FORT WAYNE – One year later, things look as they always do.
Christmas lights have been strung, decorations have been hung and presents have been wrapped.
Santa and his reindeer are illuminating the side of the PNC building downtown and the big green wreath is in its proper place at One Summit Square.
It’s the same as always – on the outside, at least.
But for some, it’s not the same on the inside, and it might never be the same.
For them, the holiday season is a reminder of the dark and dread that descended on this town last year, starting when a 9-year-old blonde girl with freckles was first reported missing from a north-side trailer park.
It’s a time when the grisly details about that girl’s death and her dismemberment begin to seep back into frame, details that captured the entire country’s attention, imagination and disgust.
It’s a time when the face of that little girl gets posted on Facebook again, with people asking others to remember her and remember what happened to her.
For some, this time of year means candlelight vigils, fundraisers in her honor and further attempts to change a system they believe failed her.
For others – namely detectives, prosecutors and others closely involved in the case – it’s a time they’re not ready to relive, but also time they will never be able to forget.
One year ago today, police began looking for Aliahna Marie Lemmon.
‘Bearing the brunt’
It’s a year later, and the Allen County sheriff’s spokesman leaves a message on the phone for a reporter.
He’s spoken to the department’s head detective, who in turn has spoken to those under him in his division. They’ve been asked whether they want to talk about how they get through the day after seeing the crimes they see.
They’ve been asked if they will talk about Aliahna Lemmon.
It’s a no-go, the spokesman said. They don’t want to have to go through it again, especially during the holiday season.
Who could blame them?
Last year, some of these detectives sat face-to-face with the man who eventually admitted to killing the girl.
This man first told them he had care of the girl and that he last saw her sleeping in his mobile home the morning she was reported missing. He awoke later and noticed the door to his trailer unlocked, he said, and figured she went to her mother’s trailer in the same mobile home park.
A day or so after that, detectives listened as this same man calmly admitted to killing the girl and then began to lay out the horrifying way he did so:
He bashed her head with a brick, stuffed her 41-pound body in a freezer inside his mobile home and later, using a hacksaw, cut her into pieces.
Undoubtedly, some of these detectives were there when parts of the girl’s body were found in a trash bin at a nearby gas station.
They were there, too, when her head, hands and feet were found in her killer’s freezer.
I think for the first time in a while, the public is realizing that first-responders are bearing the brunt of these things, Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards said, referring to Aliahna’s case and the recent school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Richards – whose office prosecuted the man now serving life in prison for Aliahna’s killing – would not talk specifically about the girl’s case or what those under her may have gone through while working it.
But she’s seen enough during more than a decade as prosecutor to know that it’s near impossible to not be bothered by a case like Aliahna’s.
Richards said she can close her eyes and still see the victim of the first murder case she ever worked – a young woman. She’s seen a lot since then, but that image of the woman always comes back to her.
And she remembers telling two deputy prosecutors who helped her with the prosecution of Simon Rios – who killed his wife and three daughters as well as a 10-year-old girl – they would be able to close their eyes and see what he did until the day they died.
Some cases, Richards said, just stay with you.
People believe that in these professions, because they’ve seen it all, they’re not touched by any of it, she said. They’re wrong.
Wings of Innocence
It’s one year later, and the killing still reverberates for people like Karen Hughes.
She was one of many people who, while not directly involved in the investigation or at the time immediately tied to Aliahna’s family, took the killing to heart.
Her granddaughter was friends with Aliahna, and Hughes now helps lead an organization called Wings of Innocence that was created because of the killing.
The group made frequent appearances at court hearings involving Aliahna’s killer, wearing T-shirts with her name and face emblazoned on them.
They also began to organize events.
Last summer they had a softball tournament and hope to do another soon. They hold candlelight vigils – which they did again Saturday night – and have at times sold bracelets.
Hughes said her organization tries to raise money for Erin’s House for Grieving Children and is working to get a law passed in Indiana similar to Dominick’s Law in Michigan.
Named after a 4-year-old who was beaten to death, Dominick’s Law created new penalties for committing child abuse in front of other children and stiffened penalties for other child abuse crimes.
