The roar of the Chevy, its muffler missing, pierced the serenity of the sunny winter morning as the car sputtered to a halt along a desolate stretch of gravel road.
The teen-age girls in rumpled jeans got out and opened the trunk. Inside, Shanda Renee Sharer--bludgeoned with a tire tool and tortured for hours--lay shivering against the bitter cold, wearing only her underpants.
Nearly nine hours earlier, the 12-year-old girl had been lured into the car, where an adversary who for months had wished her dead was hiding. Melinda Loveless, then 16, suspected Shanda had stolen her lesbian lover.
During the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 11, 1992, the young girl was sodomized with the tire tool and repeatedly beaten unconscious, investigators say. She was choked with a cord, and her legs were sliced with a knife.
"Mommy," Shanda whimpered, the only word she could muster near the end. She wept softly, slumped on the frozen ground beside Camp Meeting Road. An old blanket she had clutched in the trunk was draped over her and soaked with gasoline from a large plastic pop bottle.
She was burned alive. Witnesses later would recall Loveless' glee at watching her rival die.
For two weeks stretching into January, Jacqueline Vaught gripped the hands of loved ones for support as the details of her daughter's death unfolded during court hearings.
"I had to be there," Vaught said of the separate sentencing proceedings for Melinda Loveless, now 17, and Mary Laurine Tackett, 18. They pleaded guilty to murder, arson and criminal confinement and were sentenced to 60 years each in prison. Another girl pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal confinement and was sentenced last week to 20 years, and a fourth faces trial.
What is hardest for many to grasp is what could lead anyone so young to savage a child for nearly eight hours and then kill her.
"Those girls were not born murderers," Vaught said. "Something made them capable of this."
In their own attempt at an explanation, two of Loveless' sisters and two cousins testified at her hearing that her father, Larry Loveless, had forced them as young children to have sex with him. They did not say whether Melinda was abused.
This month, an Indiana warrant charged Loveless with 11 counts of child sex abuse from 1968 to 1989, years he lived with the family in New Albany, Ind.
An affidavit filed in Floyd County Circuit Court alleges that Loveless, who is fighting extradition in Florida, once chained together three girls and forced anal intercourse upon them. Another time, he sexually penetrated a girl with a loaded pistol, it charges.
The affidavit did not identify any of the girls or say if any were related to Loveless, but county prosecutor Stan Faith called him "a part of the cause and effect of all these events."
Tackett, meanwhile, grew up in a strictly religious household. Rock music, movies and other staples of adolescent social life were off-limits. In rebellion, she shaved her head, began wearing black and dabbled in the occult, witnesses at her hearing said. She claimed she spoke with the dead, including the spirit of a vampire, and told friends she wanted to watch someone die.
Shortly after Shanda's death, witnesses said, Tackett proposed a seance to ask her ghost how it felt to die by fire.
What would explain the involvement of the two younger girls, Toni Lawrence and Hope A. Rippey? Perhaps, experts said, it could be attributed to things as simple as peer pressure and the thirst teens have for acceptance.
Lawrence and Rippey, both then 15, knew Mary Laurine Tackett. But neither had met Melinda Loveless or Shanda before the night of Jan. 10, 1992. They had joined Tackett and Loveless that Friday night for what they thought would be a rock concert in Louisville, about 50 miles away.
But soon they were told of a plan "to kill this little girl," Jefferson County Prosecutor Guy Townsend said.
Tackett, Lawrence and Rippey tricked Shanda into sneaking out of her father's house in Jeffersonville, Ind., shortly before midnight, Townsend said.
According to testimony, they told Shanda that the 15-year-old girl who had been Loveless' lover wanted to see her and that they had come to give her a ride. Vaught had forbidden Shanda from seeing the 15-year-old after she found sexually suggestive letters the girl had written her daughter.
It was one of Shanda's evenings with her father, Stephen Sharer, who is divorced from Vaught. He never heard her leave.
When the car was in motion, Loveless sprang from hiding, grabbed Shanda from behind by the hair and pressed a knife to her throat. Terrified, Shanda begged in vain for the others to help her.
The next morning, the four agreed over breakfast that if they remained silent, no one could link them to the killing, Townsend said. But by that night, Toni Lawrence had become hysterical and told police more than they needed to arrest all four. They have been jailed ever since.
Lawrence, now 16, wept but made no statement as Jefferson Circuit Judge Ted R. Todd imposed the maximum sentence. Rippey has pleaded innocent and requested that her trial on charges of murder, conspiracy, assault, arson and criminal confinement be moved; it is scheduled for March 1.
More than a year later, the case still torments those closest to it.
"If I said I hadn't lost sleep over this, I'd be lying," said Indiana State Police Detective Steve Henry, the chief investigator. "The hardest part is the age of the people we're dealing with."
The case also has unsettled Madison, a picturesque town of antique shops, cozy bed-and-breakfasts and 19th-Century houses nestled along the Ohio River.
"We're branded now as that town that spawned the murderers," said attorney Michael Walro, who defended Loveless. "Stephen King couldn't come up with a plot like this."
Inevitably, movie and television producers are vying for exclusive rights to first-person accounts of the crime from the only witnesses to it: the girls themselves. That prompted Vaught and Sharer to sue the girls for $1 billion to ensure they never receive any profits for selling their stories.
Vaught said the family will not rule out a book or program of its own.
"If it comes to a time when it's inevitable that the story will be told, we probably would," she said.
But the family's story would not dwell on the way Shanda died, Vaught said. Instead, she said, it would focus on how parents can ward off such atrocities in the future.
"I just want parents to start loving their children again and caring for them again," she said. "This is what I can do for Shanda now. Shanda keeps me strong."