On a beautiful October day in the San Fernando Valley, teenager Missy Avila was lured into the woods, beaten, tortured, and drowned. Missy’s best friend, Karen Severson, publicly vowed to find the killer and even moved in with Missy’s family to help. Three years later, a surprise witness exposed the murderers as Missy’s two best friends—one of whom was Karen.
New York Times–bestselling author Karen Kingsbury delivers a story full of twists, turns, betrayals, and confessions. Missy’s Murder is a shocking tale of one of the most notorious murder trials of the eighties, and a startling debut novel from Kingsbury, who now has over twenty-five million books in print.
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THE SANTA ANA WINDS started blowing in the San Fernando Valley on October 1, 1985. Usually, the winds came much later in the month and sometimes not until November. Most people liked the Santa Anas because they were soothing after the stagnant summer. Gentle and warm, they blew the smog, leaving behind a rare blue in the southern California skies.
On a particular Tuesday afternoon Missy Avila sauntered from the gates of Mission High School and started looking for Bobby's car. Missy loved this kind of weather. It was invigorating and infused her entire day with joy.
Even the school day had been a good one. Missy thought back over it as she stood outside the campus waiting for her ride. She had finished her math homework earlier than usual and her English teacher had read one of Missy's poems aloud as a fine example of descriptive writing.
With the warm air swirling around her, Missy, at seventeen, felt that the world promised endless possibilities. Her future plans to finish school and work as a physical therapist seemed as sharply focused as the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. The gentle peaks, covered with bare shrub trees and wild brown grass brittle from the dry summer, formed a ridge that was usually hidden under a veil of smog. That afternoon the sky was so clear, Missy thought she could see each pine tree at the summit. She wanted to hike there, find the perfect rock, and sit for hours writing poetry about her youth and the love of her life.
But the gorgeous sky and gentle wind were not the only causes of Missy's buoyant mood. Bobby Miller, the tall boy with the sandy-brown hair and heart-melting grin, had been dating Missy for three months, and there were times when Missy wondered what it would be like to marry him. She believed in the possibility of love.
Missy smiled as she saw Bobby drive around the corner in his beat-up Mustang and screech to a stop at the curb where she was waiting.
"Wait a minute," he yelled, jumping out of the car and running around to open the passenger door. "You must allow me, my princess!"
Missy tossed her head, her long shiny dark hair spilling down past her waist, and laughed as only a teenager in love can laugh. A few of Missy's friends walked by and grinned when they saw Bobby bowing graciously to her. She climbed in the car, he shut her door, and then ran back to the driver's seat.
"Let's say we spend the rest of the day together!" He turned to Missy, pulling her close. "We could make a picnic lunch and take it to the park, find a quiet place, just you and me. What do you say, Missy? Can I talk you into it?"
She frowned and looked out the window. It would have been a perfect day to spend with Bobby.
"I can't, Bobby. I promised Laura I'd see her this afternoon."
"Yeah, but you can get out of that. You can be with her anytime. How often do we have to spend an afternoon like this together? Come on, Missy!"
For a few seconds she considered changing her plans, but Laura had recently broken up with her boyfriend, Vic, and she needed Missy's sympathetic counsel.
"I just can't do it. Laura's counting on me." Missy leaned closer to Bobby, and the look in her green eyes made his heart melt. He understood. After all, he valued Missy's loyalty. He couldn't remember her ever standing up a date. If Missy had made a promise to Laura, then she'd stick to it.
They pulled up in front of Missy's house and Bobby leaned over to kiss her.
"Okay. You win. If I can't be with you, then at least have a good time without me."
Missy smiled and kissed him quickly.
"When Laura gets here, we'll probably go out and do something. But I'll be home this evening." She climbed out of the car and waved. "I'll call you!" Bobby nodded, flashing his handsome grin, before he drove off.
It was one o'clock when Missy walked in the front door of the house she'd lived in all her life.
Irene Avila looked up from the square kitchen table where she had been arranging flowers for the past two hours. She rubbed her eyes and smiled at her only daughter.
Irene and Ernie Avila had been separated for some time, but the divorce had become final earlier that year. Irene's sole comfort during those weary afternoons and lonely nights had been her love for Missy. The boys were wonderful, too, of course; Ernie Jr., Mark, and Chris, who was years younger than the rest. In fact, her two oldest sons both had good jobs and Irene was proud of them. But Missy was special.
Irene knew it wasn't right to treasure one child more than others. She even worried that she tempted the fates by doing so. But she couldn't help her feelings. Seventeen-year-old Missy was closest to her heart and always would be.
Irene sometimes speculated on the reasons for the intensity of her love. Perhaps the girl reminded her of her younger self: Missy's loving spirit and happy, care-free heart were so like Irene's before she married Ernie.
And surely their late-night talks strengthened the bond. For the past few years Missy and her brother had ended the days together whispering in the darkness of Irene's room before turning in for the night. Irene treasured those moments.
