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Nancy's Day

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"I'm so deeply sorry," said Steven Daniel Hash, the thin, soft-spoken man in the orange jump suit, his words barely audible to the woman sitting nearby. Nancy Huntzinger stared back, dark eyes glistening, chin quivering -- a mother in angry mourning. I did what any good friend would do; I held her hand.

Eighteen years ago, Nancy had lost a son, 14-year-old Curtis, in Blue Lake. Someone had crushed his head with a barbell and dumped his body in the woods, a secret the killer had kept until now. There were times when it seemed that only two creatures were haunted by that night, Nancy and the killer.

Over time, the town's lawmen -- some good, some bad -- had promised to find Curtis, or at least learn his fate. Though no one said so, he fit the profile of a runaway, a restless teen in a small town, hardly the kind of story that titillates those cable news networks. You need a missing blond, blue-eyed toddler to do that. Nancy was left with rumors, suspicions and a single color photo of Curtis. And she had my phone number.

I was a new North Coast TV reporter when I first heard about Curtis. The town's police chief had asked to be interviewed for our 6 o'clock newscast. You didn't need a college degree to write this one: "... And anyone with information is asked to call Blue Lake Police." We'd written hundreds of tag-lines like that and we'll write a hundred more. But most of us move on to other stories or other jobs.

I might have forgotten about Curtis too if it hadn't been for Nancy, calling me at home or work, whenever she needed. I always took her calls. "It's been another year since Curtis has been gone," she would say each May. "Can we do a story?" Each time, I would drive to Blue Lake thinking of new
ways to tell the same story. Any grizzled news director would have said, "Give me the new angle. The hook." But how do you put a catchy lead-line on a sad and lonely mother?

Nancy had one friend I knew about, Carole Carrington, mother of another murder victim. Her daughter, granddaughter and family friend had been murdered in Yosemite. They met when the Carrington's offered reward money to help find Curtis. But the money went unclaimed, the mystery unsolved.

When next I heard from Nancy, she'd been peppering DA Paul Gallegos with phone calls. And he was not returning them. How, she wanted to know, could she trust the system if it couldn't or wouldn't talk to her? Good point. And so, when he returned my call -- I'm a reporter, you know -- I forwarded her concerns. He finally called her to say he was doing everything he could. That's all she needed to know.

I'd also come to know Wayne Cox, a spring-loaded Eureka motorcycle cop who could bag speeders with the best of them. Cox may have cared about Curtis too, but it wasn't his job to find him, not until he became a DA investigator and not until Blue Lake's own police department finally imploded under Chief Dave Gundersen. Cox saw a possibility to solve the Huntzinger case and sometimes would discuss his progress "off-the-record." That part was easy; we didn't have a newscast anyway. Who was I going to tell?

Cox would confide in me that he knew of a suspect, a truck driver with a potentially guilty conscience. Cox knew that a confession would be the only way to close the case. Armed with evidence, he and partner Mike Hislop confronted Stephen Hash, then living in Sebastapol. Within days, Hash was leading them to the spot where Curtis had been buried, there finding his remains entwined in tree-roots. Without Wayne Cox, Nancy's day in court might never have happened.

In Judge Timothy Cissna's courtoom, I sat with Nancy and held her hand. She cried when the judge accepted Hash's plea: guilty of voluntary manslaughter. He was accepting an 11-year-sentence, though by law he could be free before then. Case resolved, except for the spoken word, Hash's last chance to speak to Nancy and her to him. To a victim's family, it's supposed to bring "closure," a meaningless word to a grieving mother. Just ask Carole Carrington.

All along, Nancy had been her family's only consistent and stubborn voice. Surviving cancer, divorced, homeless and eking out a living as a school custodian, she had still put Curtis first, mother watching over child. And now, with her children scattered and the one son with her declining to speak, it was up to Nancy alone to say something to Steven Hash. It had always been up to Nancy to do what others could not. "Thanks for giving me my son back," she whispered to Hash as she quickly sat down, unable to say anymore.

In his rambling response, Hash said he had been tortured by guilt, though he never explained why he had not confessed sooner. He even complimented police for doing an excellent job finding him. In taking away her son, he had also taken her life. Then he called Nancy an "angel," bound in the "next life" to watch over her children. "I love you," he said to her finally.

"Go to hell," muttered Nancy before Hash was led away.

"You are an angel," I told her as the courtroom cleared.

"No I'm not," she said, gathering her things. The coroner was about to release Curtis' body, and Nancy is hoping she'll find the money for his cremation. But knowing Nancy, it will be hard for her to accept resolution, and too easy for us to turn the page and move on. I never will, and she won't either.

Reporters are supposed to recuse themselves from stories they come to know so well, the paradox of journalism in a small town. But every journalist should allow himself to be human and to marvel over a mother's love. Besides, you can't say "no" to Nancy.

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