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Without a Trace 

How do you find someone who disappears into thin air?

click to enlarge Faces of the missing from Washington State Patrol photos
  • Faces of the missing from Washington State Patrol photos

Jackie Forney fell asleep with a cordless phone in her hand every night for two months. And the few times it pierced the midnight quiet of her remote country home, her heart would kick-start into a flutter, and she’d jerk the handset up to her ear before the end of the first ring. In the split second before she hit the plastic TALK button, she would feel reality slow to a stop, like time itself was holding its breath.

For months she collapsed onto the green-and-lavender quilt covering her double bed, still dressed in her jeans and sweatshirt, makeup smudged under her eyes, her graying hair in a messy ponytail. But the phone was always in her hand. She prayed for the one call that could end this nightmare for good.

For three years, she’s been waiting for her daughter, Heather Higgins, to call her and tell her exactly how she could just vanish from the face of the Earth without a trace.

If Forney tries hard enough, she can almost hear her daughter’s voice on the other end of the line: “Hi, Mom. It’s me.” As she lay awake at night, Forney rehearsed what she would say first: “Where are you? Are you hurt? Is someone listening?”

If only she would call. At least, then, Forney would know that her daughter — now 42 years old and, as of this week, missing for three years — was alive.

click to enlarge Heather Higgins
  • Heather Higgins

Forney still has hope that her daughter will come home and has spent every day obsessing over the details of her strange disappearance, fighting the nagging reality that she might not see her again.

“That’s the last thing you can think about because it hurts too bad,” Forney says.

While local law enforcement says that most missing-persons cases resolve themselves in a matter of hours, there are rare instances when people seem to vanish into thin air. Over decades, there have been dozens of such cases across the Inland Northwest. Among them:

Kathryn Gregory, a 24-year-old, clean-living Deaconess Medical Center nurse who never showed up for her 1 pm shift on Nov. 4, 1981. Two days after her disappearance, her car was found at Monroe and Fifth — a place co-workers say she would have never parked due to heightened fears of the South Hill rapist at that time. 

Deborah Sykes, a 38-year-old mother and hard drinker who liked to hop on the back of her friends’ motorcycles and appeared to simply walk out of her Rathdrum, Idaho, home on Feb. 13, 2005. 

Angel Wilson, a 17-year-old with a history of running away. She left the house she shared with her husband in August 2007 and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. 

And then there is Forney’s daughter, Heather Higgins, a 39-year-old Eastern Washington University student who disappeared in September 2010.

Higgins had plans to move to a new apartment and was enrolled in school for the fall. She had recently been hospitalized at Sacred Heart Medical Center for her bipolar disorder. While she was there, her apartment had been burglarized.

Five days after she was released from the hospital, she disappeared.

The idea of vanishing is hard to fathom in this era of license plate tracking and facial recognition software, with red light cameras peering down from intersections and the National Security Agency screening phone records. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram track our every move. Police departments enjoy the best forensic technology they’ve ever had. And yet one of our biggest fears — one that evokes images of strangers tempting children with candy and unsuspecting women being snatched by strangers lurking in bushes — is still all too real for the families of missing people.

Children who go missing are a top priority, and effective systems like the Amber Alert have been created to find them in the past few decades. But missing adults — people old enough to do whatever they please — can be extremely difficult to find and are sometimes a low priority for law enforcement. And the painful uncertainty of what happened to them leaves people like Forney suspended in an unending nightmare.

“My husband, he doesn’t say anything. But I’m sure he’s tired of hearing me cry,” Forney says. “Sometimes we are driving down the road, and tears are running down my face, and he’ll say, ‘What’s the matter?’ But I can’t hide it.”

Past gray hallways and secure doors, in a corner of the Spokane County Public Safety Building, sheriff’s Detectives Lyle Johnston and James Dresback try to find people. Both men have a stack of manila case folders on their desks: cold cases, missing-persons files.

They say most missing-persons cases don’t ever make it to their desks because they’re usually solved within 24 hours: husbands or wives walk out, saying they’ll never come home again — and then they do. People on a bender who stumble home when they’ve gotten it out of their system. Runaways who decide it wasn’t such a good idea to go.

A true abduction or homicide, Dresback says, is a “very small percentage” of cases. And those few times when someone over the age of 18 goes missing and there aren’t any clear-cut signs that a crime has been committed, law enforcement’s role in finding them gets sticky.

Because it isn’t a crime to be a missing person.

“If there’s any evidence that a crime has occurred, we’re going to move on that right away,” Johnston says. “But if it’s just [that] this person was expected home at this hour and they didn’t show up … there’s no indication of foul play. So we don’t move on it right away because we don’t even know that we have a crime.”

