Reprinted by permission of the author.
The air was February cool and filled with drizzle, daylight was fading and a man standing under an elm tree at the corner of a neighborhood park was beckoning to 12-year-old Susie Dixon.
He forced her into his car, drove to an alley and raped her. Then he disappeared into the San Fernando Valley.
For the next two years, two months and two days, Susie, her mother, her father, her four sisters and her brother stalked the quiet streets of the valley.
With Susie’s pencil sketch of the brown car and its driver their only clues, they hunted one automobile in a valley of three-car garages and more than a million people. One brown needle in the haystack of Los Angeles.
For 792 days, there were no picnics, no trips to Disneyland, no backyard gardening — only a search that became one family’s obsession.
Before it ended, in April 1984, the hunt would consume the family. Susie saw her assailant’s face in dreams. Her parents showed up at the wedding of a stranger and followed cars down dead-end alleys and into driveways. Her sisters, pencils and paper in hand, staked out freeway ramps.
Before it began, the Dixons led a rather ordinary suburban life in their $250,000 chocolate brown house. The home, with a tile roof and three-car garage, sits on the crest of a hill, the brown Santa Susana Mountains visible from the backyard pool.
Frank Dixon’s obsession had been that fertile backyard where trees and shrubs produce oranges, lemons, plums, figs and, his daughter Susie’s favorites, kumquats and pomegranates. Quiet, gray-haired and 54, he owns an investment business in the neighborhood.
Lucy Dixon’s life had centered on the family. With six children, and a seventh on the way, she cooked meals, carted youngsters to school and shopping malls, piano lessons and part-time jobs. She is 39, slim, tanned and dark-haired, and looks more like one of her four teen-age daughters than their mother.
All that began to change on Feb. 10, 1982.
Susie, a seventh grader with dark wavy hair that fell to her waist, had stayed late at school to practice flag routines with the drill team. She tried to call her father for a ride. No answer. She realized later she must have misdialed. She decided to walk the 2 1/2 miles home.
She passed familiar landmarks — McDonald’s, two shopping centers, an Exxon station. At the edge of Mason Park, she saw the man standing under an elm tree. “Tracy,” the man called. Then again. “Tracy.”
Susie stopped. “That’s not my name,” she said. “I’m Susie.”
“OK, Susie,” said the man, now close enough to touch her. “I have a gun and I want you to close your eyes and come with me.”
An hour later, still carrying her schoolbooks, Susie walked into a supermarket and told clerks what had happened. They called the police.
“When we brought her home, she went straight into her older sisters’ bedroom,” remembered Mrs. Dixon. “They reached out and grabbed her and pulled her into bed. They just sat there at the headboard and cried with her.”
That night the hunt began.
At their request, and to protect the privacy of the rape victim and her family, the Dixons’ first and last names, and the names of other relatives, have been changed here. Their story was verified by Detective Edward Evans, of the Los Angeles Police Department.
In the Dixons’ den that night, the clues — everything Susie had told the police — tumbled out. She hadn’t seen the license plate, but she sketched the shape of the man’s car. It was box-like, she said, and dark brown.
She remembered the interior, too. A slanting armrest. Brown-checked cloth upholstery. A stick shift that had “hairbrushes” beside it.
On Saturday, Susie and her parents drove to a Mazda dealership in nearby Sepulveda. They had decided to try to identify the car.
“It was just a way of doing something,” Mrs. Dixon said. “Everybody’s advice was just to block it out of our minds and forget it. We just couldn’t.”
Susie ran from car to car while her parents talked to the salesman. The Mazdas and Oldsmobiles on the lot weren’t square enough, Susie said.
“Suddenly, it dawned on us,” her father said. “It must be a Mercedes.”
So they drove back across the valley to Roscoe Avenue, where car dealers stand bumper to bumper. AMC. Volkswagen. Ford. Dodge. Plymouth. Mercedes.
They stopped at J.M. Bess Mercedes-Volvo. In the back of the lot where the used cars are kept, Susie found it.
“That’s it! That’s it!” she yelled to her father. It wasn’t the same color, it didn’t have the same interior, but it had the slanted armrest and the “hairbrush” — bristles on both sides of the stick shift.
