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Woman recalls kidnapping that rocked western ND town 37 years ago

Lisa Ahlness

"I can tell you what I was wearing on the night I was kidnapped," Lisa Ahlness said about being attacked in Bowman 37 years ago. "That's not something you forget too easily, I don't think."

On Jan. 18, 1973, when Lisa was 10 years old, she was kidnapped by George Berry, 57, while she was walking home from a sporting event in Bowman.

"We've had a lot of that freezing fog lately, so everything is just really frosted over and weirdly enough, that's exactly what the weather was like that January, too," Lisa said.

Roy Barth, who was chief of police in Bowman at the time, said news of the kidnapping rocked the town, which he estimated had a population of about 1,500.

"It was a little unusual I must say," said Peg Ahlness, Lisa's mother. "These things don't happen in little towns in North Dakota."

Lisa's father, Paul, who is now deceased, helped search for her while Peg stayed home to take care of Lisa's brother.

More than 100 people in Bowman searched for Lisa and found her within about 6 hours at a ranch near town.

"That's one thing about a small town, people kind of stick together," Barth said. "Local people tried so hard to locate her, being that you know everybody in town."

Bowman residents combed streets, alleys and areas surrounding the town, Barth said.

Lisa noticed a pickup driving by slowly on her way home the night she was kidnapped, but said it didn't worry her at the time. Her home was just a few blocks from the school.

"I started across the snow in our backyard and I could see my parents and my brother through the patio window, but they couldn't see me because I was still under the trees," Lisa said.

She felt Berry grab her around the neck.

"He picked me up and threw me in his pickup and took off," Lisa said.

Berry, who Lisa said had previously been convicted for sexual assault, took Lisa to a ranch.

"I knew that we had gone north out of town but I didn't have any idea where we were," Lisa said. "He took me into this house and I locked myself in the bathroom for a while."

Berry assaulted her.

"I put up such a fuss that he finally let me just go to sleep," Lisa said.

Lisa's parents reported her missing at 11 p.m.

"She didn't come home, so we started searching and couldn't find her," Peg said. "We contacted the police and they alerted the community and the whole town came out and started looking."

While people searched for Lisa, a Bowman girl told her parents what she witnessed earlier that day.

"... she had come to this game at the gym and when she was walking in, there had been this old man sitting in a pickup saying nasty things to little girls...," Lisa said. "She remembered what the pickup looked like and she told that to her mom and on that amount of information, they kind of figured out whose pickup it might be."

A search party headed out to the ranch and Berry's truck was parked outside.

"One of the volunteer firemen looked in the window and they saw Lisa asleep on a bed," Peg said.

They broke down the door and found Berry and Lisa. Berry was arrested and Lisa testified at his preliminary hearing.

"I had to sit on that stand and I was just absolutely shaking so bad I could barely talk," Lisa said. "It was very difficult for me to actually say much of anything."

Berry got a 15-year sentence, which made Lisa feel safe, but she struggled coping with what happened.

"I never really ever divulged anything about it for close to 10 years because I would physically start shaking when I'd try to talk about it," she said.

While the fear she once felt has dissolved over the years, she still vividly remembers that night. She is now married with three teenage children and lives near Bismarck.

"I don't know if the person I am is different from the person I would have been had it not happened," Lisa said. "There's no way to really know that, but all of us have traumatic experiences in life and it's part of what forms us."

Lisa and her husband, VanVechten Crane, are both Lutheran pastors.

"Maybe that's something that has shaped my pastoral identity, is knowing that I have some understanding for what people are going through in some circumstances and that can only help you to be more compassionate," Lisa said.

It took several years for her to grasp what could have happened to her that night.

"When I finally did, then I was really grateful for just the realization that it is truly astonishing that I am around to tell the tale and to try and live a life of gratitude," Lisa said. "It sort of gave me the sense that if I was given this second chance at life, then there certainly are good purposes out there for me to be alive."

It is unknown where Berry is today and a records search turned up nothing about him after the kidnapping.