A Murder In Dixie – Jacque White Kochak

Aniah was reported missing on Thursday, October 24. Her Honda SUV was found abandoned the following evening at an apartment complex off the Atlanta Highway on Montgomery’s west side. Despite the vehicle’s crumpled right-front fender and scraped paint, police didn’t yet mention foul play.

On Monday, Oct. 27, Auburn police released surveillance video of Aniah strolling down the gas station’s food aisle at about 11:30 p.m., dressed in a filmy gray flower-printed blouse, black leggings, and tan duck boots. Lissome and pretty, she has long black hair, wide-set eyes and a pensive look.

The well-lighted gas station is located at a busy intersection, catty-corner across the street from the upscale research park where I work. There was no particular reason for Aniah to be on the lookout for a predator. She could have been anybody’s unsuspecting daughter. She could have been one of my three girls.

Surveillance video of Aniah Blanchard at gas station (Source: Auburn Police Department)

She wasn’t, though. She was the stepdaughter of Walt Harris, an American mixed martial arts fighter who competes in the heavyweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). For that reason, the story slowly percolated into the national news, and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey put up a $5,000 reward. By Nov. 1, the reward had soared to $105,000 as UFC President Dana White, UFC fighter Jon Jones and an anonymous Homewood family joined Dominance MMA CEO Ali Abdelaziz in donating $25,000 apiece.

On Monday, Nov. 4 — less than two weeks after Aniah’s disappearance — community members gathered at the Auburn United Methodist Church, a massive brick structure downtown, for a prayer vigil. Some 100 people gathered in the church’s sanctuary. A friend invited me to go, and I realized belatedly that I forgot the Kleenex. I needed it.

To say the service was moving is an understatement. Aniah’s college friend, a petite blonde, recalled the first time they met. “We were sitting in class and the teacher said a bad word,” she said, smiling. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re not in high school anymore!’”

For some reason, I kept thinking about all the other young girls who disappear with hardly anyone noticing. I said a prayer for all of them.

Aniah’s brother Elijah, an Auburn University student just 17 months older than his sister, sat silent and somber next to them. Aniah had been at his house before stopping for the midnight snack, and the two were said to be inseparable.

I marveled at how stoic and resigned Aniah’s family seemed. The prayer vigil, focusing on the comfort of Aniah’s faith, was neither pleading nor hopeful. Later, I realized her parents knew something I didn’t. Enough blood to suggest that someone had suffered a life-threatening injury was splattered all over the passenger side of Aniah’s SUV.

Also present were two men wearing yellow t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Texas Equusearch.” They represented a non-profit search-and-rescue operation founded by Tim Miller, whose own daughter was abducted and murdered in North Galveston, Texas, in 1984. Her body wasn’t found until two years later. Miller said volunteers from five states would comb the wooded terrain between Auburn and Montgomery, either on foot, on horseback or riding all-terrain vehicles.

For some reason, I kept thinking about all the other young girls who disappear with hardly anyone noticing. I said a prayer for all of them.

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