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Losing Hanna 

Part I: A 15-year-old girl goes missing

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

Santa Ana, Calif., Jan. 19, 2004

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

The man who lives in the house with the tall white fence is standing in his driveway, loading 2x4's onto the bed of his pickup. A gray truck pulls onto his street. It slows down. The passenger door opens. The man hears a "thump." Someone must have dumped a bag of trash on the side of the road. He walks across his courtyard to get a closer look. It's 6:30 p.m., almost too dark to see.

In front of the houses that line Morse Drive, the roses are trimmed, the jasmine tamed, the grass cut short. In the afternoons, Spanish soap operas drift through open windows. Children rush from a cinder block elementary school, past the Iglesia de Dios. At the other end of the street, a squat brick wall marks a dead end. Beyond it, three towering palms reach into the sky.

On nearby Harbor Boulevard, where strip clubs have names like Spanky's and California Girls, the crowd can get a bit rough. But Morse Drive -- solidly, comfortably middle class -- is removed from all that.

The truck turns around in the cul-de-sac. Its headlights cut through the dark. In the beams, the man in his driveway sees a girl. Her hair is the color of the crimson lilies in the yard across the street.

The truck slows. The driver looks at the man, then at the girl. He drives off.

What is she doing there?

Old Orchard Beach, Maine, May-June 2003

A year earlier and 3,000 miles away, Cheryl Montagu and two of her children finally reach the motel. It's in a part of Maine that would've inspired Rockwell, a destination where Kennedys vacationed. But the place doesn't exactly impress the three occupants of the car. Inside the motel, Phillip Montessori sits and waits. He's been expecting them. Or, rather, he's been expecting two of them.

The plan was for Cheryl, Phillip's ex-wife, to drive up the East Coast to drop off their oldest son, who'd been visiting Cheryl in Stockbridge, Ga. Phillip only recently learned that Cheryl would be dumping their only daughter on him as well.

Cheryl can't handle her any more.

Hanna is 15. Maybe she's just "at that age" — if being at that age means getting kicked out of school for starting too many fights, screaming obscenities at her mother after getting caught sneaking out, and pitting family members against each other when they fall out of her good graces.

Or maybe Hanna has always been at that age. Maybe the problem these days is that she's not willing to give up on trying to get her way.

She knows the drill. She has this habit of dropping her chin, pursing her lips, and glancing up with barely narrowed blue eyes. The expression is beyond mischief, bordering on seduction. She's on the verge of beauty and suspects as much. Her baby fat is melting, revealing the structure of her heart-shaped face. She often asks those around her, "Am I pretty?"

Like any girl her age, she's hung up on her flaws: a chicken pox scar on her forehead, a birthmark on her inner thigh, a funny little hammertoe on each foot. Her hair color changes practically with the season (right now it's dirty blond). She's taken to wearing too much eye shadow. She talks like a typical teenager, a few decibels too loud and with dramatic gestures. But she's pushier than other teenagers, somehow. She can be as flattering as she is infuriating. Her brothers are apple-cheeked, button-nosed, blond and big (even her younger one); they're tackles, the family proudly states, not quarterbacks. But Hanna's the one who's larger than life.

And she's about to be holed up in a one-bedroom motel room with her brothers, her father, her father's girlfriend, and their infant son.

Obviously, this isn't going to last.

Hanna's parents divorced four years earlier. Cheryl hahd been 17 when she married Phillip Montessori, virtually a child bride all wrapped up in trust, satin and lace. In her wedding photos, she's tucked in the crook of her husband's arm, her first two fingers latched over his red cummerbund, his bear-like build, floppy hair and goofy grin all but devouring her waifish frame. And she does not smile — not all the way. She wears a half-smile, as if unwilling to show too much of herself.

click to enlarge Morse Drive, Santa Ana, Calif. - MARA SHALHOUP

Soon after the wedding, the couple will have a boy, then a girl, then another boy. They will move to Maine, after Phillip's father dies, to take care of his mother. Phillip will receive a small inheritance from the estate of his great-grandmother, Maria Montessori, who founded the schools of the same name. Cheryl and Phillip will try teaching their children according to the Montessori method, which rewards independence and autonomy. They will live well sometimes, driving down to visit Cheryl's family in Georgia (always in a new car), and staying for weeks in hotels (always the Holiday Inn, never the Motel 6).

