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Prosecutor details desperate search, intense investigation that ended in Kibby's arrest

New Hampshire Sunday News

May 28. 2016 8:26PM
Associate Atttorney General Jane Young and Assistant Attorney General John Kennedy met with the Union Leader on Friday to discuss previously unreleased details of the Nathaniel Kibby kidnapping case. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)

From the start, Jane Young feared the worst.

When she heard that a 14-year-old girl was missing in Conway on Oct. 9, 2013, Young, the associate attorney general, called Conway police and offered to help; they gratefully accepted. "We were there the next day," she said.

That first night, Young remembers lying awake in a Conway motel room, wearing pajamas she hastily purchased at the Settlers Green outlet mall. "Where is she?" she wondered over and over. "Is she OK? Is she dead? Is she alive?"

Where is she?

For more than nine months, federal, state and local law enforcement would keep searching for the girl, who disappeared just days before her 15th birthday. The FBI was called in within 24 hours, a sign of just how seriously authorities were viewing the case.

For there were ominous signs that something terrible had happened to her.

At 2:53 p.m. on the day she disappeared, the girl sent a text message to her boyfriend. Twelve minutes later, the phone's signal disappeared completely.

And so had the girl.

But her clothes, money and computer were all left in her room.

"She disappeared off the face of the earth, without a trace," Young said.

They would learn much later that Nathaniel Kibby of Gorham had offered the girl a ride as she walked home from school that day. Her feet were blistered from new boots, so she accepted the ride. But he drove in a different direction from the place where she asked to be dropped off.

Kibby pulled a gun on her, and used a Taser to shock her repeatedly. He snapped her phone in half, severing the connection that could have helped police find her.

Investigators pinned down the area where the girl's phone had gone dark near Settlers Green.

And that led to a disturbing conclusion. It was too far from where the girl had sent her last text for her to have walked - or even run - there. "So you have to be in a vehicle moving in that direction," Young said.

State police, the FBI, the Secret Service and Fish and Game all joined local police and the Attorney General's Office in the search.

They checked with local businesses to see if anyone had come in early or late, or called in sick. They looked at sex offenders in the area.

They set up a canvass and roadblock at the same time the girl disappeared. It was a route Kibby drove daily to work, but on the day of the canvass, he happened to leave work early, Young said.

Kibby also passed the police station every day, they would later learn. "We'd be there looking for her, and he'd be driving by," Young said.

O ver the months, there were reported sightings of the girl; all turned out to be dead ends. "And all the while, she is detained and being brutalized daily in Gorham," Young said.

"There was not one day in those nine-and-a-half months that the authorities weren't trying to find her," she said. There were more than 1,000 tips and they responded to every one.

But despite all that, Kibby "never came on our radar screen," Young said. "And as law enforcement, that frightens us more than anything."

In the weeks and months after the girl disappeared, Young said there was "rampant rumor and speculation." Social media chatter - even her own father - suggested the girl could have run away.

Authorities didn't believe it, Young said. "This didn't fit her pattern," she said. "She wasn't a child who had ever run away before."

There's a hard lesson to be learned, Young said, for those who jumped to conclusions about the girl and what had happened to her. Sometimes, she said, "Very awful things happen to really good people."

There were false leads, false hopes. Once, the girl's mother got a call from someone who told her they knew where her daughter was and would send her home on a bus if the mother sent money.

Police traced the call to a prison in Tennessee. They locked down the prison and traced the phone to an inmate who had run similar scams before, trolling the internet for reports of missing kids.

In all that time, Young said the girl's mother never gave up her belief that her child was alive. "I don't know that I shared that," she said.

Then, on July 20, 2014, just as suddenly as the girl had disappeared, she was home. Authorities and her family pleaded for privacy even as many who had searched for her demanded answers.

What finally led to Kibby's capture had nothing to do with the kidnapping and torture. It turned out he had been counterfeiting money and had used it to pay a prostitute.

The woman got arrested for passing false currency on July 17, 2014, and she called Kibby.

Fearing the police were coming for him, Kibby told the victim he had to get rid of the evidence, "including you." She helped him to scrub the room where he had kept her, and then he dropped her off near her house.

When state police interviewed the girl that night, she gave an account of her kidnapping, but provided a false description of the man that was put out to the media. Investigators later learned that Kibby had coached her on what to say and how to draw a phony sketch, Young said.

Investigators knew there was more to the story. The young girl had scars on her neck that had healed, from the shock collar Kibby had used to control her. There were bruises on her leg. "It was pretty clear that she had endured some trauma," Young said.

Experts who had dealt with other trauma victims advised Young to take it slowly, that the girl would reveal her story as she was able. And that's what happened.

A week after she came home, the girl told Conway police who her kidnapper was. She also described the Declaration of Independence Kibby had hanging on a wall.

And that's when one of the local investigators knew they had their man; he had been to Kibby's house before and knew the poster.

They also realized that Kibby had weapons. He had gotten into a dispute over a car crash that March, been arrested for assault and had to turn over his guns as a bail condition.

But the week after the girl arrived home, Kibby's assault case was resolved and he had gone to the Conway police department to retrieve his guns. The Conway chief was at the police station talking about the case with a reporter when Kibby came to get his guns, Young said.

"By the time we realize who he is, that Sunday night, we then realize that he has every weapon back," Young said.

State police sent a SWAT team to arrest him on July 28. Kibby was outside and didn't put up a fight.

A sked if Nathaniel Kibby is evil, Young said it's not hers to say. "Certainly, his acts are," she said.

"I've been doing this job a long time, and there's nothing that comes close to this."

In fact, there are only a few such cases nationally, Young said: Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, the three victims of Ariel Castro in Cleveland.

Now, the Conway girl joins the ranks of these survivors.

And Young vowed that Nathaniel Kibby will never set foot outside prison again.

On Thursday, Kibby pleaded guilty to kidnapping, rape and other charges. He was sentenced to consecutive prison terms totaling 45 to 90 years.

And while state law allows someone to seek parole after the minimum sentence, Young said the AG's Office believes Kibby will remain in prison "for the rest of his natural life."

Young said the desire to protect his victim, now 17, from having to relive her ordeal in court weighed heavily in the state's decision to offer a plea deal in the case.

The state was confident it would win the case, she said. "But if we could spare her one more moment of distress, we would do that, provided we had a level of confidence that he was never going to get out."

In describing the state's evidence to Judge Larry Smukler at the start of the plea hearing in Belknap County Superior Court Thursday, Young said she had to sanitize some of the graphic details. But at trial, all those details would have come out.

"The painstaking details that she would have had to testify to would have just been brutal," she said.

John Kennedy is an assistant attorney general, part of the "dream team" Young assembled to prepare for trial. He said prosecutors worried about putting the young victim through the rigors of cross-examination.

"There was concern not only does she have to say all this, but she has to deal with someone calling her a liar," he said.

Young said another concern was for the jury in such a horrific trial. "Even if we draw 18 jurors, are you going to get to the end of the trial with 12 who say 'we can't do this anymore'?"

Kennedy said Kibby won't be eligible for parole until he's almost 80, and he doesn't expect it to be granted then. "A leopard doesn't change his spots," he said.

So the court case is over, but the fear lingers. "Because what we learned in this case is it could happen to anybody's kid," Young said.

So what do you do with that knowledge?

"Hug your kids," she said. "And tell them all those same stories: Don't talk to strangers. Don't get in cars."

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