GORHAM, N.H. — Nat Kibby is regarded by many of his acquaintances as an eccentric man. And so when he bought a large, red container unit and parked it next to his trailer home four years ago no one thought much of it.
But Bob Chapman, who sold it to him, remembers there was something odd when he delivered the heavy metal unit. “There were cameras in every window of the trailer looking out. One in front, two on the side, and more in the back, recording. We just thought it was him being weird.”
Kibby put a “No Trespassing” sign near the container, which is the size of a couple of rooms. When a tow truck dropped his car at the site, Kibby barked at the driver to back off. This spring, when police came to take possession of his guns — a condition of his bail on an assault charge — Kibby laid his arsenal on the road, apparently so the officers could seize them without getting close.
Unbeknown to any of them, 15-year-old Abby Hernandez — whose disappearance for nine months has piqued international interest — may have been locked in the big box just feet away. Prosecutors believe she was held against her will on Kibby’s property.
“Everyone can Monday night quarterback, but we had nothing to go off of at the time,” said Gorham police Officer Eric Benjamin.
The container unit, now cordoned off by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, is one of a number of puzzling details in a case that has become the subject of intense speculation in this northern New Hampshire town where many know one, if not all, of the players involved. Hernandez’s return home in July is extraordinary by most any measure: One national researcher says that the likelihood of a missing teen returning unharmed after so long is as low as 1 percent.
Fred Field for The Boston Globe
Nat Kibby’s property and the container unit in which Abby Hernandez might have been kept are now surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Kibby, 34, who is charged with one count of kidnapping, has both a lengthy criminal record and a personal history of erratic behavior. But the mystery of what happened to Hernandez, who has offered no public account since she came home, remains as murky as the day she returned. She did not return to Kennett High School when classes began earlier this month.
Last month, Hernandez’s mother, Zenya, took on a team of three lawyers, a somewhat unusual move for a victim whose interests are generally represented by a prosecutor. In a brief telephone interview, Zenya Hernandez said the family is “literally, truly overwhelmed. I know it sounds funky, but they [the lawyers] will explain.”
RELATED: Abigail Hernandez, alleged captor in court
Michael L. Coyne, dean elect of the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, said he and the two New Hampshire attorneys also representing Abby Hernandez intend to “assist her with trying to get through to the other side of this nightmare.” Coyne, who mentioned that he was contacted by the Hernandez family through mutual friends, said he is cooperating with law enforcement.
Coyne has asked that the media give Hernandez some room. He issued a press release saying that the teenager, “wants some time and space to physically and emotionally heal. . . . Abby was violently abducted by a stranger. For many months, she suffered numerous acts of unspeakable violence.”
Hernandez, who lives primarily with her mother and sister in Conway, is expected to return to school when “the professionals think it is wise for her to return,” Coyne said. Some of the handful of friends who have seen her since she came back say she appears unchanged by her experience.
“She’s totally normal,” said Parish Dawe-Chadwick, a close friend. “It’s like she was never gone.”
But the talk among other students is more complex. Dominic Moon, a schoolmate, says, “It’s a very touchy subject at school. There are a lot of different sides. I think only she really knows what happened.”
Grand juries in the two counties where Hernandez was allegedly kidnapped and held are scheduled to meet Friday. While some observers expect that additional charges will be brought against Kibby, others believe the investigation into the matter could take much longer.
“Odd things happen in the world,” said Charles Putnam, clinical professor of justice studies and co-director of Justiceworks, a research institute at the University of New Hampshire. “Part of the legal process is not to jump the gun. The best thing we can do for Abby Hernandez and Nat Kibby is have investigators work through this in a very careful way.”
Late on a sweltering July morning this summer, residential telephones in the Gateway Trailer Park in Gorham began to ring simultaneously. It was a recorded call from the police advising people to stay indoors. Park owner Janet Corrigan watched astonished when, soon after the call, SWAT teams and an armored vehicle charged toward Nathaniel Kibby’s gray trailer a short distance from the Moose River.
RELATED: After arrest, many questions remain in Abigail Hernandez case
“Kibby didn’t resist at all,” recalled Corrigan. “He just walked out and they took him.”
