Into thin air: The twists and turns of a 20-year disappearance

GILLETTE — Some young cops believe they can solve every case.

Oftentimes, they’re right. At least for that first year or so. For that fleeting time, some officers have the privilege of keeping a perfect record. Cases open and close. It fosters a sense of confidence, a sense of law and order. The belief that justice really does exist.

Until that ideal is broken.

It takes some officers years to lose that youthful optimism, if they ever lose it at all.

It only took a few months on the job for reality to hit Brent Wasson.

Now on the cusp of retirement age, it’s seamless for him to pause, slide his glasses down to the tip of his nose, look you in the eye and recite the exact date it happened.

Oct. 13, 1997.

And precisely where it happened.

The corner of Second Street and South Miller Avenue.

That moment on patrol with his training officer 24 years ago and the mystery that ensued helped shape the rest of his career and the lives of the Gallion family.

That moment when a worried father, who was a stranger to him at the time, waved Wasson down on patrol and asked for help finding his missing daughter, Amanda Gallion.

Don Gallion had driven up and down the cruise feverishly the day his daughter never made it to or returned home from school. The “L” shaped roadway from the 1001 Plaza on Highway 59 and the old Mini Mart on Second Street and Richards Avenue seemed like the most likely place to find Patrick Ghering’s red pickup truck. Amanda was 14 the day she went missing and Ghering was 20. They were associates of some kind and police records aren’t exactly clear as to what extent.

A friend of Amanda’s, Donna Morganflash, tipped Don off that Amanda might be with Patrick. It was a Monday night, but the cruise was as good a place as any to find a teenager in Gillette.

It’s worth noting that runaway cases are not uncommon. Oftentimes, it isn’t until the first 24 hours come and go that real suspicion arises. A couple of weeks before the day Amanda was last seen, Wasson said it is believed she had sneaked out with Morganflash and met up with Patrick.

“This isn’t really uncommon,” Wasson said. “I remember, certainly, that night not believing that we’d be sitting here 24 years later and her not being here.”

Once she was reported missing, the hours moved fast and bled into days. Patrick was sought and found, then questioned and released. There was still hope Amanda could be found.

Then six days later, on Oct. 19, Ghering’s red pickup truck was found abandoned. He’s never been seen since.

Amanda disappeared on her way to school one morning and the last person to report seeing her, Patrick, went missing six days later.

When Patrick’s dad, Raymond, found his son’s truck, he drove it to his home and called the police. Police records show it was found facing the wrong side of traffic on a road behind Value Villa on Second Street. The driver’s seat was pulled close to the wheel, closer than Patrick would have likely driven it. Two watches and a handwritten letter, with handwriting identified as Amanda’s, were also found inside the truck.

Wasson couldn’t recall what the letter said, but is sure if it was pertinent to the case, it would have been documented.

But Cissy Gallion remembers. The exact details are fuzzy, but she remembers the letter and the sentiment of its message. She remembers the words of an angsty teenager, new to town and mad at her parents.

She also remembers the watch. It was from Amanda’s grandmother, “Nanny,” a watch she said her daughter would never knowingly leave behind.

“Her Nanny gave it to her when she passed away, which was only a couple months before that,” Cissy said. “Amanda was distraught over losing Nanny.”

Memory is a strange thing. It’s everything and also nothing. Everything we’ve seen, heard, known and forgotten is a function of memory. Then again, some say memories are stories we tell ourselves. We all trust our own narration and question everyone else’s, which is why, when it really matters, we rely upon documents. But in a case like Amanda’s, the documents serve as dots, with reason, thought, and memory the lines that connect them.

More than 20 years later, the dots on their own leave a lot of questions. The memories left to connect them aren’t what they once were.

The case was head-scratching at the time and only grew itchier in the decades since.

“There’s never any answer, never any closure,” Wasson said. “Until we have Amanda, we won’t (know), we can’t possibly understand what happened. It’s a mystery.”

Recognizing the mystery is one thing. Living with one is entirely different.

The Gallions moved to Gillette in September 1997, the same month Amanda turned 14 years old. Her mother, Cissy, lived in Gillette earlier that year as her own mother — Amanda’s “Nanny” — was in the hospital, dying from cancer.

After moving back to the Kansas City area, Cissy and Don decided to move the whole family to Gillette, to be closer to Cissy’s family.

