Sunday, Sept. 24, 2006 | 7:28 a.m.
You could say that Lindsay Harris' parents were somewhat uncomfortable when their 19-year-old daughter moved to Las Vegas. And you could say Jessie Foster's parents felt the same when their daughter, 21 and another thin blonde, left home in a similar fashion - suddenly, and on the arm of a man they barely knew.
But, like most good girls from small towns know they should, Harris and Foster phoned home all the time. Well-meaning, white-toothed and wide-eyed, the girls called their mothers, but always to talk around the truth: Harris said she was working as a dancer; Foster said her boyfriend supported them with his trust fund.
Both, in fact, were prostitutes. And their families would only find that out after each girl had suddenly vanished. Harris and Foster, strangers to each other, were swallowed by the Strip where they plied their trade, months apart but in much the same manner: whole, and without a trace.
Harris was last seen alive in May 2005; Foster disappeared in early April this year. Both had police records for prostitution, and both lived with boyfriends that nobody in their families exactly adored. Working girls, no less, in a city that sees certain types like tides.
Neither daughter has swiped her credit card, touched her bank account or used her cell phone since the last confirmed sightings. Neither has called her mother.
Still, without finding probable cause that a crime has occurred, police have gummed the cases as though Harris and Foster are just two more missing persons. Missing adults, detectives told the parents early on, sometimes want to get lost and stay so.
The families, now friends through mutual misery, quickly hired private investigators, and have accepted their daughters' lip-glossed, late-night mug shots. They have steeled themselves against the thought of their children crawling casinos for clients. But they refuse to believe their Lindsay and their Jessie would fall off the face of the Earth without a fight.
The private investigators, expensive as they are respected, second the parents' sinking dread: The women have been murdered, they say, and in both cases it's pretty clear someone knows more than they're letting on.
Harris was last seen in sweatpants and a ponytail by a bank surveillance camera on May 4, 2005. By then 21, she withdrew money and mailed a Mother's Day card.
She had moved to Vegas two years earlier to live with boyfriend Solomon Barron, a man she met at a concert outside her hometown of Skaneateles, N.Y. Harris' parents would learn she was missing before the Mother's Day card arrived.
Barron called Harris' family on May 7 - the first time he had ever called them - to say Lindsay was missing. The parents had met him just once, about five months earlier during a Christmas visit that now haunts them.
In his phone call, Barron, a self-described music promoter, told Harris' parents he hadn't been able to contact their daughter after she left him a voice-mail message in the early morning of May 6. In the message, he told her parents, Harris said that she was leaving the Monte Carlo and heading to the Luxor. Barron, in Syracuse, N.Y., at the time, said he tried unsuccessfully to call her back several times. Worried, he said, he flew back to Henderson, but never heard from Harris again.
Last Tuesday private investigator Tom Dillard, a former Metro Homicide detective who investigated the death of Benny Binion for the casino namesake's family, flipped through Harris' phone records in his downtown office. Harris called Barron all the time, sometimes every three or four minutes, Dillard said, until the day all calls abruptly stopped.
Dillard pointed to a spot in the two-inch case file he keeps on Harris.
May 5: Harris calls several utility companies. Paying bills or shutting off power? Dillard doesn't know.
May 6: Harris calls Barron at 1:12 a.m. The call lasts one minute, and most likely was a phone message.
"That's the last time we know she's alive," Dillard said.
Less than a week after that final call, Harris' black Mercedes was found abandoned in a parking lot near the Luxor.
Bob Harris, a special education administrator, doesn't remember if it was Dillard or the Henderson Police who first told him that his daughter was a prostitute. He and his schoolteacher wife, Martha, never had a clue.
"Part of it was just being naive. I guess we came to this small little upstate town we live in so that we wouldn't have to face the trials and tribulations of what real life can bring," he said. "Maybe we sheltered her too much. We found out that our daughter was mesmerized by that and taken in. Sucked into it. It's literally a parent's worst nightmare."