When the news went out shortly afterward that Kibby had been arrested, many members of Kennett High School’s class of 1999 were not particularly surprised. Kibby, according to several of his classmates, had been an intelligent student but he was notoriously menacing and frequently threatened other students. A member of a student gang called the Vippers, deliberately spelled with two Ps, Kibby often talked of anarchism and claimed, classmates said, to have a hit list of students.
Matt Hiller, a talented and widely popular student athlete, was number one on the list.
“The word was he was going to shoot students from the roof of the school or target them in the woods,” recalled Hiller, a classmate who now runs a basketball academy in Florida. “It was weird. He was weird. But you know I didn’t take it seriously. He was a loser. I paid him no attention.”
Randy Waldron, another classmate, says Kibby befriended him during their first few days in the sixth grade, only to invite him to the woods one afternoon, “where he kicked the crap out of me.” Waldron, who is biracial, recalled that in seventh grade Kibby left him notes in his locker “saying ‘the VIPPERS are going to kill you.’ I was so afraid of him I hid in the library at lunch.”
School officials declined to comment on Kibby, citing student privacy rights. But Kibby, according to Conway police records, was suspended and asked to stay off school grounds in 1997. The following year, when he was 17, he had repeated run-ins with the law and was, according to a report in the local newspaper, held in a state prison psychiatric unit after he threatened to harm himself.
Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File
Kibby could face additional charges in the Abby Hernandez case.
In one case, Kibby was convicted of simple assault on a 16-year-old freshman at Kennett High while she waited for a school bus. Kibby had attempted to talk to the girl, according to a police report, and when she refused he “grabbed her with his hands and stopped her from getting on the school bus.”
Later in 1998, Kibby was found guilty of giving false information in obtaining “an AK-47 type weapon.” In subsequent years, Kibby was charged with simple assault on his then-girlfriend, Angel Whitehouse, disorderly conduct, receiving stolen property, and manufacture of marijuana, according to police. During several years that he lived in a Gorham apartment while in his 20s, his neighbors were well aware of his fervent antigovernment politics and his consuming interest in “survivalist” strategies.
RELATED: Man charged with kidnapping Abigail Hernandez
“He was always bitching about the fricking government,” recalled neighbor Don Dickinson. “It was taking over the country and ruining our lives with gun laws. I mean, he was always verbally out of control. I stayed away from him.”
Local police knew Kibby well, and not just because of his frequent infractions. Kibby, ever argumentative, often challenged police and prosecutors claiming he should not have been arrested in the first place. Retired Conway police Lieutenant Chris Perley, who estimates he arrested Kibby a dozen times over the years, recalls that Kibby “thrived on conflict. He loved to argue, discuss, and debate, and he was quite good at it. His perspectives were always very extreme. He had no flexibility of thinking.”
“In court he would convince himself of the rightness of his offenses. Minor possession of marijuana, he would say marijuana should be legal. Or running a red light, he’d say he had to get to work early and there was no one else on the road.”
By the time he moved into the trailer park with Whitehouse in 2009, Kibby seemed to have outgrown some of his youthful behaviors. By then, he was working as a machinist for a local gun manufacturer. Although park residents steered clear of their somber new neighbor who always had a gun at his hip, they noticed that he came and went to work regularly.
“I would say that phase, in his 20s, he was often kind of quasi-apologetic for being so antisocial as a youth,” said Perley. “The kid grew up and it was a nice thing to see.”
But the kid came back. Kibby, according to one of Whitehouse’s relatives, seemed on edge and was sometimes physically aggressive with his girlfriend. Park neighbors overheard frequent arguing and shouting emerge from Kibby’s trailer. One neighbor says he told Whitehouse, “if you ever need a safe haven come on over. She said OK.”
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Whitehouse, who was with Kibby for 13 years, says she was not afraid of him. Kibby, she explained, “is loud and boisterous. So what they were interpreting as loud or arguing, is just him talking.”
A year after he moved into the park, Kibby and Whitehouse bought the container unit for storage purposes. They divided it in three areas: one for motorcycles, one for random items, and one for “tools” that they called “the mancave.”
Although the park owners had given permission for the unit, Janet Corrigan was not happy when she saw the size of it. “I was like, hmmm,” Corrigan said. “It was too big and out of place. But once it was there, it was too late.”
