The Girl in the Picture

The Girl in the Picture

A sketch artist and a grieving mother set out to solve a cold case. The more they dug, the more terrifying the truth became.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 118


PART ONE

For most residents of Holland, Michigan, there was nothing remarkable about March 11, 1989, a Saturday. Frost on the ladders of the city’s water towers thawed in the sun—spring was just over a week away. Mothers poured milk over cereal for kids watching back-to-back episodes of their favorite cartoons. Fathers who worked weekends drove pickup trucks to industrial jobs at local automotive and concrete companies.

But all was not well in the house on the corner of Lincoln Road and 52nd Street. It belonged to Dennis and Brenda Bowman, a married couple with two children. For the Bowmans, March 11 marked the last time they saw their 14-year-old daughter, Aundria, alive.

Dennis was the one who contacted the police. He told them that he’d come home from his job as a wood machinist to find Aundria missing, along with some of her belongings and $100 from his dresser. Dennis described Aundria—whom he and Brenda had adopted when she was an infant—as a troubled teenager who frequently fought with her mother and had run away to a friend’s house once before.

Dennis agreed to call around to the homes of kids Aundria knew to find out if anyone had seen her. But his wife soon took over as the family’s point of contact. It was Brenda who called the police regularly, and Brenda who corrected the amount of cash missing from her husband’s dresser to $150. That was enough for police to issue a warrant for Aundria’s arrest for larceny; the warrant listed Dennis as the victim of his daughter’s alleged crime.

With no foul play suspected, the police labeled Aundria a runaway and passed her case along to the Youth Services Bureau. Few people who knew the Bowmans questioned the official narrative. Over the years, there had been whispers about the family. Once, when Aundria was in middle school, she boarded the school bus bleeding from her wrist. Some kids gossiped about a suicide attempt, but others said Aundria had cut herself trying to get back into her house after her parents locked her out. There were rumors that Dennis, a former Navy reservist with reddish-brown hair, a goatee, and wire-rimmed glasses, and Brenda, a portly woman with curled bangs who’d once worked at the jewelry counter at Meijer department store, abused Aundria. But back then, what happened behind closed doors was considered family business.

Fifteen months before Aundria disappeared, Brenda gave birth to a daughter, Vanessa. Aundria went from being an only child to more than a big sister—she was a third parent to the chubby, redheaded baby. While other kids her age went to afterschool clubs and Friday night football games, Aundria stayed home changing diapers and cleaning bottles. She kept a photo of her sister in a school folder, where other teens might stash a magazine cutout or a polaroid of their crush. When she wasn’t with Vanessa, Aundria was anxious about the baby’s well-being.

Many people in Holland assumed that Aundria had gotten so fed up with her home life that she finally split. Maybe she’d gone looking for her birth mother. People heard that she’d hitched a ride at a local truck stop, had left town with an older boy, or was pregnant.

Brenda reported a series of tips in the weeks and months following her daughter’s disappearance, all of which seemed to confirm that Aundria had run away. At the end of March, Brenda claimed Aundria had been spotted at a 7-Eleven. In mid-April, Brenda said she received an anonymous call from someone claiming that police were looking for the teenager in the right area, but on the wrong street—whatever that meant. In June, she reported a sighting at a local property, where Aundria had supposedly been hanging out with a group of young men. And in October, Brenda said a friend had seen Aundria, pregnant and with dyed hair, in a line at Meijer. Police investigated but found nothing.

Aundria’s classmates went to prom and graduated, then got jobs or headed to college. Eventually they married and had children of their own. But Aundria remained forever 14. A single photograph formed most people’s memory of her. It was given to police when she first vanished. In it, Aundria is sitting against a blue studio backdrop and looking just off camera, with her green eyes cast hopefully upward and pieces of her dark, shaggy hair hanging over her forehead. Her smile is charmingly off-balanced. She looks suspended between adolescence and adulthood.

Photos of missing children were often printed on the sides of milk cartons or on flyers taped to the top of pizza delivery boxes. Aundria’s picture wound up somewhere else. In 1993, the band Soul Asylum debuted a music video for its song “Runaway Train,” featuring the images and names of missing kids across America. The video was a huge hit, with several versions airing on MTV and VH1. In the one that played in Michigan, Aundria’s photo appears just after the two-minute mark.

Reflecting on the video 20 years after its release, director Tony Kaye claimed that more than two dozen missing children were found because of the video. Aundria Bowman wasn’t one of them.

Back then, what happened behind closed doors was considered family business.

Carl Koppelman never expected to solve mysteries. He worked as an accountant until 2009, when his mother’s health began to decline. At 46, Koppelman became a full-time caregiver, and his days, once filled with reviews of spreadsheets and financial statements, now revolved around driving to doctor’s appointments and administering medications. When he wasn’t tending to his mother, Koppelman was online, exploring message boards, news sites, and social media. At the time, the story dominating headlines, and bordering on popular obsession, was the return of Jaycee Dugard.

In 1991, Dugard had been kidnapped while walking to a bus stop near her home south of Lake Tahoe, California. The blond, freckled 11-year-old was the subject of a nationwide search, but eventually the case went cold. Then, on August 26, 2009, Dugard reappeared. For 18 years, convicted sex offender Philip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, had held her captive at their home in the town of Antioch, more than 150 miles from where they’d kidnapped her. Dugard had given birth to two of Garrido’s daughters, who were now 11 and 15. To the embarrassment of local authorities, parole officers had visited the Garridos’ home several times during the years Dugard was missing. They’d failed to check the backyard, where the young woman was kept in a network of tents, lean-tos, and sheds.

