Schoolmates, neighbors never told Forestville girls vanished 36 years ago
Eileen Goetz graduated from El Molino High School in Forestville, married, raised two kids and worked more than 20 years in the grocery business.
The memories of her youth are clouded by the thought of two friends from Forestville who vanished without a trace as teenagers. As the decades wore on, months could go by without Goetz giving a thought to that mystery from nearly 40 years ago. But when she does remember, Goetz is haunted.
In mid-December 1978, Kerry Ann Graham, 15, and Francine Trimble, 14, disappeared, never to be seen again by friends and family.
Skeletal remains that would ultimately be identified as theirs were located the following July, dumped off the side of a rural highway in Mendocino County. But it wasn’t until late last year that their identities were determined through DNA, a link that authorities announced in a press conference early this month.
It remains unclear how the girls died, but investigators suspect foul play and are seeking breaks in the long-frozen cold case that they hope could lead to suspects.
Goetz, who was a schoolmate of Graham’s and hung out with both girls, remains troubled that no one at the time asked her whether she’d seen them and no one in authority told her or other students they were even missing.
“What breaks my heart is no one ever asked,” said Goetz, 53, whose maiden name was O’Halloran and who now lives in Santa Rosa. She said she may have had information that could have helped find the girls.
Other former schoolmates who knew the girls more casually first found out they’d gone missing this month when the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office revealed Feb. 2 their remains had finally been identified, found in the woods near a pullout along Highway 20 west of Willits. They were stunned they had not heard of the case sooner.
“How did we not know about this disappearance of two girls from very small schools and a very small town?” asked Kathy Culley, a Santa Rosa resident and classmate of Graham’s at El Molino.
“No one I have talked to can remember anything about the girls turning up missing,” said Ken Jones, a retired teacher who had taught both girls at Forestville School.
Today, when a juvenile is reported missing under suspicious circumstances, an Amber alert may be issued, photos are distributed to media outlets, advisories are posted on social networks and school staff and students are notified, if not interviewed. Had Twitter and Facebook existed in 1978, news of the Forestville girls’ disappearance no doubt would have spread like wildfire.
According to the girls’ family members, Trimble’s grandmother and Graham’s sister were the primary advocates for finding the teens, contacting law enforcement officials in multiple counties and states over the years. Trimble’s grandmother went so far as to contact a psychic to try and find them, according to the girl’s aunt, Madelon Johnson.
But some Forestville residents of that era, including teachers in town, don’t recall hearing about the girls’ disappearance. Newspaper archives in Sonoma County include no published reports of the girls having gone missing.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has declined to make the initial missing persons report available because the investigation is ongoing. But it was first reported as a possible runaway case in mid-December by Trimble’s mother to someone who worked at the county’s juvenile facility, said sheriff’s Sgt. Cecile Focha. Law enforcement then contacted Graham’s parents, she said. The detectives who investigated the original case are no longer with the Sheriff’s Office, Focha said, and were not made available.
The resources at hand today for investigating cases of missing children did not exist in the 1970s, and authorities often took less extensive measures for children thought to be runaways. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children didn’t exist until 1984. The Petaluma-based Polly Klaas Foundation, which helps find missing children, arrived on the scene almost a decade after that, following the abduction and murder of the 12-year-old Petaluma girl who is the foundation’s namesake.
Cindy Rudometkin, director of the foundation’s resource department, said she’s not surprised that the two missing girls got so little attention at the time, especially if they were thought to be runaways.
“There probably weren’t a lot of resources” available for tracking down the girls, she said.
Even today, cases reported as suspected runaways don’t get much attention from law enforcement, Rudometkin said.
In 2014, there were 943 cases of runaway children in Sonoma County alone, she said. There were 83,850 runaway reports statewide that year, according to the Department of Justice website. Of those, 157 were reported in Mendocino County and 102 in Lake County.