If Samantha Clarke is still alive, she is 28 years old and hasn’t been in contact with her mother in nine years. If she’s still alive, she doesn’t look the same as she does in photos that have circulated ever since the police investigation began shortly after her disappearance late on the night of Sept. 13, 2010.
The pictures of her at 19 show a smiling young woman with long brown hair, often worn in a bun, a somewhat unusual style for a teenage girl. She wears glasses, but you can see that her eyes are brown.
Her 2010 high school graduation photo is especially striking. Something of the woman she might be at 30 or 40 emerges from that picture in which Clarke, like all the girls in her graduating class at Orange County High School (OCHS), wears an off-the-shoulder black dress. Lit with golden highlights, her hair flows down her shoulders. There is a thoughtful, mature look in the tilt of her head and her compressed smile.
Clarke’s mother, Barbara Tinder, has a “pose book” full of pictures taken during the graduation photo shoot. Sitting outside her apartment on Church Street in Orange as dusk fell on Monday afternoon, Tinder said she also has kept all of her daughter’s possessions and has copies of most of the articles written about the search for her missing daughter.
The hope, of course, is that Samantha will come home and resume her life with her family, but Tinder is realistic.
“I hope and pray every day,” she said, “but it’s just been too long without contacting a family member. That’s just not Samantha.”
The night Clarke left home, Tinder was working the night shift at Rigid Products on Old Gordonsville Road. During her break, she called home because she saw on her cellphone that someone had tried to reach her from her home phone. Her son Hunter, 12 years old at the time, told her Samantha had gone out. It was Samantha who had called but not left a message.
Clarke’s departure didn’t make sense. Tinder said her daughter didn’t like going out by herself at night, and she’d left very late, after midnight.
Tinder finished her shift and came home. Her daughter was still out. She went to bed and when she woke up and Clarke wasn’t home, she knew she had to go to the police.
Still an active case
In the ensuing, chaotic days, the police search focused on locations in Greene County and Orange. A key person of interest was Randy Taylor, apparently a new acquaintance of Clarke's, but he was never charged in the Clarke case.
In May of 2014, Taylor was sentenced in Nelson County Circuit Court to two life terms for killing 17-year-old Alexis Murphy. In the fall of 2014, about 150 law enforcement officers and volunteers searched for Clarke on 200 acres of land in Eheart in Orange County. Police knew of a connection between Taylor and the property, privately owned by a hunt club. The search didn’t turn up Clarke’s body, nor did multiple searches of Greene County Lake.
Clarke’s disappearance remains actively under investigation, according to both Orange County Commonwealth’s Attorney Diana O’Connell and Orange Chief of Police Jim Fenwick.
Fenwick said his lead investigator on the case, Evans Oakerson, retired, but he brought the detective back on a part-time basis a couple of years ago to continue working the Clarke case. He said much of the focus has been on prodding other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, to keep the investigation going.
“At the beginning of the case, we got tons of information coming in. It’s gotten much more sporadic at this point,” he said, though he stressed the case is active and a top priority for him.
“Ninety-nine percent of what we’ve had to do in this case has been outside this town,” he said. “Probably more like 99.5 percent in terms of following up on leads.”
“A good student, a good person”
So much time has passed since her disappearance that few people at the high school remember Clarke and those that do have only faint recollections of her.
Kim Harris, the testing coordinator at OCHS, was a guidance counselor when Clarke was a high school student, but she wasn’t on Harris’ list of advisees. Still, she knew who she was and who some of her friends were.
“She was always real sweet and pleasant and polite. She would speak in the hallways,” Harris said.
Reflecting on the long years of Clarke’s absence, Harris said the lack of closure in the case must be “very difficult” for Clarke’s family. “It’s just very sad. It’s really sad for the family.”
Gene Kotulka, principal at OCHS during the time Clarke was a student there, is now superintendent of schools in Alleghany County. Commenting by phone while driving to Pittsburgh, Kotulka said, “She was a good student, a good person. She was quiet and did what she needed to do to graduate from high school.”
By the time Clarke disappeared, Kotulka was working in the central office for Orange County Public Schools. He said he and everybody else in the main office felt “awful” when word got out that the recent graduate was missing.
Longtime secretary to the OCHS principal Betty Almond didn’t know Clarke, but like Harris, she spoke with great sympathy for Clarke’s family.
“It’s one thing to lose a child and bury them. But to not know what happens to your child would be difficult for any parent. I can’t imagine what you go through with something like that,” Almond said.
“Being there was some hope”
Tall, with long brown hair and green eyes full of anger and sadness, Tinder, 44, is a familiar sight to people who go up and down Church Street because she is so often out on the patio, smoking and watching over her young son. She makes no secret of the pain she is in. She is disabled, lonely and depressed and said she has no one to lean on now that her sister Brenda Rhoades is dead. A resident of Rapidan, Rhoades died of cancer in August.
When she was growing up in Orange, Tinder was in what she calls the “slow learning” group at school. Her home life was hard, and she ended up running away and dropping out of school after eighth grade.
She said her daughter was taken away from her when Samantha was around 3 years old. Tinder was homeless at the time, but she visited with her every other Saturday. Then, when the girl was 13 or 14, she wrote her mother a letter and said she wanted to come live with her.
With the new arrangement in place, Clarke spent her teen years in Orange and lived with her mother and brother in an apartment on Lindsay Drive. Tinder explained that she would still live there if the remodeling of the apartment complex hadn’t forced her to move out, seven years after Clarke vanished.
She is haunted by the thought that Clarke doesn’t have her current phone number and wouldn’t be able to find her if she came back to Orange.
“It’s the last place she knows where I could be,” she said of her former residence on Lindsay Drive. “Being there was some hope.”
“So much I’d like to have answers for”
A single mother, Tinder has two sons, Hunter, 22, and Matthew, age 7. She said it’s hard to provide for the family on the $800/month check she receives for being on disability.
But when asked to describe her daughter’s high school experience and outside interests, Tinder brightened slightly. She said Clarke liked her algebra class at the high school.
“She liked to cook. She liked gym. She liked to be moving, exercising, working out,” Tinder said.
Clarke’s cooking specialties were baked goods, including cakes, cookies and brownies, and yams with brown sugar and marshmallows.
“She liked pretty much all animals,” Tinder said. “She used to have rats, hamsters, gerbils, numerous of dogs, numerous of cats.”
When the family lived on Lindsay Drive, Clarke had a gerbil and a “bobtail” cat. After the cat ran off, she got another one she named Booger. Later, she had a beagle she kept at her boyfriend’s house.
In high school, Clarke and her boyfriend at the time used to do yard work after school to earn spending money.
“They would go out to eat together or they would go to the malls to buy clothes or a new pair of shoes,” Tinder said.
Clarke and her high school boyfriend were together for three years before breaking up. At the time of her disappearance, Clarke hadn’t yet gotten her driver’s license or made firm career plans.
Tinder speaks with weary regret of what appears to be a foreshortened life. But given the chance to imagine a conversation with her daughter, she knows what she would ask.
“Where’s she been all these years? Why’d you leave?” Tinder said. “There’s so much I’d like to have answers for.”