It wasn’t a Mercedes. It was a Volvo.
The Dixons returned five times. They asked the salesman about gear shifts. They asked about colors. They asked about upholstery. They never let on why they wanted to know.
Susie found the brown paint in the salesman’s catalog. It was not available on newer cars and had only been used for three years, as had the “hairbrush” gear shift.
The upholstery was the key. It had been available only one year — 1980.
“That was more than we had had any hope of getting,” Mrs. Dixon said.
They worked on the man’s description. He had been wearing dark slacks and a beige jacket with brown elbow patches. The composite, drawn by a police artist with Susie’s help, “could have fit a thousand people,” Mrs. Dixon said.
But Susie had an eye for detail. Night after night, sitting at the kitchen table or in her bedroom, she would draw the man’s features.
The lips. The jaw. The forehead. The eyes. He had told her to keep her eyes closed. But she had peeked anyway. She remembered him in pieces; she couldn’t bring herself to put the whole face on paper.
The family moved into action.
Mrs. Dixon drove to the park every afternoon at 4. Perhaps, she thought, he would return and try again. Her older daughters, then 14, 16 and 19, sat on the grass beside the car. They usually stayed until dusk.
When they spotted a dark brown Volvo they tailed it until they could get a good look at the driver. If he resembled Susie’s description, they copied the license number.
At his desk in the LAPD’s Devonshire office, Evans ran the numbers through the state computer and collected driver’s license photographs of the owners. If a photo looked promising, he put together a photo lineup and showed it to Susie.
The family stakeouts continued. And the area widened.
Mrs. Dixon began rising before dawn, packing her 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter into the car and parking at an entrance ramp to the freeway. Often she was still wearing her nightgown.
The youngest two children didn’t understand what had happened to their sister. All they knew was that they were looking for what one of them called “the car that hurt Susie.”
Dixon was keeping an eye out for brown Volvos in his business trips in the region, covering an area 120 miles across. On his way home one afternoon, he found his wife parked in a service station parking lot.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“You know what I’m doing,” she said. She’d had a hunch.
At night, the family would compare notes and decide where to look the next day.
“Sometimes, I stood back and looked at it on the whole,” Mrs. Dixon said. “What I was doing was so large and I was like a little ant. Instead of saying, ‘Forget it, lady,’ I narrowed my vision down to one area. In that area, I would be waiting.”
Susie’s friends told her it was hopeless. Mrs. Dixon found her in her closet one afternoon, crying. She took Susie by the shoulders.
“Under no condition,” Mrs. Dixon told her, “is he going to destroy us.”
The rape crisis center suggested that Susie and her family talk it out, then try to forget. They talked, but they could not forget. Susie saw a psychiatrist three times but decided it was a waste of time. “If I had guilt, she could cure me,” Susie said. “I have no guilt.”
The Dixon teenagers began calling their mother “Sherlock Holmes.” Mrs. Dixon didn’t feel much like a detective.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” she said. “But it was just a way to tell Susie: ‘Susie, we’re all there for you.”‘
Each morning on the phone, Mrs. Dixon confided in two of her sisters who also live in Southern California. Sometimes she’d get angry and talk about the horrid things she’d do to the man if she ever found him. But it was just that. Talk.
Mrs. Dixon wasn’t sure who she was mad at, but it was the car she was after. Her sisters also looked for the car.
After a few months, Mrs. Dixon began dropping one teen-age daughter at the on-ramp to the freeway and another at the off-ramp for evening rush hours. Each girl was armed with pencil and paper.
After a while, it got on their nerves. “It was no fun sitting there in the sun, watching cars and trying to copy down license numbers,” Mrs. Dixon said.
Even at the grocery store, Mrs. Dixon was on the lookout. She studied the men in front of her in line. Every man became a target.
Four months later, another girl was molested by a man fitting the same description at the same park. “We knew we were on the right track,” Mrs. Dixon said.
She became a fixture in the park. Police officers patroling in unmarked cars nodded and smiled as they passed her. They knew why she was there.
Summer arrived. A hot summer. The red-yellow smog rolled in over the Hollywood Hills, filling up the valley day after day. The temperature often soared above 100.
