Losing Hanna, Part II 

Every turn in the case of a teenage runaway gets her more lost in a bureaucratic maze

Editor's note: This is the second installment in a two-part series. Part I can be viewed here. For a hyperlinked version of this article with notes on sourcing, click here.

Los Angeles, Calif., Dec. 16, 2003

She says her name is Denise Jones.

click to enlarge Hanna Montessori, December 2003 - LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT

Police arrest her at dusk. She's just outside Inglewood near the Hollywood Park Race Track, where mission-style homes are painted peach and avocado, and meticulous topiaries strike a discordant note against burglar bars on the windows.

The commercial strip near 80th Street is desolate. Faded lettering on sun-bleached signs hint at businesses that long ago moved on: a check casher, a grocery, a liquor store, a church.

The only traces of California glamour pierce the sky; tall palms are silhouetted against every horizon.

Police book her for loitering, with intent to commit prostitution. She has no ID. She says her birth date is March 16, 1985. That would make her 18.

At the jail, she's fingerprinted. Police run the prints through a database to see if anything comes up a match. Nothing does.

They take her mug shot. She's thinner than she was three months ago, which makes her face even more heart-shaped. Her long hair is loose and wild and dyed a deep red. She still lowers her chin the way she always does for photos, looking up with cloudy blue eyes.

But this time, there's no hint of a smile. Her lips are pressed together. She looks determined and defiant.

With so little to go on, jail officials have no choice. They let her go.

Riverdale, Ga., early January 2004

Otis Jefferson has a funny feeling about the phone call. The connection is bad. He doesn't hear most of what she says. But he's positive it is Hanna.

All he is able make out through the static is, "Baby, I'm OK."

Otis is the only person who's heard from Hanna Montessori regularly since the 15-year-old girl ran away from a Cobb County children's shelter in September. Her grandmother and her uncle's girlfriend believe Hanna has been calling them over the past couple of months, too. But whoever it was wouldn't say anything. The line stayed quiet while the two women pleaded for a word, anything. Once, right before the click, someone said, "I love y'all."

Hanna did talk on the phone to her older brother Derek and her friend Melody Richards in Maine. But she didn't say much. Melody didn't even know Hanna had run away. Hanna only told her brother that she wasn't coming home until she turned 18. No one was going to tell her what to do anymore.

From the time she ran, Hanna only spoke for real to Otis. She told him she was in California. She said she was hanging out with friends, but she only described one. He was "some dude named Smurf" she'd met in Georgia. She said he drove her across the country.

Otis told Hanna's grandmother that she was in California. Her grandmother, in turn, told the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, which had taken custody of Hanna a month before she disappeared.

Otis always knew how Hanna felt about him. She was never shy about saying so. She admired him. He tried to stay out of trouble. He was focused on making a career for himself in the music industry. He could rap or sing R&B, and he could write lyrics for both.

But Hanna seemed to have a hard time grasping his feelings toward her. He could only think of her like a little sister. After all, he's five years older.

Now, he can't stop worrying. He expects her to call back, to finish what she was trying to say. But she doesn't.

Old Orchard Beach, Maine, March 16, 2004

Hanna's not the type to let to her 16th birthday go by without a word. Which is why her father and stepmother are wondering, Why hasn't anyone heard from her in two months now?

click to enlarge The Los Angeles street where Hanna was arrested - MARA SHALHOUP

Despite the anger she barely suppresses toward her parents, despite the blame she places on their divorce five years back, despite the meltdown of a day when she was placed in state custody after claiming her mother's boyfriend had touched her inappropriately - despite all that, she can't have given up trying to get her parents' attention.

So why wouldn't she call to remind someone, anyone, that they ought to be missing her on her birthday?

Hanna's stepmother, Christine Montessori, keeps a scrapbook on the missing girl. Most of the pictures are from Hanna's stay with them last summer in Maine.

She was a handful. She's always been a handful. She snuck out, drank, picked fights.

Christine, who hadn't yet married Hanna's father at the time, wasn't exactly easy on the girl. She hoped Hanna would respond to some hard rules.


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