Koppelman’s interest in the Dugard case led him to Websleuths, a forum where crime hobbyists and armchair detectives connect and collaborate on unsolved cases. Koppelman gravitated to posts about cold cases, the ones least likely to ever be solved. Until recently, Dugard’s had been one of them. How many more would benefit from fresh eyes and a little persistence?

Koppelman spent countless hours scrolling through the national database of missing persons and unidentified bodies, known as NamUs. There’s overlap between the two main parts of the database, the disappeared and the deceased—the trick is finding it. During late nights at his computer, in a dimly lit corner of his mother’s suburban home in El Segundo, California, Koppelman would try to match the characteristics of people who had gone missing with those of the unidentified dead. Finding a likeness could be enough to generate a tip for law enforcement.

When Koppelman noticed that the age and condition of some bodies might make it difficult for loved ones to recognize them, it sparked an idea: Koppelman liked to draw portraits for fun, and he was pretty good at it. He also had a CD-ROM of the image-editing software CorelDRAW, which someone had given to him as a gift. One day, with his mother napping in the next room, Koppelman installed the program on his computer. It was his first step toward becoming a forensic sketch artist.

He started creating lifelike renderings of Jane and John Does based on photos taken postmortem. He used CorelDRAW to open eyes, fill in sunken cheeks, and give faces more dynamic expressions. In complicated cases, where bodies had decomposed, he re-created facial structure. The goal was to make the dead more recognizable—to loved ones searching for them, and to police trying to identify them. Once he finished a rendering Koppelman sent it to NamUs, and the database would sometimes publish it. He also posted his work on Websleuths so other armchair detectives could use it in their identification efforts.

Eventually, Koppelman began working with police departments and the DNA Doe Project, which identifies human remains through genetic testing and genealogical research. Glad to help law enforcement generate leads and, in some instances, put a name to a face, Koppelman was almost always an unpaid volunteer. His renderings were instrumental in solving several cold cases, including the identification of the Caledonia “Cali” Jane Doe (Tammy Jo Alexander) in 2015.

But before all that, in 2009, when he was just starting out as an amateur sleuth, Koppelman got interested in the case of the Racine County Jane Doe. When she was found near the edge of a Wisconsin cornfield in 1999, the young woman had only been dead about 12 hours, but rain had washed away any evidence that might have been useful to investigators. It seemed likely that the young woman had been murdered elsewhere and dumped. An autopsy determined that she may have been cognitively disabled, and that she had suffered long-term abuse and neglect: She had broken bones and a cauliflower ear, and her body showed signs of sexual assault. More than 50 people from the farming community where she was found attended her funeral. But no one knew her name or what had happened to her. Her gravestone read “Gone, But Not Forgotten”—a hope more than a description.

Koppelman read everything he could find about the Racine County Jane Doe, combing through news articles and social media. He learned that she had hazel-green eyes, two piercings in each ear, and short reddish-brown hair. She was five-foot-eight and 120 pounds, and estimated to be between 18 and 30 years old. She was found wearing a men’s gray and silver western-style shirt embroidered with red flowers—a design, the manufacturer told police, from the mid-1980s.

On NamUs, Koppelman plugged in some general search criteria—gender, age, location—and clicked through the results for missing persons. With each one, Koppelman asked himself, Could this be her? In most cases, the answer was a clear no. The age didn’t match, or the location made no sense. But one entry gave Koppelman pause: Aundria Bowman.

Aundria and the Racine County Jane Doe shared physical characteristics, and their ages aligned: Aundria would have been 25 in 1999, when the Jane Doe was killed. Holland, where Aundria disappeared, sits directly across Lake Michigan from where the Jane Doe was found—it’s just four hours by car from one location to the other, tracing the lake’s southern shoreline and passing through Chicago. To test the possible identification, Koppelman created a composite image, superimposing Aundria’s photo with ones from the Jane Doe’s autopsy. He marked the similarities in red.

Koppelman took his theory to law enforcement, who found it compelling enough to investigate. To determine whether the Jane Doe was Aundria, police would need to compare DNA from the body with that of someone in Aundria’s family. Because Aundria was adopted, authorities had to track down her birth mother. Koppelman knew that could take a while, or that it might never happen, forcing investigators to find other avenues for identification.

As the police did their part, Koppelman kept poking around online, learning what he could about Aundria. One day at the end of 2012, he came across a Classmates.com page for Aundria—the premium kind you have to pay to keep active, in order to connect directly with former school acquaintances. Was this Aundria, alive and well, and trying to find old friends? And if it wasn’t her, who was it?

No one knew her name or what had happened to her. Her gravestone read “Gone, But Not Forgotten”—a hope more than a description.

Cathy Terkanian’s life story seems ripped from the plot of a made-for-TV movie. Her mother, Shirley, had six children with three men. Terkanian’s stepfather was in the Navy, and the family moved seven times before she started the seventh grade. The stepfather was deployed for long stretches, and Terkanian’s mother was overwhelmed by the demands of taking care of so many kids, including one who had epilepsy. With no one looking after her, Terkanian was molested at the age of ten by the husband of one of her mother’s friends, then raped at twelve by a teenager. She knew she had to escape her existence, so she started to make a plan.

