Unsolved for 12 years, search for Adre'anna Jackson's killer continues
It wasn’t fair, any of it. Yvette Gervais doesn’t say that immediately when asked about the loss of her 10-year-old daughter, but she can’t help thinking of it.
The child, lost before Christmas in 2005, found dead shortly before Easter in 2006. Gervais thinks of that sometimes, especially now, in the early days of spring.
Adre’anna Jackson disappeared on an icy December morning, taken from Tillicum as she walked to school on a snow day, unaware it was closed. Her body was later tossed into a thicket of brambles. Two boys found her remains in spring of the following year.
She was 10 years old. The unsolved case of her murder is older. A substantial reward - $60,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction - remains unclaimed. It's the oldest unsolved homicide on Lakewood's books.
Police still hope to solve it, but the obstacles haven't changed: What's known is outweighed by the unknown. Even Adre’anna’s cause of death is unclear; the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office, confronted with partial remains, couldn't be sure, though police have always treated the case as a homicide.
“We have not forgotten about Adre’anna,” Police Chief Mike Zaro said. “Any tip that comes in, we take it seriously and follow it no matter how unlikely it might be. All of us here that worked it then are still here. It’s still on our minds. We don’t forget about it. We still want to solve it and get justice for Adre’anna.”
When was she last seen? Police know she stepped out of her mother's apartment on Wadsworth Street and headed for Tillicum Elementary School, not realizing it had been closed due to snowy weather.
Did she turn left, walking up Portland Avenue or Grant Avenue? Did she cut straight across, walking past the public library she visited so often?
Police don't know for certain, nor can they say who her abductor or abductors might have been. They only know the child's body was taken across the freeway at some point over the next few days or weeks, probably after frantic searches subsided, and dumped in a vacant lot frequented by transients and drug users.
Gervais, 61, thinks Adre’anna turned left to go to school, but she doesn’t know. She didn’t see. She has gone over the possibilities so many times that she can’t be sure. She recalls her daughter stepping out of the apartment briefly, then coming back in to get a warmer coat and hat.
She remembers the hours after that, not recognizing at first that anything was wrong, assuming at first that Adre’anna had gone off to play with friends. She was getting older, more willful, more interested in playing with friends. Surely that was all - but the dread grew as the hours passed. Gervais reported her daughter missing that afternoon.
Too long? She’s heard that before, heard the murmurs of criticism about the snow day and missing the school closure announcement. She said other parents in the neighborhood comforted her later, saying it wasn’t her fault.
“I felt really bad about it,” she said in a recent interview.
Gervais remembers police questioning her and her husband, John Federici, digging into their backgrounds. It was necessary and unavoidable, she knew, but their life together hadn’t always been easy. The media crush zoomed in on those details, inevitably highlighting Federici’s past, and an abusive moment in 2002 when he lost his temper and went to jail.
He never spoke publicly about the case, and maintains his silence. Why? Thinking back on the early frenzy and the publicity, Gervais tried to answer.
“He’s just a private person and he was hurting inside,” she said. “That was not fair. Especially the media that treated him like that. He hurt. He went in her room and didn’t hardly come out for three months afterwards.”
She started to say more, and paused for a long time. Tears filled her eyes.
“It takes me a minute,” she said, and sighed.
'JUSTICE FOR A CHILD'
A massive warehouse recently replaced the blackberries that hid Adre’anna’s body. It covers the scene in concrete and industry, dwarfing the adjacent Woodbrook Middle School, where police set up a command center in 2005 to search for the missing girl.
During a recent interview, police spokesman Chris Lawler gawked at the concrete walls, and the transformation of a site he knows too well.
“This blows me away,” he said. He worked Adre’anna’s case as a homicide detective.
As Lawler scanned the landscape, memories poured out. The warehouse is bordered by 146th Street Southwest. Until recently, it was possible to take a left turn onto that street, taking a direct line from Murray Road Southwest, which crosses Interstate 5 and turns into Tillicum. The brushy lot where Adre’anna’s remains were found is less than two miles from the tiny apartment where she lived.
How long has it been? When Adre’anna disappeared, George W. Bush was finishing the first year of his second term as president. Chris Gregoire was the governor of Washington.
Chris Brown’s “Run It!” was the song of the moment. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth film in the series, cashed in at the box office.
