Losing Hanna, Part II 

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

Page 2 of 7

That didn't work. Not even midway through July, Hanna was put on a Greyhound and sent back to her mother in Georgia.

But Hanna didn't seem to hold a grudge. She even wrote Christine a few weeks later to wish her a happy birthday. Sealed under the plastic on a page of Christine's scrapbook is the letter Hanna sent a few weeks after she got back to Georgia.

"Hey Birthday Girl!" Hanna dots the exclamation point with a heart. "How are you doing? I'm okay I guess."

She thanks Christine for some photos. "I adore them. ... Congrats on the marriage. But I never knew until you wrote me. Nobody ever told me. It was a big shock. But I'm happy for y'all. I'm sorry I can't write that much. It's only because I have to send this off today. ... Anyways, I'm proud of my father for not smoking and I love him very much. Please let him know that. Give Dylan a kiss and a hug for me, okay?"

Christine can't understand how everything could seem so OK in the letter when so much was about to go down. A few weeks later, Hanna called police on her mother and her mother's boyfriend, and she spent the next six weeks in three different group homes. Since she ran away from one home in September, nobody has been able to find her.

Now, on Hanna's birthday, Christine wants to tell her about the newest member of the family, Hanna's little half-sister, Heidi. Christine gave birth Jan. 12, 2004, just a few days after Hanna's last call to Otis.

All of this - Hanna's 16th birthday, the long stretch of silence, her letter - is making Christine crazy. Where is Hanna? Why hasn't she called?

Christine decides to do something for Hanna on her birthday. She's going to make sure the authorities are doing everything they can to find her.

Christine does some research on how runaways are tracked down. She finds a phone number, 800-THE-LOST, for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The center keeps a database on runaways. Police and child-welfare agencies can feed information - names, heights, weights, birth dates and, occasionally, fingerprints - into the database.

Christine has her husband call the number.

Phillip Montessori tells the woman who answers that he's just checking to make sure the center has all the information it needs regarding his daughter, Hanna, born March 16, in 1988.

The woman's answer shocks Phillip and Christine: The database has no information on the girl.

It's mind-boggling. It only takes a phone call to submit a runaway's info to the center. Christine had assumed the state of Georgia was doing everything it could to find her.

Christine calls the one person she believes can help, Hanna's DFACS case manager in Georgia. She leaves Amanda Joblinske an angry message.

On March 18, 2004, Amanda jots down a note in a logbook that's part of Hanna's file: "Message from Christine Montessori, Hanna's step mother. She said a national missing persons report has not been done yet and Hanna has been missing for six months now. She said she will call [my] supervisor if [I don't] call her back today."

Georgia, March 23-April 7, 2004

Amanda Joblinske pulls up to a trailer overlooking a muddy cove on Jackson Lake, about 50 miles southeast of Atlanta.

Hanna's grandmother, Maxine Coffland, and her second husband recently moved there from a ranch house on a quiet street in Riverdale. It was the couple's dream to live on the water. They named their trailer "Palm Retreat," though they also referred to it, affectionately, as "the Dump." They built a brick path down to the dock, where two ornate black lampposts set Palm Retreat apart among the neighbors' ramshackle houses.

Maxine and her husband keep a bunch of ducks, raised from the time they were hatchlings. The walls inside are hung with prints of mallards. Duck figurines sit on bookshelves and end tables. A paddle carved with the words "Welcome to Our Home" is nailed to the wall near the front door.

click to enlarge Hanna's grandmother Mazine Coffland and her daughter-in-law Kelly Thurman believe Hanna called them after she ran away - though the person on the line wouldn't say anything. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • Jim Stawniak
  • Hanna's grandmother Mazine Coffland and her daughter-in-law Kelly Thurman believe Hanna called them after she ran away - though the person on the line wouldn't say anything.

Palm Retreat is the hub of Maxine's sprawling family, and Maxine - petite, freckled, a force to be reckoned with - is the family's reigning matriarch. For months, she's done her best to keep her family from falling apart, and to keep everyone optimistic about finding Hanna.

Since December, Maxine's daughter, Cheryl Montagu, and Cheryl's youngest son have been living at Palm Retreat, too. The court-ordered plan to reunite Cheryl and Hanna - once Hanna is found - requires that Cheryl live apart from her boyfriend. And since Cheryl can't afford to live on a single income, despite waiting tables at both a Waffle House and an IHOP, she moved in with Maxine. The plan also mandates that Cheryl regularly check in with Amanda.


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