'She Just Walked Off the Planet'

Spring has come skipping all at once into the San Joaquin Valley. Almond and peach trees are exploding in white and pink blossoms. Children have put away their parkas and rediscovered last summer's short pants and T-shirts. Baseballs are in flight. The air smells of new grasses and also of fresh snow, a scent carried down by afternoon breezes from the still-whitened peaks of the Sierra Nevada.

All of this is lost on the small family inside the low-slung brown house on Birch Street, the one with yellow ribbons on every tree, with missing person posters in every front window. This is a house filled with the smell of Camel cigarettes, smoked one after another by father and mother. This is a winter house of darkened rooms and of sallow, sunken faces, of eyes made red by fitful sleep, too much television news and tears.

This is a house in waiting, a house where time stopped at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 25, when little Traci Rene Conrad--4-foot-10, 84 pounds, brown eyes behind silver glasses, shoulder-length brown hair, chipped front tooth, the posters tell it all--headed for the front door.

"Where are you going, Rene?" her 13-year-old sister asked.

"None of your business," the 11-year-old shot back, laughing.

And then she was gone.

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Officially, Rene Conrad is considered a "missing child at risk." The experts in child abduction have a less formal classification

for her kind of case. They call them "poofs." As in: She just walked out the door and, poof! After two weeks of searches, door to door, aerial, across fields and underwater, Rene's disappearance remains an absolute mystery. Investigators--police and FBI, volunteer and psychic--have uncovered no signs of an abduction, no evidence of crime. No clues.

This is not, they do say, one of those cases where a divorced parent comes to steal back a child. Nor does it appear to be a matter of a delinquent youngster running off to join the circus. Rene had spent that last Sunday morning singing in the church choir. She came home and loaded the dishwasher. She started work on a book report.

Halfway finished, she went into the family room where her father was watching stock car races on television. She asked if she could go play at a friend's house one block away. He said sure, and reminded her not to forget to wear a jacket. It was still winter then. Her last words to him were: "See ya, Dad."

Later, bloodhounds would follow her scent to the friend's house. Nobody had been home, though, at the time Rene came calling. The dogs tracked her next to a park half a mile away, to a pond where she liked to catch frogs. What happened next is anybody's guess. They drained the pond and found nothing. Nobody in this town--and seemingly almost everybody has been debriefed--remembers seeing the girl. It was as if, her mother says, "she just walked off the planet."

Poof.

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Here in Hanford, a clean, prosperous farm town of 38,000, public response has been moving, if predictable. It's almost sad how good, how uniformly polished, small towns have gotten at reacting to vanished children and other big city horrors. Yellow ribbons hang from trees and mailboxes. Posters are plastered in every storefront. Everyone here says the case has brought the community together. For public consumption, townsfolk will say bravely Rene will turn up. Among themselves, they pass along rumors of occult sacrifices and refer to her in the past tense.

For the parents, hope is all they have right now. As the father, a lanky, bearded paint salesman named Chris Conrad, puts it: "We still believe with all our hearts that Rene is alive and with somebody. I don't believe she is in that place by her free will. . . . We will never ever give up hope. Nor will we stop looking for her."

Again, this is what parents say in these cases. It's as though they read from the same script, passed down from one to another, from the father of Kevin Collins, to the father of Polly Klaas, and now to the father of Rene Conrad. It would be more than a comfort, in these cynical times of ours, if for once the words could be proven true, if for once the child could just come skipping home--poof!--a miracle of spring. In the meantime, in a house here on Birch Street, winter lingers.

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