Runaway Train

Tricia Sullivan fled her Southern Oregon hometown and the confines of her family in April. Arriving in San Francisco, she melded with the street community of young castoffs, misfits, and rebels. Phoning home, she lied and told her dad she was in New Yor

She was your basic happy child, says Mrs. Sullivan, until she was lured out to a lake and raped at knifepoint by the relative of a friend. He was 16. She was 8.

"She kept it secret for a year," Mrs. Sullivan says.
"The family wouldn't let us know who he was," Mr. Sullivan adds.
The Sullivans say that the police were reluctant about pursuing a rape charge. That doesn't make sense to me, I say. Silence hangs heavily for a moment.

"It was a year-old case," Mrs. Sullivan says defensively. "He was from California. Police said they could take her testimony in case he ever did it again."

"Trish never understood why nothing bad happened to him," Mrs. Sullivan continues. "She had nightmares for years. 'They'll kill us if we tell,' she'd say."

Not long after the rape, Mr. Sullivan developed ulcerative colitis and fell into a coma. He was taken to Portland for treatment.

"Trish felt abandoned," Mrs. Sullivan recounts. "The kids weren't allowed to see him for three months after he woke up. Trish never thought that her real dad ever came back. We were so close before." Mr. Sullivan weighed only 85 pounds when he left the hospital and had to sell most of their antiques to pay the bills. "Trish called me the million-dollar man," he laughs.

Tricia was never the same after the rape, say her parents, spending as much time as she could with other kids who had experienced childhood traumas. She befriended little girls who had been molested and hung out with kids from foster homes. She became an aide to the handicapped, spending all her money on presents for her clients. She also started studying Judaism because, as she said, it did not condemn other religions. In order to please her, the family started celebrating Hanukkah in addition to Christmas.

"She was angry and searching for something we couldn't give her," Mrs. Sullivan says. "She related to kids who were troubled or abused. The counselor said she was a mother figure and that that would be her downfall." A naturally pretty girl with big dimples and long brown hair, people were immediately drawn to her. "We lost control. We tried to treaten her with juvenile [home] to scare her straight. We tried counseling," says Mrs. Sullivan. "We did everything from bribing to grounding to punishment."

"She thought there was a utopia, some family out there who was perfect," interjects her Aunt Bernice. "For a time she lived with me." "

"Trish had it in her head that group foster homes were terrific places to live," her mother says. "She actually put herself into Exodus House, and stayed at the House of Ruth for Kids. She started making up stories. One was that we burned her all over her body with cigarettes. The police came and made her take off her clothes, and of course it wasn't true. There were stories that we starved her. The police showed up as I was cooking us dinner. It was a cry for help, but we were scared that it would get to a point where she was taken away."

"We don't believe in tough love," Mrs. Sullivan says. "We never locked our doors. No matter what happens,a kid needs a home and to know they're cared for. I kept hoping every day she was still going to come home, even when I got her ashes. We changed the locks in case the murderers had her keys." She chokes back a sob. "I felt like I was locking her out."

Home life became plagued by fights and tension. Tricia would run away to friends' houses, though she always stayed in town. She didn't let people get too close. She'd say outrageous things to people to get a reaction, then test them to see if they still cared.

"When things got very quiet, she'd stir something up," Mrs. Sullivan says. "She'd knock something down and say, 'Go ahead, hit me,' try to egg us on. Believe me, I've had her up against the wall. Hit her, though, never. I tried to use soap once and she liked it.

"I'm more the disciplinarian. Don't get me wrong: There was lots of stress and fighting between us, but I kept telling her, 'One day you and I are going to be very good friends.'" Mrs. Sullivan lifts up her glasses and wipes the tears from her eyes. "We overspoiled her and she had no responsibilities," she says firmly, "which I think we regret a lot."

About 50 kids gathered at the Sullivans' after Tricia's funeral, says Mrs. Sullivan. They surrounded her and bombarded her with questions.

"She painted a very bleak household to them," says Mrs. Sullivan. "They were very blunt and straight to the point. They felt she was abused."

"Wasn't she making it up?" Mr. Sullivan asks.
"She was making it up. Tricia probably had ten spankings in her whole life. She said she was being physically abused at the House of Ruth and Exodus, too," responds Mrs. Sullivan.

"That was her doorway, her way to open up to people," Mr. Sullivan says.
"In the beginning it worried me because people believed it and it was awful," Mrs. Sullivan adds. "In the end, it made me angrier and angrier."

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