No one can say for sure what Kieran Norman was thinking when he launched a canoe into Spokane River on April 18. Was he thrill-seeking? Trying to commit suicide? Or making the perfect escape?
Officially, Norman is presumed dead, killed in an act of teenage recklessness. But until his body is found, the intrigue surrounding him grows by the day. Friends post messages on his MySpace page offering condolences -- and help. "If your still alive somewhere, you have a place at my home!" writes one friend. (We've left the grammar in the e-mails uncorrected.)
"I know your out there," writes another friend. "Please, please just come home safely."
Accused of rape, Norman was looking at spending some time behind bars. His trial was scheduled to start this week, although his public defender, Steve Reich, says Norman would have likely foregone a trial in exchange for a plea bargain.
Reich doesn't believe Norman staged his own death to avoid punishment. On the contrary, Norman had been cooperative and kept his appointments. "There was nothing traumatic or pressing that could have caused him to abscond," Reich says. "I'm virtually certain they are going to find his body. I don't think he had the means to do something else."
Reich, the father of a 20-year-old himself, views Norman's canoe trip as something "very typical of an 18-year-old."
Deputy Prosecutor John Love would generally agree with Reich -- except he's had someone fake his death before. In 2005, Tony W. Desautel, accused of kidnapping and attempted rape, left his horse near the Columbia River and vanished about a week before trial. He was later found in Idaho.
"If it hadn't happened to me before, I'd think, 'poor kid,'" Love says. "[But] we have a warrant out for [Norman's] arrest because I can't dismiss the case before we know for sure."
Norman's life had been spiraling out of control in recent months, friends say. His dream of becoming a Marine was put in jeopardy after being charged with rape in September. According to a Superior Court statement of facts, he was at a girl's house in August and she fell asleep next to him on a couch. He pulled off her clothes, raped her and pinned her hands when she awoke. When he finally stopped, he said, "I'm a bad person. This shouldn't have happened," the court file states. The charge carries a hefty penalty -- from six and a half years to eight and a half years -- but in a plea deal, Norman would have likely received a much lighter sentence.
Nevertheless, Norman took to hurting himself and tried to commit suicide three times, his father later told police. In an incident in February, Norman cut himself with a razor and called a friend, Kacie Cote. "He called me in tears saying he needed my help, that he was beside himself and didn't know what to do anymore, that no one was ever there for him. I tried to calm him down, but he just kept crying, and wincing in pain," she recounted in an e-mail.
Cote got off the phone with him and called 911, according to her account. She then called Norman back. "He admitted that he needed an ambulance, that weeks in a psych ward would probably help him straighten his head, that he wasn't thinking clearly," Cote recalls.
It wouldn't be the last time Norman reached out for help. On March 3, he wrote another friend, Niki Fullerton: "where were you today... i needed to talk to you, still do... omg im.............ah serious." Then on April 18 -- the day he went to the river -- he sent Fullerton another message, asking her to meet in person. Fullerton said she couldn't. "I wish I had," she says. "I could never have predicted that this would happen."
About 6 pm, Norman launched the canoe upstream from the Bowl and Pitcher, a treacherous stretch of water in Riverside State Park, according to police reports. The canoe was more like something you'd use on a placid lake, not in whitewater. A friend had helped Norman into the river and watched as he headed for the rapids. There was a lifejacket in the boat, but Norman wasn't wearing it.
The episode wasn't reported until the next day. Norman's father had become concerned when Norman didn't return in the morning and went to the river to look for him, police say. His father spotted an overturned canoe about a quarter mile downstream from the Spokane Rifle Club and called authorities. Officers checked the area while the county's water rescue team searched the river between Devil's Toenail and Seven Mile Road. They later discovered the lifejacket upstream from the canoe.
The search was ultimately called off after rescuers found no sign of Norman. Divers did not go into the water because of bad conditions -- a powerful current fed by melting snow and poor visibility, police say. The water was 36 degrees.
Norman, his father later told officers, had taken the canoe to the river before, but was by no means an expert. Reached at home last week, his mother declined to answer questions, but dismissed speculation that her son would orchestrate his own disappearance. "His charge was being taken care of, so he wouldn't have done this," she said.
On his MySpace page, Norman wrote about his search for happiness, his friends and the future. On Nov. 19, he wrote: "School is almost over for me and I am excited to say that. School has never been my best suit and has almost destroyed me, but now I am so close... After school is done I am leaving for the marines and who knows what. The uncertainty kinda excites me."
On Jan. 27: "I'm lost and I cannot find a way out of it. ... I have held back so much becuase I have been afraid and now I want to move on. It will be okay. I have the help now. Thank you so much."
Feb. 15: "Well I have come to realize that I am not as bad that I thought I was. ... It does scare me still though that I am happy because again I am not used to it."
Kacie Cote has known Norman for about two years and dated off and on for a time. She never got a chance to see him again after the February suicide attempt, but talked a few times by phone.
"Kieran wasn't the most patient person ever, but he knew what he wanted and would go after it full-speed," she says in an e-mail. "He seemed to always feel like it was him vs. the world."
After his disappearance, police learned that Norman had left a voicemail on a friend's phone a few days earlier, saying, "I'm thinking about leaving. I have to figure myself out," police reports show. To the same friend, he sent a text message indicating that he was thinking about moving to the coast.
Still, the most likely scenario, police say, is that Norman simply died in an accident on the river. They have not mounted a manhunt. Sgt. Joe Peterson, supervisor of the department's major crimes unit, says, "It's not unusual not to find his body when the flow is as strong as it is now."
Peterson adds it's harder than ever for someone to disappear. "In this day and age, you can't disappear. If you want to get a job, you need a Social Security card. If you go to Mexico, you need a passport," he says. "A lot of people would have to be in on it for this to work."
But then there's Love, the prosecutor, who's seen someone pull it off before. He says if Norman's body isn't recovered in the next month, he plans to ask a detective to do some more digging. "I don't want to be cynical," he says. "I've just seen it happen."