Mrs. Dixon, by now five months pregnant, sat sweating in her Chevette, her small children strapped into the back seat.
“One time, the kids were so quiet and it was so hot in the car, I turned around and saw them sitting back there, their faces all red. And I felt so guilty. But I did that to them a lot,” she said.
One afternoon, she took her son, John, into her arms and headed for the door. He stiffened and bit her. He knew where they were going — back into the car.
Mrs. Dixon had enjoyed her previous pregnancies. Her nails always grew strong and her hair lustrous. But not this time. Her hair began to fall out in front; the long nails she was so proud of turned brittle.
Her rules for the children changed, too. Before, they’d had the run of the neighborhood. The girls used to roller-skate to the shopping center and play in the hills behind the house.
But no more. She began locking the gate in the front yard and gave her children orders to call home when they arrived at a neighbor’s house.
The family discussed moving, but “staying here was my only hope of ever finding him,” Mrs. Dixon said.
“If we didn’t pursue this, then tomorrow, or the next day or next year, it could happen to someone else,” her husband said.
Susie played softball that summer – in Mason Park. A photograph taken then shows the grinning young girl holding an oversized baseball glove.
But she hadn’t forgotten. One Friday night at a neighborhood roller rink, Susie became hysterical.
“Oh, Momma, I saw him,” Susie said. “I just got this horrible, chilling feeling, and I could see his face.”
It was a flashback. Susie had several that first year and she sought advice from Evans. He had seen molested girls turn to prostitution and commit suicide. He didn’t want that happening to Susie.
He listened. He assured her that he was still looking. As the weeks and then months passed, Susie and the detective grew closer. “She was having extreme difficulty dealing in her own mind with what happened,” he said.
Another school year began. The Dixons’ seventh child, a boy, was born.
They were still looking.
Among all the leads that first year, the most promising began when the Dixons spotted a brown Volvo in a restaurant parking lot 30 miles from their home. They went inside for a cup of coffee.
When a waitress left in the Volvo, the Dixons followed her home. The waitress pulled into a driveway — right next to a red Volvo. Both had dealer’s tags.
The next day, Dixon went to the dealership. He looked for the brown Volvo. It didn’t show up. He went back again and again. He was parked on the street waiting when a brown Volvo pulled into the lot.
The driver didn’t fit the description.
For the next few weeks, they parked across the street from the waitress’s house for several hours at a time, hoping for a look at the other men who lived there.
They had the waitress’s first name from her nametag. They called the restaurant and a busboy gave them the last name.
But that didn’t help, either, until Mrs. Dixon spotted a story in the valley newspaper: one of the Volvo dealer’s sons was getting married.
Dressed in their fanciest clothes, they sat in the church and watched everyone come through the door.
No one fit the description, and none of the Volvos parked outside matched the one they were looking for. Another dead end.
It was now 10 months after the rape. The strain on Susie’s mother was getting worse.
“She became ruled by this personal debt,” said Mrs. Dixon’s sister, June Murray. “Sometimes I felt like she was beginning to think the sexual assault had happened to her, not to her daughter.”
One night Mrs. Dixon thought she was having a heart attack. Her husband rushed her to the hospital. The doctors blamed nerves. She was sleeping only five hours a night and had begun chain-smoking.
It was February again. February 1983. And the Dixons were no closer to finding the car.
Had he sold it? Had he moved? Mrs. Dixon’s biggest fear was that he was dead and she’d never know. “It scared her to death that she would have to live her whole life with this on her mind,” Mrs. Murray said.
By the second year, Mrs. Dixon wasn’t the only one feeling the strain. Barbara, a high school senior, was growing bitter about the hunt and the attention it was getting, causing her to do poorly at school.
“She needed her mom more than anything at that point and Mom wasn’t there for her,” Mrs. Murray said.
When John drew pictures all over the living room walls, no one bothered to scold him or erase his art work.
“I once wanted to be the storybook mother, but I had stopped being a good Mommy,” Mrs. Dixon said. “My future stopped. I began living day to day.”
They used to go to Disneyland two or three times a year, but they stopped going anywhere as a family — except to hunt for the stranger.
