A tragedy rocked the nation last weekend, but first it rocked the 10-county region. Less than 24 miles from where I live, a 7-year-old girl was reported missing and found dead in less than 30 minutes in Scottsville, Ky.
Nothing repulses me more than someone hurting a child. Nothing. Even more disturbing is that someone killed little blond-haired Gabriella Doolin in Allen County, right next door to my own county. We often hear on the news and on Dateline specials that “it can happen anywhere, to anyone.” Not only is this true for me because I can drive to Scottsville in less time than it takes to watch a TV sitcom, but because Gabbi’s horrific death brought back a memory of a time I, too, brushed against tragedy. Or almost.
Most of the following details I remember more vividly than the dinner I had last night. My mom, who has tried to forget that day but can’t, helped fill in the rest.
About a month before my third birthday, my mom, my grandmother and I spent the day in Clarksville, Tenn., shopping and having a generally fun day together while my older sister was in school. My mom was checking out at Goody’s, and while I waited, I darted to one of my favorite spots in any store: the belt rack. The way the belts hung down like a leather car wash and joined together in a chorus of gentle taps against my hands and forearms as I smacked them had fascinated me for as long as my 2-year-old mind could remember. The belt rack was just behind the checkout area, but also out of sight. My mom said she knew where I had gone and could hear the continuous twirling and slapping sounds I made while spinning the rack.
As I played, another shopper – a woman – approached me. A man may have been with her. I’m not sure about that. The only thing I really recall about her is the red dot in the center of her head. I had never seen anyone with a red dot on their head, but I remember finding it interesting and simultaneously puzzling. If she didn’t know she had a dot on her face, I didn’t want to be rude and point it out.
“Do you like those belts?” she asked.
“Mm-hmm,” I replied, almost singsong.
She crouched down and said, “I’d like you to come with me.”
I stopped spinning the belt rack. I was never a shy child, but suddenly I couldn’t bring myself to look directly at the woman. I rubbed one belt with my fingers, pretending to examine it closely.
I knew about strangers. I knew I should never go with one. But I also knew it was okay to talk to someone if my mom was with me. But she wasn’t exactly with me at that moment. Just a few feet away. I was torn, and therefore, I felt unsafe. Even as a toddler, I could sense that something wasn’t right. This woman didn’t look at me with the same adoring or friendly expression that most people did when they came to talk to my mom and spoke to me perched in the seat of a grocery cart or standing by her legs. Nor did she look like anyone who just wanted to chat with me, ask me how old I was, my favorite color, why I liked Barney so much. The awareness that she wanted more from me than a brief conversation strangled the air from my tiny body.
She came closer. “I said, would you come with me?”
Her persistence frightened me. I couldn’t think of anyone who had practically insisted I talk to them or take their outstretched hand. It was unusual. It was unfamiliar. Not unfamiliar in the I-wonder-what-this-tastes-like sense or the I-wonder-how-high-I-can-jump-on-my-parents’-bed sense. Unfamiliar in the bad sense.
“No…” I managed to squeak out.
I looked away, walked to the other end of the aisle, and instantaneously my mom was by my side. She had heard the belt rack stop spinning and had immediately come to see what was wrong.
The woman was gone.
My mom said I told her what had happened, told her that a woman had tried to take me, and that she remembered seeing that family in the store, but they were nowhere to be found then. They had already left Goody’s. Quickly. Silently. Undetected.
I started stuttering after that. I didn’t stop until four and a half years later after extensive work with a speech therapist. My speech therapist told my mom that if something traumatic happened in my life, as it had happened that day in Goody’s, I could start stuttering again.
When I heard about Gabbi Doolin, one of my first thoughts was to be thankful I had never experienced anything like that. But then I remembered the terror I felt at that young age. And I realized that it could have been me.
If it happened to Gabbi in less than 30 minutes, it could happen to my nieces or nephew. It could happen to my friends’ children. It could have happened to me because it almost did happen to me. And it still makes me sick with fear just thinking about it 23 years later.
Scottsville is only a few minutes away for me; but even if it’s 18 hours away from you, it’s not so far away. I’m not suggesting that as families we should live in constant fear every second of every day, but I am suggesting that no one is immune to danger. Monsters walk among us. Men, women, black, white, stranger, friend, relative, any color, any age. We don’t know when an unthinkable and unforgivable tragedy could strike us or our community next. We owe it to the ones who have met such tragedy to be cautious for ourselves and for our children.
We should pray it never happens to us. If it doesn’t, we should offer a prayer of thanks. If it happens to someone else, we should pray for them.
Gabbi’s visitation is going on as you read this. Her funeral will soon follow. Although I can’t be in Scottsville today with her family and the hundreds of mourners who knew Gabbi and who didn’t, I offer this post as my candle to hold in the vigil for Gabbi Doolin.
Because Gabbi Doolin is all of us.
May her murderer be brought to justice.
A previous version of this post stated that Gabbi Doolin was sexually assaulted. Her body was tested for evidence that would indicate sexual assault, but no information regarding sexual assault has been released.