The Seattle Seahawks were 9-2, headed to their first Super Bowl. The Sonics were still around. On the day Adre’anna disappeared, they fought off the Cleveland Cavaliers and 20-year-old Lebron James, who scored 34 points.
The Lakewood Police Department was 13 months old, formed to serve Pierce County’s growing and second largest city, incorporated in 1996, led by its first chief, the late Larry Saunders.
Dec. 2, 2005, was a Friday. Lawler was 38 that day, a detective sergeant assigned to homicide and major crimes. He’s 51 now, the department spokesman, half a career removed from a case that still haunts him.
“We had nothing. We had nothing,” he said. “We just wanted something. We wanted somebody to walk up and go, ‘You know what I saw? I saw this the other day and it seemed really weird,’ and to have it matter, have it be a lead that we could chase down.’ “
He wants an answer before he retires.
"It’s frustrating, especially in a kid case," he said. "You really want justice for a child."
'IT COULD BE HER'
The initial search for the little girl, started the afternoon of her disappearance, went nowhere. Police fanned out in Tillicum and Lakewood, even diving into American Lake in response to one of numerous tips. They sought and found sex offenders in the area, interviewing them one by one. Nothing.
The first break came four months later, when two boys wandering in the Woodbrook neighborhood spotted what appeared to be a human skull, and alerted a postal carrier. The investigation reared up again. Lawler, in Bellevue at a training exercise that day, remembers a call from Zaro, who had picked up the discovery of the remains.
“He says, ‘You need to come back - it could be her,” Lawler recalled.
It was, but the discovery deepened the mystery.
The brush-covered lot was a haven for transients and drug users - a “dope dump,” Gervais called it. Investigators found traces of an old methamphetamine lab, and other rubbish linked to people who moved through it.
The jumble of evidence, plus the inevitable intrusion of animals, made sifting more difficult. Investigators were faced with information overload. They found clothing and other items - too much of it. They couldn’t be sure what was related to the murdered girl. Potential witnesses were plentiful, but not helpful.
“There was a path that would run right through the middle of this lot,” Lawler said. “Kids would take it and shortcut. She was off in that path in the sticker bushes, maybe 20, 30 feet. It’s a spot where people may not be paying attention or care, or they’re doing illegal things, so why do they want to draw attention to themselves?
'HE'S A SUSPECT'
One man looms over the case like a thundercloud: Terapon Dang Adhahn, 53, convicted murderer and serial rapist.
Police didn’t know about Adhahn at first. But In July 2007, a year and a half after Adre’anna’s disappearance, he abducted and murdered 12-year-old Zina Linnik.
After his arrest, he pointed investigators to Zina's remains, reportedly in exchange for avoiding a potential death penalty. He’s serving a life sentence at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Did Adhahn take Adre’anna in 2005? He has denied it, but his profile is hard to ignore. He had snatched an 11-year-old girl in 2000, raped her and dropped her on the side of a road near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, according to court records. Two additional convictions for rape and incest involved underaged acquaintances.
He snatched Zina in Tacoma on July 4, 2007, in what he later described as a fit of rage. He killed her, later claiming he didn’t intend to, and dumped her body in a remote area of East Pierce County.
The disclosures and fevered publicity surrounding the murder charge against Adhahn prompted Lakewood investigators to flood the Tillicum area with flyers featuring his mugshot.
The decision wasn’t random; Adhahn knew the territory and had lived in Pierce County for years. He had worked as a tow truck driver in Tillicum and Lakewood before and after Adre’anna’s disappearance, though not on that particular day, according to his employer.
“He’s a suspect, absolutely 100 percent, if you believe how rare these cases are,” Lawler said. “Actual child abduction murder is rare. What’s even rarer is a stranger.
"If we believe this is a complete stranger abduction murder, and we had somebody in our region who did one, what were the chances that he did more than one? Were there others, and was this one of them?”
In 2007, investigators also searched a house where Adhahn lived and retrieved carpet samples, hoping they would yield traces of Adre’anna.
The test results came back a decade ago, and police won’t discuss them, citing the need to protect the confidentiality of the investigation. The absence of charges against Adhahn suggests a continuing forensic gap: Investigators have samples of Adre’anna’s DNA. If the carpet samples from Adhahn’s home revealed a link, such a find would be a clincher.