A few years ago, Whitehouse broke up with Kibby for what she described as “mutual reasons” and moved out. Like some park residents, Whitehouse finds it hard to believe that, in the cramped confines of the trailer park, Kibby could have confined an unwilling Hernandez in his trailer or the storage unit without someone seeing or hearing her.
Kibby has had numerous run-ins with the law. He also has a personal history of erratic behavior. Pictured (from left to right) booking photos from 1998, 1998, 1999, 2013, 2014, and 2014.
“This is a place where there are lots of nosy neighbors living 10 feet apart. How could something like that not be known,” said an incredulous Whitehouse. “When I lived there you could hear neighbors coughing or taking footsteps. If you hear that, you can hear anything.”
Jimmy Campbell was sitting idly on the school bus as it lumbered along its route on an October afternoon when he saw his girlfriend walking briskly along the roadway. Abby Hernandez, just days away from her 15th birthday, was a looker with her mane of brown hair and luminous dark eyes, and Campbell, as his father describes it, was proud to call her his first love.
Campbell tried to get off the bus to join his girlfriend, but the driver kept on going. As he watched her receding figure, Hernandez sent him a brief text: a small heart. The text, sent at 2:53 p.m., was the last that Hernandez sent before she vanished on the North-South Road.
“It was terrible for Jimmy,” said his father, James Campbell. “She was his first girlfriend.”
Over the next nine months the search for the amiable high school freshman was unflagging. Teams of law enforcement officials scoured the area with dogs and helicopters while family and friends held vigils and established Facebook pages dedicated to finding the missing teen. The soft-spoken Hernandez was a popular girl who loved to run track, and the financial rewards for her safe return mounted steadily.
Less than two weeks after she disappeared, Hernandez wrote a letter dated Oct. 22 to her mother that was received in early November, piquing hope that the teen was safe. Investigators have said the letter came through the postal system, but have declined to reveal what it said. But the fact that she was alive after almost two weeks, boded well.
David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center, said that often missing children who are not found relatively quickly wind up dead. That Hernandez was able to write a letter when she did, he said, boosted her chances of survival from about 1 percent to 30 percent. She did not write another.
Robert Lowery, vice president of the missing children division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, estimates the likelihood of a teen’s returning after such a time to be higher than Finkelhor’s figure but, given the unknowns in the case, he declined to make a precise estimate.
RELATED: Family of Abigail Hernandez describes ‘violent’ abduction
Hernandez’s letter is intriguing for another reason. On the day she wrote it, Nat Kibby was arrested for possession of marijuana while driving erratically along the White Mountain Highway in North Conway, according to a Conway police report. When the officer asked him whether he had marijuana in the car, Kibby handed over a glass pipe, saying, “You’re going to get it one way or the other. I know what’s going to happen.”
Investigators have declined to address whether Hernandez was able to write her letter because Kibby, who was ultimately found guilty and fined $350, was detained that day.
Hernandez has provided one other curious glimpse of her experience. While she was away, she occasionally saw the local newspaper, The Conway Daily Sun, which kept a daily tally of the number of days she was missing on an inside page. Shortly after her return, Hernandez visited the Sun office to thank the staff for remembering her. Hernandez, wearing a T-shirt saying “C.S.I. “Can’t Stand Idiots,” did not explain how she had been able to see the newspaper while in captivity.
During the 285 days she was missing, the State Police and FBI swung their net wide. The elder Campbell says he was one of dozens of people in the community who were questioned by State Police and given a lie detector test.
Campbell would not permit his son, who he said was also questioned, to be interviewed.
Nearly seven months after Hernandez disappeared, Campbell says that for reasons that are not clear Zenya Hernandez contacted him to talk about her daughter’s relationship with his son, and also to ask whether he would give her copies of the teenagers’ texts from his son’s phone. But Campbell said the police had taken his and his son’s phones and so he could not.
As winter thawed into spring, simmering differences between Hernandez’s parents, who divorced in 2004, leaked into social media. The issue touched upon a question of custody, something the two had long wrangled over.