Then things will fall apart. A year after the divorce, Cheryl will take Hanna and her younger brother to Georgia, to be closer to her mother. Phillip will stay up North with their older son. The family's house on an idyllic country road in Windham, Maine, just past roadside stands selling naturally grown beef, farm fresh eggs and custom-made quilts, will be sold.

Phillip will end up working as a security guard and living in motels. Down in Henry County, 40 miles south of Atlanta, Cheryl will take jobs waiting tables at IHOP and Waffle House. Eventually, she'll rent a trailer in the park where one of her brothers lives. And Hanna will show zero interest in living there.

She will change. She will say hateful things. Her eyes will darken with anger. She'll disappear and come home with no explanation.

And she'll blame the divorce. No matter what, she wants her parents back together. She tells this to everyone: the boy up the street on whom she has a heartbreaking crush, the friends she makes and leaves behind, the grandmother whose rules she swears she can't live by, the county case worker who comes into her life when things really start to dissolve.

Before Cheryl drove Hanna up to Maine, she tried to keep her daughter in check. She brought her to work with her whenever she could. But Hanna couldn't control herself. She wouldn't give up trying to get her mother's attention, and Cheryl had customers. If the manager got onto Cheryl for something, Hanna would rush to her defense. "Don't you talk about my mama that way," she'd say. An hour or two into most shifts, Cheryl's mother, Maxine Coffland, would get a call to come down to the Waffle House, the one on Ga. 19 heading toward Griffin.

When Maxine would show up, Hanna would be pissed.

Maxine is barely 5 feet tall, with a generous dusting of freckles and Coke-bottle glasses. She waves her child-sized hands excessively when she gets excited, which is often - and gently strokes her lower lip when she's trying to figure out what in the world to do with her ailing family.

"Now come on," Maxine would say in her bouncy Southern drawl, the syllables barely stretched by a stroke a few years back. "You don't need to be here when your mama's working."

Back at Maxine's house, on a leafy street in Riverdale, Hanna would try to leave. She would say she's walking to the Waffle House. Maxine would coax her back.

"Why does my mama hate me?" Hanna would ask.

"Your mama doesn't hate you," Maxine would say, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "A child just doesn't need to be around where her mama works."

Hanna would roll her eyes. Doesn't anybody get it? I just want my mother - and my dad, too. What's so hard to understand about that?

It's no surprise, then, that when Cheryl drops Hanna off in Maine, she's anything but cooperative.

Soon after Hanna's arrival, her father gets in a car accident. Laid up in a motel bed, barely able to move from the broken neck, Phillip can't control her. His girlfriend, Christine, tries to help. But with a new baby in tow, and with Hanna not the type to respond well to discipline - especially from her father's girlfriend - Christine's efforts don't work, either.

Instead, Christine introduces Hanna around, to find her some friends. Christine's mom baby-sits during the day; maybe it would help to have Hanna over there, around the little kids.

Hanna's there one afternoon, sitting on the couch, when a girl named Melody Richards stops by to pick up her little brother.

"Hey girl," Hanna calls out to her, as if they'd known each other forever.

In that moment, Melody knows they'll be friends.

Melody is tall and honey colored, with smooth skin, wide green eyes and the mannerisms of someone a decade older than her 15 years. She's the girl the principal calls on to show the new kids around. She's moved enough to know what it's like to be new.

She and Hanna start hanging out around town, at the 7-Eleven, at a quiet bench by the river, at the pier down by the beach. They figure out they have a lot in common: childhoods cut short by divorce, an unshakable sense of impermanence due to so much moving around, a desire to prove they can do better for themselves than others did for them.

Whenever Hanna calls Melody from the motel - each time with increasing urgency, saying things like, "You need to find someone to come get me. I gotta get out of here" - Melody finds a way to help her.

Some days they just cut up. They go running down the hill that slopes off behind the street where Melody lives. Once, Melody stumbles and falls midway down the hill, and Hanna falls, too. At the bottom, Hanna picks herself up, turns to Melody and says, "I didn't want you to feel alone."

