Balloons from the dead girl’s birthday party drifted into the twilight.
The walkway of Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa had become the party’s finale: The release of the balloons personalized with messages and pictures of butterflies.
We love you, Christy Ann," one read in green marker. "Happy Birthday!"
Christy Ann Fornoff would have been 33 on May 3.
She didn’t make it past 13.
Twenty years ago today, Christy Ann was kidnapped, raped and suffocated as she collected money for her newspaper route in Tempe, where she lived. After two days of hope and anguish for her family, her body was found behind a trash bin.
Her parents, Carol and Roger, celebrate her birthday with as many family members as they can get together. With six children and 22 grandchildren, it isn’t hard to get a party going. They gathered over pizza, beer and soda and had the organist lead the crowd in a round of "Happy Birthday."
"We’re not public criers," Carol Fornoff said.
Far from wallowing in grief, the Fornoffs have gotten on with life — and it’s been a productive two decades. They turned Christy Ann’s death into a force of change, establishing a bereavement center and lobbying for new laws to help victims and put people who prey on children behind bars for more years.
The girl’s death was "wholly tragic, but definitely not in vain," said Steve Twist, a former chief assistant to the Arizona attorney general.
The random attack also devastated the innocence of a then-adolescent East Valley. In 1984, the Phoenix metro area was only half its present 3 million residents. But residents moved on, too, aware now they could not escape the types of big city crimes they thought they had left behind in New York City or Chicago. The housing booms that continued through the ‘80s and ‘90s had turned the East Valley into the big city.
"SOMETHING’S REALLY WRONG"
Similar crimes have occurred over the years, such as the murder of 8-year-old Elizabeth Byrd in Phoenix as she walked home from school May 3, 2001, and the still unsolved disappearance of 8-year-old Mikelle Biggs in Mesa on Jan. 2, 1999.
None have been quite like the Fornoff case, in which a girl knocked on the wrong door and paid with her life. Back then, kids went door-todoor selling cards or delivering newspapers from their bicycles, though not always unaware of the risks.
In the East Valley today, many parents would not allow such activities, even though most residents did not live here when Christy Ann was killed. Part of the reason for that collective fear — that a child could simply knock on the wrong door — stems from the Christy Ann Fornoff murder.
"There was a sense of fear, it was pervading everything," said Peter DeCindis, then a 22-year teacher at Connolly Middle School, where Christy Ann had attended seventh grade. "Every little kid was looking over their shoulder coming home. Parents coming to pick up their kids — no one was going to let their kid walk home."
Cute, blonde Christy Ann, the sixth child of Carol and Roger, had been swimming in the pool and still had her bathing suit on with shorts over them. It was a Wednesday night, "suppertime," Roger Fornoff said.
Christy Ann had just had a cast removed from her ankle. Her mother now can’t recall if it was a break or a sprain.
"It’s so weird because we don’t remember some of these details. They’re just gone," she said.
Christy Ann grabbed her collection book, got on her brother’s bicycle and set out on her route. Knowing that a child could run into trouble going door-to-door, Carol Fornoff followed her on foot, with the family dog, Pepe.
As they reached the Rock Point Apartments, 2045 S. McClintock Drive, Christy Ann’s mother held back a moment, talking to another woman.
"She said ‘I’m going to go,’ " Carol Fornoff said. "I was five minutes behind her."
She started looking for her daughter as the dog became agitated and "terribly nervous," she said. Carol Fornoff walked through the complex, calling her daughter’s name, knocking on a couple of doors and asking if the girl had been there. The bicycle was still there, but Christy was gone. Carol Fornoff went home and told her other daughters, "Christy’s missing. Something’s really wrong."
Donald Beaty, Rock Point’s maintenance supervisor, helped in the ensuing, frantic search for the girl. Beaty would make headlines for finding Christy Ann’s partially nude body two days later.
Ten days after that, police arrested him for the murder.
He’s still sitting on death row in Florence, where he declined an interview request.
DeCindis said what sticks in his mind the most about the day Christy Ann’s body was discovered was telling his students. School officials decided they would hear about it soon enough in the news, he said.
Christy Ann’s death had a lasting effect on the community, said Tempe police detective Tom Magazzeni.
"It could have been anybody’s child," he said. "Nothing like this ever occurred in Tempe again. It’s extremely rare, but it could happen anywhere."
"PEOPLE WON’T FORGET HER"
The murder made employers more cautious about whom they hire, and inspired more background checks. Beaty had been convicted in Texas of trying to sell his son, and had been fired for his odd behavior at two other Valley apartment complexes. The Fornoffs sued Rock Point apartments in 1986 and later settled for $1.5 million.
They built a house in Pinetop and used it for retreats for people whose loved ones had been murdered. Now they rent it out regularly for spiritual retreats as well as bereavement groups, the Fornoffs said. In 1988, they helped form the Christy Center for Loss and Renewal at St. Timothy’s Catholic Community Center in Mesa.
There isn’t really a "center" anymore — the building is now used for other purposes. But the support groupssimply meet at St. Timothy’s church or school, said Diane Smaw, a grief minister who organizes the nine-week sessions. The program includes four separate groups for children and adults.
Smaw said she is an awe of how the Fornoffs honored Christy Ann’s life through their work for others.
"People won’t forget her, just because of everything they’ve done in her name," she said.
Twist, now a Phoenix attorney, said the Dangerous Crimes Against Children Act passed by the state Legislature the year after Christy Ann’s death may have prevented thousands of molestations by increasing prison terms for sex offenders.
The murder also "began a chain of events that led five years later to state voters adopting the victims bill of rights in 1990," Twist said. "In the second half of the 1980s, there was much more focused attention on the problem of victims in the criminal justice system."
The Fornoffs no longer live in Tempe. Roger said he is pretty much retired from his painting business, which his sons have carried on. They live in a 55-and-older mobile home park in Mesa when they’re not in their home up north.
Their new home is smaller but still homey. A picture of Christy Ann — one that was seared into the minds of Valley residents who lived here then — hangs prominently next to a sliding glass door. The home has a butterfly theme — Carol has put stickers on the windows, artificial butterflies on some family pictures, there are butterfly plates and flowers planted outside to attract the gentle fliers.
The theme comes from the time Carol noticed a butterfly follow her for two hours during a rafting trip on the Animas River in Durango, Colo. They later spread Christy Ann’s ashes there. The Fornoffs’ children and grandchildren still sometimes tell of a butterfly they saw that reminds them of the girl from long ago.
The symbolism seems so perfect to Carol Fornoff.
"Christy Ann left this ugly earth and became a beautiful butterfly," she said.
With the Fornoffs’ encouragement, the Phoenix Zoo dedicated a new butterfly garden in Christy Ann’s memory in 1997.
Despite the good that has come from her daughter’s death, "I would throw it all away to have her back," Carol said.
Twenty years later, the Fornoffs — like any family — have had other ups and downs. Some of their children have had painful divorces. Their youngest son, Jason Fornoff, served four months in prison for his involvement in a street-racing crash that killed two people. Amid their other troubles, the murder of Christy Ann has become almost surreal, she said.
"It does seem like it happened to someone else," she said.
"You don’t get over it," Roger said. "You get along."