Of course, Irene wasn't always pleased by Missy's confessions; her first sexual experience, for example, or the time she tried marijuana with some friends. But Irene was careful not to disapprove too much of her daughter's experiments. She had done similar things when she was young. And Irene sensed that strict mothers didn't have late-night talks with their daughters. They had fights. In her loneliness since the divorce, Irene needed Missy too badly to risk losing her friendship.
So Missy got away with an unusually late curfew and more privileges than most of her peers. This freedom, combined with Missy's looks and her personality, made her the envy of nearly everyone at Mission High School. If Missy's perfectly formed body — which, at four feet eleven and ninety pounds, had filled out in all the right places — her beautiful brown hair, her flashing green eyes, and her popularity weren't sufficient causes for jealousy, then her friends could be a little resentful of Missy's friendship with her mother. Seeming advantageous, this permissiveness may have worked against her.
That October, Irene wasn't worried about her permissiveness. Missy was her best friend and all she cared about was maintaining that closeness even if she had to compromise her parental authority. As for Missy, she loved Irene and felt closer to her than most teenage girls felt toward their mothers. Even so, Missy never intended to share all her secrets.
If Irene had considered Missy's lifestyle, the kind of people who befriended her and the boys she like to date, she would have easily seen that Missy wasn't telling her everything. But it was so much nicer to believe that one's daughter had nothing to hide, so Irene never probed too far.
That Tuesday morning had been particularly trying for Irene, and as she kicked off her tennis shoes, she felt a headache coming on. That wasn't unusual. She spent several hours a day arranging dried flowers on her dining room table to bring in extra money. Irene never regretted working from home to make ends meet, but she found it exhausting.
Years earlier, when she was still preparing tax forms for a handful of clients, she noticed her eyesight weakening. And not long afterward the headaches started. In March 1985, doctors operated on Irene's wrists because of tendon problems. After recovery, Irene found the forms were simply too painful for her weak hands to prepare and she finally quit. Irene considered rejoining the work force, but she decided that her kids needed her too much. Rather than taking an office job Irene began making dried floral arrangements.
At forty-four she was still a beautiful woman, with chestnut-brown hair and deep brown eyes. No matter how busy, she always took time to do her hair and nails and to dress nicely. The years of scrutinizing numbers and equations, and now the strain of arranging dried flowers, were, it is true, beginning to leave a network of lines across her face; still, Irene never complained — working at home was preferable to an office job. Irene's two greatest concerns were that her children should have someone waiting for them when they got home and that the family should have enough money to put food on the table. In that order.
Although it had been a long day for Irene, she liked seeing Missy so happy. For months after her parents' separation, Missy had moped about the house and then disappeared for hours without saying where she was going. These days Missy was her old self, so Irene forgot the calluses on her fingers and the tired feeling in her eyes.
Irene stood up, pulled a sandwich from the refrigerator, and poured her daughter a tall glass of milk.
"How was school?" She walked over to Missy and hugged her tight, handing her the sandwich.
"Great! Couldn't be better." Missy sat down and started eating. "But I have to hurry. Laura's coming over to pick me up, and I want to wash my hair before she gets here."
"Laura Doyle?" Irene looked confused. "I thought she was upset with you."
"Yeah, but we worked everything out yesterday," Missy said.
Irene shrugged. "I'll never understand you girls."
Just a week or so earlier Laura hadn't been speaking to Missy because she thought Missy had instigated the breakup between Laura and Vic. The truth was, even though they had dated a few times before Laura started seeing him, Missy and Vic were merely close friends. In fact, Missy wanted nothing more than to help Laura get over the breakup and maybe even help the two get back together.
Missy had a way of ignoring the bad feelings if a friend lost her temper because of something she had done. If she found one of her friends upset with her, well, then maybe the friend had been through a tough time at home lately or had had a bad day or had broken up with her boyfriend. Any of a hundred excuses might do. But Missy had a difficult time believing anyone would be angry with her out of dislike. In fact, were her brothers to compile a list of their sister's faults, at the top would have been this statement: Missy is too trusting.
She wanted everyone to like her, and at Mission High School, despite the jealousies, nearly everyone did. Missy was happy, vivacious, and easy to like. Even better, she attracted the boys. That would probably have been reason enough for Laura Doyle to come back looking for Missy's friendship.
Missy had taken her shower and was drying off when the phone rang. "I'll get it," Missy shouted from the bathroom as she grabbed a towel and ran dripping wet into the kitchen.
"Hello?" A small puddle began forming where Missy stood. "Oh, hi. Yeah. That's great. Yeah, I'll be ready."
As Missy spoke, Irene thought how very beautiful she was, shivering and laughing and fresh from the shower. Missy had been blessed with a lovely complexion and, unlike most of her friends, had never suffered from teenage acne. Now, with the bath towel wrapped loosely around her daughter, Irene could see neither bruise nor blemish; Missy's skin was perfectly clear.
