ORLANDO, Fla. -- It has been almost three years since I sat down at the computer and typed my first article on Casey Anthony and her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. At that time, the case did not stand out a lot. Kids go missing every day and I've certainly covered my fair share. It's never an easy task, but by no means an uncommon event. Little did I know I was about to be sucked into something much bigger -- something that would hover over my life like a dark cloud for years to come.
The disappearance of Caylee Anthony shifted within the first few days from a missing child case to a possible case of child murder. A web of lies was uncovered and it became painfully obvious that her mother knew more -- much more -- than she was willing to tell. The case was coming together like a great novel -- a mind-bending work of art, yet it wasn't fiction and was all too true.
The characters connected to the case and those who were drawn in were like no others. There were crackpot psychics, celebrity bounty hunters, tabloid journalists -- everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the Anthony family pie.
In September 2008, I spoke with Tim Miller, founder and director of Texas EquuSearch. Miller and I had worked together in the past. I had covered cases he worked on and had volunteered in missing person searches. I was with Miller when I saw my first body -- that of a missing person who had been dead for several days. That first experience was one I never forgot. Miller told me that he and his team had just arrived in Orlando and were having a difficult time getting volunteers.
On September 3, 2008, roughly fifty thousand people visited Walt Disney World, while all of twelve showed at the EquuSearch command center to search for Caylee. I ran an article pointing that out; the next day hundreds of volunteers showed up and the Discovery Channel flew me to Florida.
Hurricane Ike was on the horizon when I arrived in Orlando. There was a dark cloud on the horizon that seemed to portend things even more ominous than the hurricane itself.
I was the only reporter Miller gave behind-the-scenes access to and allowed in the command center. He showed me the maps where searches were being conducted and where they were preparing to go next. They had the search area broken down into a 30-mile grid. They were literally looking for a needle in a haystack.
I went on more searches than I can remember. The searches ran from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. My day, however, would begin again when I went back to the hotel because then I had to cover the case. I typically made it to bed by 3 or 4 a.m. After a day or two of that I felt like a zombie. And so it went for days on end.
I learned right away not to stray too far when searching in the Florida swamps.
I'll never forget one particular incident when I fell behind to get a group photo of the searchers I was with. I was about 100 feet or so away and was standing in about a foot of water, adjusting my lenses for that perfect shot, when I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. When I looked over I saw I was not the only thing in the water and was eye to eye with a curious gator. I froze for what seemed like an eternity and then slowly stepped away. He or she, whatever the case might have been, let me pass. It was, perhaps, as perplexed by my presence as I was by its. Either way, the incident was forever burned into my mind and I never fell back again.
As the searches heated up so did the presence of protesters outside the Anthony family home. They would chant "baby killer, baby killer," over and over again. It was not uncommon for fights to break out and it was while covering the protest that I had my first run-in with Casey Anthony's father, George Anthony. I was standing on the edge of his yard when he ran up and told me to get my foot "the f--k off his land." I figured that was probably a bad time to request an interview, so I backed off.
On September 7, 2008, the search for Caylee was temporarily suspended. High waters had left many of the areas unsearchable and unsafe. Hurricane Ike was coming ashore as I flew out. The turbulence was unreal and it was the worst plane ride of my life. I literally felt like kissing the ground when it landed.
During the first week of November 2008, I returned to Orlando again and met with Miller as he and his group prepared to search for Anthony. I was again given behind-the-scenes access. Search two was much bigger than the first and between 2,000 and 4,000 people came from all over the U.S. and abroad to volunteer.
I met several memorable people during search two. There was Larry, a 40-something-year-old man who had terminal cancer and was told by doctors he had less than a month to live. Despite his condition, Larry volunteered at the sign-in tent.
Another person I met was Jesse Matthews, a mentally challenged young man, who was eager to assist by handing out water and doing a variety of jobs around the command center.
Another wonderful person was Kristen Stephens. Her daughter, 16-year-old Staci Stephens, had died three years earlier from viral myocarditis. Kristen spent a lot of time volunteering at the command center and used her own personal tragedy to help many of the volunteers.
There were others -- countless others who came out to search for Caylee. All of them devoted precious time from their lives to help search for a missing little girl that they never even met.
A little-known fact is that, during search two, Cindy Anthony came to the Holiday Inn hotel at which Texas EquuSearch and I were staying near the Orlando International Airport. Anthony sat down in a room with us and cried as Miller discussed losing his own daughter, Laura Miller. She was abducted and murdered in 1984. Her killer has never been identified. Tim Miller played a song that had been written about Laura and Cindy sat in tears as they listened to the lyrics.
After the meeting, Cindy Anthony approached me. I was somewhat surprised that she knew who I was and, in that moment, Cindy Anthony reached out and embraced me. Afterwards, we spoke and I was left with the impression that she was trying to hang onto any shred of hope that she could find.
A day or two later, on November 9, 2008, the search for Caylee was suspended. I sat down with Miller just prior to his announcement. He told me he felt he had done all he could and did not believe Caylee would ever be found. "There is only one person who can bring this to an end and she's not talking," he said.
From Orlando, I traveled with Miller and his group to North Carolina to conduct joint searches for Kelly Currin Morris, Jennifer Rivkin, Mouy Tang and Jamie Michelle Fraley. Caylee, however, still remained on my mind.
I was sitting in my office on December 11, 2008 when I received a phone call from Mandy Albritton, a close personal friend who was working as a spokesperson for Texas EquuSearch. She told me that a child's skeletal remains had been found down the street from the Anthony family home. The news was a shock. Ten minutes later it was all over the television. They were not saying it was Caylee, but everyone knew it was. She was found. She was finally found.
It was not until later that day that I realized the location where Caylee's remains were found was within a couple hundred feet of a location I had gone into with EquuSearch during search one. I remember the area was under water. She was there and we never even knew it. That is something that still bothers me. I was later deposed regarding this and was placed on the witness list. Apparently Anthony's attorney planned to somehow use the information but, as it turned out, I was never called to testify.
I chose not to attend Caylee's public memorial in Orlando. I was afraid I would later regret the decision, but as of yet I don't. I've never been much for public displays and prefer to deal with things in my own way. I did, however, return to Orlando on my own dime a few months later to pay my respects at the scene where Caylee was found.
The long limbo between Caylee's remains being found and the start of Anthony's trial dragged on forever. When the trial finally began in May, I came out for the first week to cover it for The Huffington Post.
When Anthony's attorney, Jose Baez, brought up the drowning theory during opening arguments, I knew it was all over. He pulled the rug right out from under the prosecution and they were unable to get back the momentum they surely would have otherwise had.
I was in Orlando again this week for sentencing. While I did not expect Anthony to be convicted of first-degree murder, I was surprised she was only found guilty of four misdemeanors. I was, of course, not alone.
The nation was angry and I was there on the courthouse steps when an angry public stormed up to the front doors chanting, "Justice for Caylee." I was also there today when an angry group of protesters stood outside shouting as Anthony learned she would be freed in less than a week.
When I came to search for Caylee in 2008 -- yes, I, too, searched; I didn't merely report -- there was that dark cloud on the horizon from Hurricane Ike. Today, as I sit in an Orlando hotel writing this, there is -- once again -- a black cloud on the horizon.
Will Caylee ever get justice? I doubt it. I think whatever happened to her will forever remain a mystery. I never knew Caylee. I never met her and, as a journalist I tried not to become emotionally attached. I am, however, human. I have a heart and a mind and both still ache for that little girl.