This is what you get for waking up in Vegas.
I don’t know if Darlene “Dar” Heatherington is well-known beyond the Canadian border, but around these parts she’s a household name. And when people say that name, they either have a very strong opinion on it, or they’re utterly confounded by the whole thing and have to stop thinking about it before they get brain cramps.
Here’s why. In 2002, Mrs. Heatherington was 39 years old and a member of the city council of Lethbridge, Alberta. She was also a married mother of three little children, ranging in age from 10 to 4. Her husband, David, was the city’s deputy fire chief.
Around October of that year, Heatherington reported to Lethbridge police that she had been receiving obscene phone calls and lewd letters at her office. A wiretap and surveillance cameras were set up to snare the perp, but the calls ceased as soon as the phone line was tapped. The surveillance footage revealed no likely suspects.
Fastfoward 8 months. During the first week of May, 2003, Lethbridge mayor Bob Tarleck and five aldermen traveled to Great Falls, Montana, to meet officially with some American counterparts. Heatherington was one of them. On Saturday, May 3rd, she planned to be at a morning meeting, then return to Lethbridge to attend her daughter’s evening piano recital. Around 9:00 that morning, however, she phoned her husband to say the meetings would be longer than expected. She wouldn’t be home in time for the recital.
Then, an hour later, she cancelled her meetings.
Sometime before noon, she purchased a mountain bike at a Great Falls pawn shop. She told the owner she wanted to bike the network of trails along the Missouri River.
When she didn’t arrive home that night, David Heatherington immediately reported his wife missing. Her rental car had been found in a downtown parking lot the previous afternoon, with her purse and keys flung on the ground nearby. During the next three days, all 19 detectives of the Great Falls police department were put on the case. Helicopters searched the trails along the Missouri River.
Foul play, an accident, or suicide initially seemed the likeliest possibilities, of course, but by Tuesday the Great Falls police had formed at least one other theory. They revealed that Lethbridge police “had a history” with Heatherington, a reference to the mysterious stalking incidents. Now they explored the possibility that she had faked her own disappearance.
On the night of Tuesday, May 2nd, a woman was reported to be wandering around outside the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas in a distressed state. Police took her to University Medical Center. She appeared to be in good condition, but she explained that she had been abducted from a parking lot in Montana three days earlier.
David Heatherington met his wife in Vegas on Wednesday, May 7th, and together they flew back to Great Falls to be questioned by police. It was after sitting in on this interrogation that Cascade Country attorney Brant Light decided to charge Mrs. Heatherington with giving a false statement.
This was Heatherington’s first story: As she stood near her rental car on the afternoon of May 3rd, a man grabbed her and placed her in his car. She was forced to ingest an unidentified drug. The next thing she knew, she was 1600 kilometers away, in Vegas. The man had evidently driven her there, and she said it was possible she had been raped by him.
This story didn’t make much sense to the investigators. Firstly, Heatherington refused to provide any other details. Secondly, there had been no signs of a struggle at her car. Thirdly, there were the unresolved matters of the bicycle and the cancelled meetings – not to mention the mysterious obscene phone calls and letters. If she had been stalked by a psychopath for at least six months, then drugged and abducted, where was the evidence?
Under pressure, Heatherington provided a second story: By chance, she met a fellow Albertan in Great Falls. He was a married man, but she decided to catch a ride with him to visit a friend in Culver City, California. Instead, they drove to Vegas and stayed there for two nights.
She refused to give the man’s name.
Light decided to charge Heatherington with making a false statement. If found guilty, she would face a $500 fine, 6 months in jail, or both.
Heatherington promptly recanted her second story, insisting (as she does to this day) that the first one was true.
The Heatheringtons returned to Lethbridge the same night the criminal charge was laid. The mayor had gently suggested that Mrs. Heatherington take some time off from her work with the city council, but she seemed determined to continue her life as it had been before her disappearance. That would not be easy. Angry locals reportedly vandalized her house, neighbors shunned the family, and even the children’s friends kept their distance. Few people in Lethbridge accepted the abduction story; they assumed Mrs. Heatherington had run off to Vegas with a lover, but didn’t want to accept the consequences of having an affair. Many of them demanded her resignation from city council.
David Heatherington staunchly supported his wife’s story. He told reporters that while he didn’t know all the details of the “untoward event”, he could attest that her body was bruised.
On May 20th, as part of a deal worked out with the Cascade County attorney, Dar Heatherington pled not guilty to a charge of giving a false statement to police, agreed to pay $100 to help cover court costs, and promised to attend counselling. This didn’t reflect her real response to the charges – she continued to say she had been abducted – but the deal enabled her to remain on the Lethbridge city council.
The Great Falls affair wrapped up, there was now that matter of the Lethbridge stalker. On June 10th, police concluded their investigation into the incidents by charging Dar Heatherington with criminal mischief, contending that she fabricated everything – the letters, the phone calls, the midnight prowler.
She was convicted on June 29, 2004. A criminal conviction meant she could no longer serve on the city council, but (still insisting that the stalking had been real), Heatherington clung to her position until she was forced to resign in September. She also violated the terms of her house arrest, resulting in another conviction early the following year. By this time Mrs. Heatherington had reportedly become dependent on a mixture of anti-depressants and painkillers.
So what happened in this case? I don’t know, but my hunch is that Dar Heatherington was not in Vegas with a boyfriend, and that she falls into the extemely small category of “self-stalkers”: people who stage harrassment or even assaults against themselves, usually because they’re suffering factitious disorders or dissociative disorders. Self-stalking is often detected quickly, when injuries are inconsistent with the violent assaults reported by victims, or surveillance catches them doing something to themselves. (I discussed some of these cases in my post on Ashley Todd, the John McCain campaign volunteer who carved the letter “B” onto her own cheek, then claimed she had been mugged and assaulted by an Obama supporter.)
Dar Heatherington’s case is remarkably similiar to the self-stalking case of Ruth Finley, a Kansas housewife with Dissociative Identity Disorder who sent lewd, menacing letters to herself and even staged a parking-lot abduction and a stabbing. But the unresolved elements of the Heatherington affair cast it into the same limbo as the stalking and mysterious death of Vancouver nurse Cindy James.
We’ll probably never know exactly what happened on the way to Vegas.