Gervais wonders about Adhahn. “I would love to to look at him,” she said.
Her memories are cluttered: an attic of sadness. She is bad with names and dates, but she remembers a moment not long after her daughter’s disappearance when she saw a man driving a fancy white truck.
“Some dude one time, showed up at the intersection where I lived when I was going down the street,” she said. “He drove up and kind of pulled up to me and he had this crazy look in his eyes, and I’m going to myself, ‘Is it you?’ ‘Cause sometimes it’s a proven fact that they come back.”
Was it Adhahn? The man’s features were similar, but the moment was too fleeting. Gervais couldn’t say, even after police showed her mugshots.
For what it’s worth, Adhahn denied any involvement in Adre’anna’s death. After his conviction he refused to be interviewed by Lawler and Tacoma cold-case detectives, but he spoke to a pair of FBI agents in September 2008.
He said reports that he revealed the location of Zina’s remains to avoid a death sentence were wrong.
"That was not my choice at all," Adhahn said. "(The media) said I gave up the body so I could avoid the death sentence. I gave up the body because it was the right thing to do. I wanted the family to rest.”
Adhahn added during the interview that he wanted a death sentence because he’d taken a life. Defense attorney Michael Kawamura, who consulted with Adhahn during those negotiations in 2007, said he didn’t recall Adhahn saying he wanted to die for his crimes.
As a condition of the interview, FBI agents had agreed not to ask Adhahn about his possible ties to other cases, but the topic came up anyway. Adhahn said he was angry at Lakewood police for labeling him a suspect in Adre’anna’s disappearance, and said he had nothing to do with it.
"They crucified me in front of the public and everything," Adhahn said. "I don't have a problem admitting to any crimes. For the record there, I did not have anything to do with that. I'm already at rock bottom. For me to hide another crime is pointless."
The denial came from the mouth of a killer who could face a possible death sentence again if he admitted killing Adre’anna, but it was on the record.
“It’s possible he’s telling the truth," Zaro said. "It’s possible that he’s not telling the truth.”
It doesn’t matter much to Lakewood investigators. Lawler said Adhahn is still a suspect. Removing him from the list would be bad police work. Police haven’t ruled him out.
“I haven’t ruled him out, either,” Gervais said.
Still, the absence of direct evidence forces investigators to consider another possibility: What if Adhahn didn’t do it?
“Anything’s possible other than what we know,” Lawler said. “We only know she left for school in the morning and never came home.”
The uncharted map of possibilities leads to another maddening tip involving Spencer Douglas Grant, 56, a convicted sex offender. Grant emerged as a person of interest in the case after Adre’anna’s remains were discovered in April 2006.
A transient, Grant lived in a field near the near the vacant lot where Adre’anna’s remains were found. He told police (and journalists) that he had seen the body weeks before the two boys spotted it, and hinted he knew who killed her, though he never named names.
Grant didn’t kill Adre’anna; police ruled him out definitively after verifying he was in the Pierce County Jail when she disappeared. But his knowledge of the area and alleged sighting of her remains forced police to interview him several times. Grant’s story kept changing.
“Super frustrating,” Lawler said. “What he ended up doing was showing other people the remains. This was reported to be weeks before we found her. Did the opportunity to get more information from that site go away? It’s things like that that make the case difficult.”
Grant elaborated on his story in 2010, in a forensic psychological evaluation tied to an unrelated criminal charge for failing to register as a sex offender. The story he told has not been previously disclosed.
“Sometime in March 2006, while (Grant) was living in a field, he observed people dumping what turned out to be the body of a 12-year-old girl who went missing in December 2005. Mr. Grant disclosed that he did not want to come forward because of his history although he told everyone he knew that he had found a body (not specifically that he had actually seen the individuals disposing of the body).
“… Mr. Grant did not know who the people were that had killed or dumped the girl’s body. He explained that part of the reason he stayed hidden was because of what he had witnessed and because he feared he would be blamed. . . . He indicated he did everything to help and told others exactly where the body was but he did not wish to come forward because he was scared. He did not tell police that he had seen the people dumping the body until six months ago.”