Irene sipped her coffee and leaned back in her chair as the warm liquid made its way through her body. She took a long drag from her cigarette and thought about her plans for the afternoon. She was finished with the day's paperwork, and the boys had already taken off with their friends. It was going to be a beautiful afternoon — blue skies, a warm breeze, and the house all to herself.
"That was Laura," Missy said as she darted back toward her bedroom to get ready, her wet hair flying. "We're going to the park. She'll be here at three."
Irene had washed the dishes and was drying her hands when she heard Laura's Volkswagen pull up out front. It was exactly three o'clock.
Irene knew Missy cared about Laura's friendship and she was glad the girls were spending an afternoon together. Irene didn't know that the girls were driving to Stonehurst Park to do a few lines of cocaine. Like her friends, Missy was never very serious about doing drugs but an occasional experiment was generally accepted by the group. In the summer of 1985, the drug of choice was cocaine. They didn't use it often or in large quantities because it was expensive. But that afternoon before Laura arrived, Missy had called her friend Christy Crawford and told her about their plans for the afternoon.
"We got some coke and we're going to do a few lines," she had said. Cocaine was something different and new, and teenagers had no idea back then of the ravages the drug would bring in years to come because of those early experiments. Laura had been far more interested than Missy. But that afternoon, the cocaine lines would be free, and Missy was as willing to be included as any of her friends.
Laura ran lightly up the front walkway to the Avila house. She was skinny and angular, not petite like Missy, and her white complexion never fared well against her long red hair. She was a child of a troubled home, and Missy sometimes felt sorry for her. Ever since the girls had been in high school, Missy had taken Laura under her wing and the redheaded girl had begun calling Irene "Mom" whenever she was at Missy's house. Those who knew Laura Doyle described her as something of a loner, always on the outskirts of Missy's popular circle. Years earlier Laura's mother had enrolled her in a modeling course to teach her the social graces she so apparently lacked.
Laura never completed the course. Her mother blamed the failure on lack of funds and Laura's friends blamed it on Laura. The way they saw it, Laura took the course only at her mother's prodding and never had any desire to spend her life smiling for a camera. Laura was perhaps more realistic than her mother when it came to her looks. Her unattractive mouth and skinny body made it difficult for her to attract boys.
"Missy, come on," Laura yelled as she walked into the house. Then she spotted Irene. "Hi, Mom. Is Missy almost ready?"
Irene smiled. "She'll be right out."
Laura and Irene heard a door slam from down the hall and turned to see Missy enter the room. She was stunning, even in her tan sweatshirt and faded blue jeans. Laura grinned at her and grabbed her wrist. "Come on, let's go."
Missy turned toward her mother as she made her way toward the door. "We'll be at Stonehurst Park. I don't think we're going anywhere else, and I'll be home by six. Don't worry, I'll call if I'm going to be late." She stopped to kiss her mother and flashed her a grin.
"Hey, you have the house all to yourself," she said. "Enjoy it."
Irene smiled as the girls left. Then suddenly, almost as if she'd forgotten something important, Missy turned around and ran back to Irene, waiting on the porch. She looked at her mother intently and smiled, her green eyes warm and sparkling. "Mom, I love you. I just wanted to tell you. I really love you a lot." Missy leaned over and hugged her mother.
This was unusual behavior. Irene and Missy were closer than many mothers and teenage daughters, but Missy wasn't prone to dramatic displays of affection. Still, Irene felt touched that her daughter had been thoughtful enough to share her feelings.
"I love you, too, sweetheart," Irene said. "Have fun."
Irene watched until they had climbed into Laura's red Volkswagen bug and driven away down the street. She stood on the porch for a moment, letting the warm wind blow over her skin.
For the next several hours Irene abandoned all thought of work and sat outside in a folding chair with a glass of iced tea.
She was still there, enjoying the peace and quiet, when the phone rang. It was six o'clock, and Irene thought the caller would be Missy wanting to spend the night at Laura's. She grabbed her iced tea, ran into the house, and answered the phone on the third ring. "Hello."
"Hi, Mom. This is Laura. Is Missy there?"
Irene felt her heart skip a beat.
"Of course not, Laura. She's with you."
Laura cleared her throat. "No, she's not." Irene felt the color begin to drain from her face. There was silence for several seconds before Laura finally continued. "When we left your house we went by Stonehurst Park. Missy saw three guys she knew in a blue Camaro, so I dropped her off to talk to them. Then I went to get gas for the car. When I came back, Missy was gone and so were the boys in the Camaro." Laura paused. "I thought she might be home by now." Laura waited. "Mom?"
"Yes, I'm here." Irene forced herself to think. "Did she say anything else, Laura? Do you have any idea where she went?"
"No. She knew I was going to be right back, but I figured she must have decided to go with them."
"Well, who were the boys? Just give me their names, and I'll see if I can call and find Missy."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Missy's Murder"
Copyright © 2014 Karen Kingsbury.
Excerpted by permission of Bondfire Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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