Lindsay Harris' twin brother didn't know either. But Barron knew, and Dillard discovered that the couple shared their Henderson rental home with at least one other young, blond woman - also a convicted prostitute with a rap sheet longer than Harris'.
Barron won't say if he's a pimp. He calls such a question irrelevant, one he's sick of being asked.
"Everybody wants to know, are you this, is she that? It's not rocket science. It's not rocket science what she does and what any of the girls I have been around do," he said Wednesday. "Everybody is not the same. Some people get married, go to college, have a picket white fence, but not everybody. All that is irrelevant - there is a young woman missing."
Barron figures Harris might have met a dangerous client, someone who maybe wanted the $7,000, heart-shaped watch Barron had given her. Moreover, he said, Harris had begged him not to leave town that weekend, possibly because she feared a "bad date." Barron calls Harris a "working girl" and "the best thing that ever happened to me."
But working girls, Solomon Barron reminds, sometimes go missing:
"Things happen, and we know this. It has been going on forever. Things happen to working girls. Everybody is acting like that is not the case. They're just looking down with tunnel vision - Solomon has something to do with it and Solomon knows, and a year and a half later, the whole investigation is lost. These girls have no hope."
With Barron's last point, at least, the Harris and Foster families agree.
Foster's parents learned she was missing in April but only found out about their daughter's escort agency employment after they hired private investigator Mike Kirkman. The parents, who live in Canada, say their daughter was swept off her feet and out of the country by a man who wooed her, then paid her way to New York City, Key West and finally Las Vegas.
For a 21-year-old woman of modest means, the vacationing, the posh restaurants, the yachts and the clothes were hypnotic - a lavish facade against which Foster's father, Dwight, said she had no defense:
"I think she was recruited. No girl grows up thinking, 'I am going to be a ho.' They get served up as queens. They put her in expensive hotels, showed her the world, dancing and swimming in the Caribbean Sea - this is the life they are shown. It's a recruitment, then they get shown the true lifestyle."
Jessie Foster broke off from her traveling companion in Las Vegas in May 2005 and started dating Peter Todd, living with him in his North Las Vegas home. Todd is the last person known to have seen Foster alive. He told police he left home early on April 3, returning in a few hours only to find that Foster had packed up and left; everything she had at the house was gone. The police interviewed Todd twice. With no signs of foul play, it remains an open missing-persons case but is on the back burner, said North Las Vegas police spokesman Sean Walker.
"(Detectives) will follow up on any leads that they get, but are they out walking the streets? No. That would not be productive," Walker said. "We have to work with different rules than private investigators. We have to deal in probable cause, and until we have that, this is going to be a missing-adult case."
Dwight Foster and Kirkman don't buy that, and said that Peter Todd knows more than he has said.
Todd told Kirkman and Foster's parents that he knows nothing of the girl's disappearance. In questioning, Todd told police he knew his girlfriend worked as an escort, but wouldn't confirm that to her parents. In April, two weeks after Foster's mother filled out a missing person's report, Todd told the Sun that he had made the mistake of falling in with the wrong girl.
"It's spooky as hell, and it makes me kind of nervous," Todd said. "With all the friggin' women in Las Vegas that I've hooked up with, I never ran into no kind of (stuff) like this before."
Todd did not return a reporter's phone calls last week, and his home is for sale.
Before she disappeared, Foster told her family she was going to marry Todd. Last Christmas she visited them in Canada and, while she was there, Todd called 15 or 20 times a day, her father said. On occasion, Dwight Foster said, he would intercept 3 a.m. phone calls and beg Todd not to call so late during the work week.
"I would pick up the phone, and he would sit there in total silence. He wouldn't even speak to me," Foster said. "That's when I started to get the feeling that this guy is creepy. He said nothing. Nothing. He sat there and listened to me."
Jessie Foster assured her concerned parents they just didn't understand her relationship with Todd.
That relationship has been the subject of some speculation.
