A MURDER RUNS THROUGH IT
Alma Violet Root
Placer County, California, in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, straddles two worlds: that of the largely agricultural Sacramento Valley and that of the mountainous Sierra Tahoe region.
It is of both worlds and of neither.
In 1849, Placer County — one of the eleven counties that would come to be known as “Gold Country” — drew a number of immigrants to mine for gold.
Among those immigrants was a Canadian by the name of Richard H. Barter, aka “Rattlesnake Dick.” Unable to make an honest living, he turned to horse rustling. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in San Quentin for his thieving. When he left prison, he vowed to never go back and joined an outlaw gang where he refined his criminal ways. His crime spree continued unabated for more than half a decade.
Finally, in July of 1859, his life of crime came to an abrupt end. He had escaped, wounded, from a gun fight, but must have realized he was going to be captured. He shot himself in the head, thus evading both justice and prison.
To this day, Placer County retains the air of its wild west “gold fever” past, and this was the world into which Violet, as she became known, made her entrance on February 8, 1965.
Named for her father’s mother — Alma Jewell Cook Root — and her mother’s mother — Violet Maude Holman Shanks — when Alma Violet Root entered the world on that Monday in February, she joined not only her parents, Edward and Nancy Root, but two sisters — Carol who was three years older, and Laura who was 13 months older.
With just thirteen months between them, Violet, as she preferred to be known, and Laura would be, in their own way, as thick as thieves, until it all came to an abrupt end.
The birth of a family
The 1960s were turbulent times, and Violet and her sisters were not able to escape that turbulence, particularly since it imbued almost every facet of their childhood.
There are the odd bits here and there, which, on their own, don’t seem like much, but they are like the tip of an iceberg: a small indication of something much larger lurking beneath.
The story of Alma Violet Root’s life involves a few facts which are known, and the things that can can be inferred from those relatively few facts.
The California Birth Index shows that her father, Edward Milton Root, was born in Placer County on March 31, 1943, and her mother, Nancy Carol Shanks, was born in Placer County on June 16, 1944.
Over the years items in the Auburn Journal note grammar school graduations, surprise birthdays, and sadly, the passing of of Nancy Shanks’ mother when Nancy had just turned 11.
The turbulence in the wake of her Violet Shank’s death, probably impacted Nancy. Her father, John Shanks, remarried in June of 1958, but the union was seemingly not a happy one as they were divorced by August of 1959.
But turbulent or not, life goes on, and on December 1, 1960 this item appeared in the Auburn Journal:
In just 24 words, we learn the following facts:
- Edward Roots is at his parents’ home for Thanksgiving
- He is in the California National Guard which does training at Camp Roberts
- He is married
Despite what is said, there is a lot that is also unsaid. The former Nancy Shanks — who is now the newly minted Mrs. Root — was born and raised in Placer County, and yet, neither her first nor married name is mentioned. All we know about Edward is that he is “home” for Thanksgiving, and in the estimation of the writer of the item, “home” is not where he and his wife live, “home” is where his parents live.
The public record is sparse, but on January 25, 1962, in the Auburn Journal Vital Statistics column, the following is announced:
ROOT — In Auburn, Placer County, January 12, 1962, to Mr. and Mrs. Edward M. Root of Weimar, a daughter.
While no name is given, the daughter born on the second Friday that January was Carol Diane Root.
There wouldn’t be any news of the Violet’s parents again until May 16, 1963, when The Placer Herald reported that a property Violet’s father was renting — the Weimar Grange — had burned to the ground.
It wasn’t clear from the article whether the Roots had been living in the building or if it were being rented for business or other purposes, but life went on. Then, in the February 6, 1964, edition of the Auburn Journal, there is another item from the Vital Statistics column:
ROOT — January 17, Mr. and Mrs. Edward M. Root, Colfax, a daughter.
This was Laura, the middle daughter.
Two months after the announcement of her birth, there was another item in the April 16, 1964, edition of the Auburn Journal. Edward Milton Root was once again in the news, but this time instead of a report of a building going up in flames, he pleaded guilty to “illegal possession of deer meat.”
He was fined $100. Life went on.
Then, on February 18, 1965, the Auburn Journal reported the following:
ROOT — February 8, 1965, Mr. and Mrs. Edward M. Root, Colfax, a daughter.
With the addition of Alma Violet Root, the family of Edward and Nancy Root was now complete; soon, however, it would all fall apart.
In July of 1967, Edward and Nancy Root filed for divorce, and whatever semblance of normal their marriage had provided was about to be lost forever.