At the foot of the hill, there's a pretty bend in the wide Saco River. The river turns golden in the afternoon, reflecting the rooftops of colonial row houses and, above them, a hill crowned by the big brick church on Bacon Street. The girls know the view well. They stare at it for hours, sitting on a stone bench. They pour over what's gone wrong in their lives, and about wanting more: a nice house, careers, kids.

The topic often turns to California, where Melody's family lived in happier years. She always coats California with a sheen of freedom. Hanna can't hear enough. She showers Melody with questions. The more Melody talks about California, the more Hanna says she wants to go.

click to enlarge Hanna Montessori during her visit to Maine, June 2003 - MELODY RICHARDS
  • Melody Richards
  • Hanna Montessori during her visit to Maine, June 2003

But as the weeks pass, Melody begins to worry. Hanna won't back down from the crazy stuff. She taunts boys. She drinks too much. It's Melody's impression that Hanna would experiment with anything. Melody starts to wish she could keep her friend on a leash.

When Hanna shows back up at the motel, she doesn't take well to being reprimanded for not letting anyone know where she went. She doesn't back down when she's accused of drinking, of bringing chaos into an already tough situation, of inching the family closer to getting kicked out.

Christine decides it would be better for Hanna to stay with Christine's mom for a while. Her mom lives closer to the beach, in a four-unit apartment building that, from the outside at least, looks like a summer camp lodge. And Melody will be able to sleep over, too.

One night, the girls vow to stay up until daybreak. They watch I Know What You Did Last Summer and try to freak each other out. Hanna makes Melody a sandwich and sneaks gummy bears between the cold cuts and white bread. The girls spill the contents of the cup that holds Christine's mom's fake teeth. They take pictures of the mess ("the crime scene," they call it), then of each other wearing the oversized dentures. They write raunchy new lyrics for Usher's "Nice & Slow."

Hanna talks and talks about Otis Jefferson, a guy back in Georgia whom she swears she loves. She calls him often, usually after drinking too much. He always puts up with her. Sometimes she gives the phone to Melody. Otis asks if Hanna is getting into trouble. "Keep her in line," he says.

The girls somehow manage to make it to daybreak. Christine's mom is surprised to find them awake at such an hour.

"Have you been up all night?" she asks.

"We were waiting for you to wake up to see if you'd let us go to the beach," Melody ventures.

She gives them permission.

It's about a half-hour walk to the boardwalk. The thick pines and sinewy creek along Union Street eventually give way to swaying sea grass and gentle dunes. When the girls get to the square at Old Orchard Beach, it's too early for fried dough at Lisa's Pizza or for bothering the cute boys who work at the airbrush shack. Once Hanna and Melody pass the weatherworn shingles of beach houses and storefronts, they instead sit at the end of the pier near the turn-of-the-century carousel and bemoan the day's impending flood of tourists. "Q-Tips," the girls call them, because they usually wear shiny white tennis shoes and are old, with bright white hair.

Eventually, the pier gets crowded, and the girls walk back across the main drag to a small park. Hanna wants to lie in the grass and look at the clouds. She does this often. She has this tendency to tell the world to screw off - and then does her best to seek the little rewards the world can offer.

Two boys approach the girls. The four of them play a game of hacky sack. Then the girls' delirium sets in, hard. They're ready to sleep.

They're almost back to the apartment when they stop at a covered bridge on the side of the road. Beneath the bridge a stream slides over smooth rocks. Above the entryway a sign reads: "This bridge was dedicated as a war memorial, 1944."

The girls look through small, square windows at the tightly knit curtain of pines. On a patch of the bridge's wall that's not already inscribed with testaments of young love or newly discovered enemies, they carve a reminder to anyone who might pass: "Gobulin & Hanna. Cuz's til the end of time."

Melody remembers the date, June 14, because she and Hanna carved that in the wood, too.

Georgia, July-August 2003

When the Greyhound arrives in Atlanta 30 hours after pulling out of the station in Maine, Hanna's grandmother is waiting. She's mad as hell at Hanna's father for allowing a 15-year-old on the bus. Maxine doesn't think a girl that age has any business traveling such a distance alone.

