played baseball together.  They travelled everywhere on their bicycles.  The Westerlunds had  a family of two boys and two girls.  Their other son, Conner, was a fraternal twin-born five minutes before Chase.  Connor, Chase and Timothy had begun to act like the Three Musketeers during the summer of 1989.  They made ad hoc bike ramps, delivered the free local newspaper and bought candy at the corner convenience/video store.  My three daughters were close and were busy with girly pursuits so it was a relief for me that Timothy had found friends of his own age….

The fall days in St. Charles were my favorite time of the year.  The trees would begin their slow transformation as their leaves would illuminate a persimmon and sangria color, pumpkins of every imaginable size would infiltrate nearby farms and local stands making us think of Halloween and sunsets became raging colors of amber/crimson tapestries covering the horizon like a painting.  The air often smelled as fresh as rain or at other times someone had begun burning leaves where the smell was imbedded in our clothes.

It was Sunday, October 1 and I remember the day well because our family had been running late for most of the day.  Arriving at church late had become a symbolism of our struggle to organize and motivate the kids to get going in the mornings.  It usually put Jim in a bad mood.  He would always say when we piled in the car; “If you’re not early; you are late.”…….

It was shortly after six p.m. when I noticed the boys hadn’t returned from the store.  I went outside and walked down the long gravel driveway.  There were  several kids playing in the area but none of them were our boys.  I turned to walk back up the driveway when I heard yelling behind me.  Timothy and Connor were panicked and running across the lawn.

“Mom, Mom call the police.”  Timothy ordered and then his voice became chilling. “Someone took Chase.”

“Where did this happen?”

The boys pointed down 58 toward the freeway.

“Where’s Chase?”  I held Timothy by the shoulders to calm him down and Connor had started to cry.

“We don’t know.  Some guy in a mask came out of the shadows and told us to get off our bikes.”

“Did he have a gun?”  My heart was beating wildly as I could barely breathe.

“I don’t know.  He made us turn around and he took Chase.  He told us not to get up or he’d kill us.”  My stomach dropped.

I hugged both of them tightly as my mouth went dry.  “It’s going to alright.  Let’s go in the house.”  Timothy kept uttering how we needed to call the cops.  I grabbed the phone and dialed the Westerlund’s number with shaking hands.  The line rang a long time before I heard her voice.

“Maria, its Susanna.”  My voice cracked and only a word or two came out of my mouth.  I was trying not to break down.

“Susanna, are you okay?  What’s wrong?”  Her sweet voice was a model of composure.

“Something bad had happened.”  I said strangely.

“We’ll be right over.”

After I hung up I called the police.  The room  around me had started to fill up as the girls had come out of their rooms and the men were no longer interested in the game.  Connor looked as if he was in a daze.  I sat the boys on the sofa, holding their hands and prayed as the sounds of sirens could be heard in the distance.

Maria and Mike ran through the front door and hugged their son who was still gripping my hand tightly.  Connor kept saying he was sorry as Timothy had begun to tell us what had happened.  I watched in slow motion as Jim opened the door for the two police officers; their radios on their sleeves were excessively loud.  One of them radioed for a search at the corner of 58 and Savanna Road.  The intersection where the Joskis lived.  While I remember Maria and I holding each other as the police questioned our boys; the look I have never been able to shake after so many years is the persistent sadness still evident in her remarkable hazel eyes.

Soon after Chase Westerlund was kidnapped in 1989 St. Charles became a guarded and suspicious place to reside in.  The days of kids biking alone were gone, children did not play outside alone and were even accompanied as they played in their own driveways.  Flyers punctuated many doorways, community bulletin boards and telephone poles with his smiling face.  The presence of the FBI was noticeable at the local cafes.

The bikes had long been removed from the crime scene where yellow tape had ensconced the area for weeks.  Timothy wouldn’t go near the bike and we eventually took it away.  It didn’t feel appropriate giving it to another child.  Many of the residents had been questioned numerous times and no family was under more scrutiny than the Joski family.  Thousands of leads and tips poured into the command center but nothing revealed what had happened to Chase Westerlund.

Maria was noticeably absent from our church meetings and our close friendship had become strained.  I couldn’t imagine how she had gotten out of bed each day.  The unanswered questions and lack of closure would have committed me to a life of depression.  My messages to her had gone unanswered.

As the years passed and our children grew it became apparent Maria was a fighter.  She routinely became a presence in other cases of missing children, she spoke at the legislature helping to pass protective laws and became know as an advocate for missing children.  On the five-year anniversary of Chase’s disappearance they created a resource center for missing children in the name of their son.  Maria was now elevated to a national figure in the fight to protect children.  I would cry every time one of the morning shows did a story on Chase.  Everyone wanted answers.  Chase would have graduated from high school with Connor and Timothy.

A knock at the door brought me out of my mid-afternoon fog.  Maria stood next to a tall man dressed in a blue jacket and reflective sunglasses.

“Hi Susanna.  Do you have some time?”  Her voice was calmly detached.

“Of coarse please, please come in.”  I was pleasantly shocked by the visit.

We sat in the same living room with the same furniture where we have been sitting over twenty-one years ago.

“I’m Todd Waters from the FBI.  We’re going to be doing some investigative work regarding Chase’s case.”  His firm handshake reassured me of his intent.

“Do you have new leads?”

“We have new technology we’re interested in using but we need to keep things confidential.”  He cleared his throat.

“Anything we can do to help just let us know.”

“The investigation is focused on the home near the intersection.  So this road could be closed for a considerable time.”  He stood up suddenly and gave me his card.  “Call me if you have any questions.”  He nodded and left the two of us alone.

“Maria?”  I said.

She had focused her gaze on the silk flower-pot near the television.  She caught her mouth but not before I heard an emotional outburst.  I reached for her.

“I’m sorry.”  She broke down and sobbed on my shoulder as my eyes began to tear.

“No, don’t ever apologize Maria.”

“They are going to dig up the area around the Joski barn.”

I patted her shoulder as we pulled away and began wiping our eyes.  “Do they think-”  I couldn’t finish my sentence.

“They don’t know.  But fresh eyes are looking at the case again.”  She replied with a sudden relief.

“I’m so glad.  What can I do to help you?”  I said softly.

“Can I stay here for a bit?”

“As long as you need Maria, as long as you need.”

As I sat there with my friend Maria I thought about that day back in October when everything changed.  I remembered following the flashing lights of the squad car to the field where a stranger had altered the lives of two families forever.  The lyrics of a song playing on the radio had stuck in my head and summed up the horror of the moment; “O Beautiful for spacious skies, but now those skies are threatening.” *

*Lyrics from The End of the Innocence by Don Henley-1989.

LA Carlson