Ninnekah is a Choctaw word. It means night or darkness.
On a dark night in Ninnekah, under the Choctaw sky, Tonya Rodgers called her boyfriend from a payphone. It was the last phone call she ever made. That evening in the spring of 1990, she was raped and murdered by an Army soldier home on leave. At the first light of morning, searchers found her body along a creek bank in Grady County.
I was less than six weeks away from graduating college when the story of 17-year-old Rodgers made the news. Although murder is a daily occurrence in American society, I’m hard-pressed to remember the name of even one person murdered in Oklahoma in the last five, maybe 10 years. I can’t even remember the name of that little boy in Nichols Hills whose doctor-father stabbed him to death.
Maybe I don’t want to remember it, kind of like when my friend and I were talking about it and I told her under no circumstances was she to tell me if that little boy was his mother’s only child. Don’t tell me, I said, as I put my fingers in my ears and chanted la-la-la-la-la. Some things I can’t handle knowing.
And, yet, Tonya’s name, for whatever reason, has remained with me all these years. Her story beckons me, 20 years and counting. So, I wonder sometimes, is my memory a summons to the dead? And, what does it mean to be dead anyway? She isn’t really dead or I don’t think I’d be thinking of her. Her body is absent, but for whatever reason, Tonya’s spirit remains present, particularly for those good at remembering, even if we’d rather forget.
I want to regard this bizarre and repeat occurrence as a curse, because what if someone dismissed it as my own fixation on death? But, I know in my heart that nothing could be further from the truth, and this bizarre occurrence is actually a gift. Maybe even, my best gift of all. For 20 years I’ve neglected to write an elegy for a girl I never knew who died on the banks of a creek in the darkness of night 54 miles from my college dorm; 54 miles away from the evil that found her and not me.
I am not haunted by Tonya, but privileged by her memory. That image of her school picture flashed on the TV, preserved by the chemistry in my brain, it’s fading now. Time is taking from me Tonya’s blonde bangs, and so tonight, I surrender to the lesson her death wants to teach me.
This is my fractured elegy for Tonya.
In the darkness of a Choctaw night
In the melodic town of Ninnekah
There on an ancient bank
Under a canopy of lacebark elms
A whale of tragedy swept you away
I wish it were not so.
And I have lamented in perfect procession
The loss of 10,000 things my survival did not require
These disappointments you were denied:
The luxury of failure
The mercy of mistake.
And, I am sorry
That my living has descended
Into the hell of pity at times
When your final moments were a hell like no other
They came sooner and more suddenly
Than anyone could have ever imagined
In a nearly all-white town
Of 300 families
At the hands
One brutal soldier
(May God save you from him now.)
And, it was on the banks of a Ninnekah night
You crossed over into a lonely purgatory
I do not want the dead to be sad
But sometimes they are
And I can hardly bear the burden
Of a 17-year-old’s regrets
Or the wisdom your own dying brought you
Whisper to me now as you have for 20 years
I am still alive
And hell has escaped me
And hell I have escaped
And you are here with me now
We are insignificant and invisible
Only if we choose to be
And these conditions are not governed
By life or death.
I love you, Tonya,
And I thank you for being with me all these years
For this lesson you bring me
Your tears of regret falling into my palms
They push away the drops of fear
That coalesce on my windshield
This blanket that distorts
All the good things in front of me
I’ll write your name in the morning dew
Every time I think of you
And I won’t forget
Our days are unpredictable
And the end comes sooner and more suddenly
Than we would like sometimes
And it will serve me well
To remember this
On the days
On the days
On the days…
You are not insignificant or invisible
I see you in the bokeh
You are the fiery, sometimes majestic orb
Dancing through the Osage Orange
And the Silver Maple
The Sand Plum and the Scotch Pine
Beyond the Night
Who do you miss the most?
Please visit my post another Oklahoma teenager, Monique Daniels, who went missing in 1992 and has still not been found.
Her boyfriend says
I loved her so much. Even at our age we knew our love was everlasting. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her I still dream about her from time to time. You say she’s not gone because her memory lives on. I have the memory of her and the last time we spoke replay nearly every day and she sure seams gone to me.
Thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry you’ve had to live with this loss all your adult life. I cannot even fathom what you have gone through. I think of you when I think of Tonya even though I don’t know you because I remember the news stories that she was at the payphone talking with her boyfriend when she disappeared. She is gone from this life as are all the people I’ve loved and lost. It’s awful and nothing can change it. Still, I felt her spirit with me – a stranger – all these years. But, I know what you mean. The older I get the harder it is to believe in heaven. It was easy when I was a kid. I have to put faith into practice these days more than ever before. Thanks, again, for leaving a note. I really love that poem Tonya wrote: “…When He takes us up to heaven there will be no hurt, no pain, no hate.”
One thing you have absolutely right is the amazing person and consuming spirt she has. I’ve lost all belief and trust in this world and any other. yet she is still in my heart. I remember all the times we had and everything about her right down to her comming into a room and filling it with that effect she had on me to captavat my heart. I do miss her still. I do hate this world for taking her from all of us.
I’m so sorry. Her death had such a big impact on me. At the time, I was 21 and living alone in a bad apartment in a rough part of OKC. I would get out of my car and run to my apartment in the dark, always afraid of who might be lurking. I had no deadbolts, only push-button locks. Three years after Tonya was murdered, a girl I went to college with was murdered two blocks from that apartment. There is so much evil in the world. I hope and pray that this is not all there is and that someday when we die, we’ll see all the people we’ve loved and lost again. It’s not much comfort now, though, as we journey through the worst kinds of loss. For what it’s worth, I’m praying for you. I cannot imagine the pain over the loss of such a beautiful girl.
Keri phariss says
Please live good for her and her brother and sisters and mom keri phariss
I remember when this happened. We lived across the road from where that creep was arrested. Think its called Pond Rd now, but back then it was Route 5. I was 9. We were playing outside and a LOT of police cars came down our little dirt road and Nana shooed us inside. Scary stuff. The store he took her from was Southgate, I think. Had closed down at the time. We only heard later why they arrested him. Made me realize you can never feel safe anywhere. Less than 10 houses on that rd, and a murderer lived in one of em. We rode our bikes up and down that rd unsupervised all the time. Creek ran through back of our property, dont know if it was Bitter creek or not, we just called it “the creek”. Later moved in town and were sort of friends with Joe Dennis, but he punched my brother to gain some sort of cred to get into a gang. He went on to murder someone over drugs I think.
Thanks for sharing your story. This post about Tonya remains one of my favorites. I still think about her often, and cherish the life I have. It is true, we live among beasts, and are never quite sure how close they’re lurking. Be safe, Anonymous. And, thanks again for leaving a note and remembering Tonya, too.
Angie stubblefield says
My name is angie stubblefield in 1986 in vernon tx i thought i was safe living with chief of police robert schmoker. But i was wrong. Officer schmokers friend randy scottt perry kidnapped me raoed me torchered me. And when i broke away running for my life he cauggt me again and i finally got away running as fast as i could thinking i finally simeonewoukd help me get to a phone i called 911 i told police what happened the whole precienct of vernon showed up at ofgicer schmomers house and he told me not to ever call 911 from his home again and he said i shouldnt make up stupid lies. They are the very reason that randy didnt get charged and thrown in jail. I was victomized again this time by law enfirement in 1986 all these years it still haunts me
Oh my gosh, Angie!! This is the first time I’ve heard of this. So, what you’re saying is Tonya’s death could have been prevented had the cops in Vernon not been totally crooked. I have no words. I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m glad you survived those monsters, especially Perry. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your story. I BELIEVE YOU.
Keri phariss says
Please contact me keri phariss 4177123752 spouce to his victim in oklahoma
Keri Taylor says
Parole jhearing is soon
Shalene Harris says
This is such sad news, she could still be here. Something should be done!!!