Without suspicion of a crime, detectives say they might have to wait weeks before they can start investigating a missing person. Dresback adds that without probable cause, tapping into someone’s life not only isn’t possible, it’s a potential violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“If there’s no crime, I can’t write a warrant to obtain personal information on somebody,” Dresback says. “If you have a significant other and you’re mad at him, and you say, ‘You know what? Screw you, I’m leaving.’ You get to do that.”

When Higgins went missing on Sept. 20, 2010, she looked like a Barbie doll come to life: hair the color of summer wheat, limpid blue eyes, a flashbulb smile. Higgins could make a paper sack look like high fashion, and she had a generous streak to match her beauty-queen looks. Her mom loves to tell about the one Christmas when her daughter packed up old pillows and blankets and brought them to the homeless living under a freeway overpass in downtown Spokane. “Merry Christmas,” she told them. “Jesus loves you.”

At 39, she’d made her home in a corner apartment on the second floor of a peeling, tan-and-brown building at the intersection of 10th and Cherry — a lonely two-story among towering Victorian mansions. The neighborhood wasn’t perfect, but she felt safe. She loved watching her old black cat Roamie scale the maple tree out front and chase birds high into the branches. She paid her rent on time. She smiled at her neighbors.

She was proud of her faith and went to church at Mosaic Fellowship, downtown on Second Avenue. She always sat in the front pews and sang with her whole heart.

Forney has the same blue eyes and bright smile as her daughter, but that’s where their similarities end, she says. Forney’s a country girl at heart, happier brushing her horse and her standard poodles than being around people. Higgins was always social and loved living near downtown Spokane. But the two were close — as close as any 39-year-old woman can be to her mother. They didn’t talk every day on the phone, but Forney says her daughter was her best friend.

Higgins was a single gal, her cellphone filled with numbers. On weekends, she liked to dress up and go dancing with her friends at downtown clubs. She had become a fan of hip-hop and rap music in the 1990s and had a CD collection a mile long.

Forney says that though her daughter enjoyed having a good time, she was always meticulous about her obligations — even back to the days when she was a Shadle Park High School student. As a teenager, she balanced boyfriends and activities with her schoolwork and a job working the drive-thru at the Arby’s on Third and Washington. She bounced between a few jobs in her 20s, but by the time she disappeared in 2010 she was committed to getting her degree and starting a career.

“I’d call her and I’d need to talk to her — vent about something. She’d say, ‘Mom, I’m doing homework, I can’t talk,’” her mother says. “Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t a total bookworm. But she was serious about what she was doing. And she wanted to do the best.”

Higgins was studying to be a journalist at Eastern Washington University. It was work that lined up with one of her core beliefs: to always look out for the little guy.

“She was always for the underdog,” her mother says. “And she was a person that really loved justice, which runs in our family. And if the underdog was being done wrong by, you always take their side. None of that bullying business when Heather was around.”

Maybe that’s because Higgins knew, despite her flawless exterior, what it was like to feel different on the inside. For years she struggled with panic attacks and anxiety until, at age 28, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She doubted the diagnosis and sought a second opinion. Could she really be sick?

She said that pills made her feel muted. But her mother says she diligently took her medication and slowly got used to its effects. She carried a miniature spray bottle filled with water in her purse, and if she felt like a panic attack was coming on, she’d mist her face and take long, deep breaths.

One day in early September of 2010, Forney got a call from Sacred Heart Medical Center. Details were scarce, but somehow, her daughter had been admitted to the psychiatric ward there. When Forney rushed to her bedside, her daughter was panicking, spouting what seemed like paranoid delusions about the people living in her neighborhood.

Forney knew that stress often was a trigger for her daughter’s panic attacks, and Higgins had been balancing a lot lately. She’d found a nice new apartment in a safer neighborhood and was scrounging up the money for a deposit. She wanted to be moved and unpacked by the time the new school year began.

Higgins stayed in the hospital for 15 days, and upon her release she arrived home to find her apartment — most of which was in boxes due to her impending move — ransacked. Her deposit money was gone.

Making matters worse, she couldn’t drive. Higgins had received a DUI and was prohibited from getting behind the wheel. For five days, she begged friends for rides to the bank and to the downtown Moneytree at Third and Walnut, where she was denied a cash advance. Even before she was robbed, the money she owed for her DUI had practically bankrupted her. But now, she was panicked and running out of options.

“Her whole life, you could just imagine it like a sinkhole,” Forney says.

Forney spoke to her daughter every day on the phone from the time she got out of the hospital. And though so many things seemed up in the air for Higgins, she was still trying to find the bright side. On Sept. 19, she and Forney spoke, and Higgins thanked her mother for giving her a new kitten recently. In the middle of all this stress, the cat was making her laugh.