- Forensic psychological evaluation, 9-14-10
The record of the evaluation misstates Adre’anna’s age (she was 10, not 12), but it adds new detail to the claims Grant made to News Tribune reporters in in 2006. Originally he said only that he saw the remains, not that he saw them being dumped.
Lawler confirmed that investigators spoke to Grant about those allegations in early 2010.
“Spencer Grant was at times uncooperative and then semi-cooperative,” Lawler said. “He would say he knew something, but then not give details. He was involved in narcotics and often times changed his story or theories. Nothing he gave us was ever worth anything.
“He did try to tell us he saw her being dumped, but he had no specifics about what he saw and had trouble recollecting the incident. A big question we had for him that he couldn’t answer was why he didn’t call right away if he saw her body being dumped. It didn’t lead us anywhere because there was nothing to follow up on and he had proved to be unreliable in the past.”
'A LOT OF THINGS WOULD HELP US'
Another lead, another rabbit hole. Such moments thread through the history of the case. Lawler has handled some of them, including a persistent tipster from California who contends a sex offender who lived in the Lakewood area at the time might be a suspect. Lawler said the information went nowhere.
A separate tip involved a man who lived in a trailer near the dump site. By the time investigators ran it down, the man had died, and the trailer had been removed and scrapped.
“We missed talking to him by about a month,” Lawler said. “That was the kind of luck that we had along the way.”
One key question lingers at the edge of the case: When did Adre’anna’s killer bring her body to the vacant lot?
In the hours after her disappearance, police launched a massive search in and around Tillicum. They also combed the Woodbrook area, not far from the vacant lot. Vague tips, never fully confirmed, suggested Adre’anna might have been seen with friends near Woodbrook Middle School, only a few blocks from the dump site.
Bloodhounds sniffed the perimeter of 146th Southwest, along the edges of the bramble-choked thicket, but did not enter it. Searchers riding ATVs also bumped through the area and found nothing.
After Adre’anna’s remains were discovered the following April, Chief Saunders acknowledged that the searchers hadn’t pushed into the precise spot where the remains were found - but that left room for an unanswered question: What if the body wasn’t there yet?
If dogs didn’t catch a scent, if a helicopter flying overhead spotted no heat signatures, one reasonable conclusion held that Adre’anna’s killer was waiting: waiting for the tumult to subside.
The prospect nags at Lawler.
“There was an extensive police presence and search and rescue presence,” he said. “What we’re wondering is, did the person have her, already either deceased or being held against her will? He had nowhere to take her until this all calmed down, and then she was dumped. That could have been a several-day thing, but who knows? We know beyond the search we did, she could have showed up any time after that.”
While Lawler ponders all sorts of scenarios, his instincts lead him toward a broad but straightforward theory: the girl did not know her abductor, she was taken on the Tillicum side of the freeway, held for a time, killed and transported to the thicket at some later point.
Another prospect worries him. Perhaps the killer is dead. Lawler doesn’t like to think about it, but the idea can’t be wished away: a man, still unidentified, perhaps in his 50s in 2005, perhaps connected to the site where the transients huddled, in poor health.
Asked what would help solve the case, he sums it up. He doesn’t expect it to come from forensics or some scrap of clothing, or a sudden memory tied to the day of the disappearance. It’s more likely to be a human source, someone with specific knowledge.
“A lot of things would actually help us,” he said. “If somebody’s still talking about this and has been talking about it. Or if somebody overheard a friend say something that’s kind of weird. We love stuff like that.
“To solve this case somebody’s either gonna have to walk up and confess, or somebody’s gonna have to tell us, ‘I think I know who did this and here’s why,’ and it actually pans out. Those kinds of things happen all the time. Some people can’t keep their mouths shut or they can’t live with it, and they start talking about it.”
For Gervais, the past is a blur. Too many names and faces crowd her memory. She wants to thank them all: the volunteers who joined the search, the community leaders who knew her daughter, the strangers who sent letters.
Maybe an answer will come. She hopes for it, and knows it might not.
A few years ago, she moved from the Tillicum apartment where her lost daughter grew and played. She and Federici live in Lakewood now, in another quiet apartment complex. The grass grows in the courtyard, and the flowers are beginning to bloom - flowers like those she and her little girl used to plant every spring.
“She was my gardener buddy,” Gervais said, with a faint smile.