This article is a partnership between ProPublica, where Pamela Colloff is a senior reporter, and The New York Times Magazine, where she is a writer at large. This is Part I of a two-part investigation.
Most mornings, the sky was still black when Mickey Bryan made the short drive from her house on Avenue O, through the small central Texas town of Clifton, to the elementary school. Sometimes her car was the only one on the road. The low-slung, red-brick school building sat just south of the junction of State Highway 6 and Farm to Market Road 219 — a crossroads that, until recent years, featured the town’s sole traffic light. Mickey was always the first teacher to arrive, usually settling in at her desk by 7 a.m. A slight, soft-spoken woman with short auburn hair and a pale complexion, she prized the solitude of those early mornings, before her fellow teachers appeared and the faraway sound of children’s voices signaled, suddenly and all at once, that the day had begun.
One morning, Mickey did not show up for work. It was a Tuesday in the fall — Oct. 15, 1985 — and the air was damp from a heavy rainstorm that rolled through town the previous night. Mickey’s classroom was dark when a fifth-grade teacher, Susan Kleine, walked by at 7:15 a.m. She stopped, puzzled, and looked inside; she tried the door, but it was locked. At first, she figured her fanatically punctual friend was running off photocopies on the other side of the building, but by 8 a.m., there was still no sign of her, and Kleine hurried to Principal Rex Daniels’s office. “Did you forget to call a sub?” she asked him, bewildered. “Mickey’s not here.”
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Daniels asked his secretary to call the Bryan home, but no one answered. He knew Mickey’s husband, Joe, the longtime principal of Clifton High School, was out of town at a conference, so he directed his secretary to phone Mickey’s parents, Otis and Vera Blue. They did not know where their daughter might be — they last saw her the previous afternoon when she stopped by their home on Avenue L — but they promised to go check on her right away. “I felt something was wrong,” Daniels later wrote in a statement for the police, “and left school to go to Mickey’s house.”
Clifton lies 100 miles southwest of Dallas, on an empty stretch of prairie land gouged by creeks and river valleys. The town was, and remains to this day, populated by some 3,000 people, many of them descendants of the Norwegian farmers who settled in southern Bosque County before the Civil War. Both Bryans were familiar and beloved figures around town. Mickey, who was 44, once held the title of Miss Clifton High School, an honor bestowed on her by her classmates, though she shied from attention. She was guarded even around the few people she allowed to get close, while Joe, who was a year her senior, thrived on human connection. Warm and expressive, with a gift for putting people at ease, he had an open, friendly face and blue eyes that were always animated behind his large wire-rimmed glasses. At the high school, he was an ebullient presence, an educator with such enthusiasm for his job that at Friday-night football games, he seemed to be everywhere at once, calling out to students and their extended families without stumbling over a