I wrote the short story that became The Sad Girl series back in 2008. Bryon Quetermous and Dave White were running something they called the Blogger’s Fiction Project, where a bunch of bloggers would all write shorts on the same topic and post them on the same day. They invited me to join in the second one, where the topic was an object you’d find at a police auction. I’m still not quite sure how I got the basic idea for The Sad Girl out of that prompt, but it resulted in a 3,000-word short story.
That means Danny Cumberland has been part of my life for going on ten years now. He hung out in one of the back rooms of my brain for a couple of years while I finished up writing Don’t Stop Believing then started hinting that there was a whole lot more to his story than I’d told in that first round. I finally started listening to him in 2010, and finished that first book in 2013.
I’m gearing up to release Discoveries, the next chapter in his story, in August. It’s been a few years since the book came out, so I thought I’d take some time to talk to Danny and reintroduce him to everyone. So without further ado, here’s Danny.
Tell us about yourself. You’re living in San Diego now, but you’re not a native Californian, are you?
Nope. I was born in 1972 in Broken Bow, Nebraska. Small place. I think there were maybe 3,500 or so in the town then. Doesn’t look all that different now than it did when I left in ’90 to see the world. It’s a nice enough town, but if you’re not into cattle, then there’s not a whole lot for you. At least that’s the way it seemed when I was a kid. I guess I just got tired of flat and windy and cold. I wanted to get out and see more of the world, so I joined the Navy.
Were your parents involved with the cattle industry?
Dad worked for one of the companies that kept things running down at the feedlot. I think it was basically a sales position, but he never really talked much about it. Mom was a housewife. She did plenty of volunteer work here and there, but never had a paying job when I was growing up.
And you’re an only child, I recall.
Yep. Only child of two only children. Dad had a couple of uncles, and Mom had a great-aunt or something. I remember Dad’s family was up in Wisconsin somewhere, but I don’t know that I ever knew where Mom’s family was from.
Why the Navy?
The Air Force didn’t seem all that interesting to me at the time. I’d never been really mechanically oriented, so I didn’t want to spend all my time working on airplanes, and that’s mostly what I thought of when I thought of the Air Force. That, or the missile guys, and I didn’t like the idea of being stuck in a hole for 24 hours like they are.
I thought about the Army, but things were in a huge state of flux in the world when I was getting ready to sign up. My senior year was turbulent, to say the least. You had everything going on in Eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain coming down, and nobody really knew what was going to happen next. I figured at the time that if anything big were to happen, the Army and the Marines would be in the thick of it, and I just wanted to get out of Nebraska, not get shot at. I figured the Navy would be the safest place for me. And for the most part, it was.
What do you mean?
When I enlisted, I told the recruiter what I wanted, which was something that could get me the most varied assignments possible with the least amount of physical labor involved. He rolled his eyes pretty hard at that last part, but he found a slot for what used to be called personnelman and is now called personnel specialist or something like that. And that was a pretty cool gig. Even aboard Nimitz, I was basically an office weenie. I had a damage control station during general quarters, but even that had me in a pretty secure spot on the ship. Then my next assignment was ashore in San Diego, so there was no real danger there either.
But you still managed to get arrested.
(Sigh.) I did. Once I rotated to San Diego, I had a lot of opportunities to explore, and I didn’t always choose the best possible guides when I was exploring. I developed a huge drinking problem, and also discovered that I liked to gamble. I’d go to Tijuana, Vegas, or a few places just off base. I didn’t do sports; I concentrated on games. Loved the roulette wheel for some reason. Played a lot of blackjack too. And what I eventually discovered was that I wasn’t really addicted to gambling. I was more interested in the challenge of trying to win. I was basically something of an adrenaline junkie. But since I couldn’t do math quickly on my feet to check the odds of something, I was a pretty bad gambler. Between the gambling and the travel and everything else, I got in a pretty deep credit hole. I think at its worst, I owed almost a hundred thousand across five or six credit cards.
So one day I’m at my desk, and I’d just finished reading something about easy it was for people to open bank accounts in someone else’s name. I’d already learned about playing the float with checks, and had pulled that off more than once. Back then you could write a check and know it wouldn’t be processed for a couple of days. I’d write one, knowing I had two to three days to find the cash, and I’d always come up with it. Maybe I’d float one a few days before payday, that kind of thing. Then I got a couple of the credit card bills, and it was too long until payday, and I didn’t really see a way out.
Did you ever consider asking your parents for help?
I did think about it, but not for very long, honestly. They had both grown up in the Depression, although Mom was older, so her memories were much clearer about it. Even in the 80s, I don’t remember them using a credit card for much of anything. They paid cash all the time. I didn’t think they’d want to help me out of a problem I created like that. Ironically, I found out after they died that they would have been able to pay off all of my debt at once. Dad was a very savvy investor, it turned out. I just didn’t know about it at the time.
How did your parents handle things?
That was a really hard conversation to have.
There was the obvious—”Hey Mom & Dad, I got arrested”—but having to explain what I got arrested for was even worse. I remember barely being able to get the words out.
My dad’s integrity was second-to-none. I got a few letters after the funerals that talked about his honesty and integrity and how many handshake deals he did, and how trusted he was. There was no excuse in his mind for dishonesty. Just none.
One of his uncles was in and out of prison several times for theft. For him it started with embezzlement, then he did a couple of bank jobs later because he couldn’t get a job with an embezzlement conviction on his record. Dad would try to help him, because he was family, and that was important to Dad, but he didn’t often have many good things to say about Uncle George.