In 1972, Terkanian left Virginia, where her family was living at the time, with no clothes except what she was wearing and without saying goodbye. She was 14 and had no money. She hitchhiked to Tennessee, where she met up with a friend in Memphis, and then went to the city’s Greyhound bus station. She didn’t have a destination in mind, but noticed another traveler wearing colorful beads who mentioned a party down in New Orleans called Mardi Gras. The next day, Terkanian arrived in the Big Easy, where jazz music reverberated through the French Quarter and people laughed and sang jubilantly in the streets.

In the midst of the counterculture movement of the 1970s, Terkanian wasn’t the only runaway teen in New Orleans. She met a network of young people who helped each other out, offering a place to crash, a job, and tips and tricks for staying off the street. Through this group she met Randy Badger, a 19-year-old who’d recently hitchhiked to Louisiana from Los Angeles. Before long they found a place to stay and were doing everything together. They even got joint work at a circus sideshow. For the first time, Terkanian was living her life how she wanted to.

In December 1972, Terkanian and Badger traveled to South Carolina, where it was legal for a minor to get married if they had parental permission. Terkanian’s parents gave it gladly—in fact, they insisted on the union. Shirley didn’t want to be the person police called if her daughter was in trouble. Terkanian’s stepfather signed the necessary paperwork.

The couple were married less than a year when Terkanian found out she was pregnant. It was unexpected news, but also another step toward independence. Terkanian wanted to do better by her baby than her mother had done by her. On June 23, 1974, Terkanian gave birth to a healthy daughter. She named her Alexis, after the actress Alexis Smith.

Her relationship with Badger soon went downhill. While Terkanian balanced work with caring for Alexis, her husband seemed more interested in partying with friends, including other women. The final straw came when Alexis was five months old: Terkanian returned home from a shift to find Badger kissing another woman on the couch, while Alexis was alone in the back room, crying, without a diaper on. Terkanian decided to leave, but she had to think about Alexis, too. What would be best for her daughter? Terkanian resigned herself to what she considered her only option. She went home to Virginia.

During the five-day Greyhound ride, Alexis barely cried. Passengers complimented Terkanian, welcome encouragement for the now single teen mom. But whatever confidence Terkanian felt vanished when she arrived in Norfolk and her mother picked her up at the station. Shirley didn’t throw her arms around her daughter or plant kisses on Alexis’s plump cheeks. Instead, she looked the pair up and down and puckered her face in judgement.

It turned out that Shirley had been diagnosed with breast cancer and given just five years to live. Terkanian quickly realized that her mother expected her to care for her siblings. And while Shirley never said it outright, it was clear she didn’t think Terkanian should have a child of her own. One day, casually, Shirley said, “You ran out of formula. How are you gonna take care of this kid?” A seed was planted, and from it Terkanian’s doubt grew. She increasingly felt like she couldn’t give Alexis the life her daughter deserved.

Terkanian agreed to give her baby up for adoption. Shirley handled the logistics, assuring Terkanian that Alexis would be taken in by a good family through Catholic Charities. Shortly after the adoption was finalized, Terkanian left home again. This time, the teenager hoped, things would be different.

“You ran out of formula. How are you gonna take care of this kid?”

Terkanian eventually went to nursing school and met her current husband. They never started a family of their own. For more than 30 years, she didn’t have any idea what had become of her daughter. Terkanian, with blond hair and a confident smile, sometimes wondered if Alexis looked like her. She hoped her daughter was happy, and that Alexis’s adoptive parents knew how lucky they were.

Then, in April 2010, a letter arrived at Terkanian’s home in Massachusetts that upended her life. It was from a social worker, who explained that Alexis had disappeared from her adoptive home in Michigan in 1989. Police were investigating a new lead in the case—that Alexis might be a Jane Doe found in Wisconsin. A dead girl. Police needed a sample of Terkanian’s DNA to know for sure.

Terkanian was perplexed by how little information the letter provided. It didn’t include Alexis’s adoptive name or the city where she’d lived. Nor did it offer contact information for police or any details about Alexis’s disappearance when she was 14—the same age Terkanian had been when she ran away from home. Terkanian was willing to share her DNA, but she wanted to know more about what had happened to her daughter.

She searched online for information about missing girls in Michigan. It didn’t take long to find one from the town of Holland whose birthday and physical description matched Alexis’s. When she saw the girl’s school photo, Terkanian thought Aundria Bowman could be her daughter.

Eventually, Terkanian would learn that, as a baby, Alexis had wound up in the hands of Virginia’s Department of Social Services. Someone, possibly Shirley, had reported that Alexis was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and that Terkanian had taken LSD during the pregnancy—both lies, Terkanian insisted. The life she’d imagined Alexis would have crumbled in her mind. Desperate to know the truth, Terkanian set up a Facebook page about Aundria’s disappearance, as well as a Classmates.com account in Aundria’s name. She was hoping to connect with her daughter’s old friends. Instead, she found Carl Koppelman.

Terkanian and Koppelman began exchanging messages, which led to a series of long phone conversations. Terkanian also met other online sleuths interested in Aundria’s case, including a woman in New Jersey named Sue Kovacs, who helped Terkanian revamp the Find Aundria Facebook page and expand its reach. Everyone waited for the results of Terkanian’s DNA test, to see if there was a match with the Racine County Jane Doe.

But for the people invested in the case, determining whether Aundria’s body had been found was just one piece of the puzzle. If Aundria was indeed dead, how had it happened? If she’d been killed, who was responsible? Terkanian got in touch with a retired Michigan detective familiar with Aundria’s case, a man named Pat O’Reilly. His frankness surprised her. “They botched this case from the beginning,” Terkanian remembered him saying. (O’Reilly didn’t respond to an interview request.)

