By Ron Franscell
New Horizon Press, $24.95 Ron Franscell has written a chilling account of one of this country's more brutal crimes. In 1973 near Casper, Wyo., Jerry Jenkins and Ron Kennedy abducted 18-year-old Becky Thomson and her stepsister, 11-year-old Amy.
They raped Becky and threw both girls from the Fremont Canyon Bridge, which rises 112 feet above the North Platte River.
Miraculously, Becky survived the fall; despite freezing temperatures and the fact that her hip was fractured in five places, she was able to swim to shore, climb up the canyon wall to safety, and testify against their attackers.
"She burned to get the men who killed Amy, she told the sheriff, and it was all she'd thought about as she lay in the bottom of the canyon all night, protected from the cold only by her long brown hair and some sage brush."
But the story didn't end with her testimony at the trial and the conviction of the attackers, for Becky had to live with survivor's guilt, an unsuccessful marriage, and turning to drugs and alcohol.
Then 19 years later, she returned to the bridge and apparently jumped to her death from the same spot where she was first thrown off.
As the Associated Press story put it, "Rebecca Thomson Brown died the second time she plunged from the Fremont Canyon Bridge.
But friends say it was the first time 19 years ago that really killed her. The second time, last month, merely sealed her fate."
Franscell has a personal connection to the story, since he was a next-door neighbor to the girls at the time of the crime. The need to write about what happened came to him unexpectedly when he was on a flight home from the Middle East, where he was reporting on the 2001 Afghan War.
He saw a photograph in a European news magazine taken on Sept. 11, 2001, that showed two people holding hands as they fell from the World Trade Center.
"And right then, at forty thousand feet and almost thirty years later, Becky and Amy fell through my reverie, too."
He realized he wanted to know what happened, to understand why this event haunted him, "to make a passage of the heart."
Franscell connects this tragedy to the town and its history, which became an oil boomtown in 1914, creating neighborhoods and a social climate that invited crime.
Rich or poor, everyone in Casper has to deal with a constant wind, which relates to this interesting footnote on the phrase "wrong side of the tracks."
Franscell writes: "Etymologists surmise that sometime in the nineteenth century's Western railroad expansion, the phrase referred to that side of the tracks which, because of prevailing winds, usually received most of the locomotive's black, sooty smoke. The town's more genteel, fashionable citizens ... would build their homes upwind of the tracks."
Though he devotes a bit too much time to Jenkins' self-serving autobiography, Franscell scrupulously covers the facts of the police interviews, the trial, as well as the sense of malaise the crime cast over the town, which his subtitle sums up as, "The rape and murder of innocence in a small town."
This sad tale underscores what we already know but wish were not so: that one chance event can not only mar a person's life but the lives of everyone connected to that person, and that no earthly justice is truly available for some crimes.
(c) 2006 San Antonio Express-News