Before leaving for work the next morning, Forney called Higgins, but only got her voicemail. She called again that evening. No answer.

“That day I never heard from her, and I could hear a little voice saying, ‘Oh Mom, just because I didn’t answer the phone one time doesn’t mean I’ve been carried off to Turkey!’” Forney says, tears starting to well in her eyes. “She’d always say that: ‘Mom! What do you think could happen?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know. Somebody could’ve kidnapped you and put you in a storage shed!’”

After two days passed and no one else had heard from Higgins either, Forney walked through her daughter’s apartment. She found a scribbled to-do list sitting on the couch. Her toothbrush was sitting next to her bathroom sink. Her cats — who Forney described as her daughter’s babies — hadn’t been fed. Her Bible, which she read regularly, was sitting on her bed.

In order to leave her apartment, Higgins would have to walk past at least two of the big picture windows of the other units in her building. One neighbor told Forney he’d watched Higgins walk out a few days before, leaving in a blue van with wooden side panels with a white-haired older man he’d never seen before. And he hadn’t seen her around since.

click to enlarge Jackie Forney’s daughter, Heather Higgins, went missing three years ago this week. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Jackie Forney’s daughter, Heather Higgins, went missing three years ago this week.

Forney says she’s devoted all of her time to finding her daughter since she vanished three years ago. She started looking before Spokane Police even opened Higgins’ case and is still looking now, knowing they can’t devote much time to it.

Just a few days after Higgins was reported missing, Forney quit her job as a caretaker, and commuted every day to Spokane where she would interview neighbors and Higgins’ friends. She’d venture into homeless camps and shelters to hand out flyers and ask questions to see if anyone had seen her daughter. She even wore a wig as she poked around Higgins’ neighborhood so she wouldn’t be detected.

She took photos of her list of “people of interest” and kept files on each person. She’d blanket signposts across the South Hill with posters. And every day she’d come back and they would be gone — like someone didn’t want people to remember Higgins.

Online, Forney manages two Facebook pages: “Heather Higgins Missing From Spokane, WA” and “Missing People In The Inland Northwest, Lets Bring Them Home.” She says in some ways, social media is the best way to keep people thinking about Higgins, remembering what she looks like and keeping an eye out for her.

When someone goes missing in Eastern Washington, Forney makes sure to track the case on her “Missing People” Facebook page. She wants to prevent another mother from feeling the same sense of constant heartache that she feels.

“They become important to me. And maybe it’s kind of like a therapy, but I’ve always been that way,” she says. “If I can help somebody, give them a leg up, I will do what I can. And this is something.”

For their part, Spokane Police say they’re actively working to find out what happened to Higgins. Officers were reluctant to discuss details, saying that doing so would compromise the integrity of the investigation. But in a statement released via email to the Inlander, they did clarify one thing:

“The case is still active and being investigated as a homicide.”

All these years later, Forney still remembers sitting on the couch, watching a movie with her daughter. Higgins stretched across the sofa, head in her mother’s lap. They watched Taken, a film where Liam Neeson tracks his kidnapped daughter around the globe.

The film terrified Forney, and when the credits rolled, she couldn’t help but feel tears gathering in her eyes. She looked down at her daughter’s face and told her, “If you ever went missing, I wouldn’t even know where to look.”

When it did happen, when Higgins inexplicably vanished, it seemed unreal. Like someone was playing a cruel joke on Forney.

She remembers hanging a flyer at a Maple Street bus stop near Higgins’ apartment. Someone had tacked up a poster for a cat that had run away. “I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe this,’” she says, now sobbing. “I didn’t ever think I’d be hanging missing-persons posters of [my] child next to somebody’s cat.”

The impact of her daughter’s disappearance has left Forney struggling to keep herself together. She’s gained 50 pounds and is pre-diabetic, and has to take a handful of medications to regulate her skyrocketing blood pressure. And her enlarged heart keeps trying to give way. She’s had several stress heart attacks over the past three years, a condition often called Broken Heart Syndrome.

The lasting impact of an adult person who simply disappears is haunting for the people who loved them.

Until she knows what happened, Forney fixes a small, round button to her shirt every day. Her daughter’s smiling face peers out from it, surrounded by red letters: HEATHER HIGGINS, MISSING SINCE 9-20-10. When people ask her about it, she’ll tell the story and give them a button of their own.

When she talks about her daughter, Forney cries almost constantly. But through her mask of tears, her face suddenly becomes hard and her jaw stiffens.

“Somebody knows something,” she says, “but they’re not telling.” 

To report information or tips on Heather Higgins’ disappearance, call Crime Check at 456-2233.

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