She returned home from a half day of school on Thursday, October 3, 1991. She dropped off her backpack full of school books and changed her clothes. She left her North Park apartment, rode her lavender-and-pink Huffy bicycle down Landis Street, and disappeared. Eleven days later, she was found in the bottom of a canyon at 32nd Street and Redwood, wrapped in a blanket, murdered at the age of nine.
Three years later her killer is still at large. Her mother, 47-year-old Marlene Price, has remarried and moved to El Cajon. Sitting in shadow in the late December afternoon, Price wears a purple jogging suit and sneakers. The Christmas tree, covered in spray flocking, has not been plugged in. She turns on no lights in the living room as she drinks what looks to be orange juice on the rocks.
“I think she was trusting, and that’s, I guess, a bad thing,” says Amanda’s mother. In the last of the sunlight, Marlene Price looks like any woman next door, any mother from the baby-boom generation, exactly the kind of person who could be reasonably assured that “this kind of thing only happens to other people.”
“That morning, on October 3, I woke up before the kids, of course. Mandy had slept on the couch. She used to do that a lot. If she couldn’t sleep, she would come into my bed and then sleep on the couch. So she was kind of sprawled out. I just looked at her and admired her as I did often, because she was a very pretty girl. Anyway, I made breakfast and got ready for work and got her up for school and dressed. She had just gotten some new school clothes two weeks before, and I remember she was mad at her hair because she couldn’t get it just the way she wanted it. When she finally got ready, she looked so grown up to me, it almost scared me. She looked so pretty, so beautiful. I had a friend once tell me, ‘Your youngest daughter has something of the angel about her.’
“Like every morning, I got my car out of the garage, and Mandy got her bike out. I said goodbye and gave her a kiss. She was heading to a friend’s house around the corner — to meet her before school. She was really going to town riding her bike. It was strange as I drove by her. I looked back at her three times, and I normally didn’t do that. It was like I was taking her in, how pretty she was and how much I loved her. It was the last time I saw her.”
It is quiet in this almost rural section of El Cajon. A dog barks somewhere down the road. Other than that, the only sounds are the low whirrings of the tape recorder and the muted sound of ice against a glass.
“I came home from work that day. Nothing was unusual. It was about four o’clock, I remember because I worked overtime for an hour. I went to Lucky on El Cajon Boulevard and got groceries. I remember looking at my watch, because open house at McKinley School that night was at six. At that time, it was five.
“At home, I unloaded the groceries. I got Mandy’s favorite meal, chicken nuggets. She loved chicken nuggets. I made those that night, and when it was ready I went downstairs to talk to my neighbor. She gave me a sweater for either Mandy or Shawna [then 14] and a bicycle pump for their bikes, and by the time I went back upstairs it was about 5:30, almost 6:00. I wasn’t worried about anything, but I was a little concerned. She knew we had to go to open house at school.
“One of her best friends called. Jessica. She had broken her arm a week or two earlier. I keep thinking if Jessica hadn’t broken her arm, she might have been with Mandy, and all this wouldn’t have happened. That’s what I keep thinking to myself, but I can’t think that way. Mandy liked to ride her bike, and Jessica couldn’t because of her arm. When Jessica called she asked if Mandy was there, and I said, ‘No, I thought she was with you. If you see her, would you tell her to come home?’ Mandy was always very prompt, and if she wasn’t, she’d call me.
“At quarter to seven I said to my older daughter [Shawna], ‘If she’s not here by seven, we have to go look for her. This is not like her.’ We waited till seven. No Mandy.
“I told Shawna to show me where all of Mandy’s friends lived. I knew some of them, but not all of them. We walked from one house to another, about four houses. One girl had seen her at noon. They’d gotten out of school at 12:00 that day. After school they had, like, a coach who would watch the kids while they played ball until 5:00. Mandy was going to play, but unfortunately, Mandy had gotten into some trouble where she didn’t listen to the coach or something....” Here Price pauses to drink and laugh a little. She is also crying a little. “So the coach said she had to leave.
“I later found out she was at another friend’s house on 32nd Street. That’s supposedly where she was playing at 4:30, 5:00. The parents weren’t there when I stopped by; they were at the school for open house. Shawna said, ‘Mom, let me go down to school and see if she’s there.’ The school was only two blocks away. She went there and didn’t see Mandy. That’s when I called the police.
