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A young girl dies, and 3 generations live with fear

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© Tribune News Service

From News Tribune
TACOMA, Wash

The day Jenni Bastian pedaled her bike into Point Defiance Park changed the lives of three generations.

In 1986, before 13-year-old Jenni and another young girl were killed within months of each other, parents left their kids free to roam their Tacoma neighborhoods without fear. Children woke up, ate breakfast and headed outside to meet up with their friends.

"Most of us played outside all day," recalled Kari Madden, widely regarded as Jenni's best friend, the second girl killed that year. "The stereotypical, 'Come home when the street lights turn on.' It's true."

That began to change when Michella Welch was kidnapped in Puget Park on March 26 after riding her bicycle home. The 12-year-old's body was found later that night. Her throat had been cut.

Then Jenni went missing Aug. 4 while riding her bike in Point Defiance Park. Her body was found 22 days later. She'd been strangled.

For decades, many thought the same man killed both girls. Investigators no longer believe that. A suspect, Robert Washburn, 60, has been charged in Jenni's death; Michella's death remains unsolved.

After the second death, the adults who once trusted their children were safe knew otherwise. They worked to weave a cloak of safety with pointed questions: Where are you going? Will you call when you get there? When will you be home?

Throughout their close-knit neighborhood there was a quiet change, a tightening of reins.

Within a couple of years, parental vigilance around the nation would similarly heighten, stoked by fears of strangers in our midst by true crime shows like "America's Most Wanted," which began airing in 1988.

The show and others like it seeped into the nation's psyche and amplified a fear of a crime that, by its nature, is exceedingly rare: Murder by a stranger.

But the odds don't matter to those who knew Jenni. They carried that fear as they became adults, some of them parents.

"For us it was real," Madden said. "No matter how irrational it is, it happened. Or how unlikely it is. It did happen. That fear was always there."

Today, those now-grown kids have kids of their own and have woven new cloaks of safety out of the old questions. Another question resounds more than three decades later: "What if?"

What if they'd done something different back then? Worse, will they ever have to ask the question about their own sons and daughters?

Stephanie Hatch said the loss of her friend Jenni profoundly affects how she parents today.

"I remember my world changing when Jenni was murdered," she said.

Her mother cracked down on her freedoms, a trait she's taken in the raising of her own daughter, Jordan.

"I don't think I'd be such a helicopter parent," Hatch said.

Jordan, now 20, said her freedoms growing up were few and that her friends saw her mother as "really strict."

"When I meet my mom's friends as well, you can tell they have a way of parenting the same way," said Jordan, who says that even now she checks in with her mother every day. "I can tell it might be directly related to Jenni and what happened to Michella."

The bonds of friendship

"Oodles of kids" grew up within a few blocks of each other in Jenni Bastian's West End neighborhood, said Carolyn Wollenweber, Madden's mother.

All around the same age, they were a close-knit bunch that often moved together in a pack. They enjoyed the freedom that only summer and a lack of school can bring.

There were no cell phones or internet and only limited cable TV. But there were wide streets and bikes and skateboards to take them to the Westgate Shopping Center, Kandle Park or wherever else their whims dictated.

"A day back then seems like a short story with the amount of stuff we'd do," said Dean McGrath, a onetime skateboarder who was among the wide group of neighborhood children who were friends with Jenni.

"You'd pick up kids along the way and change plans," he recalled. "... There was such an independence in what we had at that young age, all within the comfort of a greater neighborhood."

Plus, Wollenweber said, the parents always believed their kids were safe.

"All of the parents were really good about watching," she said. "They weren't running wild."

If parents needed to find their child, it took about two phone calls, she said.

Madden said she and Jenni often rode their bikes together. Their friendship blossomed out of a passion for their shared hobby.

"We were always out together. We both loved it," she said of cycling. "We talked about riding over Snoqualmie Pass someday."

Sometimes they rode together on Five Mile Drive in Point Defiance Park.

On Aug. 4, Jenni wanted to train for an upcoming cycling tour in the San Juan Islands by riding in the Tacoma park.

