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Losing Hanna

A year after the murder of a teenage runaway, Georgia officials have few answers as to how she wound up dead in California

On March 16, 2004, what would have been Hanna Montessori's 16th birthday, her father and stepmother made a phone call that would inch them closer to finding the estranged teenager with the heart-shaped face and troubled past, who'd run away from a Marietta group home six months earlier.

Unfortunately, what they ultimately discovered was that Hanna had been lying in a California morgue since Jan. 19, her body tagged not as Hanna Montessori, the great-great-granddaughter of the Italian founder of the Montessori teaching method, but as "Jane Doe," a 5-foot-5, 120-pound teenager whose identity had baffled police for months.

A year after Hanna's death, there are few answers to the questions surrounding her disappearance. In response to a state Open Records Act request to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, CL was given access to hundreds of pages of documents chronicling Hanna's time in state custody and the efforts DFACS made to find her after she ran away — twice — from group homes.

The documents yield more questions than answers: Should DFACS have placed Hanna under tighter restriction after she first ran away? Did DFACS have any obligation to let Cobb County investigators know Hanna had been fingerprinted by another agency, which would have allowed police to enter the prints into a national missing persons database? If the fingerprints had been entered, would Hanna have been detained three weeks before her death, when she was picked up by Los Angeles police and released after giving a fake name? And if she couldn't have been identified via fingerprints while alive, might the prints have helped identify her corpse more quickly, giving police a better chance of finding a killer who remains free?

"If she was stopped anywhere in the country and she gave the person the right name, she would have been returned to Georgia," Cobb County police spokesman Cpl. Brody Stodd says. However, Cobb police didn't have Hanna's fingerprints; the Henry County Sheriff's Department did, after she ran away from DFACS custody the first time, Hanna's family claims.

What's more, DFACS spokesman Bryan Toussaint says that despite Hanna ran away — once, "there's not extra attention paid to someone who runs away" when they enter another group home.

But an attorney for Hanna's birth mother and her father's first wife, Cheryl Montagu, says he expects to file suit against the state for the role it might have played in Hanna's death.

"Clearly [DFACS was] apprised that she was a flight risk," says Atlanta attorney Terry Jackson. "We'll be suing DFACS for negligent supervision and wrongful death."

In April 2003, Hanna's birth mother drove her from their home in Stockbridge to Maine, where Hanna's father and stepmother lived. The girl had just turned 15, and she was a handful.

"We did have a difficult time with her when it came to drugs, staying out, lying," says Christine Montessori. "She had one of these attitudes that she thought she knew everything."

Christine also points out that Hanna was beautiful, vivacious and — at the time, at least — far from doomed. Hanna wanted to be a nurse, and her stepmother says she was determined to help the young girl, who for most of her life had been home-schooled under the self-starting principles of the Montessori method. "She was a very free-spirited person," Christine says.

Hanna stayed with her father and stepmother for four months in Maine. During that time, she befriended Melody Richards, 16, who tells CL, "She always knew the ways to brighten up people's day. She'd just talk to me, and all of a sudden I'd be totally better."

Richards adds, "Yes, Hanna did have her faults. She was a very independent person, and there was really no way that someone could stop her."

As the summer of 2003 waned, Christine Montessori says she and her husband realized they weren't capable of caring for Hanna. Christine says she was tending her infant son, and Philip Montessori had suffered a broken neck. "And [Hanna] kept threatening that she was going to run away to Georgia."

According to DFACS documents, Hanna had been back in Georgia for a month when she called 911 on Aug. 15, 2003, to report a fight with her mother. She also claimed she had been sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend.

DFACS placed Hanna in a group home in Henry County. A week later, she ran away — a short time after warning a DFACS worker she intended to do so. She was picked up within two days by the Henry County Sheriff's Department.

Within a week, she was placed in a Cobb County group home. Within a month, she had run away, again.

In December, Hanna called her older brother, Derek, in Maine, telling him she was in California and intended to stay there until she turned 18, when "nobody's going to tell me what to do anymore," Christine Montessori recalls.

Around that time, Hanna was arrested by Los Angeles police for loitering. But she gave a fake name. Without being able to identify her via fingerprints, police let her go.

Three weeks later, Hanna was found crumpled on a quiet street in the middle-class Los Angeles suburb of Santa Ana. She was rushed to a hospital, where she died of head injuries. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Christine Montessori says that two months later, she and Hanna's father became convinced something bad had befallen her. They wondered: How closely was the state of Georgia looking for Hanna?

Though her name and birth date had been entered into the national missing persons database, Hanna's fingerprints weren't. DFACS had no obligation to tell law enforcement the prints had been taken, spokesman Toussaint says.

What's more, on Feb. 10, someone from the Marietta group home called Cobb police and said Hanna had returned, according to Cpl. Stodd. Cobb police then withdrew Hanna's info from the national missing persons database. "We weren't notified of that conversation until police told us," Toussaint says.

On March 16, Hanna's birthday, the Montessoris checked the national missing persons hotline and website for Hanna's information. It wasn't there.

It took Christine Montessori a month to push DFACS to begin investigating Hanna's exclusion from the list. The Montessori family would soon learn, however, that any effort to find Hanna would be in vain.

In April, police in Santa Ana learned through an anonymous tip that the teenager murdered there might have been from Peachtree City, Ga. Santa Ana police contacted the Fayette County Sheriff's Department, whose deputies brought a mug shot of Hanna, taken after her arrest in Los Angeles, to local group homes. One girl had met Hanna and recognized the photo.

A Fayette detective called Christine Montessori and told her to call the Santa Ana Police Department. "They wouldn't tell me at that point whether she was alive or dead," Christine says.

That night, Christine called Hanna's father, from whom she had separated, and told him police in Santa Ana knew something about Hanna. Hanna's brother, Derek, logged onto the website for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Hanna's mug shot filled the screen. "There was no doubt about that," Christine says. "That's how we originally found out that she was gone."

Under the photo, the caption read, "Jane Doe, deceased."

mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com