Jean Berlinghoff, a slim 15-year-old with long dark hair and large blue eyes framed by dark lashes, sat on a wooden bench outside her Redding home, where the lighting was better for television cameras, but where the winter air was chilly. She laughed and said she was anxious to get inside, because her feet were cold.
On the last afternoon of 2010, Jean and her mother, Heather Vega, arranged a media interview so Jean — whose photos appeared for 31 days on missing posters, Facebook pages and television shows across the nation — could set the record straight on some things. They called the conversation – a sort of “semi-final” access to their family before they went silent, until after the legal parts of Jean’s story were behind them. Then, said Heather, Jean could – and would – speak freely. About everything.
Until then, the mother and daughter said that other matters would not be discussed, such as day-to-day specifics regarding Jean’s nearly month-long disappearance with her uncle, Charles Berlinghoff, and matters related to the pending court cases against Charles, as well as recent molestation charges brought against Jean’s father, Jake (Daniels) Berlinghoff – Charles’ brother.
Heather said she saw the New Year’s Eve interview as a chance for her daughter to speak, and a means to send a message to the scores of people who worried about Jean, searched for her, feared the worst when she was gone, and rejoiced at her return.
“Jean’s entitled to say something, and she will, but there’s a lot we can’t talk about right now,” Heather said. “The main thing I wanted to emphasize to people is that Jean’s well, and she’s going to be OK.”
In many ways, Jean looks every part a typical Redding teenager, with blue jeans, a stylish hoodie and carefully applied makeup and nail polish. She’s all-American pretty, with dimples that punctuate her cheeks when she smiles, whether to speak of her little brother, or joke about wanting just the good pictures of her published (none that make her look fat, she says), or to point out her new jeweled facial piercing, a miniature sparkly stud, where a movie star’s tiny beauty mark might be.
Inside the warmth of the Vega’s modest home, liberally decorated with family photos, Jean settled into one of the couches, where she described her version of events, starting from the day she disappeared.
Jean said she ran away from her father’s home after an argument between the father and daughter escalated. He had grounded Jean and then wrestled her cell phone away from her. (The marriage of Jean’s parents, Jake Berlinghoff and Heather Vega, ended in 1996. Heather married Robert Vega in 1998, and she’s had primary custody of Jean.)
Jean said that she never felt in danger during her absence, that she ate well and had shelter. She said that while she had some impressions of what to expect, the reality wasn’t worse, “just different.” She said that contrary to some reports, she did pack some belongings for her journey, such as warm clothes. One of the most glaring points she wanted made clear was that she saw her uncle Charles – “Charlie” – as a best friend and protector, not her abductor.
That’s why Jean said she feels bad for Charles’ being punished. She said she accepts responsibility for her actions, and believes that if he’s punished, then she should be, too.
“I’m not a little girl or a victim,” she said of her disappearance. “I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I felt I had to leave.”
Jean added that her recent relationship with her mother had been rocky, so she didn’t believe she could go to her, or confide in her, or that her mother would understand.
“I’m glad Charlie went with me. Without him, it would have been scary. He told me that if I ever wanted to go back, he’d do it for me. I didn’t want to be found. I thought I’d come back when I was 18. When you’re under 18, you don’t have a say.”
Heather, who’s expecting a baby boy in the spring, said she experienced mixed emotions throughout the last few months. Fear, frustration, anger, betrayal, sadness, and finally, joy. Despite her angst at her daughter’s disappearance, she said her gut feeling all along told her that Jean was alive, and she’d be OK.
“I’m very happy she’s home,” she said. “I feel like we owe it to the community to let them know she’s safe, she has great goals for the upcoming year, and she’s excited about starting school and some projects.”
Heather admitted that her first instinct was to “strangle Charles” and that although she and Jean have made huge headway toward improving their relationship and the way they communicate, some of their perceptions of the last months’ events still don’t match.
“We do disagree about what happened,” Heather said. “But this whole thing will eventually be dealt with.”
Jean Berlinghoff’s mother and step-father, Heather and Robert Vega, say they’re just glad to have Jean back home again.
Jean said that while she was gone, she felt bad about what she was putting her mother through, and she worried about how Heather’s pregnancy was going, and about her little brother. She said she missed her mother and family and realized how much she loved them. In fact, the teen said, it was out of respect and concern for her family’s privacy that she didn’t speak publicly after her return to explain things. Even now, she said, there’s so much she wants to say about the way things really were, what’s true and what’s a lie.
“My family wants to move on. But nobody knows the actual situation except the law, my dad and Charlie and me,” she said. “I know people judge me, and have left hateful messages on Facebook and said a lot of hurtful things about me. I want people to look at me as I am, a strong, smart, young lady. I want to have a say in things. Take me as I am, or watch me as I leave.”
Meanwhile, Jean’s moving on, too. She’ll start school soon, where she’s in an independent study program. And she’s working at regaining lost trust and repairing damaged relationships, such as those with her siblings and mother. Jean perks up when she discusses her future, and plans to give back to the community, perhaps at the local homeless shelter. She said her time on the road, when she stayed in homeless shelters and was exposed to down-and-out people, showed her how some subsist on so little. Jean said it made her grateful for what she had, sympathetic to the less fortunate, and the experience instilled in her a desire to help those who need it most.
As to Heather, she looks at her daughter and she sees herself at a younger age.
“Jean’s a lot like me,” she said with a chuckle. “If she has an opinion, she wants to be heard. I think she now knows she can trust me, and that I’d do anything for her.”
Despite that, Heather admits to feeling nervous sometimes that Jean will leave again.
“But she’s assured me she won’t,” Heather said.
“She’s a good person, and she has to get on with her life. But she is a drastic child,” Heather said with a slight smile and a shake of her head as she looked toward her daughter.
“Drastic young lady,” corrected Jean with a laugh.
“Young lady,” agreed Heather.
Independent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.
A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.