The following is one of the most heart-bending stories I’ve come across.
He said his mother had his sister murdered. He had lost contact with all his relatives. I told you about him several weeks ago in these pages (“Jeremy, Portrait In Cardboard and Marker,” Feb. 3). Now, I’ve heard harrowing stories from Jeremy’s relatives from around the country, I am hunting for him. I met Jeremy on that loud, sun-stippled Speedway corridor between Craycroft and Swan Road, which, seen through his eyes, really is the ugliest street in America. Haven’t seen him since the day he told me his story. He has no phone. He sleeps in bushes. He steers clear of shelters. He is a ghost.
Some days went like this: A couple blocks south of Speedway, set above a deep arroyo, partially veiled in a forest of Palo Verde and mesquite trees, behind the wall of a beige-toned apartment complex, sat a mini-shanty town, eight tents, bikes, upturned shopping carts. Maybe Jeremy stayed here? A community of a couple dozen, white, Hispanic, Black, Native, sharing smokes or arguing, “You stole it, motherfucker.” I walk in and ask around. One woman, all messed up on G, the gum rot, the sharp knees, the sadness. She’s seen him. On the streets.
“Yeah,” said a young Black woman, “are you a detective? You don’t look like one.” She’s not like others here, outwardly healthy, put-together. “He flies [signs], check Walgreen’s and Circle K. That’s where I’ve seen him. He doesn’t stay here.”
I’ve checked the Walgreen’s and the Circle K near where Jeremy said he camps, many times. Yes, everybody’s seen him. I go back to shanty town a week later and the bivouacs have been cleared. The alleyway above the arroyo, now a clear walking path as if no one ever lived there. They vanished.
The sign flyers and the change collectors materialize and dematerialize, weekly, daily, hourly. Young women not yet ravaged by the elements, old white men with their dogs, the sad wheelchair rollers in bike lanes, the addicts, the sick, the lost, the hirsute Deadhead anachronisms … pick your cliché and apply it: to passersby nothing matters except maybe that these folks are still somehow alive in the universe. That’s what Jeremy knew. He knows exactly where he is.
I drove and walked, evenings, mornings, afternoons. Took my 8-year-old son Reece out with me a few times. The boy has a roof over his head, food to eat and parents who adore him. He needs to see and interact with a flipside to continue to learn to breathe empathy. I’d leave my phone number with small amounts of cash to other houseless sign flyers who recognized Jeremy from my photos, who said they’d likely see him again. No one called.
See, after my story appeared I learned one of Jeremy’s relatives in Tennessee read it and alerted Jeremy’s aunt in Wickenburg, Arizona. They reached out with outpourings of love for their missing nephew, for whom they’ve searched for years. Shane, the half-uncle who gave Jeremy guitar lessons when he was a boy. Melissa, who did what she could for him when he was in terrible hands. And I learned of a deep-rooted family yarn that traces back decades, involving myriad tragedies; broken homes, molestation, kidnapping, foster care, adoption, murder. A story that turned back on itself, saw family members conjoin after years apart to find some degree of peace and love with each other.
It turns out that Jeremy’s sister was not murdered, yet, incredibly, there was a funeral for her in 1980. She is Erin Wiley, alive and well in Springfield, Missouri, a 42-year-old mother of five. The lost sister burst into tears when she learned Jeremy was alive.
On the phone, 57-year-old Melissa Karnes is kind, sensitive, grateful, and articulate. When talking of her birth family, she transmits remorse in one sentence and sometimes shifts to joy in another. A big husky laugh. She is happy, she says, with grown children and grandchildren, and runs a Mobile Home and RV Park in Wickenburg.
Melissa explains the family’s dissolution began with Jeremy’s grandfather, her biological dad. Back in the ’60s, he got caught molesting Melissa’s oldest sister Rita when she was 12 years old. He went to prison. With six children left to raise by herself, in Clifton, Arizona, mom eventually lost it.
“My mother had met a man and went out for the night and left us with our 12-year-old sister.” Two weeks passed and mom hadn’t returned and Rita called a woman the family named “the town babysitter.” The children were starving, no diapers, no baby formula, no food for anyone. The town babysitter called CPS, and all six kids, including Melissa and Jeremy’s birth mom Diane, were taken away, put into the hands of the state and separated into foster care.
“Some kids ended up in different cities,” Melissa says. “I was the baby. I was the only one of my siblings who got adopted. I was lucky and have a happy life. It was a really sad situation for Diane and Rita, for all of them. None of them got what I got. They all bounced around a lot. They went through so much trauma.”
The very short end of the story is Melissa, through Ancestry.com and other means, including newspaper ads, hours of research, and DNA testing, tracked down all of her siblings in various parts of the country. She was the magnet that brought the family back together. Her family extended beyond her five siblings too. Between different fathers and mothers, she found 14. She has a deep knowledge and examination of her biological family history, and stories unfold in such dear, tragic ways, like something Flannery O’Connor would’ve put down. Melissa began piecing it all together in 1985 when she took a family seeking ad out in the Phoenix Gazette, which turned up her birth mother.
“I later found every sibling by fate. It was crazy and amazing,” Melissa says. “When we were thinking of each other we found each other, in ways, almost as if we had telepathic thoughts.”
Finding and then later forgiving her biological mother was an arduous, painful process for Melissa, which took years. Now the two talk often, and the mom, now in her 80s, lives in Tennessee.
“It didn’t go well, meeting my mother for the first time,” Melissa says. “I had parents, I was adopted. I went to my birth mother for truth. I wanted her to say she made the mistakes. I know what it’s like to be a single parent. She kept saying, ‘Your dad, your dad, your dad.’ She didn’t want to take any responsibility. I don’t know why, but I knew I had to forgive her. So, on my birthday, maybe 15 years ago, I got a call from her, and she poured her heart out. She took responsibility for her mistakes, putting a man before her children. I didn’t expect it. It was a hard phone call for both of us. She told me what I wanted to hear and I forgave her. I enjoy my conversations with my mother now.”