"Some people were going to go with her, but everybody knew she was training hard and we couldn't keep up," McGrath said.

When the others declined to join her, she pedaled off alone.

Safety shattered

Three weeks later Jenni's friends, their parents and the rest of the city learned the incomprehensible truth. She was dead and her killer roamed free.

"After that I don't think I wanted her to go to Kandle Park at all. I don't think I wanted her to go anywhere," said Margaret Greaves, Stephanie Hatch's mother. "... We didn't know what to tell them. We didn't know if we wanted them to look at the newspaper or hear what they were saying on the TV."

Dean McGrath's father Ed said he and his wife "were worried about everything all the time,"

"I'm sure sometimes we went a little overboard," he said, "but it changed our whole conception of everything."

They'd ask their son the same questions over and over. Where are you going to be? Who are you going to be with? What time are you going you be home?

"It was a horrible time," Ed McGrath said. "I know that we tightened up on everything."

It all forced the neighborhood children to grow up faster, said Dean McGrath, and become more protective of their friends.

They also had more empathy for their parents.

Kids checked in with parents more "after seeing the absolute helplessness and misery (Jenni's mother, Pattie Bastian) went through," he said. "It had never entered your mind before, what your parents thought."

Madden said she didn't go cycling much after Jenni's death. She was old enough to drive a car by then, and riding a bike without her friend wasn't the same.

"My mom still wanted to know who I was going to be with and when I was going to be home," Madden said.

The parental vigilance persisted for years.

If a child were late, a parent's mind wandered to "what ifs," said Greaves, who asked her then-teenaged daughter Stephanie to call when she arrived at her destination.

And if she didn't?

"She'd cry and say she was sorry she couldn't call," Greaves said. "It didn't happen very often. She was very good about not being late. ... Even after high school, she knew I'd worry."

Lingering fear

Seasons. Years. Decades passed.

Jenni's friends grew up, got married and had children of their own.

Madden's three boys are in their 20s now. She doesn't think she consciously parented differently, but looking back she realizes they had fewer freedoms compared to some of their peers.

"They didn't walk to school," she said. "I drove them all the time. The only time they would walk to a friend's house is if it was right across the street."

One time, she dropped her youngest son off at his elementary school. Not long after the school called to say he was absent.

"I absolutely panicked," she recalled. "... By the time I made it to the school less than five minutes later, I was full-blown crying and panicked."

It turned out her son had skipped class to read in the library.

"I laid into him," she said. "I definitely reminded him about what we went through with Jenni and how that made me feel."

Madden's middle son, Tyler Carr, now 24, said that even though his mom was strict, he appreciates the caution she showed.

"If I was going to a friend's house, she wanted to meet their parents and know what they were like," he said. "... It annoyed me as a kid, but now that I'm grown up it makes a lot more sense to me. That's how I would raise my kids as well."

When Jordan Hatch started walking to school, her mother talked to her about safety and about Jenni.

"I was trying not to scare her too much, but just enough," Stephanie Hatch said. "... I wanted to make her aware of her surroundings and understand my fears. She would leave in the morning. I remember being paranoid: 'Did she make it there?' "

A mother's love

What if?

Jenni's friends ask themselves that question when they think about the day she disappeared. Impossible scenarios play again and again in their minds. It's the drumbeat at night when they cannot sleep, the refrain that sneaks in when the mind idles.

What if they'd persuaded her not go to Point Defiance Park that day? What if someone had gone with her instead?

"What I felt for a long time wasn't so much fear as guilt," Madden said. "I was supposed to have been there. I backed out at the last second."

Some of the boys Jenni asked to come ride with her to the park later felt guilty as well, said Dean McGrath.

Back then it seemed an easy call to let her go.

"She was intensely adamant about training," he said. "We had BMX bikes, and we couldn't keep up."

With time, the "what ifs" visit less frequently, Madden said, though they've started again since the arrest of a suspect in Jenni's death. She says she's learned to temper the question with an adult's perspective.

"I know now it's not something I need to beat myself up about," she said. "There are so many other possibilities. He could have killed both of us. Who knows?"

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