Hanna, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, steps off carrying two oversized duffle bags. She got in a big fight with her father after his girlfriend caught her smoking weed on the pier at Old Orchard Beach. The fight very nearly got the family kicked out of the motel.

Hanna doesn't seem at all bothered by the circumstances under which she left Maine. For the past few weeks, she'd been calling her grandmother, saying, "I want to go home, Nana. I can't stand being with my daddy." She also told her, "If you see Otis, tell him I love him."

Riding home with Maxine, Hanna is full of questions.

"What are you doing here, Nana?"

"Well, somebody had to pick you up, baby."

"Where's my mama?"

"At work. Do you want to go see her there?"

"No. I want go to Kenny and Kelly's."

Before Maxine even pulls into their driveway, Hanna's door is open and she's on the ground, running. For now, she'll stay with her uncle Kenny and his girlfriend Kelly in Stockbridge, up the street from her mother's trailer. She doesn't want to live with her mother - or, more specifically, with her mother's boyfriend.

There's one thing she's happy about, though: seeing Otis. Whenever Hanna visits her grandmother in Riverdale, she'll try to slip away to him. He lives with his parents a few doors down.

click to enlarge Phillip Montessori and Cheryl Montagu, 1985 - FAMILY PHOTO
  • Family Photo
  • Phillip Montessori and Cheryl Montagu, 1985

A year earlier, before Hanna went to Maine, Otis stopped by Maxine's to pick up Kenny, who needed a ride to work. The two young men (Otis was 19 at the time, Kenny a year older) had been friends since they were kids.

It was 7 a.m. Otis knocked. A girl he'd never seen before with dyed black hair and sleep in her eyes answered. She called for her uncle Kenny (just six years older than she) to wake up. And she stumbled back to bed.

As the summer wore on, Hanna would tag along whenever Kenny and Otis hung out. Then she started calling Otis, and showing up at his house unannounced. He didn't mind. He liked having her around. He thought of her as a little sister - though he was well aware she wanted him to think of her as more. He encouraged her to open up to him. She didn't need much encouraging.

Before she left for Maine, Hanna told Otis about the trouble she was having at home. He already knew she was sneaking out of her mom's house. He knew she wasn't getting along with kids at school, or her mother. But that day she also told him she didn't like her mother's boyfriend, and she didn't want to live with them any more.

Now that she's back from Maine, she tells Otis about the mess she got into with her dad, how his girlfriend caught her smoking weed out on the pier, and how she had a big blow-up with him afterward.

Otis starts to figure he's the only person who understands Hanna. He thinks he's the only person she can trust. If she's confused about what role he plays in her life, she doesn't let on. She speaks about him in absolute terms, and her sentences almost always include the word "love." She calls him her boyfriend, but most folks know that's not the case.

"You don't know what love is," Maxine would tell Hanna.

"I do know what love is," she'd say. "And I'm in love with Otis."

"Love means that you can't do without somebody, and you would do anything for that person."

"I told you I'm in love with Otis."

Maxine knows what Hanna's getting at when she starts asking questions about her looks. She wants to pick apart the reasons Otis doesn't notice her. She wonders why she got her grandmother's full derriere - but not her full breasts.

"Nana," Hanna would say, crossing her arms in a huff, "You've got big boobs. Why don't I have boobs?"

"Well, maybe you took after your other grandmother."

"Well, that's not fair."

"Well, baby, nothing's fair."

"Nana, am I beautiful?"

"Yes, darling. You are beautiful."

Aug. 15, 2003

Hanna's been dreading this day all summer. It's the day she has to move back in with her mother. She would have kept on living with Kenny and Kelly, except that Kelly just underwent surgery for a heart defect, and Kenny is staying with her in the hospital.

At first, Hanna was going to the hospital with him. Someone snapped a picture of her in the waiting room. Her hair was platinum blond. She wore a pale pink baby-T. Her face was turned down, lips gathered into a sleepy half-smirk. She had glazed-over, teenager's eyes.

A few days later, Kenny told her he couldn't keep her anymore, not for the time being. Plus, she was about to start high school. She had no choice but to go back to her mom's.