According to O’Reilly, the person Terkanian needed to be looking at was Aundria’s adoptive father, Dennis Bowman.

PART TWO

On a sunny morning in May 1980, a 19-year-old woman was riding her bike north of Holland, Michigan, when a motorcyclist forced her off the road. The man told her to get off her bike and walk into the woods. The young woman didn’t move. All she needed was a moment—to think, to distract him, to do something. The man pulled out a gun, fired a shot past her, and repeated the order. Still she didn’t budge. The man fired the gun again, this time at the ground near her feet. He said he would shoot her next.

Just then a car drove by and the motorcyclist turned his head at the noise. The young woman took the opportunity to pedal away as fast as she could. The man didn’t shoot or give chase, and she was able to flag down someone in a pickup truck who drove her home. Her parents called the police, and the young woman provided a description of the suspect: a white male with tinted glasses and a blue helmet. His motorcycle, she said, had a black top case mounted on the back.

By the end of the day, the police had detained a suspect. The young woman took one look at him and confirmed that he was the man who’d tried to attack her. It was Dennis Bowman, who by then was already a husband and father. At the time, Aundria was almost six years old.

Dennis was convicted of assault with intent to commit criminal sexual conduct and sentenced to five to ten years in prison. He was referred for psychological counseling, and a judge determined that he would likely pose a danger to women if he went free. Still, Dennis served the minimum sentence.

Brenda stood by her husband then, and she did so again in 1998. One day that year, a state trooper in Dorr, Michigan, responded to an alarm at the mobile home of 28-year-old Vicki Vanden Brink. She’d reported so many break-ins that the sheriff’s department had installed a security system. When the trooper arrived at the scene, he found Dennis Bowman walking away from the back door. The Bowmans had moved to Hamilton, a town nestled between Holland and Dorr, in 1989, shortly after Aundria’s disappearance, and Dennis told the officer that he was temporarily staying with Vanden Brink, who was a former co-worker of his. He was let go, but when authorities got in touch with Vanden Brink, who wasn’t home when the alarm went off, she said Dennis was lying.

Dennis then changed his story, telling law enforcement that he’d entered the trailer to use the bathroom. He’d been there at least once before, he claimed, when his daughter Vanessa wanted to sell Girl Scout cookies to Vanden Brink. Skeptical, the police obtained Dennis’s permission to search his property. In the loft of an outbuilding, they found a black duffel bag containing lingerie that was later identified as Vanden Brink’s, as well as a short-barreled shotgun, a black sweatshirt, and a mask.

Dennis pled guilty to one count of breaking and entering. His sentencing memo, written by his attorney, doesn’t mention his 1980 conviction or the prior break-ins that Vanden Brink had reported, which police believed Dennis was responsible for. Dennis’s lawyer presented letters written on his client’s behalf by various people: the counselor who ran Dennis’s sex offender group-treatment program, the principal of Vanessa’s elementary school, Dennis’s boss, and a congregant at Christ Memorial Church, who noted that Dennis had taught Sunday School to kindergartners for the past six years. The court also received a letter from Brenda, who defended her husband, and from Dennis himself, who wrote of his behavior, “Sometimes we don’t realize a problem until it confronts us face to face.”

Dennis described himself as happily married for 28 years. He said that he had two daughters, one 25 and the other 11. He didn’t mention that the older one had been missing for more than a decade. 

Cathy Terkanian learned the details of Dennis Bowman’s criminal record after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request. Based on what detective Pat O’Reilly had told her, it had seemed logical to dig into Bowman’s past. Reading for the first time about what Bowman had done to two young women, Terkanian felt a terrible certainty: “When I got his FOIA records I said, ‘Oh, this man killed my daughter.’”

If Terkanian was right, it would mean that the Racine County Jane Doe wasn’t Aundria—that theory made sense only if Aundria were still alive ten years after she disappeared. In 2013, the long-awaited DNA results confirmed it: Terkanian wasn’t related to the Jane Doe. She and Koppelman, along with the other amateur sleuths interested in Aundria’s story, had thought they were connecting the dots in a single cold case when all along they’d been looking at two.

Koppelman and Terkanian were equally yet uniquely obsessive in their approach to detective work: He was thorough and precise, while she was impassioned and incendiary. As Koppelman calculated the next steps in their investigation, Terkanian was too angry to keep silent. The way she saw it, Bowman needed to be behind bars. With his criminal record in hand, she began writing Facebook posts accusing Bowman of being responsible for Aundria’s disappearance. She also assembled a rolodex of people who’d known her daughter: Russ Foster, who briefly dated Aundria in high school; Linda Berens, the mother of a classmate; Eli Ramos, who rode the school bus with Aundria; and a couple named the Shaffers, who’d grown up with Dennis and Brenda in Muskegon, Michigan, and whose daughter, Mindi, remembered seeing Aundria in the “Runaway Train” video. Terkanian learned about Aundria’s difficult home life and her anxiety about caring for her baby sister.

In September 2013, Terkanian and Koppelman met in person at the Missing in Michigan conference. Organized by state police, the conference was designed to raise awareness about and hopefully generate leads in cold cases. Family members and friends of missing persons gathered one Sunday at the Eagle Eye Golf Club in East Lansing, their nervous whispers filling a banquet hall overlooking a green. The schedule included panels, support groups, and even DNA collection, so police could look for matches between families and unidentified remains. Terkanian and Koppelman showed up in custom shirts that read “Find Aundria Bowman.”