Growing up fast
At the time of Edward and Nancy’s divorce, California was not a “no-fault” state, so it wasn’t until over a year later, in September of 1968, that Nancy C. Root was granted a divorce from Edward on the grounds of cruelty.
The last public record of the three sisters being together is an item from the Auburn Journal dated December 3, 1970:
Once Violet’s parents divorced, both Edward and Nancy were able to date and remarry which both did, and it was somewhere in this time period Edward found time to sexually abuse both Laura and Violet, crimes for which he served time, but it seems that Nancy’s second husband, a man named Douglas M. Richards, wasn’t a much better father, and soon Laura and Violet were in the foster care system.
The were often put in separate homes, but despite being apart, they would keep in touch, and sometimes managed to run away together.
Carol, meanwhile, hightailed it out of her birth family, and on February 17, 1978, one month and five days after her 16th birthday, Violet’s oldest sister, went across the California state line to Nevada and married Gary Stephen Bell in Reno, Nevada.
In the space of less than six weeks, she went from being a minor child living at home and unable to legally drive, to a married woman who could, if she chose, get a driver’s license. She was not, however, old enough to smoke a cigarette or enlist in the military. Be that as it may, she was out from under her parents, and while she was doing her best to start a new, more stable life, her sisters’ lives were disintegrating.
Applegate, California, January 1, 1980
Applegate, California, is an “unincorporated community,” in Placer County. In a 1973 edition of Placer Gold it was described as:
…a quiet little town about eight miles northeast of Auburn, rudely severed in two parts by Interstate 80. The town consists of a post office, motel, hardware store, grocery and saloon-and something else….
For the then 14-year-old Violet and 15-year-old Laura , the “something else” was the home of their grandmother.
After years spent living apart and being shuffled from one foster care home to another, Laura and her younger sister, Violet were finally out of the foster care system and “together again.”
In fact, they had just finished ringing in the new year — literally — banging their grandmother’s pots and pans in celebration. As it turned out the celebration was premature, and their reunion would be short lived.
Shortly after midnight, in response to a call Violet had made, Scot Petschek — a slight man with an easy to misspell name — arrived at their grandmother’s home in Applegate to pick up Violet. Laura begged her sister not to go, but Violet said she had to go, and Laura never saw her again.
The initial investigation
When Violet didn’t return as expected, her sister Laura knew something was wrong and filed a missing children’s report.
Unfortunately, the Placer County Sheriff’s Department did not take Violet’s disappearance seriously, and after questioning the 25-year-old Scot Petschek who described himself as her “boyfriend” they determined that Violet, who had a history of running away, had run away yet again.
The story Scot told them was that after he had picked Violet up, they had gone to his grandmother’s house in Penryn, California, and when it was time for him to leave for work at McClellan Air Force Base, Violet had asked for a ride to a specific address Rio Linda, California, so she could see her aunt.
According to Scot, he obliged, and when he went to pick her up after he was done with work, she wasn’t there. He hadn’t been particularly concerned, and had gone on home.
Laura pointed out to investigators that on all the previous occasions that Violet had run away, she had run away with Laura, and it was for the purpose of being able to stay together; she also informed them that she and Violet did not have an aunt in Rio Linda for Violet to go visit.
Laura even took it upon herself to confront Petschek and ask him what happened; he told her:
“Don’t worry, you’ll never find her.”
Despite Laura’s concern, law enforcement was remarkably uninterested in investigating why a 25-year-old adult man was spending time with a 14-year-old girl, and the investigation was dead in the water almost before it got started.
An inciting incident
In 1991, after more than a decade of inaction, Edward Milton Root was released from prison after serving a sentence related to molesting Laura and Violet. He marked the occasion by going into the Placer County Sheriff to ask what was being done to find his daughter.
By this time, the Sheriff’s office had a new investigator by the name of Lorrie Lewis, and when she couldn’t answer Edward Root’s questions, she began to look into the case, but despite her efforts, there has never been any clear answer to the question of what happened to Violet Root.
There have, however, been a number of organizations that have taken an interest, and that interest has generated a number of case files.
Lexico.com defines a case file as follows:
a collection of documents and evidence relating to a particular legal case — Lexico
and while there is not a very long record of who Violet Root was or what she accomplished in life, there are a string of case numbers that will be forever attached to her name.
The Doe Network
Violet’s Case File number with the Doe Network is 82DFCA, and the information on the page is as comprehensive an overview as is available anywhere.