Hanna and her younger brother are riding home in Cheryl's car when a fight breaks out. Hanna's brother later will say he saw his mom "go crazy" and hit Hanna on the arms and legs about 20 times. Cheryl will recall it being closer to five or six slaps.

When the car stops at Cheryl's trailer, Hanna runs inside and locks herself in a bedroom. Then she's out the window and on her way to a friend's house. She calls 911. She tells the dispatcher she just got into a fight with her mother - and claims she's been sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend.

A Henry County police officer meets Hanna. After a few questions, he takes her to a precinct in Stockbridge, where a DFACS social worker joins them. Hanna tells them the fight with her mother started because she didn't want to live with her mother's boyfriend. She claims he has been touching her on and off for a year. If police were to ask him about it, she says he'd have the perfect excuse; he'd say: "I just wanted to see how far she would go for a cigarette."

The social worker asks Hanna how long she's lived her mother. Up until May, she says, when she went to stay with her father in Maine. Hanna claims her mother took her there because she had accused her mother's boyfriend of abusing her. She lived with her father for a couple of months, then came back to Georgia and stayed with her uncle - until today.

The detective and social worker leave Hanna at the precinct and drive over to Cheryl's trailer. They tell her Hanna is at the police department. And they start asking questions.

click to enlarge Hanna's grandmother, Maxine Coffland - JIM STAWNIAK

Cheryl says she did hit Hanna, but that the girl was out of control and she didn't hit her hard. "I did not even hit her on her face."

Cheryl also tells them Hanna's been suspended from school more than once for getting into fights. She mentions that her daughter was sent home from Maine for disrespecting and cursing her father. And she herself has had to call police several times regarding Hanna's behavior.

When the detective asks Cheryl about Hanna's accusation of sexual abuse, Cheryl says her boyfriend has never behaved improperly toward her daughter. She's taken "every necessary measure" to look out for Hanna. There was an incident a year ago, when her boyfriend told her he'd been "testing Hanna with cigarettes." But Cheryl's boyfriend actually was warning Hanna that people would one day offer her things like cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, and they would expect something in return. He told Hanna not to accept those things. He did not molest her, Cheryl says.

Hanna's brother tells the detective and the social worker that he's never seen his mother's boyfriend touch Hanna inappropriately. He thinks his mom's boyfriend is a "good guy."

The detective and social worker make another stop. They go to the trucking company where Cheryl's boyfriend works. They ask about Hanna's claims. He tells them he would never treat Hanna inappropriately. He would never risk his visitation rights with his own child.

Back at the precinct, the social worker tells Hanna she won't have to go home to her mother. Instead, Hanna will spend the next few nights in a children's shelter called A Friend's House.

She says she's glad to hear that. More than once during the evening, Hanna tells the social worker, "I just hope you believe me."

Aug. 22-28, 2003

A week later - the day after a Henry County Juvenile Court judge rules that Hanna shouldn't go home and must enter DFACS custody - Hanna doesn't step off the school bus at A Friend's House. A social worker calls the Henry County DFACS office and says she took Hanna out to dinner the night before. Hanna told her she intended to run away. The social worker explained to Hanna the consequences. But Hanna said she still intended to run.

The social worker tells the DFACS office she has a feeling Hanna went either to her mother's or her uncle's trailer.

Maxine knows better. She believes Hanna went straight to Otis.

Sure enough, Hanna knocks on Otis' window not long after her escape. He gives her gas money for a guy waiting outside in a car, who picked her up hitchhiking. She doesn't talk about what happened on Aug. 15. But she cries in front of Otis, for the first time. She keeps saying she doesn't want to go back to the shelter, that she hasn't done anything wrong. Otis tells her she has to turn herself in. She should go on up to the street to her grandmother's.

Instead, Hanna is picked up by police outside a house one block from where her grandmother lives. Her uncle told police he believed she was there, because a lot of young people hang out around that house. She spends five days in the local youth detention center and must appear before a Henry County Juvenile Court judge. In the courtroom, Maxine's heart sinks at the sight of the girl in shackles. Oh, my child, she says to herself. My baby. She looks like a criminal.

The judge asks Hanna if she intends to run away again.

