“Look at me. C’mon, look at me.”
Tamra Davis is staring out the window of a car, willing passers-by on this highway to notice her. She’s desperate.
The 14-year-old from Lawrenceville wants to mouth to someone, “Help me.”
Just then the leader of the three men who brought her from Georgia to Florida, a hulking man she’s come to know as “Big Jim,” seems to read her thoughts.
“Don’t even think of calling for help,” he tells her. “I’ll kill you. I’ll dump your body in the Okefenokee. The reptiles will eat you, and nobody will ever find your body.”
Later, she pleads with him, not for the first time, to let her go.
“Not a chance,” he tells her. “You are my girlfriend. I’m going to take you, I’m going to hold you forever.”
Gail Davis is angry. Her daughter, Tamra, an eighth-grader at Richards Middle School, is supposed to be inside a Snellville church. But, rebel that she is, she’s disappeared.
Gail starts driving around with Tamra’s younger sister, Kathryn. At first, Kathryn doesn’t want to tell her mother anything, afraid that she and Tamra will get in trouble.
But finally she tells her mother that she saw Tamra get in a car with three men, who drove away. Police will fix the time of her disappearance as 6:55 p.m., May 21, 1997.
» WSB-TV VIDEO: How the GBI investigates missing persons cases
Kathryn has a great memory, which is a lucky break for Sgt. Harold Thomas of the Snellville police. The 12-year-old describes the car and the three men. She recalls that the license tag looked different than those in Georgia. Something about “amber” was written on it.
Thomas figures the car has an Indiana tag, since the state’s motto is “amber waves of grain.” He puts out the descriptions to authorities in Florida, the Carolinas, Indiana, Kentucky. He talks with numerous media outlets. He briefs the FBI.
Thomas, who has a daughter about the same age as Tamra, works the case night and day — sleeping, when he does sleep, on the couch in the office.
Big Jim stays close to Tamra. As they drive back through Georgia and into Tennessee and Kentucky, he has her sit next to him. The other two men haven’t touched her, although at one point Big Jim asked them if they “wanted some of this” — meaning her.
She feels like they would help her if they could. At one point, when Big Jim grows annoyed with her, he tells one of the men to hand him a gun, saying, “I’m tired of all this.” But the man refuses, saying, “You know I am not going to give it to you when you are like this.”
Tamra tries to think of ways she can hurt Big Jim and get away. But she knows she’s lost control over her fate.
She decides she has to get some control back. She’s going to trick him.
Tamra starts acting like she likes Big Jim, that she enjoys him touching her. It disgusts her, but she figures it just might save her life.
She is in pure survival mode.
When Gail Davis gets home from the police department, she walks in the door, falls on the floor and starts screaming.
Family and friends show up to offer support, but the mother simply goes through the motions of greeting them and giving them information. She feels frozen, trapped in an endless moment of grief and fear, as the world goes on around her.
Tamra’s grandmother, Alice Barbee, comes down from Tennessee. She and Gail visits the site where Tamra disappeared. Looking around at all the cars and people, the grandmother said, “How are you going to find one person in all this?”
Sgt. Thomas gets a tip. The person, who knows one of the suspects, provides the names of the three men and says they visited a friend in Lilburn the night before Tamra disappeared. Snellville police issue an all-points bulletin for the three suspects.
The manhunt, now including the FBI, is in full swing.
Another tip comes in, saying the men have been working and living in Kentucky. Authorities eventually track Big Jim to an address in Lexington.
Four days after he picked her up, Big Jim takes Tamra from his room in a Lexington rooming house, puts her in the car and starts driving. He is panicking, having seen news reports about the manhunt.
“I don’t know whether to kill you or let you go,” her tells her.
Tamra begs for her life. She starts to cry. She swears that if he lets her go, she won’t tell anyone.
“You better not tell, or I will come back after you.”
He drops her off in Chattanooga, near where her family used to live.
Sgt. Thomas drives Gail Davis to pick up her daughter.
Gail is nervous the whole ride, thinking, “I just need to touch her, make sure she’s alright.”
She’s not alright. She was a problem child before she met Big Jim, and now she’s worse. Within a month, she tries to slit her wrist. After that, she spends several months in a psychiatric center in south Georgia.
“I thought everybody was going to hurt me,” she says now.
James Marsillett Jr. and the other men are caught. A grand jury indicts them on charges that that they did “kidnap, abduct, carry away, confine, and hold, a minor female, for the purposes of sexual assault.”
The defense plays hardball, seeking access to records describing Tamra’s earlier emotional and behavioral problems.
Charges against the two other men are dismissed, and federal prosecutors let Big Jim plea bargain his charge down to transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes. He is sentenced to five years.
Three years after her nightmare, Tamra is doing meth and other “crazy things” when she decides she’s had enough. She calls her grandmother in Tennessee and begs her to take her in.
Tamra stays there a year, getting clean. She gets a job as a nursing assistant at a nursing home.
These days, she is 30 and married, with a new name, Tamra McKinley, and two kids, a boy and a girl. She’s about a year away from getting a nursing degree. She lives in Chattanooga.
Tamra can’t abide anyone standing behind her, or being alone at night in a parking lot. She is extra protective of her 5-year-old girl, Amberleigh. She finds it hard to look at posters of missing children.
For years, she was incapable of discussing what happened to her, and her family still doesn’t talk about it much.
She can’t remember the face of Big Jim.
How we got the story
After three women were released from more than a decade of captivity in Cleveland, reporter Craig Schneider combed databases of missing persons and news reports for cases of Georgia teens abducted by strangers. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution story from 1997 told of Tamra Davis, taken from Snellville at the age of 14 and held for four days by three men who drove her to Florida and then to Kentucky. Schneider traced Davis to Chattanooga and interviewed her, her mother, her grandmother and her sister. He also spoke to police and prosecutors who worked the case and reviewed the court file.