In this A Crime to Remember #throwback installment we’re bringing you the story of 14-year-old student, Stephanie Bryant who went missing on April 28, 1955 on her way home from school, and the man who might have been responsible for her disappearance. Airing Tuesday nights at 10/9c on ID.
Originally published in The San Francisco Examiner on JULY 17, 1955
Belongings of Lost Stephanie Dug Up In E. Bay Cellar
U.C. Student Quizzed
More possessions of long missing Stephanie Bryan were discovered buried in the basement of a University of California student’s Alameda home last night, touching off an intensive police search under floodlights.
While scores of curious sightseers massed outside the roped-off residence, police and FBI agents dug into the sandy soil of the basement in an effort to discover the possible fate of the 14-year-old Berkley schoolgirl who disappeared April 28.
Hours later, after digging holes as deep as four feet in the basement, they began an outdoor search. Half a dozen men were assigned to the task of digging up the back yard and patio.
Led To Search
At the same time, Berkley police continued questioning the student, 27-year-old Burton W. Abbott, whose wife’s discovery of Stephanie’s little red purse in a box of old clothing in the basement Friday resulted in the search. Police said, however, that he was not in custody.
In swift succession throughout the day, event piled upon event at the little white stucco home at 1408 San Jose Avenue.
At 7 p.m., the latest break came when a piece of underclothing, two public library books, two of Stephanie’s notebooks and a pair of glasses were found buried in the basement.
With darkness falling, Berkeley police and FBI agents called criminal prosecution staff and hurried to the scene to take a personal hand in the search.
With him was Dr. Paul Kirk, noted University of California criminologist, and four technical experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Doctor Kirk carried two heavy suitcases containing scientific detection equipment with which to examine the girl’s possessions. When her possessions were unearthed, the sandy soil was lightly swept away and the items were left where they were found pending examination.
They have been buried six to eight inches below the surface.
But there was no doubt that they had been carried by Stephanie on that afternoon when she dropped out of sight on her way home from classes in Berkley.
Her library card was in one of the books “Sue Barton, Staff Nurse” and “Two’s Company.” Her name was in the notebooks and there were entries in her handwriting. The glasses matched the description given to police by her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Charles Bryan.
Big Break Seen
And the undergarment, part of a brassiere, was of a white nylon of a type that Stephanie’s distraught mother said the girl wore to school that day.
The finding of these possessions, coming swiftly after the discovery of Stephanie’s purse in the basement by Abbott’s 32-year-old wife, Georgia, was described by Berkley Police Inspector Charles O’Meara as:
“The biggest break we’ve had in this case. It may be the decisive one.”
He declined to enlarge upon his comment, but the air of activity and the tenseness that hovered over the house–across the street from Alameda’s Franklin Park–last night gave emphasis to the possibility that the long drawn-out search might be nearing an end.
District Attorney Coakley added a significant postscript upon his arrival:
“If there is a homicide involved,” he said, “this is where we want to be.”
He was accompanied by Chief Assistant District Attorney Folger Emerson in charge of criminal matters and Deputy District Attorney Marlon Johnson, in charge of homicide matters.
Emerson told newsmen outside the floodlighted backyard of the residence that Abbott had given authorities his permission in writing to make the search. However; he added, a formal search warrant had been obtained later.
Abbott, in the meantime, had been escorted from the scene by Inspector O’Meara. Early reports were that he was to be taken to the Alameda district attorney’s office for questioning. He did not arrive there, however.
Not Under Arrest
The police emphasized that he was not under arrest. But, it was learned later that he was being questioned at considerable length at the downtown Oakland office of the FBI.
Throughout the day, while the residence was searched room by room and the digging operations got underway in the basement, Abbott insisted that he had no idea how Stephanie’s purse got into the box of clothing in which his wife found it.
His wife, who was also taken away from the premises for questioning later, was completely cleared by Berkley police. She returned to the house late that night.
Capt. Fording announced:
“We are convinced she is clean.”
He refused to comment on her husband’s status beyond an earlier statement that “everyone who has access to that basement will be questioned.”
The FBI refused to comment on the progress of their interrogation of the tall, thin accounting student.
Others, who presumably had access to the basement and were questioned yesterday, included:
Clyde Wood, of 955 Medford Avenue, Hayward, the landlord who rented the house to the Abbotts a year ago; Otto W. Dezman, 44, of 750 Taylor Street, who was visiting the Abbotts Friday night when the purse was found; Mrs. Elisie Abbott, the student’s mother who lives with him; and his brother Harold Abbott, 29, of 9283 David Street, Castro Valley.
All, police said, expressed themselves at a loss to explain how the purse may have got into the basement and all disclaimed any connection to the mysterious circumstances.
They were questioned prior to the discovery of the additional possessions last night and, police indicated may be questioned further.