The day kicked off with an early-morning group therapy session. Terkanian and Koppelman took their seats in a large circle and listened as people introduced themselves. Koppelman scanned the room and was surprised when his eyes landed on familiar faces. He nudged Terkanian, and she looked over. “That’s Vanessa,” she said, “and that’s Brenda.

Brenda and Vanessa recognized Terkanian, too—the Bowmans were aware of what Terkanian had been saying about Dennis on Facebook. When it was Brenda’s turn to introduce herself, she told the room, “We have a little situation here.” Looking at Terkanian, she added, “I can see that you very much resemble Aundria.”

Brenda tried to keep talking, but Terkanian didn’t let her. She’d lain awake so many nights, furious that her daughter’s adoptive mother hadn’t protected her. “Tell them the truth, Brenda,” Terkanian blurted out. “Tell them about your husband.” The session descended into a dramatic exchange before finally getting back on track.

Afterward, Terkanian hung back as Koppelman approached Brenda, insisting that he only wanted to talk. Though flustered, Brenda seemed eager to explain her side of the story. She insisted that she and Dennis had fully cooperated with police after Aundria’s disappearance. She presented a binder full of notes and missing person fliers as proof. She recounted sightings of Aundria. It was clear she still believed that the teenager had run away. According to Koppelman, when he brought up Dennis’s criminal record, Brenda replied, “I haven’t forgotten what he did. But I do forgive him. I take my marriage vows very seriously.” Koppelman thought her words sounded rehearsed but not disingenuous.

Terkanian had been biting her tongue while Brenda and Koppelman spoke, but now she exploded. “Tell us how you abused, starved, and humiliated her, Brenda!” she yelled. Vanessa, reacting to the verbal attack on her mother, had to be held back by a male attendee. “You need to be put in a fucking insane asylum,” Koppelman remembered Vanessa saying to Terkanian. The Bowmans and Terkanian avoided each other for the rest of the day. (Brenda and Vanessa Bowman didn’t respond to interview requests.)

After the conference, Koppelman and Terkanian returned to their respective homes on the East and West Coasts, but they’d already decided they needed someone on the ground in Michigan—a private investigator to keep working Aundria’s case closer to where she’d gone missing. Terkanian hired Geoffrey Flohr, a former Michigan state trooper who’d helped solve a 1979 gang rape and murder that happened in Holland. Flohr soon managed to get his hands on Aundria’s police file, which Terkanian and Koppelman had never seen. Oddly, the earliest documents in it weren’t from March 1989, when Aundria disappeared—they were dated four months earlier.

That was when police responded to allegations of abuse in the Bowman home. The report didn’t go into detail about what happened, noting only that local authorities had determined the allegations weren’t true. But if one thing was consistent in Aundria’s case, it was carelessness. Koppelman and Terkanian were sure law enforcement had missed something. They went looking for people who could fill in the blanks.

The amateur sleuths had thought they were connecting the dots in a single cold case when all along they’d been looking at two.

Jennifer Jones became friends with Aundria in middle school band, where they both played in the wind section. They remained close during their freshman year of high school. One Tuesday afternoon, Aundria came home with Jones, but when it was time to leave, she said she didn’t want to go. According to Jones, Aundria said that her father was sexually abusing her. Jones’s mother let her stay the night, and the next day took her to the principal’s office, where Aundria repeated the accusation to school officials. Jones was sent to class and assured that the adults would handle the situation. Aundria wasn’t at school the rest of the day, and Jones assumed that she was in protective custody. Later she learned that Aundria had gone home with her parents.

Around the time Aundria confided in Jones and her mother, she also spoke to Arlene Rahn, another local mom. Aundria befriended Rahn’s sons through their church’s youth group and had started hanging out at their house; Rahn assumed Aundria had a crush on one of the boys. Eventually Aundria told Rahn that her father was abusing her. She also said that Brenda knew and didn’t care. Rahn was hesitant to get involved; she told Aundria to talk to her youth pastor. Then, one evening as Rahn pulled into the Bowmans’ driveway to drop Aundria off, Dennis appeared and told Rahn to stay out of his business. “It just made me so uncomfortable,” she later said. Rahn never reported the incident to authorities. Within a few months, Aundria was gone.

There were other red flags. The Shaffers—the couple who’d grown up with the Bowmans in Muskegon—knew about Dennis’s criminal record and recalled him bragging about sexual conquests as early as high school. They’d always felt uneasy about him, and they kept a watchful eye over their own daughter when he was around. The Shaffers ultimately ended their friendship with the Bowmans after Aundria went missing. When their daughter, Mindi, found the Facebook page for Aundria, she said her parents had never been contacted by the police about the case. In fact, it wasn’t until Koppelman and Terkanian connected with them on Facebook that the couple spoke to anyone about their suspicions. 

Facebook turned up another source, one who believed that Dennis Bowman’s criminal behavior had persisted between his convictions in 1980 and 1998. (At her request, The Atavist is using a pseudonym to protect the source’s privacy.) When Melissa found the Find Aundria page, she sent a message to the administrators describing what had happened to her on a bright September afternoon in 1989, when she was six. As she was walking to a friend’s house, she was flagged down by a man in a truck who promised to take her to see some puppies. He told her that her mother said it was OK and pulled Melissa into the cab. As he drove, the man stroked her face. Melissa’s stomach churned. “Is that it?” she asked again and again, pointing to each barn and turnoff they passed, hoping that was where the puppies would be.