During custody negotiations that continued for years after their divorce, Zenya Hernandez claimed that her husband had been “verbally and physically abusive in the past,” and had once threatened to kill her, according to court documents. Ruben Hernandez denied the allegations. But Zenya Hernandez was awarded primary physical custody of their daughters in 2009 while her ex-husband was required to undergo counseling “to address the parenting issues raised in his psychological evaluation,” according to a court parenting plan.
On Easter, Ruben Hernandez posted a lengthy letter to his daughter on his Facebook page, where he had put other messages during her absence. He said he had asked her mother whether he could have full custody of her and wondered if Abby would agree to that. In light of her October letter, he wrote, “it became obvious that you ran away. And that raises the question what did you run away from. . . . I am guessing that you ran away from your home life.”
Ruben Hernandez declined to respond to a Facebook inquiry from the Globe, saying, “For now, I will patiently wait while the process runs its course. The answers will come.”
Several of Abby Hernandez’s friends said she gave no indication of wanting to leave her mother’s care and appeared happy at home. Two people who are close to her said she had difficulties with her father and did not like to be around him. Dakota Fallen, a schoolmate, said that Hernandez had called her one night not long ago extremely upset.
“She just told me that she and her father did not get along and that she was kind of scared in general,’’ Fallen said.
Fallen said that she told police about the call and was later interviewed by the FBI.
RELATED: Missing N.H. teen returned to family 9 months after disappearing
While Hernandez’s parents found themselves newly at odds, Kibby was also running into more trouble of his own. In early March, Kibby had a car accident that developed into an angry dispute with the couple in the other car over how the damages to their vehicle would be paid for, according to a police report. A few days after the accident, Kibby showed up at the home of Tammy Shackford, one of the people in the other vehicle. When she asked him to leave, he “pushed her down on to the ground. . . . Kibby then shoved her into the side of her house,” according to the report.
“He was yelling at me the whole time,” Shackford said in an interview. “He was saying ‘You people are frauds. You are trying to steal from me.’ I mean this person is not OK.”
Police officers who picked Kibby up found him in a highly volatile state, his words erratic and hard to understand. When he was put in the patrol car “he began to scream loudly and was swearing so loud that it could be heard a good distance from my patrol car,” according to one officer’s report. Kibby was taken to the police department and a suicide evaluation was performed.
Charged with trespassing and simple assault, Kibby was released on bail. One of the conditions required that he surrender his firearms, which he promptly did. Hours after he walked out of the courthouse, two Gorham police officers pulled up at the Gateway Trailer Park. Kibby, who had asked them to come, was ready: lying on the driveway some distance from his trailer were a dozen guns, including a half-dozen rifles and a couple of shotguns, bagged and ready to go. The officers, aware of Kibby’s feelings about law enforcement, presumed that he had put the guns out because he did not want them to enter his trailer.
“He is one of those people who doesn’t want you going in his house in general,” said Officer Eric Benjamin.
But the officers did notice something odd. Kibby, recalled Benjamin, was chatty, even amiable, distinctly different than the remote, often quirky and argumentative man they knew.
“We even discussed it after we left,” recalled Benjamin. “We were like, boy, that was kind of weird. He does not talk to the cops. We were like, huh, he must be in a good mood today.”
The park’s owners noticed the same thing. Over the past few months, they had been shocked to find Kibby was outright friendly and often waved hello as he got his mail. In May, he dropped in the park office to see how things were going and chat about the weather.
“It was just an odd thing,” said Janet Corrigan, the park owner. “When he left we turned to each other and said, ‘Wow. Did he ever change.’ ”
Two months later, Kibby was scheduled to be tried in court on the charges stemming from his alleged assault on Shackford. If Kibby were holding Hernandez against her will at that time, he faced a serious problem. He could be imprisoned, if found guilty of the assault, for up to one year. What then would become of Hernandez?
Kibby had no way of knowing that when he went in to court he would simply be fined in connection with the trespass offense and allowed to go home. And then something remarkable happened: On a cool Sunday evening, less than 72 hours before Kibby was due in court, Abby Hernandez returned home, thinner but otherwise looking well, wearing the same black pants and striped sweat shirt she had on when she disappeared.
Sally Jacobs can be reached at [email protected]
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