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

The conversation then turns to a time Tricia was almost kidnapped by the father of one of her friends. Accused of raping his own daughter, he was planning to cut the little girls' hair to disguise them and take them out of town, they say.

Ashley and Kristina Sullivan have been sitting here with us for hours, seemingly oblivious to the macabre tales of death, abuse, and rape as they climb on and off their parents' laps and stare at the TV. Ashley moves over to sit next to me and stares upward with doe eyes.

"Are you going to help catch the bad people that killed my sister?" she asks, her sad face undermined by a cherry-red Kool-Aid smile. Juxtaposing this vision of innocence incarnate with an image of Tricia choking and gasping in a squalid little room, I want to run out of the house. Instead, I stay and look through a stack of Tricia's childhood photos.

"I can't even fathom [her in S.F.]," Mr. Sullivan says, staring at a smiling picture of Tricia as a toddler sitting with Santa Claus. "Every time I've been in San Francisco, I just say hello and they're grabbing their wallets. When they told me my daughter was murdered, that town turned so dirty and ugly."

We search in vain for a recent school photo. Tricia wouldn't bring them home; she'd say they were ugly and rip them to shreds. Before she ran away for good, she had wanted to quit school and open up a day-care center for handicapped children and babies. The Sullivans struck an agreement: Stay in school, and we'll see, maybe consider a GED.

"She told us she started smoking pot, and a few weeks later she left with a friend in trouble named Jim. She always felt that without her help, people would not survive," Mrs. Sullivan says.

When Tricia left Klamath Falls in early April, her parents thought she was staying with her best friend, Denise Anderson, and decided to give her some time to straighten herself out. Later their daughter called and told them she was in New York. They knew she was lying.

"I said, 'I'm scared, I love you,' " Mr. Sullivan says. "She said, 'I love you, too - don't worry.' I said, 'Come home; quit being 23 and be 15.' " They never heard from her again.

"I had a dream about Trish," Kristina says, so softly I have to lean forward to hear her. "We were in the house. She was sitting outside the front window, and I let her in. Nobody could see her. She was a ghost. She said she had something to give me. It was a weird-looking thing, like a ponytail. Tricia gave her hair to me. She didn't like where she went." Her voice drops to a whisper. "She was so scared."

Erika weeps silently in the car as we drive away. We don't know what to believe. Was Tricia fleeing an abusive family, or was she just trying to run away from herself and her own misery? What more did she think San Francisco had to offer than her own home? We stop at Subway where we find a missing child notice taped to the front door. "Even if you're not ready to come home, that's OK," it reads. "Just please call us and let us know you're still alive."

Rondanam the Subway counterperson, is 19 and has three kids. She became an emancipated minor and got married at 14. Her mom signed the papers.

"She didn't want me," Rondana says casually, "but my husband did." When her friend hears us mention San Francisco, she gets all excited. "Wow, I used to watch The Real World. I went down to L.A. and ran into Puck on Melrose. I got him to sign my butt. It started out 'Roses are red,' but I couldn't read the rest of it."

Mazama High, where Tricia spent most of her freshman year, sprawls out across a green grassy lot, a windowless modern architectural monstrosity that looks two parts prison to one part sweatshop. Although school won't start for another month, incoming freshman Desire Smith is so excited about her new school that she's dragged her friend Elise Laydon over for a walk through the halls. Desire is painfully shy and naive, with an awkwardness to break your heart. We worry about her come September.

"Did either of you two know Tricia Sullivan?" I ask.
Elise, who will soon be a sophomore, looks at me in surprise.

"We were in the same class," Elise says. "She was fun and friendly and had so much potential. I can't believe what happened. Sometimes I envied her and hated her because she was popular and I wasn't."

Mazama High kids divide themselves into stoners and preps; Elise doesn't fit in with wither category, she says. Her dad won't let her do anything, she complains, but good-naturedly; the two are obviously extremely close. Tricia was a stoner, but she got along with everyone. "She was into heavy drugs," Elise says, "rosebud, cocaine, marijuana, that kind of stuff." She dated an older teen named Matt Anders, whom she told everyone she was going to marry.

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