It has a photo that looks like it might have been taken within a year of her disappearance at age 14 on the left, and that same photo age progressed to 38 on the right. If she were alive today, Violet would be 55.
It also has a list of her features at the time of her disappearance as well as what records are available to identify a body if it is found:
- 5'4; 130 pounds
- Distinguishing Characteristics: White female. Brown hair; brown eyes. She goes by the name Violet.
- Marks, Scars, Tattoos: Tattoo of a small blue heart over her right breast.
- Dentals: Available
- DNA: mtDNA Available in CODIS.
In addition, there is a brief summary of what I call “The world according to Scot Petschek.”
In it her putative “boyfriend” says that she asked to be taken to the home of her aunt in Rio Linda the morning on his way to work at what was then McClellan Air Force Base, and that when he went to pick her up after work Violet was not there.
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NMEC)
The number assigned to the case of Alma Violet root at NMEC is 761400.
It includes information about her height, weight, and identifying marks at the time she was last seen.
There is the photo of her as a very young woman, and an age progressed photo that shows how she might look at age 52. It describes her as missing from Sacramento, but the only “witness” who claims to have last seen her in Sacramento County is also the prime suspect.
There is also contact information for the Missing Persons Unit of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office.
On December 9, 2009, two years after NamUs — the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — was created, and just a few weeks shy of thirty years since she disappeared, Alma Violet Root was entered into the system, and her case was assigned this number: MP3881.
By bringing people, information, forensic science, and technology together, NamUs helps resolve missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases nationwide, while providing support to victims and their families.
It lists her last known location as Sacramento, California, and says that she might be traveling with a male companion.
This is the first and only mention I came across of a potential traveling compantion.
The National Crime Information Center (NCIC)
This is the number that NCIC has assigned to Violet’s case: M-880318478
Placer County Sheriff’s Department
Despite the fact that Alma Violet Root has never been found, the Placer County Sheriff’s Department lists only two missing persons on their Missing Person’s page:
- James Bordenkercher who, at the age of three, went missing on June 12, 1965, from North Tahoe.
- Savannah Martinez, a sixteen year-old last seen leaving her residence on November 28, 2019. Her mother believes Savannah could be in Sacramento.
The only indication that Alma Violet Root ever disappeared from Placer County is her case file number, 911125043, which I found at other websites.
While it makes sense for each entity involved to have a case file number that is subject to the protocols of their agency, it also hints at why Violet so completely and thoroughly slipped through the cracks.
Quite simply, there were a lot of cracks to slip through.
When Scot Petschek drove to Violet’s grandmother’s house on January 1, 1980, he did not yet have an arrest and conviction for child molestation, but no one who was paying attention would be surprised when it happened.
At the time Scot Petschek was “dating” Violet, a 25-year-old man dating a 14-year-old girl was not looked at with as much suspicion as it would be today.
But based on what Scot was and was not willing to share with law enforcement in the interviews that were done after Violet was reported missing, I don’t believe his story that on New Year’s Day he went seven miles and 25 minutes out of his way to deliver Violet to the home of her non-existent aunt, and then went back after he was done with work to pick her up.
There is nothing in Scot Petschek’s history to suggest that he ever did anything that would inconvenience him, so I am left to think that whatever happened to Violet, happened before Scot Petschek was scheduled to work at McClellan Air Force Base that fateful Tuesday.
In later years when Scot was questioned by Detective Lorrie Lewis he challenged her saying:
“Why are you so interested? She was just a throw away.”
I don’t know that Violet knew that Scot saw her as disposable, but given what she had been through, I don’t know that she would have cared. If he held the promise of being the ticket to somewhere she wanted to go, she might have been willing to risk it all.
And it seems she did.
The case of Violet Root highlights the very real dangers that children and teenagers in marginal situations experience.
Violet Root had been molested by her own father to such an extent that he was convicted and sentenced to prison at a time when child molesters were often not investigated, let alone charged and convicted. Then, when she went missing, the only person who seemed to care was her 15-year-old sister who lacked the social standing needed to make the difference she wanted to make.
We need to change our understanding of how the narratives of those who we see as living on the margins of society unfold. Like most of us, they see themselves as the heroes of the story that is their life. We need to begin listening to their stories.
The Auburn Journal
The Doe Network
Missing, Unidentified, and Victims
NamUs(National Missing and Unidentified Persons System)
The National Center For Missing and Exploited Children
The National Crime Information Center
The Sacramento Bee