“I was really upset with the way they were treating it at first. The officer came out and he said, ‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. She probably just ran away.’ I said, ‘My daughter didn’t run away. She didn’t have any reason to run away.’ I hate when they assume. I think it’s better to go from ‘something bad happened’ and find out nothing bad happened than sit there and assume that nothing happened, and then you don’t take whatever measures you should.
“They said that they could not say anything to the media for, I think it was two days. Meanwhile, this is giving this guy [the killer] a green light for 48 hours. He could do all kinds of things in two days, and nobody’s gonna be aware of it except family and friends. That really was upsetting to me.
“So this policeman is looking under the beds and in the closets. I said, ‘She’s not in the house!’ ” Here Price sounds exasperated. She rolls her eyes and sips at her juice.
“My phone machine, unfortunately, was messed up. My cat, I think, had walked across the buttons. I kept thinking, what if she tried to call me and she couldn’t leave a message because the cat stepped on the machine? I did get some messages that day, but they weren’t from her. Anyway, it was a nightmare from there.
“Another police officer came that night around midnight. I got to be pretty close to her. She was there for many evenings after that. Her name was Suzy. For the 11 days that followed, it was like a roller coaster. But I never felt for one minute that anything bad had happened to my daughter. I thought that I would feel something if it did, and I couldn’t imagine anyone hurting her. I thought it was all going to be okay, that she would come home and everything would be fine.
“On the 11th day, that was on a Monday, the 14th, I wrote Oprah Winfrey a letter, because I wanted to tell her how horrible everything was, that I missed my daughter and wanted to know what happened to her. I asked if she could do anything to help. I had the letter all written — I still have the letter today— but I never did send it because that was the day they found her.
“It was 10 or 11 in the morning when they found her in that canyon full of bamboo. I still don’t believe that nobody could know nothing, because of where they found her. I’ve been in those people’s house — and they’re weirdos, but anyway — and I’ve looked off their porch and looked out their window, and I know exactly where she was found, and there is no way you could not see her. You’d have to be blind and turn your head the other way. And they [the police] say she was there all along, but I don’t believe that. Any of those neighbors could have looked out their back porch or their windows and could have seen her there. I just don’t believe she was thrown there the night of her disappearance and just laid there for 11 days without someone seeing her.”
Marlene Price was informed exactly how her daughter died but says, “I won’t divulge that. The police don’t want that to be known, only because it might be a conflict with getting the right person.”
As to whether Amanda Gaeke was a victim of sexual mistreatment, her mother says evenly, “Signs pointed to that, yeah. It’s the first thing that jumped into my mind, because she was found with nothing on. I thought, What would anybody want to do with a little girl?” Her daughter was found wrapped in a blanket, with the key to her apartment around her neck.
“They wouldn’t let me know much,” Price recalls. “They wouldn’t let me watch television, so I couldn’t see what was going on there. I guess they thought I would see or hear something I couldn’t deal with. The worst part of it was, from the time the police found her on that morning [Oct. 14] to the time they told me they found her, there were a lot of police in and out of the apartment. Finally one of them said, ‘You want to sit down? Have a glass of wine or something?’ I didn’t think it was unusual, but then they said, ‘We found something.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you found something?’ Well, they found a body. I said, ‘What is it? A woman, a man, a child, what?’ ‘Well,’ they said, ‘we don’t know yet. We have to wait.’
“That was about 12 or 1 o’clock, and I had to wait until 6 o’clock, until the coroner came to the house, and then I knew. He had a suit on. He was the nicest man. I wouldn’t want to have his job.” Price pauses for a moment and looks at photographs of Amanda, Shawna, and herself that sit on the bookshelf. She takes a family portrait from on top of the stereo and offers it proudly for a closer look. “They think they found her bicycle,” she says distractedly. “They found it in Lake Jennings Park in Lakeside.”
At the time of the murder, there was some talk of a van being involved. Was anything ever established on those lines?
“That was another story that came along the way. I think it was a few months after the fact. Some lady that delivered newspapers was out early one morning, and she’d seen a van parked, she says, over by the canyon there. There were two men who carried what looked like a body in a blanket and put it in the canyon where Mandy was found, then got back in the van and left. But the police say that nothing’s ever come of that, though they checked it out. I don’t know what to believe or what not to believe.”
