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March 24, 2013

Karen Lost and Found Part 3: A pot-smoking kid finds trouble on the street

Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 9, 2000

She'd been feeling pretty good before the gun hit her in the nose. Or rather she'd been feeling nothing at all, except that sense of dreamy timeless ness a 15-year-old girl gets when she smokes marijuana on a summer afternoon.

She was so stoned sitting on that apartment stoop on Aug. 23, 1995, that she didn't see the bad people coming at her. Didn't run. Didn't feel the butt end of the pistol come down like a club, hitting her in the eyes and the nose and the mouth. She sat there high and floating. Finally she looked down and noticed the blood on her shirt. And thought:


She was no longer the 13-year-old girl with her own room and a perfect mom who called her Reenie.

Mom had killed herself 18 months before. Reenie was long gone, too.

She was Karen now. Karen Irene Countryman, age 15. She had been a runaway for three months. And she had gotten crossways with some bad people.

"I remember looking down at all that blood. Thinking, 'Man! What's this?' "

"My nose was, like, totally smashed to one side. Some of my teeth were chipped. I had chips of teeth in my mouth."

The nose really hurt. Not at first but later.

"Being high and having something happen to you; it's like being up in an airplane, looking down on the thing happening," she says. "You're there, but you're not there.

"And then when you come down, you realize, 'Whoa! There are holes in the parachute.'

"And you come down hard.

"I wish I hadn't been so high.

"At least I could have tried to run."

-- -- --

Before the beating, she'd been sleeping in a shed in Haysville, living on the streets with her older brother Jeremiah. She'd run away from the foster family that took her in after her mother's suicide. She doesn't want to say why. The foster family tried to help her. Arguments happen. Noses get twisted out of joint.

Noses get dented, like hers now.

It didn't matter.

Nothing mattered.

The police delivered her to the Wichita Children's Home. Staff members helped enroll her at East High School. Late. But that didn't matter, either.

What mattered was the blood on her shoes.

"Suede leather Airwalks, man," Karen said. "I'd spent money. I was so proud of them that I'd drawn pictures on the soles. Now there was blood all over them. My blood. Shoes are a big deal to kids, you know? I was so bummed!

"But then I got to thinking. Blood on my shoes! Hey!"

She was hanging with a tough group. Pot smokers. Kids who drank vodka with orange juice, and Southern Comfort.

"So I went around school, showing them off." To one or two friends. But not to many. She was still shy. But in her head, she was thinking, "Like, hey, dude! Look at this, man, blood all over my shoes! Man, I got my ASS KICKED!"

She thought she was bad. And she thought that was good.

She had a busted nose, she was poking spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and soup through sore teeth. But now, at least in her own head, she had a reputation.

Reenie wasn't really Reenie anymore.

She was Karen. And she was bad.


At the Children's Home, Jill and Jamie started with rules. Jill Chambers was Karen's case manager, and Jill had her rules. Jamie ran the teen girls department, and Jamie had more rules:

Wake up at 6 a.m. Make beds, clean floors. Pray before breakfast. Clean up, go to school. After school, personal bags get searched. Drug and alcohol rehab classes. Prayer before dinner. Wash dishes. Do homework. Shower, more chores and to bed. Lights out by 9:30 p.m.

Karen liked the rules. "It reminded me of home." All that discipline, the family devotion hour and sticking to a schedule.

She began to laugh again, to eat right; the grades at East were mostly A's.

Children's Home staffers watched her turn playful again. Risa Rehmert remembers working at her desk. On several afternoons, she suddenly felt two small, cold hands covering her eyes from behind.

"Guess who," Karen would say. And then she would laugh.

Karen felt safe. And she followed the rules.

That lasted two months.


On Oct. 10, 1995, Karen awoke to the sound of screams.

They came from another girl's room. Karen heard the sound of running and commotion.

What's up? Karen wanted to know.

A girl up the hall, someone said.

Karen knew her.

She had tried to hang herself with a pair of shoelaces.

Staff members, knowing Karen's history, went to her room, asked whether she was all right.

"Yeah," she said.

It was a lie.

"I lay in my bed as the cries from (the girl up the hall) ripped at my soul," Karen later wrote.

"Every time I closed my eyes I could only see my mom. Her once soft body hard and stiff and cold. I saw that dark forever deep bullet hole in her petite chest I had once laid on. . . . The whole thing went through my head over and over again. Did my mother cry? Were her cries so cold and so alone as (that girl's) were?

"I woke up in the morning to people saying, 'Wake up, Karen. Time to go to school.' I wanted to lock myself in a box and sleep forever. . . . I was so upset, confused, depressed, alone, angry."

That next morning, Karen rode the bus to East High.

But she never showed up for class.

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