Three decades later, family still searches for Anna

On the afternoon of Jan. 16, 1973, Anna Waters - a blond-haired, brown-eyed kindergartener at Hatch Elementary - came home on the school bus, as she did every day.

It had been raining and soup was cooking on the stove at home. As her mom visited with friends, down from San Francisco for the day, Anna changed from her school clothes into jeans and a blue-and-white striped T-shirt. She pulled on over-sized rubber boots before she wandered out onto the back porch. Then she disappeared.

Most parents have experienced a moment of terror when they realize something is wrong. It usually begins by screaming for a child. It usually ends when the child is found not far away, innocently wandering after an insect, or inspecting a crack in the sidewalk. For Anna's mother, the moment of terror began between 2 and 2:15 p.m. that day and it has never ended.

Initially, the search focused on the theory that young Anna had fallen into Purisima Creek, not far from the family's home, and drowned. Michaele Benedict, Anna's mother, said she felt at the time the creek was the most immediate danger. San Mateo County Sheriff's deputies scoured the area around the creek, and divers searched the waters. Four days later there was still no trace of her.

Anna Waters would be 38 years old today. In the days, and then weeks, and finally years, following her disappearance it became evident to those closely involved that Anna most likely had not fallen victim to the creek. The question of what had happened that Tuesday afternoon became one Anna's family would exhaust over the next three decades.

Doug French was 13 when Anna Waters disappeared. He knew Anna's half-brother Nonda from school, and spent more than a few evenings having dinner with the family. Less than two years ago French - now living in Sacramento, and who long ago lost touch with the family of Anna Waters - was watching the popular television program "Unsolved Mysteries" when he saw a case about a girl he thought might be Anna. He quickly telephoned Michaele to tell her what he had seen.

The two cases turned out to be unrelated, but it brought French back to that afternoon in 1973, and he became something of an amateur sleuth. Now, he's looking for new clues.

Saturday, French returned to Half Moon Bay and, along with Benedict, walked along Purisima Creek Road to post fliers asking for information surrounding Anna's disappearance.

"Anything anyone remembers, even if they didn't think it was important at the time, might help," French said. When asked if no news will discourage him, he responds surprisingly.

"If someone found an old rubber boot around the creek a few years ago and never said anything - we might get something like that. But if we don't I think it will confirm that she didn't go into the creek, so nothing new could actually mean we're already going in the right direction."

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, which originally investigated the disappearance, considers the case cold but still open according to Lt. Lisa Williams. The case is classified as a random stranger abduction by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And that is how Benedict views it.

French's renewed interest in the case has brought new memories as well. Last Christmas Nonda told the family a story he was sure he had told before. Only no one else remembered it. It was the memory of a strange couple driving alongside Anna and trying in vain to tempt her into the vehicle. It was quite a memory.

"My belief is that the two events were related," French says now. "I look at all of the strange things that occurred to Anna Waters in her short life and I think either she was a very unlucky girl or some of these things are related."

Tales of unsolved mysteries make for compelling stories. They have become a staple for cable television, whether as news shows chasing a mysterious disappearance or the latest episode of a series like "Cold Case."

The story of Anna Waters is a stark reminder that these things happen in real life, that a family on the Coastside lost a child 33 years ago and that their lives were irreparably changed.

It is a story that takes twists and turns, tangents into dark and disturbing water, and finally rests in the desert of uncertainty.

There is George Waters, Anna's father, who worked as a physician in San Francisco around the time of Anna's birth. Born in the Philippines to medical missionary parents, Waters would spend time in a Japanese concentration camp until it was liberated by U.S. Marines as World War II came to a close. He eventually graduated from Princeton and, at the age of 22, accepted a teaching post at the American Farm School in Thessaloniki, Greece. There he met Michaele Benedict, then married with two young children. Waters and Benedict would later marry in New York in 1964. Three years later Anna Christian Waters became his one and only daughter.

Sometime in 1967, while treating a woman who was dying of cancer, Waters met George Brody, a man he would find increasingly fascinating. Benedict, in her written account of her daughter's disappearance documents Waters' unstable mental state.

She writes "January, 1969: George is making the rounds of the somewhat reduced circle of our friends, telling them I'm in love with his self-styled psychic friend and begging them to make me write letters of apology to same."

Brody was a murky figure whose true identity is still something of a mystery, French says. As Waters and Brody grew closer, Waters' behavior became increasingly erratic.

Not long after, Waters was diagnosed with paranoid Schizophrenia.

He eventually left and went to live with Brody. Years later, in January of 1982, just two weeks after Brody succumbed to cancer, Waters drank cyanide and died in a Tenderloin hotel, according to a San Francisco coroner's report.

It did not take long for some involved in the case to suspect Brody and Waters of having something to do with Anna's disappearance. Today French believes that one of the two men were likely involved.

"It looks more and more likely that Anna's birth father had something to do with her disappearance," French said. "He was capable of doing some pretty bizarre stuff."

French noted that Waters began taking out numerous life insurance policies on himself, with Brody as the beneficiary on some and Anna as the beneficiary on others.

"This maneuver occurred right around the time she disappeared," French said.

Among Waters' papers was a note, titled simply "Plan." It is numbered with four points, some words are illegible, but French believes the note ties Waters to the crime. In parentheses after the first point it reads, "Jan. 1973."

Joe Ford, Anna's stepfather, spent time watching Waters and Brody in the years after Anna's disappearance. In one instance, according to French, Ford mailed a letter accusing Waters of having something to do with the disappearance and listened through a hotel room wall to the reaction. Waters reportedly said, "I'm glad the tot is dead."

"I don't know what to make of that but it sounds like he knows something," French said.

Benedict says she doesn't think her ex-husband had anything to do with it. She cites no exculpatory evidence, saying only "he was just too crazy to do it." She says she has always been an intuitive person - she sensed Anna was missing and something was wrong that fateful afternoon - and that her hunches are usually right. But, she says, she just has no idea what happened in this case.

"Honest to goodness, I just don't know," she said. "I have no intuitions."

In 1996, after years of putting the uncertainty as far out of her mind as possible, Benedict sat down and began to write about it. By the end of summer she had completed a 186-page manuscript.

"I really think going through that, and Doug getting involved, has made it much less painful," she says.

Around the same time she found out about an online forum called "web sleuths" where a number of concerned people were helping in any way they could. It was quite a feeling to realize the things people would do out of love, she said.

The manuscript has undergone significant revisions since French contacted her, and he contributed the forward to the text as it is now. It reads:

"But ultimately, this is a book written with a target audience of one: A 38-year-old woman with brown hair and brown eyes and distant memories of a loving family, a farmhouse on a creek, and a not-so-bright dog named Saturn …"

Anyone with information about the case is encouraged to call Doug French at (916) 370-2150.

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