Back then, Cissy worked the night shift at the Conoco in Gillette. Pre-millenium, that was one of the only after hours places to find food in town. She used to make sandwiches, pizzas, cinnamon rolls and anything else you would expect to find in a gas station at night.

Before Wasson knew her as Amanda’s mother, she was the woman he may have made small talk with a time or two when he ordered his sandwiches on his own night shift. That dynamic changed in the fall of 1997.

He kept ordering sandwiches at night, but the small talk at the counter grew heavier.

“He would just tell me if he had any leads or anything and if they tracked them down,” Cissy said. “Everything always came out to be nothing. He just at least kept me informed and made it seem like someone was doing something, working on it.”

There were many tips and leads throughout the years, none of which went very far.

Early on, Don told police of a series of suspicious phone calls to his residence following Amanda’s disappearance. He also said a family friend and a friend of Amanda’s from Kansas City, Missouri, told him they spotted Amanda in Kansas City. Documents show that he told police each of them reported seeing her associated with a blue car with Wyoming plates.

None of those reports led to anything of substance.

Missing person reports kept trickling in. A girl seen in Montana matching Amanda’s description. Another girl spotted in Florida with some similarities. Some psychics even tried their hand at predicting her whereabouts. One described witnessing her disappearance once in a dream.

“It became more and more difficult for me with going in there and not having any answers for her on where Amanda was,” Wasson said of his visits to the Conoco.

The Gallions eventually returned to Missouri. In the years since, their contact with Wasson waned. But throughout the years, he reached out when the department got new information on the case, or even just to touch base.

In the early 2000s, human remains were found in Montana but were confirmed not to be Amanda’s.

While watching the true crime series “48 Hours” one night in 2001, Wasson learned of a serial killer who, among his many murders, was suspected of killing a girl in Idaho in 1997. He called the Texas Ranger Division investigating that case. Like the leads and half-leads before, that one also hit a dead end.

As the years passed, Amanda’s case stayed on his mind. National headlines would crop up and Wasson often read the reports through the lens of whether Amanda could possibly be involved.

When the West Mesa Murders were discovered in New Mexico in 2009, he reached out to the Gallions for a more precise description of the jewelry Amanda may have been wearing at the time of her disappearance. He then scanned through images of personal belongings found with the 11 buried women, but didn’t find a match.

The Dating Game Killer, Rodney Alcala, is suspected of as many as 130 murders throughout the country, including one in Sweetwater County. He was convicted of five murders in California and later charged in Wyoming for the 1978 murder of Christine Ruth Thornton, who was 28 and pregnant at the time.

After talking with an FBI investigator on the Alcala case, Wasson said the timelines did not match up with Amanda’s disappearance.

Time continued to pass and the disappearances of both Amanda and Patrick remained open and cold.

Then in 2007, what appeared to be the biggest break in the case came.

Almost 10 years after Amanda was last seen, a new suspect emerged.

Aloysius Black Crow, a man incarcerated in South Dakota, told authorities that a man on trial for murder, James Strahl, told him that he raped and killed a young runaway girl, Amanda Gallion.

At that point, the Gillette Police Department, Wyoming DCI and South Dakota DCI came together to investigate the claims.

Black Crow said Strahl told him that Amanda’s body was in the bottom of Keyhole Reservoir, about halfway between Gillette and South Dakota. Background investigations and offline searches were conducted to place Black Crow or Strahl in Gillette around the time of Amanda’s disappearance, but to little avail.

Eventually, a search and rescue team used side-scan sonar to sweep the lake. Some vehicles and snowmobiles were found down there, but no sign of Amanda’s body.

Then, what seemed like a big break broke.

“Information surfaced that challenged the credibility of our witness,” Wasson said. “Actually, from what I recall, it showed that he had lied.”

Black Crow was charged with perjury for providing false information in the murder trial of another man, revealing him as a prison snitch and killing any credibility to his claims about Strahl and Amanda.

It isn’t clear how Black Crow knew of Amanda’s case, or how the story of her body sunk beneath Keyhole came to be. Like many elements of this case, what seemed like crucial evidence amounted to nothing of substance. More dots without any connections.

“There could be some truth to it, we have nowhere to go,” Wasson said.

Early on, a distinction was drawn in the cases of Amanda and Patrick. 

