Aggie dream slipped away in two years Grades, finances led to arguments, but family ready to forgive daughter who disappeared

By TERRI LANGFORD
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

When Brandi Stahr arrived in College Station in 1996, she fulfilled a
dream she had since she was a little girl growing up in tiny Moody.

“She bled A&M red from the time she was 8 years old,” recalled her
stepfather, Ken Dickenson.

At Moody High School, Stahr was well on her way. She earned good grades,
had a lot of friends and was an athlete, playing basketball, volleyball
and softball.

“She was very smart and very athletic,” said Richard Gomez, who was two
years behind her at Moody High School. “She was real friendly with
everyone.”

She arrived at Texas A&M with 15 credits earned at Temple College, which
is about 20 miles southwest of Moody. But within two years of her high
school graduation, the A&M dream was slipping from her grasp.

By her sophomore year, Stahr had a straight D average and her parents — a
substitute schoolteacher and a paint store employee — were fending off
more than $25,000 in credit card bills.

There were arguments over her grades, spending and a boyfriend, according
to her family. Her parents took away her car and tried to get her to come
home to attend nearby Baylor University in Waco.

Then, sometime in October 1998, Stahr left her parents’ lives. A few
months after she left, a cryptic e-mail from “Lil B” made it to Stahr’s
roommate, Beatrice Cruz. In it, the writer said she had to get away. But
police were not convinced it was from Stahr, believing that it might have
been from someone holding her and trying to persuade friends and family
that she was alive.

Then, for the next seven years, there was silence.

Finally, on May 25, the family learned that Stahr is alive and living in
Florence, Ky., where she works as a department manager at a Sam’s Club.

“I think she got a semester or two in and then they were realizing that
something wasn’t quite right,” said Sgt. Matt Cawthon of the Texas
Rangers, who began looking into Stahr’s 1998 disappearance in 2000.

Cawthon didn’t have much to go on. Stahr, already 20 by the time she
disappeared, had left her College Station apartment, taking with her only
a purse and a backpack.

He scoured the state for leads, tracking down her former roommate in San
Antonio, even interviewing death row inmate Ynobe Matthews, a convicted
murderer and rapist, four hours before his execution.

“You’re about to meet your maker,” Cawthon said he told Matthews. “Did
you kill her?”

“I can’t help you,” Cawthon recalled the inmate telling him.

Cawthon then searched through every available database, punching in
Stahr’s name and her Social Security number. Nothing.

Law enforcement officers are unable to access federal tax records, which
may have located Stahr earlier.

Initial reports indicate she was still using her real name in Kentucky.
However, a search of databases by the Houston Chronicle found no driver’s
license or addresses after 1998, possibly indicating that she lived with
others to avoid detection.

An anonymous phone call to the Texas Department of Public Safety brought
Stahr back to her family last month.

The caller told DPS that Stahr was working at a Sam’s Club in Florence.
After verifying that Stahr was employed there, Cawthon had the principal
at Moody High School contact her family the next day. Her parents were
about to declare her dead.

“My wife was going to buy a tombstone and put it up,” Dickenson said.

After hearing that their daughter was alive, they talked to her by phone.

“She was kind of overwhelmed,” Dickenson said. “She kind of apologized
about it and was crying. We were just so damn glad she was alive.”

Stahr explained that the chaos in her life as a student forced her to
disappear.

“She had a lot of things happening in her life,” her stepfather said. She
said she wanted to disappear. “And boy, did she ever,” Dickenson said.

In 1998, Stahr became one of the 70,000 missing person cases opened each
year in Texas. Each year, all but about 7,000 are located, DPS
spokeswoman Tela Mange said.

Now that she’s surfaced, the family worries that excessive media
attention about her story will drive Stahr away from them again. The
Chronicle has not been able to reach Stahr for comment.

An e-mail she sent to the family indicated she is afraid she will lose
her job because of all the reporters flooding to her workplace.

“It’s getting to be a real circus up there,” said Dickenson.

Family members want to visit her, but they are waiting for her to say
when.

“We will (visit) when she’s ready for us to do this,” Dickenson said.

Her mother, Ann, agreed.

“It’s done. It’s over. She’s alive. She’s well. And I still love her,”
Ann Dickenson said. “It’s unconditional love.”

Staff Writer Dale Lezon, reporting from Moody, contributed to this story.

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