Last Tuesday I had a wonderful afternoon with my mom. I drove out to my hometown after work, and picked up lunch from my favorite Italian place on the way. Mom and I laughed at the kitchen table while we watched her new puppy, Ruby, chase her tail. I went to the dentist, then the DMV, and brought back cherry limeades. When my dad got home from work we chatted over a glass of wine before I went to bed.
While I was enjoying a perfectly normal day, Hailey Owens was three hours away, doing the same thing. It was one of the first mild days Missouri had seen in months. Wearing blue jean shorts and purple sandals, she walked a few blocks down the street to play with her best friend. Except Hailey would never make it home that night.
When I woke up around 1:30 Wednesday morning, I drove into work thinking about the Amber Alert I'd be covering that day. A little girl named Hailey was still missing, but her family was hopeful for her safe return. I did not know that day would turn into a 17 hour one; that I would learn of Hailey's death around 7 a.m. and leave for Springfield soon after. My photographer and I talked to neighbors who knew Hailey and police officers who wished they could have done more. After the evening newscast, we stopped at Wal-Mart to buy a toothbrush and a clean shirt before we headed for the hotel. The next day after the morning show, we got back on 44 and started the long drive home. I felt compelled to write along the way, and I've included that writing below.
Tonight, a week after her murder, Hailey is still on my mind. And I'm still sending love to those who lost her.
Thanks for reading,
We're driving back from Springfield, surfing radio channels. Every time the static clears, there seems to be a DJ relaying the details of Hailey's case. It makes me sick every time, even though I've been absorbed in it for more than 24 hours now.
I included some of the details from the probable cause statement in my report this morning. The smell of bleach in the basement, the ligature marks on Hailey's wrists, the plastic tote where police found her body--stacked under another container full of papers like it was a box of holiday decorations. It's all public record, but as soon as I finished the live report I regretted my words. I wished I could take them back and make them untrue. I thought of the moms and dads and kids eating breakfast-- what if they heard me and got scared to walk to the bus stop? Unfortunately it's not the worst we hear on the news.
Keeping my composure has been tough. I especially struggled after reading an article in the Springfield paper this morning. Hailey's aunt, Erin, talked about her sweet niece. She told the reporter Hailey couldn't say her 'R's, so she called her 'Aunt Ewin'. How cute is that. This little girl with all her special things that made her unique, that made her Hailey, is gone forever. Taken in the most senseless way.
Sometimes the hard part is that we get to leave these stories behind. I had a big breakfast with the photographers this morning on our way out of town, talking shop and laughing over French toast. I have Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show debut waiting on my DVR to make me laugh. And tomorrow morning, I'll be reporting on power outages or public officials or the story of the day. But the story will never go away for Hailey's family. One of the pictures circulating among the media outlets shows Hailey, striking a dance pose in what looks like her bedroom. What is her mom supposed to do with that room? With the bed she was supposed to be tucked into Tuesday night, and Wednesday night, and tonight? It hurts my heart to think about.
So much of this job is gathering facts, asking questions, looking for answers. In Hailey's case, the most important questions are the ones none of us can answer. They are the ones that make you angry and doubtful and profoundly sad.
So for now I will do all I can. I will send love to Hailey and her family. And to the parents of the man accused of killing her. I won't think of how many lives have been ruined or how many hearts broken. I will wake up tomorrow and go to work. I will report on whatever story they ask me to. But I will be thinking of Hailey.