Case closed: Abductor never found, public never warned
Eight months after an Albemarle County woman reported getting abducted from her home and being forced to drive at gunpoint some 300 miles down the Blue Ridge Parkway, authorities aren't close to an arrest– in fact, they've stopped looking.
"A thorough investigation by our office was conducted, which included multiple interviews," writes FBI spokesperson Dee Rybiski in an email. "Unfortunately, the investigation and information provided failed to develop any viable leads or identify any potential suspects."
The details of the the June 23, 2011 incident may have been hazy, but they were terrifying.
The then-42-year-old woman– a nurse named Kelly Porterfield– described her gun-wielding kidnapper as slim and short, wearing a mask and sunglasses, according to a news report at the time. The report noted that Porterfield was held captive in her red Honda Odyssey minivan all the way to an overlook in the mountains of North Carolina. When the alleged assailant took her into a forest, Porterfield somehow freed herself and found assistance from a passerby.
While authorities conducted an extensive search of the mountainous, wooded area in which Porterfield reportedly escaped an abductor's clutches, they came up empty-handed, and one North Carolina investigator suggested there might be more to the story.
"We're not sure how valid this claim is," Parkway Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett told the Watauga Democrat.
Later contacted by the Hook, Stinnett refused to elaborate on his earlier comment, referring all media inquiries to the FBI, which assumed control over the multi-state case. The federal agency never issued a public alert nor released a composite image that might have helped lead to the capture of a potential abductor.
While the FBI's Rybiski says the investigation is now closed, she declines to release any specific findings. And that, says legal analyst Debbie Wyatt, raises troubling questions.
"If the abduction really did exist, the community ought to know," says Wyatt. "And if it didn't exist, the community ought to know."
Faked abductions are rare but not unheard of. In April 2005, a Georgia woman named Jennifer Carol Wilbanks gained national infamy as "the runaway bride" after disappearing four days before her wedding. A massive search ensued, and Wilbanks eventually surfaced in Albuquerque, New Mexico, claiming to have been abducted and sexually assaulted by a hispanic man and a white woman.
Eventually admitting to filing a false report, Wilbanks was charged with a felony to which she pleaded no contest and was sentenced to two years probation, 120 hours of community service, and $2,250 in restitution to the Gwinett County Sheriff's Office to reimburse search and investigation expenses.
Wyatt, however, says she can't presume that an FBI investigation is a thorough one. She recalls the 1997 shooting of Frederick Gray by an Albemarle County police officer at the Squire Hill Apartments on Rio Road. Although invited to investigate, the FBI, says Wyatt, didn't interview any eyewitnesses. Nearly 10 years after the shooting, an Albemarle jury awarded Gray's family, represented by Wyatt, $4.5 million in a wrongful death suit.
Doubts about the FBI's investigation aside, Wyatt says she finds it hard to understand why Porterfield, if she filed a false report, would avoid getting charged with a crime– and that, she says, is reason for the FBI to open its file to scrutiny.
"If it's a closed case, and public resources have been used, doesn't the citizen have an interest in knowing on what basis they closed it?" asks Wyatt.
In the weeks following the incident, Porterfield, allegedly then living on Buck Island Road in southeastern Albemarle, declined to speak to a reporter; but her husband, Bradley Porterfield, reached via Facebook, defended his wife while criticizing investigators and the media for airing doubts.
"There is still an assailant at large," he wrote in one of two messages sent August 1 and 2 as he fumed about the park ranger's statement questioning the veracity of his wife's claims.
"Mr Stinnett's comments to the Watauga Democrat came just hours after my wife had been found!" Mr. Porterfield wrote. "No evidence had even been processed at that time! So, ask yourself, how could he make a dumb statement like that before he had any facts?"
He described the hardship his wife had faced.
"She was victimized by the assailant, victimized by having to pay $500 to get her van back, victimized by local law enforcement, she has to pay all the emergency room expenses, psychiatry bills, and is being victimized by the press and all the comments posted on your stories!" he wrote. "When will it end?"
The day of the alleged abduction, Kelly Porterfield's place of employment, Charlottesville Health and Rehabilitation Center on Rio Road, was undergoing a state recertification survey. Mr. Porterfield referred to it in the first of his messages.
"I reported to law enforcement that my wife was missing and it was very, very unusual for her to not show up for work during a state survey!" he wrote. In a second message, he promised that once the FBI investigation was complete he and his wife would give a reporter a full account of the incident.
However, further messages sent through Facebook have not been returned, and Kelly Porterfield– reached at the Center, where she remains employed– declines comment.
"Why do you want to drag this up again?" she asked, citing the trauma of the event and the aftermath.
According to Rybiski, while the case is closed, it doesn't have to stay that way.
"If any pertinent information is reported thereafter that would warrant the case being reopened," she says, "that, too, would be thoroughly investigated."