Hughes also said her group has ideas for making the Department of Child Services a national entity, instead of separate state-run departments.
While the public details are murky, it came to light after Aliahna’s death that her family had moved from place to place, making at least one stop in Iowa before coming to Indiana. Whether different child services agencies had looked into the family previously is unclear, but in Iowa, Aliahna was the victim of sexual abuse at least once at the hands of a man who knew the family, according to court records.
In her case, we felt this could have been avoided, Hughes said of the girl’s death.
In the year since the killing, Hughes admitted that some members of the group have probably gone on with their lives, especially after the girls’ killer was sentenced.
But when this time of year comes back, the memories begin to flood, she said.
I know the people in our group, and it will always affect them, Hughes said of the killing. These types of things, you can’t just push them under the rug. These things happen, and you have to bring awareness to them.
It’s a year later, and Tarah Souders is hesitant to identify herself over the phone.
That depends on who’s asking, Aliahna Lemmon’s mother said in a voice that sounded groggy.
She does not want to talk about what happened, she does not want to talk about her daughter and she does not want to talk about where she’s living, whether she’s still in Fort Wayne or elsewhere.
In the aftermath of Aliahna’s disappearance, Souders and her family spoke frequently to the media, making pleas for anyone with information about where she might be to come forward.
But once the girl’s body was found, once police connected a family friend to her killing and once Souders’ living situation came under heavy public scrutiny, the interviews ceased.
When the family came to Fort Wayne, they settled into what was then called the Northway mobile home park. Nestled in a wooded area at Diebold Road and North Clinton Street, the park was – and still is – a haven for sex offenders.
At the time of Aliahna’s killing, there were 15 sex offenders living in the two dozen or so units, including Aliahna’s grandfather, who had previously been convicted of child molesting.
Michael Len Plumadore lived with Aliahna’s grandfather in the trailer park, and he became someone the nation and police would fixate on once the girl disappeared.
Then 39, Plumadore took care of Aliahna’s ailing grandfather during the final months of his life, until the man died in early December of last year.
In that time, Plumadore became so close to Aliahna’s family that the kids called him Uncle Mike. Souders even described him in interviews as someone who was like a brother to her.
What is not clear is whether they knew of Plumadore’s past.
Although he was never convicted of a sex crime, an Iowa woman once accused Plumadore of stalking and sexually harassing her 13-year-old daughter in 2010.
He had other run-ins with the law, as well, most notably for auto theft in North Carolina.
Souders left Plumadore in charge of her children for about a week last December while she suffered from illness, she told police and media.
Soon after the girl’s disappearance, the public began asking how she could live in such a trailer park with so many sex offenders around, and more importantly, how she could leave her children with a man like Plumadore.
Either late Dec. 22 or early Dec. 23, Plumadore took a brick to Aliahna’s head while she was at the doorstep of his trailer, he later told police.
While he admitted to the crime in court in exchange for a plea deal that offered him life in prison without the possibility of parole, he never revealed why he killed the girl.
This allowed speculation and theories about what led to the killing to run rampant in the year since.
Those who found his Facebook page after Aliahna went missing noticed that most of his 600 friends were young girls or women with scantily clad profile pictures.
Others simply drew conclusions by pointing out the fact he lived with a convicted sex offender.
Since his arrest, Plumadore has not agreed to an interview with the media. He’s serving his time at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, according to Indiana’s prison records.
And Souders has remained largely silent.
At one point, her other children were taken by the state and she was attempting to get them back. Whether she succeeded is not known.
The trailer park where the killing happened still stands one year later.
Located near the Carmike Cinema on Dupont Road, it went up for auction last spring, with its sellers touting the area as prime for business development.
But it did not sell.
The owners, who did not return a call to comment, changed its name to Dupont Triangle and created a new website advertising the area as a relaxing, beautifully landscaped community for all renters to enjoy.
Still, just as in the days leading up to Aliahna’s disappearance, it is filled with older and in some cases decrepit trailers, some of which are crumbling or in disrepair.
And the park’s location away from public parks or schools is attractive to sex offenders, who are limited by state law as to where they can live.
Now 24 sex offenders live there, according to county records.
It’s a year later, and things look as they always do.