Melissa’s brother Ricky ended up in prison for murder. “He was hungry,” she says, and pauses. “At 17 and hit a convenience-store clerk on the head for a loaf of bread. Did 30 years in prison.” Adds, “A lot of the kids [from the family] suffer from mental illness from so much trauma, and it is hard.”
Her sister Rita, Jeremy’s aunt (who was born when her birth mom was just 13) ended up a prostitute in Phoenix, run over on a freeway by her pimp in the early ’90s.
“Rita had turned to prostitution,” Melissa says in a rueful tone. “I met her in person only once. I was not comfortable with her living arrangement, to say the least, although I accepted her. She told me her version of what had happened with our mom and then she sort of ushered me out the door. She was worried for my safety where she was living. Yes, she was murdered, I actually saw it on the news, the freeway where she was hit, her things scattered around. I didn’t know it was her until later because she was first listed as Jane Doe.”
Too, Melissa found her sister Diane, Jeremy’s mother, around 1989 or ’90. Diane showed up on her doorstop for a few days with Jeremy. Mom had kidnapped him from an Arizona children’s home.
“They were staying with me for a weekend, but I was harboring a fugitive because she had stolen her son,” she says. (Jeremy hinted to me of getting molested by his mother, and talked of severe abuse. Several states had taken Jeremy away from her.) Melissa recalls Jeremy huffing paint that weekend, likely with his mom, it was so bad he had to be taken to the hospital. She called the center from which he was kidnapped and they told her to let him go, because he was 17. And cops made no arrests.
“The mental illness with the siblings was tough,” Melissa says, “and I had to focus on my own kids. I absolutely could not be around that.” Diane took Jeremy away, probably to Tennessee. That was the last time Melissa laid eyes on Jeremy or her sister.
Now, the bizarre story with Erin Wiley, Jeremy’s year-and-a-half-older sister. She was born Christina Marie Schultz. She was weeks old in 1980 when the parents, Diane and Curtis, went out one night in Phoenix. A woman named Lorna (who has assorted last names) offered to babysit. “Allegedly,” Melissa says, “when my mother Diane returned home the baby was gone.”
No one knows why this Lorna took the baby, or if the mother had hired her to kill the newborn, which is what Jeremy believed. “I believe Lorna knew my sister’s intentions and got that baby out of there,” Melissa says. “I think she saved Erin.”
On the phone from her Missouri home, Erin, who works as a medical assistant, is soft-spoken, chooses words carefully, and nothing of her child history sounds like unwilling knowledge.
Her quest for personal history began in the feints and pokes of kid curiosity. Erin says, “I was young, maybe 9, nosing around in my parent’s papers and discovered I was adopted.”
Her story continues: So, Lorna kidnaps Erin, and soon shows up in Kansas City at her aunt’s house asking her to take care of the baby. The aunt knew immediately the baby wasn’t Lorna’s, and said “no way.” Lorna disappeared. Lorna’s aunt contacted the police, told them this baby may have been kidnapped. The cops discovered Lorna was from Phoenix. Around the same time, a baby was found dead in a sack in Kansas City. The cops knew about the missing baby from Arizona who wound up in Kansas City. There was no way to prove in 1980 who this baby was or to whom she belonged. They figured the baby was Erin.
One detective wasn’t so sure, and Melissa’s birth mother kept in contact with him, for years. Once DNA testing became widely available, Erin’s birth mom Diane was called in to do a DNA test. She did and it didn’t match the dead baby. That dead baby was not Jeremy’s sister.
Meanwhile, Lorna named the baby Bonnie, created a fake birth certificate, and turned up in Texas with the child. She roomed with strangers, ditched the baby there and vanished. The baby ended up in child protective services, an official Jane Doe by the courts. Christina became Bonnie became Jane Doe became Erin within the first year of her life. She was adopted at eight months by benevolent parents, given a birthdate and Social Security number by a judge, and the name Erin. She grew up outside of Houston. She talks of the love for and from her adoptive parents. “Those are my parents,” Erin says. “My dad passed, and I’m still close with my mom.”
Incredibly, five years ago, a relative from Erin’s adopted family contacted Melissa, because Erin’s own daughter had done a DNA search on behalf of her mother. Melissa and family soon learned a shocker: her niece was alive. Joyful contacts ensued.
Melissa got a number for her sister Diane (Erin and Jeremy’s birth mom) a few years ago, and Erin willed up the nerve and called her. (“I just wanted to know.”) She was met with coldness and apathy. That was that, Erin says.
She has some pictures of her birth parents getting married, and her dad, Curtis, was a biker, a Hell’s Angel, and, by accounts, an empathy-free sociopath like her mother. He died in 2017.
There are other siblings of Jeremy and Erin, two by her birth father, and there may be a third. She’s still looking for them.
It didn’t overwhelm her emotionally when she learned of her biological family story. “Not really,” she says. “It makes me more interested to know about myself. Where I came from.
“I really want to meet my brother,” she continues. “I want him to be okay, want him to know that I am alive.”
As a way of generous disclaimer, she says, “Diane and Curtis were young; she was 16 when I was born.” Then she adds, “CPS said my mother did drugs and drank when she was pregnant with me. I had tremors in my legs. I guess I’m lucky I turned out fine. You know, the detective who worked the case years ago told me that the kidnapping is the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. And I agree.”
Please, if anyone sees or talks to Jeremy Kimble, help return him to his family, and to meet the sister he thought was murdered. Contact: 520-302-4855.