Posted Monday --- February 25, 2008 -- 10:00pm
A Baraboo woman is hoping to solve a nearly 60-year-old family mystery. For years, siblings believed their 4-year-old sister died, but today, they're leading a widespread search to find her.
"My mom says Jeannie's an angel in heaven. And she says you don't ever say her name again," Sharon Mattson says, "We never did."
But with age came courage for Sharon Mattson.
"And then we started to talk about it."
It was December 19th, 1949.
"I was at school when it happened."
A fire leveled the Bryant family home ... "a week before Christmas" ... on this property in rural Mauston.
"It was just a great big farmhouse."
9 year-old Sharon watched the fire from a school window.
"They wouldn't let me go out. I could see the smoke coming out of the house and the flames."
Sharon's siblings 5-year-old Forrest, 4-year-old Ricky Jean and 18-month-old Elizabeth were at home with their grandparents.
"Grandma took care of us. She was more of a mother to us than our own mother."
Newspaper articles at the time tell of a dramatic 2nd story rescue of the children's grandpa by his elderly wife. But Ricky Jean, or Jeannie, was feared dead.
"I think it bothered him all of his life because I don't think he stuttered before the fire."
Sharon's brother, Forrest has told his sisters how he remembers leaving Elizabeth and Jeannie outside when a woman "... he said she was blonde ..." pulled up in a newer-looking car and told Forrest to get help. But, he says the woman sent him to a house down the road instead of one nearby.
"And when he come back... Jeannie was gone," Sharon says.
Investigators never could find any solid proof of Jeannie's death. The children's father, Raymond Bryant, searched the ruins himself.
"He was ashes from one end to the other and his face had ashes on just digging in trying to find her."
... Never truly believing he'd lost a daughter ...
"To his dying day, he said Jeannie, he didn't feel Jeannie was in that fire."
Sharon and her siblings began to wonder as well.
"None of us had the same story," Sharon says, "One of us was told she went through the stairway."
"Another one, they said, they just couldn't find Jeannie."
Sharon and her sister began a search to find Jeannie, seeking out people like Irene Carlson, a neighbor who supposedly followed Forrest back to the Bryant home the day of the fire.
"And she says, you know that poor little guy, I had to practically run to keep up to him, he took off so fast."
Decades later, Sharon says Carlson revealed a chilling conversation she'd had with their grandma.
"And my grandma, I guess, finally says ... well she isn't here. She's with relatives. You might as well go home."
Carlson's revelation, years after their mother -- Opal Bryant died -- added to the mystery surrounding her life and her relationship with her own mother, the grandma who raised them.
"My grandma never went anywhere. She was always covering up stuff my mom would do."
Sharon says throughout her childhood Opal would leave the family.
"She was never home. As soon as my dad go, about an hour later, she would take off."
Then, when the parents split, Opal moved to Washington state, where she re-married. Sharon stayed in Wisconsin with her father. She says Opal would return to the Midwest for weeks at a time though never revealing her exact whereabouts.
"She went and seen somebody... "
... Perhaps Ricky Jean?
Five years after the child's reported death, a cousin traveling through Georgia sent this postcard to Jeannie, where the family was living in Wisconsin. Sharon found it in her mother's belongings.
But nothing in her mother's past has allowed her to close the book on what happened to Jeannie. This is an age-enhanced photo of what her sister might look like today, when a reunion would come too late for their father but fulfill a family dream.
"My stepmother said, when he'd go to town, he'd check everybody about the age that should would be. He would keep looking for her."
Sharon's sister, Liz says shortly before her mother's death, Opal returned to the Midwest with a shirt and coveralls. The clothing -- belonging to Jeannie -- was on a clothes line the day of the fire. But when Opal came back to Washington, she no longer had the items. Liz believes Jeannie is somewhere in the region, and she thinks the clothing could be key in finding her.
The family's already tested one woman who proved not to be a match. Meanwhile, Juneau County investigators say a flood destroyed the sheriff's departments original records.