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Losing Hanna

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

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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

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.

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).

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