She had been a mystery from the moment that a male passerby found her slumped in the stone portico of the stately old Anglican Cathedral in St. John’s,
Nfld. She baffled doctors, who could not identify the malady that seemed to have robbed her of the power to talk, walk or even move more than a little.
She confounded the police, who embarked on a search across two continents in a fruitless effort to find out where she came from. And she seized the attention of the world. But last week, the puzzle was largely resolved.
Her name was Rochelle Scholl, not Christina, and she was 19 years old, not 15. She was not from England, as Newfoundland officials had suspected, but Portland, Ore. Her disorder was
not physical, but apparently mental. -
Scholl may have threatened to commit suicide before she left for Newfoundland. As well, Maclean ’s has learned that notes apparently written by Scholl suggested that her Newfoundland escapade was a methodically planned design. On a written timetable that a friend said Scholl had left behind, Scholl predicted “Parents get suspicious” beside the date July 15— just two days after her father actually reported her disappearance to the police.
The disclosure of Scholl’s identity at least partly resolved a month-long effort by the
authorities in Newfoundland, who had assembled a team of police investigators, psychiatrists and other experts in an attempt to penetrate the riddle posed when “Christina” first turned up early on the morning of July 7. When officials learned her true identity, it became clear that her mysterious journey to Newfoundland began in Portland, where the disturbed young woman had lived in a seedy apartment building occupied by several psychiatric patients similar to her. Just how Scholl managed to travel from Portland to St. John’s
remained a mystery. Residents of the apartment building said that she left there on July 2 after giving contradictory and confusing accounts of where she planned to go. A friend in the building said Scholl—who claimed to have given birth recently to twins—told her that she wanted to get away and that “she wasn’t coming back.”
There were also indications that Scholl may have threatened to kill herself. Rebekah Holmes, a 31-year-old with a reading disorder who lives in the same apartment building, told Maclean’s that, two weeks before she left, Scholl “told me she was going to go back to a hotel on her vacation and commit suicide. She told me not to tell anybody or I would be in trouble with the law.” Holmes also said that, earlier this summer, Scholl showed her an assortment of sleeping pills and told her that she was going to take them. Holmes said that she called the police, who went to the apartment building and prevented Scholl from taking the pills. Portland police officials refused to say whether they responded to such a call.
A detailed timetable that appears to be in Scholl’s handwriting and that Holmes said she discovered last week seemed to indicate that Scholl planned an escapade to attract the attention of her divorced parents. Holmes said that she had two notes in Scholl’s handwriting. One was a note “To whom it may concern,” dated July 2—the day Scholl left Portland—about the care of her dog, Josie. Another, apparently written earlier, noted that, on July 2, “Shelley [Rochelle] is leaving for coast” and contained other entries predicting events that would unfold during the following weeks.
In St. John’s, Scholl showed no reaction when Newfoundland officials learned her real name. Newfoundland’s social services minister, John Efford, who visited Scholl after her identity and background were discovered, said that “to me, she’s still Christina—a disabled, mute girl.”
The disclosure of Scholl’s identity focused attention on her parents, who separated when she was a child—and who now appear unable to help their daughter. Contacted in Mesa, Ariz., where she lives, Lisa Van Slyck, 39, told Maclean ’s that she and her second husband, Earle, 59, a minister of the First Christian Church, had arranged for Rochelle to be treated at a clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1986, but she disappeared. She subsequently reappeared in Springfield, Mo., and Des Moines, Iowa, where—as in St. John’s—she baffled the local police. Her mother said that, since then, she has had no direct contact with her daughter. But Rochelle stayed in touch with her father, Rodney Scholl, 43, a registered nurse who lives in Selma, Ore., 432 km south of Portland.
Van Slyck also said that doctors at the Scottsdale clinic told her that her daughter had “a borderline personality disorder.” She added: “They said she could function, that she is very bright—when she wants to be—and she can learn to take care of herself. And that’s what I want for her.” Van Slyck said that “nothing traumatic” had happened in her daughter’s life. “I know this is going to sound bad,” she said, “but she was always just a little strange. You know—one of those kinds of kids. I loved her, as any mother would love their kid—a little strange or not.” Added Van Slyck: “It seems to me that the bigger she got, the bigger the problems got, until I realized, T can’t handle this any more.’ ”
For his part, Rodney Scholl told reporters that his daughter suffered from what he called “a disassociation disorder.” He added: “She is in a hysterical disassociation state. It’s her
way of dealing with the mental anguish that’s going on in her mind. She thinks she is who she is.” Doctors in Newfoundland who examined Scholl refused to discuss her illness. Dr. Susan Beattie, a Portland psychiatrist who had been treating her, arrived in St. John’s on Aug. 6 and confirmed that the woman known in Newfoundland as Christina was, in fact, her former
patient. Beyond that, she would say little publicly. She did say that she was surprised to learn where Rochelle was, adding, “St. John’s is awfully far away from Portland.”