So nice to know someone else remembers Tonya. I think about her often. It will be 26 years in just 11 short days. I still remember all the details, the feelings, the emotional toll it took on our class, most of us had been together since kindergarten. Never forgotten, Rest in peace Tonya Kay. Class of 91…, forever friends-marcy
I found this today, just roaming through Google. I was in tonyas grade, from kindergarten til she was taken from us.. It will be 26 years in 11days. I remember her clearly just like yesterday. I think of her often and how her life might have been if that monster would have just drove on his way that night. I remember all the details, the feelings, and how our lives changed. Gone but never forgotten.., so glad someone else thinks of her often…marcy
Hello Marcy – Her spirit lives on, no doubt, for it reached me 26 years ago when I didn’t even know her, and I still think of her sometimes. RIP Tonya. Only much later would I learn how special she was.
She was my cousin. This is my first time seeing this. I love reading all the comments about what a beautiful person she was. It’s always been a sore subject for my father so, I’ve googled her a few times because, we lost her 6yrs before I was even born. Thank you all for your kind words.❤️
Hello and thanks for writing. Even though you were born after she died, it is still a loss for you. How sweet of you to Google her as she died long before the age of Google. I still think about her all the time. Her spirit is strong. RIP Tonya.
frances anthony says
Tonya was a former student of mine and her brother was also one of my students. She was very respected and loved, a beautiful young lady. A very good student and individual. Yes, I recall the details of her tragedy. Many tears were shed and many prayers were said. Your writing was very fiting and beautifully done. REMEMBERING. Thank you.
Jennifer James says
@ANONYMOUS – It’s funny, the posts that people find and/or return to from a few years back are the ones that meant the post to me. This is one of them. Each time I get a new comment on this post in particular, I TWEET it on Twitter. I am certain the dead do not want to be forgotten. It sounds so simple, but I wish this horrible thing had not happen. Somehow, in remembering her, we make the evil less than it otherwise might be. She lives still, just not in this realm. Bless you, and thanks for writing.
I think of her often to I am from Alex witch is about 10 miles from her home town and its sad you put it so well in the poem thank you i was a senior at that time and am the same age as her were 9 months apart but i think of her and were she would be today along with my class mates that died thank you agian
@ANONYMOUS – I am always so glad to see a comment on this post, which I wrote a year and a half ago, now. I did not realize then that it was just a couple weeks before the 20th anniversary of her death.
Thank you for leaving this note. It helps me to have some contact even anonymously with someone who loved her. The news cycle is unforgiving. We hear about these deaths and then the cycle moves on to the next tragedy. I will always remember her story. If you’d ever like to write something for my site about Tonya you can send it to me – anonymously – and I will publish it. firstname.lastname@example.org Blessings on you. God is near and holds Tonya now.
I am so glad people remember her. She was a beautiful person inside and out. She deserves to be remembered.
@ANONYMOUS – It’s been a long time since you left this comment. I meant to respond and thought I had. Thanks for leaving this note. I hope her brother is doing well. Losing someone you love is so terrible.
I was amazed to find this as I was searching for a girl whom has been missing from Ninnekah since this morning. Ninnekah is my home town where all my family still lives today, though I have moved. I knew Tonya and remember that day like it was yesterday. Her brother was in my class and I still think of them often.
hey sweetie – so well put – in my teens a young woman named Sharon Phillips went missing when her car broke down on a road I regualry transversed.
Often as I drove by I would think, where is Sharon …. gone but not forgotten, best le
Territory Mom says
This is so beautiful, you really captured her essense. I wrote a post about a girl I will never forget.
On a lighter note I wanted you to read this post I saw today:
Have a great day.
There was a 17-year-old girl murdered in my hometown 27 years ago. I did not know her, but her brother was in my grade. Her name and senior photo have stayed with me all this time, too. And surely the thought of her fate has made me double think some risks I might have taken. It rocked our town so hard. Every year her mother still publishes a memorial in the newspaper on the anniversary of her death. Even though I didn’t know her, each year I think of where she might have been in her life now. Her memory has without a doubt has influenced choices I’ve made. Your writing could so easily apply to this girl. You honored them both, Tonya Rodgers and Lynn Carol Elliott.
Oklahoma Girl says
Beautiful!! Your writing always moves me, but never as much as when you write of the memories locked deep within your heart. Tonya knew you would remember her, always. So she has chosen you. Her spirit has a message for you. Ask her. Ask Tonya why she visits.
Much love, many hugs, indeterminate amounts of respect. You are so talented, such a beautiful soul. I am, as always, in awe.