Sergeant Robert Furtak currently heads up the investigation of the Amanda Gaeke killing. Three years ago, Sergeant Ron Newman was the investigator in charge. As to the police handling of the case, Marlene Price says, “I feel it was not handled properly in the beginning. I hate to say that, and I hate to put the police department down. I don’t blame the guys that were out there working. I blame somebody on how they organized this. I heard that when she was missing, they were looking way up by Aero Drive [Kearny Mesa], where I used to live. They were looking along freeway 15. I thought, what are they doing way up there? I think there were too many people in on it, and nobody knew what anybody else was doing. When she was found, I said, ‘Okay. I thought this area was covered,’ and I was told, ‘We’ll have to find out.’ And then later on down the line I was told, ‘I don’t think anyone covered that area.’ Why didn’t they?”
When asked if the case is completely cold now, Price shakes her head, “No, they have two leads they’re working on right now. I think what helps is when the public hears something about it, it seems to stir someone to remember something they didn’t remember before, and they report it. One thing leads to another. That is so important. That’s the reason that whenever I can do something [with the media], I do it.”
No one was ever arrested for the crime. Price says, “If they do that and they don’t have enough proof to back it up, it’s going to really make a mess of things and the guy will go free. They really have to make sure.”
Wasn’t there a similar kidnapping and killing around the same time?
“Well, there was little Laura Arroyo. But hers was a different type of thing. I think she was shot or stabbed, I don’t remember now. And she was taken out of her home — which I could never swear that my daughter wasn’t. My daughter could have been at home. My mother swears that she called that evening when I was gone and my daughter answered. But she may have been off a day because my mother called every day.” Price’s voice is slowing, as if the uncertainness of the events exhausts her. She peers into the middle distance of the room, which is nearly dark.
Was Amanda well liked by the other children?
“Yeah. ’Course, she was a typical kid, and she did have a few enemies.” Here Price laughs as if to underscore her daughter’s normality. “She loved her friends and they loved her. She was happy-go-lucky.”
She had a key to the apartment with her. Is that correct?
“Yes, she did. She carried that on her neck; and that’s a mystery that still hasn’t been solved. She had a blue nylon cord that she kept her keys on, and she wore the cord around her neck. Matter of fact, two days before that, I made sure it was a new one I had put on there. It was really tight. She went swimming at her grandma’s house the day before she was missing. She used to swim a lot. That girl used to dive off a 16-foot board and do somersaults and...oh, God, everything she did, she did well.” Price’s voice slides from an ersatz Texas brag to a near sob.
“Anyway, she left her keys there the day before, and she had to go back and get them. Her grandma lived six blocks south of Redwood. It was strange, because that night after the first police officer had left, the second one, this Suzy I told you about, she came by and said, ‘Do you mind if I look in her book bag?’ and I said no. She dumped all the stuff out on the table, and I’m sitting there in a fog or numb, I guess you’d say. All of a sudden I sat up and pointed to the nylon cord and said, ‘That’s the string for her keys,’ but there were no keys attached. I didn’t understand that, and the cord looked like it’d been cut. It didn’t look like she or anyone had untied it. She couldn’t have untied it. It was too tight, and it was heavy nylon cord. Just the day before it had been on there real tight. When they found Amanda, she had the keys around her neck, but they were on a different white string. To this day that’s a mystery, and I don’t know if it has anything to do with the killer or not.”
So she did come home that day?
“Yes. And what made it so difficult is that she changed her clothes. I knew exactly what she had on when she went to school. But she changed, and the police had me looking through her clothes. They wanted to know exactly what she had on, so that meant I had to do the process of elimination trying to figure out what was missing. I still don’t know if I ever got it right. I tried, but they never did find any clothes. The killer had time to do anything with her clothes.”
Did Marlene Price have to identify the body?
“No. They identified her through dental records. They wouldn’t let me see her. I think that’s good and that’s bad. I wanted to see her, but then again....”
Did Price receive any professional help in dealing with the murder of her daughter?
“Oh, I’ve seen a therapist for a period of time, but after a while, when they can’t answer your questions anymore...they’re just a person to vent to. They don’t know any more about it than you do, and they haven’t been through it. Sure, they study what to say to you, and they try to draw things out of you so you can deal with your feelings and you don’t have anything pent up inside of you. I went for about six months or eight months — until they weren’t doing me any good anymore.
“I’ve gone over it and over it in my mind. We only lived there three months...three months. I kept thinking if we didn’t move there, this would never have happened. But what-ifs don’t do you any good. People have told me you can’t just sit there and think that way. The only thing I can think of to say, as far as other little children is, don’t let your kids play by themselves. Let them be with two or three other children if they’re going to be out playing. My daughter was strong and smart, but it didn’t help her because she was alone.”