For officials in St. John’s, the search for Scholl’s identity was a frustrating one. When she refused to speak, doctors initially diagnosed her apparent disability as cerebral palsy, then speculated that she might have a rare degenerative neurological disorder. Later, officials discovered that she could communicate through sign language. By that means, Rochelle told investigators that her name was Christina, that ßhe had come from England aboard a small white yacht along with three men, her mother and her nanny. She told them that her mother was a native of Yugoslavia who had moved to England and placed her in a small rural school for disabled children in that country. She said that she was 15 and had lost the power to speak when she was 10. And she gave indications of being able to understand German and Slovene, a Yugoslav language.
A four-member unit from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary launched inquiries that eventually spread across North America and Europe, drawing in Britain’s Scotland Yard and Paris-based Interpol, the international police organization. Color posters of the girl were circulated. At first, nothing worked. Said Efford: “We just kept running into dead ends.” Her story began to unravel when dentists examined her teeth and found that she was older than she had claimed. A key break in the case occurred when someone in the United States—police refuse to say who it was—saw her picture in a newspaper clipping sent by a Canadian friend. The recipient apparently recognized the girl and notified local police, who contacted the Newfoundland police and told them to check with officials in Portland. As a result, constabulary officers discovered that a person answering the mystery woman’s description had been reported missing. Her name was Rochelle Opal Scholl, an outpatient since her release last March from Dammasch psychiatric hospital, near Portland. Said police Lieut. Freeman Twyne: “From that point on, everything began to fall into place.”
With her identity confirmed, a picture of Scholl’s life began to emerge. Since last April 1, she had lived in a third-floor, one-bedroom apartment in a run-down section of Portland. The apartment building, the Medallion Apartments, is subsidized by the Housing Authority of Portland. The building has about 105 residents and, according to building manager Don-
aid Schwab, 58, about half of them have mental or physical disabilities.
At the Medallion, Scholl made friends with Holmes, who called her “Shelley.” Holmes said Scholl had a key to her apartment and that they often went for walks together, along with Scholl’s dog, Josie, an eight-year-old Labrador retriever. Said Holmes: “We would go for long, long walks. There were no short distances with Shelley.” Building residents said that Scholl was a meticulous housekeeper. Added Robert Hughes, 41, who said he works part time as a female impersonator at a nightclub and is president of the Medallion tenant council: “She had exquisite taste and very nice furniture. She had an answering machine for her phone— something I just can’t afford.”
Residents of the building recalled that, earlier this summer, Scholl made careful arrangements for a journey.
But it was not clear where she was going. Schwab—who told Maclean’s he thought Scholl suffered from occasional epileptic seizures—said that, on June 30, she gave him $80 for her July rent. Declared Schwab: “She told me that she was going on vacation ‘with my mom and dad’ for a couple of weeks.” Holmes had a different version of her friend’s departure. She said Scholl had planned the trip for a month: “She said she wanted to get away. She had told me that she wasn’t coming back. She didn’t want anyone else to know about it.”
Holmes also recalled that, early on the morning of her July 2 departure from Portland, Rochelle called on her at her apartment and mutilated all her identification cards. Added Holmes:
“Shelley cut up all of her identification and said she was going to go by a different name.” She added that she left cheques to cover her electricity and telephone bills. Schwab said that Rodney Scholl subsequently arrived at the Medallion and reported his daughter’s disappearance to the Portland police on July 13.
Holmes described conversations with Scholl and incidents that appeared to shed light on the girl’s troubled personality. She said that Scholl claimed earlier to have given birth to twin girls in January of this year. But Holmes said that Rodney Scholl later told her that Scholl made the story up. Holmes also said that, after a Mother’s Day card Scholl mailed to her mother in Mesa was returned unopened, Rochelle told her that “this had been going on for years with Christmas, birthday and Easter cards.” Declared Van Slyck: “That’s not true.”
Scholl is clearly a troubled young woman. Her dramatic arrival in Newfoundland was a repeat of earlier actions. In October, 1987, she confounded police in Springfield when they found her in an airport washroom. As in St. John’s, she was apparently unable to walk or talk and acted, according to local press accounts of the incident, “like a six-month-old infant.” Three months later, in January, 1988,
she turned up in an isolated comer of an airport in Des Moines. Once again, she seemed not to be able to speak or to move normally. In both Springfield and Des Moines, local police found a handwritten note in her belongings identifying the girl as “Marybeth.” The notes—at first assumed to have been written by her mother, but later established to have been composed by Rochelle—asked God to care for the child because “I am unable to provide a safe, secure environment any longer.”
Last week, the woman who had mystified Newfoundland remained a patient in the Waterford Hospital, a red-brick mental institution
in the western suburbs of St. John’s. She was expected to remain there for a week or more while the authorities assessed her situation. Despite the trouble she has caused provincial and local officials, she did not seem to have lost any of the sympathy she aroused when she was known as Christina. Public opinion, in fact, seemed to be protective. Dr. Thomas Cantwell, the medical director of the Waterford Hospital, refused to answer any inquiries about the girl’s condition. And the provincial department of justice appointed a legal counsel, St. John’s lawyer Mary Philpott, to look after Scholl’s interests. “This case has been receiving a public airing for the last 30 days,” said Philpott. “I think it’s about time we left the poor girl alone for a while.” Judging from the sympathetic response from provincial officials, at least some Newfoundlanders seemed to agree with that prescription.
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