Chores at home seemed unimportant. Vines and shrubs began to climb the black iron fence around the house. Toys and pieces of toys littered the backyard, weeds grew among the fruit trees and no one cleaned up after the family’s two dogs.
The steaks burned and the french fries were soggy one night because Susie had said: “Mom, it’s 4:30 and it’s sprinkling, and did you see how dark the sky is?”
That had been the sort of day it was, that Wednesday in 1982.
“I want to do it now,” Susie said.
She and her mother headed for the park. They did that often on rainy afternoons. Putting dinner on the table “wasn’t important,” Mrs. Dixon said. “We were moving. That was all that was important.”
Evans encouraged the family. “They were dealing with it the only way they knew how and even though it was directed toward revenge, I thought it was healthy,” he said.
The brown file folder on Susie Dixon’s case grew heavy with scraps of paper. License numbers. Evans’ fellow detectives turned them in. His wife did, too. He ran more than 100 numbers through the state computer.
By fall 1983, 1 1/2 years after the rape, the Dixons had passed the point of wanting revenge. “I wasn’t out to harm this person. I was out for license numbers,” Mrs. Dixon said.
On the afternoon of April 12, 1984, Mrs. Dixon was at the neighborhood elementary school, two blocks from the park. She and her daughter Mary, by then in first grade, were crossing the street, hand in hand, when a car, going very slowly, passed in front of them.
The first thing Mrs. Dixon saw was a beige jacket, draped over the front seat. Then she noticed the car was a Volvo. The right color. The right year. But she never looked at the driver’s face.
“I told myself it was probably just a father picking up his child,” she said. But she couldn’t let it go. He seemed to be cruising the school.
She raced to her car and followed the man. He made a U-turn and they passed. She made a U-turn and took up the trail again.
The car made a second U-turn. So did Mrs. Dixon. When the Volvo made another U-turn on a side street, then another and another, she got excited.
But she needed that license number. With one hand on the wheel, she searched her handbag for a pen and a scrap of paper. She couldn’t find either. She panicked.
“Mary, remember this number!” she screamed.
The brown Volvo made another turn — and disappeared.
Mrs. Dixon rushed home. She wasn’t sure of the number, but she called the police and reported it anyway.
Then she decided to go back to the school. She pulled out of the driveway, started down the street and saw the brown Volvo coming toward her. He must have seen her Chevette tailing him at the school and followed her home.
“We passed so close,” she remembered. “His arm was resting on the car door and I could have touched him.”
Instead, she looked at his license number and realized she had remembered it wrong. She dug into her handbag. All she could find was a silver envelope, which had contained a department store gift certificate, her Christmas present from the children. She carved the number on it with her fingernails.
She returned home and made another call to the police. An all points bulletin was issued. The Dixons began their wait.
That night, the family was excited. “We had one thing that we had never had before — a license number,” Mrs. Dixon said. They knew it wouldn’t be over until the man was caught. But they had done their job.
A week passed without the police calling. Evans could not find a photograph on file with the driver’s license, and the license address was no longer valid.
But exactly two weeks later, at midnight, the telephone rang. It was Evans. He couldn’t go to sleep without telling the Dixons the latest news: The man in the brown Volvo was in jail. He had turned himself in when officers “made it known” he was under investigation, Evans said.
Albert M. Alegrete, 33, a salesman from Panorama City in the valley, has pleaded innocent to 23 felony counts, ranging from kidnapping to child molesting, and is in jail awaiting a preliminary hearing. The charges involve attacks on five girls aged 11 to 15. One of them was Susie.
After Evans’ call, Dixon went out in the moonlight to water his fruit trees. He needed to think. Mrs. Dixon and her daughters hugged each other and cried.
Susie was staying overnight with a friend. Mrs. Dixon told her the next day. “Sherlock, you finally did it,” Susie said, kissing her mother. “Thank you, God. Thank you, Detective Evans. Thank you, Sherlock.”
A week later, Mrs. Dixon found John on his bicycle in the street. She scolded him for going outside the fence.
“Why Mommy?” he asked. “He’s in jail now.”
Mrs. Dixon looked down the empty street. She thought of children who used to play everywhere, children who now play indoors and behind locked gates.
“Honey,” she said, “he’s not the only one.”