Five young girls disappear and authorities wonder if a serial killer is to blame.
Remarks: Last seen 6/3/88
Nikki Campbell also disappeared
One Friday afternoon, Kim Swartz was preparing dinner when her seven-year-old daughter, Amber, asked permission to play in front of their Pinole, California home:
“Amber asked if she could use the jump rope in the hall closet, and jump rope outside. So I walked with her over to the closet, and opened up the door, and she grabbed the jump rope, and on her way out the door, she just stopped and turned, and said, I love you, mommy, and then out the door she went.”
According to Kim, Amber planned to jump rope until the guests arrived:
“They walked in the door, and… asked where Amber was, and I said she was outside jumping rope, and so both of them at that point said we didn't see her out there, so I said, well, maybe she was over in the vacant lot… So at that point, I went outside. I started hollering Amber’s name. And she wasn’t there… I couldn't find Amber. I was afraid. I didn't want anything to be wrong. I wanted her to be home.”
Kim Swartz would never see her daughter again. Following hours of searching, investigators concluded Amber had been abducted. The morning after she disappeared, a pair of pink socks was discovered in a park near Amber’s home. According to Kim, the socks had not been there when the park was searched the night before:
She was last seen near her house
“To come back the next morning and find these socks in a place that had already been searched, certainly sent up a lot of red flags. They were just like the socks that Amber had on her feet, I could say that, because I had helped Amber put her new shoes on that we had just bought.”
In the days following Amber’s disappearance, many strangers offered to help. Three days after her daughter vanished, Kim was visited by a man named Tim Bindner:
“He looked like he’d been up all night. Basically was saying how he wanted to be the one to save her, he wanted to be the one to bring her home to me.”
Bindner’s van also caught Kim’s attention:
“It almost looked like a van that he painted himself. He's got these plates that say, love you. He's got posters on the outside of the van.”
According to Kim, Bindner became extremely emotional as he talked of Amber. At one point, he suddenly turned his face away. When he turned back, Kim said, his whole demeanor had changed:
“That's the first time anyone has said… if we don't locate Amber in the first three days, the chances become less and less. I can't imagine even thinking that at that point. Why would he be thinking that?”
Kim discovered that Bindner was well known to law enforcement agencies in the San Francisco Bay area. Over the course of more than a decade, several young girls had vanished along the Interstate 80 corridor. In most of these cases, Bindner conducted his own searches for the girls. And at various points in those investigations, he became a “person of interest” to police. Tim Bindner was questioned extensively by the FBI following Amber’s abduction. According to authorities, the results of his polygraph were inconclusive.
John Philpin, a trained forensic psychologist, spent more than 1,000 hours interviewing Tim Bindner for his book Stalemate, about Amber’s disappearance:
“Tim Bindner is a very bright man. He's a very intelligent man. He's a Berkeley grad. There are law enforcement agencies which consider him a suspect. There's also the perception shared by a number of people that Tim has done absolutely nothing wrong. And that he is a misunderstood good Samaritan.”
Tim Bindner’s attorney, John Burris, maintained that Bindner’s actions should not be viewed with suspicion:
“Point of fact is, he is trying to be helpful. He does that voluntarily. It is a sense that he has… an obligation and a duty to go out and try to find missing children.”
Authorities considered Binder a person of interest because of his apparent fascination with the grave of another abducted girl—Angela Bugay. Five-year-old Angela disappeared four and a half years before Amber and was later found sexually assaulted and strangled. The FBI placed Tim Bindner under surveillance. His alleged habit of visiting Angela Bugay’s gravesite, up to 90 times a year, had caught their attention. But according to John Burris, the fact that Bindner visits gravesites should not cast suspicion on his client:
“For him, it has a special kind of, significance that is personal to him. But certainly not an indication that he’s put anybody in the graveyard.”
Eleven days after Amber vanished, a bloodhound from the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department allegedly tracked her scent to Angela’s gravesite. Police believed the dog also picked up Amber’s scent in Bindner’s van. However, California courts are often leery about the reliability of bloodhound evidence.
Then, five months after Amber’s disappearance, the East Bay was shocked by the abduction of another young girl—nine-year-old Michaela Garecht. As Michaela went to retrieve her scooter, a man forced her into his car. Investigators believed that Tim Binder was in the vicinity of Michaela’s abduction that day. By then parents in the surrounding communities were living in fear. Then two months later in nearby Dublin, 13-year-old Ilene Misheloff also disappeared. Despite the fact that some suspicion had been directed at him, Tim Bindner helped search for Ilene.
Several years passed and little progress was made. Then a woman in the town of Fairfield informed police that her daughter had begun receiving mail from a strange man. His name? Tim Bindner. Just a few blocks from where the letter was received, another young girl disappeared. Four-year-old Nikki Campbell was playing in her driveway when she too was abducted. Four days after Nikki’s disappearance, her scent, like Amber’s before her, was allegedly tracked by bloodhounds to Angela Bugay’s grave–the same grave that Tim Bindner reportedly visited. Was it simply happenstance that Tim Bindner seemed to often be in the vicinity just before or a short time after the disappearance of these young girls? John Philpin believed there were far too many coincidences to ignore:
“The dogs, the cemetery. The various scents in the various places. And you really have to question it, which is what I believe law enforcement was doing. And I think it's their role to do it. Is this a coincidence or is there something to it?”
Following the Nikki Campbell disappearance, the Fairfield Police Department searched Tim Bindner’s home and found nothing suspicious. Although he has been questioned by police, it’s important to note Tim Bindner has not been charged with any crime relating to the disappearances of these girls. And he has consistently claimed he is innocent.
Kim Swartz has never given up her search for the person who abducted Amber. This effort led her to create the Amber Foundation for Missing Children. The Foundation’s primary goal is to educate parents on ways to prevent child abductions.
The body of Angela Bugay, the first of the five girls to disappear, was exhumed and tested for the DNA of her killer. The results led to the arrest of a man named Larry Christopher Graham, who had once dated Angela’s mother. Graham was convicted of raping and killing the five year old and sentenced to death. Tim Binder was not involved in any way. No one has been charged in the four other cases.