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imperialism & war

katie sierra found safe

Teen back home after hitchhiking to South Carolina

Thursday April 18, 2002

By Eric Eyre

Katie Sierra was back in Charleston on Wednesday after spending the past week hitchhiking with truck drivers, sending e-mail messages to friends from public libraries, and sleeping one night beside a creek in a forest.

Sierra, 15, ran away from home April 8. She returned to Charleston late Tuesday night after a South Charleston private investigator, hired by her mother, found her at a phone booth near Greenville, S.C.

"She just got lucky," Sierra's mother, Amy, said Thursday, rubbing her daughter's spiked red hair at Taylor Books in Charleston. "The good Lord was looking out for her. We're lucky nothing terrible happened. I don't think she realizes how dangerous it was."

Sierra said she ran away because she was bored at home. She said she wasn't happy to be back in Charleston.

"This place sucks," Sierra said. "The people are so backward. They're so narrow-minded, so racist and sexist. They hate me."

Last year, Sierra was suspended after trying to start an anarchy club at Sissonville High School and wearing T-shirts with handwritten messages opposing the American bombing of Afghanistan.

She later filed a lawsuit against the Kanawha County school officials, alleging they violated her free-speech rights. The case received national and international media attention.

Sierra and a 24-year-old friend, Holly Elizabeth Taylor, left Charleston on April 8 and traveled with truckers to Raleigh, N.C., Sierra said. There, they attended a Tanya Donnelly concert. They called themselves "road sisters."

Donnelly, a singer-songwriter, wrote about the two on her Web site the following day:

"Two young women named Holly and Katie had hitchhiked from Charleston, West Virginia. We gave them our food, and I spent a half-hour trying to gently encourage them to bus home. I don't want to rain on anyone's youth parade, but this is, sadly, a world with predators. One of them had been kicked out of school for antiwar activities, and hit the road.

"She has the ACLU backing her, and was in the process of suing her school, but she left before the court date. I think she should go home and finish her fight. I think they should not get into any more cars."

Taylor and Sierra ignored Donnelly's advice.

At one North Carolina truck stop, Sierra dashed into a nearby forest to elude police. She slept there part of the night.

She left behind her backpack, purse, diary and a box of Wheat Thins.

Amy Sierra, who had hired a private investigator and received a tip about her daughter's whereabouts, arrived at the truck stop a few hours later.

Amy Sierra and investigator Gene Sigman found Taylor at a Statesville, N.C., Waffle House restaurant. Taylor was asleep in a restaurant employee's car, Amy Sierra said.

Taylor returned to Charleston. She did not return phone messages this week.

After the two split up, Sierra called a friend in Greenville, S.C. The friend picked her up in North Carolina and drove her to his home. Sierra made several calls from a nearby pay phone.

Amy Sierra and Sigman found the pay phone after tracking calls that Sierra had placed to friends throughout the country. They parked near the phone at 8 a.m. Tuesday and waited. At 5:30 p.m., Sierra walked up to make a call.

"He grabbed my wrist and said, €˜I'm giving you a free ride back to West Virginia,'" Sierra said.

Sierra said she was surprised that her mother and the investigator found her so quickly.

"When you think you're out there and free, you aren't," Sierra said.

"You're never free. You're always trapped. This is a corrupt society. I'm paranoid to even use the phone anymore."

Sierra and her mother passed by a shoe repair shop on Brawley Walkway in Charleston Wednesday. Sierra said the shop would resole shoes for $20.

"After all that running, you probably need a new pair," her mother said.

To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-5194.

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