Eventually, the driver pulled into a rural area near the town of Hamilton. The man parked the truck, grabbed Melissa by the neck, and dragged her into a thicket. He ripped off her blue sweater, printed with the words “Young at Heart,” and wrapped it around her mouth. He tied her hands behind her back with a length of rope and removed the rest of her clothes. Then, as the attacker knelt over Melissa and unzipped his pants, he startled at the sound of barking dogs nearby. The man ran off, leaving Melissa alone. She walked naked and barefoot to the main road. Two cars pulled over, and someone called 911.

The police visited Melissa’s home that night, and a sketch artist created a rendering of the perpetrator and his vehicle—a red pickup truck with a white cab. But a suspect was never found, the case went cold, and the statute of limitations eventually expired. As she got older, what bothered Melissa most was that the man who’d attacked her was still out there and could be hurting other girls. She kept tabs on local news articles, police statements, and social media posts, looking for any stories like hers. But it wasn’t until she stumbled upon the Find Aundria Facebook page that Melissa believed she could finally name the man who’d lured her into the truck: Dennis Bowman.

Terkanian and Koppelman were now convinced that Dennis Bowman was a serial predator who had killed Aundria and covered it up by claiming that she’d run away. “By 2016,” Terkanian said, “I was screaming from the tops of Facebook that he had my daughter buried in his backyard.” But any evidence remained circumstantial at best. There was no proof Aundria was dead, let alone murdered. And nothing tied Bowman to other unsolved criminal cases, including Melissa’s abduction.

Between 2013 and 2017, Terkanian and Koppelman met in Michigan four times. While there, they occasionally caught up with Chris Haverdink, the detective who’d taken over Aundria’s case. Usually, they met him on the patio of Googs Pub & Grub, a local haunt next to the Days Inn where Melissa worked and helped Terkanian and Koppelman get discounted rooms. Haverdink agreed that Bowman was suspicious, but that wasn’t enough to arrest him.

Terkanian and Koppelman visited Michigan for the last time in May 2017. It was becoming clear that they’d gotten as far as they could on their own; a break in the case would almost certainly have to come from law enforcement, a witness, or Bowman himself. Before flying home, Terkanian and Koppelman sat in their rental car outside the Bowmans’ house in Hamilton. After years of examining Google street maps and satellite images, Terkanian had zeroed in on a concrete slab at the back of the property. She was convinced Bowman had buried her daughter underneath it.

She stared at the house until the last possible minute, when Koppelman insisted they’d miss their flights if they didn’t leave. “She was just sitting there with these binoculars,” Koppelman said, “like she knew that’s where Aundria was.”

PART THREE

Peggy Johnson was never reported missing. She was last seen at a homecoming dance in Harvard, Illinois, in 1994, and most people who knew her assumed she’d run away. An aunt worried enough to take out a classified ad in the paper. But nobody seemed to suspect that something terrible might have happened to the auburn-haired girl.

Johnson disappeared shortly after the death of her mother, the sole parent in her low-income household. The 19-year-old found herself orphaned and homeless, with a developmental disability that made it difficult for her to get a job. By chance she met a nurse named Linda La Roche who offered her work as a live-in housekeeper and nanny to her children. The teenager jumped at the opportunity.

Over the next five years, La Roche abused Johnson, beating her, starving her, and forcing her to live in a crawl space. The violence culminated in 1999, when La Roche allegedly murdered the 23-year-old. When Johnson’s body was found dumped in Raymond, Wisconsin, the cause of death was determined to be sepsis resulting from pneumonia; an autopsy also revealed decaying teeth, broken ribs, evidence of sexual assault, and a cauliflower ear deformity. No one could identify her, so she became known by the place where she was found: She was the Racine County Jane Doe.

Twenty years after Johnson’s death, Wisconsin police received a tip from a concerned citizen about a nurse who’d confessed to killing someone who worked for her in the late 1990s. In early November 2019, Racine County authorities announced both Johnson’s identity and La Roche’s arrest. (La Roche is still awaiting trial.)

The revelation was bittersweet for Terkanian. She was glad that the girl she once thought might be her daughter had been identified. But Aundria was still out there. When would Terkanian get answers?

Two weeks later, on a cold Friday morning, Terkanian’s phone rang. Melissa’s name flashed across the screen. Terkanian answered, and without even saying hello, Melissa announced, “They got him.”

Earlier that morning, Melissa had received a call from a friend who happened to live on the same block as the Bowmans. The place was swarming with police—patrol cars clogged the street, and flashing lights reflected off the windows of surrounding homes. Something was going on. Something big. Terkanian felt dizzy. There was only one thing she could think to do; she hung up and called Koppelman.

He was just sitting down at his desk for the day. Koppelman still did forensic sketching and online sleuthing on the side, but he’d returned to full-time work as an accountant after his mother passed away. Koppelman listened as Terkanian described what was happening at the Bowmans’. They were sure it was connected to Aundria’s disappearance. What else could it be?

By that afternoon, the news was out: Bowman had been arrested by the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office. But not because of anything to do with Aundria. He’d been arrested in relation to a murder Terkanian and Koppelman had never heard of—one committed nine years before Aundria disappeared, more than 800 miles away from the shores of Lake Michigan.

Terkanian answered the phone, and without even saying hello, Melissa announced, “They got him.”

Kathleen Doyle was the daughter of a naval officer and the wife of a pilot. At the time of her murder, in 1980, she’d been married just nine months. Her husband was deployed on the USS Eisenhower in the Indian Ocean, and Doyle and the couple’s tabby cat, Ike, were living alone in a small house on Granby Street in Norfolk, Virginia. Doyle was an aspiring author who’d recently taken up journaling. The 25-year-old wrote about her anxieties and her excitement for the future.

