Not Your Normal Day Job: Writing the Skylar Neese Story
If you google “Skylar Neese,” you’ll find the once-missing teenager’s name appears about 150,000 times online. Articles can be seen in publications like the UK’s Guardian, or the Huffington Post. Her case has been mentioned on TV shows like CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, CBS News and, very soon, NBC’s Dateline.
I know this because I googled Skylar’s name last week, when sending off queries to literary agents in hopes of finding a publisher for Skylar’s story. The story is my current work in progress. But it isn’t a job. It isn’t even work. It’s simply a gift. I’m glad Geoff Fuller thought of me and suggested we write this nonfiction book together. We’re both honored the Neese family has given us the green light and their blessing.
Skylar, who lived across town from me, snuck out her bedroom window July 6, 2012. After getting into an unknown vehicle, she simply vanished. By the time her parents, Dave and Mary Neese, realized their daughter was missing, it was too late. Although they begged local police to issue an AMBER Alert (The U.S. Department of Justice program transmits an urgent bulletin, instantly alerts communities that a child is in danger. It’s used in cases of suspected child abduction, but typically is not used for runaways.), law enforcement refused, saying all the evidence pointed to Skylar being a runaway. So while doing everything they could to try to find their missing daughter, the Neeses also worked to help other parents.
They helped write “Skylar’s Law,” a bill that would make it mandatory for police to issue an AMBER Alert in cases like those of Skylar’s. They believe every missing child is in danger, runaway or not. Unfortunately they’re right. Statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children bear this out.
You know what? I know this because of my connection with Ken Lanning. A retired FBI supervisory special agent who is also considered one of the country’s top profilers, Lanning wrote the foreword for my memoir, Sister of Silence. But more important when it comes to this case, he wrote the training manuals used by the NCMEC. Lanning says Skylar’s case is particularly interesting. He also thinks there’s much more we’re going to learn about it.
While the Neeses pushed the bill through the West Virginia Legislature, the FBI and other police agencies were doing some work of their own. In January, some remains were discovered about an hour away, just on the other side of the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border. Morgantown residents held their collective breath, hoping the remains were not those of the missing brunette whose beautiful blue eyes and contagious smile captivated everyone who saw the MISSING posters her parents put up all over the area.
It took authorities another two months to announce that the remains were indeed those of Skylar. The residents of this small city exhaled long and hard. But that wasn’t the only heart-stopping moment. An even more poignant one occurred in May, when another teen, Rachel Shoaf, 16, confessed to killing Skylar. Rachel and another girl (whom mainstream media hasn’t named publicly because she’s a minor) were charged in connection with Skylar’s death. In return for leading police to Skylar, she was allowed to plead guilty—as an adult—to second-degree murder rather than first. Rachel awaits sentencing while she undergoes a court-ordered evaluation. The other teen remains in juvenile custody.
The resounding shockwaves haven’t yet receded, especially since we learned in mid-May the two girls—believed to have been among Skylar’s closest friends—planned her murder. This makes them seem like cold-blooded killers. I say “seem” because it’s always hard to say in cases like this one, which is why we’re asking for your help. As Geoff and I work together to uncover all the important facts about Skylar’s murder, we’ll interview many, many people who might not realize what they really know, details that can help shed light on this story. This has value not only for the Neeses, but also for other parents, other teens.
That’s one thing we know for sure: Skylar’s death has some powerful lessons to be learned. Among them, the importance of knowing who your child or teenager is, and what demons may drive her to commit murder. Or, in the case of other potential victims like Skylar, who your teens are spending large chunks of time with. It also can teach us the value of monitoring your son or daughter’s online activity, and not giving up caring—even when your teen makes you want to do just that.
These are some of the lessons Geoff and I think this story can teach other parents. Skylar’s dad, Dave, has already said as much in his TV interviews. If you have anything to share with us that can help the world understand Skylar’s story, please drop us a line or find us on Twitter @GeoCamFuller, @DaleenBerry, Geoff’s Facebook page or mine. We’d love to hear from you.
Editor’s note: Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, is now live. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”