Jan. 16, 2002 -- Three days after 7-year-old Amber Swartz disappeared from her Pinole, Calif., yard in June 1988, a stranger came by to tell her mother that he had been searching the nearby woods for the little girl.
"'I wanted to be the one to save her,'" Kim Swartz remembers the man saying. "'I wanted to be the one to bring her home to you.'"
When Swartz heard him say that they were "looking for a dead body," the grieving mother wanted nothing to do with the man, who said his name was Tim Bindner. But he wasn't easy to ignore. Bindner would continue to call her for years, offering help in the search for her little girl.
Five months later, another little girl, 9-year-old Michaela Garecht, disappeared in Hayward, a nearby town. Bindner showed up again, asking Michaela's mother if he could help find her daughter. Michaela had been abducted while buying candy with a friend, who heard a muffled cry and turned around to see her friend being kidnapped by a white male.
"He said that he wanted to go out and look for Michaela," said Sharon Murch, Michaela's mother. "He brought a map and showed us where he wanted to go."
Amber and Michaela were not the first young girls to disappear from towns along Interstate 80, which goes through the communities of San Francisco's East Bay.
Angela Bugay, 5, disappeared from Antioch in November 1983, and Tara Cossey, 11, disappeared from San Pablo in June 1978.
And the heartbreaking losses continued. In January 1989, Ilene Misheloff, 13, vanished in mid-afternoon near the town of Dublin. Two years later, 4-year-old Nikki Campbell vanished from Fairfield.
The disappearances of little girls in the East Bay area left law enforcement officers puzzled. "It was just taunting the investigators, taunting the public, taunting the families," said Linda Goldston, a reporter for The Mercury News who covered the cases for years. "You just felt there was a master killer, it was a master suspect at work."
Were the continuing disappearances along I-80 unrelated tragedies, or the work of one person? Investigators began to search for clues that might link some of the cases.
Birthday Greetings From a Stranger
Bindner's name surfaced again in the Nikki Campbell investigation. Months before Nikki disappeared, a worried couple in the same Fairfield neighborhood told police their 12-year-old daughter was getting odd mail, with the letters written backward so they could only be read in a mirror.
The person who had sent the letters was Bindner, a 43-year-old married man who worked at a sewage treatment plant. It turned out Bindner had been writing to lots of young girls, often sending birthday greetings.
"He said he just did it to be nice, and that they liked it," said Goldston. "That they were lonely."
Whatever his intentions, Bindner caught the attention of Fairfield police. He had also been questioned by Pinole police, because he was seen repeatedly visiting Angela Bugay's gravesite at Oakmont Cemetary, often in the middle of the night, and because of his contacting many of the grieving mothers.
Over the years, as he came into the public eye, Bindner has steadfastly denied harming, or even meeting, any of the girls. He said he was deeply affected when he heard of their disappearances and just wanted to do anything he could to help.
'Accumulation of Coincidence'
But investigators were troubled by a series of coincidences.
Bindner once wrote a letter to law enforcement speculating that the next girl to disappear would be 9. Then, 9-year-old Michaela disappeared. On another occasion, Bindner sent a Christmas card to an FBI profiler with an image of a little girl holding up four fingers. Shortly after, 4-year-old Nikki disappeared.
Police bloodhounds also picked up Amber Swartz's scent at Angela Bugay's gravesite, which Bindner often visited. Police said dogs later picked up Nikki's scent at the gravesite.
"This kind of accumulation of coincidence is not anything that I've ever encountered in 25 years of investigative work," said John Philpin, a criminal psychologist who spent 1,000 hours interviewing Bindner for his book Stalemate, which examined child abductions in the Bay Area.
Investigators in the Nikki Campbell case questioned Bindner, and named him a suspect in 1992. But bloodhound evidence is too unreliable to be presented in court, and prosecutors never found evidence to support criminal charges against Bindner. Next month, another man goes to trial on charges that he murdered Bugay.
Delivering Little Girls to Jesus
Goldston, the Mercury News reporter, found it odd that Bindner wanted her to interview him at Oakmont Cemetery in the middle of the night. She picked him up at 4:30 a.m., and he asked if he could play his favorite song on the car radio: "Jesus, Here's Another Child to Hold." They drove to the cemetery.
Goldston, who asked Bindner why he was concerned about the girls who disappeared, said: "He told me that he came to think of them as his children. That he cried about them, he prayed for them, that he spent a long time thinking about them and that he dedicated himself to trying to find them."
When she asked what he thought happened to the girls when they were taken, Goldston remembers him saying: "'Well, you know, one of them was sweet and shy and didn't say a thing, but the other went kicking and screaming.'" Then, she said, he added, "'I'm just guessing that that's what they would have said.'"
"I really got chills," said Goldston. "He had convinced himself that he was rescuing these girls and he was delivering them to Jesus."
A Taunting Game?
Goldston said it seemed he was purposely toying with both investigators and reporters. "Whether he is the person who took the girls, I don't know," she said, "but I felt that he went out of his way to make me think that he had."
Kim Swartz, who had developed a bizarre friendship with Bindner at the urging of police, agreed that it seemed to be a game to Bindner.
"He was walking that fine line, knowing exactly where he can go with it," she said."I think he was getting off on taunting me and my family."
At Bindner's suggestion, Swartz read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, in which a character who keeps showing up turns out to be the man who actually committed the crime.
A Good Samaritan
Bindner refused to be interviewed on camera, but he agreed to speak with ABCNEWS off camera.
He said he was simply trying to help find the missing girls, and described himself as a good Samaritan. In fact, Bindner does have a record of helping others: He was given an award for heroism by the California Highway Patrol for assisting in the rescue efforts after the 1989 earthquake. He continues to insist that he had nothing to do with the girls' disappearances.
"It's a fundamental mistake to focus on Tim Bindner," said his attorney, John Burris. "Because he's the wrong person."
No civil or criminal actions have been filed against Bindner in any of these cases. The only court action involving him was a defamation suit he brought against the city of Fairfield. The city settled by paying him $90,000.
Philpin said that in some of the cases neither he, nor Swartz, nor any of the investigators have been able to rule Bindner in as a supsect or rule him out.
"It's a stalemate," said Philpin. "In the end, all the pieces of this particular puzzle just don't come together."