Doyle had been dead for almost two days when her body was found. She’d been stripped, gagged, and strangled with electrical cord, then raped and stabbed. Authorities suspected an intruder had done it, a stranger. They collected semen from the scene but had few leads until serial killer Henry Lee Lucas was arrested in 1983. Lucas claimed that he and a partner, Ottis Toole, were responsible for hundreds of unsolved murders across the country, including Doyle’s. The following year, police charged the pair, but Lucas’s confessions were later revealed to be false, and the charges were dropped. In a letter to the editor published by the Virginian-Pilot in 2003, John O’Brien, Doyle’s father, chastised detectives for their missteps and expressed the steadfast hope that his daughter’s killer would be caught. That didn’t happen before O’Brien died, in 2016.

Eventually, science caught up with the case. Genetic genealogy, which compares unidentified DNA with a huge number of samples stored in databases, was becoming a popular way of investigating cold cases. Authorities didn’t expect the method to produce exact matches but rather partial ones, genetic relatives police could use to triangulate and identify potential suspects. Norfolk investigators partnered with Parabon Nano Labs, a leader in the field, to test DNA collected at the scene of Doyle’s murder. Soon, based on genealogical research, they had a list of more than 30 suspects.

Investigators needed to collect DNA from each person on the list to conduct a direct comparison. But with the suspects spread across several states, and a backlog of other cases on their desks vying for attention, the process could take law enforcement months or even years. Then, in 2019, a group of Norfolk detectives went to a national seminar attended by cold-case teams from around the country. It was an opportunity to learn about new technologies, collaborate on strategies, and exchange information. The Norfolk team, which had the list of suspects in the Doyle case in hand, got acquainted with a team from Michigan—where, as it happened, one of the people on the list lived.

The Michigan detectives were familiar with Dennis Bowman’s name. He had a criminal record, and they knew what Cathy Terkanian had accused him of doing. The police also had his DNA on file, and they were willing to share it for comparison.

The results confirmed that semen found at the scene of Doyle’s murder came from Bowman. Norfolk law enforcement issued a warrant for his arrest. Two days later, on November 22, 2019, Melissa called Terkanian to report the police raid. Within a few months, Bowman would be extradited to Virginia to stand trial. By then, he’d already confessed.

He admitted to entering Doyle’s home through a back window. He claimed that he was drunk and that it was an attempted robbery. He said he didn’t expect to find Doyle in the house, that he didn’t plan to kill her. But she was there and he did.

At the time, Bowman was in Norfolk for his annual two-week service in the Navy Reserve. He was also out of jail on bond—he was awaiting trial for the attempted assault of the 19-year-old Holland woman, the one he fired a gun at before she escaped on her bike.

Terkanian learned that she’d inadvertently played a role in solving Doyle’s murder. Geoffrey Flohr, the private detective, told her that at some point the Bowmans had visited the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office to report Terkanian for harassment; they claimed she was making defamatory accusations about Dennis online. Investigators offered Dennis a bottle of water and kept it when he left. According to Flohr, that was how his DNA came into their possession. (The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the investigation.)

As with the resolution of the Racine County Jane Doe investigation, Terkanian wasn’t sure how to feel about the news in the Doyle case. Bowman was behind bars, but Terkanian felt like she was still waiting for her turn—for her daughter’s turn—at justice.

Three months after Bowman’s arrest it came. In the first week of February 2020, with a thick layer of snow blanketing the ground, police returned to the Bowmans’ property. Melissa again called Terkanian, who phoned Koppelman. There was a forensics team on site this time, with a crime-scene tent and dogs in the backyard. Melissa sent photos. Officials appeared to be concentrating on one area in particular, and they had started to dig.  

Later that day, the police held a press conference. They announced that human skeletal remains had been found, and that they likely belonged to Aundria Bowman. The police needed to confirm her identity; Terkanian provided her DNA immediately.

In March, almost 31 years to the day after Aundria disappeared, the results came back: There was a DNA match. Terkanian had been right, and not just about what happened to her daughter. The police had found Aundria’s remains beneath the concrete slab behind the Bowmans’ house.




Dennis claimed that Aundria’s death was an accident. He said that they were arguing and he slapped her, causing her to fall and break her neck. He reported her missing to cover it up. That was the story he told Brenda in correspondence from prison. In June 2020, Dennis received two life sentences plus 20 years for killing Kathleen Doyle. He was ordered to serve his time in Michigan, where he would stand trial for Aundria’s murder.

The first hearing was held in February 2021. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the proceedings were livestreamed, and Koppelman and Terkanian watched from their computer screens. Brenda took the stand first. She tearfully recounted how she’d made missing person posters because she believed Aundria had run away. She said she learned the truth only after Dennis was arrested in the Doyle case. When she was asked whether Aundria had ever accused Dennis of molesting her, Brenda said yes, but that she hadn’t believed the allegations were true. “That’s a lie,” she’d told Aundria, “and you know it.”

It was Brenda who told police where to find Aundria’s remains. In a call from prison, Dennis had confessed to burying their daughter in the backyard. Brenda said she didn’t believe him at first—they hadn’t lived in their house in Hamilton when Aundria died, so how could he have buried her there? To Brenda’s horror, Dennis explained that he’d moved their daughter’s body to the new property as soon as they signed the papers for it. The cement slab in the yard was the headstone of a grave Brenda never knew was there, in the shadow of the house she and Dennis shared for nearly 30 years. “He didn’t lie this time,” Brenda told a detective when Aundria’s remains were found. “He didn’t lie.”

