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Raped and 'Murdered' 19 Years Ago, Woman Returns to Death : Crime: She 'died' after 1973 attack that killed her sister, local sheriff says. Her plunge from a canyon bridge just sealed her fate.

August 23, 1992|JULIA PRODIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CASPER, Wyo. — Rebecca Thomson Brown died the second time she plunged from the Fremont Canyon Bridge.

But friends say it was the first time 19 years ago that really killed her. The second time, just last month, merely sealed her fate.

It was the night of Sept. 24, 1973, when Rebecca and her 11-year-old sister Amy were abducted by a pair of wild-eyed hoodlums who surreptitiously slashed a tire on the girls' car at a Casper convenience store and then feigned an offer to take them home.

Instead, the men drove 40 miles southwest to the remote Fremont Canyon Bridge, a one-lane, steel-beamed structure rising 112 feet above the North Platte River.

Rebecca, then 18, was raped and brutally beaten, and the two girls were thrown over the bridge into the narrow gorge.

Amy fell straight down, hitting a rock near the river bank. She died. But Rebecca's fall was broken when her hips slammed into a ledge and ricocheted her body into deeper water.

With her hip fractured in five places, Rebecca managed to swim to shore. Naked from the waist down, she hid in the split of two rocks, covering herself with her long brown hair and sagebrush--and hearing her abductors' voices above. As the sun rose and the bridge yielded no one, she inched her broken body up a steep, gravel-covered rock slide, groping hand over hand to the roadside for help.

Nearly two decades later--on Friday, July 31--she returned to the scene she had avoided since that pitch-black night, and plunged off the bridge. No one knows if she jumped or fell.

"She was raped and murdered 19 years ago, but she just died Friday," said Natrona County Sheriff Dave Dovala, who had arrested the two men the day after Rebecca crawled out of the gorge.

On the day she died, Rebecca, 37, had ignored her boyfriend's pleading and driven along the winding, hilly country roads to the Fremont Canyon Bridge.

The sky was clear and the sun was setting, casting long shadows across the rocky hillside above and darkening the shallow, slow-moving river below. Standing perilously above the narrow gorge--its red rock walls ribboned with the greens and grays of life and death--she plunged to her death.

"The weather changed after she went off that bridge," said Dovala, who had given Rebecca away at her wedding three years ago. "It started thundering and lightning, and the wind shifted twice. It was real eerie. It was like somebody was telling us something."

Rebecca's boyfriend and her 2-year-old daughter from her failed marriage were with her the night she died.

The boyfriend, who agreed to be interviewed by the Associated Press on the condition that his name not be used, said Rebecca wouldn't tell him why she wanted to return to the bridge.

"She just said she had to go there," he said. "The more I told her not to go out there, the faster she went. When she hit 70 m.p.h., that's when I shut up."

Rebecca pulled the car to the far side of the bridge, and the three then walked beside the waist-high railing. Rebecca pointed to where the men had raped her, where they had thrown her over, where she hit the protruding rock ledge, where she spent the night, shivering.

Dangling her legs through the railing and resting her arms on top, she cried as she told her boyfriend how she had successfully begged the men not to rape Amy.

"She said, 'I love you,' and ran her hands through my hair," he said. "I told her the baby shouldn't see her cry. So I started walking back to the car."

That's when he heard the crash of Rebecca's body hitting the water--an unbearable sound that echoed up the canyon walls and still echoes through his mind.

"Why this happened I'll never know. But I'll never forget that sound or that sight," the 33-year-old welder said, his eyes filling with tears.

He ran back to the bridge with her daughter in his arms, yelling, "Rebecca, Rebecca, answer me! I just couldn't find her. I just couldn't find her. I was screaming and crying and the baby was screaming and crying."

Police, who have ruled out foul play, pulled Rebecca's body out of the water about an hour later--where they had found Amy. She had landed near the bank in about 3 feet of water. Like her sister 19 years ago, she had a broken neck and massive head injuries.

While no one will ever know exactly what went through Rebecca's mind in the last few moments of her life, the events in the weeks and hours leading up to her death remain eerily prophetic, strangely profound.

The week before, she bought "Ode to Billy Joe," a movie about a boy who couldn't cope with memories of being molested by an older man and jumped off Mississippi's Tallahatchie Bridge. She watched it four times that week with her boyfriend and cried each time, he said.

"She just said, 'I had to see this show because it reminds me,' " he said. "I said 'Why?' She said, 'I like to cry.' "

Her friends and family say Rebecca lived in fear that her abductors, Ronald Leroy Kennedy and Jerry Lee Jenkins, would either escape from the Wyoming State Penitentiary or be paroled and return to kill her.

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