I bounded down the stairs and out the front door first one Sunday morning in January, eager to gain the advantage of picking the best seat in the car for the ride to church. I stopped short on the porch as I noticed hundreds of bright white sheets of paper taped to every available tree and light post, stuck under every windshield, and standing out like freshly fallen snow against the gray and rainy winter morning. I picked the flyer off my parents’ windshield and stared fixedly at it, unable to blink despite my slowly adjusting and aching eyes. The front door to the duplex opened and closed. When I looked away the brightness of the paper left the negative of the flyer burned into my field of vision, and I saw Elissa’s image lingering when I looked up at my dad. It was a school photo – she was wearing the pastel sweater and big black plastic hoop earrings I’d complemented her on the first time we spoke. “This girl goes to my school,” I said.
On Friday, January 11, 1991, just before 6:30 a.m., eleven-year-old Elissa Self left her house at 3844 Humphrey Street in South St. Louis to walk less than three blocks to catch her bus to Enright Classical Junior Academy. Elissa never arrived at school, and at about 8:20 a.m. the school called Elissa’s parents to tell them that Elissa was not present. Elissa’s parents drove around the neighborhood looking for her, but they were unable to find her, and they went home and called the police. Height: 4’10”. Weight: 95lbs. Eyes: Brown. Hair: Brown. Last seen wearing a matching purple raincoat and rainboots. If you have any information regarding Elissa’s whereabouts, please contact the St. Louis Police Department.
Rumors flew in the cafeteria at school on Monday amid reassurances to close friends that she’d be found unharmed. Trays holding red and white cardboard containers full of rubbery hamburgers and french fries sat picked at or untouched. Elyssa’s face smiled from every wall and pillar in the school, the words on the page telling the same short, vague story. Impatient for the details to come, many people spent hours speculating, filling in the holes on their own. I waited, numb.
On Tuesday, January 15, 1991, two persons who were scavenging at the Black Bridge recreation area along the St. Francis River, 135 miles south of St. Louis in Wayne County, found Elissa Self’s body in a large pile of debris that had washed up on the riverbank. Autopsies revealed that she had been raped and strangled. Elissa had been missing since Friday morning.
School on Wednesday was eerily quiet. The squeak of wet boots on the waxed floors echoed through the halls, broken only by the occasional slamming of a locker door. People hugged and sobbed in the hallways between classes. Ms. Purdy’s voice over the loudspeaker announced the presence of counselors for those who wanted to talk, and the details of the wake and funeral.
At about 9:24 p.m., on January 26, 1991, a City of Kirkwood police officer saw Martin Link driving with a headlight out and attempted to pull him over. Link led the officer on a high-speed chase, eventually crashing his car into a telephone pole, and was then taken into custody. In a search of the car, officers found a jar of petroleum jelly with Link’s fingerprints on the jar and flecks of blood embedded in the jelly. Link is being held in connection with the murder of Elissa Self, who was found dead nearly two weeks ago. Link was convicted in the rape of two other young girls in 1982 but was paroled for good behavior in 1989.
Rose’s mom picked all of us up in her white minivan, and we sat huddled as closely as we possibly could. At the church, we joined a line of hundreds waiting to shake hands with Elissa’s mom and somehow come to grips with the reality of the situation. My stomach lurched with each step forward. Why had I come here? I saw other kids from my school in line – their parents, some teachers. How had this happened? Nathan Shore passed me, looking empty. How could anyone do this?
We stepped up to the casket.
She looked so peaceful, like a china doll in a black velvet dress with lace trim, her short hair styled beautifully, as usual. One look was enough to send all of us in to choking, heaving sobs. “Oh girls, that isn’t Lissy,” her mother said, gesturing to the body, “THIS is Lissy,” pointing to pictures of Elissa before we knew her face or name, holding her baby sister and smiling her famous smile. The images flooded back as I cried convulsively. I remembered how she had scored touchdowns for the wrong team when we played football with the boys, and laughed along with us afterwards. I remembered the notes we passed in the hallways, folded in all manner of shapes and sizes and addressed to secret code names in case they were confiscated or discovered by the wrong person. I remembered being angry when I found out that Nathan Shore wanted to go with her and not me. I remembered giggling with her on bus rides, at parties, at Sue’s house after school. I remembered making faces at each other when we lined up to go to inside after recess.
My friends and I hugged each other all the way home. When they dropped me off I ran up the stairs and into my mother’s arms. She and my sister sandwiched me between them on my bed and held me until the tears receded and I fell into an exhausted sleep.
Life went on.
Martin Link was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis of kidnapping, section 565.110, RSMo 1986, forcible rape, section 566.030, RSMo Supp. 1990, and murder in the first degree, section 565.020, RSMo Supp. 1990, and the trial court, following the jury's recommendation, sentenced Link to death. Execution scheduled for December 15, 2000.
By some random miracle, I made it past 11, past 12, on and on – and years later, what I still remember most clearly about Elissa is her smile.