As other witnesses took the stand, Dennis sat quietly in a green shirt, bow tie, and face mask. Testimony from experts involved with Aundria’s recovery and autopsy revealed that she had been dismembered; Dennis had wrapped her body parts in plastic bags and stuffed them into a cardboard barrel before burying them. The remains were too decomposed to establish an official cause of death, but the circumstances were sufficient for the medical examiner to rule what happened a homicide.

Chris Haverdink, the detective Terkanian and Koppelman met with at Googs Pub & Grub, took the stand. Haverdink said that after being arrested in Michigan in 2019 for Kathleen Doyle’s murder, Dennis eventually told authorities that he had nothing left to lose, and went on to describe a version of events similar to the one he’d given Brenda: that Aundria’s death had been an accident, and that he’d tried to cover his tracks. He’d dismembered his daughter because she wouldn’t fit in the cardboard barrel otherwise. To confirm the story, he pointed authorities to a machete stashed underneath his bed.

The details were hard for Terkanian to hear, but she felt comforted knowing that Koppelman, other online detectives, and people like Melissa were just a phone call or a text away. They didn’t believe Dennis’s story. Like Terkanian, they were sure Dennis had intended to kill Aundria. He’d engaged in a clear pattern of violence against young women. In fact, just a month prior to the hearing, another crime had come to light.

“He didn’t lie this time. He didn’t lie.”

“Man sought in assault” reads a front-page headline in the Holland Sentinel, published October 18, 1979. The article details a violent attack on a 27-year-old woman who early on a Sunday morning was bound, gagged, and sexually assaulted by an intruder in her home. The perpetrator took cash before fleeing the scene, and was described as a white man between 25 and 30 years old, with sandy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He was estimated at five-foot-six and 150 pounds. According to the young woman, her assailant was wearing a leather jacket and dark pants. The newspaper published a police sketch of the suspect, his ink-blotted pupils staring blankly from the front page.

More than 40 years after the assault, Dennis Bowman confessed to the crime. There was little risk in doing so—he was already behind bars for murder, and the statute of limitations in the case had long since expired.

When they read the article about the 1979 crime, Terkanian and Koppelman couldn’t help but notice the striking resemblance between Bowman and the police sketch. But it was the last line of the article that really caught their attention: According to the lead detective in the case, there had been a recent uptick in reports of prowlers in the neighborhood where the crime had occurred. Police suspected the attacker might have committed other crimes.

Could there be other cold cases connected to Bowman? For years, Melissa had insisted hers was. She was frustrated that Bowman would confess to the 1979 assault, but not to what she believed he’d done to her. Now, at least, the police seemed to be listening to her. In February 2021, Michigan’s News 8 reported that police had confirmed Bowman was their prime suspect in Melissa’s abduction. Rope recovered from the scene and kept on file since 1989, when the crime occurred, had come back negative for Bowman’s DNA, but authorities said they were hopeful that technological advancements would allow it to be retested in the future.

Terkanian and Koppelman have identified other unsolved crimes they believe Bowman, who is now 72, should be investigated for. In 1977, Deborah Polinsky, a 20-year-old Holland woman, was killed in what one newspaper called a “sex slaying.” After Polinsky failed to show up for work, a colleague found her stripped, sexually assaulted, and stabbed to death in her home, with her German shepherd standing guard over the body. In 1970, Shelley Speet Mills, a 19-year-old newlywed, was stabbed to death in her apartment in Grand Rapids, 30 miles northeast of Holland. Mills’s mother, who’d driven to the city to take her daughter to lunch, found her body.

Around the time of Melissa’s abduction, there were a series of similar incidents. A 13-year-old girl was nearly pulled off a Holland street by a stranger. A nine-year-old girl on a bike was stopped by a man who opened his car door and asked repeatedly if she wanted to get ice cream. And several weeks after Melissa was taken, two siblings, aged nine and seven, were walking near Van Raalte Elementary School when they encountered a man they later estimated to be in his thirties. The suspect, who was driving a truck and wearing blue jeans and a blue winter jacket, offered the children money, then chased them on foot when they refused to get in his vehicle.

The siblings later described the truck as shiny and red. Melissa had described her abductor’s vehicle similarly—red truck, white cab. A photo of a truck Bowman once drove, provided to Terkanian and Koppelman by Bowman’s sister-in-law, matches that description.




Bowman’s lawyer didn’t reply to requests for comment. His client is expected to stand trial again in January 2022. Whether in person or online, Koppelman and Terkanian will be watching the proceedings closely. The friends speak often on the phone and social media. They’re vocal evangelists of armchair detective work. “The internet is an investigative tool, and used consistently in a certain way, it will get you somewhere,” Terkanian said.

After Peggy Johnson was identified as the Racine County Jane Doe, police announced that she would be reburied next to her mother under her real name. Terkanian wants the same thing for her daughter: She’s planning to go to court to obtain Aundria’s remains, so that she can bury her as Alexis Badger. It’s a long shot, but then the chances that Dennis Bowman would ever be arrested were slim, and that happened. No one expected that Terkanian and Koppelman’s persistence would help resolve numerous cold cases, but it did.

Terkanian doesn’t believe in closure. It’s too pat a concept to apply to tragedy, too neat a way to describe what it means to find answers decades after a young woman vanishes or a body is found without a name. But nothing is impossible, and it’s never too late—if Terkanian believes in anything, it’s that.


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