The Stepmother and the Boy Who Went Missing: Kyron's Saga

The Stepmother and the Boy Who Went Missing: Kyron Horman

Posted Jul 02, 2010

The heartbreaking, gut-wrenching story of Kyron Horman, the seven-year-old Oregon boy who disappeared from his school a month ago, is a parent's and stepparent's worst nightmare. It is also a cultural Rorschach test of sorts, a story larger than the sum of its parts. While we try, following his father's exhortations, to "keep hope alive" for the bespectacled, adorable Kyron, we may not even think to consider why the presumption of innocence, arguably the most important concept in modern U.S. criminal law, has not been extended to his stepmother, Terri Horman. At least not by the media and much of the public.

Terri Horman, a mother and reading specialist who raised Kyron from the time he was three days old, has been a custodial stepparent, and has essentially parented him his entire life, is in the spotlight in recent weeks. Initially, people became suspicious, it seems, when she went to the gym several days after Kyron went missing, as reported by ABC News, and posted as much on her Facebook page ("Hitting the gym"). Never mind that in such circumstances, families may well be told to keep up their normal daily activities and rituals as best they can, that exercise has stress-reduction benefits, and that Horman is a former amateur bodybuilder. Then there were unconfirmed reports that pings from Terri's Horman's cellphone did not jibe with her account of what she had done the day she said she dropped Kyron off. In recent days Horman also took a polygraph test, the results of which were not made available to the public or the press. Horman took yet another hit when it was revealed that she had posted anonymously (she thought) in defense of herself on the Portland ABC affiliate KATU's web site. There she said such apparently damning things as "since you do not have the facts...please refrain from accusations."

On the evening Saturday June 26, two 911 calls were made from the home of Terri Horman and her husband, Kaine Horman. One of those calls was described as "threat related" and the other a "custody call." Two days later, Kaine Horman filed for divorce from Terri Horman, requested a restraining order against her, and moved for emergency custody of their 18-month-old daughter. Such a motion would only be granted, according to legal analysts, if a judge determined Terri Horman to be "an immediate threat" to her husband and child. The restraining order included a prohibition against Terri Horman using firearms. Terri Horman recently hired defense attorney Stephen Houze, and it is not difficult to read into reports by the press that he is "prominent," and the list of others he has defended, the intimation that Terri Horman must have something to hide.

Now Kyron's natural parents (as Kaine Horman describes himself and his ex-wife, Desiree Young) have made a public plea for Terri Horman to cooperate with investigators (the remarks, made by Young at a press conference, have been characterized by the media, literally and quite predictably, as "Stepmother versus Mother"). Confusingly, perhaps, investigators had only recently told the media that Terri Horman and the entire family were cooperating with the investigation.

It looks pretty bad for Terri Horman. Although she has not (yet) been named a suspect or even a person of interest in the investigation, a review of chat boards in Oregon and nation-wide suggests that there is public sentiment that it is only a matter of time. Recently her claim, backed up with a photo, that she had dropped Kyron off at his school science fair that morning and then watched him walk down the hall to his classroom afterward, has been thrown into doubt: fliers were sent out by Portland police asking if anyone had actually seen Terri Horman or her white pick up truck on the morning of Kyron's disappearance.

How else might we understand her "suspicious" actions? Put another way, how might we understand our own suspicions of her? The Facebook posting may have been unthinking, insensitive. But does going to the gym make a person a killer? Does posting in her own defense on a website necessarily mean she's guilty of anything other than posting in her own defense on a website? We might also ask, Since when is that a crime, any more than hiring a defense lawyer when you feel backed into a corner by the tide of public sentiment, and perhaps a criminal investigation, turning against you? Again, hiring a lawyer in itself indicates nothing other than being party to the legal system and sensing that you may, rightfully or wrongly, be accused of a crime; it's proof of nothing. The same is true even of the DUI and reckless endangerment convictions the media recently reported on, based on Terri Horman's prior conviction for driving intoxicated with her then 11-year-old son in the car. A mother who made stupid choices and terrible mistakes does not necessarily make a homicidal stepmother. Yet the slide that links one to the other in our minds is uncannily comfortable, nearly intuitive.

The fact that there was a domestic dispute between Terri Horman and her now estranged husband is unlikely to surprise anyone with a background in psychology, or a shred of common sense. The couple has been under the enormous, virtually inconceivable strain of dealing with the disappearance of a child they have jointly raised, and the added pressure of one of them being suspected of criminal involvement in the child's disappearance. Divorce would also be par for the course here, as it was in the case when Jaycee Dugard disappeared for 18 years. Dugard had been kidnapped by a serial rapist, and lived as a prisoner in a compound behind his home, bearing him two children. Yet investigators initially focused on Dugard's stepfather, Carl Probyn, who was the last person to see Jaycee before her disappearance; he reported that she had been abducted by a couple in a gray four-door car, and that he set out in pursuit on his mountain bike. In spite of his innocence, the weight of suspicion and their grief over Jaycee's disappearance led to the separation of Probyn and Jaycee's mother.

Earlier history may also have lessons to impart. In my book Stepmonster, I consider at length the case of Edna Mumbulo, convicted in 1930, on circumstantial evidence and amid conflicting testimony, of having killed her 11-year-old stepdaughter by lighting her on fire. Eight years later, the judge who had presided over the case recommended she be granted a pardon, saying he had always had serious doubts about her guilt.

Criminologist and historian Joseph Laythe has suggested that, in cases where there is no easy answer, and in circumstances that are indeterminate, a framework such as "the wicked stepmother" guides the public to organize what it thinks it knows into a familiar and recognizable pattern. Time may tell if this is the case with Terri Korman. Or, as with Edna Mumbulo, time may not tell us anything at all. We can only hope and pray for Kyron's well-being and safe return, and we can only imagine the grief of his family, his teachers, and the whole community that loves him and their own children. It is easy to imagine that Terri Horman is guilty. The question is, why is it so hard to imagine she might not be?