Was Amanda a good student?
“She was having a problem,” Price sighs deeply as if this issue still concerns her, “with patience and concentration. We almost thought that somebody was molesting her before they killed her. I mean, that could have been a possibility. Her behavior the last two weeks before she died...maybe it was a premonition that something bad was going to happen to her — but her behavior was very different than normal. That’s why I made an appointment at Kaiser, which she never lived to go to, needless to say. I think there was something wrong, I don’t know if somebody was doing something to her or not. Everybody thinks their child would tell them, but if this person threatens the child with, I’m gonna hurt your mommy or daddy if you say something.’ Well, children are very protective of their families. As little as they are.”
Did the police ever discuss the possibility that Amanda’s murderer might be someone she knew?
“Oh, yes. Process of elimination. From family, they went out. Guilty until innocent is the way they look at it.”
They questioned members of the family?
Did Price suspect anyone at any time?
“I thought that it might have been one of my ex-husband’s associates. He [Fred Gaeke] was on drugs. I thought maybe a drug deal had gone sour, he owed somebody some money, and maybe they were getting even with him. But he said nobody would go that far, to that length. That’s what he said.”
Marlene Price has been divorced from Fred Gaeke since 1980, though Amanda was born two years later. “I’ve talked to him [at Donovan prison, where he is doing time for possession of stolen property], and he’s on this thing about the occult. He swears [ Amanda’s killing] was an occult thing. But then he’s been on drugs. With him you can only believe part of what he says. You never know when he’s telling the truth or making up a story.” Gaeke was questioned by police three years ago at Donovan State Prison. The questions concerned Gaeke’s associates.
How often does Price hear from the police these days? “In the beginning I was talking to them almost every day,” she says. “Then it got down to once a week, and I was making the calls, they weren’t. Then about two years after the fact, I wasn’t hearing anything for months. Now we have a new sergeant, Furtak, and a new lieutenant, a woman named Cheryl Meyers. I met with the new sergeant and said, ‘There’s things I don’t know. I don’t even know how my daughter died.’ I didn’t find that out till last year. I said, ‘In all these other cases, people find out right away. The public knows, it’s in the newspaper.’ I said, ‘I can handle it. I wouldn’t be asking you if I couldn’t handle it. I want to know now.’ So he explained to me as much as he could as delicately as he could.”
What was her reaction to the details of her child’s death?
“Let’s put it this way, it was a gradual thing, because when I had talked to Sergeant Newman way back when, he said there were no broken bones and there were no marks on her. Well, that leads you to wonder what happened. So when Sergeant Furtak told me what happened, it wasn’t a big shock. It kind of made sense. I don’t know if Mandy lost her life because she tried to fight them — that’s my opinion — I know her, she was a fighter. If somebody was trying to keep her from something she wanted to do, she would want to run or yell, and maybe in trying to do that, that’s when they killed her. But I wish I knew....” Price’s voice rises in the darkness. “Was it a house? Was it a car? Was it a van? Was it a truck? What was it?”
Any indication it was more than one person?
“No, but I think that it was only because I figure this person isn’t a career criminal, but maybe they are, I don’t know. But let’s just say they’re the — whatever is the average murderer. They do things on the spur of the moment, and they have to cover their tracks. Most of them leave evidence everywhere. Why didn’t they find her clothes? Why didn’t they find her bike right away and be sure it’s her bike? Why didn’t they find her right away?”
Has Price resigned herself to the possibility that the police will never catch the killer?
“No. I have to believe that we’ll catch him and that it will be in my lifetime. What worries me is, because they screwed up so bad in the beginning, is this person in another state, another city, in Mexico, where? Why didn’t they use dogs? Dogs are known to track a fresh trail. I’ve seen it in movies. They came to my house two weeks later and came to my house with a dog and asked me for some of her clothes I hadn’t washed. Two weeks later!”
Are detectives still working on this case full-time?
“Not full-time, no. That’s the trouble. The case gets pushed further and further back, not because they want to, but because they have all these new ones coming in. I’m getting to the point where I might hire someone to work on it a little bit each day. It’s all so frustrating to me.”
On the whole, how does Price feel she has coped?
“Compared to some people, well. People say, ‘You’re so strong.’ I don’t see it that way. I’ve cried so many tears, I didn’t believe a human could cry as many tears as I cried.”
Does Price think she will ever recover from the loss of her daughter?
“No,” she says from the shadows. “Part of me has died with her.”