The Gallions lived in the city of Gillette, which is police jurisdiction. Patrick, on the other hand, lived in the county, which put his case in the hands of the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff’s Office investigator Josh Dedic took over the Ghering case when he became an investigator about one year ago. In the more than two decades since Patrick Ghering disappeared, multiple investigators have been assigned to the case, which is not uncommon. Fresh eyes can spot details that may have been missed.

Similarly in Amanda’s case, multiple detectives and officers worked parts of that case. Wasson was new to the department at the time. He’s the first to tell you what a collaborative effort the investigation has been. He may be the one still in touch with the Gallions, but he’s probably not the only officer to still care about Amanda’s case.

Wasson may have been new on the job in 1997 but Dedic was only 11 years old.

However, there’s something about a new set of eyes that can freshen up an old case. Dedic inherited Patrick’s case when he was promoted to investigator about a year ago. There can be a systematic approach to combing through old cases. He described reading and thinking through the case file notes multiple times from multiple perspectives. 

In one scenario, Patrick ran away. In another, something nefarious happened. So on and so forth through the endless decision matrix of possibilities.

“In terms of me, at this point, two decades later as the third or fourth investigator on it, I guess I‘ve got to keep a pretty broad perspective on those old cases,” Dedic said. “Especially not having first-hand interviews. I can read the interview, but that’s different than having lived it and asked the questions and answered the questions.”

In broad strokes, the Sheriff’s Office investigation into Patrick is similar to the search for Amanda. Witnesses were contacted, hypotheses were formed and ultimately nothing came of it. Rinse and repeat for the next investigators.

In the past few years, some unidentified bodies have been recovered with dental record matches for Patrick, Dedic said. But that’s apparently more common than one might think.

Even those led nowhere.

Another lead like that has not materialized in the decade or so since. The investigation is complicated but the central question remains simple: What happened to Amanda and Patrick?

There were multiple theories and endless possibilities as to what happened to Amanda and Patrick, as well as to what extent their cases could be related. Many of those theories have been reduced to speculation with time. Any answers only led to more questions.

The truth is, no one who investigated the case at the time has any better idea of what happened to them now than they did then.

“I think we did the best that we could,” Wasson said. “Obviously, for some unknown reason, Amanda’s not here. I wish we knew what it was and hope that we do find out some day what it was. But we know nothing. There’s a lot of speculation and it is that. That’s what it is.”

Cissy and Don are convinced that Patrick was involved with Amanda’s initial disappearance, but are as unsure as everyone else about exactly what happened after their daughter left for school that October morning.

Amanda left for school that day but packed for a trip. Cissy recalls a big black trash bag slung over Amanda’s shoulder and personal belongings missing from her closet. In the short time they lived in Gillette, Don and Cissy did not approve of Amanda spending time with Patrick.

“I knew he was trying to date Amanda and her dad flat out told him to stay away from her,” Cissy said.

Cissy said Amanda sneaked out to be with him on more than one occasion before disappearing.

“We just couldn’t keep them apart,” she said.

On one occasion after Amanda went missing, Don said he confronted a group of teenagers he suspected had information on his daughter’s disappearance. In that case, he pulled out a gun and shot a tire of their car, he said, to hold them for police to question them. He also said he was arrested for firing the gun, but that the case was eventually thrown out.

There is no prescribed manner in which to act when your daughter vanishes. Frustration is the least of it. The Gallions are still living through the impact from whatever happened on Oct. 13, 1997.

On some level, they have hope that Amanda will return home and walk through their door one day, like the last two decades were one long day of school. But they’ll settle for closure.

“I just wish we could find out one way or another what happened,” Cissy said.

In the years since Don and Wasson first crossed paths on the corner of Second Street and South Miller Avenue, many officers have joined the force and many officers have retired.

Some of them hang up the badge with that one case they still wish to solve.

“This would certainly be that case for me,” Wasson said. “It’s carried on the length of my career. I took the original report and have had contact with her family. I would love to see Amanda’s parents get answers. Get closure. I would love to see them reunited with their daughter.”

Unlike the young, wide-eyed officers they may have once been, not all get to retire believing they can still close every case.

It’s hard to picture Wasson ever being the wide-eyed type. He’s a realist. Even today, he is reluctant to share his story about Amanda’s disappearance. And for good reason. It’s a complicated story and one that deserves to be told right.

Also, it’s not his story.

It’s a story of a lost child and lost innocence. It’s a story of lost time and hope. Diminishing hope, but hope.

It’s Amanda’s story.

But it’s still Wasson’s case. And it’s still open.