And from there, it was just really hard on them, and painful for me to see them go downhill the way they did. They came for the end of the trial, and they visited me once in prison. But after that, it was just too difficult for them to travel, and the health problems started cropping up. They died within two weeks of each other, and Mom died on the anniversary of my sentencing.
For most of my sentence and for quite a while afterwards, I felt like I had killed them. Like straight up murdered them. They were in their 70s, sure, but they didn’t have any major health problems until after I got arrested. I was convinced everything was entirely my fault. Lot of guilt there. A whole butt-ton of guilt. It took a lot of work to get past that.
Tell us about meeting Teresa. When did you meet?
April 29, 2009. She came into the store after stopping by the lumber yard down the road. I remember I was just stunned at how gorgeous she was. My line was “You look like someone I should have dinner with.”
And it worked?
(Laughter.) Yeah, I find that hard to believe myself sometimes. It wasn’t the first thing I said to her. We chatted for a few minutes as she wandered around the store, but I was definitely flirting, which was really out of character for me at the time. Remember, at that point I’d just been out of prison for about nine months. My parole officer was just starting to give me a little slack. I had a very hard time trusting people, and frankly, she was the first woman I’d talked to like that in about fifteen years.
Where was the first date?
Lido’s, this Italian place not far from the apartment I had at the time. We still go back there every April.
She was working for the Public Defender’s Office at the time. Did that cause any issues?
Not between us.
I told her my history that night. It sort of came up in conversation anyway, in that we talked about the store and how I got the idea for the store. And I can’t talk about that without mentioning prison, so there we were. Conversation got pretty deep that night, and even the next day. She called me during her lunch break, and we talked about things for half an hour. She basically wanted to see if I was a risk, which really kind of stunned me. I hadn’t dated at all since getting out, so I didn’t really know what to expect. She could have stormed out of the restaurant or told me the next day that she didn’t feel safe, or any number of things. But she admitted there was an attraction, and gave it some thought. She talked to her bosses to make sure they were okay with it, and their position was that as long as there were no connections between us, like her having worked on my case or something like that, they were basically okay with it.
And we had some trust issues to work out. A couple of her friends were not real thrilled with my past, and kept warning her that I was probably going to take her for a ride financially, but we worked through that. I tried really hard to screw things up when I decided to go after Danielle, but we were even able to get past that.
There was one part of the story that still gets to me. There was the Tuesday when Louisiana State Police confirmed that Danielle hadn’t been correctly identified. Then the following Monday, they said they didn’t think the girls were alive. I can’t imagine what went through your mind that week.
It was a rollercoaster ride, let me tell you.
Wow. Excuse me a moment.
Okay. So at that point, I already knew that the body they had buried as Danielle wasn’t her. We didn’t know who it was right away, but we knew it wasn’t her. Not long after I got my results back, the Dirksen’s found out Stacey’s body had been misidentified. So there was some hope growing amongst the parents that maybe the girls were still out there somewhere. Egger wasn’t telling anyone anything at that point. All we had to go one was the DNA testing we’d done so far.
So when LSP confirmed the misidentifications, we all got very excited. Here was official confirmation that they’d screwed up. We figured we were going to get somewhere at this point. Yeah, it was a very cold case at that point, but at least it would be looked at.
Then that Monday. . .wow. Yeah, that was a dark day for me. They basically said, “Yep, you’re right, this isn’t them. But we still think they’re dead, so we’re not going to do anything.”
Most of that morning was a blur. I remember throwing a bit of a tantrum in the apartment, and I do mean throwing. Broke a coffee cup against the wall and put a hole in the wall all in one shot.
From there, things really just started snowballing. Marco had some phone information that he couldn’t quite tell me everything about. Then I found out about Maria’s trip, and figured out what Marco couldn’t tell me. We left on the mission trip just about four weeks after that Tuesday.
Then there was that moment you finally saw Danielle for the first time.
Back when I was little, my mom was a big fan of Dallas, the original series. Remember how Jim Davis died, and they had to write Jock Ewing out of the series? They said his helicopter crashed in South America, and the Ewing boys went down there to find him. And the cliffhanger from the previous episode was this back shot of a white-haired guy. I remember my mom kind of freaking out a little at that. Then the next episode, you see him turning around and it wasn’t him, it was another guy who looked a little like Jock, and the boys knew their daddy was dead then.
I remember catching a glimpse of Stacey Dirksen before I knew who was where in the van, and my heart almost stopped.
I helped Stacey out of the van, and we were making our way over to the girls. Danielle had her back to me, and her hair was a little shorter than I was expecting. But it was the same way like in that episode of Dallas. I caught that glimpse and knew it was her, and I was petrified for a split-second that it wasn’t going to be her, that it was going to be some other girl.
Okay, that’s enough serious stuff. Let’s finish up with something fun. Who should play you in a movie?
(Laughter.) I suppose that depends on who you talk to. Teresa’s got a thing for Jeremy Renner, so I guess that’s a possibility. He’s shorter than I am, but he’s got blue eyes, she tells me. I like Aaron Eckhart myself, or maybe Gerard Butler.
Not Tom Cruise?
Please, no. Just. . .no.
What about Teresa? Who plays her in a movie?
Now you’re trying to get me in trouble! (Laughs.) I guess maybe Ana de la Reguera, who was in Cowboys and Aliens, among other shows. Rosario Dawson might be a candidate too. That’s probably as far as it’s safe to go.
Thanks for stopping by, Danny. I’m looking forward to telling the rest of your story. Watch for Discoveries in August.
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