Private eye Kirkman said Todd had no discernible source of income and was much more than Foster's boyfriend. Todd's estranged wife is also a convicted prostitute and it is believed that, like Jessie Foster, she is Canadian.
In April, Todd said that he fixes junk cars to race and sell.
"I have no idea where she is," he told the Sun, "and I told police that."
Kirkman said he believes Foster was planning to leave Todd. Her co-workers at the escort service told the investigator they had seen Foster bruised and beaten. Privately, Kirkman discovered, Foster had opened a savings account in Canada and filled it with more than $10,000. The money sits untouched.
Jessie Foster is dead, Kirkman warned the family.
"You have to start making some mental adjustments," he said this week. "It's a big desert."
Two weeks after Lindsay Harris disappeared, a car rented in her name was discovered abandoned near the Henderson home she shared with Solomon Barron, parked not far from a wide expanse of undeveloped desert. At night, that desert becomes a black sheet of invisible earth, a vista that can be seen clearly from the home's second-floor rooms.
The undercarriage of the car, private investigator Dillard remembers, was damaged, as if someone had driven it carelessly over bumpy ground.
A Henderson Police fly-over was no help, and Dillard himself found nothing after trekking the rocky terrain.
"The vehicle, where it was abandoned and how it was abandoned, it was all very suspicious to me," he said. "I had a feeling I'd find a makeshift grave."
Still, he is convinced: "I think she was murdered. There will be a crime scene somewhere - put it that way."
After a few weeks, the family decided to have Dillard step down, fearing that too many investigators might make persons of interest nervous, said Lindsay's father, Bob.
"We don't want to get into a situation where people are stepping on each other, stepping over each other," he said. "We are in a bind. There is not a lot we can do. It's like playing poker. We can't stand up and show our total hand."
In January police again searched the desert landscape near the Harris/Barron home. Her parents flew in from New York again, this time to wait while some 250 volunteers combed the terrain in a grid. Martha Harris wore her daughter's vest and the gold cross she had bought to keep Lindsay safe in Las Vegas. The family didn't participate in the search - petrified of finding something, yet desperate to find something at the same time.
Pacing by the makeshift search headquarters, Martha Harris tread carefully around the family's relationship with Barron.
"He had an integral part of her being here," she said. "I think it was glamorous. He presented a glamorous, glitzy Las Vegas life. She didn't know what she was getting into, she was too young and naive. I knew he had a lot of money all the time, but I thought, you can make a lot of money here. Talk about naive."
Barron did not help search. He was at home, up the street, conducting interviews from his doorway. A short time later, he moved from the home, but said Wednesday that he hasn't been able to get very far.
"No one cares, and it's really like a slap in the face," Barron said. "If they did, somebody would try to listen to me instead of trying to point the finger at me and doing searches of my house. Now they are following me, now they are coming to my crib."
Henderson police won't release any details of the ongoing investigation, spokesman Todd Rasmussen said. Though still considered a missing persons case, detectives said it's likely Lindsay Harris met a tragic end.
"As a parent, I'm just grasping at straws," her father said this week. "I'm looking for any kind of connection that can bring us closer to the truth."
Neither family really believes Lindsay and Jessie are alive.
Their parents also believe their daughters' disappearances are no coincidence, but part of something much darker and deeper than one bad client.
"The fact that these two girls come from two totally different areas and disappear under the same conditions, with everything so similar, tells you how big this is, how ugly this is, how well connected this is," said Dwight Foster, Jessie's dad.
Bob Harris, Lindsay's father, said that the feeling is intuitive: "I believe whatever happened to Lindsay, whatever happened to Jessie, whoever did this - this is not the first time they have done it, and they absolutely know how to get away with it. It's a planned, packaged program and it's working. It's speculation, but theories run rampant. This is something that is not going to go away."
It's a sickening cycle: Not knowing, then knowing too much, then knowing nothing again.
And the dread that their daughters may have been lost even before they disappeared.
"This has shredded me to my core," Dwight Foster said. "I look at this all, and I shake with fury."