"No sir," she answers.

As Maxine passes through the metal detectors to leave, she sees Hanna through the deputy's window. Hanna motions for her to come in. Cheryl and a court official are sitting with her at a table. Hanna hugs Maxine.

"Nana, I don't want to go nowhere."

"I don't want you to go nowhere."

"Nana, I want to come home."

"Honey, I want you to come home."

"But if I can't come home," Hanna says, "I'm leaving and never coming back until I'm 18 years old."

Aug. 29-Sept. 23, 2003

DFACS officials have found what they think is a better place for Hanna. She's sent to a group home in Cobb County called Another Chance. Officials write up a plan for her stay. The goal is for her eventually to move back in with Cheryl. The document describes Hanna as "motivated," "makes friends easily," "a very social girl," "has goals in her life." It says she needs to stop running away.

click to enlarge Another Chance, a Cobb County shelter where Hanna stayed - JIM STAWNIAK
  • Jim Stawniak
  • Another Chance, a Cobb County shelter where Hanna stayed

Hanna is doing well at Another Chance. The staff at the home reports no problems. Hanna has only requested that her mother be asked to drive the 40 miles to Cobb County to see her, rather than the state busing Hanna down to Henry County for visits. She says she wants her mother to have to make an effort.

Her case manager writes that she "has no concerns about this child at this time."

Two weeks later, Hanna isn't on the bus that's supposed to drop her off at Another Chance from Osborne High School. She did the same thing the day before. But then, she called to have someone pick her up. This time there is no call. Staffers at the home go to the school and look around. They don't find her. They call the police.

November 2003-January 2004

For a while, no one hears from Hanna. Then Otis starts getting calls.

They come every so often at first, starting in November, then more consistently, once Hanna has access to a cell phone. She says she's in Los Angeles. She tells Otis that, while hanging out with friends in Georgia, she "met some dude," and he drove her across the country.

Otis tells Maxine that Hanna called and said she's in California. He believes her. Maxine passes the information to DFACS. Hanna's case manager, Amanda Joblinske, writes in her log book: "Spoke to Cheryl Montagu's mother. She said Hanna has not called for Christmas, her mother's birthday or New Year. She has heard that Hanna may have tried to get to California."

The state does not check to see if Hanna's information, including fingerprints taken after she ran away the first time, have been entered into either the FBI's database or that of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the best mechanisms for finding runaways who cross state lines.

Melody also gets a call from Hanna, though her friend does not let on as to where she is. (Melody doesn't even know that Hanna ran away.) Hanna's older brother, in Maine, hears from her, too. She tells him, just as she told Maxine, that she won't come home until she's 18. Nobody's going to tell her what to do any more.

Maxine believes Hanna is calling her regularly, every week or so. The person on the end of the line won't say anything. But sometimes Maxine hears what sounds like crying.

"Hanna?" Maxine says, "If this is you, honey, listen to me. I love you. Hanna, if this is you, say something."

No one answers.

The same thing happens to Kelly, Hanna's uncle's girlfriend. The phone rings. The line is quiet. The person hangs up. "Come on, Hanna," Kelly starts saying. "I know it's you." Once, right before the click, someone says, "I love y'all."

In early January, Otis is just getting home from dropping off his car at the shop and runs to grab the phone. There's a bunch of static. He can't make out much. But he swears he hears Hanna say, "Baby, I'll be OK.'"

Then, like with the others, the line goes dead.

To read part two click here.

Notes about sourcing:

Creative Loafing News Editor Mara Shalhoup interviewed friends and relatives of Hanna Montessori, as well as child welfare and law enforcement officials, to report this story. Shalhoup did additional reporting in Maine and southern California.

The Georgia Open Records Act was used to obtain more than 300 pages of documents from the state Division of Family and Children Services. Additional documents were obtained through records requests to the Cobb County and Los Angeles police departments.

Hanna's mother, Cheryl Montagu, declined to comment for this story. Montagu's experiences were pieced together with information from DFACS documents and conversations with other members of Hanna's family.

The interviews and documents were used to reconstruct conversations and events.

For more details on sourcing, click here.

News intern Alejandro Leal contributed reporting for this article.

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