Met In Hospital
Meantime, FBI agents and police began inquiring into the background of the Abbott’s themselves. He is continuing his studies under the GI Bill. His wife, Georgia is a beauty operator at the Alameda salon operated by Dezman’s wife. She is five years his senior.
Their marriage, according to relatives, grew out of a meeting when both were patients at the Livermore Veteran’s Hospital. Both had become ill, relatives said, while they were in the armed service.
She was in the WAC, it was said, and he entered the Army in 1948 following his graduation from Oakland’s Fremont High School. Mrs Abbott’s parents live in San Rafael.
They have one child, 4-year-old Christopher, who was taken yesterday to his brother’s home in Castro Valley.
A neighbor, Ralph Freese of 1414 San Jose Avenue, described them as a quiet couple. Abbott was said to be a “studious type,” who did a little pottering about the house.
“That patio was the only thing I ever saw him build–and that was two months ago,” Freese added.
Another phase of the couple’s background that the police said was being investigated was the frequent trips they reportedly have taken to a family cabin near Wildwood in Shasta County.
Captain Fording dispatched two Berkley detectives there late yesterday afternoon to make a search of the cabin and the surrounding area.
He said the cabin was owned by Robert Schorch, a brother of Mrs. Abbott. Schorch is a member of the forest service at Alturas.
The discovery of the purse that triggered the new search came out of a quiet evening the Abbotts said they were spending with a friend, Dezman. Mrs. Abbott said she decided to run through some boxes of old clothing to look for something she could wear as a costume for an amateur theatrical.
Abbott and Dezman remained in the living room while she went to the basement. When she found the purse she raced excitedly back to the living room and showed it to the two men and her mother-in-law.
“That’s the missing Berkley girl!” Dezman exclaimed. Mrs. Abbott nodded. Then she telephoned to the Berkley police.
Berkley officers sped to the house and took possession of the purse and it’s contents. They questioned the Abbotts and Dezman briefly, made a swift examination of the premises and hurried to the Bryan home in Berkley. No one, the police said, could shed any light on the mystery of how the purse had reached that hiding place.
In their home at 131 Alvarado Road, Berkley, Dr. Bryan and his wife went over the items their daughter had been carrying when she dropped from sight while on her way home from Willard Junior High School.
There was a Key System student identification card, a school privilege card, a Junior Red Cross card. There was Stephanie’s comb, a ball point pen, a pencil and a red eraser…the things a school girl carries.
And there were pictures of her special school friends, a photo of her dog, two library cards–and three pennies.
A letter she had intended to mail was there. It was addressed to Theodora “Teddy” Bliss, a onetime classmate when Stephanie and her family lived in Dartmouth, Mass. The last sentence said:
“This hasn’t been a very eventful winter so I can’t think of anything else to say…”
Dr. Bryan said:
“This has come as a surprise, as you must know. Mrs. Bryan is bearing up very well. though. But, you will understand…we have been under quite a strain.”
Throughout yesterday while the search of the Abbott home went on, crowds of the curious began gathering in the street outside. They were kept moving by police, who blocked off the entire lot on which the house and garage stand.
Abbott’s wife said she was sure the purse had not been in the box when she went through it a month ago to look for a bathing suit.
When it was placed there–and why–formed the initial core of the mystery.
The Abbotts are away from home each day, they told the authorities. She works at Leon’s Beauty Shop at 1404 Encinai Aveune. Her husband is at school.
The new breaks in the search for the Willard High School honor student came shortly less than three months after her disappearance. It was the second clue that has turned up. The first was a French textbook she had carried as she left school that day.
That was found beside Franklin Canyon road in Contra Costa County, but its discovery led to nowhere.
From the first, Doctor Bryan has been firm in the belief that his daughter, one of five children, had been kidnapped. Beyond that he would hazard no guesses as to her fate.
But, from the day her fate came into grave question, the search has spread across the Nation. Thousands of posters bearing her description and her photo has been circulated.
Thousands of hours of police work have been piled up. Mass searches have been made of the Berkley and Oakland Hills. And every person known to have had any possible contact with the child has been questioned.
Throughout, the police pointed out yesterday, jurisdictional differences have been liquidated. They were again yesterday when Berkley police joined the FBI in moving to Alameda.
Alameda police, although giving their cooperation, permitted their neighboring East Bay authorities to take charge.
Reprinted with the permission from the The San Francisco Examiner.
Stephanie’s body was eventually found.
Make sure to check out the story from 1953 of Bobby Greenlease, kidnapped son of multimillionaire auto dealer Robert Cosgrove Greenlease, Sr. On next week’s all-new episode of the Emmy winning series A Crime To Remember Tuesdays, at 10/9C only on Investigation Discovery!
Photo courtesy: AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle