Aundria Crawford: An interrupted journey

By Mike Stover

Friday's mail stood 3 inches tall on the tiled kitchen counter. Don Crawford paid no attention to the Victoria's Secret catalog.

Or the one from Neiman Marcus. Or the junk mail or the bills.

He was looking for a note, a letter, a postcard — something to explain what has happened to his oldest grandchild, Aundria.

He knows what the police have told the family:

That someone may have been stalking the 20-year-old student who lived alone in a Branch Street duplex. That the kidnapper chose a night when her neighbor in the adjoining apartment was away in Europe.

That he may have broken in through the bathroom skylight. That there was a struggle.

Crawford said police told the family that furniture was pushed around, that someone's blood was found in the apartment and that Aundria may have been taken outside and put into a vehicle parked at the curb. At least that's where the dogs lost her scent.

Except for the presence of blood, police would confirm none of this.

Her keys were taken, Crawford said, but her eyeglasses and pager were not. The deadbolt on the front door was locked. Riley, her small cat, was left alone in the apartment after the commotion.

It is likely that only Riley heard the pager beep that Thursday night three weeks ago. Aundria always answered her mother's pages. But not this time.

That's why Gail Eberhart called police from Clovis and asked them to check on her. And that's why Eberhart filed a missing persons report so quickly the next morning when she learned police had found her daughter's prized Mustang in the driveway but no one at home.

Ultimately, it was a mother's unreturned page to her only child that let San Luis Obispo know a third college student had vanished.

Two women Aundria Crawford worked with for about a month at the Equine Center outside San Luis Obispo called her quiet, inexperienced and not particularly sociable.

To the people she worked with at Kragen Auto Parts on Marsh Street for about five months, she was one of the brightest lights in the store, someone who always had a smile on her face and went out of her way to make new employees feel comfortable.

As a teen-ager and young woman struggling to find her way, she could be impulsive, generous, independent, irresponsible and yet surprisingly mature, her grandfather and friends said.

She enjoyed monster trucks and ballet and insisted on driving wherever she went so she was never too far from her car. She enjoyed throwing parties, and was admired by a friend for not drinking while she played host. She let herself fall behind during high school but caught up again with the help of a home-study program. She showed an interest in architecture and interior design but, like many people her age, had yet to settle on a career. Some thought her love of horses might steer her toward vet school and weren't surprised when she abruptly quit her job at Kragen to go to The Equine Center.

She loved to wear sweats and could usually be found with a pair of sunglasses pushed up on her forehead.

Her grandfather wishes now he had remembered to tell her that the best way to subdue an attacker is to bite off his nose. Bite off someone's nose and he inevitably bleeds to death, Crawford said.

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Aundria was born in July 1978 in Pasco, Wash., to Gail and Jim Eberhart. Her father is an electrician. Her mother works for Sears.

Her parents split up when she was a toddler and Aundria and her mom moved to Fresno and lived with her grandparents for a while. Her father remained in Washington and didn't have much contact with her after the divorce, Crawford said.

Her grandpa's favorite photograph shows her at 6 or 7 flying a kite. She's wearing an orange-and-white University of Tennessee T-shirt that features a drawing of Snoopy and Woodstock.

Aundria loved animals of all kinds, her grandfather said. In fact, her cat Riley's last vet bill totaled $800 to cure some kind of infection.

"When she was a child she would get mad at me for crushing snails. Does that tell you what kind of heart she had?"

With her father living in the Pacific Northwest, Crawford said he would step in and serve as her defender at times. He recalled that she was having problems with a physical education teacher who complained that Aundria failed to show the proper respect in class. Crawford demanded a meeting in the principal's office and scolded the teacher, almost bringing her to tears, he said. His message to the teacher: Respect must be earned.

Bullard High School, set among block after block of well-tended ranch homes in northern Fresno, was not a smooth ride for Aundria. She made some poor choices in friends and let her schoolwork slip, Crawford said. But people shouldn't jump to conclusions, her grandfather said. "She did not do drugs and she didn't drink. She was just a good girl."

Aundria doesn't look like the other senior girls in the 1996 edition of The Lance, Bullard's high school yearbook. She's wearing little makeup, a simple cotton blouse and a sweet smile.

By the time the picture was taken, she already knew she wouldn't be graduating from Bullard with her classmates. She was short on class credits, and the only way to catch up was through a home-study program called Restart.

Once a week she would meet with instructor Joy Cravens to go over her work and get another set of assignments.

Cravens remembers her as quiet, conscientious and occasionally late. Craven said she wasn't boy-crazy like so many of the girls who pass through the program. Just eager to get her work done so she could graduate on time, which she did.

Aundria didn't make a strong impression on her teacher. It's the troublemakers you tend to remember, Cravens said.

After high school she spent a year at Fresno City College before making her break for the coast with some financial help from her grandparents. She loved the ocean, her grandfather said.

By this point she had already broken with her father, dropping his last name and taking her mother's maiden name as her own.

She rented a room in Los Osos, enrolled at Cuesta College and found a job as a cashier for Kragen. She had taken auto shop in high school and could hold her own behind the parts counter. She later moved to the duplex on Branch Street in San Luis Obispo to be closer to work and her friends.

Her co-workers at Kragen remember her fondly.

Robert Santos met Aundria when he began working at the Marsh Street store in July. They were taking a pre-algebra class together this semester. Santos described her as outgoing and outspoken, someone who liked to get out and enjoy life.

"She wasn't afraid to speak her mind and tell you how she felt."

He learned about her disappearance that Friday night on the TV news. "We were supposed to get together for a test that was coming up," he said.

Like so many people who knew her, Santos volunteered to post fliers bearing her picture.

"I think she was going to do good in life," he said. "I think if there was something she wanted, she would go get it. At least that was my perception. She was a go-getter."

After about five months at Kragen, Aundria left suddenly to take a job last fall as a receptionist for James Waldsmith, a veterinarian who owns The Equine Center on Davenport Creek Road.

He described her as "a nice gal" and "the typical Cal Poly kid that shows up at our door."

She was let go after about a month, Waldsmith said, because she had trouble getting to work on time.

"She had just come back to reapply here when all this came down," said Gil Luera, who manages the Kragen store.

Aundria's favorite subject at Cuesta was interior design. She was taking Pat Howard's "Interior Space Planning" class this semester and learning how the placement of furniture, lighting and walls can affect the feel and function of a room.

Interior design would be a natural for a student interested in art and architecture, said Margaret Collier, dean of the design department. She said the police asked her and others about Aundria's state of mind. Was she despondent or depressed? Her instructors saw no signs of it, Collier said. "She loved school and her teachers thought she was doing great."

Her grandfather last saw her two weeks before she disappeared. She had made one of her frequent trips home for the weekend and stopped by the house.

"She was like a yo-yo ... . She would use this place as a message center. We would have a hard time getting on the phone when she was here."

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Except for a brief conversation with The Fresno Bee, Gail Eberhart has declined to talk with newspaper reporters.

Aundria has many passions, she told the Bee. "She knows a lot about cars. She loves monster trucks. She and her friends would go out and do quarter-mile racing, until the police chased them off."

Her daughter enjoyed horses, although they couldn't afford to buy her one. And she was a fan of country music. "She likes the old country, not the new-rock country. She likes George Strait and Loretta Lynn's daughters."

Don Crawford has taken up the role of family spokesman, and a steady diet of media interviews has helped the days pass by. The nights are harder. A doctor has prescribed sleeping pills. "Otherwise I go to bed and all I can do is think about the possibilities."

But mostly he waits.

On Friday he was waiting for the FBI to announce the identities of the bodies found near Yosemite in the event one of them was Aundria. Now he's waiting to find out whose blood was inside Aundria's apartment. "It would be nice if it was the abductor's," he said.

And every day he waits for the mail, which a postal worker patiently stuffs through a slot next to the front door.

There was nothing from the kidnapper on Friday. And nothing since then, he said. "Not even close."

— Published April 1999 in the San Luis Obispo Tribune